Friday, 27 July 2012

In praise of arbitrariness

I’ve just returned from a walking trip. It was originally proposed by a friend who has long cherished the idea of walking from Yoxford, in Suffolk, to Oxford, our hometown. There was no particular reason for the venture: it was neither to raise money for charity nor to beat some previous record. We just did it because we wanted to and Yoxford  and Oxford have such similar yet dissimilar names.

Neither of us completed the walk, though we bottled out at different points along the way and for different reasons. There was little planning put into the trip; in fact right up until the very last moment we were discussing two very different possibilities: walking or cycling. I was for the former, Peter was for the latter. We finally decided this important matter at the spin of a coin – now that’s arbitrary.

We had a beginning and end point, but no set route between them, just a pile of maps. Except for the first night when we spent an excellent evening with Mark and Yvonne in their home in Yoxford we had no accommodation planned and carried only back packs with sleeping bags: no tent. We thought we would find somewhere to sleep wherever we finished up for the night – that’s arbitrary, and frightening for some.

We planned our route day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour. Our only overriding plan was to reach Oxford within seven days. We wandered along footpaths through the county of Suffolk using roads only if we forced to do so, walking through storms under cloudy skies with just the occasional glimpses of the sun.
On the first day my companion suffered from blistered feet, and by the third he had to give up. Plainly in great pain, he bravely soldiered on for as long as he could, but finally admitted defeat in Haverhill and took the bus to Cambridge then home. So, arbitrarily, I found myself alone.

The Icknield Way (an ancient track originally used by ancient Britons) became my constant companion soon after Haverhill. I followed it as closely as I could for two days then finally linked up with the Ridgeway, another ancient path: this was the most beautiful part of the journey.

Finally, after eight days of walking, I ended up in a pub in Thame footsore and exhausted. The weather had changed. The sun had beaten down upon me so much that I had to use an umbrella for shade as I traipsed along an old railway track from Princes Risborough. Arbitrarily I decided that I had had enough. I had walked about one hundred and fifty miles and was already in Oxfordshire so I finished my second pint, said goodbye to my three recently made drinking friends and took the bus home.

I enjoyed that walk from Yoxford to Oxford so much. Not the pain in my heels and my soles, nor the spasms in my legs as the days wore on, nor the constant ache in my shoulders as the backpack’s weight seem to increase day by day, nor the rain, nor the puddles of mud, nor the often wet feet – no, none of those. But the sudden appearance of a beautiful cottage or stately home, the surprising sight of a herd of deer, the metre high rabbit that turned out to be a wallaby, the tiger spotted from the corner of my eye in someone’s garden, a glimpse of Chequers – all of this and more made my walk a magical one. At the end of the day I often felt that I could not go on, did not even have the energy left to find somewhere to stay. But I always did find somewhere and I also found real ale which revived me and, more often, than not, company that regaled me.

And do you know? Along the way, somewhere between Royston and Baldock, I had an inspiration. I now know what my next writing project will be.

On the last night I struggled down from the Ridgeway to the town of Wendover. The first pub had no room at the inn and the second, the King and Queen, wouldn’t take me either. I had few options left: sleep on a park bench or somehow get back to Oxford and home. The latter was out – I still had a strong desire to reach Oxfordshire on my own two feet. Then a friendly voice next to me said, “You can stay at my house for the night if you wish.” So I did.

The voice belonged to a man called Peter. We drank together then walked to his home where he cooked a very welcome meal. He made me scrambled eggs on toast (with mushrooms) for breakfast and we engaged in a long and rewarding conversation over both meals. He turned out to be a really interesting man as well as a hospitable one. I am sure that we will meet again following our arbitrary crossing of paths at the end of my arbitrary trek.

Please note that any connection between the Yoxford to Oxford walk and the forthcoming Olympics is quite arbitrary and that this blog is an Olympic free zone.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

New book on China

I’ve published a new eBook! That makes eight that I’ve now got up in the Kindle store. They do sell, but not in great numbers – got a cheque from Amazon for just over $100 the other day though which is nice.

I blogged earlier this year about my ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy which consisted of giving one of my books away. I stopped that at 300 downloads and to my disappointment my generosity seemed to have little effect on follow up sales and did not result in a single review.

The new book is another ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy. It is about our two trips to China and should turn up if anyone searches the Kindle store for books on travel to that country and there are a few general keywords which should  also draw in a goodly number of potential readers. It stands alone as a book, but is also an advertising channel for my novel Shaken by China, which I would really like people to read. So it’s not a loss-leader, but should be a leader.

The new book is called China: Don’t go there until... Catchy eh? The ‘until’ is until you’ve read the book of course. Sort of Catch 22, sort of. You can see more details in my bookshop or in the Kindle bookstore. You don’t need a Kindle to read it. Just go to this link and download Kindle for PC (or Mac) and you can read it on your screen (but not in bed).  Here’s the blurb:

If you are thinking of going to China to teach or travel then don’t – not until you have read this book. The book may entice you to go or it may persuade you to stay. Either way if you are interested in China and wish to venture far beyond the tourist guide view then read this book.

The author lived in one of the most famous cities in China, yet few in the West have heard of it. He also lived near the epicentre of the most damaging earthquake in recorded history, yet it is long forgotten. China is so big that it hides behind itself so you need a book that takes you beyond the veil: this is that book. It is not a detailed study of the country, yet reveals the heart of the place through insightful revelations.

You will enjoy the accounts of teaching and travelling which are sometimes funny, sometimes sad. You will be surprised and shocked at the descriptions of school life and the life of the poor. You will begin to understand the very real cultural differences between the West and China and learn how to cope with them. You will also learn how to buy beer in Chinese restaurants.

Rob Walters’ book spotlights the fundamental problem facing the foreign teacher in China and provides a solution. It is entertaining and informative and, since it is based on two separate visits, gives a sense of China’s unending paradox: its stability and its ability to cope with rapid change.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dampening the Olympic Flame

I haven’t written to this blog for while. I’ve been busy: walking, guiding and also trying to finish a book about teaching and travelling in China. This is a special year for me and one way to celebrate it is through walking. However, my first venture of the summer was, well, wet. Who would venture into the English Lake District with a tent and sleeping bag in what turned out to be the wettest June on record?

We had three good days though – and afterwards my companion forced me to watch the Olympic flame's passage through Keswick. What a commercial thing that was: an hour of artificially simulated hysteria followed by a crescendo as the Coca-Cola bus passed by, another peak as the Samsung bus blasted us with music and a declining climax as the Lloyds-TSB bus came by. Following this jamboree of noise and dancing, the crowd hardly noticed the torch as its adrenaline rapidly leaked away (the crowd’s not the torch’s). Still the kids of all ages enjoyed the whole thing, I think.

On my return from the Lake District I had to prepare a whole day tour of the Cotswolds for an American couple. I have only ever done a day tour of the Cotswolds once before and on that occasion it was for a busload of singles. This time I decided that I really must include Chipping Campden (my own choice for the ‘jewel of the Cotswolds’ award) in addition to Chipping Norton with its wonderful, unbelievable, wool factory (now luxury flats).

I do know Chipping Campden a little, but not enough to do justice to a tour so I began researching. Turning to the web for some nugget of information, I found myself confronted once more by that travelling torch. The Olympic flame was due to pass through the town on the very day of my tour! The bloody thing is everywhere, even as I write it’s passing through Oxford; one of the reasons that I am hiding away in my little flat in the north of the city. The Chipping Campden website contained a warning from the police: they planned to seal off the town once the car parks were full and further warned that all empty houses would be searched prior to the great day: empty houses in desirable Chipping Campden, surely not!

So I had to drop the jewel from my itinerary. However, despite the flaming flame my Cotswold tour was a great success, I think. Generally I have been kept pretty busy leading tours in my city of Oxford. I like the job – though a few groups that I meet are best forgotten and will have certainly forgotten me - I hope. There is a problem bubbling away beneath the rich surface of Oxford tourism. It is a lovely place, redolent with history, characters and stories. And it has depth: however much you know there is always more to learn. The problem is that it is being oversold, not deliberately, but dangerously. Its highpoint is clearly the university and colleges and, though there is plenty more to talk about, these remains at the core of any visit. But quite a few visitors want something else.

I made a vow when I first qualified as a city guide that I would not conduct tours based on fictional characters – it seemed to me that there was plenty to cover in the real world. Despite that I have, over the years, expanded my portfolio of tours by specialising in: pubs, ghosts, literature, science, rogues and architecture. Yes, I know that you unbelievers think that ghosts are fictional, but you must keep an open mind. What I do not do is Harry Potter, Inspector Morse or Alice tours – though the latter is tempting since a real girl forms the basis of the books.

I must confess however that I do admire the Harry Potter stories and am now coming to the end of the sixth book (hence currently grieving over the death of Dumbledore). My excuse for reading children’s fiction is twofold. First, I need some background for my general tours which do encounter various Potter film locations and many visitors are really interested in these. Second, I am reading the books in Spanish to try to improve my understanding of the language – and I can tell you something - it’s very hard going, especially the later books where the vocabulary becomes so much wider.

However, like Harry or hate him he is only a sub-text in the real story of Oxford, as is Morse and even little Alice. The real story is in the history and the buildings of this world famous city. Yet so many people are drawn to it by the fictional characters and have little interest in the real Oxford. The place is not Disneyland; it is essentially a city of learning and car manufacture. Many tourists come here for the right reasons and thoroughly enjoy it. Those coming for the Disneyland experience are inevitably bored by the very things that make Oxford what it is – the real Oxford.

All that said I have a break coming up. A friend and I are going to attempt to walk from Yoxford to Oxford in seven days. So I am just off to make an offer of appeasement to the rain gods.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Escape from Russia

The visit to St Petersburg was a surprise romantic trip for my wife on our wedding anniversary. It’s a stunning place; we both loved it – until we attempted to return home.

Our plane left at a convenient time: 11.30 a.m. At just after nine we stood in the sunshine near the sign that displayed the timetable for the Airport Express. The vehicle existed, we had observed it at this point as we walked between the hotel and the Dostoevsky Metro station. It was simply a white minibus with Airport Express in black on its sides. The timetable indicated that its number was K9000 and that the first bus was at 9.15 a.m. then every half hour. Many buses and trolley cars came and went – the Express did not. The heat became intense. 9.45 a.m. came and went yet still no bus. At 10 o’clock, I broke and re-entered the hotel to order a taxi. No problem sir – but the fixed price of 1,600 roubles was well beyond my remaining cash. No problem, there was a cash machine in the lobby and I had already used it (you need a lot of cash in St Petersburg). But now, in extremis, it would not dispense cash to me. A kind man tried to help me though I do not really need help with cash machines that have an English option. His motivation was unclear until he announced that he was my taxi-driver. I followed him to another machine, still no joy and time ticking on.

“Come,” he said decisively and we piled into the cab. We negotiated as he sped towards the airport. He called someone for the current exchange rate of sterling and we settled on £30 plus 100 roubles. He got us to the airport by 10.30 a.m. Good man. We struggled through security and tried to find check-in. Nothing on the screens so I asked some one for help and was mortified to find that we were in the wrong terminal! Terminal two was the international terminal but our airline flew from the domestic one – terminal one.

We rushed outside, and looked around the semi-deserted departure set down area. I found a bus but it did not go to terminal one. I found a taxi but he wanted 700 roubles for the trip. I offered him all I had (about 350 roubles) but he would not budge. Rushed back to the bus where a young woman who spoke English took us in hand. She said that the bus went partway and we should take it. She joined us. It dropped the three of us on a dual carriageway where I struggled over a bridge to the other side. Here our helper stopped various buses – no good. Then she waved down a car and after a fervent discussion with the driver stated that he would take us to terminal one for 200 roubles – all I had left. He drove his old banger at satisfying speed whilst bemoaning, in broken English, the current state of democracy in Russia.

We tried to rush through security, which is impossible, then dashed around looking for check-in. It was closed – no one there. I ran to other desks and then to the information point. There the expressionless woman told me that we had missed the plane and we must go to the Russian Airways ticket desk. “But the plane has not left,” I bleated. She busied herself with the next query.

At the ticket desk I was told that we had missed the plane, the next was in two days time, and that we would have to pay a charge for new tickets. Kindly she searched her computer and found that there was a BA flight later that day and gave me a price (wince). Also there was an Aeroflot route via Moscow. We went to the Aeroflot desk and were astounded by the price. We retired to a diner where all we could afford was a glass of milk between us! But it had Wi-Fi and I found a cheapish apartment which looked nice. We decided to stay for the two-day wait. I booked the apartment then returned to the Russian Airways desk to book our flights. This took a lot of computer bashing and another bashing on the credit card but at last we were all set. I found a cash machine that worked and we returned to St Petersburg centre.

Two days later we began our journey to the airport again. This time we knew the correct terminal and, even though the plane left at the same time as the last one, we started out earlier. We also followed the guidebook by taking the metro to Pushkinskaya station where it stated that the Airport Express would take us to the terminal. This was the metro station that the Airport Express had dropped us at when we first arrived in St Petersburg. We were full of confidence this time, but soon became worried: there was no Airport Express at Pushkinskaya though we asked and asked and searched and searched. Of course, a taxi driver offered his services and stated that there was no Airport Express. At first I ignored him, but, in desperation, asked him the price.

“Special price – 1,000 roubles,” he replied. It was a special price and he was not a real taxi driver: his unmarked car looked a bit rough. But we had no choice so I agreed. Then I looked in my wallet I did not have enough roubles – as before we had tried to minimise the Russian cash that we took home. I held out 750 roubles and he agreed to take it. Off we went in the old banger which this thick set, bull necked man wrenched around corners using his own power steering - brute strength.

We were there by 10.15 a.m. Plenty of time. Security again (how many X-rays can one suitcase take) then off to check-in. We smiled confidently. We had made it. A sultry assistant examined our passports before check-in then called a large uniformed man over. I had a sudden thought – the visas had expired on the day of our missed flight, surely they wouldn’t, couldn’t keep us there for a two day overstay which wasn’t our fault? The man showed no expression as he examined the passports then accompanied us to the check in desk. Everything seemed to be going well. We were issued with tickets and our bag chuntered up the slope to join the others on their way to the plane. I began to relax: once your bags are on you have to travel too; otherwise the bags have to be taken off again. Then the man’s hand snaked forward, yanked our bag of the belt and plonked it on the floor. It was going nowhere and nor were we. He beckoned to us. I asked about the bag. The check-in woman said that if we got through passport control it would be placed on the belt – no problem.

We followed our minder through to passport control then tried to select the queue leading to the most amenable checker. We began to inch forward, perhaps all would be OK. Then our minder was joined by a younger, smarter looking man. They talked whilst looking suspiciously at us. They then nodded in conclusion and yanked us out of the queue! I asked the younger man if he spoke English: he ignored me. The two of them took our passports and tickets and talked between themselves. We were becoming frantic.

Then an angel appeared, later I learned that her name was Anna. She was in her twenties and spoke perfect English and Russian. She asked what was going on, listened to the men, heard our plaintive story and started translating.

“They say that your visa has expired. You must go to terminal two where there is a special ATM. There you must pay 1,400 roubles to extend the visa and return here,” she said.

At this point Margaret burst into tears saying that was impossible and that she just wanted to leave Russia. The men were unmoved. Anna got quite cross with them, but they insisted. We must go to terminal two to get the visa extensions. She took out a notebook and wrote down the name of the bank that I had to find. The men wandered off after giving me the passport and useless tickets. Margaret said that it was useless; we had been through this terminal one, terminal two thing already. Anna became a little cross with her.

“You must not be so defeatist,” she chided. “It is five minutes to the other terminal. It can be done. You can stay here. He can go. I have to go now - I have to work.”

I patted her shoulder and thanked her for her kindness. I shot off relieved to be alone since it was so much faster. I managed to get out of departures and swiftly found taxi, just 400 roubles – the official rate I think. But it was not five minutes to terminal two, more like fifteen. I did not dare look at the time, there was no point. At the other end I had to pass through the security queues yet again, but did not panic. I had resolved that if we did not make the plane then we would pay for any other alternative to get into Europe and out of the clutches of the Russians who seemed to be milking us like the proverbial cash cow.

I showed Anna’s scribbled note around and at last found the bank – just a small glass-fronted box-like office with one lady within it. She was dealing with a customer so I had to wait whilst dithering between panic and calmness. At last the other person left and I discovered that the bank lady had no English at all! But she did understand what I wanted when I pointed to the visa page of my passport. I guessed that this happened a lot. She took out a large file and began to read her instructions. She then held up a form which was entirely in Russian, she speckled it with crosses where I had to make entries. The form had to be completed in duplicate and there was one for each of us. She cajoled me into putting the right things into the right boxes by shouting at me in Russian and pointing at the fields of my passport. At one time the man behind me joined in. He did not speak English either but, surprisingly, he did help.

Then came payment, after many tries with my well-worn debit card and even with the help of the man behind me it seemed that she couldn’t extract the 1400 roubles from it. Finally I had to go off to a cash machine and get roubles – they were gradually draining my bank account. The forms were copied cut and stamped – now we were getting somewhere. She returned everything to me and I used my one Russian word on her - ‘spasibo’ – thank you.

I knew it was hopeless but I continued with the charade. I was sure that my plane was in the air by now, but I rushed out to find a taxi and had the fortune to pick up one that had just dropped someone off. The driver sped me to terminal one in just five minutes – magic and he only charged 400 roubles.

The security queue to enter terminal one was horrendous and I could not by-pass it – you can’t by-pass security. However, I did not panic; I was beyond panic. Then I was through and running for passport control. The charade continued. I called to Margaret who looked quite downcast and forced myself, with apologies, to the front of the passport queue. The woman at the desk made a call which was good sign I thought - perhaps the plane could be delayed for us. She then examined the passport and forms.

“But you have no visas,” she said chillingly.

My heart dropped. Was my drastic journey to and from terminal two in vain? Could we not get out of this bloody country even if it meant taking another flight? Another call and a young man appeared and led us away to another booth, then left us waiting. After five minutes he reappeared – with the young man we had encountered before. He looked at me, smiled and said. “Good”.

I had obviously done well, but did this mean that the plane was still there? More computer bashing and the satisfying thump of stamps landing on our passports then our man was rushing us through the gate, through another checkpoint (hurdle) and then security again. This was a high jump, the pass mark had risen. Margaret had to remove her boots and I had to take everything out of my pockets and remove my belt. We passed, then charged onwards dressing as we ran, for now we had lost our leader. Then we found him just as I realised that I had left my shoulder bag at security! I left him making furious phone calls on our behalf and then had to open my bag for examination by the punctilious security man. I ran back, we had to follow our man downstairs to a different gate and then board a big bus (just for us) out to the plane.

We walked down the aisle with downcast eyes and found our seats. Presumably everyone hated us for delaying the plane. However, some passengers did smile at us as we sank gratefully into ours seats: I do not know why they did. There were still delays before takeoff – missed slots for the runway I suppose, but finally we did get going. We were free. Russia had extracted a lot of money, and even more nervous energy, from us, but we had escaped. We smiled and agreed that we would never go back.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Galician Weddings are Great

We travelled from our home in Aragon and back to England via a circuitous route crossing the border into Portugal then north into Galicia. The wedding was celebrated in the town of Ordes near Santiago de Compostela and afterwards we went on to Santander for the ferry. It rained.

On the wedding day the bride’s older sister picked us up at noon, as promised, and then collected another guest, Isabel, from a local hotel. Both women spoke some English, the latter much better than our Spanish. We drove to a place near Ordes and the sister showed us into the garage. This was the home of the bride’s Mum and Dad and we were there for aperitifs: the drinking had started. A large table was laid with plenty of nibbles and all sorts of drinks and was surrounded by a varied crowd of people dressed to the nines. Most impressive was the bride’s younger sister in a stunning green dress and her cousin in an even more stunning cerise number which was both long and body clinging. The bride’s mother wore mauve and was welcoming, but her father was rather reserved – probably he had no idea what to say to ‘los Ingles’. However, we quickly made friends with Isabel, whom we had met in the car, and Sindo, a lively man who had spent nearly twenty years living near London as a builder. I had a beer with him and found him very amusing. He told me that his wife did not like England. Her English was not good and she had been frightened to answer the phone. He had now returned to his native Galicia and told me that English weddings were boring and Galician weddings much more fun. I smiled and decided to wait and see. Patricia, the bride, appeared: she looked pale but lovely in a close fitting, white wedding dress.

We were driven back to Ordes by Patricia’s brother. The church was just around the corner from the bride and groom’s flat: we had noticed its lamp lit, modern, stained glass through the raindrops on the previous night.

We watched Patricia arriving in her car then entered the church. Jacobo, the groom, was already at the front dressed in a smart tailcoat. He had shaved off his short beard from the day before and looked very dashing. He is a tall man with a good mop of curly hair. He waved and seemed reasonably relaxed. There was some delay before Patricia entered the church on the arm of her father. Heart-stirring violin music accompanied their progress: music which I knew well and loved but could not readily identify. That walk must be a long one for any bride.

The priest was an elderly man with a pleasant voice. Dressed in white and gold he seated the wedding pair on a bench facing the altar with a parent-in-law on either side. The service was long and opaque. It was mercifully interrupted by more beautiful music from two musicians who were hidden from my view during the ceremony itself (I thought at first that the music was a very high quality recording) and by confident readings by the girls in the beautiful dresses. Most of the priest’s words were in Galician, I think. My mind wandered a little because I did not understand the content, but I admired the priest’s tendency to hold his hand far apart and look towards the heavens as if telling god about a very large fish that he had caught.

I examined the church. It was Romanic, fairly plain and, I guessed, fairly modern. Nice enough though and set off by a glorious golden rererdos which centred on a neat gold plated door set into a pillar. This was the place where the priest kept his wine. He removed it with great ceremony for the mass that terminated the service. At one stage there was a complex exchange of rings which we could not see. However, it was all recorded; the two female photographers seem to push their camera lenses right into to the hands of the betrothed. Then we were all shaking hands as one does in Roman Catholic services for some reason – a nice touch – and then outside for the rice throwing, which seemed quite painful for the recipients and fun for the kids. It began to rain, but the people of Galicia are unperturbed by a little rain, even on a wedding day.

The reception was held at a lovely location in the countryside. Some entrepreneur had erected a vast tent like building in the gardens of a fine old house. The roof of the building was canvas but the walls were mostly made of glass (except the toilets of course). A very large plastic pipe ran the length of the ‘tent’ and was, I conjectured, for the delivery of hot air on cold days. We did not need hot air, it was quite warm indoors. In the garden was a true Galician feature: a large ‘horreo’. These things are actually storage sheds for grain etc. and any self-respecting smallholding has one. They are thin and tall and can be quite ornate with at least one side shuttered to allow the entry of air. But the most remarkable feature of these structures is their base. Constructions vary but most consist of something like an inverted wine glass without the bowl and made of stone or concrete. Rats hate them since they are insurmountable and dry rot despairs of sending its destructive rhizomes down to the wet ground.

Next to the horreo (the biggest I have ever seen) was a lean-to which housed the smoking section. On the table were free cigars, cigarettes and matches. This luxury could have ended my twenty years of abstention, but I resisted.

Regaled with more tasty aperitifs and with never ending glasses of sweet cava I quickly lost my appetite and became a little drunk. I was ready for dancing. But there was more consuming to be done. The one hundred and fifty or so guests were led to round tables where we all found a multi course menu and list of wines. We were proud to be seated at table two right next to the top table and I was placed next to the groom’s younger brother on a table which had plenty of English speakers on it. Beautifully laid out, there was a bread roll next to each place so large that it could easily be mistaken for a loaf.

Half a clawed lobster and one of it claws formed the first course and while I tackled the ticklish problem of extracting meat from these the waiters kept coming with more, and more, ignoring my cries of ‘suficiente’. Washed down with a sharper cava, this feast was quickly replaced by clams clamouring to be eaten and to be washed down by more cava and then replaced by a very decent plate of delicious sole – and more cava.
I survived the fish courses and though that was it. My stomach agreed, but viewed the mango sorbet with suspicion – rightfully. This was the precursor to the meat course! Full I truly was, but the meat was so tasty that I ate it and the vegetables and sampled the well-rounded red wine. Fortunately the sweet course was light and that (sigh of relief) was it. A truly sumptuous and memorable feast for one hundred and fifty people.

There were no speeches which was just as well since we would not have understood them, but every now and then a shout would go up, usually originated by a lively table of naughty ‘boys’ towards the back ( Jacobo’s high school friends I think) and then taken up by many others. I did not understand the words, but the meaning was clear: it was a call for the bride and groom to kiss. They pretended to resist, then succumbed to great applause. Then there were demands for the mothers and fathers-in-law to kiss. Then a general toast to the grandparents, to which everyone drank. Then whole tables rose to clink glasses and toast anything or anyone that came into their heads.

At some prearranged signal the bride and groom vanished and the music began – a ballroom piece of some sort then, through the doors that led to toilets, the bride and groom swept in dancing wonderfully in their perfect clothing. And, to my amazement, Jacobo suddenly swept his new wife from her feet and swirled her around. I thought this a dangerous move after all that food and drink, but all was well and the music was drowned in applause and cheering. The pair were joined on the floor by their parents-in-law and the next phase of the party had begun: drinking and dancing.

I tried, but I have to admit that I could not do it. Weighed down by so much food and wine my thin frame could only manage two dances (wimp) though I think that Margaret was game for more. We walked around the gardens and watched the rapidly more ecstatic dancing, mostly performed in groups and mostly centring on the naughty boys. The peak of that part of the evening was reached when the DJ played a popular nationalistic Galician song, something equivalent to Rule Britannia I think. It transformed the dancers into singers.

We retired from the floor spending some time talking to friends of the bride and groom who also came from Oxford. After that we could easily have slipped away into a deep sleep, but then I had an idea. Two rum-and-cokes later we were on the floor dancing with the best of them, two more and I had to order a coke without the rum for Margaret – she was becoming an unreliable dancing partner and needed a great deal of physical support. Meanwhile the naughty boys were getting naughtier, they were throwing themselves and the bride and groom into the air. The most dynamic, Pablo who worked in Italy, had removed his coat, tie and shirt and seemed to be wrestling rather than dancing. I danced with Sindo at one stage, ageing men aping the naughty boys.

During the night we found that we had a link with quite a few people at the wedding: people who we thought were complete strangers. Four years previously we had loaned our house in Oxford to Jacobo and Patricia whilst we were in Asia. Every now and then someone would approach us (including Pablo the wrestler), ask if we were Rob and Margaret and then tell us that they too had stayed in our house for a while. Many of them admired the downstairs toilet where I had installed a pub hand-pump to operate the toilet flush. All of them were disappointed that we had sold the place.

Jacobo and Patricia were perfect hosts, sometimes dancing energetically with the best of them, sometimes in the conga-like chains of dancers, sometimes asking us and other guests if we were OK – we always were. We enjoyed the whole day enormously but were glad when Jacobo found us a lift back to our camping van with a couple who were leaving early (at about 3 a.m.) I said goodbye to Sindo and admitted that Galician weddings were truly better than English ones.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Creativity and Rolling Stones

What is creativity? John Fowles believed that men wrote books in order to extend their lives beyond their lifetimes whereas women’s lives were extended by creating children. But women write and the likes of Jane Austen still live on through their books. Writing books is an acknowledged form of creativity, though I notice a great disappointment, even within the Writers in Oxford club, if it turns out that an author only writes non-fiction: the novel’s the thing, the true creation.

Writing books, painting, composing music, producing poetry, making movies, staining glass, potting, candle making: all of these are clearly creative. Carpentry, blacksmithing, sewing, science, gardening, cooking, photography, pornography: all of these are clearly not – or are they. There is a fine line somewhere here. A candle produced simply to give light is surely not creative, a candle wax creation of a pornographic scene may be.

Me, I roll stones. Some of the stones I use are so heavy that there is no possibility that I can lift them – so I roll them. My friendly adviser who occasionally pounces on my stoney creation, sorry building, saying “incorrecto” or “feo” (wrong or ugly), tells me that Spanish women used to roll the stones to the men who then did the tricky bit of fitting them into a wall. Sounds crazy, but it does take more strength to place a stone in a precise location than to roll it from one location to another.

My woman does not roll stones so I do both: the rolling and the fitting. Is it creative? I’m not sure. My wall is much admired, particularly since it mirrors an existing one and by that measure it is hardly creative. I know of its flaws so am not moved by the plaudits it receives. But the question still intrigues me: am I creating something?

Certainly there is something there now when before there was nothing. That’s true of any building work, yet the average builder is clearly not in the same league as a popular novelist and the builder’s creation is, perhaps, only the implementation of the architect’s conception. I am both architect and builder so I win, or lose, both ways. I have, through this experience, learned how difficult it is to plan a building in three-dimensional detail and how frustrating it is when the plans are just not practical.

When I am writing a novel I do turn my imagination free and follow its inventions, selectively. When I am searching for a particular stone I am thinking only of the hoped for dimensions and shape, though some imagination is needed - particularly how an odd shaped stone might be knocked into shape. When I roll a heavy stone down for an ‘audition’ in my wall my mind is entirely full of the sheer effort of moving and controlling it, a little like the single mindedness of a mountaineer, I believe.

My summit is the arrival of the stone in the right place (often by rolling it up strong planks of wood or stepping it up temporary staircases made of blocks), shaping it, then finally standing back to make sure that it looks right. I then move on to the next. At times I stand looking at my creation (sorry building) planning what to now next and how and what materials I will need. When my mind is not engaged with stone then I sometimes sing. ‘Right said Fred’ fits the bill, but for some reason ‘Winter Wonderland’ and that awful unicorn song take over. Fortunately a song by my friend, Pete Madams is also getting a look in, the chorus goes like this, ‘I’m the man, the man of the moment.’

Is any of this creative? I’m sure that Pete’s song is.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Glamour Girls and Charity Chicks

In Spain one of the words for girl is chica and my Spanish son-in-law (sort of) often called our daughter “the chick of his life”, though sadly that turned out not to be. If he had married her he would have called her my woman (mi mujer) which is normal usage here and not at all offensive to the wives, as far as I can tell.

Most of the women in our tiny village are somebody’s woman and most are not spring chickens. They do have a lot of go though, and keep the heart of the community beating whilst beating up their men if they are not home for dinner at nine: you ought to see the bar empty as the dinner hour nears.

On Sunday last we returned to La Fresneda after a weekend of wine, wandering and song in another village and felt too lazy to go to our own local espectaculo (variety show). But we did, and it was good.

It started late, surprise, surprise. Still, that gave me a chance to talk to our sadly deposed mayor and tell him that I hoped that he would soon be back. He beamed, either because he did not understand my stuttering Spanish or because he was pleased.

The show started with a beautiful young Mexican woman playing the violin beautifully: a hard act to follow. Later an old man played the piano accordion badly, and thought that the laughter was a sign of encouragement to continue. Our best friend, Dolores, led a troupe who recited, sang and told jokes that I had no hope of understanding.

Premios Glamour Belleza: el photocallAll of this was a mere starter for the main act. This was a play which involved at least ten of the local ladies and two or three men who may have been ladies dressed up. The scene was a beach somewhere and the plot was clearly conceived to allow our local ladies to display. I lost the plot quite early but Margaret (my woman) seemed to understand some of it. Anyway, the couple who started the sketch were joined in the second act by most of the women of the village outrageously dressed and dripping with jewellery and glamour. I barely recognised the friendly lady from the bread shop as she swaggered onto the stage dragging a dog (toy one) on a leash and twirling an umbrella. I certainly did not recognise the lady in the brown dress, a dress so tight that she could not sit down on one seat and had to be offered another. They gushed, simpered, and really enjoyed their own performance as did the audience, their men amongst them.

The plot involved a parrot, but was not the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python. I think it may have been based on that funny story where a couple are distraught when their dog turns up with the neighbour’s pet rabbit in its mouth – dirty and dead. They clean it up and surreptitiously return it to its hutch. Next day their neighbours tell them of their weird experience: their rabbit had died and they had buried the poor thing in the garden. A few days later the thing had appeared in its hutch still dead, but very clean.

The ladies arranged the show in order to raise money for a Spanish charity operating in Africa. We saw a long video on the treatment of aids, tuberculosis and leprosy in that country and I felt that my five-euro entrance fee might help, a bit. I hope it does.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Prostitutes, oranges and burning babies.

I must confess that I did not see the baby burn; I was probably in the bar at the time drinking fizzy beer and sheltering from acoustic overload.

The event that brought together prostitutes, oranges and burning babies is a Falla. This is a Spanish tradition peculiar to the province of Valencia. Terry, who runs the pizzeria in the next village to ours, had told us that he was going to the Fallas at Benicarlo and we decided to go too.

It was a nice journey through our area of Spain, the Mataraña of Aragon, through a pleasant slice of Cataluña and finally into Valencia. For a while we followed the River Ebro and it is here that we saw orange groves and beside the roads sacks of oranges patiently waiting. Later, as we neared Benicarlo, we saw seated ladies beside the road also patiently waiting.

The ladies and the oranges have something in common: they are patiently waiting for clients. The farmers place the oranges there to make a few extra euros by cutting out the middleman. The pimp who, in a sense, is the middleman places the ladies there, though he may, or may not handle the goods. The oranges are a pleasant sight, the ladies slightly disturbing. However, back to the burning babies.

Terry had told us that Fallas are an annual event where Valencian townsfolk build castles and then burn them to the ground, the whole thing accompanied by lashings of fireworks. But we found no castles in Benicarlo. There they celebrate the feast day of Saint Jose by burning people.

Over the year each area of the town constructs complex sets of cartoon-like figures. The figures are very well made and very colourful. They seemed to be made of expanded polystyrene, but how they achieved such a smooth finish I do not know.

My favourite was a Chinese themed display which centred on a beautiful woman (top half only, yet extending to at least the fourth floor of the (very) nearby flats). Her hands seemed to rise from the ground and encircled a pudgy baby that she looked down upon with great love. The baby was unmistakeably a boy, of course. Arranged around her was a series of larger than life figures including a poor coolie dragging a cart loaded with boxes. Each box had a label: Armani, Gucci, Prado, etc. Behind the central figure, a Chinaman was holding a cat in one hand and machete in the other: dinner.

I did not see the Chinese baby burn. In the confusion I missed that particular conflagration, but I did see others which included babies. I also inhaled the black smoke that rose and fell from the burning ensembles and was deafened both by the firecrackers that ignited the figures, and by the fireworks that were stuck into holes unceremoniously hacked into them just before the off.

It was an intriguing spectacle but the real children of Benicarlo also fascinated me. Most of them carried a small box attached to a strap across their shoulders. Every now and then they felt inside the box, extracted a firework, lit it from a wick or gas lighter and threw it into the street, or down a drain, or down some stairs to get an echoing affect. Most of the fireworks were bangers, though not all. The kids ranged from early teens down to four years or so! Spain can be a bureaucratic country, but the stultifying hand of Health and Safety has fortunately not yet reached its heart. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Almond Blossom

I am now in Spain. The overloaded trailer and the van made it, though there were a few problems: one of the ratchet belts holding down the motorbike broke and the cover disintegrated as the wind and rain in England, then the wind alone in Spain.

We spent the first night in a town called Jaca (pronounced Haca) and the second in Solsona. Both towns are in the foothills of the Pyrenees and both are very cold at night for the poor folks sleeping in unheated motor caravans.

Jaca was pleasant. Its older parts have quite narrow streets and smart building with good shops (I’m told). The first bar we visited was the Old Station. Big and busy it was noisy, had a bar lined with people drinking and chatting and the barmaid gave me free crisps with my fizzy beer. It felt good to be back in our adopted second country. In the morning, out running in the cold sunshine and shorts, I saw the groups of skiers on their way to the pistes swaddled in their puffy anoraks. They mostly looked miserable and askance.

Solsona is not so attractive but, like Jaca, is framed in the distance by the towering Pyrenees so all is forgiven. Besides, we were there to visit relatives especially our middle grandson who talks to us constantly in Spanish which is hard work, but he is a nice lad. That night we took him and the rest of our complex family (don’t ask) to a restaurant of his choice. It was good and we were in our cold bed by midnight. In the morning when we called to say goodbye he was still asleep. He had been out again with friends until three in the morning. Oh to be seventeen.

The last leg of our journey took us through the lakeland of arid Aragon - miles of piercingly green water formed mostly by dams. We stopped at one of the lakes for lunch and there I met a man fishing: he had a copy of the Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker beside him and came from Pershore. In England we are near neighbours. Interesting to talk to he was, like me, dithering over the next generation of motorcars: hydrogen, electric, etc.

And then we were at last in our own region: the Mataranya. We had seen blossom along the way, but nothing beats the almond blossom of the Mataranya. It seems to float above the dry fields in clouds of pink and white. Hundreds of trees meet the eye, offset a little by the milky green of the interspersed olive trees. The economy is shot, fifty percent of the young are unemployed, the Rumanians are still here, but it looks like being a bumper year for almonds.

It was good to be back. I drove straight to the huerto and uncoupled the trailer. We then stared wistfully at our own almond tree. We only have one and we thought that it was dying. But there it was in full blossom. Lovely.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Last day in UK

It’s about 11 pm and after two well deserved Belgian beers, I am relaxing. I had planned a last pint or two of real English ale, but it was not to be: things closed in.

During the past week I have bought: a motorbike, a trailer to transport it in, a rotavator (biggish one), a cement mixer, a tow bar to pull the trailer, and chains, locks and cables to secure the stuff against thieves.

The trailer is quite low and the motorbike quite high so I couldn’t get the thing into the trailer with the cement mixer, rotavator and so on. I called a friend and he agreed to come around to help at midday. In the morning the fireplace man came to view the blackened, ugly, bricky hole that for some time has been awaiting the stone fireplace that he offered us at a special price. He outlined the problems: the ‘cheeks’ of the fire area project a little too far, also the cheeks are too high and the uprights shouldn’t really sit on a floorboard.

I want to fit the fireplace myself but I sometimes think that the fireplace man really wants to do it. He told me that I would need a ‘throat lintel’, yes a throat lintel, don’t you know what a throat lintel is? I certainly did not, but he told me that most builders’ merchants stock them, though they are often known by another name. Also, I would have to cut off the top of the cheeks with an angle grinder. And I should replace the cracked back plate and I might as well replace the whole fire back while I am at it. I finally announced that I would remove the fire back and then decide what to do next and he nodded – a wise decision, I think. And so the new fireplace becomes a thing of the distant future and our lounge a sooty, no-go area.

I asked the fireplace man if he liked motorcycles, he looked the type. He did and he had sons that did. I asked him if he would help me load my bike onto the trailer. He was more than willing and, while I ponced around deciding how we should do it, he pushed the thing onto the trailer on his own! I felt an idiot, but this man does spend his time lifting fireplaces and dealing with throat lintels, and even his sons ride motorcycles.

I cancelled my friend and continued with the preparations: securing the bike, chaining up the rotavator and mixer, loading in other essential stuff: a curtain rail, a sunbed, flowerpots. By this time the four tyres of the trailer looked quite flat so I had to take it to the garage to pump them up. On the way I noticed that the indicators on the trailer no longer worked. They had done, you get a pleasant beeping from the back which is supposed to reassure that the trailer is still there. However, there was no beeping so I had to spend the rest of the night sorting out the wiring. No beeping, no beer. Hence a late night with an Angel or two – it’s a type of Belgian beer.

Ferry to Spain tomorrow. More adventures, perhaps.