Goodbye To All That

Spain, for so many, is the costas…the beaches, the bars, the booze….

I remember conversations with older cousins who talked grandly of the qualities of the various hotels on the Costa Brava as if all should know of them, from the catalogues so eagerly perused before Christmas, the holiday booked in January.

My father’s Spain was that of the civil war where he went out a dedicated Communist and came back totally opposed to Russian communism, hardened by the realities of a war without rules of conduct.

Leo’s Spain was that of the intermediate period, when the resorts were still fishing villages, where widows would touch a visitor’s suitcase for luck and to find a lodging you asked for a room at the bar.

He remembers the beaches being full of cactus, the sewage pipes disgorging their contents close to the shore and a gypsy family camping there losing their baby to rats… washing his shirt in a room above a bar in Seville and hanging it out of the window – dry in minutes.

He remembers too, when holidaying with his father, returning to their room to find the latter plying the young chambermaids with sherry while they danced together to music from the radio. Luckily for the chambermaids the German in the next room complained about the noise and made his views known. Picture a very large middle aged German and a squat elderly Belgian vis a vis in the doorway. The German expresses his distaste for the goings on. The Belgian replies

‘Hitler tot’…Hitler is dead…

Collapse of stout Westphalian party. While the chambermaids, the spell broken, depart about their duties.

When his father acquired a Spanish mistress, Leo was sent to Madrid to improve his education – or to be kept out of the way – studying at the university while staying with the mistress’ family in an upmarket area of Madrid. A fellow lodger was the son of Franco’s chief of police, banned from the family home for licentious behaviour, with whom he toured the bars and the less touristic areas of the city, giving rise to cries of ‘I remember when tapas, proper tapas, were free…’ memories of the mussel shells crunching underfoot on the sawdust strewn floors of the bars.

Just as well that the tapas were free…his father was distinctly stingy with support – the mistress clearly offering better value for money – while his boon companion was also starved of cash. They might have toured the barrios in an ancient Hispano Suiza, but it only budged when mummy coughed up spending money unbeknownst to her husband.

The diet in their pension consisted largely of lentils…the lady of the house announcing their arrival on the table with

‘If you don’t like lentils…you don’t have to eat them…’

As any meat accompaniment would have needed a microscope to detect its presence one must assume that her lodgers preferred lentils to starvation.

Apart from the lentils, though, it was an idyllic period in his life….no father on his back, free to spend hours in the Prado., wine and a tapa for a couple of pesetas….which all came crashing to the ground when the mistress produced a baby whose crying sufficiently annoyed its progenitor to set up mistress and child in their own establishment and summon Leo home to be sent to the Stock Exchange. Leaving Madrid in a snowstorm, sharing the driving with an English student returninghome for Christmas, he said farewell to Spain…and farewell to lentils.

I have only come there relatively recently, to another face of the country in our house up in the hills behind the Valencian coast. Lying quiet against the pines on the hillside, it looks out over the vines, the olives and the almonds below and, in the distance, the peak of Mount Penyagolosa, dominating the skyline.

The village names bear witness to the long occupation by the Moors, and the road that lies beyond the olives marks the traces of the Reconquest…that long crusade starting in the eleventh century, its aims not to be achieved until Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. The road in question is part of a side circuit of the Camina del Cid

Camina del Cid

marking the trail of that somewhat mercenary warlord from Burgos to Valencia and is, in all probablility dreamt up by a tourist office somewhere in the area, the background information being full of ‘he must have’s and ‘he would have’s….but it is a spectacular route in its own right, especially in the mountainous sectors, and with villages well worth a visit in themselves, whether it is tiny Culla, clinging to its rock under the old castle walls, once the stronghold of the Knights of Montesa who took the place of the Templars when that order came to disaster, ruling what was then a disputed border area,

or the winemaking village of Les Useres, whence departs a journey of another nature.

On the last Friday in April, every year since the fourteenth century, twelve pilgrims and a guide, representing Jesus Christ and his disciples, set off from Les Useres to walk to the sanctuary of St. Joan de Penyagolosa,

over thirty kilometres away. The original purpose of the pilgrimage is forgotten, though tradition has it that it is to ask for rain, so vital in that barren country.

Pelerins de Les Useres route

The thirteen have to follow an exact ritual…from growing their beards, their distinctive blue clothing, the parts of the route which must be made in bare feet, the prescribed halts and, above all, the observation of total silence. The only music comes from those accompanying them as the group makes its way over rough tracks to its destination where they will spend the night at the sanctuary before a religious ceremony – Perdon – in which the guide addresses the pilgrims, who must never transmit what has been said to them, before setting off on the return journey.

People do gather to watch or to follow for part of the way, but this is no tourist attraction like the medieval fairs which render horrid the summer scene…those men have a serious purpose and, I imagine, the journey offers the opportunity for self discovery.

Here is a video made in 1998, which gives a flavour of the pilgrimage…it is a bit long…but so is the route!

While so calm and quiet now, the area has its stories….its wild isolation offering refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution in France, centuries later its conservative tradition providing support to the Carlists in the mid nineteenth century civil wars which while in theory disputing the succession to the Spanish crown, were in fact a face off between a liberal, urban, centralising government and traditionalists, who wished to preserve established religion and the particular laws and customs of the regions making up that crown. The civil war of the twentieth century, child of the Carlist Wars, did not pass it by….after the decisive battle at Teruel across the mountains Franco’s forces and the remains of the Republican army made a race for the sea…Franco winning and cutting the Republic in two, leading to its defeat. There were supposed to be Republican guerillas operating up in the hills into the fifties, somehow avoiding the genocide that accompanied Franco’s victory.

To this day ‘don’t mention the war’ is good advice….

While so many villages have all but died, the one closest to the house is – by village standards – booming. A butcher, several bakers, a supermarket with a fresh fish counter, an odds and bods shop, a hardware shop and white goods shop…where they delivered me a new washing machine before I paid for it… and the best maker of turron – nougat – that I have ever encountered. Not to speak of the bars and restaurants ranging from the plastic chairs and drop in when you like to oak doors and entry by appointment. There is an active cultural life…from historical research to, inevitably, bulls running in the streets, a big music programme for the kids…massive bonfires…all making for a community spirit.

There is even a bus….leaving at 5.30 in the morning and returning at 6.30 at night…but it is a bus…and I have taken it.

It is about the only village not perched on a hill….I remember being driven up to Xodos one day…stopping at the roadside halt to watch the eagles rising on the thermals before going on to the village itself where we ate a snail and rabbit paella for lunch in the plastic chair style caff by the church.

while closing the shutters of the house at night the lights of Benefigos would be shining across the valley like a beacon of security.

It is yet another goodbye, this year….the house has to be sold. The gentleman, in every sense of that word, who looked after it is no more and, given the state of Leo’s health, and now mine, the less complications in our life the better.

I came late to Spain….I came late to a house which has the most peaceful atmosphere I have ever experienced….and I have to lose both.

Getting on in life is a bugger sometimes.

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Needs Must When the Devil Drives

Sardines, anyone?

A problem requiring a quick solution saw me on a plane for Spain – via the U.S.A. and their dreaded airports. I had sworn never to darken their doors again after my last experience some years ago, but needs must when the devil drives. It was high season for travel to Europe, the direct flights were full and it was half the price of British Airways, even if I could have booked a seat with them.

I had a further complication. My wonky ankle had all but collapsed and it was not a good moment to travel further than a stagger from bedroom to bathroom, from bathroom to kitchen and then a lengthy rest in a chair. Still, needs must and all that.

As it turned out, it was to be a blessing as I booked wheelchair assistance for the connections through the U.S. airports and although the vehicles provided were not the equal of a London Transport diesel engine ninety seven horsepower omnibus – what could be? –

they were indeed a transport of delight. Collected on the airbridge at Houston and whisked away to one of those carts that always pass you empty when you are gloomily dragging your luggage for what seems like miles to encounter the warm embrace of immigration officials and Homeland Security goons….. it was another world.

Decanted into further wheelchair for the obligatory passage of what is laughingly called security my kind hispanic assistant passed several entrances into the inferno of queues and bawled orders until she found me a quieter entrance, with no queues and a friendly welcome. Well, for me…not for her. The distinctly caucasian officer gave her a hard time over the renewal of her badge – which was not due for another month. Hassle for the hell of it.

All continued well…I was allowed pre boarding which gave me time to hobble my way to the back of the ‘plane to a seat I had booked, in the aisle, near the loos, with room in the overboard locker for my case. Sardine class, of course, but at least the essentials were in place. The flight was packed….but the two seats next to me were still empty…hope rose, only to be crushed as barging up the far aisle came two fake panama hats. The lead number was borne by a large man in red trousers, the other by a woman whose long suffering expression resembled that of one who waits , plastic bag in hand, while the dog performs his business.

Red trousers identified the seats. Without pleasure.

‘We’re separated, Ursula!’

You would think that perusal of the tickets might have alerted him to that earlier…but men in red trousers are not noted for brain.

Turned to me, announcing loudly

‘I’m in the middle seat but I’m taking the aisle.’

He could have taken take the high road or the low road for all I cared…yet it was an opening gambit had I but realised it.

Having settled Ursula into her seat on the other side of the aisle, red trousers started to look for space in the lockers for his case. There was none. He was obliged to go forward, well forward, before he could find a gap and returned to base – in the free aisle seat, -spreading out his affairs on the middle seat and opening his newspaper.

So absorbed was he that when the stewards were trying to rejig all the cases, he did not notice that they were asking who owned his….I suppose we were minutes away from an unidentified luggage emergency when Ursula alerted him and he sprang to his feet, bellowing that he was not going messed around and demanding that his case was restowed immediately.

Finally he was mollified and returned to his newspaper, muttering that he had had enough of all this…but more was to come. The ticket holder of the aisle seat finally appeared…a mild young man who made it clear that he would like the seat that he had booked, so red trousers gathered his gear and plumped down next to me, clearly not happy.

Turning to me he said, in a tone of en haut de bas,

‘I am giving you sufficient space and I expect reciprocity’.

Clearly, someone who liked to impose himself on those around him…

I am told that when annoyed I sound like Princess Anne and I certainly borrowed one of her better known phrases in telling him to ‘Naff off’, though in a version more suited to his level of comprehension.

After which, peace reigned for the duration of the flight.

I made a brief stop in London, mainly to sort out a few things with my bank and to do the essential food shopping, staying with my friend in the now gentrified Kensal Rise.

Gentrified always seems to me to be a misnomer…most of those moving into the area would be – or would have been, my timescale becoming collapsed as I grow older – looked down upon by the country gentry who, while being so often shit in a silk stocking themselves, could tell a nylon stocking when they saw it.

I had become accustomed to the organic butcher, the vegan coffee shops and the wine merchant selling bio filth…to the fearsome juggernaut prams in which the slightly clad mothers protected their offspring from contact with the outside world…to the massive four by four cars lining roads where housing had been built long before the possession of cars had been envisaged, but a new horror had emerged. The electric scooter.

As if cyclists – as in self righteous ponces in lycra as opposed to people who wear bicycle clips – aren’t bad enough….now these pests have come to haunt us, moving swiftly and silently, giving no warning on road or pavement, mounted by some prat in a cycling helmet with no idea just how infantile he or she looks.

It would be wrong to state that Kensal Rise is going to the dogs…even if the canine sex toy has been removed from the pet shop window. The hardware shop is still there…the corner shops still exist…and so do the original inhabitants, though these grow fewer over the years. Yet there is a more serious change. Drug related shootings have become, if not common, frequent enough to be shrugged off as ‘oh, another one’. A link with the new inhabitants’ habits, perhaps?

If so, shit in lycra leggings.

Off then, to Barcelona, the ‘plane so delayed that we did not arrive until the early hours, plenty of time for the earworm bequeathed me by my father to surface,

‘We are some of the nuts of Barcelona,

We think it such fun

We’re going to be hung.’

It has bothered me so much that I eventually looked it up in the Mudcat Cafe site, that source of all that is wild and wonderful, only to discover that father’s version differed radically from the original.

Hastening from the airport I discovered that the Barcelona Sants railway station did not open until 5.30 a.m. giving me a few hours to sit on a stone block by the entrance. I was approached by a young woman carrying a rose who told me, in French, that I was in great danger, sitting outside a station at night, and should come to her house. I had a feeling that I or my purse might be in more danger in her house and politely refused her kind offer.

My block is on the far side of the zebra crossing.

Shortly afterwards I made the acquaintance of a chap from Bolivia, working in Montpellier and going to visit his family in Valencia. He had missed the bus and found, like me, that the station was closed. I learned a lot about the comparison between life as a legal immigrant in Spain as opposed to France…he could not wait for his contract to end to return to Valencia. We talked food, politics…all the usual stuff, before being joined by an elderly man who had himself come from Montpellier on his way to Alicante and who had, too, missed his bus.

He was one of the ‘gilets jaunes’, pleased to inform me that the movement was still active – especially in Montpellier where the brutality of police tactics served only to keep the action going.

Why, he wanted to know, were there no ‘gilets jaunes’ in the U.K., where people were being bled dry even more than in France? The only answer I had was that identity politics in the U.K. had effectively divided the those parts of the population likely to rise up…so they were fighting each other for state resources rather than the state itself.

In the days of fake news and the hegemony of the media barons, if you want the lowdown, sit outside Barcelona Sants in the early hours of the morning.

The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life

ibera-plane-sjo

You know, I know, we all know that we should not make decisions when we are tired.

We are, at this moment, recovering from our folly in not heeding this maxim: our only excuse being that we were too tired to remember it.

Every month or so we take the car into San Jose to stock up with items unobtainable – or more expensive – in our little town.

Earl Grey tea…rice noodles… bones and ox kidneys for the dogs…cheap tomatoes…fencing wire from the Chinese tat emporium… five kilo lumps of fresh cheese from Turrialba and proper wholemeal bread from a baker who seems to be the only one in the area to be able to make  a loaf which is neither sweet nor as heavy as  lead once ingested.

Buying in bulk as we do, on the return trip the car is loaded with crates and sacks the contents of which have to be sorted, packed and divided between stores, fridge and freezer – after feeding the chickens, the ducks, the lambs and the dogs, not to speak of ourselves.

We have always done this in one form or another, but we are not getting any younger and there are moments when the mounds of kidneys to be diced and packed, peppers to be grilled and skinned and the rest of the gallimaufry awaiting attention can feel daunting.

That was the situation last week when the ‘phone rang.

Leo answered it: I paid no attention, assuming it was the chap who was supposed to come with his bulldozer the next day, checking that all was in order.

Then Leo came round into the kitchen, looking shell shocked.

‘I’ve done something awful.’

‘You haven’t cancelled him?’

‘No! It’s something else entirely….I knew I shouldn’t have done it while I was talking to him…’

It turned out that the man on the ‘phone had been one of the fleurons of  Leo’s family tree….his half brother.

The son of his father’s Spanish mistress.

Twenty plus years younger than Leo.

Last sighted over twenty years ago.

Who was not only in Costa Rica but was at that very minute in a taxi bringing him from our little town and should be at our gate shortly.

Well, not shortly.

We were sorting out the sheep for the evening when the taxi drew up at the house gates along the road.

The assembled dogs arrived, giving tongue.

A lugubrious face peered from the rear window. For some time.

Eventually, prompted by the taxi driver requesting payment, the entire person descended and the taxi departed.

The dogs bayed cheerfully.

The person shuffled.

The dogs bayed again….

‘Well, come in’ said Leo.

‘I don’t know how to open the gate’…

He was not, you understand, frightened of dogs..he was allergic. They were filthy things, carriers of disease…

The nine carriers of disease barked and leapt for joy..they don’t often get visitors who behave like the man whose feet are being shot at in the Westerns and intended to make the most of it.

Finally the Will Kemp of Estepona made it to the house and sank into a chair on the balcony.

He had, it appeared, come to Costa Rica to find the only remaining member of his family. Given that he has endless cousins on his mother’s side and Leo’s sister and brother all living this seemed a little thin.

As Leo had carefully never given him his address after the last encounter, he had had, he said, to track us down.

Would the great white hunter like something to drink? Tea, coffee, beer, fruit juice?

Wine.

He did not like tea, Costa Rican coffee was disgusting, fruit juice – God only knew what fruit was involved out here…and he was allergic to beer as he was gluten intolerant.

Happily involved with a bottle of banana wine he expanded. On his gluten intolerance.

After some ten minutes of a blow by blow description of fifteen years of diarrhea I thought it time to cook supper.

He was at my shoulder in a flash.

No condiments! I will be ill!

So we had plain fried fish, fried potatoes and fried tomatoes…not what we had planned for ourselves.but if he had a diet problem…

I dished up.

Where is the salt…there is no flavour to this food…

He managed to finish half a bottle of banana wine – luckily it had a label indicating that it was a Sauvignon/Semillon from Argentina or no doubt he would not have touched it – discoursing the while on his gluten intolerance and its problems, in the presence of a man who has two major illnesses and had recently spent five days completely paralysed in a major hospital.

Reminded – by me – of Leo’s problems he brushed them aside. Leo should take out private insurance, as he had done. Private medicine showed him that he was gluten intolerant and it changed his life

I left them to it while I washed up.

Leo then enjoyed a session of hearing how dreadful Costa Rica was…no culture, childish television, terrible food….why had we moved there? And to this awful house?

Digital Camera

Had he seen any of the sights?

Yes…the Teatro Nacional…nothing special..

teatro-nacional

Museums? Pre-columbian gold? Jade? Contemporary Arts?

What museums? Oh yes, there was a hole in the ground by the theatre, but it looked dirty…and he might get mugged…

gold-museum

Pity he missed that experience…

Clearly he had thought to stay with us on his jolly to Costa Rica…but the dogs had put paid to that so eventually he departed by taxi, promising to return in a few days’ time.

‘Come early,’ said Leo. ‘I’m better in the mornings. And if you get here in the morning Danilo can pick you up at the bus station which will save you getting another taxi.

Two days later we had a ‘phone call at ten to two. He is in our little town, at the bus station

‘Wait there and we will pick you up in about twenty minutes.’

‘No! I will get a taxi! I cannot stand around in this shithole!’

church-purical

Some ten minutes later a taxi driver called us.

‘Can you give me directions?’

‘Yes, sure..they are working 0n the bridge so you will have to come by the back road..’

Voice from the back of the taxi…go by the bridge…go by the bridge…

They eventually arrived an hour later having tried the bridge to find that it is impassable during working hours and so have had to retrace their steps via the back road.

Again the lugubrious face waited a long time in the taxi.

It dawned on us that he was waiting for us to pay the driver.

As the driver was of our view that he will wait a long time until hell freezes over the face was obliged to pay.

He entered the house. the dogs, roused from post prandial slumber, eyed him hopefully, but there was no sign of dancing.

Leo, rashly, asked if he had had lunch.

No.

Well, we have something left from our lunch…chille con carne.

By this time I had retired to bed, having broken my big toe the previous day. Leo was in control.

‘What is in the sauce?’

Leo showed him the chili sauce which I use. The ingredients label is in Spanish – the only language which he understands.

‘No! I cannot eat that! I will be  ill! It contains gluten!’

Later examination showed that there is no gluten in the listed ingredients.

He decided to make for himself a Spanish tortilla..potatoes, onions and eggs.

Some half an hour later I emerged to find that he had taken off his shirt..revealing a revoltingly hairy back….had half peeled and then discarded slightly blemished potatoes which were now useless…had taken only the hen eggs – as being brown – and had used almost a whole bottle of olive oil – super expensive here.

He beamed at me.

Did I know how to make a Spanish tortilla?

Indeed I did, without need of his tuition. I also, in the words of the old music hall song, knew how to raise a bunion on his Spanish onion should I catch him bending tonight

While I cleared up the carnage he told me at length how awful Costa Rican food was.

How it cost him 12,000 colones to be sure to get a gluten free meal.

Why didn’t he go to the caffs on the market? Rice, beans and protein for about 2,000.

soda

A mou of disgust. He could not possibly enter such a place…

Then he asked why we had no mangoes as they were in season…well, they are at lower altitudes, but ours won’t be ripe for a month yet.
‘But they are in season’….
He wanted us to show him the finca…I could not walk far thanks to the curse of the toe and Leo certainly couldn’t but directed him down the one and only road which runs alongside our land.
The dogs escorted him to the gate, hopeful of dancing….but he disappointed them..
I made us some tea.
He returned  ten minutes later saying that he was worried that he might get lost.
Oh, what were we drinking? Tea…no, he would have a coffee. That man must have hearing so acute that he can hear the clink of a tea cup at a mile’s distance.
Leo then suffered a long recital of how none of his mother’s family would have anything to do with him. Hardly surprising since she worked all her life to support him while he lazed about on benefits and her handouts and at her death sold her house  to live on the proceeds. Not something to endear himself to people who loved his mother.
Then followed a far from delicate enquiry as to Leo’s testamentary dispositions…..and the strength of family ties.
Supper time eventually came.
Leo had point blank refused to eat another meal like that of the first evening and asked me to make a Balti….absolutely no gluten in the recipe ingredients.
I called them to the table and put the Balti, the rice and his tortilla on the table.
Our guest settled himself.
First, though,  he had to wash out the wineglass at his place setting.  An insect had settled in it…probably alive with gluten.
Then he complained about the dogs settling in in expectation around us.
I invited him to start, indicating the Balti.
He smirked and said that he could not take gluten…didn’t I remember?
I showed him the herbs and spices I used….all gluten free – including red pepper flakes – ‘gluten free’ on the label.
He licked a finger, pushed it into the flakes and licked it again. No, it had gluten. He could taste it..
I left the table. Before I raised that bunion..
He ate the tortilla he had made, complaining to Leo that I had knowingly made something he could not eat.
Leo told him that while he was quite right not to eat something containing gluten, he had been told – and had been shown – that the meal was gluten free and that once he had finished his meal Leo would call him a taxi.
‘No..later. I can make another tortilla if I’m hungry.’
‘Now.’
Why? He had come thousands of miles to visit Leo …how could Leo throw him out?
Quite easily. No effort at all.
I was in the bedroom, seething quietly, when he barged in – knock? Call? Gracious me no! He wished to explain that thanks to me cooking something he could not eat his brother was going to throw him out It was not his fault if he could not eat something full of gluten…
I was not polite in two languages.
Having called a taxi Leo escorted him to the door and went to clear the  table.
He then made a reappearance in the bedroom and I was even less polite in two languages.
Leo removed him with an energy unexpected in a man of his age and health and he finally left with the carriers of disease barking in triumph as the taxi pulled away..
With any luck it will take him another twenty years before he tries again.

Boots, Boots, Boots, Boots….

IMG_2554
Boots. upon the availability and solidity of which depended the British Empire as its small professional armies marched to support the interests of the Lancashire cotton barons and the monopolies of the London Stock Market against the wild hopes of native leaders to exploit their peoples in their own interest without having to share the profits.

In this post imperial age, boots were to play their part in our journey back to Costa Rica from Spain.

My husband is into boots – and before the back row of the stalls starts slavering I mean gardening boots, not thigh high horrors in latex, whose existence only became apparent to me when trying to buy boots in his size on eBay.

There is a whole world on eBay which is unknown to me and which, with a bit of luck, will remain so.

While the size of his feet posed no problem in the U.K., lesser breeds without the law first in France, then in Costa Rica, seem to go in for small feet. His size is unobtainable.

While we lived in France he would buy his boots – and shoes – on visits to England….and then occasionally would find a clutch of them in the end of line shops: Noz, Mille Stocks, Moulin des Affaires, who would knock them out for absurd prices given that no Frenchman worthy of the name would sport feet which took size 47.

In Costa Rica there is no chance….though he did once find a cache of boots on a trip to Nicaragua and made the salesman’s day as he bought up the entire stock. Costa Rican customs officers – more accustomed to cocaine and heroin in their rummaging activities – were very puzzled, but no doubt put it down to mad gringo syndrome.

His health had been very poor in the last few years in France, whose much vaunted health service had let him down very badly, so by the time we left for Costa Rica he could no longer wear gardening boots, the weight being more than he could bear. Accordingly we left them behind and, as the dishonest caretaker took a smaller size, they were still at the house when we exchanged it for the house in Spain and so came down with the removal van last year.

He greeted them with delight…there were four pairs, steel toe capped, all weighing a ton…and they became the footwear of choice, offering as they did firm support for his ankles.
Given the tiled floors you could hear him coming from a long way off which gave rise to the more irreverent of the party goose stepping to the strains of ‘Die Fahne Hoch’ or the ‘Panzerlied’ as he arrived in the kitchen to cries of ‘Godverdomme!’ and a brisk exchange of ammunition in the shape of almonds from the trees in the garden.

The family gone, our holiday nearly over, it was time to pack.
Travelling in sardine class we had only carry on luggage and one suitcase in the hold…23 kilos limit.

What to do about the boots? Let alone the books?

Come to that, how to weigh the suitcases?

Luckily the gentleman who looks after the house could lend us his bathroom scales and at the first attempt it was apparent that not only were we well over the limit but that we would risk a hernia trying to move the suitcases more than an inch at a time.

What to discard?

Not the marble pestle and mortar.

Nor the books.

Nor the ceramics.

It had to be the boots.

Two pairs were put aside for the next trip…one pair was packed and one pair would be worn.

We were just under the 23 kilos.

The gentleman who looks after the house and his lovely wife – a real English rose – were to take us into town to catch the bus to the airport….and they were kind enough to show us a caff in the port area for a light meal….it was a perfect end to our holiday…a balmy night, simple food, good wine and better company and so in high good humour we settled down in the bus station for the couple of hours remaining.

As you do we surveyed the (limited) action in late night Castellon de la Plana.
A series of dustcarts came and went…a few beggars tried to tap us for money (no chance)…other passengers arrived for buses to the ferries to Morocco…and a light went on in the window of one of the flats opposite our bench.

For the next hour or so we..and the other occupants of the bench… were the spectators of a floor show as a young lady changed her garments and donned and doffed pairs of elbow length gloves. No nudity, but a great deal of suggestion.

Someone should put her on Tripadvisor.

Our bus arrived.
A surly eastern European driver who refused to load our suitcases for us.
People sitting in our seats to be ejected.
Stuffy overheating.
A halt at a miserable service station for forty minutes.

Finally we arrived at Barcelona airport…but at which terminal?

The driver had not elaborated…and it is a long trek between Terminals 1 and 2.

Leo descended to ask..got a dusty answer and called me to unload our luggage as it was clear that the driver had no intention of offering assistance.

Luggage unloaded we headed for the zebra crossing to the departure area.

But the driver was blocking the way, scratching and yawning.

A polite request to pass got us nowhere….so Leo went ahead, stamping on the driver’s feet with his gardening clodhoppers in passing. The path was clear..the driver displayed more activity then heretofore revealed to us…and we were on our way.

The clip below is so familiar to me…not just the music but the surroundings…I hope you will play it and enjoy the pleasures of a past age.

Blazing Loos, Gilded Fossils and When Did You Last See Your Trousers?

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Which is to say that I have been, indeed, still am, on holiday and will be so for another week to come. The last of the visitors have departed in a deluge of rain which has prevented me from washing the bedding and we are on our own, eating the leftovers and chewing over the lessons learned from giving the house a trial run under real life conditions.

We swapped our house in France for this one and although I spent some time here last year, it was not long enough – nor extensive enough – to see how the house would stand up to visitors, so the descent of the tribes was designed not only to have the pleasure of seeing friends and family again but also to see how the systems coped with seemingly non stop use of swimming pool, showers, baths, washing machines and loos and the effects of same on the electricity bill.

Our journey had not been uneventful.
Leo had booked a seat in the exit aisle of the ‘plane and was informed by a stewardess that he was in charge of the door. In the event of the pilot calling ‘evacuate’ three times he was to seize the handle and pull it sharply upwards, at which point, she said, the door would fly off entirely.
He spent the flight wondering why suicide bombers bother to carry bombs in their underpants if all you have to do is book a seat in the exit aisle and pull the handle to have the entire contents of the ‘plane sucked into oblivion.
And if that is all it takes, in the interests of security might it not be better for airline staff to keep such knowledge to themselves?
All through the flight he kept eyeing that door….

Still, we arrived unharmed in Barcelona and took the shuttle train to the Sants station to book our ticket.
The clerk fancied himself as a comedian when dealing with foreigners and managed, first, to bugger up electronic payment, then to issue only one ticket and finally, as I discovered when queueing to go down the escalators to the platform in the overheated bowels of the station, when finally issuing two tickets had given us seats in different carriages.
Leo had been tiring….it had been a long flight…thanks to the clerk we had only ten minutes to catch the last feasible train….but the discovery was like lighting the blue touch paper.
With a terse, explicit and unflattering description of the clerk he was off like a harrier to the ticket office, the queue parting like the Red Sea, to obtain redress.
The lady clerk – perhaps used to her colleague’s little ways – made no demur and issued new seats immediately so we caught the train for the two hour journey south.

As the gentleman who looks after the house told us on arrival, there had been a violent thunderstorm and the electricity was down in the village and surrounding areas….but as we drove through the pass, lights suddenly came on in the dark countryside below….all was well.
We made a cup of tea and went to bed.

Pottering the next day, there was another violent thunderstorm which drove us indoors and when it cleared we heard a helicopter overhead…backwards and forwards between the village and the pine clad hillside above our house. There had been a lightning strike, a blaze, and the fire brigade were into action immediately, scooping water from the communal swimming pool and dumping it on the fire….
Might be an idea to get insurance…..

The day after that the first visitors arrived….and the water gave out. A bucket chain was set up between house and pool to get water to flush loos, and the men went into conclave. Pipes were traced, blue plastic reservoirs were found, fuses were flicked on and off – and water reappeared.
Only to give out again.
The gentleman who looks after the house was consulted.
The next visitors to arrive were warned to bring wipes.
A plumber could not be found until after the weekend.
The gentleman who looks after the house gave it more thought and remembered that the water board had been at work recently alongside the property.
He hunted around and found that not only had the water board changed the position of the water meter but that they had also turned it off.
They had, it seemed, thought it best as the house was empty.
He had saved us a fortune in plumbers.

Water restored, we relaxed again, apart from rescuing visitors who had become lost in the maze of rooms, stairs and corridors.
One wandering soul found wailing in the third kitchen was given the watchword ‘turn right at the dresser’ to find the stairs to her room and could be heard in the evening repeating it to herself as she turned the corner that cut her off from the rest of the house.
Tables and chairs were set out on the terrace, in the courtyard and by the pool. Mussels were consumed in quantity. Wine descended gullets. More mussels were consumed.
We went to bed at peace with the world.

I was woken by a cry of horror. I ran to the loo where Leo was standing, his hand on the cistern.

‘It’s hot!’

I put my hand on the cistern. It was indeed hot. Very hot, and filling with more hot water from the immersion heater.
Scots blood turned to ice. Flemish blood was not far behind it.
Not only metered water, but heated metered water had been flushed down the loo.

‘Quickly! We have to try them all before anyone flushes anything!’

Visitors could have been forgiven for thinking that it was a police raid as their doors were flung open, the lights went on and Leo galloped to inspect the cisterns. Those with hot water were turned off at the tap and, inspection over, we all foregathered in the kitchen in various states of night attire to drink tea and discuss the problem.
Tea drunk, biscuits eaten, someone remembered that there was some ham in the fridge to make sandwiches and the committee decided that the best thing would be to switch off the electricity to the immersion heaters which seemed to be supplying the loos and drew up a rota for morning showers so as not to waste the water already heated.

The gentleman who looks after the house was consulted the next day…and reluctantly said that we would have to have a plumber…and possibly an electrician….
Good job he saved us all that money when the water gave out!

Disasters apart, life went on.
The fossil expert discovered fossils of coral on the steps to the courtyard and, rooting in a cupboard, came up with something like a giant snail, painted gold.
‘Vandals!’
It was a fossil, a large fossil, and is gradually being scrubbed free of paint to take its place under the almond tree in the entrance.

We went to the local mushroom fair where we bought shoes, honey and a truffle…

We went to the seaside…..

We went to see our lawyer……

We visited small villages, roamed on roads made from crushed limestone covered rapidly with an asphalt carpet which led up into forbidding mountains, bumped on rocky tracks to visit remote chapels…

We had a great time, exploring…

Visitors came and left, with shifts in the shopping…red wine took over from white, pork from mussels…and then it was time for me to go to visit my mother in Southampton.

She had a list of things which needed attention, so it was an intensive shopping session – thank the Almighty for John Lewis and the helpful staff – and we sat up talking into the evening, with a consequent late start to the morning.

Up before mother I had been making tea and offered to bring her a cup. She was sitting by the window in her dressing gown, the curtains drawn across.
I made to draw them back but she stopped me.

‘No! Leave them alone!

‘But it’s dark like this…’

‘Doesn’t matter! I’m in my dressing gown and you can see this window from the vicarage!’

Given that there is a belt of trees between the two and that only by hanging out of mother’s window at risk of your life could you see the vicarage back door I felt that mother was exaggerating, but she was adamant.

‘But the vicar has other things to do than to lurk at his back door to see you in your dressing gown!’

‘That’s as may be, but leave those curtains alone!
I’ve never taken to him…he doesn’t visit like the last vicar…
And he’s into vestments…I suppose he’d be happier in Rome but with all those children he’s had to stick to the C of E….’

Remembering the previous incumbent whom I had always considered to be the C of E’s version of Ian Paisley, while being a loving, caring man, assiduous in visiting his parishioners, I began to wonder what social revolution had taken place in the parish.

Mother had the answer.
‘Of course, we old people are dying off and you’ve got the new types…found religion to get their children into church schools and they want value for money….plenty of show and no substance!’

Clothes bought, a new television ordered, I leave at 1.00 a.m. for the coach to Gatwick….and return to the house to find that I can find nothing: neither in the kitchen nor in the rest of the house.
Desperate for a shower and some lighter clothes I look in vain for my old pair of corsair pants which I had left in the machine for the next routine wash….

Nowhere to be seen.

Enquiries are promulgated…one person remembers hanging them out…another remembers seeing them in the laundry pile…no one knows where they are now….

I shall have to rename them my Scarlet Pimpernel pants:
They seek them here, they seek them there….

And until they are found I can’t get up to weed the terraces…

Where do I go from here….?

terraces 001 Here being a hamlet in the hills behind Castellon de la Plana in Spain, a place well off the tourist route and likely to remain so as its airport, built at a cost of some 150 million Euros of public money and declared open in 2011 has yet to see a commercial ‘plane touch down on its runway.
Just as well in some ways as in 2012 the runway was declared too narrow for any hypothetical ‘plane to turn round.

So I didn’t get here by ‘plane.

Nor by train. I had wanted to, but perusal of what French railways laughingly call online timetables meant that all roads, or tracks, led to Paris.
You want to go cross country and pick up the Paris Barcelona service at some intermediate point?
Or pick up the service from Montpellier to the south of Spain?
Forget it.
The gloomy minds of the SNCF nerds responsible for the online timetables can only provide you with main line services or local ones. Very local ones.
And when you’ve spent three hours on a guessing game as to which very local timetable is the neighbour of the last very local timetable you consulted you find that even if you were to succeed in combining them in an infernal sausage link you inevitably end up in Narbonne at some unearthly hour with the prospect of sleeping on the station until the departure of the morning express for Spain.
Bring back the Thomas Cook European railway timetable…its disappearance another blow for civilisation as we knew it.

So, I booked a Eurolines coach for a seventeen hour journey to Castellon.
After the last encounter with Eurolines, notable for standing in a wind tunnel outside Lille station at five o’clock on a winter morning you would think I would have learned my lesson…but I persuaded myself that
A. Despite the violent overnight thunderstorms it was now summer.
B. There were no changes of coach to be made.
and
C. It was over one hundred Euros cheaper than taking the train.

Arriving at Poitiers from my one horse dorp on the bus which has replaced the train in rural areas I found that the station area resembled a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene: the overnight storms had brought down trees which in their turn had brought down power lines and blocked the tracks.
Nothing had stirred since the early morning.

Thank goodness for Eurolines.

I had a seat to myself as far as Toulouse but the next eleven hours were spent with limited legroom, the journey broken up by the usual loo stops – the last of these being, by unlucky chance, only forty kilometres from my destination.
I staggered off the coach at Castellon and headed for the hotel across the road.
An inexpensive room with wifi and, bliss, a full size bath. I soaked there for ages before going to bed and sleeping for six straight hours.
I am not as young as I was.

And then to the house.
The gentleman holding the keys had come into town to collect me – the only bus being late in the afternoon – and we drove out through the remains of a once booming ceramic tile industry…derelict sites lying back from the road….into a countryside of scrub, olives and almonds the road rising and turning before dropping down into a broad valley surrounded by mountains.

A couple of villages, stony tracks leading off the road itself, pig farms, silos poking above the trees like cold war missiles, then turning off on a track between trees and fields of tomatoes…not staked, but sprawling over the golden ground…and with a final heave up the slope we are there.

spain 005 At the house I first saw in photographs over a year ago and last saw in the flesh in winter.

Our pied a terre in Europe…..

We’re out of France!