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.

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Pennies and Pesos

foreign coins

When in junior school we were expected to write essays, to develop our mastery of the arts of communication.

As I recall, they were to fill at least two pages – in normal size handwriting to avoid the clever dicks who could make three sentences cover the whole surface – no two sentences were to begin with the same word, none was to begin with ‘I’, the use of ‘nice’ was forbidden and spelling was to be impeccable. Dictionaries provided.

We were held to be too old for pencils, so the oeuvre had to be written with a dip pen and there were to be no blots on the page, which required careful assessment of  the passage of the ink monitor. If he or she had remembered to fill up the inkwells before registration then the ink was all too fluid; if not, it was sludge.

If not depressed enough by these instructions, the titles on offer were hardly inspiring: the first week of the autumn term would inevitably offer us ‘What I did on my holidays’ where we were all aware that a bowdlerised version would be the best policy – Janet  and John rather than the fifties version of ‘Trainspotting’ for kids – if the wrath of betrayed elders was not to descend on us after examination of our books on parents’ evening.

Another thriller was ‘How to light a fire’: best to stick to the authorised version there too rather then relate a third hand version of what Dennis’ elder brother had managed to do with a Bunsen burner in the chemistry lab of the local grammar school. From what I recall, texts mentioning the technique of setting fire to the spills of newspaper with father’s cigarette lighter were particularly frowned upon….marks would be deducted… as matches were held to be more appropriate for children. Bringing glowing coals on a shovel from a fire already burning was regarded as cheating (marks deducted)…but not, apparently, dangerous.

Then were was, finally, ‘A day in the life of a penny’, where the imagination could be given full rein – unless, like one disgruntled schoolfellow upon whom the muse did not  smile, you decided to place the penny immediately into the slot on the door of a public loo and then describe its gloomy incarceration until liberated by the attendant at the end of the day. Marks deducted for not entering into the spirit of the thing.

Our pennies had a lurid time…those donated for the class Christmas party went (allegedly) to fund an orgy of crisps and ginger beer for the school staffroom; others went wild on the shove ha’penny board at the fair. They were reclaimed by pressing button B in a public ‘phone box and were spent immediately upon sherbet fountains and gobstoppers in the nearby sweet shop…

button B

They dropped into the leather satchels of bus conductors and emerged at exotic locations like Leatherhead bus garage; they even entered bank vaults whence they were liberated by masked robbers while corpulent bank managers writhed helpless in their bonds.

These were, of course, proper pennies. Two hundred and forty to the pound pennies, not the decimal abomination which was foisted on us in the seventies with the result that junior school maths lessons no longer included the calculation of the price of one and seven twelfths of a yard of cotton at eleven pence three farthings the yard while showing your workings, which was a means of separating the strong from the feeble minded in double quick order. At least there was some point to this example……you could see yourself measuring and paying for cloth while you could most decidedly not see yourself performing that other gem of maths lessons i.e. removing the bath plug and then opening both taps while you calculated the rate at which the bath would fill – or not. More likely to be calculating the risk of the thunder of parental feet on the stairs as the hot water boiler swallowed coke like a thing possessed.

But at least we were only dealing with one currency.

On my recent trip to Europe I found myself juggling with several, thanks to finding a relatively cheap flight which meandered its way from Costa Rica via a stop off in Toronto before heading for Amsterdam, whence there was a direct flight to Southampton.

No one wants to know Costa Rican currency which rejoices, to the Anglophone ear, in the name of the colon. Yes, I know it refers to Christopher Columbus, who called himself Cristobal Colon when he moved from Genoa to Spain, but its other connotations are irresistible and probably account for the reluctance of currency dealers to have anything to do with it at close quarters.

Thus I needed to provide myself with foreign currencies for my trip, if only to keep hunger at bay for the duration of the twenty four hours it would take to leave point A and arrive at point non plus..

I had notes and coins left over from previous trips, separated in different sections of my travelling purse and kept in my no. 1 carry on bag for easy access.

Fine in theory, but all went awry in Toronto Pearson airport.

After a five hour flight I had a five and a half hour stopover and was tempted to seek nourishment. The only sit down offerings were a place which appeared to serve doughnuts though closer inspection of the poster at the entrance showed them to be dim sum and a burger place with queues stretching out into the main concourse of the terminal.

Having checked the doughnut prices I could see why there were such queues at the burger bar.

Neither appealed, so I thought I would check out the snack bars. To my dismay they were all run by the same firm with the same offerings…ciabatta resembling a reclaimed nappy, finger sandwiches which an old rugby playing friend would have described as ‘society sandwiches – six to a gobful and you only get five’ – and filled rolls which would have needed a probe to find the contents while the roll itself promised to pull out every filling you possessed.

Or sushi. As far as I am concerned you can stuff sushi where the monkey shoved its nuts at the best of times…and this was not the best.

And the prices! I know Toronto Pearson Terminal 1 provides hundreds of chained down iPads for the use of passengers free of charge, but given the Scots heritage of Canadians I would have thought a few defibrillators might have been a good idea….two dollars ninety five for a small bottle of Perrier with orange!

Which is bad enough in Canadian dollars. But you can also pay in U.S. dollars…if you will accept change in Canadian.

I worked out the relative exchange rates, which turned rip off into tear apart , but, with some four hours still ahead of me, succumbed to the Perrier and put a two Canadian dollar piece into my purse which, in a state of shock, I managed to upend.

Moneys previously segregated made joyous reunion….the rainbow purse came into being.

I managed to navigate Amsterdam Schiphol without recourse to money….but on arrival at Southampton, having eschewed the rip off taxi for twenty quid, tried to pay  the bus driver ten quid for a week’s season ticket with money including Euros….firmly declined.

Glasses on and a rummage through the purse produced the necessary pounds sterling and I was on my way to my mother’s.

That night I tried to reorganise the rainbow purse, happily chucking coins featuring the royal bonce to one side and coins without on the other.

Infallible.

No. As I discovered when trying to feed the printer in the local lending library, Canadian coins also have the royal bonce on them and the machine discriminates against coins from the ex colonies….

But I am at a loss to know how I managed to put this

mexican peso coin into the pounds sterling pile.

I discovered that I had done so at H.M. Passport Office when I went to renew my papers.

The very helpful chap on the desk said that my passport photographs – taken in  Costa Rica – would not do. The background was glaringly white instead of being a discreet cream or gray. White upsets the recognition devices on the DIY passport machine at airports apparently.

Since most of them seem to be put of order there must be a lot of white backgrounds about…

Not to worry…there was a photo booth in the entrance……he would keep my place open while I took the necessary mugshots.

You know these photo booths…the revolving stool is always set for midgets and then spins out of control….you are still trying the read the instructions when the thing goes off and on the next try it catches you mouthing obscenities as you try to fit your eyes into the rectangle outlined on the screen….and it helps if you do not try to feed Mexican pesos into its maw.

Especially if its maw is situated in H.M. Passport Office.

Hot and bothered I eventually returned to the kind gentleman and only when I handed over the photographs did I glance at them.

I am accustomed to passport photographs which make me resemble the Missing Link…they have done so since I first had a passport….but this one was special.

With wild hair and glaring eyes it bore a close resemblance to whatever abomination it is that adorns the Mexican peso coin….

He perused it with that lack of visible emotion which used to be the mark of the British civil servant and looked up.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘The proportions are right. It’ll do.’