Friday, 19 April 2019

Short vignettes on life in Chile

Went to a rummage sale in a church to see if we could find any bikes or plants and oddments for our flat. Found none of the above but did find lots of Americans - All different shapes, sizes, ages and reasons for being there. Oddly, not one Chilean among them. Even so, this religious mono-culture enclave did share a common factor of all being quite lovely. “Come along” They said, almost in unison. “We ain’t too godly and there’s a whole lot of things going on that you might like….” Ummm. Food for thought. In principle people are people whatever their beliefs. In experience, however, god’s a sneaky chap and will wheedle his way in somehow.

We went to a huge fruit and veg market across the other side of Santiago. Fantastic! Crowds jostling for positions to buy produce. Piles of huge avocados, deep red tomatoes, sweet tasting potatoes (other stuff with different word endings are also available). The stalls are manned / womanned by people calling out for business in football style chants “Ogee Ogee Ogee” or generally shouting to one another over the riffs of Latino music that changes from stall to stall. The smells, energy and general ambiance of the place filled our heads and hearts and left us both with the same inane grins that we had in the last big market we visited here.

Weighed down with enough fruit and veg to feed a troupe of monkeys for a month we decided to follow the local consumer fashion by acquiring a shopping trolley – A red one with a white ‘go faster’ stripe. You can throw your jibes about getting old but it’s a sensible urban solution. Admittedly, not a minute goes by without a wheel trundling over one’s foot but it’s better than straining huge loads on our backs and, as a bonus, we get to feel part of the red trolley gang!! “Gerroutatheway you leopard print trolley punk”

At same market we tried a Chilean concoction called Mote con Huesillo - basically a syrupy liquid poured over husked wheat with a dried peach plopped in for good luck. We also had a Churrasco sandwich. Thinly sliced beef that melted in your mouth that was served with avo, melted cheese and a big smile from the guy who cooked it for us. Delicious.

There is a concert supported by our language school in a couple of weeks. A Bowie tribute band will headline and there’s to be 70’s and 80’s music too. It’s in a local pub. All good so far except for the facts that the doors don’t open until 11.00pm and the band starts at 1.30am. Yes!!!! 1.30am in the morning! These people never sleep. Well, not at night time anyway. Pubs are generally open till 2.00am. Clubs don’t open even open doors till 11.00/11.30pm and rooftop parties on the tower blocks don’t finish blasting out music until 5.00am. We’re changing to accommodate but it takes some getting used to. Thank god for earplugs and alcohol.

Weather. What weather. We have been here nearly a month and have had a smattering of rain for an hour around midnight once and a day of cloud. The rest of the time blue skies and sunshine. The temperatures are around 26 to 28 in the day at the moment. The sun is hot but the shade is pleasantly cool. The nights are warm and we sleep with the windows open (noisy bastard parties allowing). We have aircon but we never have to use it. It’s perfect. We are told that in the winter - we are now in early autumn -  that although the nights are colder the days will still be sunny and warm. Woo hoo.

We tried our luck at a local pub quiz recently. A bi-lingual affair ran by an American expat. We went with Veronika. A fellow teacher from Hungary. 28, uber confident, very little tact, never wrong and the sort that will deffo get you in a fight (although in her defense, she is entertaining, sweet-natured and we are very fond of her) – a bit like the gobby daughter I never had. Anyway. Pub quiz consisted of a few Chilean references but mainly American pop culture. Normally we do better than average at a pub quiz. Here, we came a firm last. It seems we know nothing about fucking High School Musical or who Jim Carey was talking to on twitter. Anyway. The booby prize which we had to accept among faux cheers were free tickets to either a comedy show or another pub quiz. Fearing a downward, never ending spiral of degradation with the pub quiz option I think we will try out the comedy show. The highlight of the evening for me personally was watching the one of the winning team, standing at the top of the stairs in a mock Freddy Mercury manner, singing the entire song of ‘We are the champions’….no time for losers….to the assembled runners up. Very funny and all taken in good spirits.

The gym we have joined is always empty. There are loads of machines and weights but there is hardly ever anyone there. Max 7 people at a time. Fantastic. We are going about 4  times a week. Sometimes 5 and the weight is slowly coming off whilst the body definition is coming back. Don’t get me wrong. We ain’t in great shape but we are deffo feeling a lot better for having a regular regime of activity. We are so hi brow though. We listen to plays or ted talks instead of pumpin’ music. I even asked the staff to turn down the piped beats yesterday as I couldn’t concentrate on my talking book whilst doing free weights among a small group of gorillas.

WE Became a proper Chilean the other day. Got our ID cards and RUT numbers. Rut numbers rule here. They get you discounts on shopping and track your purchases, identify you for bank accounts, driving etc. Your whole life instantly trackable. At this rate, by the end of next week, we can officially start growing moustaches and speaking fluent Spanish.
Talking about Spanish. We have started Spanish lessons with Jesus. Funny enough as a stand alone sentence but feel free to drop us a line with any amusing thoughts….. I hope did doesn’t get cross, Lets see if he can work another miracle etc. My personal favourite from Rachel was that “starting lessons with Jesus on Maundy Thursday (day before good Friday) was chancing it”.

We spent a couple of hours in the Museum of human rights and memories the other day. A jolly place that details the Pinochet rule and the infringements on human rights that took place: shootings, torture, persecution. All the old favourites of any militaristic regime. Interestingly the old scoundrel’s rule wasn’t all bad. He did lots of reforms and brought about a lot of improvements to life (for many, obviously not those who were politically opposed or in the wrong place at the wrong time). Life before was one of soaring inflation, lack of food and poor government. Consequently, a lot of folk we have spoken to miss the good old bad old Pinochet days. Perspective huh? It’s a funny thing. Do the means always justify the end????

Met a lady in the life with a dog called Rose Marie. Chatted to her and her adult daughter a little on the way down. Today got in the same lift with her and Rachel. Introduced them to one another and within two floors it was all kisses and offers of any help. They are such lovely people. Its almost a daily occurrence to be warmly welcomed and we are informed that they are the least demonstrative of the Latin American countries.

At a flat warming party the other night we stumbled up to the public roof space about 1am in the morning to look at the view and basically drink lots of rum in a high place. When we came out onto the terrace, we found blaring dance music, disco lights and balloons and, rather wonderfully, a deserted dance floor. The 7 or us spilled out onto the floor and started dancing. Suddenly, we noticed standing against the far wall, 5 skinny men. All about 28 – 32 years old, all looking a little taken aback at our arrival and all, bizarrely, dressed as superheroes in different colours. One soon game over and politely (not giving away what his possible superpowers could do to us) asked us to please leave as it was a private party. We apologised and retreated to another section of the roof which was a around the corner from the party and even though we were up there for another hour or so, we saw no other guests arrive or any of the super folk dance. Too busy looking down on the mean streets of the city and ready to swoop down and apprehend baddies I guess.

Party ended with the host unconscious on the bed for a couple of hours they throwing up over their bed, self, another friends sleeping bag etc. No worry. Grown up Sicko Superheroes were at hand to help. Brought the party to swift and rancid smelling halt though. Just as well it was 4.00am and if we hurried home we might just catch the last hour of a rooftop party nearer home!!!

Final point. In case you never hear from me again. I have a new student starting next week. Can’t say much more in a public space but it transpires she is an ex-model, very wealthy and married to an arms dealer. Can’t wait!

Friday, 29 March 2019

Nothing luke warm about Chile

Well, where to begin. We are here in Chile. The flight was tiresome and very long. The train from Norfolk broke down so had to wait for ages outside Stowmarket then swap. Then tube across London, flight to Paris with a couple of hours stopover there and then the 14.5 hour schlep to Santiago. We arrived knackered and Rachel sporting a furious headache and sniffing like she had man flu.

Flying over the Andes. Out of shot is Rachel groaning
The school has put us up in a homestay for a couple of weeks. Our landlady is about 75, lovely and completely obsessive. She cleans the spotless duplex everyday from top to bottom. But, weirdly, she only sweeps the carpet (which seems somewhat at odds with her fastidious cleaning regime). We get a simple breakfast and varied yummy dinners everyday. These meals which are taken by all of us can be a little strained. Then, no sooner has the last mouthful gone into my mouth she is up and at ‘em. Clearing the table, washing, drying and setting all straight. We cannot help. We tried. She sweated and looked very uncomfortable so we left it. She is so obsessive that we cannot even make a cup of tea without here scurrying to her kitchen to shoo us out so she can do it. Rachel did balls it out one day and had to complete the task with her watching like a hawk watches a mouse. 
Chess playing it the square
We were supposed to have arrived in Chile 12 days previously in order to complete the jobs of finding a permanent place to live, sorting out identity cards, bank accounts, phones, and various bureaucratic feats of translation whilst getting to know our way around and ways of both the city and the places we work. However due to slow work by solicitors drafting our contract and the Chilean immigration peeps, we arrived with seemingly only a couple of days spare. Worry not, said the director, we lied. There’s another week really so go forth and deal with shit! As it turns out we are now nearing the end of the month and have only put in about 10 hours each anyway. Seems almost criminal to going to head office to collect a month’s money for such paltry effort. More on that later.

One of many fountains in Santiago
Chile is so much more than we thought it would be. It was never on our radar and we had always spoke of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia as places to visit. But here we are and we love it.
The country only has something like 17 million people in total so, apart from Santiago, where 7 million people live, the rest is pretty empty. Geographically it is roughly 4,300 km long by 177km wide. On the west is the Pacific Ocean and in the east The Andes. In the north there is Atacama desert and the south, Patagonia. It has been, in effect, an island up until about 30 years ago.

One of many parks in Chile. Possibly the only shot ever taken
without hundreds of couples sprawled on the grass
The people are without doubt the friendliest we have encountered anywhere. I recently read that Chile is the happiest place to live in South America. The locals try to be helpful, they smile and laugh a lot. Kissing is the traditional greeting and the parks are rammed full of canoodling couples who occupy nearly every piece of spare ground there is. 

Collectively they are not shy of talking and seem very respectful of our clumsy Spanish.
The sun shines every day. We have been here for three weeks and only seen clouds for a couple of hours. It’s just coming into Autumn here in the Southern hemisphere and the days are about 30 degrees with the nights dropping to about 18 – 20 degrees. It’s a dry heat so, unlike living in the Far East we don’t have to deal with humidity. It’s perfect. We have aircon but have not used it. Not even needed a fan at the hottest parts of the day.

The city is sprawling with arty, bohemian areas, business areas, huge uber modern shopping malls and heaving markets crammed with stalls and shops selling anything you can want. We walk around smiling the whole time because of the ambiance, heat and sound of Latino music that pervades any walk through the streets. There is definitely a European feel to the place as opposed to an American one.

Chilean wine is cheap. Even the cartons contain good quality reds and whites whilst rum, gin, vodka et al cost about £6.00 a litre. We are fairly frugal in our spending and this is just as well since generally it’s not that cheap compared to other South American countries. We could end up spending a fortune but there are plenty of cheap alternatives to eating out and since we have our own place can cook when we want.

Say no more
Our school has nine branches around the city and is, along with the British Council, the most respected language company in Chile. Everyone has heard of it and our kudos star has risen because of it. We are based in Las Condes – a more upmarket part of the city with tree-lined streets and little parks all about. We have an apartment that is a15 minute walk from our main office, although we do have to travel to a satellite branch on Monday and Wednesday evenings which involves a bus ride. The branch manager is a guy called Ivan. A very charismatic and laid back individual that thinks at 5ft 9ins, I am tall. I am so pleased. He tells us not to worry and eventually we will get more hours but for the moment just enjoy all the time we have off. The other local teachers are lovely and supportive and seem to all do more work than us. I wonder whether as token Brits we are treated a little differently. We will see as time goes on. For now we will struggle through with our 9 hours a week and, whilst not teaching, chat to Ivan or the others, go to the gym or mooch.

The Blender buidling - Apparently we will be
doing business lessons in there
We have joined a gym called Pacific with has 60 branches nationwide and loads in Santiago. For about £15 a month we can go to any of the gyms and do classes or use the machines. This will be a great boon for us as we love being able to work out and, when we are travelling proper, is the one thing that we miss a lot.

I mentioned that we are living in Las Condes. A feat that took some doing. It is one of the most expensive parts of the city so we are pleased that our 50m flat has only set us back about £600 a month – we do get a £200 subsidy from the school but even so…. We have a one bedroom place with a balcony big enough to enjoy sitting on. There are nice gardens at the front of the place with a decent sized pool we can enjoy that is surrounded by loungers. There is a gym, meeting rooms and party room for hire as well so if we are taken with the idea of relaxing or exercise it is only a matter of jumping in the lift. We were a little premature in saying yes to the apartment but that was due to the lack of responses from estate agents. Consequently, when we moved in we were surprised to find it filthy with horrible worn out cutlery, crockery, etc. All is good now though. We chucked out the old and brought in some new and brazened out the situation with the landlord who has agreed to reimburse our costs. In fact here has turned out to be something of a good egg in the end. We are sat in our tower typing this blog and looking at several other blocks facing us. We can see all of humanity from our window. It takes some getting used to since they like to party at the weekend and there is little privacy but we will get used to it, like anything else. It’s a trade-off. This is a most excellent location that allows us access to anywhere in the city via the Metro which is only a 4 minute walk away. We can walk to work and the nearest gym. And, I guess, we feel safe here. The most likely bother we will get will be from a chihuahua with small dog syndrome.

This feeling. This situation. This life. This is why we travel. This is why we keep doing what we do. We can’t wait to eat up Chile. To make Chilean friends, enjoy their company, frequent their bars and dance at fiestas. To explore the city to spend time at the coast or in the mountains walking or simply hear the murmur of voices, catch different smells and eat different foods.

Adios Amigos or as they sometimes say in Chile “Ciao Piscao”.

(Meaning ‘See you fish’ just like, the sadly less popular saying, ‘See you later alligator’.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Goodbye Montenegro

So it's the new year and we spent the last two weeks of our time in Montenegro doing fairly mundane things on the whole. I did a fair bit of running and together, Rachel and I, picked and produced five photo books from our huge collection of pictures from the first year of our travels. It was a mammoth task and after we have achieved the same thing for the successive 5 years or so we will have our whole adventure in some kind of hard, coffee table friendly format. Although it will have to be a sodding great big coffee table by the look of it. The task was made more onerous due to the Printerpix website crashing or having server problems or something which caused the loss of pictures already uploaded going missing. I don't mean one or two pictures either.  I am talking about 100 or 150 pictures. These then had to be uploaded again, scaled again and positioned again. We burned through about 15 gb of bandwidth and nearly 4 days in time. I was furious and after one final push managed to process the order. Just waiting for them to come back with loads missing now....Post script they are perfect

We went to Dubrovnik in Croatia one day. It was only 57 km away so not far (in theory) and we were doubly interested in going because it featured in several 'Game of Thrones' episodes. Yeah it was nice. But there were no dwarfs, dragons, giant warriors or naked queens being unceremoniously marched through the streets so I was a little disappointed.  Still the cobbled thoroughfares, little lanes and solid castle walls were pretty impressive. Just not sure it was worth four hours of driving and braving the cold winds.

In those last days we walked and talked and did all the stuff that seems to fill our lovely days together and then our house owner came home. And with the car fueled, oiled and stocked with food we set off towards Calais some 2109 km and 23 hours away. Or rather it would have been but due to road closures the whole way up Croatia we were forced to detour to lesser roads (that's a difficult thing to achieve when the roads ain't that good to start with but we are professionals and downgraded admirably). Consequently we had to drive a hundred kilometers more on roads that allowed 70 kph at top speed. Man did it drag. There is this strange arrangement half way up the Croatian coast where Bosnia and Herzegovina divides the country in two. It's called the Neum corridor and means that you have to do two border crossing in about 9 kilometres. After our detour however, we were brought to a crossing in the countryside which was only for goat herders and locals, so had to turn about and do a detour on the detour to get to the proper crossing. Even with all of the problems you can't take away the fact that the coastline up from Montenegro, past Dubrovnik, Split and then through the mountains is stunning. Beautiful islands dot the coast that is ragged with many small bays. And, turning inland, the landscape becomes more mountainous and wild the farther north you travel.

As we drove we began to see more and more signs of snow on the hills, then on the sides of the road. Nothing to worry about and made all the more lovely because the day was sunny and warm. Really warm in fact. Shortly after we entered Slovenia we bought bread and cake from a bakery, pulled up on a point overlooking a charming valley and sat on benches outside of the van for lunch. Little did we know that 4 hours later we would be sitting in a snowstorm stranded on a motorway in Austria.

Anyway back to Slovenia. It is a lovely looking country and each of the 4 or 5 people we had to speak to for some reason or other were friendly and open. I think it could be on our list of places to go back to because we didn't have time to stick around. The roads wound through the hills and gradually the snow about us started to increase. Interestingly, it would seem that we would enter different climatic zones after driving through a series of long tunnels. Sometimes coming out in fog, then snow, then sun. Very weird. Crossing Slovenia didn't take to long coz the roads were empty and then, once the Alps came into view, the weather started to darken and it started to spit a little rain. That then turned to sleet and that soon changed to snow. 

A few days previously, Austria had a massive dump of snow.  This had caused a few problems and although the snow wasn't due to be that bad again, the residual piles of the stuff grew as we left Slovenia. No sooner had we crossed the border than the snow got heavier and heavier, and started settling on the roads. So that when a car in front left tracks in the snow  it became covered immediately in new flakes. Then came the first sight of red tail lights ahead and all came to a stop. Lorries pulled over to one side of the road and cars to the right. Plainly they knew the drill here as this was to allow emergency services a clear route to some trouble up ahead. It turned out that a lorry had jack-knifed about 100 metres ahead and had completely blocked the carriageway. So we waited and waited and as we waited it snowed and as it snowed the lorry drivers started putting on snow chains and the cars started to disappear under the blanket of white. We felt secure in our van with our full tank of fuel, lots of heating and cooking gas, food supplies and our own toilet but even so it was scary as the snow got to 6 inches. Rachel said she felt like she was in a horror movie since outside looked bleak with a few shuffling figures walking up and down the ranks of cars like zombies looking for flesh or in this case possibly for our supply of biscuits and warm cups of tea. We drew the curtains and and munched quietly! It took three hours to clear the wreck and suddenly there was motion. People running back to their cars, tail lights and headlights lighting the sky as the flashing blue lights diminished and we were off. In true aryan style the traffic sped forward. The road had been ploughed and the way was clear for the foreseeable future. So we all surged forward to escape what could have been our snowy deaths. And although it snowed heavily the momentum and numbers of the pent up traffic triumphed and turned the snow to slush and sprayed it to the sides of the road which after a another hour became German slush and after another hour became a clear and bitingly windy night. We pulled off the autobahn as soon as we could. We ate, we made our bed and cuddled up with the temperature sitting at a balmy minus five outside.

On the way out to Slovakia a couple of months previously we stayed at Alan and Petras and after a series of texts we arranged to stay again. Not only did this mean a warm and comfortable bed for the night but turned out to be an impromptu farewell dinner party with surprise guests. Thank you A and P for the excellent hospitality and to Sonja, Marcus and Ralph for your company and parting gifts.

And that's about it. The roads were clear and manic and lead to Belgium and Calais and two mornings after with the van stuffed with cheap booze we sailed home to England. But that's another story I guess. Toodaloo.

More pics at

Thursday, 3 January 2019


Well, here we are in Montenegro. The housesit is in a flat in the town of Tivat. A town that centres around the Porto Montenegro development and harbour. It's set on the coast of a large, virtually enclosed sea inlet that is sided with hills that slowly climb up to become mountains. It's really only a summer place so out of season half of the restaurants are closed. Still there is stuff going on over Christmas so it doesn't feel empty.

We are looking after Buddy. A Dubai born fellow who looks a bit like a vertically challenged retriever. He was rescued in Dubai, then carted off to a couple of other countries before he and his Australian owner Katrina ended up here, where she is an English teacher. He's low maintenance except for spending most of his days scratching at the door to get in where he will stay for 5 minutes before scratching to get out. The owner lives with the door open and wears a coat in the cold flat but that isn't happening as it's December and we didn't sign up for freezing, so we are sometimes at loggerheads with the little fella.

Our first day alone on our own we found a pub hosting an ex-pat Christmas lunch so tagged along for a few hours of drinking, networking and eating a yummy lunch. Not a bad group of people. A few of whom we have met up with again during our stay.

We are only a short distance from the bay so walk Buddy along coastal boardwalks, roads and small stony beaches daily. Its nice. The Adriatic reflects the blue of the sky and our first 10 days are mainly bright with only a few clouds.

On the downside it seems that a large number of the indigenous population suffer from the surly manner we have found in all of these Eastern European countries. Consequently we are often left hanging with a smile dying on our faces as we are blanked. I don't know why but the national traits of bad driving and being grumpy go hand in hand but our extensive research suggests that it's an endemic problem. It's a shame because when we have broken through they seem pleasant enough, although still a little reserved.

Example: I got offered a drink by a neighbour the other day. He saw me coming out of the drive and nodded (We had nodded once or twice before - or rather I had). Anyway, he saw me and, lifting his cupped hand to his mouth, said. "Come, drink". It was 9.30am but when in Rome and wishing to be amenable I agreed and followed him without a word as he route marched to his garage and poured us both a small glass of home brew petrol. "Salut" he said. Still not smiling. "Salut" I responded. And downed it and, just as I stopped wincing, noticed he had only taken a small sip.  He then looked at me blankly as I tried to communicate, unsuccessfully, for a few minutes. The whole time there was not the smallest glimmer of a smile on his face. He then points at my empty glass in my hand. "Drink" he said as he started to unstop the bottle. This could go on for some time - me drinking and babbling and he staring so I declined and scarpered down the drive, shouting more thanks over my shoulder as he stared on impassively.

Final collective thing about your Montenegrins - they are a very tall race. I cannot count the number of 2 metre tall people we have seen. We feel like we are on the set of 'Land of the Giants' and have to be quite nimble to avoid being squashed underfoot. All the women wear heels as well. So, with their already long legs plus a further 4 inches of 'fuck me' heels it takes ages for me to properly letch and I have found I get bored before I have even got to the thighs. Give me Rachel's little legs anytime. I've letched at hers thousands of times over the years and am still captivated.

We drove to the nearby town of Kotor the other day and climbed the mountain path to an old crumbling monastery that hangs on the hillside. It has an impressive city wall connecting it to the old town below and its possible to get to it via some steps on the wall. Steps, however, always ruin a good tramp to my mind so we opted for the rugged old donkey path and had to access the monastery by climbing through a window in the fortifications. From there the donkey paths, known as the 'Ladder of Kotor'  zig zag their way up and away into the mountains. We clamber for a few hours and  look down on the sea inlet and red tiled roofs of the old town. All very pretty with the sun glinting off windows and the water beyond..

Christmas in Montenegro will be recalled by us with frequent and very loud bangs. For 3 days before Christmas up to a couple of days after new year we were jumping, spilling drinks or shrieking in surprise as someone lit yet another touch paper and bunged these bloody things somewhere nearby. The only upside being the dog would come scurrying in and stay in for a while until he forgot and ventured out.

So the last three days have been pretty interesting. Every night over Christmas and New Year the local town has put on entertainment in either the evening or afternoons. Tivat has a pretty swanky harbour with swanky shops, swanky restaurants and mega swanky superyachts. Anyway the council pushed the boat out a little here and laid on something every evening. The square on the harbourside has been lined with pop up bars and the sky lit up with lazers, lights and twinkly LEDs fixed on cranes, buildings and the impressive stage.

On 30th December we had disco night. A great band complete with afros, white suits and stacks. Also two very energetic dancers who wore their coats to keep warm. They were good and tried to lift the crowd but just couldn't get 'em dancing. Got me and two or three others dancing but that doesn't take much nowadays.

The big night has arrived. The bangers are so close together they no longer make us jump but rather form a background continuous tone to life now. We start the day off with a walk along the old harbour, get some shopping then drop into a smokey restaurant bar - You can smoke inside here and a large number of people do. Just like the old days in Blighty when you used to have a shower before you go out then need another to wash the smell of fags off when you got home. There is a terrible entertainer keeping the locals happy with Balkan gypsy sounding singing (toneless and loud) and over exuberant organ playing with the balalaika option being used rather than piano. Still all jolly and we tuck into sausage, fried potatoes and beer.

The evening's entertainment was an Abba tribute band that carried the tunes well enough but, once again, failed to excite the crowd beyond a gentle sway and the occasional girly hip wiggle. We stepped away from the stage after a while and camped up in one of the bars overlooking the square. We were then amazed by the appearance of the main act - Zeljko Joksimovic. Mr Joksimovic was Serbia's 2004 Eurovision  entry and was the runner up on that fateful night. 2008 saw him being the producer and composer of the next Serbian attempt and then, somewhat stuck in a rut - some might say - was the presenter in the 2012 show. Anyway his star obviously continued to rise in the Balkans and he had a string of successful records leading to 2019. The roar was enormous when he arrived on stage. I had ne'er seem such emotion. The crowd, as one, suddenly started to move and sing to one another in a 'hairbrush held as a microphone' sort of way. It was lovely. Not my type of music but the locals loved the sort of euro-electric-serbian-gypo-dance-at-a-different-speed-to-the-beat kinda stuff and we tapped our toes appreciatively for the ambiance more than anything else. Midnight arrived, the fireworks erupted in a short but impressive array, backs were slapped and Mr Jok rocked on.

New years day. Although officially the first day of the new year is more of a pause, a comma, a hiatus than a proper day. It's the day when any resolutions made are often, conveniently ignored because it's hardly the right time to stop smoking, drinking, eating too much etc. It's a time for nursing hangovers, comfort food and a quick one in a pub before life kicks off on the 2nd.

Hence this last blog of 2018 will include this magical day because for us it was a great end to the last year and a start to the new.

We drove to Budva along the coast. The sun shone, the wind dropped and people were out. We parked about two km from the old town and sauntered along the glittering Adriatic to a classical concert in the ruins of an old church or something. The Opera pieces and stirring choice of music were perfect. We then walked around the old alleyways and byways of the town until further music caught our ears and we, with hundreds of others, sat at tables on the shingle beach whilst a folk band played to the setting of the sun. Quite magical.

So that's it for 2018. Happy new year to anyone desperate enough to read this stuff. iIn 2019 we start here for a couple more weeks, then there's a 2000km drive to England, a brief visit to Spain and then on to live and work in Chile for a year. It's a dull life but someones gotta do it!

Bye for now,

Chris and Rachel

Love this. Spot the gap between good intention and bad management

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Snow, snow, nick, nick snow.

So, we finished our last day teaching in Slovakia and now had a 1,100km sprint down through Eastern Europe to Montenegro where we are house-sitting over Christmas until mid January. We headed home at 2.00pm and still had to scrape the snow from the windscreen and the heavy frost from inside of the van windows,  The temperature had dropped to -7 over the last two days so it felt like a freezer inside and looked like an igloo from outside.As we drove the Slovakian drivers took the last opportunity to amuse and scare us as we headed South towards the border. It was going to be a long haul so we were pleased that Slovakia slipped past fairly quickly. The single carriageway roads being relatively empty and the stretches of dual carriageways allowing us to cover the miles whilst we chatted and took in the white blanketed landscape. Fog was starting to obscure some of the fields as we drove and more and more it looked like a desolate, post apocalyptic scene.

It's always interesting how the environment, people etc. change when you enter a new country and Hungary announced its arrival with some lovely buildings and a very impressive, dominating castle that cocked a snook at its poorer relation back across the river. 

We whizz along the considerably better motorway system for a few more hours until the thickening fog and boredom make us call it a day in Mohacs on the banks of the Danube. It's a lovely town. All the Christmas decs were up, twinkling lights reflected on the snowy ground and heavily laden trees lined the roads. We sleep the night in the square beside the town Christmas tree and even with the bitter cold we sleep soundly. Admittedly I did have a scarf wrapped round my head like a turban and Rachel was covered by so many layers I had to give up any idea of egress after some strenuous attempts.

The next day we hit roads early and in no time arrive at the Croatian Border. This is a skinny bit of the country separating Hungary and Bosnia.

We cover it in an hour whilst looking out over more endless snow covered fields and are pleased with the the continued reasonable speed until we come to a standstill at the Bosnia and Hertsawhatnot border. We spend 15 minutes watching  the preceding five cars go through the collection of little grey booths and buildings with ice stiffened flags hanging and then it was our turn:

Smile. "Good morning officer"
Scowl. "Papers"
Smile. "There you are"
Grunt. "Auto papers"
Smile "Certainly"
Impatient 'gimme' fingers gesture "Green Card"
Questioning look "Sorry. A what"
Stare "No Green Card?"
Confused look "No. I don't kn..."
Pointing to an empty bay "Wait there"

And so we sit and wait 'there' for 20 minutes watching the mist, sludge and progress of other cars until a man who can smile and very nearly does. Tells us we need to buy a special insurance for the company which is a bargain at 30 euros and will last for 17 days. Didn't see that coming in the travel calculations.

Bosnia comes with its recent history still fresh in our minds. It still looks a bit knackered. But part of that is obviously due to the bleak weather and piles of ploughed snow lining the roads. Perhaps we would need to spend longer to make any valid comments but I don't think that's going to happen too soon. Bosnia ain't that big. But, when you have to travel on single lane roads, hemmed in with drifts, driving at speed limits of between 40kph and 60kph and constantly having to brake to avoid crashing into some lunatic who has cut you up because they have misjudged how long it takes to overtake 30 cars in a row -  it takes forever. Horrible driving. They had had a lot of snow and whilst the roads had been cleared no one had thought about the pedestrians who were having to clamber over mounds on what might have been pavements or risk life and limb and a sound dousing of sludge spray to walk on the road. All seemingly wearing black and therefore in the gloom barely noticeable. At one point we are driving up an icy hill with no escape route when a double trailer, logging lorry with a full load comes flying down towards us on our side of the road doing 90kph in a 50kph limit to overtake someone who had also been observing the actual rules of the road. Luckily everyone expects this sort of recklessness and all there was to show for the event was our open mouths, two brown smudges on our seats and a spray of cold water on the side of the van as it hurtled past.

We arrive in Sarajevo and quickly push through the early rush hour traffic to exit the city and head for what will turn out to be several more unexpected hours of mountain road driving. On the outskirts of the city we were travelling at 66kph in a 60kph area when a  hidden copper walked out in the road ahead waving a flashing baton. We are just about to curse and pull over when the car behind, who had been tailgating us for some miles and not seen the copper, decided to floor it and overtake. Perfect timing and as he then becomes the focus of the coppers attention. We decide to take advantage of the reprieve and calmly pull past the copper who is still deciding whether or not to stop us as we drive away.

We head for the hills. Or rather the mountains. When we looked at Google Maps we had no idea how laborious this route would be. We figured the extra 20 minutes driving was worth saving the 220 kilometers but we had figured wrong. Petrol, hours more than 20 minutes and danger outstripped it all. The road winds and turns and the slush on the road thickens as we steadily climb higher and higher. It's pretty (I suppose) but all we can really see at night is rock on one side and trees on the other. And it goes on and on and on until finally we reach the Montenegro border tucked away in a fog filled gulley with one man sitting there peering out at the glimpy barrier in front of him.

Staring at us and our outstretched passports "English?"
Smiling back hopefully "Yes"
"Green Card"
Here we go again. This time I have to drive a few hundred metres to a cafe where I am the only customer and here in a stifling room with a Slavic game show blaring out I pay another stealth payment (15 Euros). A bargain I thought. It reminds me of a comedy set by the Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges. He tells a story in his broad Glaswegian accent of how he is held up at knife point and told by his assailant "Gis us a fiver or i'll stab ya". Bridges then ponders "A fiver! Ah right, Thas nay a bad deal. Jest a fiver an I dinnay get knifed and get my night an clothes ruined. Yer on pal!"

Anyway Montenegro. I don't know why I was expecting good roads. After 6 hours of driving through shite conditions I had built up the final destination into Oz. Alas the yellow brick road was actually the worse road by far. 90 percent of the time it's completely covered in snow and every now and then there are mini avalanches that covered half the road. Even worse we seem to continue climbing and crawl along at about 30kph - through rough hewn tunnels through the mountains. These tunnels being lined with magnificent icicles up to 2 metres in length. The dripping water that oozed from the roof had formed pools of ice which proved interesting because our muddied headlights (with deflector shields) barely lit the road let alone the black ice. So we skudded and skidded and dodged the occasional snowplough, mad car drivers and ice piles for a further 2 hours until we started to descend and eventually found a place we could actually stop which was a disused car park by a small village near a lake.

I had driven for about 8 hours and my eyes looked like a drug addict with wide staring pupils. So when we made up the bed it took a while to go to sleep. 3 hours later Rachel wakes me and says "Is that someone at the back of the van?" I was disorientated and confused (this is my excuse) and about to tell her to go back to sleep when I too hear something. So jump out of the bed, pull open the back screen and where there is normally a bike cover obscuring the view there is a clear view of carpark. A movement at the side of the van gets my attention so  I grab my trousers and tee shirt and a recently acquired burglar stabbing knife.

After the incident 6 weeks ago when we realised that our only proper means of defence was a Swiss army knife with which I could effectively only remove stones from an attackers shoes or possibly unscrew them a bit. We had decided then to get something a little more intimidating. A little more Crocodile Dundee with which to discourage any shenanigans. So I jump out of the van in time to see a black figure running off and realise I had made a huge mistake and was about to take on the baddie with a potato peeler. Not the pointy kind which might make sense but the safety razor type. It was dark. It was a new knife. I panicked. Luckily I didn't need to peel anyone this night so after shouting obscenities at the retreating shadow, I got back in the van and still muddled and befuddled set off to a safer location. Sadly the road conditions worsened and it was another hour before we finally found a clear patch of ground - still  miles from any town - at a junction with two parked gritting lorries to give us a safety in numbers feel.

We dropped off immediately and the following morning - 4 hours later - after being woken by the lorries running their engines and  their drivers generally preparing for a another day doing drivey stuff. We checked the bikes (some straps had been slashed and an attempt at sawing through the bike locks had begun but apart from that all was well. So we sit and eat breakfast then drive for 30 minutes more and suddenly everything was beautiful and the Montenegro we might know was upon us. All charming, no snow, the temperature 12 degrees higher and our journey over. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Bratislava. Done. Cheers. Bye. Don't bother calling.

I wonder whether we would have liked the place better if it it had not been cold, damp and foggy. Of course not! The reason is that Bratislava is always gonna be full of Bratislavians and there lies the problem. We have been astounded at just how rude they are. The term 'Customer Service' has never been heard of here let alone implemented. I watched a Tesco employee tutting and cussing a Chinese customer for using a load of Tesco's own vouchers. Appealing to the rest of the queue with a "For f's sake" face. I wonder what the collective for these people might be? "A Scowl of Bratislavians"; Possibly "A Sneer of Brats"; Or maybe just "A miserable bunch of .....". Now hold on there Chris. Enough's enough!

OK. one last thing. We finished at the school where we had taught for two weeks. Bear in mind we are pretty good at this stuff. We get a lot of praise and make friends easily. Not one teacher came to say goodbye or officiate over the certificate presentations. Just me and Rachel and a huffy cleaner waiting to sweep up after us. Appalling.

On a lighter note we did see Bohemian Rhapsody on our last night. The very good cinema was only a short walk from our lovely apartment so we wrapped up and braved the snow. A Good film. Took me back to the times when I saw them in concert. Clap Clap Stamp Clap Clap Stamp.

Next stop Povasky Bystrica. A fantastic sounding place. The sort of place that you would expect to see dragons nested in the town square. Actually it was a really dull looking Communist hangover type of town with block buildings and a concrete square so any mythical beasts would stand out like a sore thumb. That aside it was a fantastic week. Our digs were lovely spacious and stylish. The School kids were 16 and 17 with good English so you could have decent conversations. Not only that but they were engaged and interested in what we were doing. They even took us on a tour of the town and treated us to coffee one day. Finally, to top it off, the teachers were lovely as well. We developed a great relationship with Lenka and Tanya who took us out for lunch as well as having us to dinner at Tanyas house one evening. Anyway. Thanks for that lovely people. You helped claw back points for Slovakia and we left with our attitudes greatly improved. 

Crikey its cold here. We are currently hovering around 0 in the day and -4 at night. Snow is hanging in the sidelines the whole time and little flurries keep the roads and fields dusted. We are in a place called Moravsky Krumlov (Tolkien characters spring to mind) a little village a few miles away from our digs. The school is another winner. Entertaining kids aged 15 to 18. Once again interested in what we are doing and fairly motivated. This place is, however, in the Czech Republic. Astonishing, difference between Czechs and Slovaks. It's like a switch has been thrown. The second you cross the border attitudes change. One of the highlights of our stay in Moravsky Krumlov was being taken to the Krum Brewery. A small brewery owned by one of the students father. Radek (the dad) claims to make the best Peevo (Beer) in the Galaxy. A claim i was happy to accept considering that this magnificent man was Hagrid Incarnate.  6ft 5in tall, barrel chested with a Santa claus belly held in with a thick leather belt. A huge, bushy beard and heavy brows covered most of his face but could not hide his smile and lively eyes that kept you engaged without even needing his sonorous and jolly voice. I think i have a bit of a man crush on him simply because his nature and image was far bigger than life. Kinda weird since my last man crush (I worry too) was Bruno Mars singing Uptown Funk. Ho hum. We tried his beers and left with a hearty handshake and some bottles to drink at our leisure.

Brno Town centre statue in the ice rink
We spent the weekend in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. We stayed near the centre in a bijou little studio apartment which we were quite pleased with until we heard that the area was known as the Bronx of Brno. We feared for Itchy alone and dusted with snow in a hypermarket car park. So much so that I woke up and went and checked her at 1.30am in the morning - expecting the streets to be crowded with drug taking thugs, broken bottles, roaming gypsies and bin fires. Nothing! You could hear a pin drop. Ichy was sleeping and and all was well. Brno was lovely. Christmas markets, nice buildings, cool restaurants and smiling, yes smiling, people. Buskers played, Christmas songs blared out of shops, Mulled wine burbled and the sun shone. All in all a far better place than I thought it would be and personally a place I found more appealing than Prague due to reduced numbers of people. 

Jasna - The Low Tatras nr Liptovsky Mikulas
Our last week is in Liptovsky Mikulas. A long trek of 5 hours up to the Northern part of Slovakia. We are teaching in a Hotel Academy. A high school that grooms its students for life in the service industry. A mixed bag academically but fantastic lunches with waiter service. I am so glad that our places of work have been better. I don't think i will hurry back to Slovakia but its been an experience. In closing I would like to congratulate the country on its skiing. I spent a fantastic day in the Low Tatras with only me to worry about. Skiing for several hours on well maintained slopes on the opening day of the season. Truly beautiful and I didnt even fall over.

So tomorrow we leave. After lunch we have a 1200km slog down to Montegnegro and will need to be there in two days so not much stopping...Just as well as its due to be -9 over night on Wednesday.....and we will be in a tin box

Thursday, 29 November 2018

First weeks in Slovakia

Plainly my work as a teacher is done!
Right. We arrived in Slovakia and after three weeks I can still attest to the fact that the Slovaks are the most miserable bunch I have ever met. For a while we considered it a bit of a challenge to get them to smile but now, after many wasted greetings, squandered smiles and ignored waves we have decided to give it up as a bad lot. The thing is, it takes effort to be surly. If someone smiles it is almost a reflex action to smile back. To be sour faced requires concentration and not a little disdain. I know we should not judge other cultures by the social rules that our own lives are lived by. But these are Europeans. These are our brothers and sisters. Everything about them is familiar and yet this one glaring difference separates us. Perhaps it comes from the socialist years. Who knows? What I do know is that when we meet that one in ten person who is friendly - and we have met them, we are overly thrilled and act like we are parched desert travellers finding an oasis. Desperately drinking in their smiles and kindnesses. Tipsy last night from drinking mulled wine with some other teachers and our boss, we chatted with two or three groups of Slovaks and laughed, slapped backs and ended up in a bar dancing till the early hours. It felt like a gift!!!

View from our apartment
Anyway. Back to the start. We arrived in Slovakia and shortly after crossing the border we pulled over to the side of the busy road into a sort of layby. We had just dished up beans on toast and a cuppa when a car with three men pulled up beside us and they got out, ostensibly, for a piss. One of their group, a particularly shifty, gypsy looking Romanian type starts gabbling away at us through the partially opened window in Romanian or Czech. The whole time is eyes were darting over what was in the van. My wallet was on the dash, the keys in the ignition and we were behind the table in the body of the van. Whilst talking his hand began moving up to the window edge and fearing his intentions Rachel surreptitiously pushed the central lock button beside her hand. He seemed unsure of what to do because we were sitting there acting very nonchalant and eating the whole time -answering a few questions but not engaging in much conversation. The chap was then joined at the window by one of his cronies and started asking us to give them money. We laughed dismissively and said no. They asked again. Rubbing their greasy fingers together in the universal 'money' sign. We firmly said no again and continued eating and just looking at them. I cannot imagine what went through their heads because we must have seemed so unfazed (that's because they couldn't see the poo stains on the seats though). The intimidation failed. I suppose their only option would have been to try to force entry but the road was just too busy and desperate people already holding knives (and spoons) with hot cups of tea are something of an unknown quantity, so they left. It was unsettling and it didn't help that we had seen a film called 'Nocturnal Animals' a couple of days before where something similar, but much worse, happens in it.

As a result of the incident Rachel posted something on a motorhome group site she is a member of. The replies were fast coming and violent in their nature. I never realised that so many of the all-weather clad motorhomers were such psychos. We now have a whole gamut of self defence tricks should we be in a similar situation again. Ranging from home made chilli sauce spray to conveniently placed knife blocks, tyre irons or pitchforks.

Teaching in the first week was tiring. As you will know we are not prone to excessive work and 6 hours a day of really active teaching is a surprisingly tough gig. Our role is to get the kids to talk by any means other than beating. We can play games, role play, chat... pretty much anything to raise their communication ability. It sounds easy but there needs to be structure otherwise you are just an outgunned children's entertainer. There are three of us at this school - Rachel, myself and Rob (A 30 something new dad with wife and baby in tow that hale from Brighton). We are all finished at the school by 1.30pm but we have not really used that time to do much else other than plan the following lessons or take a small walk around the not very attractive town. Unsurprisingly the school faculty were morose and positively cold towards us. With our English contact being a taciturn woman who spoke little English. Plainly not a qualification for being a language teacher at that school. We did get a chocolate bar and bottle of water each day which was nice but I think we would all have better enjoyed more smiles.

Trencin castle
Our week finished we headed off to a pretty town called 'Trencin' for the weekend. It's getting colder so we wrap up in the van and stay in a stadium car park right by the town. It was a nice place with walks through the woods and a good street busker.

Week two - Skalica. What a difference. The teachers are really friendly. The headmistress is lovely and friendly and our contact - Kristina - speaks excellent English and smiles constantly. It was quite unsettling in light of our other interactions. We have two dedicated rooms and the levels of the kids English is much higher. We even had a local tv crew in to film us and ask questions about Slovaks learning English. A link to the clip is on our facebook pages if our friends are interested in seeing us in action. It was so nice that our second week was good. It filled us with a warm fluffy feeling and the cake and wine that we received as a parting gift sealed the deal for us as to who the best school was.

Skalica town
We finished at the school by 2.00pm Friday afternoon so we set straight off to Vienna in Austria for the weekend. Wow. What a nice city. Majestic buildings, wide boulevards, modern shopping plazas, big squares and lots of greenery. It felt stately but in a good way. We stayed the Friday night outside the city and then drove in on the Saturday morning to park up outside the Austrian government in a lovely plaza surrounded by museums. A place we had heard we could stay for nothing - How weird is that for a setting?

Where we stayed the night in Vienna
Almost as soon as we entered the city we were pulled over by the Austrian police. We thought it was due to our driving  but no, it was because a lot of English campervans get stolen by gypsies and are driven back to gypsy land (wherever that is) via Vienna. Now on the one hand I like the fact that the police were so vigilant but was a little miffed at being mistaken for a thieving Romanian gypsy. Anyway we are allowed to go but told firmly that we could not park at the parliament buildings. We said we would look elsewhere then and as soon as we turned the corner headed straight to the parliament buildings and did indeed stay there for the weekend.

The beautiful Lipizano horses - Or there would have
been if we hadn't lost loads of our pictures
We had a fantastic time in Vienna. There were several huge Christmas markets, the streets were all prettied up for the season. Ice rinks had been constructed and mulled wine was on sale everywhere. The weather was cold but beautifully sunny so ideal for walking. So walk we did. Taking in many sites including going to see the Lipizano horses parading in the 400 year old stables in the heart of the city. It's extraordinary looking down onto the training/show area that is housed in such an old and imposing building. Anyhow, the horses were amazing and really made the weekend memorable. We then drove back to Slovakia and once again got pulled over by the police on the way out of Austria who were checking for road toll stickers on vans driven by Romanian gypsies. Luckily we had bought one but even so the police thought it best to check.

Vienna Christmas market
The third and now fourth weeks here presented us with nothing much worth reporting upon. The school in Bratislava is not very friendly, in fact quite icy and we will be glad to be done with it and the grumpy teachers. Bratislava might be a nice place but it has been misty, cold, sleeting and raining the whole time we have been here so we have been dissuaded from sight-seeing. We did bike into the centre one afternoon and chained our bikes up near a restaurant. When we returned a few hours later one of the locks had been cut off so obviously someone had tried to steal the bikes. Luckily we had put two locks on so didn't lose them both - subsequently bought much bigger chains. Bastards.

To finish off this blog I have two last things to say about the Slovaks, First, they are impatient and quite dangerous drivers. It's deffo not fun to have to drive a f***ing big campervan about a city packed with would be boy racers. I admit we are on a downer about the country, and I am sorry if that upsets any nice people we have met (the three of you know who you are) but that's the way it is. The last thing is, some places we like and some places we don't. And Slovakia, so far, is a big DON'T like.