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.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Slovakia here we come

Hello again. I trust you are all sitting comfortably and ready for further tales of our travels in Europe?

Prague - Everyone always says how lovely it is and, of course, they are right. Stunning buildings, squares etc. But there is nearly always a trade off with beautiful tourist spots and, in the case of Prague, it’s the people. Just thousands of tourists. So many tourists that you have to sit upon the shoulders of other tourists in order to fit into busy streets. 

There are lots of restaurants - no surprising with all those hungry tourists and bars and stuff but if, like us, you have a cultured bent and want to elevate your minds above that of casual beer drinking and stuffing your face then check out very accurately named  ‘Sex Machine Museum’. Yup. A museum dedicated to automated sex in all its glorious forms from inny-outy machines with huge pokey bits to the ingenious, although I doubt not terribly sensual, licking seat. A seat with an hole (a little like a commode) with a wheel beneath that has numerous leather tongues fastened to its perimeter. The wheel is powered by pushing pedals that are in front of the seat. The faster you pedal the faster those tongues whip past the hole and titillates either dangly mens bits or, hopefully, not so dangly lady bits. It's an interesting journey into another world which is finished off (pun intended) with a grainy 1890's porn film about a stern schoolmaster and his naughty students. I tell you, they deserved the cane for things they got up to.

That's us (bottom right) sleeping in the grounds of the monastery
So, overall Prague got a 6.5 from us. Maybe next time we should visit early on a sunny Sunday morning (possibly the best time to see any city)  and therefore be able to truly see what is there instead of who is there.

Poland – GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS – YEAH! Is it because of my dad being Polish that I was wearing rose coloured specs or were the people friendlier and the buildings really nicer. I like to think the reality is that the Poles ar not only bloody good plumbers but are a pretty hospitable lot whose star is on the rise. I was thrilled, when I paid for some petrol and the attendant was intrigued by my name on my credit card (an uncommon name in Poland as well as England) and the fact that I drove a UK registered car. Apparently he was taught by a guy with the same surname and this teacher was a great teacher. I explained as best i could that it ran in the genes. I don't think that the other Lenartowicz teacher was as good as he suggested because he replied "Yes, Levi's". 

Krakow -  A good city – Its big and sprawling but who goes outside of the lovely old bits unless you live there? I was last here ten years ago and I was pleased to see that little had changed. Maybe there is more money in Poland nowadays but everything still seems reasonably priced. The roads and buildings are in great condition and the people seem content. We wandered about the usual sites of the city - Although once again shunning the Auschwitz tour and the rather macabre option of being able to stay in the grounds of Birkenau concentration camp overnight - behind locked gates. 

In the Jewish section of town known as Kazimeirz – coincidently, my dad’s very cool name as well– we had one of the best meals we have ever had at 3.30pm in the afternoon. We sat in the squares and sipped beers. We sat in a church and had our ears soothed by a pleasing rendition of the 4 seasons (a staple for this kind of thing) whilst candles flickered on the golden altar ornamentation which served as the backdrop. 

We had parked up about 5km outside of the city in a motorhome dealership who provided us with a hard standing, all the water, lecky and poo emptying facilities we could ever need. For our 6 Euro we also got a 24 hour manned security gate so fell warm, cared for and safe. The only downside is we had to park next to other motorhomes for sale so occasionally a perspective buyer would peer in the window. Anyhow to get to the city we would bike along a lovely cycle path that ran beside the river, park our bikes and walk.

There is a lot to see in the city (although no sex related oddities spring to mind). It's home to the largest city square in Europe and its scale helps dissipate the numbers so its pleasant to wander. One of the other attractions are the salt mines. This vast network of tunnels and antechambers stretches for 240km crossing and recrossing one another over multiple levels. Plainly they don't let hoards of ill equipped tourists roam through the entire labyrinth but the tour still covers 2.4km. Down hundreds of stairs and along tunnels lined with crystallised wood. The highlight being several huge chambers housing sculptures made of salt and an impressive church with carved tiles in the floor. 

Final stop in Poland is Zacopane in the Lower Tatras (a mountain range in southern Poland). A ski town with rising hills around the pretty centre where mulled wine and toasted cheese with raspberry sauce is sold from little kiosks. Its nice. We stay in a clearing in forest by a river that looks like its a movie set and take a long walk up into the hills. 

We then hop across the mountain road into Slovakia. My goodness, what a difference. THe houses have gone from chocolate box to cardboard crates - no style whatsoever. Driving has suddenly become a challenge. It seems all Slovaks drive like idiots with no one thinking about consequences. They even overtake in towns with 50kph limits and enjoy heavy brake usage due to driving a couple of metres behind you. Its really bizarre. As is the fact that no one smiles. There is a collective dourness that pervades everyone from shop assistants to waiters; new mums through to old women. 

Lets hope that its a glitch and not evidence of the national psyche.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Back on the road again

I started writing this latest blog and suddenly realised that it was terminally boring so had to scrap it all and, whilst Rachel was doing her online teaching in the van, rewrite it all by hand. Consequently, my glamorous life finds me sitting in a disused car park in Poland next to a dilapidated sign for ‘Rio Disco Dancing’ – The sign has two scantily clad Brazilian beauties captured mid-gyrate. Their big smiles and bigger still bosoms luring Polish country women away from the turnip fields to sway their hips to that Calypso beat and a better life. I love misguided aspirational advertising!

Once again we are afoot in the world (or should I say a-van). We have bought a small motorhome - or is it a camper? I am never sure what to call it. Camper suggests middle class pretensions, with Thule top boxes, ideas of stealth camping and money to burn on branded cramped living. Motorhomes, on the other hand, conjures up the idea of people with matching Northface walking jackets, electric bikes and a tendency to flaunt the copious amount of living space they are driving around. Just the other day I saw a camper van the size of a coach towing a 4-wheel drive jeep. How mental is that. Anyway, by the time I had finished that previous sentence I decided to refer to it as our “van” – sun newspaper, fag packets and sandwich boxes and a tattooed arm sticking out of the window.

So, we have this “van” (which, from now on, I will stop saying in a way that demands speech marks) and we have put on winter tyres in preparation for the freezing and copious amounts of winter snow we are supposed to see over the ensuing months we will be using it to toodle around Europe and work in Slovakia. And, to ensure a constant source of fuel (You can’t get Calor Gas in mainland Europe) have fitted an LPG tank for cooking and heating water. A task that was, quite honestly, a little scary - cutting holes in one’s vehicle and fitting a potential bomb under your front seats.

Plainly the bomb didn’t detonate when we eventually came to fill the tank and make a cup of tea. But just in case I did retire a few metres away for a while to see what would happen. Anyway, here we are many hot showers and cups of tea later and still alive. And after 2 weeks on the road life in the van is “Saul Goodman” (Full explanation available by watching ‘Better Call Saul’.

80 miles of France passed in a blur. Belgium, a natural continuance of the same countryside with it’s excellent motorways, does the same until we reach Mons. One of those nice towns that isn’t quite enough to be a great tourist draw but is nonetheless charming. The old town centre has a big beamed Hotel de Ville sitting in a large cobbled square which is surrounded with café seating, umbrellas and gas heaters. All standard faire but made more interesting by the various sculptures dotted around the city – especially those of Niki de Saint-Phalle whose work is visually stunning being somewhat fantastical in proportions and covered with multi-coloured ceramics.

Luxembourg (What a lovely sounding country). Essentially the place is forest – One huge forest. All showing off its autumnal colours of golds, russet and brown. Luxembourg City appears at the end of the motorway – A little like the Emerald City all roads in the country lead here. It must be the magnetic pull of money because the place reeks of old cash. Everyone we passed (apart from the not infrequent beggars) had an aroma of Jo Malone soap and Chanel No 9 perfume about them. They all looked like they were heading to meeting in any one of numerous solid looking buildings before nipping out and doing lunch. Its probably a super place to live and work but its leafy suburbs and efficient municipal style was not for us.

Germany is calling and at 75mph that ain’t gonna take long. OK, its only 50% of what some cars go by us at but, for us, 75mph is greased lightning.  So far, our nights have been spent in picturesque settings that Rachel has found on one of her many websites – mists on lakes swaying trees, and burbling rivers have all been the back drop to our evening meals and when the light goes we close up the shutters and sleep like babies in our cosy capsule.

The Mosel is a delightful river and meanders through steep sided vineyards which are periodically dotted with little villages that are visited not only by motorists but by river cruises ships that chug up and to Koblenz and the Rhine (that’s from memory so any pedants out there who can prove me wrong can just bugger off). It is along this river’s shores that Bernkastel Kews lays and it is here we enjoy the slight change of scenery. It is so Hansel and Gretally that you could be tempted to poke your fingers into the walls of the buildings to check for marzipan. It fairly busy but in a gentle ‘middle of a wine region so everybody’s laid back and drinking’ sort of way. The little squares are cobbled and lined with alternating wine bars, gift shops and….. well, more gift shops and sell the sort of shit that elderly river cruising types like to litter their shelves with back home in their own countries.

However, lovely as it was, we had two days in a comfy bed to look forward to so we upped sticks and headed off to stay with our friends Alan and Petra. A cool, and I hate to admit any of this, trendy couple (same age as me so that just proves I am not unique) who enjoy their digital employment in a very nice, spacious penthouse flat a short jaunt from Frankfurt.
We have been here before and there always seems to be plenty to do. This time they have organised for us to sightsee around the old part of Frankfurt en Mainz on bikes; to eat well both at the flat and at some restaurants. To see a Ba’hai temple and take a walk through a huge vineyard with them and some friends of theirs we met on our last visit, Then to sit and drink that particular chateaux’s wine in the warm autumn sun overlooking the vineyards. Finally we get to watch some bands in a chilled café overlooking the river. A place with a really eclectic clientele and some tame (as opposed to feral) sheep wandering through the crowds.

On leaving we are given a list of some ‘must see places’ along our route. The first is Rothenburg. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Given what the place looks like I am somewhat shocked by our collective ignorance. Imagine Carcassonne (assuming you know of that particular little French gem) that has been taking steroids for some years and there you have Rothenburg. It’s old, preserved, beamed, protected, cared for and beautiful. All enclosed in a high wall with slitted windows from where, in the olden days, they could shoot tourists. Yes, there are too many gift shops. But if you squint or head off into the less peopled routes it is easy to be taken back a few hundred years. We ambled for some time exploring alleys and narrow byways (truth be told we got lost for about 30 minutes but it was still jolly interesting).

Bamburg in ‘Little Switzerland’ is probably not the best of towns and the scenery not actually a patch on ‘Big real Switzerland’ but if you are passing by then do drop in. It’s pleasant enough. There are some good parks, a small river and they sell a smoked beer that tastes of bacon.. More of a breakfast beer one supposes. It’s a leap of the old grey matter to imagine that it tastes good. Mainly because in it doesn’t. But that’s not to say it tastes bad either. It just tastes. And, with enough of them in your belly, I guess you could develop a taste for the stuff. But then thinking on the subject. Many things take on a new reality when you drink a lot of beer – driving skills, putting traffic cones on your head and fighting big men or lippy women spring to mind.

Enough of that. Before we speed on towards another biggie of the tourist route – Prague, let me leave you with a rather funny story about a biggie of another kind. So. Rachel was teaching and I decided to go for a bike ride around the lake where we were camping. Can’t remember where. Anyway, after about 30 minutes biking, and when I was nearly back at the van, I found myself wanting a poo. It was quite …. pressing and since Rachel was mid lesson I knew I couldn’t use the van but neither could I wait. So, I pulled over to the side of the deserted path. Looked out across the narrow neck of the lake and up and down the path to ensure the coast was clear. Placing myself between two trees (which screened me from the road) I dropped my trousers and set about wrestling out a monster turd on the shoreline of the lake. My thinking being it would be washed away by the slight waves. Flash forward to 30 minutes later. Bright biking clothes removed and bike loaded on the back of the van we drive off along a road on the opposite bank of the lake to where I had shat. Suddenly my eye catches a movement and there, just 50 metres across the water from where I had merrily defecated are dozens of fishermen who were obviously in some kind of angling competition. Fishing as you will know ain't that entertaining so I have no doubt that a brightly clad cyclist pedalling on the opposite bank drew their attention. Further that their attention would have been even more focused and quickly turned to horrified as I exposed by arse and gave them a HD shot of a full on stealth poo. Like all fishermen I bet they exaggerated the actual size when they told their wives that night.

You know what. I think we will leave Prague and Poland, with the beautiful car park I wrote this all in for next time. Bye for now.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Back in the best British summer since '76

God damn, it's September already! Last blog was March when we were heading back to the UK and, guess what, we're still here. How did that happen? Well it's a bit of a story so if you're sitting comfortably I'll begin. Circumstances meant that when we came back we had to do some serious considering of our finances. Now, when I say circumstances what I really mean is we've been burying our heads in the sand, gadding round the world, pretending to work a bit, spending money, having a lovely time and haven't thought about 'the future'. And to be honest ' the future' is a  mildly dull concept that, bearing in mind our rapidly increasing ages, we perhaps should be toying with. "Ah ha", I hear you say. "At last they've decided to grow up and stop their gallivanting." And you would be correct. We have decided when we grow up we want to be Property Developers. I googled it and there are several definitions but the one I like best is: 

Property Developer. noun. A person whose job involves buying buildings and then making improvements to them so that their selling price exceeds the price paid for them.

Note two key points. It's actually a job and it apparently should mean we make money. Yay. 

So we have started this venture but have yet to actually buy a property. Unless you count doing up the flat, a gargantuan learning curve that has hopefully prepared us for some of the pitfalls that will strike when we do find a project. We attended a couple of auctions locally and in London. How bloody scary is that? The first one in London was a case of spot the builder's bum, hoards of them. And plenty of red trouser, yellow shirt wearing types that have way deeper pockets than us. The last group of competitors were of the Asian ethnicity and they were bidding on anything north of Watford. So we waited and watched the action, getting tips, not daring to scratch our noses for about 4 very long hours until our lot came up. We had a budget in mind and had to stick to it. We were optimistic as our cut off figure was well above the 10% over guide price. I felt sick and bravely nominated Chris to do the bidding. I kept checking he was ready. I asked which hand he was going to raise. I checked, double checked and treble checked that we had a bidder number for when we won our new place. I was choosing the colour scheme, mentally visiting IKEA for the kitchen, getting samples for the floor coverings. But before we even knew it the bidding started, it catapulted past our limit and continued going up without us so much as even twitching a hand or shouting out a bid. Gutted. Lesson learnt, have a few lots you're interested in and completely ignore the alleged guide price.

Just a few pics in the middle - weirdly didnt seem to take many:

Kitchen at flat tiled, built and plumbed by us
Drunk Howard waking us in the middle of the night for a chat 
Grandad duty with Teddy
Birthday Celebration with the in-laws
(apparently they come with for free with a wife)

We have since then acted as though we are far too busy and important to attend anymore and have tried our hand at online bidding. Great but you have to send a huge deposit in advance and they drag their heels in returning it.

Enough of our giddy ejection into the real world of high finance and on to another of our favourite topics that has held us here in good old Blighty, the world of motorhoming. I am not even sure I can explain how it reared it's head again but Crawlie and our adventures, both good and bad, have been lurking around in the background and whilst Ron has been a spectacular investment we felt the need for something else. That something else was another campervan. I'm going to digress a little here. At what point does a campervan become a motorhome? That's a bit like that ever perplexing question of when does a burp become a fart? Sorry, back to the van thing. We have enjoyed housesitting and the truly gorgeous dogs we've looked after, Ethel, Archie, Maddox, Zorro, Roxy and Mabel just to name a few. But looking after these delightful critters is a responsibly and a commitment which hasn't allowed us the freedom to travel further afield and view properties so I think that's how this notion of a van came about. Chris was like something possessed updating all his searches every hour on the hour. I don't know how but a couple of perfect ones slipped the net and we missed them. Then our budget crept up, possibly out of desperation, possibly because the idea of spending more time in it grew so we wanted something a bit grander. Anywho, we finally acquired a rather neat Crawlie #2 (still waiting for a name because we will never replace Crawlie!) which involved a drive up to North Yorkshire, via Northampton to check out another one on the way. An overnight stay which had us traipsing the streets of Whitley Bay, a lovely seaside town that is worth a visit, looking for a room like Joseph and Mary because we had overlooked the fact it was the Great North Run this weekend and rates were doubled and even trebled and rooms were all booked. We eventually happened to knock on the door of The Alcatraz guest house, I know, not exactly our first choice, and they had just had a cancellation. I wanted to kiss our saviours feet, the room was clean , bed was comfy, we had a shower and the breakfast was truly gut busting and all for the regular rate of £60. Next day we picked up our new part time home and drove the 5 hours home tagging each other to take the lead. It was exhausting but satisfying. Now we have to make it our own, give it some Rachris TLC and get on with whatever is coming next. That's still undecided, however, it has been suggested we should learn the art of tarmacing so we can earn a crust wherever we do end up next. Aw be Jesus, whatever next!

Bit of a p.s./ footnote. Our family and friends have been overwhelming generous in allowing us to stay with them, entertaining us, feeding us, washing our clothes, etc.  Although we try to earn our keep we still appreciate your hospitality. Please don't stop inviting us and you never know, we may leave you a shiny new drive with white flecks in next time we are at yours!

Saturday, 31 March 2018

4 days in Madrid

Before I start. Here's a funny thing. When we arrived in Japan a few months ago. My bags went missing and the airlines had to get them from Helsinki Airport to where we were staying in Takamatsu. Consequently I didn't have any clothes at all and Rachel, through a quirk of random packing, had no underwear and we had a buy a few things to get by for a few days. Move on two months and when we left there and arrived in Madrid I found that whilst I had packed our overflowing bags beautifully I had failed to check all the drawers and lo and behold I had left all of Rachel's underwear back in Japan. It's back to the knicker shop for us and just hope DHL work over Easter.  

So, Madrid. What a great city! Architecturally stunning, vibrant, cultured and busy. But this 4 day break during Easter came as a stark contrast to our lengthy stay in the quiet Spanish mountains and, more so, our sojourn into Japan. Our white-faced badge of difference has gone and we are but one of the many in this cosmopolitan place. Coming from the land of uniformity we are acutely aware of the huge variance of sizes, colours and personal features of the people. We seem to have forgotten how to walk busy streets as westerners. No longer do people flow around one another. Rather, they bump and jar. Attitudes to others are more careless here or rather less obvious. We can sense an underlying tension here that doesn't exist in Japan.  An energy among the thronging crowds that is quite palpable and feel more alive. You can almost taste it. I notice with surprise the many beggars and tramps sleeping in doorways. More than one, ironically, taking a rest from holding out a hand with a begging bowl to holding a large cup of Starbucks takeaway coffee.

Gran Via Madrid
Graffiti is everywhere -  spoiling walls, posts, railings and just about anything big enough to hold a pointless tag left by a thoughtless delinquent - quite frankly I don't give a fuck about whether some oik passed by or that the scrawlings are the 'visual outcry of the repressed'. I have never got graffiti. I do not find it 'cool' but rather it is aggressive, invasive and inconsiderate. To me - Banksy is Wanksy and our cities, underpasses and impossibly precarious patches of walls would be better off without airbrush vandalism.

Litter seems to be very popular in Madrid as well. It is everywhere and again comes as something of a shock after the sanitary streets of Takamatsu where the the 5 second rule could easily be extended to the 1 minute rule without fear of catching anything. But again that very thing that is negative makes the place feel more real. Don't get me wrong it would be better if the streets were cleaner and there was less debris but it sort of fits here.

The Puerto del Sol and the bear statue which is the centre of spain
We loved Madrid. It is a livable size with lots going on. We were near the Palace Real and hereabouts the countryside just suddenly starts. The grey turning suddenly green with the trees stretching away to the mountains in the distance. Still capped with snow and looking all majestic.

As usual we covered countless kilometres mooching about the city. Stopping here and there for a coffee, more often a beer and tapas but, most excitingly, for hot chocolate and churros. The chocolate so thick you were not sure if you were eating or drinking it. We people watched and especially enjoyed a group of prostitutes working a stretch of street - all sporting shiny lipstick, black leggings, huge shoes and, weirdly, never smiling.

I recall once seeing in Venice, whilst travelling by boat down the grand canal, a scaffolded building cloaked with a representation of what an eventually renovated building would look like. I thought that was impressive. But not a patch on the cloaking in Madrid which we encountered a few times. even close up the deception is remarkable. What a good thing though. To maintain the beauty of a place with such clever artifice. Sadly the authorities could do nothing to camouflage the wind damage caused in the city parks a few days earlier. Consequently they were all closed so we didn't get to see these apparently extensive and picturesque areas that make up a large amount of the city area.

Look closely at the picture. 90 percent of the
buildings are a facade

This weekend was Semana Santa (Easter) and therefore the whole city was rammed. We went to see one of the many processions going on in the town on Good Friday. It was in impressive...well, in the tourist brochure it was impressive. We were hundreds of people back from the point where the large religious artefact was carried pass. All we could see of the dozens of attendees dressed in black robes with black pointy ku klux klan stylee headgear was the tops of the hats and the artefact was sadly blocked by a wiggling 4 year old on her dads shoulders in front of me. But there you go. When Mr Jesus is in town on his big day there is bound to be crowds. 

World's most shit picture of a religious procession. You have to do the
'Where's Wally' thing to find the pointy hats of the pious
Besides graffiti and car park charges one of my great hates is queueing and it seemed that anywhere of import had people snaking out of doors and into the far distance. We therefore skipped the palace and the free evening opening of the Prado museum. We did opt for a look around the botanical gardens which had no queue and its not surprising why. Brown and a bit tatty sums it up admirably I think. Rachel likened it to a zoo we went to in India where all the animals were made of plastic. Except this wasn't funny, but then plants rarely are. Although Rachel did tell me a very funny plant joke:

A man walks past a fridge and thinks he hears some onions singing Bee Gee's songs but when he opened the fridge he discovered it was only the chives talkin'

Anyway well done Madrid. loved the tapas and the vibe so keep up the good work.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Japan revisited.

Well our two months in Japan have nearly finished. We have performed our duties as carers admirably. The boys are still alive and our dear friend Mitsi is on the mend. The apartment is clean, the car is undamaged and all is well in the land of the rising sun. However, the country still befuddles us and we still don't know what is happening half the time. I wonder if everyone feels that way?

Let's start with some observations. 

Follow the rules: 
Two Japanese people riding their bikes along roads that are perpendicular to one another. There is nothing obstructing their vision of the road or the other rider. However, when they arrive at the intersection, since there is no signage or indication of who has right of way, they carry on and inevitably, crash. Now, we have views on this because we have seen variants of it over and again in our time in Japan. It could be physiological - the shape of the eyes lessening the peripheral vision. It could be psychological  - Sheer bloody mindedness on behalf of both parties. Or, most likely, its conditional. The Japanese are programmed to comply with authority from early on and follow the rules. Therefore something like the above happens because there is no protocol. People will walk into the road without looking if they technically have the right of way. They will stand for 5 minutes on the side of a deserted road if the crossing sign says "wait". If there is a rule, no matter its relevance, it will be followed. And, when you couple this with the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy it can be so frustrating. There is of course the flip side which is that if everyone follows rules then everyone knows the score, accepts how things are and society sort of works... Albeit in a somewhat robotic way.

Guide book for going abroad: 

I am told by a Japanese friend in the know that only a small amount of Japanese nationals go abroad. This is partly due to the ever circling urban myths of how things are outside of Japan. "People have horns and will probably eat you" might be a step too far but ideas of cleanliness, lack of respect, quality of service and rampant aggression are commonly cited reasons for staying put. There is even a government issued guide book which gives suggestions/instructions on how to deal with or, better still, avoid confrontational situations with Gaijins.

OTT gift giving: 
Most cultures would accept that if you re just popping round for a cup of tea and a chat that the host will provide a cup of tea and a biscuit and there is no obligation on the part of the visitor to contribute. Not so here. Minimum gift entry level is a beautifully wrapped and presented biscuit set. Ramp it up to a small tea party and the amount of fayre brought will exceed the provision by at least double....all beautifully wrapped, rarely opened and therefore, I guess, reused by the recipient for the next party invite. Thinking about it there could be food gifts circulating Japan that have been doing the rounds for years!!

Education system:
Having worked in the system and now observed, at close quarters, what it is like for the child. I feel i am able to say what a poor system it is for both students and teachers alike. Granted there are some good things like the cleaning of classrooms and the serving of fellow students food at lunch. But as far as I can see that's it. The teacher student ratio is so high that there is no real opportunity to give any individual help and rote teaching is not uncommon. The homework is onerous and often pointless because it is generally checked by the students themselves. The pressure to confirm is enormous and any child with individualism, difficulties or abilities are a hindrance to the system. A system that is so overstretched that many children have to go to cram school to ensure they have grasped the subjects and therefore can get the grades to make it to High school. Then there is 'club'. Endless hours starting early morning to late afternoon in the holidays and for a couple of hours after school during term. Ostensibly they are learning baseball, football, music, chess etc but a lot of the time there is no actual teacher so not sure how much gets done....But, hey, it keeps 'em off the streets. 

Customer service:
In Japan if a member of staff has to leave a customer to go and ask advice or get something for that customer. They bow, bow, apologise, bow and run both there and back. on return they apologise, bow, bow and smile the whole time. Service is king here and performed willingly by the employee who expects nothing more than thanks and certainly not a tip.

Loveliness in the gym:
When people have finished doing an exercise on a piece of equipment or in an area they will wipe and clean it. I mean really wipe and sterilise the fuck out of it. They will replace things where they found them and even ensure that they are positioned neatly with the labels facing forward.

Dry your hands:

If you come to Japan then bring your hand towel. Everyone is expected to have their own. Hence when you wash your hands in public toilets there are often no towels or tissues.

Now on to the stuff we have been doing.

Mainly we have been tending house and children. This has been an interesting exercise, especially for Rachel who has never been a mum. But, as with everything, she rose to the occasion - making sandwiches, encouraging study, washing, cooking and then falling asleep exhausted by 10pm. Arrrghhhh the joys of parenting.... We did manage to get to Osaka once whilst Mitsi was languishing in bed there moaning about having Cancer and was fortunate enough to meet up with her lovely dad, Shigeo, who took us to the castle then out for Sushi before we headed back - Mitsi of course had to stay in the hospital and eat baby food.

We have played Uno till our fingers were sore. (Playing the proper rules this time and not the crazy ones made up in Nepal). We have watched countless episodes of The Big Bang Theory. A firm fave of the Morikawa boys. We have laughed a lot and talked loads of nonsense, in particular with Miki who is very funny and loved walking out from the shower clasping a bundle of clothes over is dick and walking away showing his ass but forgetting we could also see his balls.

When not doing the housy stuff we have wandered around shops - Takamatsu has the longest covered shopping street in Japan. Something like 2.5 km long!!! All filled with interesting shops, boutiques, cafes, piped musak and mingled bikes and people.

We decided to cut out drinking and and join the gym when we arrived. It's gone well. We have only had a handful of drinks in the two months and and have been working out pretty much every day for and hour or two. Consequently are muscles ache and our tummies are flat (well not exactly flat but a little tighter).


We had a lightening visit by friends of ours from Hiroshima - Lee, Tohru and their young children  jumped on the Shinkansen, costing a small fortune, and met us in Kurashiki - a charming old world village not that far from us where we had a delightful lunch and the chance to see their lovely faces once more. Thank you guys, it was appreciated.

We have made a lot of new friends who have been kind, thoughtful and interesting. We also have had to refuse many offers from total strangers to come their homes for tea; to accept their free guidance around the area or to take proffered vegetables??!! Yes, vegetables??What can I say - we are exotic beasts and as such are sort after in Japan.

One of our new friends, Haruko, is setting up her own tourist guiding business and to get some constructive criticism (and to be nice) took us on a sightseeing tour par excellence. A fancy cruising trip around a few islands in the Seto sea and across to the main island of Honshu. Our private boat took us to a deserted island that was populated by deer who ran, or rather bounced, down to the beach to see us. On Honshu we visited an old village called Tomo where we ate the the local Udon noodles and wandered the old streets and temples, A flying visit to the lovely island of Sensui (a place we had visited previously) where there is a fantastic coastway walk and open air onsen on the beach and finally, we visited an extraordinary island with a virtual ghost town. The island has a village of 50 to 60 houses clustered around a small bay but only 12 of them are inhabited. The rest are either derelict, slowly rotting or overgrown. Simply left by their owners when they moved from the island. It is a bit like a movie set and a little eerie (and sad) that the island is dying. However, the island also provides a home to absolutely huge 1000 year old Camphor tree. The branches and trunk so thick that we were reminded of the tree in the movie Avatar. It was truly magnificent and standing beneath its shadow was almost spiritual.


Such fun... Me and three ladies in a room of 2.5m by 1.5m with two big monitors, a leatherette settee, coffee table and hand tablets to order drinks, food and song selections. This is Karaoke Box. A tiny room where inhibitions, dignity and appreciation of the tonal scale are stripped away and participants, armed with mikes, can boom their voices out in all their suddenly awful glory. It was fantastic. A little oasis of crazy. Hired by the hour (soft drinks and ice cream included) you can forget the outside world and lose yourself in beer drinking, Whitney, Gloria and Abba and emerge 3 hours later confused at where the time went. And sorry, no pics or vids because what happens in Karaoke stays in karaoke

Possibly the worlds nicest religions if you are looking for one. In a nutshell it is an inclusive belief system that respects others, welcomes others, and draws upon the teaching in all  other religions. There are no icons, no smiting, martyrs, zealots, false idols or preaching. They don't come a knocking with pamphlets, proselytising, or planting bombs, they don't advocate burning in hell, or the playing of harps. They are humanists. Encouraging good rather than worship, encouraging love over obeisance and generally going about being a bit nice. Kathy, a resident of Takamatsu for 44 years and originally from Canada invited us to a pot luck lunch where we sat about, ate good food, briefly mentioned something that inspired us and then just chatted. It was nice. Nice enough for us to return for a second time - which, incidentily, fell on my birthday and where we were joined by an international pianist who treated us all to two pieces which were extraordinary to hear and, almost more so, to watch - those delicate fingers moving in caressing motions over the keys in one section and then moving with extraordinary dexterity and speed in the other.

So that's it. leaving Japan again. It's the same feeling as always. Sadness and relief. Its got its faults like any place but its a great country both geographically and in its peoples. I just think that maybe it's just not for us........yet.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The quantum physics of housesitting

Oh, the pressure of feeding the seemingly bottomless appetites of our readership can sometimes be more of a burden than a bounty. We have barely finished one piece of reportage before the pleadings, wheedling and clamor for more begins again. And, whilst I want to just pull the covers over my writing-weary head and lay nestled among the warm arms and legs of my lovely wife and the now cold hot-water-bottles, I have a morning piss to take and a duty to perform. That done here it is, dear readers, I hope you enjoy it. All three of you.

When you look forward in time you do so as if looking the wrong way down a telescope. Time distorts and hours become days and months seem like years. For us the prospect of completing this long house sit was just so. We would learn Spanish - speak it fluently probably; We would stop drinking, eat more healthily and build up a respectable number of on line English clients; We would make friends and maybe even write that bestseller. We had months to fill and things to fill them with. 
Suddenly, however, we are nearing the end and we found that the telescope lied. Time wasn't stretched and, in fact, house sitting time has the same relativity as everywhere else. Irrespective of looking backwards or forwards. You either use it or lose it! 

Don't get me wrong. We don't measure our good use of time by things we have achieved in it. Rather, by the contentment we have derived whilst moving through it. It's so easy to feel a failure if you fail to achieve something. Much better to see the positives, the small blessings bestowed and feel grateful for simply being. There's something to all this mindfulness stuff. 

An inciteful and funny read
The result is that we do not speak fluent Spanish - but we speak some. We are still drinking - but now Christmas has gone (where we drank religiously in honour of baby Jesus), we are drinking far less. Shame really since it almost feels like saving when you pay so little for the stuff here. We actually do eat healthily as long as you forget about the crisps and chocolate and whilst our on-line teaching is not exactly educating the masses. We have some clients and its all on an upward curve (even if there are no warning signs about the steep incline). Friends have been a different story and one best left for after dinner tales in closed company. However we were, for the first time ever, shunned by a somewhat backbiting couple who , no doubt, had views on us once we had left. All in all though, its been a hoot passing time here. Another fantastic experience and a place where we have gathered more warm memories to cheer us when we are too old to do this stuff.

Its a bright day this morning and there was a particularly magical slice of moon lit by the cresting sun as it cleared the mountain tops. The darker blue vignetted to a brilliant shade of powder blue that reminded me of the skies over Japan. Today will likely be like most others. But, since it's Sunday, we will stay in the house so the hunters in the valley don't gun down our furry friends. We will do some computer work, some gardening, maybe go out for lunch then return for a walk and log fire as that same sun dips out of sight again and the stars return.

As I write this the three dogs are on a mat in front of the fire (the embers from the previous night still there - Olive wood is dense and slow burning). Pod and Rosa are lying head to tail with Phil sitting at one end. All three are preening and licking and gnawing legs - some belong to themselves, some to other dogs. It all seems idyllic until Phil decides it's a good idea to sit on Rosa's head, who then jumps up and bites his ass and in the process stands on Pod who growls so there is a seething swirl of tails and teeth and yelps and growls and flying fur and its not so idyllic anymore. I stand up and shout "Enough!". Rosa immediately rolls over in her submissive kick-me-in-the-stomach-if-you-have-to position, Pod scarpers - never one to be caught nicking the sweets and Phil. Phil the instigator of this fracas, gives me that "Wha? What happened? Wasswrong?" look. Dogs huh? We are really going to miss these chaps badly.

On Boxing day we left Mizala in the capable hands of the owners and set off for a few days in Granada. We thought it would be a good break and we hired a nice apartment just on the outskirts of the city. We were looking forward to warmth in the newly built flat and adventure outside. But fate had other plans. The apartment was nice, well positioned and large but the electricity supply was limited and the heaters small and ineffective. In summer this is not a problem but in winter when the temperature is in single figures, with snow on the surrounding mountains and wind and drizzle falling, it's not so good. A one bar heater and one radiator were little match for the elements (no pun intended). And we constantly juggled (not literally - that would be dangerous) the microwave, heaters, hair driers and lights. Trying to get as many appliances working without everything cutting out. Bonkers.

Our first day was walking around Granada which was great. The sun was out and although cold it was bright and fresh and lovely. We had hot-dogs and beer in a sort of tapas place. Standing at a bar wrapped in our coats with side of the place wide open. We wandered the old Arab quarter and throughout the shopping streets and alleys. It's a great city to mooch about. Lots of little plazas and places to stop and views to see and buildings to peek in. The streets in the old sections are quaint and narrow and in the large modern centre, wide and lined with good shops. And, of course, Alhambra stands atop a mound in the middle of it all looking magnificent and picturesque.


Day two we were to walk along the Caminito del Rey. A tramp along walkways affixed to the sides of towering rock canyons. Apparently its much safer than it used to be. But with vertical drops of hundreds of metres it would still have been fun had we been able to do the walk. We drove the 150km from Granada for this experience. Wind and rain lashing the car most of the way. We were hopeful that the weather would improve and sure enough as we got nearer our hopes were met and the sun came out. Hopes that were soon to be dashed by finding that no-one at this fairly major tourist site had put a notice on the website saying that it was closed for a week! Lots of swearing, double-taking, growling and sticking up of the two fingers was done before we headed back home to the still wet, rainy and cold Granada. On the note of 'sticking up of the two fingers' - try it. Its out of fashion but quite therapeutic. Especially if delivered with a screwed up face and the hand going up and down. 

Day three was to be a skiing day. The Sierra Nevada rises to impressive heights just outside of the city. A short drive and there would be piste aplenty. Rather, would have been pistes aplenty had it not rained for a few days and the temperatures only dropped to freezing at night which meant it was both sludgy and wet; had there been more than 20cm on the upper slopes so the rocks were properly covered, and, had the cost of clothes hire, ski and boot hire and a pass for 4 hours not been about £100. Foiled again. We gave up and headed back to Mizala where it had been beautifully hot and sunny the whole time......

New year was fun. We spent it eating, singing songs around the old Johanna like what they did in the war and laughed alot with the house owners. A great evening. New years day and night we spent with Rachel's old Boss, Gareth and his wonderful G&T making wife Jane. They have a flat nearby and we spent time eating tapas and drinking. Finally Christmas festivities came to rest with Gareth and Andrea, a couple we had befriended and were living in a fabulous villa in the mountains near Bedar. Lots of drink (way too much drink) and burnt/undercooked - but still lovely food and a warm bed in a warm bedroom was a good end to the fun. hoorah!

Now we are alone again and nice as it is to have had all these people about its good to be just us and the dogs. Rachel can wear her sad bastard two piece velour, over sized pajamas (really the woman has no dignity) and we can stop showing off and just be us again...

To close. The reason we are ending our housesit a little early is because a dear friend in Japan is in need of assistance and we have time available to give that assistance. So we are off to Japan on the 9th for two months. Effectively to be slaves to her little family whilst she does exciting things like has operations and lies around recuperating and eating chocolate. 

So until next time. Adios mi amigos