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.