Sunday, November 26, 2017

A place to kind-of call home

I have a recurring dream in which I discover that places I know well, like the halls I lived in at university, have extra rooms or entire sections which I have somehow never discovered. Commonly this involves a basement level which links together separate real world places via a some kind of communal subterranean hanging-out zone.

This dream presumably derives from the disappointing gap between the kind of world you expect to inherit as a child, full of magical wardrobes and mythical beings living in trees, and the modern world we grow up to experience, with its insistent focus on practicality, efficiency and sensible interior design. I never really recovered from the childhood-ending cataclysm of finally ruling out the possibility that it might be real, all the magic, mystery and adventure promised to me by adults and by books.

But the place where M and I have landed up now, and for the last 6 days, goes some way towards restoring a sense that the world has magical and unexpected things hidden within it. The name is straight out of a beaurocratic tract: The solidarity school foundation. But this place is as far from being a beaurocracy as its possible for a human society to be. It's chaotic, messy, and anarchistic, in the proper sense of that word.

We signed up to volunteer here as part of Workaway, a labour-for-accommodation trading system, where you most often live with an enlightened and handsome young family, helping with English lessons or harvesting their olives, as your hosts require. But this place is something completely different.

Set up around 20 years ago, it is a sprawling residential complex for anyone who needs a place to exist outside of regular society: women fleeing abusive relationships, immigrants without the papers to stay in Europe, people with psychological reasons for not being able to survive in the outside world. It's built around 10 large houses, and a huge underground kitchen and dining hall but the slow journey of discovering the countless large rooms, spaces and piles of agglomerated stuff has been a waking experience of those dreams I'm always having.

There is an overstuffed library, a "computer room", a thriving garden, a bakery, a metal workshop, a concert hall and a "gym", as well as countless nooks and crannies for volunteers and residents to spend free time in the endless sun which shines every day without fail on the whole of Andalucia. The foundation is a maze of walkways and interconnecting rooms, populated constantly by people either busy working to improve the site, hanging around smoking cigarettes, or shuffling quietly about in the manner of the disturbed or mentally distressed. Into this chaotic mix of oddballs come volunteers, largely from the richer parts of nothern Europe, mainly Germany, the UK and France, to learn Spanish, lead yoga and meditation classes and generally try not to get too much in the way.

It's an extroverts dream (and by extension, presumably, an introvert's nightmare.) Every morning at 8am, the entire cast of residents and volunteers assembles in the huge basement dining hall for a breakfast of coffee and bread with tomatoes and olive oil, before dispersing again for the day's tasks. This communal breakfast seems to me like the perfect way to start the day. You're under absolutely no obligation to make any conversation: the lack of language skills helps with that, but also the vibe among many of the residents is one of comtemplation and coffee stirring, rather than of thinking up small talk. But you're surrounded by people of all ages, from thoughtful older people, to zany many-cultured children of all backgrounds and languages.

Many of the people you breakfast with, you've also worked with throughout the previous days, or encountered in some context or other and therefore have some tiny thread of connection which is enough to warrant a special "Buenos dias" of your very own. An example of this is Yolanda, the enormous middle aged resident who runs the all-important shoe and clothing store. On the first day she got me towels from the store, and this has created a microthread between us which still warrants a separate smile and greeting each day we see each other. And the longer you're here, the more of these tiny invisible threads you create between people until, I imagine, each entry into the breakfast hall is a flurry of hellos and smiles with everyone you know. (This is including only those people you haven't yet had an argument with: this place is presumably as riddled with interpersonal friction as any collective living arrangement, but we don't yet have access to the kind of Spanish that would allow us into this world.) Breakfast is over within about 20 minutes, and it's time for the day's washing up team (on a rota) to swing into action, while the kids go off to either school or the nursery, and the adults get to work.

There are around 100 people living here I'm told, with about 30 children of all ages. Some people live here permanently with their whole families, including a Hungarian/South African family with three kids, whose children I'm told have never been to school. The dad told me that they had been hitch-hiking around with two kids strapped to them, but that the arrival of the third meant they'd had to "settle down" and buy a van. The family spends the summer volunteering at music festivals, so "the kids' education is sorted". When pressed for an explanation, he told me that the oldest child makes jewellery from bits and bobs they find along the way and sells it at the festival, which is "a better education than he ever got in school". She apparently made a good amount of money at this year's festival. Which she then proceeded to spend entirely on sweets. Fair enough. They seem like an incredibly happy, well-adjusted family but the lack of a home is a real challenge to my conception of life as lived by anybody, let alone the life of a young, nuclear family.

But thinking about their lifestyle a bit later on, it occured to me that this family *does* in fact have a home. It's a home they take with them wherever they go. And it's not their trusty van. The family is the family's home, and they seem to be able to be perfectly comfortable and cosy and sheltered within the walls of the family, regardless of the physical place they happen to be. Contrary to readers' expectations, these are not some reeking, toothless band of rogues. They are as clean, polite, helpful and outward-facing as any family of five and they're a joy to behold in action. I'm impressed.

Aside from these non-schooled kids, who roam about the Foundation freely finding people to help, everyone has to work from 10am to 2.30pm. Each resident has a task or an area which they are in charge of, up to the measure of their abilities. A few people are not up to anything much more than shuffling and mumbling, and that is therefore their task, for which they are equally rewarded with food and shelter as the hardest-working residents. But the vast majority of people here spend their time in doing the business of living, and in making small improvements to the place or the running of it as they see fit. Everywhere you look there of signs of somebody's project to either make things run more smoothly or to make them look more beautiful. For example, the foundation is dotted throughout with mosiacs made of little shards of coloured stone or glass, with inspirational phrases in Spanish and English. It's really quite affecting.

The volunteers then are given anything and everything to do from beating rugs, replastering crumbling buildings or cleaning windows, to gardening, sweeping and looking after the community's babies in the nursery. (This is what I'm supposed to be doing right now, but the adult:child ratio is currently 1 to 1 so I'm slacking off to write this. Later: I'm now sitting on a tiny plastic chair, about 25cm in height, writing this while two of the babies sleep quietly in their cots. Easy work!)

At two-thirty, it'll be time for lunch and the morning's activity grinds to a sudden halt. The whole crowd assembles again, this time covered variously in plaster, flour, soil or baby powder, and hold hands around the table to say thanks to the people who cooked and brought the food, and the day's major stomach-stuffing begins in earnest. Again here, the focus is on greeting and eating far more than it is on small talk, and this suits me absolutely fine. When you know that there is nothing more expected of you than to smile, say hello, then shut up and eat, it's a lot easier to be friendly to a much greater group of people than if you're expected to actually have a conversation with everyone you greet, as you might be in the UK. All the food is donated by supermakets spooked by an approaching sell-by date, but the alchemy of the kitchen volunteers in turning this out-of-date miscellany into a wholesome and tasty lunch never fails to amaze. You have to be quick to get food, as it's brought to the table on huge towering platters and it's up to you to make sure you get as much as you want/can. Yesterday I sat with a frail and friendly old man who whispered to me that he's diabetic and that's why his plateful was so meagre. He told his doctor that he doesn't want insulin injections, so he just manages his condition with a careful diet. Like many people here, he seemed perfectly happy to talk to me and tell me about himself, despite the absolute baseline level of my Spanish. Patience seems to be in-built when living with an often-changing crowd of people of various backgrounds and abilities.

When I compare the existence of sometimes marginalised people like this old diabetic man, in the foundation and out in normal society, it seems insane that people in his position are usually left to wither away on their own. Here he lives right in the centre of a family of 100 and is fed and watered the same as anyone else, despite his presumably limited ability to do much physical labour.

This whole thing is run with panache and an insane amount of laissez faire by a vivacious elderly Spanish man and his much younger and equally energetic Italian wife. They are the parents and the bosses of everyone here, but they do just enough organisation to make the place work, and no more. They are more the ideas and inspiration guys than the setters of timetables. Judging by some of the reviews left by previous volunteers on the Workaway site, this seems to have been a problem for several of y predecessors. People complained of disorder, of redoing other people's shoddy work, or of having their own work shoddily redone without their permission. They also complained about the lack of structured social work to help the residents go back out into the world. But M and I are taking things with a smile and a pinch of salt. The real necessities are one hundred percent catered for here, and everything else is at least partly an exercise in just having something not too useless to do. If our morning's work is undone in the afternoon by some unthinking other, it's just a reminder that it's not the outcome but the process that should be work's reward.

The opinion of the "management" on the subject of the social work that goes on here is that this is very specifically *not* a government-funded half-way house or treatment centre. In these places, we were told, residents lose the ability to look after themselves as they are often quite literally not allowed to cook for themselves or do their own washing. They become institutionalised and dependent on the system. But here, there are many residents for whom this is a completely valid medium or even long-term way of life. They are completely autonomous, free to attend the group meals or not to, and are encouraged by a genuine sense of solidarity to do as much work as they can in the four and a half hours allotted to labour from Monday to Friday.

M and I are happy with the fact that we have somewhere cosy to live, are well fed, watered and caffeinated, and have the autonomy to dream up and execute projects of our own, in the spirit of making the place more beautiful, more homely or more functional to live in. This afternoon, we tidied our little dorm, and made a shelf so the top bunk occupants can put their glasses and books etc. within reach. It was a nice, easy project, but we still got to do some learning, because a few of the people in our casa are real engineering geniuses, and we've been shown a thing or to about how to use a drill.

Next week, we're hoping to get out to a plot of land which the foundation has got its hands on, and which a group of 3 young Gambian men are planning to turn into a permaculture Eden, and possibly also to live on the site. This is exciting for us because we get to do some manual work in and among the earth, and the possibility is open of us trying out some building techniques M has been researching. A long-term project like this of our own, accompanied and assisted by the Gambians, who are a fun (and English-speaking!) crowd, could see us being happy and fulfilled here for a while yet. The only hard part is imagining the return to rain-soaked, lonely London life!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Where there's no kind of atmosphere

I have something of a habit of exaggerating people's characterics, good and bad, when I'm recounting an experience to either myself or a lucky listener. Funny people become hilarious, quirks become insanity, and quibbles become all-out fights to the death.

But with these people, our most recent hosts under the Workaway slave-labour regime, no exaggeration will be necessary. Really: I checked myself while I was still in their company. Can these people really be behaving in the way I've cast them as behaving in my mind? I asked myself several times, then watched as they fit the forming stereotype perfectly.

The mother, R, had bought a plot of "land", which was in fact exactly the kind of flat square of scratchy, scrubby nothing that you drive past by the millions of square metres when driving around anywhere south of about Valencia. It was featureless and foreboding, as welcoming as, and actually visually quite similar to, a non-descript patch of Martian desert.

And in this non-place, R had concocted a plan to create a beautiful oasis of a campsite, welcoming everyone from TV-lugging old campervaneros to the kids who come to the coast to party in the summer and are banned from the more sedate campsites that dot the coast all year round.

But the landscape is not the sharp, unforgiving entity in this story that will stand in the way of the success of R's project, but rather R's industrial-strength personality itself. She's been living in her campervan in Spain for about 18 months, on the land for around four. She speaks with a too-many-fags contralto and can immediately be found to take no bullshit whatsoever. She rolls her first joint before breakfast and continues, apparently undimmed, to smoke joints whose strength I can attest to to my cost, throughout the day and evening.

She's accompanied in her dry, prickly life by her son, S, a sweet, nerdy boy of 22 with a cultural and social age of about 13 who has (as he proudly told us) nine Batman t-shirts, two of which are identical. He's into Batman. In a big way. In fact, he's such a devotee of the whole "DC universe", that he seems genuinely woeful and weighed down by the sheer quantity of DC-comics-related TV he has to download and watch each week. There's Supergirl, Star Wars: Legends, Mephisto, Cave Boy, Captain Girders and Ultradude, each of whose TV show brings out a new 40 minute episode each week and "let me tell you, he's got a *huge* backlog," sighs S wearily.

This exhausting schedule requires S to spend long periods of time rinsing the local cafes for their paltry slow wifi since there's none in the Sea of Tranquility which is their home, and to stay up till the insane hours of the morning dedicatedly working through his downloaded stash.

But the unending struggle to keep up with a televisual output which is clearly intended to slake many DC-comic thirsts, not one very thirsty person's, is a breeze when compared to the real thankless struggle of S's life: that with his ferocious mother. He works like a slave for her, during all the non-TV-watching hours of his waking day. He makes her coffee, he cooks the meals, and he works the land in various futile ways, a task rendered comical by the mother's lack of willingness to buy proper tools. Thus, S clears large patches of barbed-shrub infested lunar desert armed only with a small garden rake. He shows off the resulting callouses and scratches with great pride, exactly as you'd expect from the 13-year-old he's not.

And in return for this, R yells, chides, chivvies, harangues and denigrates him from the moment he wakes up to the moment he does the washing up after the evening's meal and slinks off to hide in his fantasy world. The extent and uninterruptedness of this bad-tempered tirade is impossible to overstate. Just when you think you must have been out of your mind to believe that a mother-child relationship could be as dysfunctional as the one you've built in your mind, the next round of action begins and your worst impressions are confirmed. Genuinely the only time this torrent of negativity stops is when they're no longer in the same place.

But their not being in the same place is a curiously pressing issue for young S. As soon as his mother is absent for more than a couple of minutes, he starts wondering aloud about her whereabouts, and doesn't let up until she's back. In fact, thinking aloud to no-one in particular is S's favourite mode of communication. M and I found that if we just ignored it and carried on our conversation, S would keep up a perfectly entertained monologue of funny sounds, TV quotes and stating-the-obvious commentary, quite without requiring any kind of prompting, or even any listening, from us.

Despite this oddity, and the Batman obsession (I made the mistake of asking him early on what is so interesting about Batman. He reeled off a long and undissuadable list of backstory and characters, including some lengthy stuff about Poison Ivy who is, like, basically his favourite character except Batman.), S is clearly a very talented young man. He cooks a very good veggie chilli/shepherd's pie/macaroni cheese for many people on absolutely paleolithic cooking equipment, and is a startlingly excellent drummer who joined a proper-sounding band at age 12 and had recorded an album, including a song he wrote himself, by age 15. But here again his development seems obviously arrested: when I told him I thought he was a great drummer he glowed and said "I'm Grade 7." I haven't heard anyone boast about what grade they were on an instrument since the 90s.

M and I agreed that no Workaway volunteer would be able to put up with the insane-making combination of the mother and son, and we made our excuses and left after just four days.

There's so much more to say about this crazy experience but it's late and this thing is getting long. More next time.....

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

You win some, you lose some

We were only ever supposed to be using Tarragona as a base to leave the car and get public transport into Barcelona. The idea was to see a bit of political history in the making then go out and "make party" until the early hours.

But two things immediately stood in the way of this plan. Firstly, Tarragona is really nowhere near Barcelona on any scale that a person from England can appreciate. Looking at a road atlas of the whole of Spain gives you a pretty warped perspective about which places are near and which are far. It's huge, this country.

Secondly, on the day we arrived, our Couchsurfing host told us that we would have to stay in and guard the house the following day, since her front door was broken (see other posts for details of where this innocent-sounding predicament ended up. Anyway, for now at least, we'd only be trapped in the flat on the basis of a promise. What was to come was a little more severely enforced.) So we resigned ourselves to a day in the flat and moved our trip to Barcelona back a day. This turned out to be far more boring that it sounded, and I had to take a solo stroll to escape the cabin fever.

But go to Barcelona we did, the following the day. We drove to some anonymous outskirts then got the Metro into town. Things were pretty damn exciting when we arrived, as our first glimpse of Barcelona was the beating tourist heart. It's like coming up from the Tube in Leicester Square as your very first experience of London.

To cut a long story short, we ate, strolled, gawped at architecture coming at us from every direction, made friends with a guy in a pizza joint who told us that Manu Chao was playing in a square round the corner, watched Manu Chao play to a crowd of about 70 in the rain, made friends in a bar, drank tequilas with friends, got a tip-off about an underground reggae party happening in a warehouse nearby, went to warehouse, made friends at the party, went with new friends to an insane all-night rave in a very, very muddy patch of scrubland surrounded by cliffs where featureless and pounding beats were being blasted from a speaker wall, in front of which ravers worshipped, the most devout approaching the holy wall to a distance which seemed neither necessary nor healthy. Both our shoes and our eardrums will never be the same again.

This long, long night in Barcelona (we got "home" to Tarragona around noon) resulted in a day in bed, the following morning of which being the morning I set out to get breakfast and ended up locked out of the house for the entire day. M had thus been uninterruptedly in the flat for 2 days.

Needless to say, when it finally came time to leave, door fixed, stuff packed up, we had a feeling a freedom and a hunger to be back on the road. (Our Couchsurfing host had been one of those people where you suddenly feel very, very tired whenever you talk to them. Her voice was very loud, and her only mode seemed to be complaining exasperatedly about one thing or another.) Our joy, though, quickly turned to ashes as the realisation dawned on my that my wallet, being neither in the flat, the car or among my possessions, had somehow got lost on the long day of being locked out the flat. As we drove south into a new world where I no longer had either of my debit cards or my driving licence, I for once rejoiced for the mobile office I had in my pocket, as I called the bank to cancel my cards, ordered new ones, and even negotiated with Visa to get an emergency 200 Euro wired to a Western Union in Granada.

With a cold night in the hammocks (I've now bought one too!) and a bracing morning swim in which is alleged (by random people on the internet) to be Spain's most beautiful beach, we are back on the road heading south. The plan now is to get to Granada for me to pick up my emergency cash.

Until then, it's gonna be a frugal few days.

A homage to a homage

This post was written a few days ago, before all the stuff about Tarragona, but I've only just found the wifi to post it!

We crossed the post-Shengen non-event border late yesterday evening, but unlike other unremarkable EU border crossings, this one had a distinction air of ambiguity around it. What country exactly were we crossing into? The blue and yellow signs said Espana, but the past few days' news seemed to suggest something more poorly defined.

Our Airbnb this time is a fabulous 15th Century farmhouse in the middle of what, to untrained eyes, seems like the complete middle of nowhere. Although this impression has been somewhat undermined this morning by the noisy, joyous and entirely international sound of a neighbouring primary school, so there's clearly life out there in the forest somewhere.

But from this verandah at least, civilisation is a distant light on the horizon, and as far as I can see it's dense forest right the way down into the valley. The weather finally feels mediterranean: it was freezing cold last night, but today has that kind of air where you know it's not just the full sunshine that's keeping you warm, but something more inherent in the atmosphere.

A leisurely breakfast (Airbnb still has a bnb concept here!) was followed by my first experience up-close and personal with a Catalan separatist, in the person of our genial and mildly eccentric host. He taught me how to pronounce the name Puigdemont (although I can't spell it, I now know it's supposed to be "pooj-duh-mon") and proceeded to give M and me a full lowdown on the Catalan situation as viewed from a life-long Geronan, adolescent experiencer of the brutality of Franco, and persistant independence voter.

We started with "the Frenchies" (his term, not mine this time) and their attempts to form a buffer state between them and the Arabs who ruled Spain at the time. (I'm not sure exactly where this put us on the historical timeline, but I'm pretty sure it's a fair way back.) The vibe seems to have been "let's give these mongrels independence, and then they can fight the Arabs on our behalf."

We then fast-forwarded to 1746 (approx: I can't remember) when the Catalans "chose the wrong side" in the fight between the French under Louis XIV and the Austrians. The Catalans chose Austria, Louis came out on top and, for reasons I couldn't get our host to explain, this led to Catalonia being transferred to the Spanish, where it remains, variously welcomed, banned, accepted and repressed to this very day.

Pooj-duh-mon, in fleeing to Brussels before the men from Madrid came for him, has forced the conflict to become international, our host told us. Eight local politicians being sent to jail for 30 years would hardly register on the world press's radar, he said, but by forcing the EU to make a decision about whether it wanted to send a man back to face what are, by anyone's reckoning, charges of a political crime, makes the situation a lot more juicy for those looking for story in all the chaos. Rebellion, the name of Pooj-duh-mon's alleged crime, is not a political charge but rather an inherently violent one. The law is designed for situations of attempted military coup and includes, according to our host, an inherent element of armed violence on the part of the perpetrator. When I then asked him if that didn't mean that the charges were bound to fail, he told me that a person can be incarcerated for four years, "two plus two" as he gleefully described it, without any charge being brought. Apparently the prosecutors have two years to prepare their case, unless they haven't managed within that time, in which case they have another two years. Our host deemed that the four years Catalonia's leaders could spend in prison will be enough to punish the Catalan people and to disperse efforts at independence without even having to even attempt to try the absurdly jumped-up charges.

When I ask him what outcome from the current turmoil the die-hard independence warrior could really hope for, he said that the movement wants only two things: proper civic respect for the Catalan language, a wish it's pretty to sympathise with and unite around, and to send less taxes to the "lazy" peoples of Southern Spain who have for too long now been "rubbing their bellies" growing fat on the industrial money of the Catalans, a wish which gives the liberal left-wing idealist a moment's reflection before he can full-throatedly join the call for change. It's an odd mixture of leftish ideas of localism and respect for cultures, and a fairly unpleasant "xenophobia" and classism against the rest of the Spanish.

As for the future of the region, according to our host, the dream outcome of all this current mess depends on the age of the person you ask. Young people are gung ho for independence, older people still have memories of what the Spanish police are capable of. When M mentioned that the Police had already shown themselves to be capable of brutality, our host dismissed this with a wave of his hand. "What happened during the referendum was mere child's play. We who experienced the Franco regime know what might really lie in store for us." A chilling thought for a warm breezy afternoon.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Tarragona in my pyjamas

I write this post on my phone from a cafe on a roundabout on the outskirts of Tarragona.

The couchsurfing host we're staying with has a problem with her front door. Namely, that the door is broken in such a way that it won't open. Short of smashing the door to smithereens, there's absolutely no chance the bastard'll budge.

M and our host are trapped inside. I'm trapped outside, having gone, in my pyjamas, to buy some breakfast provisions. The situation looks bleak, as our host insists on using the only door company she trusts, a company who aren't answering the phone, and who, when the did early answer, said it would take 5 days to make a new door.

These things have a habit of working themselves out, but for now we're reduced to trading supplies between the inside and the outside of the flat by means of a plastic bag lowered from the 2nd floor on a piece of string. You couldn't make it up.

Actually you could of course, but the version you'd make up would end with some kind of exciting final action, either leaping to safety or kicking down the door.

This more prosaic real story looks likely to proceed with me sitting glumly in a cafe, then sleeping at our host's mother's house while the gears of Catalan door-repair grind slowly into life.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Day 1: much driving

I like the fact that in France, since the early 1990s, absolutely nothing has changed.

The Yop is still surprisingly delicious, the autoroutes are still extortionately expensive, the little towns you drive through on the routes nationales are still 100 percent devoid of any living being beyond about 11am, and much needed shops and hotels are still randomly closed for two week periods with no notice beyond a hand-written nore on the front door. There are still two pharmacies for every unpopulated village, people behind counters are still remarkably unfriendly by default and teenagers are still arguing with their parents about whether Jacques Brel counts as French, being Belgian. In all my conversations so far I've only heard Macron mentioned once. It really is as if the outside world continues to exert no influence over this country.

M and I met up just outside Paris in a surprising and fun way. He'd got the train into town and the plan was to meet in a random location as far west of the peripherique as was reachable with public transport, but the train he was hoping to get had been cancelled (strike action perhaps?) so we ended up in a destination randomly selected from the Parisian departure boards. The sight that greeted me when I turned onto the dead straight tree-lined avenue into town proved to me once again that driving round France is full of unexpected treats for the eye.


It turns out that we'd landed in a tourist hotspot, where the enormous and ornate Ministry of Culture building has huge public gardens and an amazing view out over Paris including, very remotely and almost lost in the haze, a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. (There being, as far as I can tell, no other Parisian landmark visible from a distance.)



We strolled idly around, catching up on one another's basics, leaving the big stories of our lives for the many days of driving we had ahead of us, and the left town in search of our first stop, randomly chosen from the road atlas I'd bought in Folkstone, and the Airbnb which was to be our first night's stop.

We arrived late, in complete darkness to a tiny village which looked identical to the many other tiny villages we'd passed through to get there, and were welcomed by a couple who, delightfully to me, and to M's irritation, spoke no English whatsoever.

In the morning over very weak coffee and a single slice of baguette and jam, I found out that the couple were more remarkable than they first appeared, having adopted three children from an unspecified (to me) country in Africa. The experience of these three black children growing up in rural France sounded full of contradications. La Madame told me that the oldest son, now in the army, has many friends who voted Front National this year. There seems to be a fairly predictable line of "you and your family are OK. Not like those others who come here etc. etc." It's crazy when what had previously only been news reports comes home to you in the form of someone's lived experience. Needless to say the woman was angry and frightened that people she'd known for years were willing to place a vote of no confidence in children's right to grow up as proud, included French citizens.

We made the mistake of going unbreakfasted to visit the Chateau Chambord, which is hidden in the middle of a sprawling, and at this time of year fabulously autumnal forest.



But having got into the car park and finding that it was 15€ to get in, we decided to beat a hasty retreat. We then found that it was 4€ to exit the car park, something we didn't want to pay as a matter of principle. So we had great fun trying to disable the entry barriers so we could get our car out without paying. In the end, a plastic bottle swiftly inserted between the barrier and its base, just after another car had entered through it, left the barrier swinging uselessly limp. We snuck our car through on an upswing with much schoolboy giggling from me, feeling like champions.

We went in search of breakfast, and found a nice little bar where the manager said there was no food avaiable but, on further pleading from me about our lack of breakfast, fetched us a half baguette and a pack of butter. We sat in the garden in the sun eating baguette and drinking coffee and feeling, for the first time, like everything was going to be ok.


In the first of what would turn out to be many such episodes, we then drove south, checking our phones to see whether the couchsurfing spots we'd requested would come through for us before dark, before giving up and getting out the car in a basically random spot.

This new destination turned out to be yet another spectacular Unesco-level town, where we perused a dusty old bookshop, drank a beer and ate tasty warming steaks, before giving up on the idea of getting accommodation for the night and deciding to head into the forest for our first night spent in the wild.

M has a hammock, a sheep's pelt and a tarp to keep him warm and dry between any two suitably placed trees, while I took the back seat of the car. An exciting, if cold and uncomfortable night. It was a good lesson in remembering that a dark forest is just a beautiful daytime forest without the sun: not every cracking branch and loudly nibbling beast is a spirit come to haunt you while you sleep.




Monday, October 30, 2017

Down where it's wetter

There's always a slight sheen of greasy romance around a departure by ferry from Dover.

More often than not you've been up since before the crack of dawn, and you've seen the sky grow slowly grey above a featureless patch of the M20. You've sat in a queue of lorries (for more on which, watch this space: queues of lorries are about to get much, much more common around Dover) waiting to board, and you've worried about your £400 car's suspension as you jolt over the industrial scale entranceway to the boat's underbelly.

Then suddenly, magically, you're on your way, and there's a non-zero chance that the rising sun will be casting a pinkish light on the white cliffs while the curved road of foam left behind you draws an arc out into the English channel.

This sheen of romance is, though, utterly absent from a trip aboard Le Shuttle.

The train itself looks, both inside and out, like something more at home in a dystopian video game than a shiny travel brochure. The ride itself though was thrilling in a kind of bizarre-meets-mundane cognitive dissonance-fest. On the one hand, you're sitting alone in a stationary vehicle, inside an industrial vehicle which, for all the passenger can tell, might as well be just bobbing on the spot. And on the other hand, you know you're racing through tunnels beneath a genuine body of wild oceanic water. The schematic diagram of the escape tunnel running down the centre of the two transit tunnels captured my imagination. And not in a particularly nice way.









Thursday, January 21, 2016

Life is peaceful there...

"Churn" the word I used, and so far it's described things perfectly. The van was speeding along the North Circular, and things had already happened which shouldn't have, and not happened which should.

"It's all just churn, it'll be forgotten about in a few weeks," I declared, waving away the weeks until life was to resume some semblance of normality.

And there has been no shortage of churn in the last three days. It's only now that I've finally got enough time and brain-space to write some of it down so that the second half of my prediction doesn't come true.

First things first: I've left a house after three years, in which I loved and was loved. That sounds pretty sentimental written down, but it's also true so there's no point being shy about it. I was really happy and at home in Evershot Road, and closing the door without keys in my pocket felt like a ceremonial moment:


The packing had gone more or less to plan, which is to say that I'd done all "the hard stuff" (by which I meant "the easy stuff", by which I meant all the chunky easily-categorised stuff like my stereo, and my computer and the main body of my very limited clothing selection) which left me only with EVERYTHING ELSE, which meant a thousand tiny things I'd never have thought of and could categorise only under "Misc." My fellow packers were patient and generous with their time, help and advice as I grew increasingly slapdash in my approach to sorting and packaging. This process ends in the only way it can, with me stuffing a rogue pair of socks found down the back of a cabinet into my coat pocket as I shut the door for the last time.

The van was packed and I decided to use my hard-won local knowledge one last time before embarking for a place where I had none. I decided to turn the van around instead of hitting the busy junction at the south end of my road. This led to the inevitable misjudgement, and Austin Powers-style multi-point turn with impatient onlookers, culminating in me reversing the van into a pole:
 Putting this merrily down to churn we pointed the van westward. It later turned out to be a long scratch and a flapping piece of bumper, the kind of damage I'm sure will end up costing all my £500 excess.

Spirits were lifted by a trip to the services: I don't know what it is about these places but I always leave feeling strangely elated. It's probably nothing more than being full of Burger King additives and Costa caffeine, but I love it and it always makes me feel like holiday.

The rest of the move has been pretty smooth. I have felt London impatience rise up in me every time something is moving at less-than Zone 1-velocity but my stuff is safely in storage, and the van has been safely collected, despite some nervous moments when we thought we'd be charged an extra day for missing the collection rendez-vous. But I'm sure this rising impatience will disperse over time, and I'll return to what I think is probably my natural state: that of being lit by a powerful Bristolian sun while taking all the time in the world to drink my Bristolian coffee.


Quick summary for the everything-else stuff:

So far I've stayed in, and moved out of a lovely but cold AirBnB with a handsome musician in his early 50s, who had a songwriting session with his floaty songwriting pals the night I arrived, and we all had vegan soup and oohed in harmony to songs about dragons.

I've been to see my new office (!) at the University. It's up two flights of a grand old staircase in a converted Victorian house, then up a further narrow "mad sister in the loft"-style flight, right up in the eves. I'm a bit worried about how out-of-the-way it is, but the kitchen is just one floor below so hopefully there'll be hanging out with my new colleagues.

I'm living with some very kind friends now until possibly the end of the month, at which point I'll have at least had some flat viewings. Until then I'm happy and well and looking forward to the first task of my new career: marking exams. Hmmm....



Thursday, May 07, 2015

The first five hundred words

To the nation at large, today will only be memorable for one thing: the 2015 General Election (I'm giving both these words caps. Seems to be right somehow.) is, as I write these words, in the process of being "decided at the ballot box" as the pundits love to say. There's been much talk of this being an unpredictable election and a lot of the usual anthropomorphism around the British people (can a people be anthropomorphosed? I say yes.) with absurdities like: if the result is a hung parliament then this is a clear message from the British people that they want their politicians to work together. Actually I'm pretty sure that a hung parliament is the exact opposite of a clear message from the British electorate, but it makes one feel like a part of some cool opinion-having club, so I'm going to let it ride.

But this is not the way I'll remember this day when I'm looking back from my better-off, more yogic, less beardy, more multilingual and distinctly more employed future; no, today will only ever be the day on which I finally started writing my PhD thesis in earnest.

I came to this small cottage in Harwich (Google it. Harwich I mean, not the cottage.) now a full FIVE days ago, and have thus far been going through what can probably most generously described as "settling in".

I had people to visit for the first three days, leaving really only two days on which I've managed to achieve so very little. But the experience has so far been an interesting and not at all unpleasant one. I'll relate some of it here.

First, the domestic low-lights of the week's anecdotery: I've very much enjoyed the kind of elevated status which domestic tasks take on usually only when you're camping: cooking, laundry, wiping a surface and washing up are all very much part of the day's vital and memorable activities when you're camping, presumably because (a) there's a kind of Blitz spirit which kicks in when the pots, pans, spatulas, expensive washing up sponges and laundry baskets to which one becomes accustomed in the course of opulent urban life are not available to you, and you're left with a single steel pot with an ill-fitting lid, and a brush (shudder) for washing up with, and (b) because there's so little else to do. As a little list for some light relief from all the florid prose which seems to pour forth whenever I write one of these blog posts, I've: hung out washing outside, on an actual washing line, cooked a curry exclusively with products bought from non-ethnically specialised supermarkets (yes, this happens. This is why my parents are able to buy gefiltefish from their local Sainsbury's), washed up while listening to Radio 4 (there's no stereo system of any kind here) and eaten dinner on the sofa (there's also no dining table.) These are the things that make up an actual life, but they're rarely commented on or remembered apart from, as I've said, when there's not much else going on.

I've also played my beautiful guitar by candlelight (a romantic-sounding evening for one), lit an actual fire, read quite a lot of the only vaguely appealing novel on the bookshelves here (it's almost exclusively chain-thrillers like Jo Nesbo and Dragon Tattoo whatever the fuck), slept a fair amount and strolled through the seemingly uninhabited old town of Harwich. More excitingly though, I've started a morning running routine, trotting pathetically (in the old-fashioned sense, hopefully) along the sea-front listening to a podcast designed to get incurable lazies to become striding Mo Farahs in just nine weeks. I've also semi-inadvertently joined a choir. Upon Googling "Harwich events" half in hope, and half in preparation to scorn the inevitable cultural desert, I found a reference to a choir with the absurd name of "Harwich Sings". I also found out that they were rehearsing that very evening, so decided to go along.

When I got to the majestic but crumbling building where they rehearsed (This doesn't narrow anything down by the way. Both adjectives fit almost any building around here perfectly) I listened in at the door. I came extremely close to turning around and never returning again, until I realised, through the yelping and groaning that sounded more like a military field hospital than a choral society, that they were singing Get Lucky by Daft Punk. Those of you who know anything about me at all will know that I was therefore bound by a sacred bond of trust, love and mutual respect between me and that band, not only to go in, but to sign up to sing alongside the distressed-sounding and very possibly mortally wounded singers inside.

Despite my efforts to slip in unnoticed, the woman in charge who, if slimmer, could have been described as larger than life, proceeded to announce my arrival to the whole choir, and made me sit right in the middle of the front row, as I grinned apologetically and tried my best not to look insane with my hi-vis cycling jacket and wild beard.

Anyway, the choir was pretty fun but utterly awful, which is probably the average choral experience in Britain anyway. Curiously, they have no tradition of going to the pub after rehearsals, but I'm sure it's something which I can work into the routine once I've established myself as a good egg and in no way a snobbish London literato out to scoff at their vain wheezings.

But this is supposed to be a blog post about my having started work finally, after much procrastination. (The previous thousand words might have already gone some way towards painting a picture of why I never get anything of substance done, if via no other medium than the sheer number of words itself.)

I received some excellent advice from a man who, despite apparent tendencies towards procrastination, gets more done in a day than I have in the last three years. He said not to worry about writing anything complete, accurate or good. Just write, and leave noticeable placemarkers for all the things that can be filled in in a second round of writing. This advice found its perfect target in me, and was particularly timely as I'd spent the day doing what, in various forms, I spend all days doing: a side-project which I imagine will take a minute and ends up consuming me for so long that I no longer have any concept of what the original project even was. The day before yesterday it was this graph which was intended to accompany the very first sentence I had written and ended up taking me all evening:
A close-to-pointless graph
And yesterday it was the task of remotely logging in to my computer on my desk, since I discovered that my trusty laptop is a teeny bit slower than the growling behemoth bought for me by my employers. This seemingly innocuous task took me a whole day, and ended with me completely reinstalling my operating system. It seems there is no task in the entire world of tasks for a computer which doesn't end eventually with me doing this. I must just be genetically predisposed to tearing up perfectly good work on a whim and gleefully and wilfully reinventing wheels.

But not so today! Today I invented no wheels. Today I merely wrote some words. (And did what for any normal human would be an insane amount of dicking around but for me seems comparatively little.) In fact I wrote five hundred of the bastards.

Now, that's not exactly the daily tally I need to be clocking up if I'm going to be finished by July, but it IS a start, and it means that tomorrow, there's no blank slate to be stared at, no operating system to be reinstalled and nothing standing between me and total victory.

Unless, that is, I end up staying up all night to watch the election results trickle in. Then, tomorrow will be just another day in bed.

My view as I write this

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I'm away on my own = crazy stuff happens

Whenever I travel alone, I feel instantly like a dressing-gowned Bill Murray wandering disconnected and dead-pan through a bizarre Pan's Labyrinth of odd coincidences and semi-believable goings on.

Which is odd, because whenever I'm with anyone else, life tends to drift by at the speed of a lazy river, and I'm either placid and serene, or leaping with inanities and fun.

But this is a story of the former variety: one in which things have happened to me, and I have steadfastly refused to bat an eyelid through the whole, deeply-eyebrow-raising affair. It begins thus:

My flight to Boston for a two-day conference, for which 6 nights in a swish hotel had been booked by my absurdly generous research project, was scheduled for 12.30 on Saturday afternoon. I was delighted with the booking, blithely using words such as "civilised" and "appropriate" to describe the non-RyanAir style departure time.

I was pushing the casual arrival thing a little far when I arrived at Terminal 3 at 11.40, but was concerned to see that the flight I was booked on was reading "Scheduled to leave at 08.30" on the slow-scrolling departure screen. I couldn't divine whether this meant that it had left at 8.30 that morning, or that it wasn't going to be leaving until 8.30 tomorrow morning. Either way, the traditional racing pulse, that accompanies a realisation that, in my slow-paced flaneuring, I've actually fallen genuinely foul of deadline which can't be talked around, accompanied my hurried visit to an Air Canada representative.

It turns out that the sign had meant to say "Scheduled to leave at 20.30". (I enjoyed the thought that some well-meaning operator had gone to the trouble of adding a zero to the start of the time on the screen, hoping to make things look more official, but actually giving a definite indicator that this was to be read as a 24-hour clock system time.) The friendly woman behind the desk said that I could either take a couple of meal vouchers, and enjoy LHR for the next eight hours, or that I could take a "day room" at Air Canada's expense. Thinking of the kind of 'day cabins' you get on cross-channel ferries (little more than prison cells with the locks operable from the inside) I asked what facilities precisely were being offered. It was in fact a room at a Holiday Inn just round the corner. She phoned and was told that because the flight 'would have already closed' by the time the phone call was being made, there would be no day room avaialble after all. I glumly accepted my meal vouchers and began trying to imagine eight hours of terminal unwellness. I took the precaution of asking to speak to a manager, just in case they were able to turn the seemingly arbitrary decision around. After around nine seconds of telling him what had happened, he disappeared into his office and returned brandishing a day room pass. So I, triumphant, left the concourse of Heathrow for the imagined golf courses of complimentary hotel living. The reality was significantly less impressive and I spent a deeply bored six hours reading my Margaret Atwood, listening to the radio and eating complimentary, but close to inedible, pub-style fish and chips in the hotel 'brasserie'.

Finally the flight was boarding and I was told that, although we'd all missed our various connections out of Halifax (where's that I hear you ask? I didn't know either. Canada, apparently), there would be a representative of Air Canada to meet us off the plane and smooth our troubled ways to Boston with complimentaries, apologies and rebooked flights.

When we arrive in Halifax at around 2.30 in the morning London time, the Air Canada representative chosen was a lone guy in a baseball cap, surrounded by anxious travellers with tired children, all trying to get an answer where none was forthcoming. He had tickets for a shuttle bus, and nights in a nearby hotel to give out. As for the connecting flight to Boston: Give 'em a call, he said, they'll sort you out.

We arrived at our hotel, this one far plusher than the London effort, at around three thirty in the morning (11.30pm local time) vaunting our dinner and breakfast vouchers and our free hotel rooms. I checked into my palatial room and called Air Canada. After around 20 minutes on hold, I spoke to a very friendly woman who told me cheerfully that the next direct flight to Boston was on Monday. Recall that this is currently Saturday evening, and that my conference started on Monday. The best she could offer was an indirect flight via Ottawa, leaving Halifax at 06.15. (Leading zero deliberate this time.) This would mean getting the 04.30 shuttle bus and the time by now was half past midnight (half four in body-clock terms.)

I decided to make the most of my very, very short time in this nice hotel and went for a swim in the pool. It had officially closed hours before, but the woman on reception had a twinkle in her eye and said "just swim quietly and I'll turn a blind eye." So I turned a few lengths in a gorgeous, completely empty hotel pool and retired, hungry but ready to sleep. As it turned out, dinner had already finished by the time we'd arrived, and breakfast didn't start till six, so the vouchers went unsoent, we went unfed and it was back to the airport for the whole sorry lot of us. (In an amusing side-note, an elderly Indian lady had broken her glasses and she and the friendly receptionist who let me swim were trying to fix them. I stepped in cavalierly and manhandled the lense back into its wire casing. All were jubilant, until the lady put the glasses back on, and the lens came flying out in spectacular fashion landing on the floor with a scrape. Ah well.)

A deeply boring 90-minutes at the departure gate at Halifax airport was leavened only by a fun Canadian couple, the male of which told me that there's no good coffee to be had in North America, and that the best he'd ever had had been in New Zealand where he'd drunk something mysteriously called a "Flat White". I reassured him that no one in London knew what it was either, but that we were willing to pay $5 for the experience. He also informed me that "oatmeal" is a synonym for "porridge". Thus was my Sunday morning spent.

Upon arrival at Ottowa at around eight in the morning local time (I was no longer keeping track of what the time really was: I just knew I was overwhelmingly tired and very hungry), I was told that the flight to Boston I was booked on had in fact had been overbooked by three whole passengers and that the next flight wasn't until 16.30 that afternoon, a spookily similar eight hours to the eight hours I'd just spent in and around Heathrow. But there was hope: perhaps I could go down to the gate anyway, and see if anyone didn't turn up. I'd then be next in line to hop to the US. I was given a further meal voucher (a measly 10 Canadian dollars, which wasn't enough to buy me an omlette) and sent on my way. I sat nervously waiting as happy Boston-bound customers chatted light-heartedly with the staff and made their way onto the plane. As the last one filed on, an announcement was made: "Jim Smith, this is your final call for flight 123 to Boston. Please present yourself to the gate immediately." Hope surged in my heart. An second announcement a minute later: "Jim Smith, if you want to board the flight to Boston this is your last chance." I made myself known to the gate staff. We traded nervous glances. The woman said, let me just check he's not already on the plane; he might have slipped past me. I thought this a laughable eventuality and prepared to show my boarding card for the very last time.

After a period spent peering out of the window, in dark conference with a colleague, she returned to tell me that, yes, Jim Smith had indeed manage to evade her security checks and was already on the plane. The taxiing had already begun. I felt like I wanted to cry.

Instead of crying I sat and waited to be escorted back though US customs and back onto Canadian soil, where I'd never wanted to be in the first place. I was passed around several members of staff, who told me first that there was another flight via Toronto, my third unwanted Canadian destination, and then that that flight was full. Finally I was booked, like the inevitable sentencing of a kangaroo court, onto the flight leaving for Boston at four thirty in the afteroon. I was given a further meal voucher, written a cheque for $100 Canadian (about 60 quid) and told to wait for the flight. I said that it was probably time for me to see someone from customer services or a manager, and a concerned looking man with a clipboard was duly summoned. I recounted to him the whole unhappy tale, about how I'd barely eaten or slept in 24 hours and how far away I still was from my destination and he said, well, I never do this, ever. And if I do it, you've got to promise not to tell anyone. But I'll take you to the Maple Lounge, the kind of Chris Huhne-style low-security prison with perks that the Daily Mail gets wound up about, and you can wait out the rest of your sentence there.

And so it came to pass. I'm now a mere five hours away from getting on a plane that, in principle at least, is going to a place I actually want to be, and I'm enjoying the free internet, comfy chairs and UNLIMITED DRAUGHT BEER which the Maple Lounge is proud to offer its Gold Star customers.

The moral? 1) Don't fly Air Canada. 2) Don't get a flight that's going via somewhere, even if you save a hundred quid, and finally, the closest to my heart: 3) Don't just put up with the crappy first answer people in authority give you. Push a little harder and you too could be drinking unlimited draught beverages in a low-security wing for the rest of your pointless little days.

Your ever affectionate travelling correspondant,
Rob