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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Summer's almost over!







Thursday 27th August

The reality of a new term is beginning to intrude itself into my waking moments.

There is not, I have to admit, the sick dread that eventually accompanied starting a new term in Cardiff, but there is certainly apprehension.

We will be in the building for approximately two weeks before the students (whoever they may be) arrive. As this is a grant aided school (for reasons which are not entirely clear, unless you think about the cash) and the parents have to pay vast sums each month to keep their progeny in the privileged educational surrounds of our prestigious institution – they can also withdraw their children at any time.

One of the more interesting pupils in Year 8 will not be going into Year 9 in our school because she is having a year in a boarding school in England. As she will be in Malvern I have encouraged her to find out about the Women’s Institute. She has all the determination to become chair of her local WI by the end of her year in the school! They won’t know what has hit them until it’s too late!

Other pupils are going elsewhere to continue their education in a different school though they are leaving at the start of a new key stage. Others, I have been told, will simply not turn up.

It is only at the actual start of a new term that we know the exact numbers of those who are going to be with us for the year. All this makes the buying of text books and materials a little problematical – but no doubt I will see the organization lurch into action and all things will be well.

The most important element of this new term for me is the signing of a permanent contract: this will give me an illusion of security and should, with any luck, see me through to the balmy days of my official retirement when new supplies of devalued pounds should trickle more convincingly into my British bank account. One is reminded of his late majesty, King Henry VII who managed to “live of himself” and manage his finances so that he had little recourse to the parliament for money. The salary for teachers in Spain is woefully low (even with the extra months that you are paid at Christmas and in the Summer, so the salary is actually 14 months worth) and living within my income from school will be a tricky economic balancing trick calling for restraint bordering on parsimony and a careful and realistic assessment of necessity to govern purchases. As I don’t really know what the sentiments in the last sentence actually mean and even if I did I am sure that they have never touched my financial attitude, I shall probably march wide eyed into penury.

Except, of course, I won’t. As Miss Flite in ‘Bleak House’ said in a different context (in her case about ‘pain’), “I don’t have money, but there is money somewhere in the room.” The derisory exchange rate makes the use of money from the UK a ridiculous extravagance, so my tattered pounds will have to stay where they are until the bankers (who make The Owner of The School That Sacked Me look like St Thomas Aquinas) have sucked enough money out of the system and into their pockets so that the pittance left can be used to boost the miserly financial ruin that I have left behind in my rain sodden country.

The sticky fingered cretins who manage our financial system have until October 2010 to get things sorted. If they don’t I will be forced to ‘open a file’ – and we all know what that means!

All this talk of money has prompted me to phone the company that lost almost 25% of my savings and see what else they have done to remedy the situation. Expect another diatribe if things are just as bad!

Well, the incompetent cretins have managed to bring down the loss to just under 10% on the original investment – but this ignores the fact that the money has been in the fund for over two years where it should have grown year on year. I suppose that I should be grateful for the fact that my money is slowly getting back to the starting point as some people lost vast sums of money irrevocably.

I cannot help thinking that if I had taken the money for the house, ignored expert financial advice and merely transferred the money to a Spanish bank and left it in a simple deposit account I would have been much better off. The exchange rate was 70p rather than the present 87p and I would still have had the global sum and interest on it at whatever rate.

Hindsight is a wonderful banker and certainly better than the unscrupulous thieves who direct our money into their own bottomless pockets. And don’t tell me that I am being unfair and simplistic: they deserve every piece of opprobrium we can throw at them as they continue to live their privileged and expensive lives well away from the concerns of the rest of us!

If the toothache was not enough my old tennis injury is playing up. I was horrified to work out that this injury is now forty-two years old! I would be proud to report that it was a result of my smash serve destroying my elbow or the sheer amount of intense tennis that I played. Alas! Hubris was the cause of my discomfort.

After playing a strenuous game against the French exchange student who was staying with me I celebrated my victory by leaping nimbly over the net. Well most of me so leapt. A trailing foot ensured that I landed on the asphalt of Rumney Gardens Tennis Court with my right elbow leading the way.

Splitting the bone is, I can assure you, much more painful than actually breaking it. The legacy of this little show of exuberance is an elbow which is subject to swelling. Over the last couple of weeks it has become uncomfortable and so I thought I would have a day of double pleasure and go to the doctor as well as visiting the dentist.

I was seen almost immediately and then, in spite of my repeated requests to have someone stick in a hypodermic and draw off the fluid, I now have a further appointment for Monday. Such joy!

Friday 28th August 2009

Our trip down to deepest darkest Catalonia began with my thinking that our eventual destination was ‘a little beyond Tarragona’: this was not true – it was an extra hour beyond Tarragona and near the Ebro delta. Well, nearish.

Our destination was the town of Senia which was inland from the sea but within easy reach of beaches and other stretches of water as we were to discover.

The town itself is unremarkable but has unexpected touches of interest. The mountains rise abruptly from the ends of streets and add a dramatic touch. Some of the domestic architecture harks back to a more decorative age and some of the houses have a simple elegance. A small tree shaded ‘square’ had a constantly running drinking fountain of pure, sweet water which, I am ashamed to admit I squirted at Carles by placing my finger over the spigot; a trick which he had not up to that point of his advanced age of four yet learned. He was an apt pupil and we were both quickly inappropriately drenched. Luckily the weather soon dried us off and that was only during a short walk around the corner!

Our tasty tapas lunch completed we went off in a convoy of two to ‘The River.’ This (confusingly) turned out to be a reservoir which, given the profile of the valley that it filled encouraged some swimming in a few parts from its rocky banks.

After my experience of The Lake District on a blazingly hot August when I and Penny (the Labrador) threw ourselves into the refreshing water and both nearly passed out with the intense and somehow personal cold which instantly penetrated all sections of our bodies, I was wary of placid stretches of water not connected to a warm sea – or at very least the Gulf Stream.

I needn’t have worried, the intriguingly green water was positively inviting compared with my expectations. The only drawback was the structure of the shores of the dam which were of foot-unfriendly stones. We had been warned of this and I had a pair of plastic flip-flops which took away most of the pain but, as they were lighter than water, gave a distinctly odd feel to my swimming. As I was also concerned about their falling off my feet I do not think that my style would have scored highly from any discriminating viewer.

Returning to the car via a precipitously friable mud and stone surface in wet, slippery flip-flops is not to be recommended as my middle finger on the right hand attests. Flailing wildly (not for the last time on this holiday) I just about managed to catch my balance and the serrated bark of a passing tree gave me a little souvenir of my immersion.

We then went to an open air torture chamber. Or river as it is sometimes known.

The river was absurdly picturesque with overhanging banks and bosky growth and waterfalls and crystal clear pools but we were not expected merely to observe the landscape but actually to participate in it.

I was encouraged to venture into water so cold that I was amazed that it wasn’t solid. Luckily I noticed my evil friends moving away to another spot and so waddled out of the glacial horror on legs which had lost all feeling and followed them to what they assured me would be more tolerable water.

They were of course lying.

The cold of the water in this lovely stretch of river was the sort that actually burns and after one short breathless width from one bank to another I was grateful to regain the human warmth of the balmy surrounding air above the water! But we did all feel that we had achieved something!

The evening was another day of the festival of the town and the area in front of the town hall beautifully treed with shade was set with chairs and a concert platform.

The usual travelling fair had been set up and Carles was taken to see it and take part in some of the more disturbing rides.

To British eyes the whole things was absurdly impossible. Wherever you looked Health and Safety had been ignored. Open machinery; unfenced areas; rickety staging; unsafe stairs; children next to rotating machinery and so on. Like the Spanish attitude towards the public’s involvement in the setting off of fireworks it’s something to enjoy as long as you don’t think about it too closely!

Saturday 29th August

Today the seaside – or rather riverside; or maybe a bit of both.

The morning was taken up with a walk through the town. The streets are narrow and have the typical patchwork variety of connected buildings that you see in many Spanish and Catalan small towns. Some of them still have the original rough stonework while others are smoothly covered in new rendering. There are juxtaposionings of modern with traditional and you experience these in a particularly tactile way given the very narrow pavements.

The town was preparing for an evening’s entertainment of setting a bull free with flaming torches attached it its horns while idiots pranced around in front of it courting death, disfigurement and a further drain on medical resources. We made an executive decision not to grace such barbarism with our presence. Instead we went to the local market where I was told that I could purchase eight (count them!) litres of locally produced red wine for the princely sum of ten euros. And just in case you are thinking – it was, I was assured, not at all bad!

As I was walking to the ‘fountainhead’ of such liquid value I should have remembered that bit in ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about flying. It says somewhere that the trick of flying without any artificial help is to fall and ‘forget to land’ – that way you defeat Newtonian physics and fly like a bird. I forgot that piece of advice as I tripped my way along the narrow, worn smooth pavements swinging my eight litre canister eager to make my purchase and then tripped in reality.

So, in addition to the tree injury, the inflammation of a forty year old tennis accident, the tooth ache (even after the replacement filling) and the upset tummy that the witches’ cauldron of drugs that I am now taking, I am now able to add two grazed knees and a bruised wrist. I look (and indeed feel) like a naughty schoolboy with my shorts and short sleeved shirt showing off my wounds to their best advantage!

I, of course, look and feel fine so the injuries (that you can see) look like an absurd affectation. Affected! Moi?

I had been to the Delta of the Ebro a couple of years ago but I remembered it without affection. This experience was rather more interesting with a trip along the river’s edge as it wound its way through grassland to the sea.

The whole area is a wonderland for birds and other fauna, though the vision I had to a flamingo was of a distant blob!

The riparian shore is made more interesting by the inclusion of modern sculptures along the path to the major watchtower – which itself looked like a sort of modern wooden take on a ziggurat!

After lunch we went further along the spit of land which housed the delta passing as we did so fertile acres of planted rice and went to the dunes on the sea side of the delta. The long gentle slope of the beach into the water meant that the sea was filled with sand in suspension and any chance of seeing fish was lost in glittering grains. But a warm swim was pleasant in spite of the sting of the salt on my newly grazed knees and a very satisfactory laze afterwards!

Back to the house and, then allowing Carles to risk death on our behalf. This time the ‘ride’ that he chose was a sort of ‘House of Soft Pain.’ This was an open fronted arrangement of soft ladders, slides, plastic balls and rope ladders and inflatables. Children of tender years rushed their separate ways though various obstacles on three levels to ‘have fun.’

It is not often that one sees a version of ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in living horror. The kids may not have had many years between them, but by god they had set ideas about how to get from place to place. Bodies were flung and discarded as happy, demented children smashed their respective ways through, over and past obstacles – up to and including other children!

I began to give some of the juvenile battlers names from the novel. There was an absurdly wide eyed innocent who could only be Simon. Then there was a chunky bruiser and his lanky sly looking sidekick who seemed perfect for Samneric. I would have liked to have thought that our own Carles could have been the Ralph character but I fear he lacked the essential ‘kindness’ that would have been more appropriate than the cavalier disregard he showed as he rushed his way through the obstacles.

I have been trying to read ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sara Waters but the proximity of a one year old and a four year old do not necessarily provide the right ambiance for reading, but I managed to finish it yesterday evening.

As it is now already tomorrow I think I can safely leave my thoughts until later in the day!


Sunday 29th August

Carlos and Carmen have bought to a fine level of perfection the collection of kids’ toys and all the other impedimenta which is nowadays essential when taking young persons away on holiday. They did this without fuss and with the perfection which comes from long practice!

I was almost able to sit down with my book and read away with a quiet conscience as any ‘help’ I could have offered would only have interfered with the smooth running of the well oiled parental machine.

Our return journey to Castelldefels was broken at Segur de Calafells where Toni’s aunt has a flat. Toni’s mum was staying so the augmented family was able to go out and have a more than respectable meal at an air-conditioned restaurant.

The family has a predilection (to me entirely inexplicable) of going for walks. One such was proposed after lunch and we all set off along the sea front to children’s swings and such things to keep the kids quiet and give the adults a breathing space.

The walk extended itself to the marina area where in special alleys a game (actually many games of) boules were taking place. I was impressed with the way that these ancient persons ‘read’ the rink and managed to produce precise placement along a ridged and rutted terrain. I was also particularly impressed with the ways that they picked up the boules after playing. One person had a sort of magnetic plumbline which saved him the trouble of bending over and gave him a remarkably foppish appearance when throwing his first ball. I did at first think that it was some sort of balance to ensure accuracy and to give himself the correct amount of poise for the precise shot. Another old man had a telescopic pointer with a magnetic tip: very professional!

I was dragged away from watching fascinating matches by the offer of one of those fruit drinks which are mostly composed of minute balls of ice. I had always assumed that these were the same as slush puppies but I was assured that these were in a different class altogether.

A heft glass of luridly green slush was placed in my hands and I greedily (I must confess) sucked on my straw. It was a strange sensation as the tiny globes of ice mixed with remarkably pungent lemon and lime slurped its way down my throat.

Almost immediately I was reminded of frozen yogurt. Not the taste, you understand, but rather the pain that had to go with this sort of acute pleasure.

It was in Atlanta in the dim and distant days when I have left Europe rather than listen to the sycophantic, nauseating posturing of abject worship that accompanied Big Ears’ wedding to the ‘Give me attention or I’ll die’ Princess, that I first tasted frozen yogurt. It was delicious and each lick of icy pleasure was succeeded rapidly by another. And that greed provoked the inevitable headache.

A slower eating of my next frozen yogurt the next day was still too quick and the searing pain should have told me that perhaps frozen yogurt and I were not compatible. But, in some things I have a fairly high pain threshold and I was determined to continue.

The tricks I learned in Atlanta which enabled me to eat frozen yogurt without almost immediate hospitalization were very helpful as the first twinges of pain crossed my forehead as the ice globules slipped down.

Finding an easy pace which mixed natural melting with hand assisted defrosting and judicious stirring with the straw enable me to drink a fairly constant supply of delicious fruit associated drink without crying.

Although the last few drifts of ice were just that – frozen water, I have to say that the flavour lasted well and even at the end there was a suggestion of citrus that I had not expected to find so deep into the cup.

By the time we finally got home we were both exhausted but I was determined to finish my book and indeed did so.

‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters is a masterly novel which is (or is not) a ghost story. It is difficult to talk about the novel without spoiling the story for a new reader but the basic structure of the book is clear.

This is the story of a house and the clash which results when a dysfunctional ‘county’ family seemingly out of place in the Brave New World of a post war Labour government comes into contact with something which eventually destroys the family for good.

The narrator is a family doctor called Faraday who, rather crassly given the name, introduces himself firmly into the family circle by the use of his electrical stimulation machine to try and help the young squire trying and failing after a war career and serious injuries in the Air Force to take some control over the fortunes of the family.

The first part of the novel charts the way in which the life of Faraday (a working class boy made good) is increasingly joined to those of the gentry in the old house.

My major problem with this book is about the narrator himself. There seems to me to be a dichotomy between the skill of the narration and the hapless nature of the narrator himself. His writing is fluent and perceptive but his character is less than convincing and where it does come to life it is infuriatingly ineffectual. Would someone who writes as well as this be as flaccid a character as he portrays himself in the story? I constantly found myself convinced by the writing and not by the character.

Ambiguity is at the basis of this story and Waters takes every opportunity to complicate any easy response to the problems of the narrative. There must be a constant questioning on the part of the reader asking himself what ‘exactly’ is going on. Themes abound in this book and there is enough symbolism (if you care to look for it) to fuel a literary thesis! This could be a ghost story; a revealing autobiography; a story of class conflict; a love story; a psychological thriller – with a few other genres thrown in.

Without giving away the ending (which I found chilling and disturbing) the author leaves us with an image which may or may not be an accurate summation of a life.

A thoroughly provoking, unsettling and chilling read. I recommend it.


Monday 31st August 2009

I can hardly believe that this is the last day of the holidays. The sky has partaken of my sorrow and has been generally overcast, but this being Catalonia; we have had our portion of sunshine too!

Lunch was with Irene and time for a chat to catch up on all the news that had passed me by as I was in the very south of Catalonia.

The most significant part of the day was a visit to the doctor who drained the fluid which had accumulated at the site of a forty year old tennis injury. I hope that this will not need to be repeated for another forty years!

I realize now that I have done nothing to prepare myself for the forthcoming term. I only hope that the promised two weeks space before the kids arrive to be taught will allow me to catch up on those things which in my case I certainly have not done. To be fair to me I don’t actually know what I should have done as no one has told me. Also I have not been employed by the school for the last month. And I have done damn little to find out what I should have done. And I seem to be protesting too much!

In a strange sort of way I am looking forward to seeing what happens tomorrow.

I can’t help feeling that my expectations will be disappointed and the natural cynicism of any teacher will be fully justified in my case!

I must remember to set the alarm!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Into every life etc etc

There is a universal equilibrium which links pain and pleasure.

I don’t really believe that, of course – but it fits nicely in the significant moments of the day.

My toothache has become significantly worse and my search for a dentist has had to be extended to include those who are not necessarily proficient in my native tongue. The dentist I used last seems to have decamped: his local is for sale and his phone number doesn’t work. This is a pity as he actually had a photo of his participation in the Henley Regatta on the wall of his clinic and almost represented Holland in some Olympics or other. His English was certainly sufficient to cover all the necessary clinical details of what he was doing in my mouth!

The search for a dentist involved my computer and sending a request to be phoned back which happened immediately I pressed the return button on the keyboard. A computerized voice eventually contacted us to a real person and the appointment was made. As the appointment was in the evening the whole of the rest of the day was threatened by the misery of what they might do later.

To keep my mind occupied I arranged house contents insurance – a little late, one might say after the purloining of our bikes but better late than never. The conversation with the insurer (RACC) took a long, long time but I am now covered. It was a particular pleasure that Ceri’s paintings now have reached the stage where they have to be listed as separate items and photos taken for ‘insurance purposes’! The cuff-links which my cousin made (or hand-cuffs as the insurer disturbingly called them!) also make it to the separate item list!

Still having spare time we went out to lunch so that I could see the wandering watch seller. I have a fatal predisposition to believe that I can get a decent watch at a rubbish price from these characters. In spite of extensive, expensive experience which would indicate fairly clearly that my faith is somewhat misplaced I continue to buy watches whose make I have never heard of (because of their ludicrous price in ‘real life’) which fail as soon as I go for a swim – in spite of the fact that the ‘real’ watches are guaranteed virtually to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Our meeting had been arranged by Toni over the phone in dreadful Spanish (the seller’s not Toni’s) and, as it turned out neither of them had fully understood the other and my ‘good’ watch will be left with the café owner. My faith is still strong that this one (out of all the others) will work!

Time inevitably dragged on so I volunteered to go to Lidl to get a few essentials and buy the plastic outside cupboard to put my bike safely away – in spite of the comfort of household insurance!

The cupboard was made of plastic and was flat packed. It boasted that no tools were needed. The bits were on a sort of Airfix frame and looked interesting. Tools may not have been needed but patience was an essential.

Before it was tried out I was off to the dentist.

I bought a book about the history of Castelldefels on my way to the clinic and put the purchase down to ‘displacement activity’ – especially as the bloody thing was written in Catalan!

In the clinic there was the usual rather frantic use of Spanish by me and the relief as the actual dentist spoke a form of English. The upshot is that I have a small infection under a molar which, if it responds to antibiotics can be safely ignored for another few years. A broken filling will have to be done tomorrow. Not good.

But the positive aspect came when I left the clinic in a part of Castelldefels that I have not previously walked through and found a very well appointed cheese shop!

My request for Cheddar (which I have not eaten for a couple of years) was gratified with what turned out to be a very ordinary version of that noble food. A couple of other Spanish cheeses which I sampled were much more interesting and I will savour them later. The rest of the produce in the shop looked appetising and interesting and I am sure that it is not the last time that I will visit the place.

So another day to pass before some stranger has me in her power.

I must think of engaging things to do to keep my mind at rest!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Peel me a grape!



Well, it hasn’t rained – but by god it wants to.

We have had one of those humid or ‘close’ (as my mother would have described it) days which encourage little rivulets of sweat (sorry, perspiration – I was forgetting my ‘First Aid in English’!) to flow across the furrows of a brow wrinkled in disgust at the incessant crying of the infuriating small child which is gifted to every neighbourhood.

The Girls have gone and should now be back in Reading checking that the paddy fields of the city are still in working order after the generous supply of water that they have missed during their weekend when we were all galvanized into a strenuously inactive round of doing nothing. And very enjoyable it was too!

The Culture Club that I was invited to help found by the American art teacher in my school is going to illustrate the differences between state and private education.

Our original idea was to take small groups of students to various art events throughout the year and by pre and post event meetings with the students give them context for what they were going to experience and get a feedback of their reactions by encouraging discussion. We thought that two visits per term would be about right and, after a year we could assess the success or otherwise of the venture and take it further or give up!

The Good Idea had to be written up into a fairly formal proposal and then The Powers That Be had to make a decision. I couldn’t really see any problems apart from the obvious bureaucratic horrors of ‘risk assessment’ – and even that is not as highly advanced into the realms of inane stupidity as it is in the UK.

The Powers That Be have spoken and said that we will be ‘compensated’ for our joint efforts; the small group that we had in mind must be expanded to a larger one; a year’s programme must be submitted as soon as possible with all costs estimated; this could be a course for which a payment would be demanded from the parents . . . and at that point I knew that I was in a different teaching institution from the ones in which I have been up to now.

The art teacher and I will have a meeting in the first fortnight back (which is without children) and have to come up with something pretty concrete before the arrival of the pupils on the 14th or 15th of September. We have been told that opera does not meet with the full approval of whoever has considered our proposals and that any cinema going must be thoroughly vetted to see that there is nothing ‘inappropriate’ for the pupils’ viewing.

I shall wait for more information about the precise detail of what restraints there might be on our ideas but I have a suspicion that I am going to experience another, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” situation that sums up a lot of my response to some of the more odd ways of doing things that I have found in Catalonia.

Meanwhile I look forward to a series of cultural jaunts with intelligent and articulate students. And I will try and keep my pontificating to an absolute minimum!

The most pressing problem facing me at the moment (apart from my toothache and the lack of a dentist, let alone an English speaking one) is what to do with the bike. The new un-stolen one, that is.

At present our bikes (all three of them) are securely locked in the space under the first flight of stairs. This space has been made into a sort of lumber wedge with the door opening to the space under the house. The bikes are stacked together in a limited space and securely padlocked together behind a locked door.

This is wonderful security, but the sheer fuss of getting the bike out is certain to mean that I never (and I mean never) use it.

I have therefore looked at other possibilities. Clarrie and Mary have a bike ‘safe’ which seemed like an idea solution until I was told that it came flat-packed and fiddly and that its construction took an entire day and almost ruined a relationship. It also cost four hundred quid. I am therefore looking for an alternative solution.

I thought I had found one in a sort of plastic garden shed thing in Lidl’s until Toni poured scorn on the idea saying that the macho thieves in our area would merely carry out the whole caboodle and put it into the ‘van’ that Toni is convinced is prowling around waiting to scoop up expensive possessions.

My counterblast to luke-warm contempt is fatally weakened by not being able to find one of the five or six tape measures that we have to find out the dimensions of the bike and then compare those with the Lidl shed. As the shed costs €60 I am understandably keen on the idea.

Meanwhile, until a tape measure turns up, I will settle down and start reading Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ which was left with me by Clarrie so that I could (according to Clarrie) enjoy a writer whose work I have not read or (according to Mary) take a heavy book off Clarrie’s hands which would push her hand luggage over the limit!

In either case I have gained a book which is, as all right thinking people know, A Good Thing!

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Cycle Thefts!


Our next door neighbour has had his bike stolen and another two have gone from surrounding houses. Our faith in the police to do anything practical to regain our bikes is zero and so we have started to compile a file of information for ourselves.

Toni keeps breathing defiance and threats against our unknown thieves and I sincerely hope that that he never comes into close proximity with any of them: I have a strong personal disinclination to go visiting in a Spanish prison!

The pattern of thefts now makes it more likely that there is a gang operating in the area and relying on opportunistic thefts to keep them in business.

Our relaxed lifestyle continues with the most energetic things that we have done as a group is to prance around in the swimming pool bouncing an inflated plastic ball between us. I would imagine that there are a few groups of people who would relish photographs of our little athletic session, although I am sure that the use to which they would be put graphic images would not reflect well on our respective professional situations!

The tentative plan for this evening is to go into Sitges and watch the usually spectacular firework display which marks the progress of the annual festival. Our lethargy makes this a possible rather than a probable.

Since I wrote that last sentence we have indeed been to Sitges.

The fireworks in Sitges are justly famous and my timing to get a meal and be ready for the show at 11.00 pm was perhaps cutting it a little fine. Finding a parking space in the public car park was a little difficult and the antics of other drivers manoeuvring for space provoked a level of lively interest from the girls that got the necessary adrenaline surge into the system to appreciate the pyrotechnics.

Finding a table outside facing the sea was even more difficult, especially as the police had demanded that restaurants with seating outside the actual restaurants close down that area to allow more people into the best viewing sites.

We eventually found a French Restaurant (nobody tell Toni who was at home watching Barça romp home to a 5-1 win for their latest trophy) where, amazingly we sat outside in their ‘garden’ to have a meal.

The setting and the ambiance was a pastiche of a stereotype of a cliché for a certain type of restaurant in Sitges. We were taken to our seats by an impossibly slim waiter with tight fitting T shirt who was a damn sight older than he thought he looked. Our order was taken by a chunky transvestite wearing silver sequined dress which revealed good rugby player legs. The food however was delicious.

As the service was leisurely we watched the first part of the firework display from our table but, this being Sitges we were able to see the bulk of the show after we had paid the bill and rushed down to the sea front.

The show, as usual was fantastic and Mary transformed into a child with hands at her mouth watching countless thousands of Euros transform into burning light.

At the point when other firework displays would run out of money and end the one in Sitges found new strength and filled the dark night sky with colour and light.

The climax of this stunning show was a disorientating series of bright light explosions whose shock waves had a tangible physical effect on the watchers and ensured that they were whipped up into the right state of mind to whoop their appreciation as the last rocket ended the display.

We went to a bar on the main exit road for a drink to watch the people pass and to give the car park a chance to empty a little. The number of people with dogs was shocking to those of us brought up with the injunction every November the fifth to ‘Keep Pets Indoors’ – however the animals looked none the worse for their experiences.

The car park was (again) a nightmare. The only parking space that we could find when we arrived was right at the back of the park. Clarrie kept me company in the front while we inched forward every ten minutes or so. When we finally made it out of the confines of the parking area there was still a stalemate of selfish drivers jockeying for position to get out as well!

Perhaps, in some ways the misery of the parking experience allows my selectively Puritan soul to see a sort of balance between the utterly frivolous expenditure of vast sums of money on fireworks to see it all, literally go up in smoke and the harsher reality of being stuck in an unmoving gridlock in the parking. With pleasure must come pain!

Today is the day when Mary is going to fling herself upon the foaming deep (well, the gentle swell) and go windsurfing or possibly boating – depending on which is available for hire. This will mean that at least they will have visited the beach at least once!

I must get my camera ready!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where have all the full days gone?



You always start with good intentions and then, like the proverbial morning dew (which you do not see) they all evaporate in the morning sun.

Not much of the morning remained when we were all assembled to decide what to do. So we decided to do very little and meander our way towards lunch.

The idea of the siesta was taken on board with alacrity by all concerned after a great lunch and suddenly, as far as I was concerned, it was seven in the evening! Astonishing!

A desultory swim and it was time for dinner! It’s a hard old life!

Far be it from me to let a day slip by without some musing and my thoughts today have been focused on Paul One who has now, at long last, bought his first original work of art from Ceri’s exhibition, the contents of which can be viewed at http://www.albanygallery.com/g2/current_exhibition.php?offset=0. The number of paintings sold in Ceri’s show is now well into double figures and is rapidly approaching twenty pictures sold.

The collecting urge is something deep inside the soul of all us descendents of hunter gatherers. I have long since stopped being surprised by what people consider worthy of being collected. Rather like outré sexual practices, whatever you can think of is actively being pursued and probably has a monthly magazine devoted to its finer details! Toothpaste, asphalt, fish posters, unintentionally burnt food

Some might find the collecting of stamps or first day covers (mea culpa!) or beer mats or matchboxes as strange but at
http://www.neatorama.com/2008/05/14/neatoramas-guide-to-25-of-the-strangest-collections-on-the-web/ you can find things that defy logical thought. Who would collect toothpaste or asphalt or fish posters or unintentionally burn food? Yet there are sad souls who do just that.

My own collecting is now limited. My books are too numerous to be fitted into my present home and my predilection for gadgets is still unconfined but my spoon collection is now closed and my fcd collection (if you have to ask you wouldn’t understand) continues automatically.

Collecting paintings or other original works of art is a suspect, but highly satisfying activity. One the one hand there is the surely negative and exclusive aspect of owning a unique art object to the exclusion of everyone else; something which is an object which you Own with a capital ‘O’. On the other hand there is the satisfaction of having an authentic work of an individual artist to consider at first hand and to enjoy and discover.

One of my fantasies was created instantly when I heard of a couple of art collectors who bought a new house so that they could convert the attic space into an air conditioned storage space for their art collection. An art collection which was re-hung periodically so that each of their works of art had a fair chance of making it to the walls. That, truly, is the stuff of dreams!

I now have more pictures that I can hang without making our modest home look like an old fashioned museum where they used to hang paintings virtually from floor to ceiling: anything which fits in the jigsaw of canvases is on show syndrome.

Like my books, it is a strain not being able to show everything all the time, but I will have to learn to rotate my ‘collection’ and perhaps have an area where the paintings are packed in so that I can regard one area of the house as an on show storage area and raid that space to alternate paintings elsewhere in the house.

Paul has now become a collector and I hope that he will, over the years, acquire enough visual material to afford him the very satisfying problems of selection and positioning of the paintings, prints and objects that he loves the best.

Perhaps in the future we can arrange exchange loans!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Meet and eat!


Our next visitors have arrived and have now retired to bed exhausted with the splendour of the meal that they have had in our local restaurant. We started with a mariscada for two for four (if you see what I mean) followed by a paella for four for four. And numerous bottles of wine. If this seems a little excessive then spare a thought for Mary who got up at some ungodly hour this morning to catch a train at six in the morning in Nice to get to Barcelona at six at night.

This train marathon was to coincide with Clarrie who was catching a plane in London Gatwick to arrive in Barcelona at five thirty. This coincidence was to ensure that we were all able to go out to dinner at a reasonable hour. A good plan as good plans go and as good plans go it went. But went badly.

One and a half hours delay in Nice meant that all Mary’s connections were lost. In spite of the disaster that could have happened, with the help of the more than reasonable people in the railway system that she found along the way she ended up only a few hours late.

That meant that we were all able to go to our local restaurant and indulge ourselves fully.

That surely is what a holiday is all about!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

They have to be told!



There are aspects of the behaviour of some children who do things wrongly or inappropriately because no one has told them that what they are doing is unacceptable. Take, for example the way that one should eat freshly cooked asparagus or the way one should eat one’s soup. There is still a delicious thrill of guilt that I have when I am using my fork “like a shovel” – I can hear the admonitions of my parents still! But some people make heinous errors simply because their mistakes have not been pointed out to them.

So it could be the case that our obstreperous neighbours are simply waiting for someone to tell them to behave with some consideration and everything will be fine.

Our neighbours are remarkable. They live their lives in the full glare of everyone else’s hearing. They have created a room outside and under their house with sofas, a table and, above all a television. This can be turned on at any point in the day or night and the tinny sound of empty Spanish broadcasting can be heard augmented by the assorted voices of the raucous family.

Their day starts late with the communal shout at The Daughter. She, I have to say is well worthy of anyone’s opprobrium as (according to the parental voices which carry throughout our neighbourhood) she is consorting with disreputable company; she is near to taking drugs again; she doesn’t get up; she doesn’t eat etc etc.

The daughter gives as good as she gets and I would not soil the electronic impulses of this blog by repeating what this dysfunctional family chooses to call itself.

Sometimes the “discussions” are accompanied by the sound of crashing crockery and, at one point, what we took to be a telephone. They are always accompanied by the robust slamming of doors which test even the remarkably solid concrete construction of the typical Spanish house.

The father of the household, himself a buffoon who sings fascist songs in the swimming pool, accompanies the women of his household as they scream imprecations against each other by acting like a Greek chorus chanting (in Spanish of course) “Every day! Every day! Every day!” He sometimes alternates between this and “Always! Always! Always!”

We are counting the days when these over-moneyed ignoramuses leave their ‘holiday home’ and return to plague another neighbourhood!

Our next visitors have now sorted out their separate travel arrangements (one is arriving from London the other from Nice) and they should both be in Castelldefels by about seven in the evening. Just in time for dinner!

Because of the extended nature of our moving in to the house, it has happened that each new set of visitors has seen a slightly different version of our living space. Although the major move was complete by the end of July, further refinements have been made throughout the month of August. On the working philosophy of “Every little helps” (Tesco) and “Anything is better than nothing” (Desperation) we strive towards a theoretical ‘completion’. Even if our visitors see no advance (it is after all their first visit) we can see what we have done and take pleasure in it!

The more mundane necessities of preparing the room for our next guests call and our more ambitious projects will have to wait until we have stocked up on milk and other necessities.

Oh, and by the way, if you are wondering whether we have done anything to ‘teach the children better behaviour’ Toni threatened to call the police when the girl and her cronies were left alone in the house and shouted their way into the small hours.

The ‘lesson’ hasn’t taken though. Pity.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Staying and going



The familiar feeling of soft melancholy when visitors are about to leave is mitigated by the fact they have actually stayed with us for them to be able to leave!

Our Bill’s “sweet sorrow” does give an idea of the mixed emotions that a visit from friends that you have not seen for some time gives. They stay for such a short time; you get used to them again after a long absence and then they are gone.

Still, it is far more positive than negative and, as I keep telling myself the UK is only a couple of hours away.

Talking of friends I have looked at the website which gives illustrations of all the paintings in the exhibition of Ceri’s new work which is at
http://www.albanygallery.com/g2/news.php I was delighted to hear from Dianne that a couple of charcoal drawings have sold already and one or two of the tempera paintings too and this is before the Private View on the 21st of August. I am sure (I know!) that there is nothing more comforting to an artist than a scattering of red dots around a gallery on opening night!

When I bought a Ceri painting for my parents (the story of which present I will not go through again, but take it from me it was a stressful experience!) they were absolutely delighted with it and I can remember my father saying, “You must tell Ceri that if he ever needs the painting for an exhibition we are quite prepared to lend it.” At the time (oh, so long ago) that my father said that it was a sort of wistful aspiration, but as Ceri produces more and more work of exceptional quality a retrospective cannot be far away! And, like my father, I am quite prepared to loan the large charcoal which is opposite me as I type to any Ceri exhibition as long as the catalogue says “From a private collection in Castelldefels, Barcelona.”

That is the sort of accolade that we poor white middle class poseurs dream of. A previous fantasy was realized some time ago in Wales when through greed or circumstances I went to two exceptional restaurants in one day and in both I was greeted by name by each maître d’ – I almost sang the nunc dimitis!

We have now all been to the beach and all of us with the exception of Paul Squared and swum. The definition of swimming in this instance is that the whole of the body including the head must be submerged for at least some of the time. Once again the intrusive nature of sand constantly makes you think of the more civilized surroundings of the pool and the availability of proper toilets which describes perfectly the surroundings and offices in the house! The ‘romance’ of beach and sand sometimes blinds us to the realities of the gritty experience that ‘going to the beach can be’ – though I have to say that the lesson is never really learned and each trip to the side of the sea is filled with expectation and the brain is lulled to soporific by the heat of the sun. In Spain at least!

Were I Sherlock Holmes, I wouldn’t have gone to the beach to lie around doing nothing, but if the Great Man had been persuaded by Doctor Watson to take it easy for a bit then I think that Holmes would have left the beach determined to write ‘a short monograph’ on the subject of beach towels.

I am often startled to see what towel each person has decided to lie upon. Sometimes the difference between the subject matter and the human body lying on it is so startling that one suspects an elaborate joke of some sort.

I have seen raddled hags (of both sexes) lying on beach towels depicting nubile youths in a state of undress that makes the conjunction of bodies something of a grotesque charade. That may sound ageist, but there are limits and there is such a thing as decency and taste.

I have seen grandmothers lying on garish towels that seem to shimmer on the sand, and not because of the heat. Children lying on graphic depictions of carnage (admittedly in cartoon form, but nonetheless!) that ought to give the poor things nightmares for life.

The souvenir-type towel is almost the saddest. These have names of exclusive resorts emblazoned across them and they remind me of the ‘my other car is a Porsche’ bumper stickers. Sad and vulgar!

There are other aspirational towels with what used to be high end designer names but which now merely show the sad nature of the sun worshipper.

Colours clash with a harshness that shows that many of the so called West would be buying the sort of African fabrics which only look right in the appropriate continent.

I once saw a man who looked like one of those cartoon figures into whose faces hunks on the beach were always kicking sand, lying on a towel which showed the full length, full size figure of a bodybuilder! The motivations behind that one, added to the fact that he was doing it in full view of the public leave one breathless with horror!

Why do people whose taste one knows and admires suddenly throw caution to the wind and purchase some woven example of crazy tints which looks as though it was produced by colour blind Fauves with a dash of the Vorticists thrown in? One suspects that it is a variant of ‘going native’ which ends when the suspect material is rolled up and placed inside the beach bag for the return trip home!

There is so much more to say on the subject, I feel that I have only worried free a stray thread, but it would be cheap of me to deny the originality of the thesis of some desperate PhD student in sociology to spoil his area of research and so I will rein in my enthusiasm and pigeon hole this subject until a particularly vibrant example of beach fabric takes my fancy.

When, by the way do people buy beach towels? The one you use is always one ‘you bought before’ at a time that you can`t quite remember. Another fruitful area of research I think!

Almost time for the Pauls to go home and the neurosis of Paul Squared to Be On Time (and I suspect a little extra time to drink in the heady atmosphere of an airport) has started to kick in.

We will be on time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Looking without seeing


After much discussion about the apparently aimless (as if that was a bad thing) direction of the holiday that the Pauls were having we decided to do something and go somewhere.

The choice was Sitges – a wild leap of the vaccational imagination! We arrived had lunch and came home and then lay in the sun. To be fair to us, we did actually go into the pool and move about a bit. A day well spent I should say.

Dinner was a little more problematic than our restaurant going excursions of previous days as everywhere we went to get a take away was closed. Thank god for Lidl!

A very mediocre pizza later I feel slighted, though the wine from the same store more than justifies the trip!

The wine will be much needed as the relentless posturing of overpaid, pampered, arrogant, bad tempered, testosterone fuelled kickball players will dominate the forthcoming months as the league and all the other competitions clog up the television channels and drive me to something akin to despair.

As at least two people in the house were glued to the television set watching a championship game I asked what I thought would be a fairly easy question to answer: what was the central circle on the pitch and the semi circle on the front of the penalty area and the other box inside the penalty area for?

Not I am sure that you will agree something that should be difficult for a so-called ‘fan’ to explain. After all when I played squash or badminton I knew what all of the lines signified. Answer, most pointedly, came there none from the aficionados of the game who were making comments on match. Their opinions I feel are somewhat lessened when they have no idea what the basic outlines on the pitch that they watch week after week mean! Shame on them!

We still have not been to the beach. Tomorrow we are going to make a real effort to walk to the end of the street and get a few grains between our toes and sample the slightly murky delights of the Med.

They only have one more day: how can people come to the sea-side and not go into the sea? It’s not natural!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Anything to wash?



As someone well used to the completion of mindless repetition of lengths of the pool when swimming I might be expected to have at least some degree of sympathy for most other forms of pointless (in the true sense of that word) exercise.

This is not so.

Who is so weak of intellect that he cannot sneer at what passes for jogging as ageing people who look as though they are in the last stages of zombification lurch (no, that is too active a word for how they perambulate) towards the unwary passer-by looking in their lycra and iPods like an updated Grim Reaper.

In-line skating is only for the very thin and very good looking where their appearance and expertise seems oddly linked to their masking mirror shades producing a sort of high profile rejection of the normal world. Everybody else, as they stagger their way unsteadily along whatever public right of way they find looks like a character auditioning for one of the grotesques in a Breughel village painting. Not only is the exercise questionable, but it is physically demeaning.

I do not like exercise which takes your normal environment and worsens it by placing you in undignified and unnatural positions or attaching unnecessary and pointless articles to your body or adding rules and regulations to increase the difficulty of some activity.

Swimming is the one liberator. It gives you a different world; eradicates gravity; changes your universe. You don’t need skates to glide, a parachute to float or an aircraft executing a parabolic curve to be weightless. You don’t dress up to partake; you dress down. It is democratic: sea, lake, river, pool – all can be used to experience the thrill of ‘other’ which is what water gives. And dress is optional.

What prompted these musings was a bike jaunt this morning. Paul Squared (on folding bike); Toni (on hydraulic new purchase) and I (on new silver Old Man’s Bike) went on a sedate trip into Gavá along the paseo. A trip that became even more sedate when a peddle on Paul Squared’s bike fell off and he had to walk it home. I discovered that it is much more difficult to ride a bike slowly than at what passes for full speed with me.

As we were (when we were) cycling along a fairly level pathway at the side of the sea it could be said to be sightseeing rather than exercise. For the first time we went beyond the natural barrier (or at least I have taken it to be natural barrier) of the ‘river’ in Gavá.

A short ride along a main road to skirt the ‘river’ and back onto the cycle track discovered to view a whole new range of expensive homes and yet more stretches of the beach filled with lazing bodies.

Apart from making me commit one of the seven deadly sins as I see elegant sea-side plate glass fronted mansions which have sea views, this jaunt could be considered exercise. When I used the folding bike with small wheels to glide my way along the paseo it felt like hard work. On my Old Man’s Bike with very much larger wheels and its ‘plush’ seat (augmented I have to admit with a pair of deviational cycling shorts that I have been persuaded to purchase by Toni) the journey was one almost akin to pleasure. Almost.

I still find swimming the one form of exercise which is personal, individual, and coherent.

But it must be done with some degree of circumspection.

Paul One in an uncharacteristic impulse of physical abandon threw himself into the swimming pool ignoring the fact that he had his wallet in his pocket. With all his money, credit cards and other impedimenta of civilized life.

The upshot of this escapade was that not only was I able to bring into use one of my many unused wallets, but also I was able to see a metaphor made manifest. Paul had to hang out his money notes on the line which we usually use for the towels. So, for a brief period of time I was able to see Euros and pounds fluttering in the breeze watched like a hawk by Paul.

Our evening meal was going to be in a puzzlingly popular restaurant on the paseo. We arrived to find the waiters engaged in a friendly conversation which they were disinclined to stop merely because customers had appeared. When we were eventually shown to our table it took an unconscionable time for the menus to appear then we were ignored for another period when we should have been asked what we wanted to drink. On my suggestion we upped and left never to return.

It does seem that the restaurants of the paseo rely on the fact that they have a constant passing trade and do not feel that they have to make the same effort as other, less well positioned places.

In the event we returned (almost instinctively) to the Club Marítimo and had an excellent meal. Again.

Our visitors are struggling towards off white in their attempts to show the folks back home that they have been to the sun. By judicious comparison of adjacent skin areas it is possible to demonstrate that the sun has had some effect – though in Paul’s case his most convincing ‘tan’ is the bruise on his arm where he tripped and fell a week or so ago!

Never mind there are two full tanning days left and I am sure that they will be used to the full extent that factor 20 will allow!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Relax!


A truly lazy day.

Let me just revel in that statement. Lying on my disintegrating sun bed which is now sagging alarmingly and waiting for the distant star to do its stuff and provide a reasonable colour to see me through the days of diminished sunshine that so disfigure late autumn and most of winter.

My native British dread of the death of the sun for most of the year is showing itself in my actions in what is left of the summer in spite of the fact that the weather is generally more clement than that of my native land.

The difference has not made me any less desperate in my attempts to tint my skin and my natural pessimism about the weather always tells me that the skin colouration which is not in place by the end of August will not improve until the following summer.

Today, Sunday, is usually the day on which we have to defend our gate and prevent day trippers parking on the pavement and obstructing our way out of the drive. Because this is August the number of visitors is remarkably limited. We are not a resort for extended holidays in an hotel; rather we are the resort of choice for people in Barcelona who are looking for R&R on a local beach. We should be relatively free of selfish parkers until next year and by then I hope that the necessary bureaucracy will have plodded its way along and provided us with the little sign to ensure that our gateway is always car free.

No need for a car on our short walk to the Maritime Restaurant where we had a stupendous mariscada which, in spite of its size, was polished off by the four of us.

Now we are watching Barça playing for a cup which, in theory, they have already won. This trophy is played for between the winners of La Liga and the winners of the Copa del Rey. This year the winner of both was – Barça! However, to decide the future home of the trophy Barça is engaged in a re-run of the final so they are playing Athletico Bilbao.

At this stage of the game, after about half an hour, there is no score but Barça have had three goal opportunities and the Bilbao goalkeeper has had some spectacular saves.

The Pauls still have not been to the beach though they are slowly changing colour. Paul One is definitely a different shade from the one he was hiding when he arrived, but it would take the trained eye of the professional colourist to describe where on the continuum of beige his skin would fit.

Barça are now one goal down in this two match trophy and Toni is not at all happy.

Never mind, the sun will shine tomorrow and all will appear to be right with the world!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What's a little fire between friends?



Perhaps there is nothing which shows up the differences in a culture as the approach to the health and safety concerns which come to the fore when there is a public event.

Today we ventured into the centre of Castelldefels for one of the celebrations for the Major Festival of our little town. This particular event was one concerned with the parading of dragons of Castelldefels and some of the surrounding towns which were preceded by drum bands and surrounded by ‘Devils’ who pranced around and let off fireworks some of which were directed as the crowds which had come to see this part of the festivities.

The Pauls were horrified by the seemingly indiscriminate spraying of red hot material towards vulnerable people which included little children. Exactly my attitude when I first experienced this pyrotechnic chaos a few years ago.
The likelihood of this sort of event taking place in the United Kingdom is so laughably remote that experiencing it in Catalonia gives one a true guilty pleasure and a feeling of having escaped the Nanny State for a couple of hours.

The Pauls were happier with their firework explosions happening some distance away when we were sitting in the restaurant a few days ago watching the start of our town’s festivities which commenced with a spectacular firework display on the beach.

I have attempted (yet again) to take a decent photograph of fireworks and am beginning to believe that it is impossible without a tripod.

Similar problems confront the would-be photographer when attempting to take a decent photo of the fiery dragons and their attendant devils.

But these are small problems when confronted with the Pauls’ determination to get a tan before they go back to Britain. They remind me of my own steely determination which governed my behaviour when I used to visit Gran Canaria out of season so that I could return to Wales with an unseasonable tan in January. Every daylight moment in Gran Canaria was spent lying prone on a sun bed (whatever the actual weather) casting accusing eyes at the sky and praying to all known deities that the sun would shine. Now that I live in a sunny country I can smile with benign condescension at those dwellers in more northern climes.

The Pauls still haven’t visited the beach and thrown themselves in to the Med.

This must be remedied tomorrow.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The obstacle of water

The poor old Pauls are stuck in Bristol airport, though now they should be in the air, scheduled to arrive in Barcelona two and a half hours late.

My response to their suffering was to go for a swim in the dark and to muse as I ploughed my way up and down was to wonder when I first used goggles.

A mask is easy. My first swimming mask was purchased for me in Tossa de Mar when I was seven on my first (and certainly one of my best) foreign holidays. The mask was one which covered virtually all of my face and allowed me to view with utter delight the fish which seemed to ignore humans and swim quite cheerfully close to the shore.

But that mask was not the sort of thing that one wore when swimming in a pool. Chorine reddened eyes was the natural gift of ‘safe’ public swimming pools as one happily cried one’s way back home!

I’m sure that goggles as opposed to masks were available when I was in school but I never had the courage to wear one in the good old Empire Pool of happy memory. It all looked too professional for anyone other than a ‘proper’ swimmer.

The first goggles that I used on a regular basis were in university. As I recall they were like two transparent thimbles with a hard plastic surround which dug into the skin around the eyes with a pressure that stopped the natural flow of the blood.

The straps were an even more problematic aspect of the goggles. They seemed to have been designed to dissolve on contact with chlorinated water; to perish if left in air and to break if tightened to stop water entering. At least it gave me an early and informative experience of planned obsolescence.

It was always a struggle to keep the water at bay. I often swam with goggles which gradually filled with water and seemed to sting the eyes even more viciously than if one had not been wearing goggles at all.

I eventually found a pair which suited my eyes which had a sort of foam surround which I used until they stopped making them. While other people managed to make a pair of goggles last virtually a lifetime I changed mine almost with the regularity of my socks. I think that I made them honorary gadgets and each new shape, shade and new material seemed to deserve my hard earned cash. Rather like the number of cameras that I had (pre move) with which I could easily have established a new gallery in the Victoria and Albert tracing the modern development of the camera from Kodak Brownie through disc and cassette via miniature and compact to early digital, I could have gifted a similar gallery on the development of the swimming goggle in the twentieth century.

Even after the winnowing of possessions that moving necessitates I am still finding goggles in unexpected places.

I do think it significant that I found my optically adjusted goggles in the chaos of boxes which characterized our early stay in the house before we found the phones! Somewhere I think there still exists a pair with my specific prescription. These were ridiculously expensive and I therefore mislaid them at the soonest opportunity! The next ‘prescription’ goggles were ‘off the shelf’ and approximated to my eyes, but were better than clear glass or plastic. The ones I use now are plastic lenses but they only stay clear for a matter of seconds before they cloud over. I might have to buy some new ones!

Talking of buying: Toni is attempting to replace his bike. The one that was stolen has been relegated to history and extensive use of the internet has produced results which mean that we now have to go to every Carrefour superstore in Catalonia to find the model on which he has decided. I must admit that, from the pictures of it, it looks a fearsome beast with aluminium frame and 21 gears. My bike has seven gears and that seems to me to be something of a genteel sufficiency. Bearing in mind my previous bikes had three it would appear to be more than enough for me to cope with!

I am ashamed (in so far as I understand that word at all) that one of the reasons that I bought an almost exact (apart from the colour) replacement of my bike was the saddle. Who can resist the appeal of naming a bike saddle ‘plush’? I for one certainly cannot.

My bike is specifically for short journeys and I hope that this aspect is reflected in the comfort of the ride. On my folding bike I only assayed one journey over a hill when I was getting the car after its service. I was emotionally and physically exhausted after the experience. Spanish drivers are not the most ‘giving’ of road users when confronted by an uncomfortable looking cyclist.

I intend to confine myself to stately progressions up and down the paseo which now graces the length of the beach in Castelldefels. I fully intend to ignore the prohibition on cyclists on the new part of the paseo; just like every other cyclist in Castelldefels!

Meanwhile the Pauls get ever nearer. Their plane, though late appears to be on time, even if the ‘time’ is delayed. We are prepared to feed them, but I am sure that the refreshment that they will ask for will be liquid!

Time to go.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ssssssh!






We tell people that we now live in a quiet residential area as opposed to the tourist ‘centre’ of Castelldefels in which we lived previously.

As far as it goes that is indeed correct, but it leaves out all those elements which make living here a much more complex audio experience than living in an overtly noisy area.

Here it is amazing just how noisy doves can be. Their incessant cooing is enough to drive anyone to wakefulness and, as there are trees directly outside the bedroom their perches mean that we have a reliable alarm clock. The monotony of their call is only soothing for a matter of seconds before it gets irritating.

The trees on which these obstreperous doves hang out are pines. Pines have pine needles. Needles which fall and create a springy layer of vegetation – a layer I understand which was the surface on which the original Scandinavian joggers ran, the cushioned effect counteracting the deleterious action on the knees of that unnatural form of running. And no, it has not given me any ideas for emulating our northern neighbours.

Fallen pine needles look rather picturesque to me but they are obviously anathema to others around us. This is because we are in a ‘high pool density’ area and pine needles do not go well with gentle exercise in the chlorinated pool. They therefore have to be cleared up. Most people in this area pay a community charge to ensure that the pool person also clears the extraneous needles. They do this not by the restful swish of an old fashioned brush but rather by using a hand held wind machine which blows all the needles into piles so that they can be collected easily. The noise that this machine produces makes the silence when it is turned off eerily unnatural and creates an almost unbearable tension as you wait for the noise to restart.

Then there are the circular saws. At some point during the early morning someone somewhere will start up one of those intrusive machines. By the length of time that it is used and the shrieking of metal on metal one has to assume that the reconstruction of a whole dwelling place is being attempted. But again the silence at the eventual end of the operation is something to savour.

Traffic is traffic and apart from those Neanderthals who remove the silencers from their motorbike exhausts it is reasonable. The refuse collection in the early hours of the morning however is not. These lorries are specially designed to wake up even the most profound of sleepers. And, if you can sleep through the throaty roar of the machine itself then the accompanying bangs as the refuse containers are hoisted into position to deposit their rubbish and the health thwack of the containers against the lorry designed to remove the last vestiges of filth from the inside will ensure that as they depart you are fully awake.

The gates in the immediate vicinity of our house are specially designed in two parts so that there is a necessity to give a forceful push to release the gate from the rest of the structure to facility your egress. This gives movement to the other part of the gate which emits metallic clunks as it sways from side to side.

The clunking sounds usually stir to action the barking instincts in the ‘dogs’ by which (my choice of pronoun) we are surrounded. You have to understand that the noble genus canus has found its most degraded forms in our vicinity. The deranged nightmares which masquerade as pets in this area are worthy denizens of some of the more extreme paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The stick limbs barely supporting a virtually hairless body surmounted by a goggle eyed head flanked with ragged bat ears (which is a fairly common description for most of the beasts which are lovingly carried by doting owners in this area) make a mockery of their shared derivation from the wolf! And their ‘barks.’

The monotonous baying of some sort of hound or the full throated bark of a real dog would be a positive delight compared to the various forms of emasculated squeal that pass for dogs’ warnings in this part of Castelldefels. Two dogs at the end of our street scream when other dogs pass; a solitary creature yaps for minutes on end for no particular reasons and there is some life-form near us which reacts with a sort of abbreviated dog cough to any extraneous sound.

Sometimes I can even believe the Disney fantasy of dogs talking to each other across the city when one emasculated ‘bark’ triggers of another and so on until we have an unholy chorus of the damned. And who can blame them if they ever get a chance to see themselves and realize that they are the denizens of the Island of Doctor Moreau come to horrible life. I would slaughter the lot of them – and probably the owners too for choosing to perpetuate the debased race of rat dogs by buying these monstrosities and encouraging breeders to produce ever more grotesque ‘flat-friendly’ noisy monsters to infest our streets. And don’t get me started on their tiny but disgusting poos which litter our streets!

But it is the humans who provide most of the intrusive noise in this area. I know that humans are the ones opening gates and operating chain saws and driving trucks and molly-coddling rat-dogs but it is the way that they communicate that irritates me.

Spanish people, as I have mentioned before in what must seem like a racist generalization, do not listen. This means that when they speak they are not listening to anyone else so they see no need to modify their contributions by creating an area of silence for a reply. So everyone speaks at once. Television chat shows are oral anarchy and are best avoided. As no one listens to anyone else and as everyone is trying to speak above everybody else as well you can imagine the level of pure noise which is generated.

What goes for a game show goes for domestic ‘conversation’ as well, so very often it is difficult to tell is having a pleasant conversation or arguing to the death: very confusing for the well brought up Briton to tolerate.

In the summer, given the heat many families like to transfer their domestic living to the outside. In houses this is fine as there is space to have a summer kitchen, barbecue and chairs. In flats it is a little more diffi8cult but balconies can be fitted out quite satisfactorily with the requirements for refined living outside the house. The only thing which is not catered for is the noise which is produced.

Our neighbours on the left (as opposed to the discrete Frenchman on the right) obviously think themselves and the heart and soul of our area and celebrate nightly with raucous delight in the area under their house. Here they have installed a television and the area is enhanced by sofas so the whole family can ignore an over-loud television while trying to impose their voices in a cacophony of competing contributions. The daughter of the house is a ‘popular’ girl and has a large coterie of devoted pimply admirers. She does not seem to have many girl friends. Her voice is heard well into the small hours and she sleeps late as we can clearly hear her loud voiced parents (whom she treats with undisguised contempt) pleading with her to get up in the early afternoon. Their friends, relatives and acquaintances are as noisy as the nuclear family so the only thing that is keeping us going is the scrap of information they have given us that they only live here for a few months of the year. Roll on their return to the city of Barcelona!

I have bought a bike. Again. I have reasoned that it is pointless to harbour boiling homicidal resentment against those avaricious, selfish, criminal bastards that stole my last bike so I forked out another 300€ for another bike exactly like the one which was stolen by people who I hope have been crushed into the asphalt by lorries of many axels leaving only a shapeless mess on the road they were defiling with my stolen wheels. But I credit myself with not wasting time by feeling bitter towards the mindless, opportunistic low-life that imperilled their immortal souls by taking that which was not theirs. No, I remain serene only regretting that I do not follow the path of The Prophet which might have given me the opportunity to issue a fatwa against them or to proclaim jihad against the larcenous youth of Castelldefels.

So, the new bike is of gleaming silver (Hi! Ho! Away!) and this time I have noted any number which looks remotely significant so that I have solid documentary evidence to convict the filth that dares to take this one.

On a more practical note I am also going to get household insurance – something I was meaning to do but, alas, left it too late to be effective.

There is a lesson there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What is time!


I’ve read some books!

Not in itself something which is generally worthy of note, but given the strange eating up of time by moving into the new house, having enough time to sit down and concentrate for enough time to plough my way though a new tome!

“In Pale Battalions” by Robert Goddard has a back cover studded with reviews which all seem to pick on the storytelling quality of Goddard’s style as the most impressive quality of the novel. It takes the character of a woman who has recently lost her husband and who is going on a holiday to France with her daughter. This is the setting for a Russian Doll type of narrative where the opening story lead on to another and then in turn leads on etc etc.

The graphic on the cover of a field of poppies with a white cross and the use of the quotation in the title encouraged me to think that the story might be about the First World War and part of it was, but the main thrust of the narrative is the working out of a complicated love story stretching through the generations.

The story telling in this novel is competent and the complexity of the narrative is handled well, but what is not truly satisfying is the narrative voice of each of the people telling the story. Admittedly the story is recalled by a central character, but I found the lack of a series of distinctive voices frustrating.

The novel was compelling and I read it with enthusiasm. It was a good old fashioned read, well constructed and crafted.

The second was more interesting but less of a page turner. Lucia Graves’ “A Woman Unknown: stories from a Spanish life” traces the life of a woman who although with British parents grew up mainly in Spain and in Catalonia learning Spanish and Catalan yet sensing that she was not fully part of any of the cultures that she was experiencing.

Her narrative (which is made more interesting to me because she is the daughter of the writer Robert Graves) seeks to understand her life in terms of the cultural understanding she has gained through the years and through the experiences of her life. Her description of being a Protestant girl of agnostic parents in a Roman Catholic school at the time of Franco is fascinating.

She traces her thoughts and emotions through various noteworthy experiences in her life and through the process of studying Spanish in Oxford; marriage to a Catalan and the death of her father.

She is constantly interesting and to those who now the areas that she is describing it is a constant source of fascination. She links her experience of dislocation with the historical mistreatment of the Jews of Girona – another instance of a people with real links with Spain yet not allowed to be of Spain. A book well worth a read.

Whether the same can be said for Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Monsters: History’s most evil men and women” you will have to decide for yourself. You have to understand that this is a book which is written for me! It has a wide historical sweep, it is bitty, none of the entries are longer than a few pages and it has little boxed inserts which I find compulsive. The range of people or ‘monsters’ is intriguing and it is impossible not to check the index to see if your own personal favourites are included amongst the human trash included.

All of the obvious ones are there but their lives are so shortened that some of the simplifications that are necessary to create an enjoyable minute’s read make you wonder about the intellectual rigour of the writing.

One disturbing effect of reading about so much horror is that some of the most famous and iconic names fade into insignificance when you realize that they haven’t killed (in disgusting ways) more than a million of their fellow men! As Stalin or Lenin or another mass murderer said killing over a certain number of people is just a statistic.

I myself have written to the son of one of the people in the book. I wrote a very polite letter addressing the man by his official title and asking a few well phrased questions (without mentioning torture as instructed by Amnesty International) and Baby Doc Duvallier didn’t deign to reply. Come to think of it, none of the murdering bastards holding high positions in their respective countries ever did reply to my letters. I only hope that the number of politely worded middle class missives had some effect on raising the profile of some of the prisoners of conscience held by the powerful scum around the world.

I said to Emma that ‘Monsters’ was basically a toilet book and, having reading profile after profile in a depressing catalogue of depravity, I am more than ever convinced that my original assessment was correct So if you have a spare shelf in your bathroom, you know what to buy!

Tomorrow – the Pauls!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life is hard in its details


Some things are worth suffering in the short term so that you can luxuriate in the delight of their not happening in the long term. For most people.

Toothache, earache and headache are all nasty experiences which show you the true bliss of an ordinary existence without them. Someone once remarked that that with microbes, viruses and other nasties lurking all around us it was not surprising that we had occasional illnesses but it was truly remarkable that we were ever well!

Swimming pools are repositories of all sorts of unhealthiness on which is it not pleasant to dwell but one must place one’s trust in the right quantity of chlorine being placed in the water and one remembers to shower at the end of the swimming experience. In that way one is generally safe; or at least safe-ish.

Over the last few years I have taken to wearing ear plugs and have therefore saved myself another irritation. Yesterday however, in the rush to the person-less pool I omitted this simple precaution and plunged in with ears open to the elements.

The result was a water filled ear.

This usually responds to the ‘wet dog’ treatment whereby a vigorous shaking of the head (alas, not accompanied by a Timotei like ballet of wet hair in my case) usually clears out the excess water. This didn’t work. Neither did the ‘plunger’ technique of the index finger.

The time honoured way of the water is of course to wait for that delightful moment when a warm trickle from the ear presages the return of sharp hearing.

I have now been waiting for a day and that pop of audio clarity has been denied me. From time to time as I make a sudden movement there is that click of something happening in the ear which is just short of the water leaving it.

I think I shall have a small celebration when the water finally evaporates or gushes forth!

And yet again a normal life will be celebrated by the absence of minor irritation.

Now if only our irritating neighbours could go back to wherever their main (god how that grates) house is we would be fine!