Tuesday 12 June 2018

Boozy travels

Sunshine, at last. Everywhere, it seems. I know that, as I seem to have been ‘everywhere’ this month. When I last wrote, we were heading from Scotland to Croatia for some down-time, which was very relaxing, apart from my taking to the high seas in a speedboat. Well, I wasn’t to know how an anchor worked, was I? As we dropped it down in a secluded cove of impossibly blue water and dived in for a swim, one really assumed that the vessel would still be there when I returned, not half way round the coast. Maybe I should have read the manual? Well, we caught up with it eventually, after some frantic doggy-paddling, as it drifted merrily along on the current, dragging its somewhat ineffective piece of metal and rope along the sea bed.

Anyway, back home in France, the sheep are thriving, vegetables in the ground and surviving, lawns and hedges under control and pool almost warm enough for a morning dip. So after a couple of weeks, we took to the road in the camper, on a ‘dry run’ as it had been in mothballs all winter. In the main this was successful as we spent a night by a lake, our dogs disturbing the fishermen, near the town of (giggles) Condom. With a sirloin on the barbie, camp-fire to ward off the mozzies, yet more peace was had. Then, on the way home, we spent the night in the well-known wine region of Buzet (pronounced Boozy). And it was!
With the wheels barely stilled, a trip to the Midlands was next, to attend to urgent family matters. After a for-once on-time Flybe hop, we found ourselves in the lovely village of Henley-in-Arden, staying in a quaint pub for a couple of nights and what delight it was. Compared to the stark bars in Europe, and the lager culture in Scotland, a pint and a pie was very much a novelty I almost forgot existed. And one thing I had forgotten had ever been, was suddenly back and calling my thirst. Yes, of course, I am talking about Brew XI. Many of you won’t even remember this weak golden ale, and those that do may wrinkle up a top-lip, but it was the stuff I was weaned on, many years ago. Marketed as a beer for ‘The Men of the Midlands’, back then to a spotty 15 year-old, after a few pints I really believed I was one of them. Maybe I still am, in spirit anyway. Anyway, it’s back! Get some in yer!
I also encountered something else new – well new to me -  in this village: an ORGANIC hairdressers. What in hells name is one of those, you may ask? Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn’t go and get a reasonable explanation. Having considered a few theories, including one from the Italian barber across the road who suggested that maybe they just set fire to your dead hair instead of sending it to be re-cycled, I drew an absolute blank on this one. ‘Has the world gone mad?’ is a phrase I frequently use in this column. I fear this time I am surely right? 
And then it’s off to Spain for a weekend of rugby. It is a long time since I was in Bilbao but I am sure, back then, I never realised what a wonderful city it is. The narrow streets of the old town oozed with bars and the craic, as the Irish were in town to take on the French on neutral territory in the European finals. A few jars were had, as well as pickings of tapas, at prices that would embarrass even the poorest nation, let alone the extortions of the UK. After the Dublin team prevailed, securing their umpteenth title in the event, we revelled into the small hours on what felt like small change. Unlike France, who have lights-out at 10pm, the city stayed so vibrant it felt almost rude to go to bed before 2am. Needless to say, a shabby morning followed but eventually we wended our way back north, taking in a night in Biarritz, parking the camper by the Bay of Biscay during one of its frequent storms. As they say, ‘the caravan was a-rockin’ that night!
Sadly the weather back home had taken a downturn, just as the lawn had taken an upturn, but a mere 15 hours there saw me rush around doing my best to contain nature, including blight control, worm control (for the sheep), pruning, tying-up and sweeping down before the now familiar mobile home was once again loaded up with flagons, as we continued north back towards the channel and my mother beyond. With passports stamped, the dogs in the rather lush cabin (not allowed to stay in the vehicle on this boat), I can just about hear Louis barking as I end this story from the bar on a fairly meagre Brittany ferry.  I say all our passports stamped, but actually we are also harbouring a few stowaways who hitched a ride from somewhere in Spain, headed for the spoils of England. No, these are not of the human trafficking kind but a colony of 6-legged creatures who have built a nest somewhere in the overhead bed of our camper. One could possibly refer to them as illegal immigr-ANTS!
After requesting an extended deadline from the editor to add to this piece, I have to regretfully announce that my mother passed away, just hours before our arrival back in the midlands. Her end was peaceful and she appeared ready to go. Val brought a lot of fun to the village of Rock and far beyond during her 88 years, and I am sure she will be missed by many.

101 Dalmations

At last, my steel toe-caps have been hidden out of sight and mind, physically and metaphorically under the stairs, as we down tools and I take a well deserved holiday. It has been another tough month at the Fife coalface but I firmly believe we are winning the fight. Plans are passed, project number one done and dusted, hangover from housewarming party been and gone. Project number 2 is now in the hands of a few talented professionals - people capable of independent decision making, while I cool my hardened heels in the Dalmatian sea, obliviously out of contact with the real-world.  Actually, as I desperately try to make the editors deadline, I am once again writing in the skies, something that seems to have become a habit of late. Only this time it is with the comfort of British Airways, with my darling wife dozing by my side, happily reunited after 4 weeks apart. Although I have been there many years ago, I refresh my geography from the in-flight magazine to see exactly where our destination, the walled city of Dubrovnik, is, particularly in relation to Syria, a place that may or may not still exist by time this goes to print! Hopefully there is enough land and sea between us and it and, since Mr Macaroon has jumped on the anti-warfare jet-fighter, it may even be safer than being in France? Talking of which, Wendy reports that torrential rain has continued back home during my absence, bogging down the sheep, much the same as it has been in Scotland. I am not sure who the professionals blame for this diabolical spring but surely it will let up soon, and resume the status quo.
Last time I was there, Croatia had only just settled from its own conflicts and the break-up of Yugoslavia, when corruption was rife and your pound went a very long way. I would like to hope it has moved on somewhat since then, albeit more expensive. Dubrovnik certainly boasts seems to boast some fine places to dine these days. Once I can clear my mind of business, I am quite looking forward to studying the history of this place, which has suffered under invasion by everyone from the Romans, French, British, German and more recently Russian influences. Not being exactly a city-centre person, we are staying out on a peninsula to the south of the town - hopefully the peaceful end - with just a cool beer, an octopus and the setting sun for company.
One could be forgiven in thinking that the neck tie, or cravat, was invented by the French? But, in fact, it comes from the word ‘hrvat’, meaning Croat, which was adopted by the Napoleonic army who just happened to be in the market for more stylish neck-wear to go with their boring uniforms at the time of their occupation. Apart from former Wimbledon winner, Goran Inyourfaceabit, a few footballers, and Cruella Deville, the Dalmatians haven't really made it to the realms of fame. Although Marco Polo, discoverer of all things including the mint with a hole in it, claims to have been born here. Aside from exports of virgin olive oil, seafood and the odd spotted dog, tourism is the main breadwinner of the Croatian economy.
However, there is another lesser known output from this wee corner of Europe: wine. For those of you not in the know, the quality of Croatian wine is a well kept secret, particularly Traminac, which is set to be served at the up-coming wedding of Prince Harold the younger and Angela Merkel. Is Harry really marrying the German Prime Minister, or did I get slightly mixed up there? Current affairs never was my interest.
Anyway, guess what? Our visit just happens to coincide with the Dubrovnik wine festival. Trust my wife to seek out the perfect holiday. 
See you on the other side. Hic.

Leave me a message

So, here we go again, once more traversing the continent, this time not so much jet-setting, more chugging along to the monotonous drone of propellers, a stone’s throw above the clouds. At least we are airborne now, having had the usual 2-hour delay that gets Fly-Maybe its’ well-appointed nickname. A drop into Southampton and a rearranged transfer flight won’t quite see me into Fife by nightfall. And there it was, that month of sleepless nights all done and dusted in the name of lambing. 18 new lives later, the poor creatures must wonder why they are born into a swamp, such has been the endurance of daily downpours. Maybe, were they blessed with enough intelligence, they would pin it on global warming, taking up their placards and following one another angrily in single-file towards the powers-that-be in their floral wellingtons. Thankfully sheep don’t all have a university education to bias their outlook on life into a blame and claim culture, unlike their human counterparts who are stealthily conditioned into the sheep-like mentality of complaint. They don’t have wellingtons either, sadly.
Anyway, it’s goodbye mud and wool, hello to brick-dust and the woolly-minded. It seems that our little project in East Fife has put an unwanted expandable ski-pole into the spokes of regression in these parts. Not content with having a superb and well equipped museum telling us all about the hey-days of the defunct fishing industry which was so prevalent in East Scotland, East Fife, and Cellardyke in particular, now wishes to revert the whole town back into the 19th century. Despite my reminders to faceless objectors that ‘nostalgia really is a thing of the past’, I anticipate my arrival back to the seaside will be met with pitchforks and banners demanding my head on a spike, because I dare to use modern materials in my renovation project instead of wattle-and-daub and barrel-tar. Honestly, I even have to keep the fire-place a certain size so a small child can be sent up it in case of an emergency blockage. Meanwhile, once the locals have swept down the cart-tracks, lit up the gas-lamps, retired to their plague-ridden hovels and donned their nightgowns, the irony of their hanging out flags of independence in a hope to become part of a progressive Europe passes comically over their historically blinkered heads. But I love them all the same - it is this very quaintness that attracts the likes of us bombastic outsiders, bringing with us our filthy lucre to dilute their wanton poverty.
Arrgh, I’m in Manchester. How did that happen? And, more importantly, how do I get out? Seemingly Flybe are sky-diving to new lows, diverting us weary travellers to nightmare destinations, and then leaving us there. As I write, after 3 delayed/cancelled flights, the smug departures board suggests that I will still make it to Edinburgh before eleven, but its recent track record isn’t great, so its booking-dot-com at the ready. Were I not so tired I would gracefully accept my defeat on this trip and make the most of it, perhaps fitting in a trip to the Trocadero for some late night dancing - is it still open, or was it burned down decades ago? I have to admit, this is a city I have deliberately avoided for 30 years, so I am not au fait with its recent geography nor its customs – but I believe it may be a hot contender for ‘tattoo central’ of UK. Eventually I reach Edinburgh at 30 minutes past midnight and check into a hotel, after an 11 hour journey. Not exactly the leisurely sort of Sunday I was looking for, and certainly not a scheduled overnight stop I had planned for in the underwear department!
And so, on my last leg of this epic adventure, I am now crossing the iconic Forth Bridge and entering the Kingdom by rail, backwards. A brief bit of business sorted out and a few moments to ponder, and I might still be on site by lunchtime, only a day late. And here’s what I am pondering. Why don’t people change their mobile phone messages from the generic, to a simple, ‘Hi, this is me, leave a message.’ Instead we get a patronising voice saying: ‘Welcome to Blahblah network mobile phone messaging service. The person you have called is not available to take your call at the moment (you don’t say?). Please leave a message and don’t forget to hang up afterwards as you obviously are a technically challenged numpty who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of mobile technology, despite it being around since the eighties.’ And then we get: ‘Or press hash for more options.’ More options? What other bl**dy options are there? I just phoned someone up to speak to them! Has anyone ever pressed hash for more options? Does option one send a fax, per chance, or order a pizza or dial the fire-brigade? Please folks, this is a plea, if you can’t be bothered to answer your phone, at least let people hear your voice so they know that it is really you that is ignoring them!