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Snow fun at all

DSCF2545The sixth day of spring, and it has been snowing since dawn. We really don’t need this.  Last week’s snow, which fell for two days solid and cut our roads, has hardened into a metre-thick layer of ice across the fields, and three metre drifts against the sides of barns and hedgerows.  The snow ploughs and gritters have kept a narrow track down the road to the village more or less open but it takes bravery, foolishness or desperation for the ordinary motorist to use it.  There are no passing places and meeting a vehicle coming the other way means that one, at least, will have to drive into the bank of icy snow that looms either side of the road, and only those with a four-wheel-drive, a team of hearty shovellers and a supply of old carpets to put under the wheels has any chance of getting out again this side of the great thaw.  The great thaw is not predicted to be coming anytime soon. We are not brave, foolish or desperate and our car remains buried where it was parked, an undulating indistinct shape by the garden gate.

One of the problems with snow falling on snow (‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ echoes around my head) is the sense of claustrophobia it brings with it.  We’re suffering from cabin fever as it is and sometimes a walk through the ice and snow to the bridge over the river less than 50 metres away is needed to break out of the feeling of suffocation.  The falling snow closes it all down further and the loss of the view of the surrounding hills and woods creates minor panic.  I loosen the scarf around my neck to help me breathe and I try not to look out of the window.  I ignore the silent hypnotic swirls.  At least I try to but I am transfixed.  Deep breaths.

The radio’s jolly companionship begins to lose its lustre after a few days.  The feeling that you are still connected to the rest of the world is replaced by a greater feeling of separateness from it, from those warm broadcasting studios in buildings in streets still teeming with people.  It doesn’t take long before being an outsider takes its toll; being one of those being briefly talked about on the news.  Poor things. How isolated.  How do they manage?  Next, the sport.

Except, listen to this, what is essentially local springs into life.  The phone never stops ringing – a network of concern mapping out the widespread community. Shared concern, offers of help, a casual comradeship that always lies beneath the surface but rising above the layer of snow.  No one in this valley goes forgotten or unregarded.  Tractor drivers (the only free moving bodies) stop to ask how it is, balaclava-clad farmers knock on doors, a couple shepherd their arthritic sheep dog through the canine-high snowdrifts to check on neighbours. Before dark everyone will have been accounted for.  There’s the phone again.

Look up the hill and you can just make out where the divisions between the different farmer’s fields are.  Trees poking their heads in clumps.  The dip towards the river.  Under that frozen blanket lie dead sheep and lambs.  Only last week, when it was still officially winter, the farmers had been saying how well the lambing had gone so far this year.  No one yet knows how many have perished but the occasional tractor rumbles past the cottage pulling a forlorn trailer full of bodies.

The snow is falling heavier; the scene blurs and becomes indistinct.

Behind Darkened Windows

I am most pleased with our street.  So pleased that I am thinking of awarding medals.  I don’t award medals every day, but this is not every day.  Or rather, days.  That is to say, days leading up to um, erm, er, you know …. Christmas.

Every year for the past few I have usually arrived home almost any time after December 1st in a slightly bad mood because every year, after December 1st, our street is emblazoned with Rudolf and his alarming, feverishly red nose and Santa clambering up (or is it down?) rope ladders hanging from balconies.  Usually winking fairy lights hang from almost every protuberance, Scandinavian-type Christmas lights blink in the windows of those who, for some reason, like to show off that they have been to IKEA recently or else there are displays of mawkish pictures of an infant with a halo – a chubby, upper-crust white European kid who looks nothing remotely like the son of an impoverished carpenter from the Middle East.  These things don’t depress me so much as niggle me.  It isn’t because I don’t like Christmas but because red-nosed quadrupeds, obese men in red trousers, flashing lights and chubby overindulged brats have nothing at all to do with the season at hand.  Like so many other things these days, we have transformed the symbol of something into a substitute for the real thing, a substitute which acts as a mask so that we can conceal reality.

But this year, glory be, our street is virtually untainted by Christmas tat, baubles or bling.  Look down the street at night and the brightest light to be seen is the one outside the pharmacy, blinking green and white and red all hours of the day and night.  Look up the street and the only changing colours are from the traffic lights on the junction with Constituição.  Even the gaudy shop a few doors down, which seems to sell Christmas crud every day of the year, is mute and subdued.  Only the new furniture shop (yes, another new furniture shop – I give it six months) has a discreet tree set back from the window.  It is not quite tasteful, but it is approaching it (the only really tasteful tree would be one that remained in the forest where it belongs).  So huge celebrations are due for a community wide, Scrooge-like endeavour this year.  Although both celebrations and medals will have to wait a bit.  It is, after all, still a week or so to go before the festivities so there could be a late spurt.  I don’t want to count my reindeer before they, um, hatch?

But hang on.  It isn’t quite as it seems.  Not only are the houses hereabouts not displaying much, if any, festive cheer, but so not are the shops.  That is to say, while it is clearly a good thing that people aren’t crowding into the shops crammed with consumer nonsense and running up huge debts on their credit cards, the empty shops are not a result of people seeing the light and doing things properly this year.  (By properly I mean simply being nice to each other without the need for elaborate wrappings and disguises.)  No, they are not doing it this year because they have run out of money.  These include those people – we all know them – who will buy the latest digital must-have gizmo but somehow fail to put proper food on their family’s table.  I dread to think what things are like in their homes these days for they have no state-of-the-art gadgetry to take their minds off their rumbling stomachs.  And they have no pretty lights in the window to distract them at night when the hunger pains bite hard.

So behind those Santa-less balconies and tree-less and fairylight-less windows what is the story?  It’s been a cold winter so far, so perhaps the Christmas tree has been burned to toast feet and chestnuts.  Perhaps Rudolf has been butchered and skewered on kebabs to be cooked over candles.  Who can tell?  Suddenly, the decoration-free street looks more ominous.  Perhaps I won’t be awarding medals quite yet.

I remember being drilled in the correct way to cross the road when I was at school, the emphasis being on looking both ways, double checking and then, ‘if it is safe to do so’, crossing the road. And, of course, we looked for the yellow beacon to indicate where the pedestrian crossings were and we crossed on ‘the zebra’.  Later on came pelican crossings, which had buttons that, when pushed (they told us,) would control the lights.  Of course, pelicans and zebras happily coexisted on the roads and this unlikely zoological combination helped to combat the alarming mid twentieth century road casualty statistics and these days the UK has amongst the lowest recorded figures anywhere in the world.

The most immediate difference between crossing the road in any UK city and crossing the road in Tunis, capital city of Tunisia, is the degree of insanity that is required even to contemplate undertaking such a hazardous task.  Indeed, it is quite possible that one medical measure of lunacy is the intent to emulate that much maligned chicken, and to attempt get to the other side of the road anywhere in this city.  I have heard of expats quitting their jobs in Tunis simply because crossing the road proved to be too much to cope with.  Clearly they passed the sanity test.

Looking left or right, no matter how many times, will help very little.  The traffic is alarming dense (as are the drivers, I fear) and the pollution so thick that actually seeing the vehicles requires superhuman eyesight, though I suspect that Superman himself would think twice about trying to get across the street at any of the intersections along Avenue de la Liberté.  I have taken to crossing the road at night when everyone is asleep, not because I want to go anywhere at that time, but because the experience of sauntering – or even trotting – across cannot be had during the working day.  The only problem with doing that is that this is the time that the hordes of rats also decide to cross the streets and be reunited with their families after a day of separation, having found themselves trapped on the wrong side at daybreak that day.  Sauntering, or trotting, across the road in the company of hundreds of migrating rats makes one feel like the pipeless piper of Hamlyn (or, as I used to believe when I was learning the highway code as a nipper, the Pied Piper of Hamleys).  Sadly there is little point in crossing the road at one in the morning, apart from the dubious pleasure of actually doing it, and getting to work, or the shops, requires doing it when the traffic is at its snarliest.

There is a careless abandon about driving in Tunis.  The few road traffic directions are routinely ignored (so there is no such thing as a one way street, despite signs to the contrary, and so on) and the Tunisians are a very touchy-feely race when it comes to driving.  Cars scrape past each other with barely a molecule of paint between them and wend circuitous routes in their attempt to be first – yes me first – at any point on the road and all of this is done at the highest possible speeds. Naturally firm hands are pressed on the horn at all times (except when answering the phone).  The hapless pedestrian is supposed to shimmy across the road, executing a complicated dance step, not dissimilar to the bull fighters flicking their bodies out of the way of the raging bull.  Nimble of foot, the pedestrian balances on the balls of the feet and dances lithely this way and that, twisting and turning, flexing and bending in the wind of rushing vehicles, with hands and arms held aloft to avoid the cuffs being caught in any whizzing wing mirrors that might still be intact.

This is only the half of it.  The launch pad is important too, and should this part be misjudged then disaster will quickly follow.  The pavements, such as they are in their broken, shattered states, are divided from the road by a deep rain gully of varying width.  Make a poor calculation at this point and your fate is sealed.  Some of the pavements are slimy with liquid that oozes from open sewers, though the smell will alert you to this – even above the acrid stench of exhaust fumes.  You might also find yourself sharing the kerb with an eager rat, anxious to rejoin his or her family before nightfall.  Judging your exit from the road (should you actually make it that far) is also important as there may be no pavement at all on the opposite side: there may be a building or demolition site that has spilled onto the road itself, or there may be a massive, unprotected hole, or there may be a lake of effluence that glitters evilly in the smoky, oily sun.  So be warned – it is no good executing a death defying successful traverse of the road only to end up face down in some unspeakable, toxic goo. Choose your starting point carefully, spot your exit, balance sportily on the balls of your feet and at that moment when courage has converted into madness make the dash.  (It is no good waiting for a lull in the traffic, for there never is one. [Except: see section on ‘night crossings’])

By some miracle you make it across the road, your trousers coated with the dust from the car that nearly got you and your elbows grazed as a result. Your eyes will also be glazed from the crazy excitement of it all.  Congratulations, but do not rest on your laurels for there are another four roads to cross before you get to the shop.  And then, of course, you will have to negotiate them all back again.  Are you really sure that you want to buy that bottle of water?  Really, really sure?  Then my advice is catch a taxi, and join the mêlée.

It’s in the air

Wifi at airports is, of course, a relative newcomer to the gamut of things that are designed to frustrate normally quiet and placid citizens, turning them into raging towers of incoherence. Should you wish, you can bypass wifi facilities in airports in one of three ways:
• You can choose not to be connected to the internet at all and try to rediscover the human being sulking somewhere deep inside – reading a book is highly recommended.
• You can use the airport-provided, plugged-in internet and computer system (if there is one) and pay the going rate – at London airports this is about £1 for 15 minutes and so in one hour you can run up a bill equal to about half of what I, for one, pay per month for mobile access;.
• You can try using you own dongle (what a rude word that seems to be) assuming that you have the appropriate dongle for that country (now it just sounds ridiculous). Some airports seem to delight in blocking signals with their own more powerful signals, leaving your dongle dangling to little avail. Gatwick is especially good at this. In such cases you can try switching off the automatic wifi seeking device on your computer while sitting under a glass roof and poking your tongue between your front teeth.
Or you can try to connect to one of the wifi services that proliferate at airports. If you’re very lucky you might find a free one, usually belonging to a hapless cafe that is using this temptation to draw in customers but whose wifi beams have leaked beyond the door (South American airports seem quite good at this). In Europe you are unlikely to find such a thing, and pay you must, usually through the nose. Listen carefully and you can hear a sucking noise coming from your credit card. My latest attempt at using one of these services (tempted by the offer of 15 minutes of free service and then ‘only’ €6 an hour thereafter) was in Milan Malpensa and I only mention it because of a very cunning device they employ to prevent you from using it, even after you’ve paid. To sign up they send you log on details to your mobile phone, and that’s fine and hunky dory but be careful you don’t log off again.  Ever.  I switched off the machine when I had to move to go to the gate of the plane I was hoping to catch.  When I tried to log on again the password did not work. So I clicked the ‘send me new password’ button and after a little processing symbol whirs around for a bit a screen told me that my request has been dealt with successfully and that – wait for it – they had sent me an email with the new password. An email. I ask you!

Of course I can hear you. Don’t think I can’t. Just because you’re whispering behind your hand and are a thousand kilometres away. I can hear you just fine. What do you mean I ought to get out more? That’ll be quite enough of that. OK. OK. Calm down. Next time I’ll just take the book.

That Sinking Feeling

To be honest, I can’t say that I’ve bought that many bathroom, or kitchen, sinks in my life.  I could probably count them on the fingers of one hand, if I could be bothered.  But one thing is for sure – I’ve never managed to buy one in Portugal, even though I’ve lived here half of my working life.  It’s not that I’ve felt a burning need to buy one, you understand, but in the past year I have begun to realise just how difficult it is.  Yes, it’s taken me a year to realise. Not the sharpest tool in the shed at times.

Of course, in my defence, I wasn’t brought up in the dark art of sink buying and selling.  Clearly the missus was brought up on her mother’s knee knowing all about the devious stratagems and devices, and she takes it all in her stride.  She also goes very quiet when I blow my top at yet another confounded sink-buying expedition.  Today I blew my top after four hours and four shops, stretched out over 80 kms from home, where we categorically had not bought a sink at all.  Oh yes, we’d seen ones we liked – wanted even – but the transactions never amounted to anything, usually because as soon as definite interest was shown and bank cards produced the item in question seemed to dissolve or disappear.  Bathroom sinks, it would appear, are ephemeral things, not dissimilar to Will o’ th’ Wisps or figments of a drunk’s imagination.  Of course, there is a significant difference between the way that I would normally shop and the way the missus would normally shop.  In such matters, I am all for buying the first item that grabs my fancy (and fancy-grabbing is my normal criteria for decision making anyway) and so I’m quite an impulsive buyer.  The missus shops around, looks at one item, then compares with another, and another, and another.  Many shops are visited in the world of my missus.  Consequently, the item I would have bought on first impulse – and which turns out usually to be the eventual choice of the missus – is out of stock or discontinued by the time we get round to buying it.  This adds to the problem of amorphous sinks and sneaky salespeople trying to sell items that don’t exist.  And I confess here to an added problem.  I would never buy anything from anyone who wants to sell it to me.  Once a salesperson gets in on the act then I switch off and, however desirable the item might have been before, I no longer have any interest in it.  Or anything else the salesperson deems worthy of our attention.  In fact, if a salesperson told me how much they liked our car then I’d probably give the keys to the first homeless person I see and catch the bus back.

As a result, our four hours of sink seeking ended in failure and we headed home empty handed.  By now we were late for an appointment in town so I put my foot down a bit.  Over some motorways are gantries which hold devices that suck money from your bank account as you drive under.  These devices, some say, are also used to check your speed.  It might be true, it might not, but better to be safe than sorry, and I made sure that as I passed under the gantries I was within the tolerated speed limit (i.e. 10% more than the official speed limit).  I was being so careful to take note of these gantries that I didn’t spot the mobile radar check – well, it was hidden – and the first I knew of it was when a police motorcycle with flashing blue lights guided me off the motorway into a holding pen with a dozen other red-faced motorists.  I had been driving at 143 kph in a 100 kph zone, I was told.  I wasn’t going to argue.  The police were busy – it’s coming up to Christmas and the holiday bonuses have to be found from somewhere, I suppose – and they were collecting roadside fines at a rate of €120 a go.  As I waited to be processed and to pay my due at least six more car drivers were shepherded into the pen to be fleeced.  Business was brisk.  I paid what I owed and so arrived home with an empty boot and empty wallet.  It was the most expensive sink we have never bought.

Blue Smoke

Tunisian taxis are yellow. That in no way reflects on the courage of drivers and, by extension, that of their passengers. On the contrary, no braver soul died that day in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. There is an equal level of futility to that bravery.
I had been waiting outside the hotel like the patient being that I am (on alternate Saturdays, if it’s not raining, that is). The chauffeur company who had been driving us all around week from one work engagement to the next had been hired for one last job, which was to take me to the airport from the hotel, which would take about 25 minutes, depending on traffic. I like reasonably comfortable margins of safety when dealing with airports – no last minute rushing through the security check if I can help it. So when the car failed to turn up on time, and the 5 minutes late became ten and the ten became fifteen I could feel my blood pressure rising so I finally gave in and asked the doorman in his smart uniform and top hat if he would now call me the taxi he had offered to call some twenty minutes before. He did so with alacrity, and applied the same professional élan to the way that he pocketed the generous tip (it had to be generous; I only had medium sized notes left).
Ahmed was young, with a wispy moustache and untrained acne, and he looked as battered and worn as the old Fiat taxi that he drove. He had to put his foot to the door so that it would open to let me in. At least, I thought, it won’t fly open when we go around a corner. I’m quite good at looking on the positive side of things. We entered into that kind of start-stop conversation that you have when neither of the dialoguers has more than a few words of the other’s language, but he was delighted and punched the air with both hands (yes, both hands) when I mentioned Portugal in answer to a question, and he shouted ‘Cristiano Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo’ over and over again. He turned up the radio volume, which was playing reggae, to extra loud in celebration. I couldn’t quite see the connection and gritted my teeth, not at the loud renderings of Bob Marley (which is never a pain) but at the mention of Ronaldo, whom I despise. But I grinned gamely, in case he was looking in the rear view mirror (the front seat, in case you were wondering, was occupied by my case which, small enough to carry on as hand luggage on the plane, was too big to fit into the car boot). I then made a mistake. When he asked the time of my flight, I gave some vague indication of eight o’clock, when it was, in fact, eight forty five. He yelled in horror, screaming ‘No time, no time,’ and put his foot down and we shot off down the dual carriageway at high speed, almost as if he’d heard that the Romans had just landed at Carthage.
Tunisian drivers aren’t the most placid drivers in the world. They have, shall we say, alternative views on lane discipline, and the correct safe distance to maintain between vehicles and, well, just about every other conceivable action that might be related to highway safety. It’s a very inventive way of driving. The speed limit on the road was clearly signed as being 90 kph and when the speedometer touched 140 I wasn’t sure if I was more worried about us becoming compacted into the back of a car in front or the engine exploding under the strain. It was certainly making some curious noises, as was the axle under my seat, and the car started to fill with blue, oily smoke. ‘No time. No time!’ shouted Ahmed, both hands in the air again. I closed my eyes. The car lurched to the left. I opened my eyes again. Surely we can’t get through that gap? The car lurched to the right. We were through the gap but there was a scraping sound. ‘Oops’ said Ahmed. We motored on. ‘No time. No time.’ I put my hands over my eyes and squealed quietly, but we sashayed down the road regardless, using the dirt track that acts as a hard shoulder when need be, scraping the central reservation when the occasion demanded. My protest that there was time, really, honest, really, fell on deaf ears. Here was a man on a mission and no details like facts were going to stop him. He’d make a fine politician one day. He turned Bob Marley up to full volume to compensate. ‘Radar’ he shouted, and grinned, and we shot underneath a gantry with cameras hanging from it, smoke pouring out of the car windows by then. ‘No problem?’ I yelled back over the scream of the engine, indicating the radar with a trembling hand. ‘No time. No time,’ was the answer.
We arrived in a clatter – and I mean that literally, not metaphorically – outside the terminal and I kicked open the door and tumbled onto the pavement before peeling off the notes to pay my wispy friend. The meter had gone miraculously high. Speeding like the engine, no doubt. Imitating the numbers on the speedometer. I am past caring. I was just delighted to get out and stand on ground that wasn’t moving and lurching and vibrating and belching smoke.
We had made the journey in less than 15 minutes. I don’t know if it set any records but it was, shall we say, memorable. Whether or not I’ll be able to sleep the night through for the next week without waking up shouting debatable  But at least I now had plenty of time to stroll through passport control and get my exit visa stamped. Positive side, you see.

Soggy Bottoms

If you had to choose the right weather to go with a trip to the Social Security offices then grey skies and a certain precipitation would be appropriate. The weather, however, had decided to up the ante, and the rain was bouncing off the pavement so high that the Curiosity Rover on Mars was getting false readings about the presence of water on the Red Planet. Mars, the god of war: we could have used him as we sat down in an ever increasing puddle of our own making , clasping a damp ticket with A37 printed on it. The electronic board over the enquiries desk said A12. Quite a wait yet, then. As others came in, carrying, for the most part, levels of depression that suited the tempest raging outside, various new pools of water were formed and expanded and slowly coalesced into a small inland sea in the waiting room. Ripples in the concrete flooring causes temporary islands to appear each, no doubt, containing its own microscopic fauna, but I wasn’t going to get down on my hands and knees in the middle of this sea of despondency to check. I let my imagination do that, and there the weird creatures were, surrounded now by an exotic flora that I allowed to exist, and they were panicking as he levels rose higher and higher as their land was gradually swallowed by the implacable waters.

The lighting in the waiting room was suitable for its purpose. It has to be assumed that its purpose was to extinguish any hope or fight from the dishevelled souls gathered forlornly on the rows of cheap, plastic chairs, each soul clutching a soggy, numbered ticket. It was less like light and more like gloom – a specially imported and man made gloom, adapted for the occasion. I could imagine the cleaners coming in first thing in the morning. ‘Switch on the gloom, Maria,’ one would say to the other.

We didn’t have to wait as long as I’d thought. I had only just stated to wonder if we could take advantage of the advice on a notice which informed us, in the vaguest terms possible, that special tickets for speedy access could be obtained by various categories of people, including the elderly (without specifying what that meant, precisely) and also for solicitors on business. It was clear that solicitors didn’t count as people. They were accorded a higher status, a sort of super-being. It further underlined how out of touch the people at social security were with the real world. I was about ready to make a claim at being elderly when our number came up (saving me the embarrassment of bad acting) and we sploshed our way across the shallow sea (the waves thus caused wiping out the last of my islanded creatures) but to get to the inner sanctum we had to pass by a damp guard who was fingering his hostlered gun nervously. A smile would have been out of place in that environment so I simply softened my natural grimace instead.

Franz Kafka was already described the scene that met us: the tiny cubicles of imprisoned clerks busily scribbling on official forms, each with a pallor that would indicate that they had been in servitude, and stuck inside their cubicle, for a very long time. Instead of ink-stained fingers they had tendonitis caused by overuse of the computer mouse and in place of leather patched cuffs and elbows to their coats they had wrist supports, but they retained the jaded look and the dark, baggy eyes required by public servants the world over. What Kafka would have delighted in was the lighting which, once again, managed to cast gloom rather than light and shadows instead of illumination. These were overhead neon lights of a very pernicious type – clearly designed to push to suicide the already depressed customer which implied that the functionaries who worked there day in and day out had already gone beyond the hope of relief that death would bring.

Our business was simple. Where was my pension? It had been nearly a year in the processing and nary a glimmer of cent had been forthcoming. The clerk assigned to us by the great hidden, rumbling machine brightened up when he realised that he now had an opportunity to blame others, for this was not his responsibility and he could point a finger at both Lisbon and Newcastle (for they dealt with International Pensions), deflecting any blame on his good self. I pointed out that Newcastle were already blaming Lisbon and Lisbon were openly accusing Newcastle and meanwhile I was not getting a dried bean from either.  He warmed at this news, and realised that the great game was being played efficiently by bigger players than himself. He afforded to be on our side, for the moment, and a few moments of conspiracy were required so that he could shake the bureaucratic tree. He would do this on our behalf. He was magnanimous. We found ourselves curiously grateful to this office cipher and smiled a real smile as we left and braved the sodden streets once again in the hope, however weak it may be, that we had delivered a slight tap inside the mighty machine. Delusional, you see. I blame the neon lights.

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