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Travel

October 20, 2013

Dorset: North of Spain 8

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One of our objectives, at least it was mine, was to mellow out on the pebbly beaches of southern England and just enjoy the space and fresh ocean air.   I imagined the water would be something frighteningly cold, but maybe that Gulf Stream effect would improve things in that department.

This plan, of course, depended on one of the least dependable variants on the island: the weather.  The forecast that was called for those first few days was anything but beach-friendly, unless perhaps you were a mollusk, so I switched to plan B and herded the girls into the car and made for a few points of cultural interest, thus taking advantage that they were still dumbstruck by the new country and didn’t quite think for themselves.

Eventually they would stop believing me, and I knew this, but until that happened, I took it as my duty to get as much out of them as possible.

                The mission for that day was Salisbury, a medieval town known for its outstanding cathedral, and Stonehenge, which doesn’t really need any introduction, I believe.  This is the way I feared my girls would see it: a big church atop an acre of moss and a pile of poorly hewn boulders which looked as if they had been stacked by a tribe of four-year-olds. 

I did my best to impress upon them the wonders that lay ahead.  Salisbury was a terrific town and its cathedral stood out as one of the finest examples of early English Gothic architecture anywhere in the country.  And Stonehenge, that speaks for itself.  Oh, yes, and all that summer solstice crap and virgins dancing around. 

I should note that neither of these places is actually located in Dorset, but rather in the neighboring county of Wiltshire, but it’s all within striking range.  Sticking to the secondary roads, which on the whole are the primary roads, and allowing for the inevitable moment of doubt, in 90 minutes or so, we were gliding into Salisbury, also known as New Sarum.  Being used to the way you can spot a Castilian town from afar back in Spain, it did startle just how one simply happened upon these places.  One minute you were immersed in a thick and wooded lane, and before you knew it, were surrounded by houses and shops.

There is an Old Sarum, by the way, but it is currently a grassy mound of earth girded by an equally grassy ditch just a few miles away.  Not much good for a postcard and a pint, but its early history makes it popular among tourists who enjoy using their imagination.  The town had once been a thriving cathedral city with a castle overlooking the homes, but its limited size and lack of a river spurred the authorities; especially the church, to relocate down by the Avon to present-day Salisbury.  That brought on its decline and practical disappearance. 

The original settlement gained notoriety in the 1800s for being the epitome of what is known as a “rotten borough”, a term used to describe a political district which is overrepresented in parliament.  In Old Sarum’s case, overrepresentation is an understatement.   At one point it was reputed to have had only 7 voters, of whom not one actually resided in Old Sarum anymore.  And yet it had the legal right to send two members of parliament.  William Pitt, no less, was one beneficiary of this demographic botch. 

Old Sarum wasn’t alone, by any means.  By the time of the Reform Act of 1832, the problem was widespread in Britain with 152 of the 406 members of parliament being elected by populaces of fewer than 100 voters.  The new law effectively disenfranchised 58 towns, with Old Sarum at the head of the pack. 

Salisbury was already a major center for centuries by that time.  The residents of the former town had wisely improved their position to more fertile land and started afresh.  The second cathedral would turn out to be one of the finest examples of English Gothic in the land.  It’s the upward movement it evokes.  Those spires that truly scrape the sky. 

The fact that it was erected when the town was in its infancy is clear by open space that surrounds it.  Those marvelous lawns that the English care for so well.  We sat on the grass and snacked and then went in and took a look around. 

I have been in a lot of cathedrals in my life, so I can’t say they overcome me with awe at this stage – I admit that I was more impressed by the view from exterior – but I did enjoy looking at the stain-glassed windows.  There is also a clock which supposedly dates back to the 14th Century, though there is considerable debate about that.  Probably the biggest surprise came in the adjoining cloister where you could enter a room and see with your very own eyes the best preserved copy of the four oldest Magna Carta originals in the world.  Right there.  This was a terribly exciting from a History students’ perspective.  Couldn’t quite say I managed to stir the girls with same degree of enthusiasm, but there it was.  One of the most important documents in the history of the Western world.  I suppose if I had done my homework and read up enough on the place I would have known that, but sometimes not doing so makes travelling so wonderfully full of unexpected moments.  That’s what makes travelling so wonderful itself.

Travel

September 30, 2013

Dorset: North of Spain 7

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In fact roads and their peculiarities were beginning to engage me in a way I thought no asphalted network would.   After just a couple of days on the road, I was taking an interest in the lanes and their surroundings to such a degree that my daughters began to suggest that I either change the subject or leave the country all together.  But I couldn’t help coming to some general conclusions about English roads that went beyond just hedgerows and their fine trimming.

       Hills; that was another one.  You know England isn’t precisely what you would call the Himalayas of Europe, I think its highest point, Scafell Pike, doesn’t even reach 1,000 meters, which is almost laughable by almost any human’s standards unless you live on an atoll.  Then again, Bear Mountain back in my home state of Connecticut marvels at a hardly staggering 700 meters.  It’s more of a lump than anything of geological prominence.  Here’s a picture.

 

 

 

       That wooded boob on the right is it.  I was going to put an arrow, but I figure I would let you have some fun and try to locate it.  My goodness, that will sure cure your vertigo.

        The heights on the British Isles tell another story.  Scafell Pike, modest in altitude itself, does have a way of imposing rather impressively.

        It may hardly surpass the mighty Connecticut range, but it certainly has managed to look like little other than a yeti could survive on its slopes.  And the English like that.  Here’s proof.

        Aside from these pseudo-alpine landscapes, however, the rest of the England can be classified as hilly at best, wherever, of course, there are knolls and hillocks to back that up.

       But the English sure know how to make the most of them, especially when it comes to designing a road.  The concept of shaving and flattening seems unbecoming of British civil engineers, as if by doing so they would be cheating.  You could imagine some grumpy Englishman grouse, “That’s what the bloody hill is there for!”

        If the ascent has a gradient of 30º, well by God, who are we to ease it?  That results in some pretty punishing usage of the gearbox.  You can sail through towns in fourth, head into a climb as you depart, and scramble to downshift to 2nd before your vehicle starts to go backwards into the village bakery. There were moments when the ascent was so steep you could actually see the midday sun without looking up.  Luckily, rental car had maybe a thousand miles on it, so I figured I could do just about anything I wanted to the engine and it would survive the holiday.

        Once you reach the top, on occasion you are treated to a new challenge in the form of a sign that reads “Warning: Blind Summit”, or something to that effect.  It’s usually capped by a large and imposing exclamation point.  There was no doubt that the British Road Network Agency meant business when it hammered the post into the ground, but I had some doubts about how to decipher it because I could clearly see the top approaching.  It didn’t seem very hidden to me, so I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

        What I hadn’t detected was the near vertical drop on the other side, turning the road into a makeshift rollercoaster plunge.  As your vehicle becomes airborne, you feel that the notice should have been worded differently.  Something, maybe, like “Hidden Cliff” would have more precisely foreshadowed my imminent predicament.  And as my two daughters and I yelped “Holy Shit!” in a variety of languages, I took a moment from the drastic descent to yearn for the softer lanes of New England.

Travel

September 5, 2013

Dorset: North of Spain 6

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You can say what you want, but I am still at a loss, and probably forever will be, at how the English manage to keep the hedges and tree branches that hang over the road so nicely manicured.  Unless there is some designated day in the year for carrying out this laborious chore, twenty-four hours in which every citizen stops whatever it is that they are doing and arms themselves with sheers, clippers and pruners, I cannot for the life of me explain how so many thousands, about 200,000 miles to be exact, of foliage are kept at bay…and here’s the thing, without anyone noticing it.  Just how do they do it?  We were on our third day of touring Great Britain’s greenest hills and dales and couldn’t quite figure it out.  The roadways had been carved into, no bored.  Not bored in the sense of boredom, but the participle of bore, to make a hole.  Back in Connecticut trees abound, but you’d be nuts to think that public money is going to be spent on making sure all those limbs are smoothened.  In Spain that’s not even an issue because there are so few trees around.

                In Great Britain, tree and hedgerow management is an important issue, and how it is financed may explain a thing or two.  It seems that on the minor roads, which make up 87% of the total, the responsibility falls upon the property owners.  Regulating appears to be handled on a regional level, but sites like Natural England give you an idea of what it’s all about, and it is clear that they are matters not to be trifled with.   Pdf files with intimidating titles like “Hedgerows and the law” are proof that if you are the proud owner of some overgrown shrubs, you’d better read up on your rights and obligations before to get the clippers out.  The website even facilitates some helpful hints:

  • You should avoid trimming hedgerows between 1 March and 31 July (as required by the guidelines) – the main nesting season for birds.  Exemptions apply if the hedgerow overhangs a public highway or public footpath, or if it obstructs the view of drivers.
  • It is best to leave trimming until the end of winter, but where it is impossible to get on the field at this time, trimming can be brought forward to early winter.
  • Ground cover at the hedge’s base should be retained over winter for ground-nesting birds.
  • It should also be noted that over-management – or trimming a hedge too severely – can have a detrimental effect on conservation. In general, taller, bushier hedgerows provide more wild life potential than smaller, thinner hedges.
  • If conditions are such that you need to trim hedges when berries are still present, only the hedge’s sides should be trimmed, as this will leave some fruit.
  • You should pay particular attention to the need to avoid spray and fertiliser drift into hedges, hedge verges and hedge bottoms.
  • Livestock should be fenced away from hedgerows, and a strip of uncultivated or ungrazed land maintained between the hedge and the adjacent crop.

         As you can see, this is business which is not to be taken lightly. So, maybe the fact that it was summer and prime nesting time explained the dearth of farmers in hats snipping away at green limbs, but it only made my awe greater as that meant the people had even less time to prime their properties for the general public.

Travel

August 28, 2013

Dorset, North of Spain 5

Any place that’s called the Durdle Door has to be visited as far as I am concerned, unless, I guess, it refers to the entrance to a nuclear waste dump or a Gate to Hell.  But that is not the case.  It just has one of those irresistible place names that only the English seem capable of coming up with, as if it once belonged to some ancient Celtic giant.  Just say it a couple of times yourself.  Go on.  You’ll see what I mean.  The Durdle Door.

          I am talking about, of course, the famous limestone rock formation located outside the town of Lulworth some 15 miles east of Weymouth.  It is one of the most famous natural arches in the world and has formed the backdrop to countless pictures, paintings, videos, programs and movies.  Anything visual.  I wanted to go because I knew it would be a great way to get my girls into the English world.

          I went to Google and mapped out the basic route.  I didn’t have a way of getting a hardcopy, so I took it upon myself to get the mental gist of how to drive there and went for the car.  I have a pretty good sense of direction, it’s still one of the few skills that have survived forty-six years of living with me, so I have to make the most of it.

          Having said that with a degree of pride, I have to admit that I did miss the first major turnoff which would have taken us by the seawall east of Weymouth.  More than a mistake, since my instincts told it that was the right way, it was my limited experience driving on the left side of the road that was to be the determining factor in the end. You see, making split-second decisions when you are trying to adapt to everything being in the opposite place, is both a counter-intuitive and dangerous thing.  Kind of like waking up in the morning upside down on a hammock.  A rash move might prove regrettable.  That’s why, for the first few days, every time I made a decision on the road, I rarely changed it until I could find a place to quietly and calmly make corrections.  Much of the traffic peeled off to the right behind; I glided safely off to the left.

          This road led me out of Weymouth through the section called Melcombe Regis.  Now, Melcombe Regis may sound to you like the name of a man who owns a Jaguar and plans on spending his retired life on the lawn bowling green, but it happens to a neighborhood in Weymouth and was once its own town, located a little further up the Wey inlet.  In fact, for years its port competed ferociously with Weymouth for business until the two were finally untied and Melcombe basically absorbed.

          Melcombe Regis would probably have gone down in history as a quiet hamlet in English history had it not played such an important role in a rather unfortunate event: The Black Death.  In short, it started it.

          Well, let me give a less misleading remark.  It was in this town, in 1349, that the plague first made landfall on British territory.  Sailors were to blame, naturally.  They had arrived from France, Gascony, they say, and with a disease just reeling to disembark and start murdering on a mass scale.  And just like one of those evil downloaders allows malware into a computer, so did these seamen permit the malady to infect the township.  The English already were aware of the plague as it had been raging in Europe for over a year, so when the first signs appeared, the people scattered the countryside seeking safety.  The problem was, many of them were already infected and thus aided and abetted in spreading the disease.  It was the perfect killer, with the victims acting as the perfect delivery system.  There is a plaque explaining all of this in extremely pithy brevity.  It states: The Black Death entered England in 1348 through this port. It killed 30-50% of the country’s total population.

          Now I am sure no town feels particularly chipper about allowing one of the most lethal diseases in human history to wreak havoc on their countrymen, but the truth is such an occurrence was inevitable, and Weymouth just happened to be the unlucky place where it entered.  That partially explains this seemingly odd claim to fame for the town.  The other factor is that this was no ordinary cataclysm.  Not only did it usher in a new age for Europe, but the effects from the fallout were of such a scope and depth that they can still be felt today.  The horror of an invisible enemy uncontrollably decimating a population (that term actually falls short as it literally means one-tenth), and then vanishing into thin air, to put it bluntly, scares the shit out of us.  Because we know it can happen.  And because we know it can happen again.  And yet, at the same time, we are as people almost repulsively attracted to past tragic events of this nature.  They intrigue us, almost excite us to a point the boggles the mind.  It must have been horrific.  Just horrific.

          Soon enough, we exited Weymouth proper, came to a roundabout which pointed us in the right direction, and we were once again back on track.

          The trip to the Durdle Door was my first real excursion on the English roads, and I was very much looking forward to showing my daughters the beautiful countryside.   The hedgerows that so distinctly define the English country road system never seem to tire me, though they do make for some hazardous driving, if you ask me.  I get the feeling that the English tend to drive at the same speed regardless of whether they are cruising down the M3 or blazing by endless acres of fields.   With long stretches of roadway marked by severe peripheral vision impairment, it is a wonder that more drivers aren’t blindsided by emerging cars, cyclists and cows, even, as was the case outside Abbotsbury one morning.  No accident, just a sizable herd switching to a new field for better pastures.

          It also comes as no surprise, then, that Lawrence of Arabia met his fate on a motorcycle due to a last-second maneuver to swerve out of the way of some children.  That takes place in the opening scene of the movie.  The real incident occurred right here in Dorset.  The story goes that the doctor who tended to Lawrence was so affected by the wasted lives lost from head injuries that he initiated a movement that resulted in the required use of crash helmets.  The safety, I suppose, reduces personal injury, but not necessarily the speed.

          I still felt a little unnatural about driving on the left, so I kept my speed to something reasonable, causing backups all along the coast of Dorset.

          We wove through woods and fields and hills and villages and finally arrived at a highpoint from which you could survey the expanse of the coast below.  The first time I had been there, we went down to Lulworth Cove and hoofed it along a path from there.  But Ana wasn’t feeling topnotch so, instead of hiking a mile and a half uphill and doing her in altogether, we slipped by the holiday park and softly parked on a grassy makeshift parking spot.  Three pounds for the meter later, we short-stepped it downhill, stopping once to observe a herd of cows which grazed on a meadow so steep the scene defied all logic.  How they kept from tumbling down to the beach was beyond us and we paused with amusement at the sight.  Then we continued until we reached a ledge where we took in a full and breathtaking view of the Durdle Door arch.  It is so perfectly shaped, it gets an “A” in my book for archiness.  The girls were so impressed that even Ana began to feel better immediately and suggested we inch our way down the side to the beach below.  It was a perfect idea.  The skies were quite overcast but not menacing, and the hour, around six, meant dinnertime for most, which translated in our having the place practically to ourselves.  Among the few who accompanied us was a group of Indian filmmakers, director, cameraman and an attractive couple who acted.  The Durdle Door served as the ideal background to a romantic scene.  She sat on her side with her legs slightly stretched out, and we bounded along water’s edge with a big smile to make her laugh and woo her.   They seemed to be having fun and we certainly enjoyed watching the spectacle.  We lay on the pebbly beach, took pictures and listened to the waves crashed onto the shore and fill the air with ocean spray.  This is one of the simple pleasures that England can effortlessly offer the visitor and resident alike.   Time was no longer an issue for us.  Time had stopped.

          The Durdle Door, while open to the public, is actually on private property, which I found to be a shocking revelation.  Natural formations of such significance and right on the edge of the coast seem destined to be a part of the nation’s heritage.  But no, a family by the name of the Welds owns it.  In fact, with 12,000 acres making up the family estate, it would seem that there is precious little the Welds don’t own in that area, except for maybe the ice cream shop in town, and maybe even then.  There is a mansion nearby known as Lulworth Castle which burned down back in 1929.  Years of research has led me to the conclusion that total destruction due to combustion is the eventual destiny of most British castles, estates and mansions, and this was no exception.  Restoration was undertaken in the 1970s and now the place can be visited or rented for special events.

          We passed on that option, and instead drove downhill to Lulworth Cove, which is a cute little port town, with tiny cottages for summertime vacationers.  The place is so quaint I was quite prepared to see Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle emerge from a painted door or find Peter Rabbit rummaging through a garden.

          We strolled down the street to the very end, by the man who sells tie-dye scallops shells, and looked out.  The English love Lulworth and visit it in droves all the time.  Ironically, the cove itself isn’t particularly picturesque because it’s so barren, almost to the point of desperation.  But it is also a textbook book example of a bay.  When you think of cove, an image of Lulworth leaps to mind.  Its shape is so near perfectly round, with two sharp pincers leaving just a tight gap to maximize protection from the open sea, you’d think it was manmade.  But no, time and a helluvah lot of water did the job.  It’s hard not to be impressed by that.  If only it had a goddamn tree or two.  Oh, well, it was still cool to see.  We capped the trip with an ice cream which we managed to buy just seconds ahead of closing time, 8:00.

Travel

August 19, 2013

Dorset, North of Spain 4

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After we had breakfast, I thought the first thing to do was to get in a nice visit around the town so that the girls could get a good feel for the place.  Feet was our transport of choice.  Actually, it was mine.  Unless it’s a trip to the kitchen or the living room couch, getting teenagers motivated about walking can pose a serious challenge to any parent.   For that very reason I tend to be quite selective about the details I put out to the general public (i.e. my daughters) regarding the distance and characteristics of any walk and, when possible, use the English system of distance measurement to add to the confusion.

                “Let’s walk to town”

                “How far is it?”

                “Not far.  Maybe a mile.  Two max.”

                “Is that a long way?”

                “Nah.  Trust me.”

                I took them to a path which hugged the coast along the southern edge of Weymouth Bay, past a grassy park which served as soft natural bleachers for the spectators who had come to watch the sailing competitions in the London 2012 Olympiad.  Then we poked our heads inside the Nothe Fort for a few seconds, girls don’t like forts, and followed that by a stroll down to the pier which gave us a full panoramic view of the harmonious Georgian-style beachfront of Weymouth.  The weather wasn’t so hot in all ways, but after four weeks of 90+ temperatures in Madrid, and knowing we could expect another three weeks or so of the same when we got back, the cool air and the overcast skies were more than welcome.

                Weymouth is a sizable town of some 53,000 residents, and it is a very active community, especially in the summer, when the number of visitors raises its temporary population tens of thousands higher.  There is nothing new about this pattern.  Weymouth is one of the oldest resort towns in the country ever since King George III, yes the one American children are taught had so badly treated their forefathers, took his holidays there on no less than fourteen occasions.  Hence, the predominance of the architecture from that period.

             Proof of the king’s association with the town can be seen in the distance from the pier where we were standing, on the side of a mountain, where a huge chalk carving of the monarch mounted on a horse can be seen.  It was done in 1808 in honor of George’s frequent visits to the town, but the running joke was that the artist screwed up and depicted His Highness on the animal as it trotted away from Weymouth, thus suggesting that the townspeople wanted nothing to do with him.  Rumor also has it that the blunder so deeply affected the creator of the artwork that he took his life in despair.  I must admit that I am always rather skeptical of these tales since I feel that most people, no matter how distraught, do not kill themselves over such matters, unless, of course, their disappointment is compounded by a healthy bout of clinical depression.  My guess is the story is apocryphal.

                Enormous engravings set in limestone hillsides are, by the way, fairly common sights in Dorset, as well as other in neighboring counties.  Like many, I used to think that they were the product of Iron Age cultures with grand aspirations, and I am sure we can recall a few of the more noteworthy examples.  The man with the bludgeon in one hand and a huge erect penis comes to the mind of many of us.  It’s called the Giant of Cerne Abbas which happens to be located in the Dorset town of Cerne Abbas.  It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county, and while many will assert that the wish to see the image is solely out of a love for archeology…let’s not kid ourselves, I am convinced that more than one woman has surely asked her husband, “John, could you please take a picture of me next to the scrotum?”

                On top of that, it would appear that the work is not that old after all, contrary to popular belief.  Unless otherwise proven, most experts say it was probably sculpted in the earth in the 17th Century, which is still a respectable 300+ years old.  Some even assert that it may have been a kind of political statement against Oliver Cromwell, which I find to be a hysterical, were it true.  A stroke of genius to artistically shout throughout the countryside, “Cromwell is a big…”.  Because the fact is, a times he could be.

                It turns out that many, if not most, of these figures are from the past three centuries, not three millennia, and some were produced as recently as ten years ago.  While it comes as a bit of a bummer to learn this, it shouldn’t be taken as a drawback, since they are still pretty cool to look at and each has its story.  Like the George III and his horse.   A notable exception is the magnificent and truly ancient Uffington Horse, in Oxfordshire, a stunning masterpiece from antiquity that would have made Miró piddle with excitement.

               In any event, we made out what we could of George and then walked towards the center of town by way of the harbor.  There we could experience Weymouth’s other true love, and quite possibly its real true love: the sea.  Boats of all sizes, shapes, colors and purposes bobbed along the docks.  Children wedged in lifejackets and ready for sailing class raced to their boats that lay on the shore; a massive ferry heading for the Channel Islands gave passengers their final warning that the ship was about to depart; the marina was replete with activity.  Weymouth had been a port since at least the 12th Century, probably earlier, because its natural features made the waters calm and thus perfect for the shipping trade; however, the lack of any serious defense infrastructure made it equally ideal for raiding by the French.  The Spanish didn’t do much there, but the locals did so to the Spanish by fitting six ships to take on the ill-fated Armada.

              Everything in the harbor exudes a rich shipping tradition and evoked images of the people who lived in its past.  Seamen, mariners, sailors, captains, fishermen, anglers, dockers, stevedores, builders, merchants, pursers, pirates, stowaways, widows, and the lot, all must have made their contribution to an atmosphere which can still be felt today.  Fishermen chug out of the harbor, owners rig their boats, children fish for crabs, tired walkers rest on the rocky walls near water’s edge and hungry seagulls search out unwary fish & chips eaters.  On the other side, diners fill up seafood restaurants.  The atmosphere spoke of nothing but the sea.  Nothing but the sea.

             We loved Weymouth.  It is a fun and vibrant town.  The pedestrian streets that connect the harbor to the beachfront were lined with stores, shops, restaurants and pubs, and filled with locals and visitors alike.  The girls window-shopped but were tired from the walk and wanted to go home for lunch.  But I had two missions to complete first.  One was to finally exchange four 5-pound notes which had fallen from use several years ago and were accepted by establishments today.   Few were around but the ones that circulated were in the possession of the London taxi-drivers who meted them out to unwary American tourists like me.  I have never understood this practice because the bill is good; all you need to do is go to your bank and get a new one.  It seems pointless to hand one to a foreigner unless your aim is to be a shithead, which seems to be the case.

            Either that or they do it because getting a fresh set of accepted notes ain’t that easy.  I first went to a Santander, a huge Spanish bank which bought out Abbey National a few years before and now goes as Santander UK.  I noticed that it habitually rates among the worst banks in the UK in customer service, which didn’t surprise me since I was never very happy with its service in Spain. My brief experience with the institution in England gave me reason to think there was a reason for this.

              I was told that I needed to have an account with which to deposit the money.  I did have an account, which is true.  “But it’s in Spain.  Does that count?”

             “I’m afraid not.  You would have to open one here.”

             “But I don’t live here.  I’m on vacation.  You mean to say I can’t exchange twenty pounds for good notes?”

            “I’m sorry.”

             Now, I must be fair here.  The woman was friendly and she did empathize, but what she didn’t do was budge.  Not even for a measly 20 quid.

             “It’s the bank’s policy.  You might try the post office or one of the other banks.”  On top of that, she sends me to the competition.

            I had heard that about the post office on more than one occasion, so I made for there, only to walk by a Barclays Bank, where I had another account.  So, for the heck of it, I gave it a try.  The line was longer than the English Channel Tunnel, a long wait just to be told no, so I poked my head inside one of the officer’s offices and with a gentle American accent and presented my case.  I told her about my account there and everything.

            She told me the bank’s policy, which was similar to Santander’s, but said that for such a small amount of money, which was my thinking, there probably wouldn’t be a problem if I asked a teller.  Then she glanced at the line and smiled and asked me to wait for a second.  She rose from her desk and personally asked the manager if the exchange could be made, and within seconds was back with a tiny wad of four crisp bills.  I thanked her very much and left.  Now I could see why her bank had such a long line of customers.  It’s as simple as that.  That’s why they call it satisfaction.

           My second mission was to locate the tourist information office, but I soon learned that it had been closed down in April.  Not a good sign, I said to myself.  But you couldn’t tell from the masses of people in the streets.

          We had a long haul back up hill to the house, that was the part about the walk I had kept from daughters, but on the way back we were treated to watching the drawbridge rise.  It was two o’clock.  One daughter astutely observed that it must occur every day at that hour, or else the bridge people would go crazy.  The two slabs of bridge went vertical, and presently a half dozen ships slipped by, some heading out to sea, and others returning.  It was great to see the tips of their masts gliding by over the top of the open bridge.  It was a pretty sight.  Yeap, nothing but the sea.

Travel

August 17, 2013

Dorset, North of Spain 3

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With two teenagers in their room slumbering the early morning hours away, I knew the first thing on my to-do list was to ensure the kitchen was well stocked before they woke up.  This meant making a trip down to the local supermarket, but that was all right with me because grocery stores are one of my favorite places to explore, as they can tell you so much about the country you are visiting.

                There were a number of local stores in Weymouth, but the king beyond compare was Asda.  I am unsure about the right pronunciation of this place, as some would turn the acronym into a words /Asda/, which was my choice, and others would spell out the letters, which sounded a bit off to me, like the name of a syndrome – I suffer from A.S.D.A – or the name of an organization – American Society for Drug Addicts – highly unlikely in southern Dorset and certainly not a place I’d like to buy my powdered sugar from.  It actually stands for Asquith Dairies, a merger of two companies in the 1960s.  Despite being a classic British company, it might surprise you to know that it really belongs to Walmart, which bought it out in 1999 and then sold it ten years later to Corinth Investments, which, in turn, happens to belong to Walmart too.  So there is a lot of corporate incest going on there.

       Asda in Weymouth is a huge two-story supermarket well-equipped to handle the sizable floating population fluctuations that you are apt to find at seaside resorts.  It is a terrific major supermarket and provides just about everything a food-lover like me could want from a mass-scale food vendor.  On top of that, it was just a five-minute drive away and that meant I would probably be popping in on a daily basis.

       I parked my car in the indoor parking lot, then entered to pick up food as well as some data.

      One of the first things you have to look for in a place that sells food is the set up.  It was pretty straightfoward.  Ten aisles of sheer happiness.  Upstairs you could find the pharmacy, clothes, paper products, music, home items and basic appliances, and even a café.

      The first aisle was fruit and vegetables and the bakery section.  The former was solid enough and had some good deals, but the latter really caught my eye, offering just about every kind of dough that a human could stick into an oven: buns, rolls, danishes, muffins, brioches, croissants, biscuits, cakes, tortes, pies, pancakes, waffles, scones, bread, bread, bread, bread and more bread.  That delicious sliced bread that is so hard to find in Spain, bread so fresh it begins to go moldy in a matter of days.  In Spain in stays for weeks if not months, which I’m not sure is good or bad.  It all looked so enticing and so cheap – most cost only a pound – that I immediately started to load the cart without the slightest care for budget or waistline.  Dozens of thises and thats.  It was coming home with me.

         As I said, it all went for 1 pound.  At least much of it.  Asda loves to price its products at 1£, which is why you find the distinctive red and yellow tags all over the place beckoning you to invest yet more in their business.  This brought me to one of my first conclusions: the cost of living in this country, at least as far as food is concerned, is not that high, despite the reputation the United Kingdom has for being an expensive nation.  And considering that the salaries here are so much greater, even more so.  Or so I thought.

          Was that the case? More or less.  The average salary in the UK after taxes comes to about 250 euros a month more than in Spain, but the prices on the whole were comparable, and at times ridiculously lower.  Heads of lettuce cost 50p (60 centimes), 3 quarts of delicious fresh milk (3.4 liters) came to 1.93€.  That would have cost 3.06€ at a low cost supermarket in Madrid.  And so on.  So, is this point an indication that England is cheaper than I expected, or does it tell us that Spain is far more expensive than it should be?  I have said it over and over; I think it’s the latter.

        A visit to Asda also gave me clear indications that the economy is in a healthy state of being, as the store was swarming with employees, dispatching, carting, unpacking, stacking, setting, arranging, ringing up, and just generally making themselves available.  You certainly can’t seem to find such an impressive legion of workers in one of those Carrefours back home.  And, if you need assistance finding something, because supermarkets aren’t always havens for logic, the person on the floor is more than happy to accompany you, rather than just call out, “I think it’s in aisle 6.  Check there.”

         I was looking for napkins and they didn’t seem to appear with the rest of the paper goods, as you would assume.  Someone at Asda felt they belonged with party items.  So I asked and a woman took me to the very spot to ensure they really were where she thought and then smiled and asked, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

         I almost gagged.  Offering to help more?  “What?!  No, no.  You’ve done enough already.  Thanks.”  Hats off to their customer relations training.

         This kind of pleasantness is repeated at the cash register, though this time with a slightly different slant.  The woman ringing me up was friendly from the outset and immediately apologized for not helping with the bagging, which was not an issue for me, because I had unloaded half the store on the conveyor belt; plus I was used to doing my own myself.  As she scanned along, she popped a question, “So, have you got any plans for the day?”

        Now, of course, I don’t ever score at grocery stores, so I was a little thrown off.  I mean, I was used to the typical “How ya doing today?”, “Having a nice day?”, and what not, not something that sounded like “I’m off at six.  Would you fancy going for a pint, luv?”

         But the half-natural way with which she asked as she passed my package of pre-cooked chicken nuggets over the barcode reader, made me realize, or at least sense, that she was not giving me a poke-poke-wink-wink, but genuinely asking about what I had in store for the day out of slightly feigned interest and that this must have had something to do with company policy.   A little light chitchat with the customer is a good public relations tactic.  Later visits would confirm that.  That was fine with me, so I replied, “Well, first I am going to eat 24 strawberry jam and white chocolate chip muffins and take it from there.”

        My answer triggered a confused look, but after she had heard my accent and realized that I was American, she must have assumed it was a bit of quirky Yankee humor that no one quite understood and smiled, “Oh, yes.  That’s nice.” Then she returned to her business efficiently and nicely.  In the end, she handed me four tokens for my purchases which I was to use to donate to one of the several charity they supported.  Each token has a certain value, and I was to deposit one, or more, into a plexiglass container for the the charity of my choice, of course.  How cool was that.

          I departed a hundred pounds lighter, but with enough food to end up a hundred pounds heavier when I was done.

Travel

August 14, 2013

Dorset, North of Spain 2

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It was my daughters who brought up the subject.  They asked rather tersely: Daddy, why do the English drive on the left?  No one else does.

                I smiled and told them that they (meaning the English) weren’t the only ones who drove one the opposite side of the road just as they (meaning my daughters) weren’t the only ones to ask themselves that question.  I have been told that it goes back to the old stagecoach days when the drivers (meaning the ones who drove the horses that pulled the carriage) would sit on the right side of the wagon in order to crack the whips (usually with their right hand) without lacerating the faces of their passengers, which would have been poor for business.  This sounded like a nice piece of folklore, but maybe not.  Chances are, carriage-driving customs would have had an influence on automobile-driving habits.  A little investigation shows that the Romans traveled on the left-hand side.  In Europe you had a mix, even within countries.  Traffic in Madrid used to be on the left side until the 1920s.  That’s why the metro, which is older, still uses it.  In fact, Spain is one of those countries which fall under the category of originally having no uniform orientation rules concerning traffic, and I happen to find that fitting.

                To some people, taking the motorway may have seemed like a risky way of initiating my experience of commandeering a 1 ton vehicle at high speeds in LHT circumstances, but actually it’s a lot easier.  All you have to do is stick to the left lane and let the rest go by and leave you in peace.  We stopped only once for a break at a station where my daughters feasted on several Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  The success of these sugar-packed pastries in the United Kingdom is nothing short of a puzzlement to me since the first time I had tried one was back in the 1980s in Richmond, Virginia.  Krispy Kreme had opened its doors in North Carolina in 1937, but didn’t venture much out of the Deep South until the 1990s…like much of the Deep South itself.  They were dirt cheap, a dozen cost something like $1.99, and they efficiently served their primary purpose as excellent fodder for college students with the munchies.  I later heard they had expanded rapidly to other parts of the U.S. and even abroad, too fast say some, but I could not have imagined they would be available at service stations throughout Great Britain.  This was a kingdom.  Royal subjects do not eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  Good old boys with wavy 70s haircuts and souped up Chevys do.  But maybe that was the first sign to expect the unexpected from the English.

             If you ask me, part of the blame behind Krispy Kreme’s recent decline must have something to do with the price: in this case, a pack of three went for 4 pounds (That’s about 6 bucks), and that included a discount.  I let my children enjoy the Krispy Kreme doughnut experience with the joy that it can bring and quietly said to myself, “That will never happen again.”

                There were also other rest stop mainstays: WH Smiths bookstores (there are more of them than actual books in the world…though I should add the company happens to be the inventor of the ISBN catalog system) and Costas, a coffee shop whose ubiquitous presence and food and drink offer make it a kind of hybrid between Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.  While in England, I made a point of it of avoiding patronage there as much as possible in favor of supporting the local economy, as usual, it was nice to know that you could get a coffee in just about any nook or cranny of the country whenever you wanted.

                Our true destination in Dorset was Weymouth, a lovely seaside town on the southwest coast of the island, was about 2½ to 3 hours away.  The trip wasn’t too bad and acted as an infrastructural model for branching out.  The route essentially starts out as healthy four-lane highway and then gets progressively narrower from there.  Take the M-25 south, then the M-3 southwest.  That turns into the A31 and later into the A35, and finally into the A354, which was our road to Weymouth.  It’s basically straight on, but toward the end, the roundabouts get a little crazy, especially for a person who has spent the majority of their life circling in the opposite direction.  If something was going to go wrong with me at the helm, the roundabout was most likely going to be the scene of the incident, but I fared well enough, requiring only some last-minute assistance from the locals to assure I was heading towards the right place.

                We arrived in Weymouth just around dusk, made straight for the apartment we were staying at, which two dear friends had generously made available to us, then tossed our bags in the rooms (after finally learning the secrets of unlocking the front door), and tore down to the harbor for a little dinner because it was close to nine and I knew that meant we were running out of time.  We chose a classic meal to kick off the holidays, and a classic place to do so:  Fish and chips at Bennett’s on the Waterfront.

                You would think that a fast-food venue such as a fish and chips spot would be easy to order at, but that kind of premature reasoning can get a person into all kinds of trouble.  It was fish and chips for the three of us.  One for each.  And large too.  We had been traveling all day and the Krispy Kremes had done little more than whet our appetites.  The girl who served us was very nice and patient with all of our questions, though she did seem a little startled by what we planned to consume.  Large chips too?

                “How large is large?” I asked.

                She produced a small square paper plate that might have been adequate for a small square sandwich.  It looked all right. The three of us were professional French fry eaters.  We could handle that. “Go for it.”

                What she hadn’t mentioned was that they piled so many chips on that tiny plate, that I could have sworn they used a shovel.  The mounds were placed before us and we were invited to poor vinegar on them, which was typical in England but got an odd reaction from my Spanish girls.  Clara poked around the top layers of the potatoes and surmised that the portion was so great that the fish must have been underneath.  I wished I could have agreed with her, but before I could break the sad truth to her, a slab of crispy fish the size of a surfboard was dumped on top.  Ana and Clara were already warning me that there was no way in Hell they would be able to finish that, and I told they that there was no way in Hell I was going to finish mine, so they could forget about Daddy-to-the-Rescue later on.

              Ketchup came extra at 30p a sachet, a little steep since I wasn’t used to being charged for ketchup at all, but other than that, everything was great.  The good people at Bennett’s shaped the traditional paper used to hold the meal into the shape of a fish, which I said was “cute”, an observation my daughters refused to have me use because in their opinion, “Dads don’t say ‘cute’.”

                To turn this typical event into something even more special, we decided to go outside and sit by the harbor to enjoy the food in the cool summer evening air, glad to be able to enjoy anything at that temperature after six weeks of 90+ weather in Madrid.  Clara sat her plate on a rock and asked me to take a picture, which I was more than happy to do.  Unbeknownst to the three of us, a squadron of seagulls had immediately spotted us as we emerged from the restaurant, they may have even seen us ordering inside, and while I was focused on capturing on film a work of art known as “Hake Atop Mount Chips” one swooped down took a big chunk out of it.

                The surprise attack stunned us.  Amid dumbstruck laughter and shock, I tried to get each daughter to take charge of her respective plate and retreat to safety before they returned, but they feared that in doing so, the birds would continue to descend on them, this time with the target being in their hands.  So my plan was rejected, the girls fled without the victuals, leaving me to grab all three fish plates and run to seek haven from the circling birds.  Hitchcock’s The Birds was taking on new meaning in my life.  Seagulls with an attitude problem are no fun.

                We took cover around a corner and had a good laugh, but the ambush did make things tense for dinner, as each caw from above warranted an immediate search of the skies to see if another terrorist attack was imminent.  The gulls stayed away, but they never stopped looming.  We knew that the minute we departed, they would dive in and pick up whatever remains we had left behind.  The chips were delicious, but the soggy extra greasy kind which would have been great had we ordered just one for the three of us.  The fish was tasty too, but the size of the portions and the stress cut our appetite off.

                We scrambled to finish what we could, then went for a brief walk down the main pedestrian street, abandoned and almost forsaken at that hour, and afterwards went for a walk on the beach, which we enjoyed very much.  It would become our nightly ritual.

Travel

August 13, 2013

Dorset, North of Spain 1

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The good thing about living in Europe is that it is so compact that getting around from country to country is a pretty simple thing.  You can get to most parts in less than what it takes to cross America.  England is just a two hour flight from Madrid, which is why people head up there as often as they do.  As our flight made its final approach into Heathrow, though, I began to wonder whether we would get there at all.  Quite literally.  The trip so far had been kind of bumpy, there were storms in the area, but the pilot, who spoke the best English I have ever heard an Iberia employee ever use, warned us of this and added that there might be delays because, in his words, there are always delays at London airports.  So far, though, aside from being tossed around here and there, it appeared that we would be on time after all.

     It turned out, underestimated the captain’s knowledge of the scenario.

     You see, just as we floated in over the runway ready to return to the earth, with the plane swaying annoyingly as if the cabin crew were fighting for control of the stick, all of a sudden, the engines revved full throttle and the aircraft lifted away again.  Knowing that planes don’t do this for pure entertainment, I took this as a bad sign and pictured the images of our crash landing breaking records on a Youtube upload, with lots of comments with “RIP” and plenty of “thoughts and prayers with the victims”, as if that was going to do much.

     Despite this, and to my surprise, I wasn’t freaked out, especially since the aircraft continued to rise and distance itself from Heathrow in a fairly normal manner, which I saw as being good since it meant that something about the landing did not seem right and that the pilot intelligently chose to abort instead of send us into a burst of flames.

     I was disturbed by the thought that the issue of concern was the plane itself, but I hadn’t noticed any unusual noises being emitted.  I couldn’t recall the loud grinding noise of the landing gear sliding out that so startles the aviophobics, but with two children next to me requiring my attention, sometimes you miss that stage.  The pilot gave some reason about there being another plane on the runway, which I agree is never a good thing when you are approaching at 250mph, but I had my doubts.  I think we had just plain overshot the runway because we were halfway across the airport and still two hundred feet above the ground before and there was no indication that we were going to get any closer.  My daughters braved it better than me, despite one suffering from an earache from the pressure with such intensity that had she possessed a weapon at the time, she would have posed a threat to the rest of the passengers on board.

     We circled around and came in again, this time without having to dash off into the clouds, but once more after sailing by terminal after terminal, it seemed as if we would never return to our planet’s surface. I had a right mind to stand up and shout, “Don’t you realize that there is no runway left!”  But it probably would have caused the kind of alarm you don’t need and people would have remarked afterwards, “I think you could have handled that better.”

     Some of my readers may feel that I was exaggerating my reaction, but proof of my worries came from the fact that, once we made it to the ground, the pilot immediately employed every means in his power short of his feet, to get the 75,000kgs of metal to stop before it ripped through a nearby field of cabbages.  The plane came to one of those screeching halts with such violence, that no one even clapped afterwards.  We all deplaned with our hair looking like we belonged to a Justin Beiber fan club.

     From my experiences, getting through Heathrow is an incredibly simple procedure.  There are plenty of officers at the passport control desks fielding the masses of travelers and, once past them, your luggage is generally out and drifting along the belt patiently waiting for you to retrieve it.  As a former resident of metropolitan New York, I always estimate an hour and a half to get through these stages, but at Heathrow, you can often be on your way in 30-45 minutes, which was what we took.  And that included getting a car rental; it was a slick fire engine red Ford, the kind that looks like it is going at a 150, even when it is parked.  All I had to do was remember to keep to the left side of the road.

Madrid,Travel

February 27, 2013

Touring Madrid 1, Part 2

If there is something to say about these massive gatherings, it’s that they are a great opportunity to walk through the main avenues of Madrid unhindered by traffic.  You can shout here and there in angry protest and then enjoy the sights in between.  Ask an anarchist to take a picture of you and your loved one in front of the Palacio de Comunicaciones.  Dance to the rabid beats of the bongos.  As your nearest riot police for directions to the Plaza Mayor.

     I returned to the center just in time for the 23-F demonstration to kick off.  This day was chosen in part because it was Saturday; and if you don’t know, Saturday afternoons are almost always the times for the biggest protests because that’s the only real chance for most people to take their grievances to the streets.  Sometimes they pick Sunday mornings, but it’s rarer, as people most often want to get some rest or go for an aperitivo.  And on only two occasions that I can think of, they were held during the week. One was for the assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco, on a Monday in July, and the other was a Friday, March 12, the day after theMadrid train bombings.

            But it is generally believed that if you want a lot of people to attend, Saturday afternoon is your moment.  Anyone in this city knows that.  That’s what expectations were high.  Going to a protest may not be mainstream tourism, but it just might be an alternative way to discover what is going on in this country.  If you have a hotel room at the Palace with a view of the Plaza de Neptuno, you may not have a choice, but otherwise you might spend a weekend in the capital in the bars and forget there is a huge crisis afflicting the country.

            That’s where you have the political left in this country going all out to blame the severe recession on the present government which is currently being ripped for a scandal caused by the former Treasurer.  Embezzlement, laundering, payoffs, and all the good stuff were on the agenda.  And as the country’s economy still wallows in a directionless motion, the thought the leaders were hording all the cash, did not sit well.

       I’m trying to stay out of politics, but I should add thatSpain’s woes cannot be attributed to any one party, and the current allegations are just that, suspicions yet to be confirmed, but suffice it to say it is just the latest in a long line of frustrations which have wearied this country.  They have wearied those who follow the weary.

            In any event, there was this big event calling all of the citizens to become a part of the “rising tide” against the injustices of the current situation.  It was one of those Bastille moments; the WinterPalaceconfrontations, cavalry aside.  On top of that, February 23rd was astutely chosen because it is the anniversary of 1981 Spanish Coup D’état attempt.  Then, and I can get to that one day, members of the Spanish right barged into the parliament and tried to stop democracy in its tracks.  It was a major flop, thank God.  Anyway, everything was very symbolic.  Democracy prevailed, and so the opposition forces 32 years later felt it was the right time to rally the citizens again.

       Well, it kind of worked.  There were thousands of people there.  Ten of thousands.  My final estimate ran as close as 100,000, but that may be generous.  It can be so hard to tell.  That is a sizeable number, but even from close up, even in the very center near the Plaza de Neptuno, one had the feeling we weren’t jammed pack.  Plus, these days, 100,000 is not the number you want to really send a message.   Every two weeks 100,000 fans pay plenty of money to watchBarcelonaplay football.  Failing to match the number for free in the name of social outcry does make the turnout seem a little disappointing.  I can see couple of reasons why, quite possibly the biggest being that it was a general upheaval against the mismanagement of politicians in general, but a unilateral swipe at the ruling party, which is legitimate if that is what you wish.  But don’t expect the other side to join in.

            More concerning was the low number of young people there.  That doesn’t mean they were totally absent.  But I expected to see more.  I mean, according to the statistics, about 50% are unemployed.  They are so often mentioned as a mainstay of disgruntledness. Shouldn’t they have been out in legion making their voices heard?  In theory, yes.

       All in all, 100,000 is almost a paltry number given the current situation.  100,000 is the number of fans who flock toBarcelona’s Nou Camp soccer stadium every Sunday.  And they have to pay a pretty penny to get in.  That makes attracting 100,000 for a free event in the name of social outcry seems less impressive, given the current state of things; given what I thought was the current state.  But maybe I was misgiven.

Madrid,Spain,Travel

January 1, 2013

Why I Fear the New Year

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I try to be as sensitive as possible to the early moments of the year in order to get a sense of which direction things will go for the next 365 days.  It’s an irrational procedure, frankly, and one which warrants an entire array of criticism from the scientific field, but since this post is not to be published in some scholarly journal, they can stick it.

     Anyway, the first couple of hours were greeted with cheers, and hugs and kisses and, of course, the twelve grapes of good luck which preceded everything.  The challenge of stuffing my cheeks with twelve pieces of fruit as a kickoff to the next lap around the sun does depart from the normal manner of celebration in this world, but it happens to be one of my favorite Spanish traditions precisely because of its uniqueness.

     That does not mean I haven’t been confronted with some near death experiences over the years as I took on gulping the daunting dozen down with a degree of aggressiveness.  And I have to admit it doesn’t quite match sidling up to the best looking girl at the party and planting her with the year’s first kiss, but it certainly provides for a little excitement.

     This year was a little more relaxed than usual since the grandmother at the home I was dining at set about peeling everyone’s grapes to reduce the difficulty of the task and, in passing, avoid any unnecessary gagging.  After all, you only have 36 seconds to perform and complete the task.  I have always felt that peeling was kind of like cheating and that doing so could have and unfavorable effect on my fortune that year.

      I never peel.  I told her I was a “skinner” myself.

      But she insisted and I wasn’t comfortable with ending the year by telling an 80-year-old woman to shove it, so I acquiesced.

     It’s an arduous task and worth avoiding at all cost, but as long as someone else is doing it for you, well then I guess it’s all right.  It was kind of her to offer and execute the task and I was grateful.

     Midnight came and with it, the imminent tolling of the bells.  Before them you have the tingling of the four quarter-hour chimes, and then onto the main event.  We rolled through the procedure rather uneventfully, with the exception that the fleeced fruit tended to stick to the plastic wrapping, causing a few moments of mild panic amid the thought I would find myself caught behind the rest of the country’s grape-gulpers, but I managed to stay with the crowd.

     Then it was music and dancing for the next couple of hours.  I have to admit that this is something I cherish aboutSpain.  People from 3 to83 inthe same room laughing and singing and dancing to the corniest music you could imagine.  And having a blast.  I have trouble revealing my corporal movement flaws in front of even the smallest of crowds, but I did get up and shook my booty from time to time.  The Spanish, on the other hand, can be totally unabashed about their dancing, especially when they are bashed.  So, it was good fun for everyone.

     Around three o’clock I decided I had had enough and told everyone I was leaving, which was met with the usual, “Why so early?!” which is no exaggeration since there were people in Madrid who hadn’t even begun to go out yet, let alone retire to their beds.  It’s a tricky challenge bidding farewell to a group of Spaniards who inevitably are going to insist you stay on.  In the past I would give in, but I’ve learned that all you have to do is be steadfast for about three or four critical minutes and then you are home free.

     My biggest concern once released from the home was whether or not I would actually find an unoccupied taxi, since New Year’s can be notorious for this problem and a rainy one, as was the case, would make things that much more adverse.

     As I approached the corner though, I noticed several taxis zipping by with their wet tires kicking up water and making that crisp damp sound on the asphalt.  I also observed that most had that distinctive green light on, indicating that they were free.  Hmm, I thought to myself, maybe it’s because I am not right in the center of town and in a direction which is going towards the heart of the city.  It can make a difference you know.  Most free taxis come from the outskirts while most taken ones head away from the center.

     The long and short of it was that I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to wait at all.  I plopped into the back seat, told the driver where I wanted to go with a tired voice, and zapped off a few Whatsapp messages wishing various people the best for the New Year.

     As we approached my corner I glanced at the meter and saw that it was 6.30€.  Being the holidays and a time for cheerful generosity, I mentally decided that I would up the final fare to 7.00€ and treat the man to a fairly plush tip.  After all, the poor man had to work on a night like this instead of being with his family or friends.

     My calculation for the gratuity my startle some of my readers who are not familiar with the way things work here.  In Spain, people don’t feel obliged to tip at all and often won’t, which is why a 50-cent keep-the-change is many times met with a sincere how of gratitude.

      In any event, the cab comes to a full stop, and just as I am tugging out my wallet, I see the man punching all sorts of buttons on the meter, the word, supplement appears on the screen, followed by the amount, 6.70€.  The man says in a natural tone, “that’ll be 13.00€ all together.”

      “What?!  Are you sure?” What was he, drunk?

      “Yeap.  New Year’s supplement.”

       It was late at night, ladies and gentlemen, and even though I was astounded by the extra cost tagged on, as you can see it was higher than the actual fare, I was in no position to dispute it because I did not know.  It had been so long since I last took a taxi on New Year’s Eve, I really couldn’t say if it was true.  The driver certainly seemed normal about it.  He had heard me speak; maybe it picked up on my foreign accent, which has stubbornly never disappeared.  Had I just been taken for a ride with a 106% mark-up?  Great.  What a way to begin the year.

     This man was certainly getting no tip from me.