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December 1, 2013

Images of Spain: Hanging out the Wash

There it is.  One fine display of clothes clipped neatly on a sagging line of nylon rope and dangling in the foreground of the elevator in one of our patios interiores.  It could be located in any one of a thousand buildings.

I can’t speak for all parts of the States, but in general, in my part of Connecticut, hanging out the wash is not only unseen, it’s quite unsightly.  Some people I know get uptight because they seem to think it represents the kind of backwardness only people who shoot alligators in the head will do to their laundry.  But in Spain, even to this day, in modern and cosmopolitan Madrid, a clothes dryer is rarer than a coming upon a forest in La Mancha.  It’s almost considered extravegant.

        There is a certain logic behind this all.  Madrid’s climate is generally so arid that it doesn’t take long for the clothes to become stiff dry.  One night will do, and in the blistering summer heat, even less.  Periods of dampness naturally hamper the process, which is when you have to haul things in and use an indoor rectractable clothesline, because no one wants one hanging around when there is no precipitation.  But other than that, the traditional way is both a money and energy saver.  In Connecticut in the summer, if you are hit by a prolonged stretch of humid weather, your jeans might never quite free themselves of moisture.

      I take pride in this image as it is proof that I have come close to mastering one of the great Spanish chores: hanging out the wash.  And for those of you who are looking for further and irrefutable proof, I will gladly introduce you to the neighbor from upstairs, an amiable elderly woman whom I barely know, but who just recently honored me with her approval of how I set my boxers out for drying.  Coming from a Spanish señora, that says a lot.  They don’t mete out those compliments for free.  It’s another milestone.

      This morale booster would probably never have been brought to my attention had it not been for the fact that a handkerchief had slipped from her upstairs line and drifted onto mine, an unlikely occurrence, but one that could occur all the same.  Clothes drop, but generally not as often as the clothes pins, which have a funny habit of popping off from their grip on the article of clothing they should be securing and plummenting to the bottom of the interior patio.  I always wait in silence for the plasticky bounce and in the meantime wonder about the horror of being the object in flight instead.  I bet a lot of people do.  It seems to take forever.

       She rang the doorbell, I thought it was my daughter, and told me of the predicament, and when I opened my window to retrieve the article she had asked for, my daughter did show up and she greeted to woman.  The woman asked her if “papá” was going to make lunch, she said yes.  Then the woman added, “If it’s just as good as the way he hangs out his wash, I am sure it will be delicious.”

      What I didn’t know at the time was that how I positioned my clothes along a stretch of rope was apparently under scrutiny by the female residents of the building, but then again, by this point in my life, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.  Spanish señoras are sharp observers of how their neighbors conduct their business, and more so of anything that is visible, such as the wash.  Up until that point my only concern was the family below on the days that I wash my sheets and they dangle down like huge banners obstructing the view.  Of the inside patio, of course.  You aren’t allowed to hangout your wash on your balcony, at least in most parts of Madrid.  That is certainly unsightly and unseen.

      Thanks to the bit of positive reinforcement, I now devote a few extra seconds to perfecting my technique.



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.

In Spanish

October 14, 2013


Pues otro puente que ha venido y se ha ido sin pena ni gloria.  Más bien pena más que gloria.  El 12 de octubre, el Día de Todo-Menos-Celebrar-El-Descubrimiento-de-América, cayó un sábado, así que poca cosa.  Eso no impidió que todo Dios saliera al campo para hacer Dios sabe qué, porque no veía a nadie parar.  Estaban todos en la puñetera carretera.  Supongo que algunos habrán querido a buscar setas, que es lo que dicen todos que van a hacer.  Eso sí que es algo tan propio del Viejo Continente, algo tan tradicional.

Muchos españoles dicen irse a recoger setas todos los años.  Y cuando no consiguen llegar al bosque, cosa habitual, afirman disfrutar de esta actividad con un entusiasmo que supera lo normal.  Lo enumeran como uno de las diez aficiones que tienen.  “Sí, a mí me encanta el otoño.  Me encanta recoger setas.”  Son dos frases que van casi unidas.  Digo yo que hay más seteros en este país que setas disponibles.  Me da que pertenece al mismo grupo de personas, también sorprendentemente numeroso, que no ven la tele nunca y como mucho para ver algún documental.

En Connecticut nadie caza setas porque todo el mundo sabe que todos los hongos son venenosos y que hincar diente en uno te pueden dejar más tieso que una tabla de surf en una cuestión de segundos.

     Solo los que se encuentran bien empaquetados y etiquetados en un supermercado aseguran tu supervivencia.  De vez en cuando, algún entendido de micología me da un par de consejos sobre las setas buenas y malas.

       “Son todas malas,” te digo.  “Matan siempre.”  El amigo insiste y me da la lección de todas formas.  Si mal no me acuerdo, es algo así como, las que tienen pinta de tóxicas son las buenas, y las que se parece a las que te ponen en un plato con ajos, son las que te pueden cambiar la vida para siempre.

Pero al igual que con el mus, a poco tiempo se me olvida de casi todos los detalles y no me atrevo a ni tocar una no vaya ser que sus sustancias malignas pasan por los poros de la piel y me dejan allí tirado sobre un lecho de hojas de pino.  Así acabaría cultivando mi propia colonia de hongos.

       Como americano nacido en América, estoy genéticamente diseñado para generalizar lo más posible por motivos de seguridad.  Por eso se te pide demostrar en una tienda que tienes más de 27 años para comprobar tabaco, aunque la edad legal es a partir de los 21.  Así evitas la duda de si uno te está intentando engañar.  O cuando no dejan a los profesores tocar a ningún alumno, no para omitir contacto con los pequeños, sino para eliminar los malentendidos y alejar a los pederastas.  Pues eso, si no sabes si algún crecimiento de la tierra te va a alegrar la comida y hacerte anfitrión en el próximo entierro familiar, mejor no tocar ninguna.  Sobre todo cuando te das cuenta de que forman una legión las clases que pudren tus entrañas.

      Amanita Phalloide es, por lo visto, la peor de todas.  La seta más peligrosa si es ingerida por humanos. Si no eres humano, afecta menos.

       Según Wikipedia “Es un hongo mortal que ha causado el fallecimiento de numerosas personas ya que el síndrome faloidiano es un síndrome de acción lenta, y además las toxinas actúan sobre el hígado y los riñones, dando lugar al fallo hepático.” Luego advierte con sabia certeza: “Por esta razón, es importante no confundirla con otras setas comestibles.”  Gracias, hombre.

Y luego, una vez bajos los pinos y en posición de rastrear la zona por nidos de familias de setas, la gente ataca.  Por lo visto, hay una especie de atuendo oficial para extraer hongos del suelo.  Muchos llevan gorras tipo boonie, anchos y ondulados haciéndoles parecer setas ellos mismos.  En el brazo cuelga una cesta de mimbre oscuro y grueso tan fuerte que sirve para guardar las delicias así como moler café.  El camuflaje, supongo ayuda a despistar las manadas de champiñones.

       Supongo…porque nunca he recogido setas, pero voy a decir que sí para no ser menos.  Otro año será.

In Spanish,Spain

October 13, 2013

Oktoberfest Baby

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Justo el otro día, más o menos al principio del mes, recibí dos emails, curiosamente el mismo día: Uno anunciaba que octubre iba a ser el mes de 30 días + 1 sin alcohol, y el otro me invitaba a participar en el Oktoberfest ese fin de semana.  Opté por ampliar de mis horizontes cultura alemana en vez de jurar de abstinencia por una causa desconocida llamada “¿por qué?”.  No me lo había planteado, ni motivo tenía, así que me fui a la parroquia alemana católica allá por Avenida de Burgos, para la “fiesta de la cerveza” como la llaman los españoles vulgarmente.  En Madrid hay dos iglesias regidas por alemanes, algo que sabe muy pocos madrileños, y casi menos alemanes.  Bastante atención me llamó con que hubiera una.  Pues eso, una para satisfacer la fe de cada uno: protestante y católica.  Las dos montan dos celebraciones reseñables en el calendario: La Oktoberfest y El Mercadillo de Navidad, que coincide con el comienzo del Adviento.

     La Oktoberfest la organiza la parroquia católica, de alguna manera me parece lógico, aunque no sé muy bien por qué.  Ha ido creciendo en popularidad a lo largo de los años.  A mí me gusta decir con tono adolescente que la conocía ya hace bastante, cuando casi nadie venía menos los alemanes más férreos y los bebedores más fieles a las tradiciones mundiales.

     Sorprendemente, Madrid, a pesar de su respeto hacia todo aquel que sea de origen alemán, quizás salvo el nazismo, el español de la calle no la ha acogido con las mismas ganas de recibieron a las fiestas de San Patricio promulgada por los irlandeses, otros grandes amantes de la juerga.  Eso fue tremendo, y ocurrió en una cuestión de unos pocos años.  Recuerdo que estaba en La Ardosa el 17 de marzo, 1991, y perfectamente que era un domingo, y estaba tomando un par de pintas con un inglés, que es un poco como invitar a un vegetariano a cenar en un asador, y no había casi nadie.  Tres años más tarde, estaba la sala de baile del Círculo de Bellas Artes petada de gente el mismo día, hasta tal punto que el suelo retumbaba.  Los irlandeses fueron listos.  Utilizaron una especie de estrategia troyana para invadir el país y hacerse con él.  Primero abrieron centenares de bares acogedores sabiendo que a los españoles les va la fiesta, y luego introdujeron sus costumbres.  Cuando llegaban las fechas claves, la gente estaba enloquecida.

      Los alemanes no han logrado el mismo éxito; o bien porque omitieron adoptar la misma táctica, o bien porque no se les ocurrió.  El caso es que años después, el festorro por excelencia germano apenas reverbera en esta ciudad.  Casi mejor.  Así se puede disfrutar del ambiente sin tanto alboroto, supongo.  Así se puede sentar en una mesa larga rodeado de gente desconocida pero conocida en causa, una buena salchicha asada y una sabrosa cerveza de trigo turbia.  ¿A quién se le ocurre elegir a octubre como un mes sin alcohol?


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.

Madrid,Uncategorized,What's happening in Madrid

September 21, 2013

A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

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I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.



September 14, 2013

The Gift of English

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I have always thought that as an English teacher, in addition to being a writer, there is a whole slew of imaginative ways to experience English.  Some are already out there, but every day new ones crop up, proving that just when you think you have thought of everything, some bright soul comes up with a different and original approach.

Here’s a great idea for people looking to both learn and, especially, enjoy English.  It’s called “The Gift of English” and it offers special events and unique gifts all done in that language which has been the source of dismay for the Spanish throughout the generations.  The first gathering is a breakfast coming up on Sunday, October 6.  Learn more about it and everything else that the Gift of English has available.  I don’t know of anything like it in Madrid, so give it a try.


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.


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.


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.