Dorset: North of Spain 10

Gold_Hill,_Shaftsbury,_Dorset,_EnglandThe logical thing to do when returning is to take the same route from whence we came, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises.  This is especially true when you are traveling with kids, because they generally don’t appreciate hearing sentences like, “Let me just pull over a second and ask this man where we are.”

So, I should have done that, but didn’t.  I much prefer to go back on an alternate route, just to discover something new.  We did; and that was, getting lost in England is easy.  Finding your way back is not.

We veered onto the A330 and headed west towards Exeter, generally in the direction of Cornwall.  According to my calculations, I would only have to do this for a dozen miles.  I was looking for a crossroads that would indicate a turn south towards Dorchester.  This never came.  It never came because a majority on the panel of experts of the British Road Network felt that kind of information was superfluous, and that mentioning the location of smaller, vastly less important towns was far worthier of mention on a sign than lowly and forgotten Dorchester.  So I bypassed my exit at a considerable speed, positive that the route I was looking for was still ahead.  After another ten miles of stellar summer English countryside, the very landscapes that inspired Thomas Hardy over and over again, I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it I would eventually send our vehicle off a cliff into the Atlantic.   

                So, I raced off the highway and onto a country road that headed south and hopefully towards a familiar name.  The route was so narrow that it allowed for just enough room two vehicles as long as neither of them exceeded the width of a mini.   Something must be said for these harrowing experiences, but I usually pay for them at a theme park and with the guarantee I won’t die as a result.

                We coasted into Shaftesbury, an ancient town whose earliest buildings have all but disappeared from existence.  Little has survived from before the 18th Century, making it on paper the kind of town which no one in England would give two hoots about.  The name Shaftesbury may not be familiar to most us from abroad, yet anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a bookstore or souvenir shop in Dorset will have undoubtedly come upon its famous Gold Hill, an extremely steep cobbled street lined by traditional thatched-roofed stone houses.   It must be the most common photographic image of Dorset.  The lane is also famous for being the setting for one of Britain’s most beloved commercials of all time, promoting Hovis Bread.  It was filmed and launched back in 1972 and directed by none other than a young and then unknown Ridley Scott.  The ad shows a boy pushing his bike up the hill with a degree of difficulty to deliver loaves to a neighbor and final customer of the day, who lives at the very top.  Reaching the summit is described as being “on top of the world” in the voice-overed mind of the child.  The impression is understandable.   Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the English countryside explodes in all directions.  I know this from the picture, of course, just as anyone who has been to Dorset has.

The commercial is quaint, twee and heartwarming, but I was initially puzzled by its lasting fame.   After a few viewings I began to understand and came to the conclusion that it was one of those otherwise insignificant cultural nuggets which for some reason appear at the right time in a society and become lodged permanently in the memories of a whole generation.  Or two.  Every country has its treasure trove of peculiar icons that seem to mean something only to its residents.  They are brief and modest rebellions against globalization.

The Hovis bread commercial is said to have been a hit because it depicted the essence of rural life in England, with a heavy dose of nostalgia to boot.  It is fitting they would choose this spot to film it.  Dorset still possesses that yesteryear allure that attracts the British tourist in search of that lost and forgotten past of a fondly recalled simpler life.  It was become a kind of generic Main Street for the nostalgic.  At least, that’s the sense I get. I didn’t know Gold Hill was there, though I had seen the picture already.  That is a blunder in advertising.  People didn’t associate it with any town in particular. 

I was focused on other things, in reality; on what street would take me back to Weymouth and was just happy to see a traffic light because it meant I was in civilization and able to get a better understanding of just how far off course I had gone.  Fully confident of my orientation skills but no longer sure of the way I worked them, I fled to a gas station and sought the assistance of the first person I came across, who happened to be a young man of about 20.  He was with his mates.  He had a slightly unkept, up-to-no-good look, the kind of kid I certainly would have avoided back in the States, now that I think about it, unless I wanted to end up on one of those reality shows about “Unsolved Mysteries”. 

But the funny thing about the British, from an American’s point of view, is that no matter what their appearance may be, it’s the goddamn accent of theirs that makes them somehow so appealing and worthy of the fullest trust.  They could be holding to your throat and telling you that they are going to take all your money but first sodomize you for an hour, and just because of that charming intonation of theirs, you’d find yourself saying, “Hey, that sounds just fine by me.”

 Now, I can’t say what this kid would be like when the pubs close, but he was surely helpful then.  He kindly explained that I was heading in the right the direction and that I was to first pass through Blandford Forum, where I would see signs for Dorchester, i.e., the capital of the county.  Blandford is only about from 15 miles from Dorchester, but to my surprise, the disoriented traveler would not be provided with irrefutable proof that he was not lost until he was practically at the edge of town.  Oh well; every country has its quirks.

                The trip back was taking longer than I had anticipated, but as we struggled to orient ourselves, we did get to enjoy the back roads of rural England.  The tree-lined lanes, the thick hedges, the green and golden fields that formed the most attractive patchwork nature and man could jointly produce.  Each turn afforded yet another bucolic and ideal setting for yet another Hardy novel.  We wove through hill and dale until we glided into a town called Iwerne Minster, which had been was commended in the 2010 for its charm in the Best Kept Villages in Dorset contest, an annual competition run by the Dorset Community Action.  This was no gratuitous distinction.  All it takes is for a quick look around the countryside for you to realize that the competition is stiff.  Just about any hamlet in those parts could out-quaint the vast majority of Spanish communities.  They are just that cute.  You could almost imagine Mrs. Tiggy-winkle emerging from any of those homes to sweep the front entrance with a nice thick broom full of long bristles.

Iwerne Minster had apparently stood above the rest in this category making me wonder just what it would be like to inhabit like that.  It seemed almost unthinkable that a dog could ever poop on its sidewalks; no drunk would puke in its bushes; no lewd sex act ever performed or heinous crime committed inside the walls of its homes.  I was sure no habitual human behavior went on in there.  Ever.

It was while traversing this town that we drove by a pub called the “Wild Garlic”, which I pointed out to the girls because I loved the name.  Little did I know that it was a recently started up restaurant and B&B run by a Masterchef winner Mat Follas, a British celebrity I had never heard of before.  It had apparently been opened just a few months before, and apparently was closed down just a few months since then.  This was a town for hedgehogs and bears donning rain gear, not gastronomic sybarites.   Didn’t Mr. Follas realize that?

We carved our way through the rest of the county and, without great difficulty but a great deal of patience, managed to return to Weymouth with a sense that he had finally made it to familiar surroundings.  The roundabouts.  The port with the scores of masts rising into the sky, the families coming back from their dinners at restaurants.  The day coming to an end, and the town coming to a close.  It comforted us.  After just three days, Weymouth had become our new home. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dorset, North of Spain 1

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.