Dorset, North of Spain 4

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.

Dorset, North of Spain 3

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.

Dorset, North of Spain 2

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.