Archive | November, 2018

4. A Morning Plotting in Plovdiv..

21 Nov

We woke to the early morning buzz of central Plovdiv. We checked out of the Bulgaria Star and wandered to our car to find that we had parked it illegally under a warning sign with a towing hieroglyph which resembled a hangman’s noose. Inscrutable taxi drivers at the rank opposite grunted that we should escape sharpish.

Taxis and their drivers are everywhere. So too traffic wardens. In the absence of meters or that annoying system in UK cities of paying vast sums by credit card, the Bulgarian state employs thousands of quite sour-looking men and women to patrol city streets and sting motorists. A paltry wage, no doubt but employment, nevertheless.

In a nearby street  we found a neat parking slot and approached the parking police. After a humorous sign-language exchange we worked out that city-centre parking was 50p an hour. We hoped that our 3Lev would go straight into his pocket.

We discovered the Turkish consulate. A bunker-like building down a side street. Several police heavies in combat-fatigues and threatening sub-machine guns were hanging around outside. There was banter. About Khashoggi perhaps? Clive approached the huge metal door and pressed the intercom. A crackling. Clive, with his best, mellow, apologetic London voice crooned, “Good morning…erm…do you speak English?”

A pause. The crackle restarted. Then a deep, resonant, growl, “Yes..a little.”

Clive then gabbled about our being two gentlemen of the UK, on a planning mission for a cycle ride across Bulgaria and into Turkey. As we were unable to take our hire car across the border could we catch a bus to Istanbul or, at least the nearer town of Edirne? There was a silent patience as Clive prattled on. When he finally ran out of garbled explanation, there was a long pause before the electronic suction-whoosh of the giant door was remotely unlocked. We pulled back the heavy portal. and we were in.

Faced with a couple of bored-looking but formidable guards and security-scanners, we both had the same thought: once inside, will we ever come out? We were ushered into a waiting area with a few young Turks (sic) queueing for attention. A swarthy man appeared from a door behind us and approached.

“You wait here. Someone see you soon.” The same gruff voice of the intercom. He turned and disappeared through the same door. Almost immediately the group in front of us stepped aside and a middle-aged woman appeared behind the grille. Clive’s manners were impeccable.

“Hallo, do you speak English? Can you help us, please?”

“Yes of course. What can I do for you.” Pleasant direct and smiling..or was it a grimace?

Clive then repeated our request. We wanted to see if we could catch a train or bus to Istanbul, that very day, from the border at Kapikule. Firstly we were encouraged. Trains and coaches went from Edirne, just over the border, to Istanbul. Our spirits rose.

“But the transport only goes overnight. Nothing in the day.”

“Let me get this right,” said Clive,” Buses do go to Istanbul but only after 10 at night. We can’t get there in daylight today.”

“I don’t think so. We can do papers for car but it will take a few days. Sorry.” All said with a genuine smile, actually.

Undaunted Clive persisted, “OK, can we park our car at the border somewhere and walk across into Turkey?”

“I don’t know about car but yes, you can walk over border. Is unusual but not illegal. You have passport, you can go.”

And with that we were done. We thanked our Turkish lady and, somewhat nervously navigated the exit-security, pleased to be the other side of the steel door and heading for coffee in the sun at a street café. We returned, briefly to the Bulgaria Star to pay £3Lev (£1.50) for mini-bar water which we had overlooked. The receptionist was pleased and amazed at our honesty. British through and through.


20 Nov

I was pleased and grateful to receive  thank-you card from my little granddaughter today. She reached the ripe age of two recently and while she made her mark on the card, her mummy had written a lovely message of gratitude.

Perhaps in our brave new social media world a text or email is the time-efficient method of thanks but I liked the thought, elegance and effort of the envelope which dropped on my mat this morning. Of course there are the fringe benefits of calligraphy-recognition and knowing that just the odd envelope is personal rather than a flyer or bill. Pleases and thank yous being inculcated in the young are vital to their understanding of true worth. We need values which ground us in the appreciation of all the small gifts that humble human interaction can provide.

I always register good manners. The landlord at my local extends his arm across the beer taps to shake hands when customers come in. He’s from the Czech Republic. I have Lithuanian and Mauritian doctors. Both warm and polite and charming. Better still, they’re very good doctors. Next week when I have my prostate checked I won’t mind the ethnicity of the digit which investigates.

My optician, whom I visited this morning is of Indian extraction. Unfailingly polite to the point of deference…but very much in control too. So too the Albanian builders who are doing work at my house this morning. They work like stink and have and old fashioned air about them. Their manners are impeccable. Things that have been ingrained many years ago in family settings a thousand or more miles away and in circumstances far less comfortable than most on this side of Europe.

I left the optician and had coffee in the Victoria Centre, a large mall in Tunbridge Wells. Not one but two heavy-accented girls served me with charm and consideration. My blueberry muffin looked a little sad but I accepted it. Five minutes later and two bites in, one of the girls put another muffin on my table and said, with a smile of apology,

“We embarrassed. Muffin not good. Please, this better.”

I pause to answer the door… An Amazon parcel. Another Eastern European. Another smile and respectful exchange.

I hope that manners and gratitude don’t go out of fashion in our revved-up, screen-addicted world. The pleasure gained by giving and receiving simple courtesies is incalculable. The small acknowledgements which punctuate our days dozens of times over, form the basis for our acceptance, appreciation and gratitude for others.

I should say that, despite wanting to point out the wonderful contribution of other ethnic groups to our national courtesy quotient, there are countless numbers of jolly nice Brits in my village who also deal in good manners…but one or two who don’t. The last two rude people I encountered were elderly Brexiteers. I may be a little prejudiced and need counselling. I’m having a beer with a Brexiteer later. I’ll let you know if he has good manners.

In the meantime…

I look forward to my little granddaughter being able to write her own cards of gratitude and hope that the practice will continue for generations to come.




3. More to Plovdiv than meets the eye.

16 Nov

It might have been better not to be on a flying visit to Plovdiv. The Roman and Greek theatres, the ancient stadium, the ethnographic museum, the parks and the rest would all have to wait. Clive and I, like two Russian agents in Salisbury, affected interest but had more important matters to attend to.

Central Plovdiv has an attractive,cobbled old town. EU money is helping to dismantle a creaking infrastructure. Giant diggers were excavating a huge underpass through the heart of the city. The Bulgaria Star opened on to a charming square just a stone’s throw from the monumental earthworks. A balmy autumn evening ensured a happy throng of drinkers and diners. We gobbled down Happy food at one of the eponymous and ubiquitous chain of restaurants. Happy girls wear tight red T shirts and skimpy red mini-skirts. They smile unfailingly as they serve you. So too the boys – shorts rather than minis but the effect is, well, happy. The Happy place is a Wagamama with attitude and great table-service. And, yes, English was spoken, if broken. Praise the Lord.

The cafes were full. Urban Bulgars eat and drink out in considerable number – and at least as many women as men were quaffing vino and ‘doing’ lunch or supper wherever we went. The night air filled with music from west and east but my lasting memory is of Elvis crooning Are you lonesome tonight? Few people seemed to be. There was a buzz about.

I had been rather idle on the foreign exchange front and had my cards but no cash. Clive had changed a certain amount but neither of us was quite prepared for how far his Bulgarian Levs would go. Think half price for almost everything. Outside Sofia hotels and taxis seemed even cheaper.. We soon realized that Clive could pay for everything and I would settle up on return. Result.

We had had a long day. The itinerary for tomorrow involved a quick wander round Plovdiv, a visit to the Turkish consulate and walking across a traffic border into Turkey. Less than a week previously Jamal Kashoggi had been murdered in Istanbul.

2. Getting to Plovdiv

16 Nov

We eventually found the right potholed route to Plovdiv via Kostenets and Pazardzhik. It’s about 100 miles and we weaved between route 8 and the A1 motorway. We were looking for a cycle route to combine safety, practicality and speed. While Clive drove, I made shaky notes on road numbers, quality of surface, gradients and suitable stopping-points. A good deal of banter punctuated our earnestness. We will be taking a motorhome as support-vehicle/hotel/shelter/maintenance truck. Much discussion as to how the motorhome would fare on dodgy roads. Cyclists can weave in and out of craters.

Our first stop was at a roadside bar/restaurant outside Kostenets. There were two shabby women and a shabby man having lunch outside. The terrace was an extension of the car park. We smiled and walked into the most basic of eateries. The peasant woman behind the bar, with scarf and housecoat, smiled and spoke Bulgarian. Clive responded with the usual Brit-reply. Speak English? A slight and hesitant shake of her head told us that, not only did she not speak English but she had no inkling of what Clive had said. The beer taps were before us. First things first. Clive raised two fingers and we both gestured large by opening our hands and arms out. Smiles all round as full comprehension was registered.

The menu was a Cyrillic nightmare. Pointing to the hieroglyphics did us no good as our landlady’s charade-skills were well below Clive’s. After a short while we gave up, convincing ourselves that we weren’t hungry anyway. Luckily giant bags of crisps were on display and so we simply pointed.

Outside the man scoffing his lunch had enough broken English to tell us that we were crazy. He confirmed that we were in the right road but pretty soon lost interest in the struggle for communication. We rejoined our car with crisp and beer belches forming the soundtrack of our departure.

The A1 and A4 motorways which take you to the border are smart dual carriageway style roads and the most obvious sign of EU investment. The hard shoulders are wide and peasant traffic and bicycles are allowed. We saw little of this type of transport but have noted the possibility of safe cycling on Bulgarian motorways. The gradients even out and the traffic is light for the most part.

Coming into Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, Google maps swung into more effective action. By now early evening, the place was busy. Plovdiv has a population of over 300,000 and you can double that if outlying areas are included.The Bulgaria Star Hotel, a relic of communist architecture, gave us a warm and charmingly broken-English reception. We had parked our car illegally but were blissfully unaware of the fact. All we knew was that we were in  central Plovdiv and the evening was ours to enjoy.

To Turkey and back. 1. Getting out of Sofia.

16 Nov

Walking across the border from Turkey (Non-EU) and Bulgaria (EU) I observed, first hand, a border with friction. From Edirne in the north of Turkey, along the D100, which becomes the A4 motorway in Bulgaria, the carriageway was gridlocked with freight traffic queueing for access into and out of the EU at the Kapikule crossing. About five miles either side. Each lorry takes between 15 minutes or so to clear, we were told. Good job the drivers had sleeping accommodation in their cabins and board games to while away the day – or more-  that entry or exit would take.

Cars seemed to have few problems. We were a curiosity for Bulgarian and Turk border police. Little English is spoken at this edge of Europe and two near-septuagenarians trying to explain our plan to cycle from the UK to Istanbul next year, was stretching credibility in any language.

We had flown into Sofia the day before. Terminal 1 was a distinctly budget unit rather like the cramped hangars which greet you on arrival at an outpost of empire or a small Greek island. Little did we know that Terminal 2, a glossy, EU-sponsored erection, was a stone’s throw away.

Documentation to take a hire car across the border would take a week. We didn’t have that long and so we headed out of the capital on route 8 and were soon in pothole territory. We think that we have problems. Pot-craters more like. Jesus. Beyond the urban, rural Bulgaria doesn’t seem to have seen much EU cash injection in the decade since the Bulgars threw their lot in with Merkel. Poor peasant life is the norm and few, if any, spoke English. Our charades expertise came in handy. Luckily beer is beer in any language. The Cyrillic alphabet is suspended for Stella or Heineken.

We got ourselves lost as we were slaloming the craters. Google maps took us along remote tracks where chained dogs barked and local workers stared quizzically. After an hour or more we found our way back to Sofia and started again. Easier said than done since Sofia in Cyrillic begins with a C and ends with mirrored N and R. If I could press the right keys now I’d show you. Such is my level of incompetence. As for our journey to the Turkish border via Plovdiv, guesswork and blind faith in our sense of direction would have to see us through. The auguries were not good.



Get yourself a new pair of glasses ref! Well if you think that you can do better, here’s the whistle.

15 Nov

It’s an old joke, the soccer referee offering the whistle to a complaining prima donna. The ref makes the offer in the pretty sure knowledge that a. The carping player is incompetent and b. He certainly isn’t neutral.

As today’s news of resignations unfolds, Jacob Rees-Fogg has gathered his cabal together to stir up a witches’ brew of discontent. He’s not alone. In his slipstream are Jezza Corbyn, that nasty woman from the DUP, the wicked witch of the Scots and any number of self-interested individuals and factions for whom the nation is less important that political power and ambition.

How the Corbynmeister must be loving it; so too the Brexiteer toffs. Double, double toil and trouble. Strange for me to feel sorry for Mother Theresa but I do. While all around her complain in the luxurious knowledge that they wouldn’t have got close to a deal themselves, the nation is exhausted with all the hubris and complaint and manipulation. Had Mother Theresa given the whistle to any of the grubby rag bag of her political friends and foes, we would have witnessed Armageddon. Well we’re looking at it now.

Perhaps the honourable thing for all remainers would have been to resign in the first place. Theresa would have been able to bugger off to Snowdonia and watch twats like Rees-Fogg and Boris the Spider take the nation down an Eton-fashioned abyss. Or, better, why didn’t she fight for a new referendum, if she truly believed in the EU?

The lack of a third, credible, centralist party has done us untold damage. The binary nature of politics – indeed much of our political thinking and strategy – is by its very nature, divisive. It’s the same in the US. Democrat or Republican, Clinton or Trump, heaven or hell? In my local pub there are shades of opinion. Jack, who can appear a little reactionary can surprise with liberal thoughts and concede points. Jill is quiet and considers issues carefully; invariably she talks sense and appears to have no axe to grind. They just want to get on with their hard-working lives. Jack is a roofer and Jill a librarian. Their lives are so far removed from Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff or Stormont – and they feel the distance. One voted Remain, the other for Brexit. Both admit to not quite knowing enough about the issues involved and being swayed by misinformation and scaremongering.

And so we are where we are. It’s 3pm and I’m hoping for better news at 6 o’clock or 9 o’clock or next year ..or sometime never. As the pound plummets again, so do my spirits. I’m meeting some buddies at the local at 5. Doubtless we’ll raise a glass to Theresa. Misguided, perhaps, but, just possibly she is one of the few who has set party and individual ambition aside and is trying hard for the UK. Her whistle is sounding so shrill that only dogs can hear it. One of the prima donna dogs is ready to grab it.

Scooting proficiency – a must for primary schools!

13 Nov

In a recent poll a third of parents suggested that schools ought to teach scooting as part of the PE curriculum. Apparently one fifth of all parents are thinking of buying their little treasures a scooter for Xmas. Primary schools are also under pressure to ‘teach’ the language of LGBTQ and explain differences of sexual orientation. Children should be familiar with terms such as gay, lesbian, transgender, transvestite etc, etc.

Gone are the days when times tables, Bunsen burner fun and the Norman Conquest prepared you well for life. Of course those were the days when we had parents. Teachers tended not to know about sex and scooters, so concentrated on what they did know. Parenting seems to have disappeared from the educational equation.

We’re not allowed to criticize or, worse, blame parents. We can’t say that too many unwanted children are born, too many couples break up and don’t manage the job of seeing their kiddies through life’s early traumas too well. There’s also those who don’t break up who can also be crap at parenting.

Whenever my lovely son feels like telling me that I am his best friend – quite a rarity but it has happened – I correct him and say that I’m his best Dad. I am his parent, not his mate. I love him as my son but wasn’t selected as best man at his wedding. Parents should teach scooting and sex and a whole range of stuff in the knowledge that children notice, understand, discern far more than we give them credit for. They pick things up all by themselves. Trial and error is a good recipe for most silly skills. Sex and scooting are just two.

I might have struggled with iambic pentameter and quadratic equations without my teachers, however. Having said that, I can read and so the older I get, the more I learn. And what I read about milkshakes this morning was truly underwhelming. Did you know that some high street knickerbockers have over 1000 calories and up to 30 spoons of sugar? Naturally ‘Action on Sugar’ is on the case. Perhaps schools should identify fat kids and send information sheets home on where to buy low-calorie milkshakes.

More strangely vegan burgers which bleed (beetroot juice) will soon be hitting our supermarket shelves. The Beyond Burger is designed to look and cook and taste like beef. Wow. Doesn’t this represent a climbdown for the vegan community – accepting that plant food should taste like carnivore fodder? That journalist who scuppered the editorial career of William Sitwell might take a view.

Last week I enjoyed a conversation  between a vegetarian and a meat-eater. The starting point had been my blog on the said Mr. Sitwell taking the micky out of vegans. The veggie supported the sacking. The carnivore didn’t. Then the latter asked,

“When did you last go into a vegetarian restaurant which had a meat option on the menu? Angus Steak Houses have a fine range of veggie (and vegan) options. Vegan and veggie restaurants never have meat on the menu. They discriminate, don’t they?”

The veggie’s response, along the lines of that’s not the point didn’t cut any ice. I rather enjoyed this little conundrum. The logic of it seemed rather sound. Logic, now that’s something which could be taught in schools. It could replace scooting in whatever new curriculum is bound to assail our schools when the next government is formed.

Thin Skins and Banana Skins.

1 Nov

I see that William Sitwell has been sacked as editor of that much-read organ Waitrose Food. His crime? Taking the piss out of vegans in a private email to a Ms Selene Nelson. She complained that he considered it ‘…funny to speak about vegans with hostility and anger.’

Well Ms Nelson, well done for losing Mr Sitwell his job. And shame on Waitrose for not ticking Mr Sitwell off for an ill-advised joke and letting him carry on with his life. The national obsession with taking offence has found another champion. It shouldn’t need Giles Coran to tell us that, ‘Vegans are not a race or a gender or a sexual orientation or a differently abled group. They just choose to eat plants. You should be able to take the piss and not lose your job.’

I recently visited an old university buddy of mine who is terminally ill. I drove  another friend and as we neared our destination he said, ‘I’ve told him that we’re going to take the piss out of him as usual.’ And so we did. Before we left our witty, talented, dying mate told us how good it felt to enjoy a little scurrilous plain speaking rather than pussyfooting around the vast elephant in the room.

The point is that we have become a nation of eggshell-treaders. Worse, we have stopped saying things because we don’t want the ‘woke’, right-on, PC police to raise an eyebrow and deselect us from some club or other. Worse still, our police, courts and public forums and services are afflicted by the minutiae of dealing (expensively) with the carpings of the minority who are hair-triggered for outrage. We are stymied by our thin skins. They are becoming banana skins on which we will slip time and time again as we slide into an insensitivity to what is really important. Millions are being spent on fine-tuning the semantics of what is a hate crime or pursuing an ageing pop star with no evidence. A few weeks’ ago a builder friend had his van broken into and £1500 of tools stolen. Insurance for that sort of thing is prohibitive and the police laughed when he expected them to investigate. They are snowed under with box-ticking; paranoid, like the health, education and fire-services, that the blame vigilantes will get them.

Some things really are important. As we approach this centenary Armistice Remembrance, I wonder what the great remembered  fallen would have made of the brittle and unsavoury world that we have fashioned for ourselves.

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