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Que sera sera…

7 Feb

Doris Day was singing Que Sera Sera in my local on Tuesday night. Well the tape or CD or Spotify selection seemed geared to the older clientele. Whatever will be, will be sang Doris. The future’s not ours to see, she continued, as if she had heard Donald Tusk berating the likes of Boris the Spider for their support of the biggest divorce in our history, without a plan.

The vitriol poured upon Mr Tusk for his ‘special place in Hell’ jibe seemed linked to the recent condemnation of Liam Neeson for telling the truth of his feelings and actions, some 40 years ago, following the rape of a dear friend. Both Donald and Liam knew what they were doing, I suspect – one calling out the conniving idiocy of politicians who should be serving a nation’s interests rather than their own; the other promoting a film, which may not be a context best chosen to expose the raw personal memory of the vicious feelings he harboured a lifetime ago. Whatever the case, the PC police were onto them.

Liam Neeson won the support of those supping beer at the bar. All were white, a combination of Brits and Rumanians; the former supping ale, the latter serving it. John Barnes was mentioned as the black bloke who had got things in proportion. Brexit has gone off the local agenda to be replaced by the more general and chuckleworthy gossip of national interest, along with the vital local issues: traffic, potholes and all the bloody housing which is going up despite virulent and unanimous protesting.

The truth is that money talks. Boris, the aforementioned Spider was born into money, educated with it and throughout his glittering academic career barely rubbed shoulders with the prolerariat. In January he was paid £51,000 for a speech by an Irish company, Pendulum Events, in Dublin. I wonder if he was paid in Euros? Whatever shit he has stirred up, and whatever chaos and economic decline is about to ensue, he is protected by money and the irony that large organisations will pay him handsomely to talk about the chaos that he and the rest have caused.

As for Donald Tusk, I rather like him. He grew up modestly in post war communist Poland and was a student member of Solidarity. He co-founded the Liberal Democratic Congress and became Prime Minister. His politics seem to have shifted to the centre-right but he famously said that ‘It is best to be immune to every kind of orthodoxy, of ideology and, most importantly, nationalism.’ He has admitted that his early life under communism was boring and monotonous with no hope of change. ‘I was a typical young hooligan who would get into fights. We’d roam the streets, you know, cruising for a bruising.’ Shades of Liam Neeson, but not of Boris Johnson.

As Doris’s voice faded, Nantes F.C. cropped up in the conversation. The general consensus was that they have been rather quick off the mark demanding their cash from Cardiff before bodies and wreckage have been recovered. Money dominated the next few minutes. We agreed that money is more important than justice, honesty, integrity, kindness etc Root of all evil and all that. Someone mentioned poor Theresa but he was shouted down. Someone else asked if anyone had seen Kirsty and Phil on Love It or List It. This seemed to be the cue for the smokers to trudge outside with their pints of San Miguel.

I remained with the virtuous and sipped my Harvey’s. Reno, behind the bar, asked what que sera meant.

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6. We found the only bar in Edirne!

21 Dec

My friend, Clive, desperate for grey-haired or, in his case, bald, adventure has invited me to join him Istanbul in mid January. This will be the last of my posts relating the story of our autumn jaunt. There will be more to come as we research the route from Istanbul to Edirne in the chill of next month.

Gatwick is flying again and so Christmas can be kick-started, we hope, for the poor blighters affected by Dronegate. Well done to Laurence (MasterChef winner) and Neil (Popmaster champion) for fabulous displays of skill, knowledge and humility in two vital areas of life: food and music. Add the appointment of Ole Gunner and things have been looking up since I started looking away from Parliament.

Back to where I left off – in Edirne in northern Turkey. Our lovely taxi driver dropped us a couple of hundred yards from the majestic Selimiye Mosque. English was spoken by our charming host at the Selimiye Hotel. He had a Celtic look about him, light-skinned and fair-to-ginger hair. I’m not sure what I expected of a Turkish hotelier but he was certainly unlike his more swarthy compatriots wandering around this lovely city.

We wandered to the mosque and the vibrant bazaar in its curtilage. Spices, sweets and clothing and colour. The displays were stunning in their sensual appeal and extraordinary neatness. On we went into the pedestrianized centre. Late afternoon and dusk was imminent. We waited for the call to prayer, expecting the happy throng of Turks to set a course for the mosque. The call came, loud and clear. Not a flicker of response. The cafes and shops remained buzzing as the prayer call echoed from the minarets and the city speakers.

We wandered past an inspiring, exciting fish market in the middle of town. We were searching for a much-needed beer after our border experiences. On and on we trotted. Plenty of coffee and hookahs about…but after twenty minutes hard searching, no beer. We were contemplating the strangeness of a soft drink when a small sign which, unlike most, was immediately recognizable: Bar.

We wandered in to this little gem and, as the only customers were greeted with some adulation. Another swarthy guy and his charming (and less swarthy) daughter smiled uncomprehendingly as we chirruped our one-word question, “Beer?” After a worrying pause I spied a large fridge stuffed with a variety of local and international brands of the amber nectar. A rapid and euphoric pointing at the fridge secured the required response. Big smiles all round and two giant bottles of a lovely chilled brew were on their way. We conducted a brilliant conversation with our hosts during which a good deal was said and almost nothing understood. Laughter abounded and the nibbles plate was regularly replenished, as were the beers. We will return.

That evening in Edirne confirmed that it would be a fine resting place on our pan European journey, whenever that may be. The following morning our trusty taxi man arrived on cue to whisk us back to the border. Clive’s passport was barely scrutinized as we wandered out of Turkey. Mine, however was taken away for further analysis by a young, unshaven chappie, more guerilla than border-force, I thought. He returned and grudgingly gave me back my identity.

We remained unsure as to whether our car would be waiting for us in the lorry bay on the other side. An additional problem was our concern as to how we could cross the central reservation at the border to make our getaway back through Bulgaria. As we walked through immigration we saw a gap in the border fence which would take us towards where we left the car on the other side. We looked around and all seemed well to nip through. As we marched towards freedom a gruff voice shouted. We assumed the translation would have been close to ‘Oi, where the bloody hell do you think you’re going?’

About turn. A beckoning finger from a large, aggressive man. Cars were being routinely stopped and their contents rifled. It was clear that plenty of trafficking or other illegal stuff goes on at this gateway to Europe. When Mr Big opened our holdalls, the look of disappointment, indeed almost disgust, at our boring underwear, shaving gear and smelly socks, was comical. With a dismissive wave of his arm he indicated that he wasn’t paid to bother with this trivia. He and the dogs went off to fry bigger fish.

And so through the fence and, glory be, our car was there. Not only that but a gateway allowed us to traverse the motorway and leave the border without further ado. Joy – and a fast road back to Sofia.

For the thirty six hours we were in we were relaxed tourists. The city has a great deal to offer with wonderful Roman ruins revealed in the city centre merged imaginatively with a new metro system. The market area is typically vibrant and the horse chestnut trees abound. They are a health and safety wonder as most pavements have risen and ripped as the root systems of the great trees wreak havoc. Wonderful.

A Balkan country shaped by Ottoman, Russian, Greek, Slavic and Persian influences is bound to throw up cultural variety, inconsistency and extremes of fortune over the centuries. Lenin’s statue was replaced in 2000 by Sveta Sofia’s enormous monument, in the city centre. The pedestal alone is 48ft tall.

There’s much to see, of course,  for the culture vultures. It’s always intriguing as to how nations report their own history in their national history museums. We went to a charming national art galley, the stunning Nevsky cathedral, the ancient Church of St. George. Gardens abound and the city is green and lovely. A large crowd was gathered in a corner of the central park as we wandered through. What were they gawping at? A game of chess.

 

5. A Walk on the Wild Side. We’re talking Turkey.

12 Dec

We took route 8 to Khaskovo out of Plovdiv. The road was flat and straight but started to climb as we reached a major fork in the road: left to Burgas and the Black Sea or right to the mountains and the choice of Macedonia or Greece. Route 8 presented the binary choice but we spotted that the E80 took us towards the Turkish border – ie straight on. We hoped that we would find a cosy, quiet border crossing manned by rustic, sleepy border police, who would smile and joke incomprehensibly with us but wave us cheerily across no man’s land.

In the event, after lunching in Svilengrad – again managing to choose a meal and beer via expert charades and friendly guffaws – we headed down a small road which we were certain would take us to the border. The traffic thinned and we passed pile upon pile of butternut squashes and pumpkins, stacked untidily outside forlorn farmhouses. Soon we were lone travellers heading for a sentry box, which we took to be the border.

An unshaven and unsmiling guard stepped out with arm raised. We gabbled our question, ” Can we go across the border here?” Once again our clear English was met with a quizzical gaze. A woman, similarly fatigued, stepped out from what looked to be a garden behind the sentry box. She managed to convey that this was where the road ended. Turn around, please or things could get tricky. Further, she explained that the border with Turkey was being Trumped; a fence of some 30km had nearly been completed. This to contain a surge of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.The only official crossing point was the Kapikule motorway customs.

We did as we were told. We doubled back, found the road which linked to the motorway and headed past mile after mile of heavy freight traffic queueing to gain entry into Turkey. I should have videoed the tail-backs on both sides of the border to show Brexiteers what a border with a non-EU country looks like.

We parked our car in a coach bay and walked to what looked like a toll booth. The Bulgarian border police clearly weren’t used to ageing Brits strolling past the car queue with holdalls in hands and smiles at the ready. We found a guy in a khaki and green uniform, sporting the sort of captain’s cap that Bing Crosby wore in High Society. He looked at us curiously as we began with a question.

“Can we walk over the border here?” A studied silence, the a slow, deep drawl..

“Yerrss.”

“Can we leave our car over there in the coaching bay?” This was a trickier question, requiring a couple of seconds thought and then a wry smile.

“No…is illegal.”

“We are only going a few miles into Turkey and coming back by tomorrow midday.” We were grasping at straws here.

“Only one day?” he drawled suspiciously. “Well OK, car is OK for one day.”

Progress but we wanted conformation, “So it will be OK to leave the car, it won’t be towed away?”

“I don’t think so. You leave. I check in morning. Is OK.” He seemed satisfied and so were we…just. We picked up our bags and walked into the passport office. They had been alerted, clearly, that two odd pedestrians would need to be processed into Turkey. As we moved across no man’s land and into a similar passport-check-booth on the Turkish side, the scrutiny of our visas was rather more thorough. The Bulgars seemed pleased that we were heading out of their patch but the Turks seemed a little less keen to welcome us.

But enter Turkey we did. As promised a small bunch of taxis waited at the crossing, mostly to ship border workers to and fro. We found a smiling old chappie with whom there was no chance of meaningful communication. We wanted to go to Edirne, a small city just a few miles in from the border. My pronunciation of Edirne (Ay-dear-neigh) didn’t find a flicker of recognition. Enter Google translate. The old taxi-man had done this before. We spoke English into an iPhone, he replied in Turkish. Mr Google then worked his magic.

We were on our way to Edirne and the Selimyie Hotel, just 200metres from the famous mosque of the same name.

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.

Gratitude.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Snow..

28 Feb

I like what snow does to people. As I type I can hear children and their mums and the odd dad squealing with delight outside. Duffled, bobbled and booted they are sliding and sledging and snowballing down the road.

Their sounds are muffled by the six inches of white stuff. The sun is glaring off it and surprises the eye with the sharp intensity of light. My neighbours have taken the day off; school’s out for a while and there’s a delightful truancy in the air.

The lovely blizzards which have hit my corner of Kent and much of the east of the UK make us pause. Our routine is gloriously disrupted. I meet people in the local supermarket who would not normally be about in the middle of a working Wednesday. Happy tales of iced-up windows, impossibility of getting to work and child-minding sprinkle the giggling conversations. The world that is too much with us takes a backseat for a few precious hours. Time to stop and think and breathe.

Turn on radio and TV and the machine guns rattle. Florida student mayhem (arm the teachers!), Syria, Brexit politics, Charity workers. Madness is restored. I turn the media off quickly. I feel like Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m safer here in snowy Hawkhurst than complying with the Nurse Ratcheds of the world out there.

It’s 3pm. Time for Escape to the Country, a nice little show on the BBC about people wanting a better life somewhere rural. Wordsworth knew a thing or two about this. Today’s snow has been a timely reminder.

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