Archive | Features/current affairs RSS feed for this section

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Disinterest…passivity..indifference. Beware! Big Brother relies on inertia.

23 Oct

Disinterest can imply impartiality; not being influenced by personal involvement. It can imply indifference, a ‘can’t be arsed’ passivity which, when big decisions are being made near and far, becomes a dangerous state of inertia.

In my little Kentish village someone wants to punch a road through the golf course so that heavy goods vehicles can get from A to B more quickly… and they also want to build 400hundred new homes. The locals are punch-drunk with planning application upon planning application from profiteering property companies and greedy landowners. The villagers are losing heart because raging against the machine seems to get nowhere. The ‘local plan’ which was widely consulted upon seems to be a similar piece of paper to the one that Chamberlain brandished after his cosy meeting with Herr Hitler.

The Parish Council are shell-shocked from the many developments which have already pockmarked this beleaguered village. The local council with spurious targets to meet don’t appear, quite frankly my dear, to give a damn.

Today I noticed that the number of objections on tunbridgewells.gov.uk was significantly down on those of previous planning applications. Clearly the buggeritthey’lldoitanyway attitude has kicked in. Protest-fatigue, like Brexit fatigue is, however, a dangerous thing.

Greed and profit lie at the heart of many local developments. I favour reasonable development for the good of the community – that which encourages improved economic activity, supplies affordable (my God what does that mean?) housing and housing association/council accommodation and is sensibly in proportion to the community already there. I detect little nimbyism round here but plenty of battle fatigue.

There was little of this about at the extraordinary march in London last Saturday and yet there remained the feeling that the 700,000 were weak combatants; an army fighting opponents whose troops are on a different battleground. The ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers that were worn with cheeky pride are a slogan for our times. But the machine ignores our name-calling and we have no sticks and stones.

The media coverage in the run up to this extraordinary show of popular sentiment was muted, embarrassed and rather undemocratic. The response during and afterwards was underwhelming. I’m talking BBC here; the organ of the nation.

The evening news gave similar amounts of time to Farage in a pub with twenty mates in Harrogate and a UKIP demo of about six people in London, complaining about the 700,000 who were marching past them. That’s BBC balance for you.

I didn’t see any Ukippers as I was in the midst of the mighty throng of young and old, all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds and ethnicities – and from all over the UK. Chris Mason, the Auntie political hack of the raised eyebrow and boyish intensity, was wandering about seeking to massage this peaceful explosion of public opinion into an edgy confrontation- hence the discovery of a UKIP flag and an argument between a middle-aged Remainer fighting for her children and grandchildren and a purple Farage follower with Little Englander stamped on his forehead.

Robert Peston, freed from his toadying role at the BEEB tweeted his wonder at the show of people-power. He didn’t go overboard but in the spirit of proportionality chose to give no time or space to Nigel making his plans in Harrogate.

Sunday’s papers were underwhelming in their coverage. The Times was more concerned with the internecine dramas of the Tory party. The headline ‘PM enters Killing Zone’ tells us all we need to know about selling newspapers. Creating news is more important than reporting it. Ask Laura Kuenssberg.

If we stop raging against the machine the machines will swarm all over us. Machines don’t have a sense of proportion, only profit. They are indifferent to truth. They worship self-interest and short term gain. They are not concerned with the really big and profound things of life. If we, the great British public, allow our battle-fatigue to spiral downwards to indifference, we will be stuffed.

 

Southgate’s slipstream…

13 Jul

On the rare occasion that I find myself cycling in a group, I try that Bradley Wiggins thing. Not the dubious medication-in-a-bag scam; the tuck in behind the leader ploy and cruise in his slipstream trick. With the cheers of defeat echoing through our beleaguered nation might we not consider harnessing  some of Southgate’s energy.?

Jokingly I have suggested Gareth for PM. It’s not really so far-fetched is it? A recent bout of insomnia led me to listen to several TED talks in the wee small hours. If you hit on some really boring ones your sleeplessness will fade quite quickly. On this occasion I found myself engaged by some chap speculating on the random selection of politicians from a cross-section of society, ie no gravy-train, vestedly-interested, career-politician muppets but a spread of the electorate given a chance to guide and challenge the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall to make sensible choices for us all. We couldn’t do much worse than recent evidence suggests, could we?

Gareth seems to have got us all ‘on message’. His honesty, directness, humility and decisiveness have been admirable. No pushover but a natural diplomat. Plenty of steel but compassion and warmth under his waistcoat. As we have pedalled along in his slipstream the Trumpmeister has hoved into greater view.

Firstly he gives NATO what-for with his pay up or shut up inarticulacy, then on to febrile Britain where he tells Mother Theresa that Boris the Spider would do a better job than her. He was reading directly from his Farage script. He may be making plans with Nigel for a takeover of the bullies at Westminster.

Sir Gareth is far from a bully but there are so many of them in the international playground. Having had some experience of how boys and girls can bully – some insidious and  covert, others brash, gross and brutal – there are many parallels to be drawn from playground to parliaments. Many of our World leaders or eminent (sic) politicians are bullies with agendas which serve themselves and not those whom they purport to represent. The Trumpet Major, some say, would have done so much better than Mother Theresa because he would have bullied the EU into groveling submission. He’s sorted Kim Jong Un, he’s telling the Chinese how to conduct trade and he’s jumped into bed with Macron. What a player!

But bullies get found out. Sometimes teachers don’t realise what is going on right away. The kids in the playground can be seduced into siding with bullies for self-protection. In the end everyone sees – and remembers- the awful truth of the unpleasantness. Sometimes bullies continue into adult life and we can all recognize them in the workplace. Yes, sometimes they are successful in certain terms. But life’s too short to kowtow for too long. I’m amazed that Piers Morgan is still ruffling feathers on primetime TV, not because what he says is idiotic (he occasionally talks sense) but the way he says it brooks no opposition. My way or the highway. The Alan Sugar code of living.

When the behavior that we take note of is predicated on the notion that the world is a better place with guys and gals like them telling us all how it is; kicking ass; sticking it to opponents; single digiting those who disagree, then we are back in the playground where the bully reigns supreme and the rest of the kids keep out of their way and let them wreak havoc.

I’m in Southgate’s slipstream at the moment. We’re kicking a ball about in the park. Jumpers for goalposts. Gareth  captaining my team and we’re playing properly, no need for a ref because we trust eachother. There’s a nasty bloke called Donald who wants to play but he always spoils the game with cynical fouls and bullying of the smaller kids. Ah, I see Gareth has gone across to sort him out. If only…

%d bloggers like this: