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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.

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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.

Another reading year…

10 Jan

Here again my reading list for 2017. Fewer than previous years. I must have become distracted by the joy of world events. I still don’t get round to enough non-fiction but Martin Amis’s collection The Rub of Time is first on my list.

Friends of mine have done so well to publish in the last twelve months. I lag behind but 2018 may prove a watershed. Watch this space…

Books 2017

Happy 80th Birthday Sir Bobby. My hero!

11 Oct

I knew from a very young age that the great Bobby Charlton and I shared something special: our birthday. Mid-1950s I developed an infant-school passion for Manchester United and in particular two players: Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. The Munich air crash of February 1958 found this little seven year old lad devastated at the loss of so many young, talented lives. The colossus that was Big Dunc had perished and I clung to the hope that Bobby would play on and that Manchester United would rise, phoenix-like from the ashes. And so they did.

On my tenth birthday my mother brought in the traditional breakfast-in-bed tray, filled with cards to open. A rush before school as I recall. Half now and half later, she had said; but there’s a special one which you should open first. Imagining that it was my parents’ offering, I carelessly tore at the envelope. Steady, she said, you might want to keep this one. Curious, I slowed down and a boysy soccer birthday card was revealed and a handwritten letter fell out.

Dear Paul,

Your mother wrote to me recently telling me that you and I share a birthday and you are a great supporter of Manchester United. Well done! Have a very good birthday as I hope I shall.

With all good wishes,

Bobby Charlton

My excitement knew no bounds. The card and letter sit proudly in my scrapbook 56years on. Now Sir Bobby, my hero, is 80.

I have many sporting and other heroes but Bobby eclipses them all. As I write, a few days before the day, Theresa Maybe’s colleagues are busily deciding whether to stab her in the front or the back. Doubtless there are Cassiuses with lean and hungry looks, envious of the female Caesar. There may be an honorable Brutus in there; intending the best but sticking the knife in anyway. Certainly there will be more than one Mark Antony, playing an insidious longer game for power. It’s all rather unseemly and great but tawdry fodder for the obsessive Laura Kuenssberg and her Westminster media bubblegummers.

Today the media frenzy is feeding on the odious Harvey Weinstein. The BBC have placed this sleazy story above the rumble in Barcelona. Power corrupts, absolute power …etc

How elevating is it, then, to think of the unimpeachable Bobby. His extraordinary record-breaking career was characterised by peerless skill, power, grace, achievement and, crucially, humility. Every championship he and his teams could win in global football, he – and they – did.

Bobby played with a crazy gang of charismatic characters for club and country.  The flawed genius that was George Best; the electric Denis Law; the fiery Nobby Stiles. Then there were the giants of 60s soccer: Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Greaves, Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore. It was a time of heroes. The 1966 World Cup win was followed by Manchester United’s epic European Cup victory over Benfica in 1968. Sir Matt Busby, Bill Foulkes and Bobby, survivors of the crash ten years earlier, had beaten their demons and lifted the trophy that had long been a cherished dream.

This was all fairy-tale stuff for me growing up. Bobby was larger than life – all power, speed and grace – and yet his  combover, his understatement and shyness, his integrity all built a picture of a man humble in his greatness. He was cautioned once in his international career, in the infamous ’66 World Cup game against Argentina. His response to being tackled brutally was ‘…to get a little bit excited.’ England won, of course but perhaps Maradona’s hand of God evened up the score a few years later – in a way that Sir Bobby would never have countenanced.

Today Sir Bobby is 80. I have enjoyed sport all my life and the past 60 years Bobby has been a guiding light, my hero. I could not have wished for better. Thank you Sir and have a wonderful day.

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