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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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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.

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.

 

 

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.

The Sacred and Profane..

22 Oct

Swearing an oath can be both sacred and profane. What fun there is to be had with the English language! My parents were pretty frugal on the profane front – a bloody or a ruddy escaped every now and then – but the excesses of barrack-room banter did not make their way into the Sorro household. The rise and rise of profanity in the last half century is an indulgence that I’m uneasy about although I can’t claim that I haven’t vented my spleen every now and then with the satisfying invective that is swearing.

I’m a straightforward swearer. The F-word escapes occasionally, the C-word rarely. What initiates usage might be a minor irritation, anger even; a mishap or shaft of pain; company that I keep, the tide of a conversation; the context. I know my audience. it’s either myself or those I judge not to take offence.

I am fond of a variety of mini swear words but my favourite is Bollocks. It’s such a rich and harsh and muscular and satisfying expletive. It’s so versatile. It’s middle English origin was testicles, of course but it also means nonsense as in ‘You’re talking utter bollocks’. It’s a much better misfortune expletive than ‘Oh Shit!’ when you lock yourself out of your house.

It can be both a savage criticism: That’s bollocks or glowing praise: That’s the dog’s bollocks. You can drop a bollock, freeze your bollocks off, go bollock naked and be kicked in the bollocks. Of course Bollocks lacks a certain inclusivity as on half the population have testicles so pressure groups will shortly spring up to lobby for the banning of such patriarchal, male-centred hijacking of the English language. Even now there is concern  that Michaelangelo’s David may be the target of #MeToo camapigners who have threatened to chop his bollocks off. Certainly I could well be ‘no-platformed’ for being a well-known advocate of bollocks. Bring it on!

As I marched to Parliament Square last Saturday with the other 700,000 despairing souls, I was handed a Bollocks to Brexit sticker. Now I wore the thing quite proudly but I reflected that this might represent a pretty low level of political discourse. Furthermore my somewhat puritanical upbringing kicked in. There were plenty of families ambling along, proudly plastered with Bollocks stickers. If it means that, at least, this wonderful expletive will last well beyond the Armageddon of the next few months and years, well then our youngsters will be grateful that they have a great word to use, daily, to describe misfortune in all its rainbow colours.

Enlightenment…Entitlement…Embarrassment.

5 Oct

The Enlightenment was that period, largely the 18th Century, when the great thinkers of the time, philosophers, artists, scientists and some of the world’s great leaders applied rigorous intellectual thought to the human condition. Liberty and fraternity, the separation of church and state, freedom and equality and the improvement of man’s lot through the harnessing of scientific progress were part of a global blueprint. Benjamin Franklin was humble enough, bright enough and convinced that cooperation in ideas, culture and in science across the globe, was the way forward. Another American, Thomas Jefferson, included some of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. And so Kant, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Descartes, Locke and all the rest found receptive minds eager to forge brave new worlds.

Watching the Trumpmeister oxymoroning his way through his every utterance – this time over the he said/she said Kavanagh/Ford scandal – I am once again left speechless at the levels to which the great offices of anyone’s state have been reduced. My next mental picture is of Theresa May robodancing to ABBA as she tried to unite the disunited in Birmingham. And then there’s the Rusky piss-taking spy scams. In my little pub in my little corner of the world the locals see all this for massive, laughable bollocks that it all is…but are absolutely powerless to bring the Royal Oak Age of Reason to the table. Further, we locals find ourselves lowering our voices when we get anywhere near those crucial social issues of our time which have spiraled into foam and spittle-producing mania. There was quiet but almost uncontrolled tittering when we learnt that clapping has been banned at Manchester University student events, to make these affairs more inclusive. Jazz Hands, which is the British Sign Language version of clapping will now replace the time-honoured method of appreciation. Tell that to the one-armed weather girl on the BBC, I said. The locals chortled.

The woman who was struck by Brooks Koepka got a little more sympathy for sheer bad luck but not for her calls for blame and compensation. Mind you, the world of top golf is awash with cash so a few dollars in her direction would be a drop in the ocean.

There was general laughter over the Italian physicist who has been drummed out of the brownies for making highly questionable remarks about female physicists. One local wag offered: Why don’t they just laugh at him?

And all of this seems so trivial when the pictures come in from Indonesia. Our powerlessness in the face of natural disasters – and our inability to cope adequately are big issues needing big solutions. We need those enlightened thinkers once again to help us separate wheat from chaff; credible voices to reduce the noise of imbeciles.  We need the bigger issues to be seen by all in a similar light. This requires a greater freedom of thinking, a selflessness and generosity of mind and spirit that is so obviously missing at the high tables of politics and wealth around the globe.

Enlightenment, entitlement, embarrassment. Full circle. Let’s start again with an Enlightenment.

 

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