Observations and ramblings

Frankly, my Dear…….

I had a letter to post today. I wanted it registered and this is a straightforward process in Durcal.  You go into the Post Office, give the man your letter, he weighs and franks it, fills in an electronic form, which you electronically sign, you pay him and off you go.  Three or four minute job.

 While I was at the bus stop with my daughter this morning in Velez de Benaudalla I thought that the village must have a Post Office and I could save the extra two-minute drive up the Durcal from the El Valle de Lecrin turn-off by posting my letter there.  So I asked one of the local ladies and, sure enough, there was one about a hundred yards away.  I followed the instructions given and found it in the basement of the school, where else?

I presented my letter and said that I want to send it registered post to England and he said I needed a stamp and had to go to the estanco.  For me, an estanco is where you go to buy cigarettes, and it is limited to one per parish, the owners paying a fortune for the licence.  To find that they don’t sell stamps in the Post Office but in the tobacconists is a little bizarre, but a distant memory swam into focus and I realised that I knew this, so I shut up.

Well, here’s what Collins has to say about estancos.

(an estanco is a government-licensed tobacconist’s, recognizable by a brown and yellow “T” sign. Cigarettes can also be bought at some bars, restaurants and quioscos, but at a higher price. As well as tobacco products the estanco sells stamps, official forms and coupons for the football pools.)

I asked where it was and the local policeman, who was in the office as well, told me it was up by the church, 2-300m away.  So I trogged off up the road and found the estanco, went in and asked for a stamp.   

He asked me what price of stamp I wanted  I said I had no idea, but I wanted it to go to England,  and he said that I had to go to the Post Office and have the letter weighed and they would tell me how much I was to pay. 

So off I went the 2-300m back to the Post Office, waited twenty minutes in a queue and got my letter weighed and the postie wrote 3€ in pencil where the stamp was to go.  Clutching it to my breast I trogged off to the estanco again, bought my stamp and stuck it on the designated spot and set off again for the Post Office.  Which was shut when I got there as it is only a sub-office and open from 08:30 to 10:00 in the mornings.

So I went to Durcal and the postie there asked me why I had put a stamp on the envelope as everything there was electronic and they used franking for their mail. 

So I bit my lip, paid another 5.45€ and vowed to burn the Post Office in Velez de Benaudalla to the ground, with the postie and the local Policeman inside, first thing Monday morning.

P.S.  The reason for the letter was having read that after Brexit, as a resident of Spain, UK banks would not allow me banking facilities in the UK.  Welcome Brexit.  Evidently, the EU would demand a licence for UK banks to operate in the EU and many banks would not spend the money to buy a licence.  As I have a Barclays account, which I have had for more than fifty years and into which a pension is paid, I was writing to my pension provider to change my bank details to my Spanish bank.  How much more of this silliness are we ex-pats going to suffer?  I’ve got half a mind to go back to UK and go on benefits, but can’t bear the thought of paddling across the Channel in a rubber boat in November, or to be told as a homeless veteran that I was trained to live rough and that that there was no accommodation available for me as all the four-star hotels were full.

Famagusta.

I wrote this twenty odd years ago, but it still holds true today.

The view from the lookout point that an enterprising Greek Cypriot has established for tourists on the Greek/Turkish border outside Dherinia village hasn’t changed for twenty-five years.  I have memories of the same vista as a young soldier, with smoke from the Turkish bombs rising from the ruins of the public buildings in the town.  I also have memories of laying awake at nights throughout the previous month counting the bombs of the EOKA fanatics as they carried out their revenge attacks on anyone who disagreed with their ideology; or owed them money.

The problem with the Greek Cypriot is that he has all the fire and Byzantine intrigue of his mainland cousin, but none of the aptitude or appetite for it.  So he goes through the motions, but gets bored or waylaid, and his ideals get lost in the business of everyday life.  It is only the wastrels in the tavernas who have time on their hands for devilment, the working population is too busy building a life for the family.  But if they are rallied to the cause, they just don’t have it in their character to be able to say “No!”

How many times I’ve wanted to bang their heads together.

So where are we today? 

There are so many things now to be taken into consideration.  There are the perpetual meetings between the Greek and Turkish representatives, but no progress.  I suspect that the release of Famagusta would cause more problems than it would solve.  Those who have invested heavily in tourism in other areas of the island would not take kindly to the best beaches on the island suddenly being opened up and undermining the massive investment that has been diverted to Limassol, Ayia Napa and Paphos.  The problems of the damage to the infrastructure of a city left abandoned and un-maintained for twenty-five years would mean that the town would have to be demolished and re-built before it could become habitable again.  And as Cyprus is littered with old towns which have been abandoned over the millennia, that hardly seems likely.  The sewers and the electricity and water systems will be dangerous by now.

I could never understand why ancient civilizations walked away from their cities and left them to decay.  Until I was stood one day between Salamis and Engomi, looking towards Famagusta.  Engomi, a Bronze age city which shipped copper to the Pharoahs.  The access silted up and everything moved to Salamis.  Salamis, submerged by a tsunami, and buried under sand.  And Famagusta, lost by the stupidity of a bunch of dictators leading the country which was the founder of democracy.  That’s when I understood.

Doctor’s Orders

The latest matter of note in the villages has been the advice given by the Doctor to the old ladies to get out and get some exercise to avoid falling victim to the heart attacks which seem to have struck down all of their husbands. This takes the form of a short walk of the evening, so every evening at about an hour or so before sunset, a parade of ancient ladies leaves each of the villages and heads east. It is interesting to note that they all walk east, as this way they never meet each other. In fact they seem to be actively avoiding each other. I must look into that.

I fear that the advice of the doctor is not the sagest I have ever heard as now the old ladies run a higher risk of heart attack than ever, and I am heading for one as well, as this is the hour that I am normally scuttling back to the office in Melegis. My old car has no power steering and she tends to wander a bit on corners, nothing dangerous, just a little drift to left or right, enough to give the impression of an un-guided missile to anyone in front of her. And this is the impression that the groups of black-robed lady pensioners strung across the road get just before they are forced to skip lithely to one side of the road or the other clutching their heaving breasts, “Oooohing” and “Aaaahing” and fanning their flushed faces.

For me, a cliff on one side, a drop into the lake on the other and a gaggle of grannies to the front, it is the closest I can come to a full-blown seizure without actually having one. The adrenaline shoots through my veins and gives my poor old heart more stimulation than is good for it at my age. And it is like this on the outskirts of each and every village in the valley as I drive blindly into the sun on my way west to Melegis. If they would go out in the morning I would have a better chance, but there are too many things for them to do in the mornings, not least Mass. The only person who is at risk on the roads then is Manolo the priest, as he shoots from village to village, Mass to Mass, on his moped. I nearly had him once on the bridge below Restabal, but he showed no fear or interest in me as he dominated the crown of the road in the middle of the bridge.  I tend to stay off the roads as he goes about his duties. He has better back-up than I.

I have a theory, (perhaps a vain attempt to justify my apalling driving) that in fact these regular adrenaline bursts are doing both myself and the old ladies good, getting our hearts beating and the blood pumping, just like the doctor wants. Time will tell. Let´s hope it isn´t Old Father Time.

Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

My daughter goes to an International School here in Spain.  There are children from many countries at the school and this makes for a great atmosphere for the children having friends from all corners of the globe.  The curriculum is in English except for obligatory Spanish lessons and the children therefore all speak English and Spanish but many also speak the mother tongue of their parents, with those children with parents of a mixed marriage sometimes speaking four languages.

Every term the primary school children are given a subject about a different country, custom or culture to learn about and they then dress up and give a concert on the last day of term, each year group giving a presentation about what they have been learning.  This term my daughter’s class were learning about India and she had to prepare a presentation to the rest of the class about Indian culture.  A chip off the old block she talked about cricket and translated a menu from an Indian restaurant from Hindi into English.  A few days before they were due to perform the teacher told them to come to school in a costume reflecting what they had learned about India so that they could have a full dress rehearsal.  A letter was sent to every parent telling them about this.  As usual, the best laid plans of mice and men…………..

Come the day the children arrived at school dressed as maharajahs and Indian princesses, a couple as Pocahontas, one as Geronimo, one as Hiawatha and the free spirit of the class dressed up as a zebra!  The poor teacher was a bit distraught and the other teachers took it in turns to peep around the door to see the gathered ensemble.  The teacher had inadvertently written in her note to the parents that the children were to wear traditional Indian dress and to some of the non-English parents that meant American Indians.

Come the day the children had suitably amended their dress and the free spirit displayed her right to individualism and came dressed half as a zebra and half as a Red Indian.

I was telling some of the other parents about this and how the parents had misunderstood the teacher’s letter in English prompted one of them to say that in his daughter’s class they had been learning about elves and as with my daughter’s class, a note had had been sent to the parents telling them to dress their children as elves for the concert.  Come the day the children turned up with green costumes, stick-on pointy ears and elfin shoes, except one small boy who arrived dressed as Elvis, complete with flared white trousers, shirt open to the waist and a wig!

Tablate

One stop down the motorway towards the Costa Tropical, is the village of Tablate.  It has been abandoned since around 1990, although it was hardly a sprawling metropolis before then.  The maximum number of inhabitants in its long history was four hundred, I believe. 

It has the misfortune to be the nearest village to the Nazari bridge giving access to the Alpujarras, and consequently a hotspot for battles to control that chokepoint.  The last major battle between the Moors expelled from Granada by the Christians in around 1571 occurred here after which those Moors which had been living in the Alpujarras after being thrown out of Granada, were again expelled, this time back to Morocco.

Last week wasn’t the first time I have visited Tablate.  It is not obvious there is a village here and most people pass by without realising that the track winding up into the hillside leads to a village, except for the church spire rising above the undergrowth.  I don’t know why I went there this time, time on my hands or something in my subconscious.  Whatever it was, it brought on a great sense of melancholy which lasted a day or two.

The village, small by comparison to most villages, is mainly derelict houses and agricultural buildings.  It was the church, the bricked up doorway smashed open, which brought me down inside there was scene of dereliction and wanton damage.  The frescoes on the walls behind the desecrated altar were covered in graffiti, the mezzanine over the entrance door was sunken and in danger of collapse and the vestry furniture has been smashed and upturned.

I don’t know why I was so moved by this.  I have seen more than enough desecrated churches, mosques, synagogues, shrines and temples in my lifetime.   The latter were the aftermath of wars and conflicts when religious frenzy had led to a desire to destroy all traces of the enemy’s religion.  Some chance, you are never going to squash belief.

But as the village was functioning until 1990 it is most likely that the damage was done by local youngsters.  The graffiti tends to suggest that, a lot of it is just macho stuff, there’s no real religious motive behind it, but it is disturbing.  I have seen how this type of thing can quickly grow out of control and lead to violence.

The rest of the village is in a sad state of disrepair.  There is not a roof on any of the buildings that has not collapsed to some extent and most of the windows and doors have been stolen.  The five palm trees that once stood proud are not denuded and blackened.  For my old Military friends who served with me in Cyprus, think Paramali.

We are now thirteen days into lockdown due to the coronavirus.  Writing like this reflects my mood and yet putting things down in writing gets the melancholia out of my system.

Try it yourself if you too are going stir-crazy.  Mood lifted already and ready for another day.  The weather isn’t helping, since the lockdown it has done nothing but rain and the snow on the top begs for a day’s skiing.  But the ski station was one of the first places to be shut down.

‘Smile,’ they said, ‘it could get worse.’

So I smiled.

And it did.

Bad service

I have a couple of minutes to spare and was looking through my notebook, so thought I’d write about a couple of restaurants which failed to live up to my expectations.  (Outside of the valley where, of course,  all is sweetness and light,)

The first is in Nerja.  The Cafeteria Cavana.  I have been coming to this bar for decades but it seems that the march of progress has been through here with hob-nail boots on.  I always used to look forward to making this my first port of call as soon as I arrive in the town and although to all outward appearances the bar is the same as it always was, a typical Spanish bar keeping its identity when all about are losing theirs, the chance to pop in and have a Rioja and a tapa and chat with the bar staff in Spanish went sour on all fronts.  The Rioja was not good and the bottle had obviously been opened at some indeterminate time earlier this century.  Luckily we are in the opening years of the 21st century; had I gone in there in 1999 goodness only knows what I’d have been served.  As it was the wine was only serviceable for pickling onions or splashing on chips.  That hurdle failed, I tried to engage the barmen in a hail fellow well met kind of bonhomie which fell at the first fence.  Surly is the best description of the fellow and my hale and hearty greeting fell on stony ground.  So I sipped my Rioja, such as it was, and planned by next foray into companionable conversation.  ‘What’s been going on in Nerja during the last year?’ I asked.  ‘I don’t know, I live in Madrid,’ was the less than informative reply.  ‘Any tapas going?’ I asked, smiling.  ‘Yes, two euros a plate, take your choice,’ the barmen surled back at me.  ‘This is Andalucia, you don’t pay for tapas in Andalucia,’ I said.  ‘You do if you want one here, this is Nerja and we’re sick of freeloading tourists coming in here for free food,’ he replied.  I felt like throwing the Rioja over the rude fellow but realised that that would probably contravene the Geneva Convention of toxic substances being used in anger, so I left, my head held high but my spirits hung low.  A bad start to the day.  Don’t they say ‘never go back’ to anywhere you have enjoyed yourself in the past?

The second was in Alhama de Granada.  Sorry Lisa and Terry.  I’d heard a lot about the town so we popped across from the Valley of Happiness for a day out and had a good time wandering around the picturesque town, its gorges and narrow streets, chatting to the locals and even having a tour of the old jailhouse  Such a good time deserved a meal, so having found ourselves in the main square we sat at a table outside the Bar Andalus.  The staff seemed to have all attended the DILLIGAF school of waiting and showed us this by making us wait despite there only being two other tables occupied.  And wait.  And wait.  Eventually we ordered and the food acme relatively quickly, much to our surprise and delight.  It looked good enough but as soon as we had taken a few mouthfuls a wasp came along and stung Aya on her eyelid.  Seven-year olds don’t act kindly to this, not does anyone as far as I know, and Carmen jumped up asked the waiter for a cloth with some ice cubes in it to put on Aya’s face.  A look of, ‘Not me Guv, not in my remit,’ appeared on his face and he wandered off to serve another customer, ignoring us completely.  Carmen rushed off to find a chemist’s and I stopped everything and held a glass of cold beer against Aya’s face.  The waiter looked across interestedly, but not interestedly enough to help.  Twenty minutes later Carmen appeared with an unguent for Aya’s now swollen face and applied it liberally.  All our food was by now cold and congealed and the waiters showed no inclination to do anything about it, except to charge us full whack for what we hadn’t eaten.  Terrible service and it won’t be repeated.  And what’s more, to add insult to injury, despite only having had a few mouthfuls of my octopus. I had a screaming dose of the runs that evening.

Mudejars, their legacy and their sense of Humour

I don’t know if I have written about this before, but that’s my age, you see.

It is the reminder, every time I leave the office, of the time between 1492 and 1572, when the Mudejars, the Moors who remained in Spain before being sent back to Morocco, did a lot of the building work for their Spanish rulers.  Our church, here in Melegis is an example of this, a listed building built in the 16th century..

They liked a laugh, these Mudejars, and when asked to build churches, made the bell towers in the shape of Moroccan minarets, the arches in the bell-towers in the Moorish style and adorned the bell tower with ornate Moorish tiles, not exactly garish, but not exactly archetypal Catholic architectural style.

I have to smile when I walk out of the office, even after fourteen years.  I have an image of a bunch of Moorish brickies atop scaffolding, listening to a man of holy orders giving them instructions as to how he wants the tower built, then turning their backs on him, having a little chortle to themselves and then building exactly what they want.  It may be that they didn’t know any different, and maybe the priest believed that and resigned himself to the fact that nothing could be done about it, but I’ve met a few brickies in my time and they are all a bit anarchic.  No subjugated people roll over and accepts what their ruler says, they will always kick against the pricks in little ways and I believe that that is what they have done here in the valley.  Most of the churches have Moorish tiles around the minarets, sorry bell towers.  I am really surprised that these tiles were not removed by the more zealous Catholics, as they feature, on our church at least, the octagonal Najmat al-Quds, the Muslim star of Jerusalem . Incidentally, we use as the same emblem on the logo of all our businesses. The towers also sported the famous horseshoe arches, although in our church they have tried, almost successfully, to make them less obvious.  Atop the tower are the three globes found on Moorish minarets, and although the top globe has been replaced with a cross, I reckon that again, the builders were having a laugh.  And if I’m wrong, never mind, it makes me happy.

Dancing in the night.

During my many years in Cyprus I was visited by my sister and brother-in-law a few times.  Wanting to show them the sights, I took them into Larnaca one night to a very pleasant restaurant, once the house of a dragoman, it was said.  It was in the style of the old Mediterranean, a bland facade but when you entered there were a succession of rooms around a central courtyard, with the obligatory fig tree growing in the middle.  We sat ourselves at one of the many tables romantically lit by candles and started to enjoy a meze, knowing that we would be there for at least three hours.  The place started to fill up almost immediately, most notably with a large group of Germans who got stuck into the Carlsberg as if there was no tomorrow.

After a couple of hours a mini-cabaret was put on for us all, a chap dressed in traditional Cypriot peasant costume appeared and did a few dances then progressed to the famous sieve dance where he placed two or three glasses on brandy on the inner rim of a sieve and whirled it around his head, relying on centrifugal force to keep the brandy glasses in place.  There was polite clapping from the guests except for the Germans who were by now seriously drinking neat local brandy, ignoring the cabaret completely whilst making a lot of noise and annoying the rest of us. I wondered how long it would be before they started singing the Horst Wessel song and laying towels on their seats ready for the next night.  The sieve swinging over, the dancer placed four glasses of brandy on the floor, and set the liquor alight, making the evening even more romantic with the light from the burning brandy flickering among the leaves of the fig tree.

Then he started a sort of sword dance, hopping between the glasses and leaping into the air and slapping his heels, showing remarkable agility.Then it all kicked off.  He mis-stepped and knocked one of the glasses over, smashing it and covering the floor with flaming brandy.The Germans looked around at the sound of breaking glass and memories of flamethrowers and urban warfare sprang to their minds.  They must have thought that the idea of the cabaret was to throw your glass full of brandy onto the floor, a variation of the famous plate throwing at Greek weddings.  Glasses and brandy rained down and the floor was immediately covered in flaming brandy and broken glass..The dancer was a bit confused but carried on dancing on the broken glass with a worried smile on his face.  The Germans thought this was great fun and were thinking how fantastic it was to be part of an authentic dance, so they threw more glasses and brandy onto the floor.  The burning brandy splashed onto the dancer’s calf-length socks and they caught fire, so the ankle slapping quickly turned into a frantic leaping in the air while he carried out a series of amazing contortions in an attempt to extinguish his socks.

To give him his due, he played the part of a real trouper and stayed far longer than necessary but eventually the pain got too much and he rushed off-stage into the kitchen.  I could have helped him if he had come to my table, the tears were streaming down my face, and the Germans were obviously very appreciative and proud of having joined in the spirit of things.  But the evening took a turn for the worse and the rest of our meze failed to arrive.  I suspect the cook was the dancer’s wife or girlfriend and she was salving his wounds or had taken him to the hospital.  The waiter asked the Germans to pay up and leave, which was dangerous but successful, and we had a coffee and left.  The best cabaret I have ever seen.

Or perhaps not, but of a similar theme some years before.

I was at a military tattoo in the old amphitheatre in Salamis, a very evocative place.Looking over the stage you had a backdrop of the old city being gradually recovered from the sand, exposing mosaics and ancient Greek and Roman structures.The amphitheatre was in pretty good condition and the seating good, as long as one had a cushion and a cool box full of beer.The resident Scottish regiment were providing the band and pipes and as the night closed in, there was a piper on the upper parapet of the amphitheatre playing haunting tunes while a spotlight shone up at him from below, showing us all what he had and hadn’t under his kilt.A little bizarre, but Jocks will be Jocks and the RSM would have been satisfied.

The original stone stage floor was not very smooth and a temporary stage had been constructed, and not very well, of none-too-thick plywood.It was onto this that a tall, strapping Highlander stepped with his two swords and best dancing kit.He laid his crossed swords on the stage and the pipes struck up a tune.It is normally recognised that this is a war dance originallyinstigated by the Scottish Royal court. The old kings and clan chiefs organised the Highland Games to choose their best men at arms, and the discipline required to perform the Highland dances allowed men to demonstrate their strength, stamina, and agility. And this warrior looked very much the part, except for his black ballet shoes which to my mind made him a little less manly.

Anyway, he took up his stance and off he went, leaping and prancing around the swords with gay abandon.As I said, the stage was not too sturdy, and the dancer was a big man.Soon a sympathetic vibration began and the swords began moving and jumping around to the beat of the dancer’s steps.Then they took on a life of their own and they morphed into a gigantic pair of scissors snapping at the Highlander’s ankles.He leaped even higher and with this combined height and a bit of annoyance, therefore aggression, creeping in he put his foot straight through the plywood.He then emitted a string of Highland curses which turned the air blue and made the ladies blush.Trying to extricate his foot was none too easy either, the plywood had snapped back and trapped his ankle.I know those ballet shoes were a mistake, a pair of ammo boots would have done the job better and made a nice clattering sound, too.We all cheered appreciatively when he was finally extricated and offered a few words of encouragement which he must have misinterpreted as we received another string of curses, so we finished of the contents of the cool boxes and wended our merry way back into Famagusta.

Rediscovered scraps of paper in my notebook.

Just found a few scraps of paper in the flyleaf of my notebook with a few scribblings.It tells of the time we were talking to a couple in a bar about the ever-present televisions in Spanish bars, all turned up to mega-decibels with no-one watching them or showing the slightest interest on what is showing.The couple were telling me about the time television first came to the valley.There was a great sense of disbelief from the oldsters that such a thing could exist and when it finally did their grandfather had proved his point by shouting at the screen as soon as it was switched on,

‘Moscas’ or in Andaluz,‘Moca.’

This means flies in Spanish and he was cackling at the stupidity of the younger generation for buying such a thing that showed nothing but flies on the screen when flies abounded in the village.

‘Why,’ he said. ‘You could look at a window paneand see the same thing for nothing, especially when there are mules about.’

The flies he could see on the screen were the result of a badly positioned aerial on the chimney stack and to fix it there was a relay of men passing instructions from the sitting room, through the ground floor rooms, up the stairs to the bedroom where someone was hanging out of the window shouting to the man on the roof to turn the aerial this way and that.Grandpa thought this hilarious and added to the chaos by shouting erroneous instructions up the stairs and confusing everybody.It was finally sorted out and grandfather was put in his place but insisted that the regulation statuette of a gypsy and a bullfighter be placed on top of the set ‘to make it look right.’

Then the family was told rather grandly that there would be a theatre production broadcast that night.Half an hour before the scheduled programme all the oldsters appeared in their Sunday best, thrilled to be going to the theatre for the first time in their lives.They berated the youngsters who had not bothered to dress for the performance telling them they had no sense of decorum and should be ashamed of themselves.

Later, when the moon landing was televised, grandpa was heard shouting at the box,

‘Lies, it’s all lies, it’s all taking place in a garage,’ making him the first ever conspiracy theorist to put forward that particular idea.

Then, á propos of nothing, a man walked into the bar and muttered sinisterly,

‘John Wayne is a Catalan,’ and slunk back out again.

I made a note of it in my notebook.It must have had some profound effect on me as at times I find myself muttering the same thing for no apparent reason. It certainly attracts attention and is a great conversation/argument stopper or starter here in Spanish bars.

Jerusalem.

The other day I found myself thinking of the Jerusalem I had visited it in the late 70’s and how close that visit came to putting me off religion for good.  It made me realise that here, in the city which is the very essence of so many religions, there is more stupidity, prejudice and intolerance than at virtually any other place in the world.  Everyone fighting their corner for their particular belief, which while laudable, does nothing for Christianity as a whole.  The Muslims stay out of it atop a covetously-eyed Temple Mount.

I don´t even know the exact names of the places that I visited, nor the religions that were represented there, this is a simple series of observations, not a dissertation.

The building housing Christ’s tomb was a cacophony of chiming bells, chants and wails overlaid on a carpet of prayer.  There are, I was told, seven different religions sharing this building, church or whatever it’s designation.  There are two star turns here, the hole in a rock where the cross was placed for the Crucifixion, (cost to place your hand in the hole, x shekels) and very close by, a small and very ornate chapel housing the tomb of Christ.  The hustlers here were as good, or bad, as any I have encountered anywhere in the world.  Although contributions are welcomed and I have no problem with dipping my hand in my pocket for the maintenance of religious sites, here I was under the impression that if I didn’t give a fair-sized offering I would be forever cursed.  As consolation I was given a small, shoddy olive-wood crucifix with ‘Jerusalem’ written on it, which I could have bought in the souq for a tenth of the price.  I wondered why there was a tomb in the first place when the whole basis of Christianity is that Jesus didn’t die but left the tomb and ascended into heaven, but I went along for the ride.  If I have ever had a religious experience it was here in this place.  I swear I felt embarrassment emanating from the tomb.  This is not how I imagined the birthplace of Christianity, it was eerie and decidedly tacky.  

I felt I needed a break after this and wandered through the Old City, down past the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount with the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock above it and into Arab East Jerusalem.  In a restaurant here, the Kawkab al Zahabi, I struck up an acquaintance with a young Palestinian language student who wanted to practice his English on me and who was glad to let me practice my Arabic on him.  I asked him of his relationship with the Jews in this divided city and he replied that in all of his 24 years he had had no untoward experiences.  An intelligent lad, he spoke Arabic, Hebrew, German and English and had high hopes of working in Europe in the future.  He quizzed me exhaustively about London and the possibility of me sponsoring him for a visa application and I was equally inquisitive about Jerusalem.  He told me that his uncle was a taxi-driver and that if I wished we could meet the following day and have a tour of Jerusalem and the Kidron Valley, (for a price of course, the Palestinians sometimes being known as the thirteenth tribe of Israel and always ready to do a deal.)  We agreed a price and arranged to meet at the Damascus Gate the following morning.

Well, meet we did and had a great tour around with stops everywhere of interest, although the uncle was a little furtive, and if not surly at least a little grumpy.  The tour finished at the top of the Mount of Olives and a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, a tranquil place to end the morning.  We climbed to meet the uncle and his taxi at the top of the Mount of Olives and this is where it all went wrong.  An Israeli Military Police jeep stopped and a young sergeant jumped out and asked my new-found friend for his ID card.  He produced it and the Israeli sergeant, after looking at it, spat on it, threw it to the floor and ground it under his heel.  Without thinking my friend bent to retrieve it and the Israeli clubbed him to the ground and summoned the rest of the patrol in the jeep to arrest him.  I began to protest but the uncle restrained me and together we watched as they threw the young man in the jeep which then sped off down the hill.  I was at a loss as to what to do, but the uncle directed me in his cab, drove off down a hill and parked in a quiet lay-by and we waited.  Despite my attempts to get him to talk he said nothing.  A few minutes later the Army jeep arrived and the student was thrown out of the back in a sorry state indeed.  He had bruises and lacerations about his face and had obviously had a beating.  But most of all he was hurt and embarrassed that what had happened had happened in front of a foreigner.  I found it ironic in the extreme that he was ashamed of the way the Israelis had behaved whilst they had not given a damn.  He could not understand why he had been treated as he had, when the previous twenty-odd years of his life had been trouble-free.  And the crass behaviour of an uneducated Israeli conscript had quite probably changed this educated man’s life and perceptions of the Jews forever.  It certainly did nothing for my regard of these Sabra’s, (prickly pears, thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside,) as the Israelis like to call themselves.

I got out of Jerusalem as soon as I could the following day and headed off on a bus out into the desert, the Dead Sea and the Wadi Rum, my journey already soured and knowing inside myself that whenever I thought of Jerusalem I would always have the images of the day before imprinted on my mind.  I won’tbe going back.

Hurghada Taxi Ride

I was staying in a hotel about 5 miles south of Hurghada on the Red Sea one time, on a diving trip. I was travelling on my own and, as usual, decided that after the diving for the day had finished I would get out and about to see what was happening in the town and port. It was a Friday so I thought there may be something going down in the town. I asked the reception if there was a bus service and they told me that there were the universal flyer taxis always travelling up and down the coast road and I should just hail one of those and not to pay more than five Egyptian pounds. These flyers are always an experience it and evoked memories of sharing them around the world with a host of interesting, and not so interesting, people. In Turkey they are called ‘dolmús’ from the verb ‘to stuff’ and that is a very accurate description. In Singapore I once had someone get in next to me with a pregnant goat, and had the back half on my lap, the front half on the owner’s, while the bloke on my other side tried to sell me a gold Rolex for a fiver. As soon as I arrived at my destination I had to go back home, have a shower and change my clothes.

Anyway, a minibus stopped for me and the occupants, all fifteen of them, made way for the foreigner and I ended up sitting on the back seat with a couple of men either side. Of course there are no women on this kind of transport, things are far too intimate for that.   We carried on towards Hurghada town and the last passengers we took aboard, making twenty-three in total, were three plasterers with a baby-bath full of wet plaster between them. The trip lasted fifteen minutes.

About a mile from the town I saw the port and in the boatyards alongside the road were wooden boats being built in the timeless fashion of that part of the world. I shouted ‘Qif’ to the driver and he slammed on the brakes and everyone looked around to see who wanted to get off. They began arguing among themselves accusing each other of shouting ‘Stop.’ The last person in the world they expected to have done it was the fair-haired, blue-eyed foreigner in the back seat. I tried to tell them that it was me who wanted to get off and they kept apologising to me and saying that someone on the bus was messing about and I wasn’t to worry, they would sort it out. I eventually managed to convince them that it was indeed me who had shouted out in Arabic and they looked wide-eyed and made room for me to get off. I had a good look around the boatyards, amazed at the accuracy with which the boats were build using only an axe, an adze and the naked eye and at the sturdiness of the finished product. After that I walked into town and found a restaurant. As I entered I heard the waiters whispering, ‘It’s him.’   Evidently word of the episode on the taxi had got around and I was treated with great deference, given a window seat and fawned over as if I was an exotic species that had just landed amongst them.

I was given the menu and asked if I wanted to order wine. This was so unusual that I said O.K. and they gave me the wine list. I asked if there were any decent Egyptian wines and was assured there were, so after a bit of advice chose one.

‘Very good sir, it will be here next Wednesday.’

‘Wednesday!’ I said, ‘It’s Friday today.’

‘Yes, sir. But we have to order it from Cairo and it takes a few days to get here.’

So I settled for water.

When I had finished I wandered around for a bit and then went to the square where all the flyers left from. There was only one there so I got on board and it quickly filled up. The driver arrived and couldn’t start it so we all got off and bump-started it and as soon as it was running we got on board and the thing stopped again. We repeated the process and again it stopped as soon as we had boarded. The driver dived under the dashboard and nothing happened except for a few flashes and small wisps of smoke. We all tried to get off and get another flyer but he shouted that we must stay on board so we sat bemused. Still nothing happened and then the village idiot appeared and climbed aboard and grinned at us all and poked the behind of the driver and laughed insanely at him. The driver got out from under and the village dived into his place and had the thing working in seconds. More insane giggling and he disappeared into the street and the driver frantically tried to regain face before he drove us off. The drive back was a series of fits and starts as the engine kept cutting out. The driver thought it was a good idea to drive in the desert with his lights off and he only turned them on when another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction was a few metres in front of him. Much swerving, cursing and laughing from all except me.   For the last mile of the journey I was the only passenger and when we arrived at the hotel he demanded fifteen pounds.

‘It’s only five pounds,’ I said.

‘Yes, but you’ve been on my bus for an hour and a half so you must pay more.’

‘Who’s fault was that?’ I said ‘Your bus kept breaking down.’

‘It’s the will of Allah,’ he replied.

‘Then get Allah to pay the other ten pounds,’ I muttered and left him there moaning in the hotel car park.

Man Traps

Who else has problems with these time switches in the toilets of bars and restaurants? Do I give off some invisible charge which makes the things switch off at the most inopportune moment or does anyone else get trapped in the dark when they least need it? Is it the same in ladies toilets or is the joke only on men? 

Usually they turn on as soon as you enter, full of promise, then as soon as you are standing comfortably and going about your business the whole place is plunged into darkness. The urinal invariably chooses that exact time to disgorge water over your shoes, or worse, flip-flops, giving you something else to think of. The only remedy is to lean back and wave your free hand wildly around to activate the thing again. This is when someone else will always enter, to be confronted by me, family jewels in one hand, leaning back at forty-five degrees, hopping about and waving my free hand frantically at the ether.   Many a man has completed an about turn and left, rather than risk being alone in an enclosed space with a nutter.  And who can blame them?

I went into one toilet in a restaurant in Morocco and it was pitch black. I felt around for the light switch and found that it had a push button time switch just inside the door. I pushed it as far in as I could and jumped back in surprise. At the  other end of the toilet, ten feet away from the time switch, were three men standing at the urinals and looking extremely sheepish. The time switch had a pitifully small time lapse and it had left them all stranded at the far end of the toilet and none of them wanted to move in case the others thought they were about to be taken advantage of. I was stuck for words for a second or two, and then the words,

‘Is this a private party or can anyone join in?’ came out of my mouth. I don’t think they understood, or if they did they didn’t answer. Maybe it was and I was gatecrashing. 

While I’m on the subject of Moroccan toilets, I have to admit here that I have never felt so inadequate as I did the first time I went into a toilet in Casablanca. The urinals were so high up on the wall that I had trouble reaching them, and I am as close to six feet as doesn’t matter. I wondered if all Moroccan men were wondrously endowed until I was told by the owner that the plumber had got his measurements wrong and hung them way too high. I suggested orange boxes might be useful but he said that I was the only one that had ever commented on it. It must have cost him a fortune in cleaning fees. Another one had a set of swing doors like those you see in cowboy films, with a spring so strong that it swung back on me and ripped two buttons off my shirt, leaving me to enter the place with my chest exposed like Medallion Man.  And at the other end of the scale, who has ever gone into a toilet with a bank of urinals and found the only one left was the one for small boys on the left-hand side. Then, when you have committed to using it you have to suffer the looks of the assembled throng while you tower above the thing trying to look nonchalantly cool and aim straight? 

If you are in one of the cubicles is it is even worse. Best to get everything organised before you start, paper close at hand and a recce made to make sure you know where the door handle is and where you have hung your jacket. It’s best to do a practice run before you get down to business to check the delay on the switch or even better to take a torch with you. If the light is motion activated it is even worse, as you are caught by any incomer with your trousers around your ankles staggering about and waving your arms whilst trying to activate the thing. 

And another thing. I was once billeted on an oil-rig platform that had vacuum powered toilets. These things sucked the waste away and were positively lethal. Anyone slightly on the large side formed a perfect seal when they sat down and if the thing activated when in-situ it would try to suck you down into the bowels of the platform. Or if you were wearing a towel you could easily become involved in a battle for possession with the loo.   We had an RSM who insisted that everyone get up at the same time in the morning, although our section were on shifts. This meant that there was a full complement of six hundred men using the toilets at the same time. so pressure dropped dramatically until eventually there was not enough left to do the business. (Or do away with the business.) The second tier of men then sat down and without warning, as soon as the pressure had built up again, the things activated and they found themselves in danger of being disemboweled. One of the toilets even sucked a shower curtain into its bowels. Dangerous stuff. 

So there you go, the perils of action-motivated or time switched lights and vacuum powered toilets. Gone are the days when you could retire in safety to read the paper or have a quiet contemplation of your navel, smoke your pipe and day-dream.  Now it is a nightmare to go about your business. Isn’t technology fun……

An afternoon with friends in the Albaicin

I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting old, or because I think I’ve seen it all and not much lights my lamp these days, but this weekend I went around the Albaicin (the old quarter of Granada city) with some friends and saw some things I hadn’t seen before. I found it really interesting, probably because it had to do with the Moorish past of Granada and Carmen and I having spent a long time in Morocco and so I’m going to write about it. We initially went to see a carmen, a traditional house in the old part of Granada with a walled garden and epitomising their Moorish history. Typically, these carmens are hidden from the street by high walls but when you enter you are confronted with a fantastic garden or orchard with fountains with flowing water and luxurious plant growth everywhere. Most have a view of the Alhambra and are romantic in the extreme. The Albaicin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albayz%C3%ADn and it is easy to lose oneself in its narrow streets. After having viewed the carmen and what a delight that was, we went back through the lower part of the Albaicin and had the privilege of being shown behind the scenes of one of the processional brotherhoods where we saw the gold and silver thrones used to carry the Virgins during the Easter parades for which Granada is famous. We also went into the vestry to see all the robes which the bearers wear. Next door was a church which I had only passed before and had never entered. Again, it looked like nothing of note from outside but inside was like no other Catholic church I had ever been in. It was devoid of almost any gilded decorations and indeed one side had been left un-plastered to show the exposed wall of the original minaret, showing that it had been a mosque before the re-conquest by the Catholic Kings. It was, in fact,the place where Ferdinand and Isabel had celebrated their first Mass directly following the surrender of Boabdil, the Sultan of Granada. The minaret. now converted to a church tower, still has the original Moorish frescoes on its facings, just like the minarets in Morocco..

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And on top of the tower was something I had only seen once before and that was minutes before in the garden of the carmen we had just visited.  I’ll explain. On top of the minarets in Morocco are three spheres, often golden and they represent the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How enlightened were the Moors compared with the fundamentalists of today.

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But I digress.  The top sphere on this church tower had been replaced by a castle and atop that a cross, showing that the Catholic Kings felt the need to put their stamp on things.

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What a marvellous piece of history.  After that we had a few drinks and tapas in a converted monastery and wended our way home.

I love the Albaicin, every trip there brings something different to light.

Talking (at length) about eyes.

Written in 2002

The price is going down all the time. Now it’s the price of a cheapish holiday for two. If it had been available years ago it would have allowed me to do just about everything I ever wanted to do.   It could have saved me thousands of pounds in the years since I started school.

What is it?

Laser surgery. The opportunity to see properly without glasses.

So, last week after a couple of beers with friends, one of whom is an ophthalmologist, I found myself in her clinic in a strange town, in a strange country, using a strange language, or a strange mix of languages, taking a barrage of strange tests to see if my eyes were suitable to have laser surgery to correct my abysmal sight. I’m fifty-two years old and had the impression that I was over the hill as far as this type of operation was concerned, but was informed that my age was not a problem. In fact I now know a man of seventy who recently had the operation and he tells everyone he sees that it is the best thing that has ever happened to him.   He still wears glasses all the time as he says he feels naked without them, but he’s Spanish. I wonder, is it for me?

Back to Valladolid in Central Spain. I was ushered into the surgery and began my tests. I looked at whirling black and white spirals while the profiles of my corneas were scanned to see how much ‘out-of-true’ they were, had anaesthetic applied to deaden them so that they could be prodded to see if the corneas were healthy enough to accept the surgery, had more drops to dilate my eyes so that the ophthalmologist could take a good look at my retinas, (more of that later), had air blown into them when I wasn’t expecting it, presumably to test my reactions, (the Doc nearly got a right hook for that one!), and finally had a basic eye test; you know the type, read the letters from the top line to the bottom in size decreasing order, while the optician piles more and more lenses with red or black metal rims into a heavy metal frame attached to your head, presumably to test your neck muscles as much as your eyes, all the while muttering to himself or herself in some incomprehensible code. Exhaustive but not exhausting.

Once the tests were finished I was told that I was a suitable candidate and that the operations were performed every other Tuesday.   The ophthalmologist went to great lengths to explain to me all the pros and cons and the possible complications, which I am glad to say are few. He also gave me a couple of foolscap pages of written explanation, to read at my leisure. I’m deciding whether to go ahead at his moment.

More of that later. Why laser surgery? Because I am sick and tired of getting out of bed in the mornings and affixing glass and metal to my head before I can begin my day. Sick and tired of limited peripheral vision. Sick of the distorted vision of the world that varifocal lenses give me and sick of the exorbitant price of high index lenses. After nearly fifty years of looking at life as if from inside a room with double-glazed windows, I want a bit of freedom. I want release from my room. But most of all, BECAUSE I CAN!

But first let’s go back forty seven years to the mid-fifties and the Maypole County Primary School, Bexley, Kent. Perhaps it will help explain……….

I don’t remember much of my very early years, but one day one of my teachers, concerned about the apparently serene youngster in her class who had no interest in the blackboard or what she was doing out there in front of him, asked my mother if there were problems with my sight. My mother said “Of course not! Not my little boy,” but anyway, she took me to an optician where it was discovered that I had abysmal vision in my left eye, and that the right was none too bright either. From that day on I’ve worn glasses. I was dragged from my reverie, that delightful dream world of dismembered voices and hazy shapes, into the stark world of sharp images and 20/20ish vision and the sad realisation that voices came from people and not out of the ether.   I think that was the day I stopped believing in fairies and Father Christmas.

The biggest problem with wearing glasses as a normal boy is that they get broken every time you climb trees, play football in the playground, wrestle your friends or do any of the thousand things that five-year olds do. There are several stages in the life of a pair of schoolboy glasses. The first thing to break is the left arm. I don´t know why it is the left, never the right, but there it is. This is an easy job to fix. Sellotape! Don’t ask me why it has to be Sellotape for the arms, but Sellotape it is. It normally lasts for two or three days until the sticky starts to wear off, and then it needs some more. This continues until there is a ball of Sellotape an inch thick protruding from the side of your head and sticking to your hair. In those days we all had short back and sides, with a quiff hanging down the front. Or in my case, having wavy hair, kiss curls. When the curls got stuck in the Sellotape I swept them out of the way and inevitably knocked the glasses off my head and smashed the left lens on the floor. Again, always the left, thank goodness. If I’d broken the right lens I would have returned to the pre-specs never-never world. The only way to fix broken lenses is, of course, pink Elastoplast! And that is how I walked around for about three weeks of every month, the time it took to get replacement lenses of my required complexity and density from the National Health Service. After the running repairs to the glasses I had a great ball of hair-covered Sellotape sticking out of the side of my head and a pink patch over one eye. It was so commonplace as to arouse no comment. Nobody seemed to notice and nobody cared. There was no private optical care in those days, or not in my family’s price-range anyway. The choice of NHS frames was pink, imitation tortoiseshell or black. Can you believe that some mothers chose pink for their sons? The arms had springs on the ends that curled around the back of your ears, ripping out even more hair and stopping the circulation of blood to your ear-lobes. Self-inflicted pain so necessary for the British character.

The next time I remember glasses having anything to do with my life was just after I joined the Army and was issued with two pairs of glasses. One pair were John Lennon-style, designed for wear under my gas mask. They had lenses like bottle-bottoms and made me look like a deviant of some kind. I was also issued with another pair for daily use. These were just like my schoolboy glasses but slightly more robust, and were suitable to be worn for assault courses and military manoeuvres. I don´t think they enhanced my appearance as a trained killer, in fact they made me look more like a First World War trench-poet. However, the lenses were made of plastic, the arms reinforced with steel, and the whole caboodle lasted much longer than before.

The lenses for my gas mask glasses were made of thick tempered glass, and were completely useless. As soon as you put the gas mask over the glasses, the lenses steamed up. But of course the Army had a cure for this. Anti-mist gel. It was in fact Vaseline, and all it did was smear the glass and create a psychedelic effect; blurred vision with patches of dazzling light rays of all the colours of the spectrum slanting this way and that across the lens. This was in the days of LSD, Yellow Submarines and such and I suppose I should thank the Army for giving me the experience without me needing to pay for it or run the risk of chemically altering my brain. It certainly allowed me to talk with some authority with my civilian peers about psychedelic experiences. For my military comrades it was a little different. As soon as I donned my gas mask they suddenly had what appeared to be a psychopath in their midst. The number of enemy attacking me doubled, tripled or even quadrupled, and this alarmed everybody else as much as it did me. I would get scared because there were so many enemy, and my colleagues would get scared because I was firing my rifle at imaginary targets and at two to four times the rate that they were. Their only recourse was to pass me their ammunition and have a smoke while I fought my own private battle. I was extremely effective as a warrior as I laid down such a hail of fire that no sane enemy ever came near. I was doubly popular with my brothers-in-arms as they had no need to clean their rifles after manoeuvres as they so rarely had a chance to fire them.

Parachuting was the next problem encountered. To be sure that as soon as I exited the aircraft my spectacles didn’t go hurtling down on the enemy from a great height, which probably contravenes the Geneva Convention, it was necessary to attach them to my head in a complicated and time-consuming operation. First I needed a selection of elastic bands tied together and in turn tied to the arms of the specs and wrapped around the back of my head. Then Elastoplast (it’s appeared again but this time in white), was stuck over the bridge of the glasses, up my forehead and down my nose; and again at the sides of my head to stick the arms firmly to my jaw and hair. (Life has a habit of repeating itself.) I’m sure the enemy thought our side were in a bad way, sending what looked like severely wounded and bandaged troops to confront them.

At about this time Roy Orbison and Hank Marvin appeared on the scene and made life for us bespectacled males bearable. It cost me half a week’s wages for a pair of black rectangular glasses with plastic lenses, albeit nearly a quarter of an inch thick. This made me a cool customer in the dances and pubs of Plymouth. Or so I thought. I can still hear the refrain, “Hey four-eyes. You’re lucky I don’t hit blokes in glasses,” ringing in my ears. This is the one time that glasses were useful, as it gave me the chance to throw the first punch, and if I did it right, I could stop the other bloke damaging my prized possession.

One day the door to our section opened and the Sergeant-Major told me, “Potter, tomorrow morning, ten thirty, Military Hospital, tests to be a helicopter pilot.”

“But I’m blind, Sir” I replied.

“Half-past ten tomorrow!” he retorted, then added obscurely and a little sinisterly, “You got maths.”

So I had a day of tests, everything you could think of to test coordination between one eye and the other. Then there were eye muscle tests and a host of others. Finally, the doctor told me, ‘Your eyes are in perfect condition but your eyesight is abysmal. You can’t be a pilot I’m afraid, but you can be an Observer.”

“What does an Observer do then, Sir” I asked.

“He’s the eyes of the pilot while the pilot flies the helicopter.”

I honestly did try not to laugh, but I failed. I don’t think they thought I was the right sort for the Army Air Corps, as I heard nothing more about being an Observer.

Sub-aqua diving was a problem that needed careful thought. The gas mask glasses could be used inside my diving mask, but the problems of misting, not to mention the problems of trying to clear your mask of water without losing your glasses, made them tedious. Taking the lenses out of the gas mask frames and using Araldite to cement them to the inside of the mask was better, but gave a weird image of the undersea world as the focal length from my eyes to the diving mask was not the same as from my eyes to my spec frames, and there was also the refraction and the magnification of the water to take into consideration. The fish all appeared to have huge heads, thin bodies and huge tails; or to have small heads, fat bellies and small tails, depending on which way up I stuck the lens. Add the natural thirty per cent magnification caused by the water and you can understand why I gave some very strange descriptions of what I had seen to my diving partners. Most of them thought I was suffering from nitrogen narcosis or had been taking banned substances and not a few, wisely if you ask me, declined to dive with me. Eventually, after one too many quizzical looks from the Diving Officer, I bought a mask with prescription lenses, which I still have to this day. It was one of the first produced and was a bit of a Heath-Robinson affair, not designed to instil confidence in me or my diving partner, and certainly not designed with fashion in mind, but it works and I still have it.

The only positive thing about having bad eyesight was when I played rugby. I had no idea of the size or shape of the opponents, only of the colour of their shirts. I rarely missed a tackle, had absolutely no fear and gave way to no-one. All my team mates gave me the ball when the biggest opponents were bearing down on them, and I blindly took it. I was eventually chosen to play at wing forward for a very good team, probably for my kamikaze style of play. If all else fails, give the ball to Ron. I was so delighted at this that I went off and bought some contact lenses. Soft, permeable ones that I could wear to play sport. They cost me sixty pounds, a fortune at the time, and I was convinced that they would help me become the next Barry John. They didn’t. I have never been so scared in my life. After nearly twenty years of blind ignorance, I realised what a dangerous game rugby was, how big the opponents were and what murderous intent meant. The first tackle left me with a gash above my right eye, probably because I tried to ride it instead of my normal style of hitting the target as hard as I could. (I had never thought of them as opponents before as I didn’t see them as such, they were just shapes.) After a minute or two, the blood started to drip into my eye and the lens became a red blur. I tried to play normally for a few more minutes, but the lens became coated with blood and I could no longer blink or see properly as my eyelid was sticking to the lens. In desperation I took the lens out, and as I had been told never to let it dry out, put it into my mouth. And I played like that until half-time, my mouth firmly shut, thirty pounds of precious optics safe therein, virtually unable to breathe. At half-time I put the lenses into their container and vowed never to wear them again. The second half was wonderful; running, tackling, scrummaging; everything without care or injury. Ignorance is bliss.

It was when I was forty five and sailing my small yacht that I noticed my age creeping up on me and that I couldn’t read the charts with normal glasses any more. I needed reading glasses! Varifocal lenses were recommended and I took the advice. It was like re-living all those previous traumas at once. The only place you can see anything clearly is straight ahead. Now I had to move my whole head to focus on something where before I would only move my eyes. The first day I wore them, I went into a petrol station, and found myself standing in a queue to pay. Whilst waiting, I turned my head this way and that, up and down, closing first one eye, then the other, trying to find the best point of focus. When the time came to pay, the cashier, a youth with tattoos, ear-rings and acne, looked up and said belligerently,

“You got a problem or sommat, mate?”

Can you sue an optician as the cause of aggravated assault by a petrol station assistant? I must ask my lawyer. In woods these Varifocal lenses are a nightmare. Some trees are in focus, some are blurred, some are bent in the middle. Walking is difficult indeed. And when I told the optician he told me that the lenses were designed to be out of focus at the edges. A look at his face told me that I’d be wasting my time to ask for a lens that focused properly everywhere.

Which brings me back to Valladolid and the ophthalmologist. As I was paying for private treatment, and as I was a friend of a friend, I couldn’t have asked to be treated better. (As I speak bad Spanish I couldn’t have asked for better treatment if I had wanted to.) And also back to the drops to dilate my pupils. My usually bright blue eyes went immediately black as the pupils grew enormously. I was then told that I would be like that for a couple of days and that my eyes would be very light sensitive. I was told to wear sunglasses for forty eight hours, but I had none with me. So I left the surgery, still with huge black pupils, (memories of my Army days, facing the Colonel while a Royal Marines policeman beside me droned, “His eyes were dilated and he was unable to walk a straight line.”)   There was a cloudless sky and the sunlight was excruciating. As I had no sunglasses it was impossible to open my eyes more than a fraction, so I slunk along in the shadows of the Old City keeping out of the sun. I felt like Dracula caught out of his coffin after daybreak. People looked at this very obviously English man with slitted eyes, moving furtively in the shadows, staring intently at the ground and getting out of the way of no-one. I had two hours to wait for my lift, so found a bar and crept into a dark corner and faced the wall, the light behind me. After an hour I made my way through the shadows to another bar and repeated the process. I suppose I looked drunk or drugged and was very obviously foreign and the barman seemed a little hesitant about serving me. Eventually my partner arrived and thankfully had a pair of sunglasses in her bag. I put her sunglasses over the top of my normal glasses and wore both pairs. Forty-five years of humiliation with regard to spectacles have made me impervious to ridicule. The bliss of being able to open my eyes without light almost literally piercing my brain was indescribable. After forty eight hours all returned to normal, as predicted by the Doc, and all that I needed to do now was make up my mind, Yea or Nay. 

Well, I said Yea and a couple of months later, when it was convenient for me and the machine had been modified with the latest technology for a better cut, I arrived in the surgery for the operation. All was very professional, operating robes and bootees, hats etc., and after the anaesthetic drops had had time to take effect, in I went. I was asked to lie on my back and my head was taped to the support frame in which it rested. Some kind of apparatus was used to push my right eyeball firmly into my head so that it could not move about during the surgery. This was the only part of the operation which I found uncomfortable, and when this was done, the surgery began. I was asked to watch a red light in the apparatus, and apart from the smell of burning eyeball, noticed nothing of the laser work being carried out. The same with other eye, and within a few minutes, I was back in the waiting room, already with the ability to read signs on the wall that ten minutes before had been a blur without glasses.

I was grateful that I had my friend with me to help me back to the hotel, although I’m sure that I could have done it alone. My eyes itched a lot as the anaesthetic wore off, but with a bottle of anaesthetic drops, another of antibiotics and one of normal eye-drops, I was comfortable and soon asleep. In the morning I was instantly able to see the room, not perfectly clearly, but I could watch television without glasses. We returned to the ophthalmologists, and I was informed that the surgery was a success and that it would be a week before my next appointment, and again a month after that. I took an eye test and my right eye was already as good as it had been with glasses. The left was not so good, as it had needed deeper surgery as the sight had been worse pre-op (8.5 as opposed to 4.5 for the right.)   I needed glasses for reading, as I had been told pre-op, but these were cheap and cheerful reading glasses, nine Euros from the chemist. What a difference from the four hundred pounds I had last paid for a pair of glasses.   I penned a few notes for my family and friends, to try and remember my feelings during the first few days post-op. They are as follows.

Dear sissies and friends all,

Just a few lines to tell you my first feelings after the eye op. I don’t want to strain the eyes too much so will keep this short. Eventually I will add this to the first part of tale about having to wear glasses all my life. 

Brushing my hair without having to worry about knocking my glasses off and breaking them. Not having to brush my hair from under the frames of my glasses.

I keep reaching for my glasses as soon as I decide to get out of bed.

I can no longer see by bringing books and magazines close to my eyes. Now I am like a normal human being of 52 and have to hold things at a distance to read them, albeit with reading glasses.

Sitting in a cafe eighteen hours after the operation, without glasses, reading shop signs at a distance of one hundred metres and reading the newspapers with the aid of reading glasses. The air, typically smoke-filled as befits a Spanish café, doesn’t irritate my eyes at all. My eyes feel healthier than before.

I feel somewhat vulnerable, as if I’ve been living in a room with permanently closed glazed windows and have now been allowed to come out into the open air. I am, to use an old cliché, now seeing things as if for the first time. Everything looks different. 

I can feel the breeze, cold on the wetness of my eyeballs. Heretofore they have been shielded by my glasses, creating a kind of windscreen against the weather. Again a kind of vulnerability, almost like walking the streets of Armagh in the seventies, a sense of heightened awareness and a need to watch everything more closely; not to miss anything.

I keep thinking that it will stop, that it is an experience like wearing contact lenses, and that one day I’ll go back to how it was. Just as some people find it hard to accept they’re blind, I can’t get to grips with being able to see.

The grooves in the side of my head, through wearing my glasses tight to my head to stop them moving around. How long will it take for my head to return to normal, and for the permanent wave that they have created, to go.

Will write more when I have more to report.

Love,

Ron.

Well, it is now a month since the operation, and I have just had my ‘one month after’ test. The eyes are in perfect condition after the surgery, I can see perfectly at distance with the right eye, although I have to take care to keep it moist with drops, to optimise the vision. The left is taking a little more time, as it should, having been subjected to more severe surgery. I am getting used to using reading glasses to read and write, and I have a zone out to about three or four metres where things are not crystal clear. My night vision is a little worse, and I can see halos around lights at night if my eyes are dry. That said, ten days after the op, I drove the length of Spain and back, some eighteen hundred kilometres, with no more than a little tiredness behind the eyes, but that is to be expected. At the moment I don’t need glasses for anything more than reading, but feel that I will need to continue to wear varifocals in the future if I want to be able to see perfectly at all distances without taking the reading glasses on and off. I was talking to a taxi-driver in Gibraltar the other day and he reckons that it took him a year before his eyes had settled completely, and swears it was the best money he ever spent. So, I will wait and see.

All the promises of the ophthalmologist have been kept. My eyes are as good now, without glasses, as they were before the op, with glasses. I need reading glasses, which I was told would be the case. My vision improves day-by-day. I am not sure when the eyes will stabilise and I will know that ‘this is as good as it gets.’ The ophthalmologist said in a few months all will be well, including no more halos, the taxi-driver one year. We’re all different, and I must admit to wanting to be so different that I would have 20/20 vision after a week. But I am now resigned to the fact that I am normal, that my body heals itself at the same rate as everyone else’s, and that I will have to exercise patience. The dents in my head are still there. Perhaps after forty-odd years the skull, or even the brain, is damaged; many have suspected as much over the years. Like Chinese foot-binding, or African neck-stretching, wearing tight glasses for an extended period may lead to permanent disfiguration, who knows. The groove is certainly useful for resting a pencil when I’m writing.

What a load of tripe.

I don’t seem to have much luck in butchers here in Spain. Trying to explain what you want when the butcher hasn’t got a clue what you are talking about and you haven’t got a clue how to explain it makes for some weird conversations and at times even stranger results. The first time I had the problem was just after I arrived in Spain and still hadn’t got to grips with everything having to have a gender. So an orange tree is masculine whilst the fruit is feminine, a chair and table are both feminine and for some strange reason a penis is feminine, too. !! A chicken is a pollo and a penis is a polla. You can see where this is heading. My first foray into a butcher’s resulted in me spouting my previously rehearsed request.

‘Yo quiero una polla de dos kilos.’ Which means ‘I want a two kilo penis.’

All quiet in the butchers until a little old lady next in the queue said,

‘Y yo tambien.’ ‘And so do I.’

Howls of laughter all round and then the butcher produced a whole chicken said in a load voice as if I was deaf as well as daft.

‘Pollo!!’

Then he pointed to its head and neck and tilted his head questioningly.

‘No gracias, quitar el culo, por favor’

More howls all round. Culo is the arse and cuello is the neck. Wrong again.

And even after fifteen years I still make these mistakes. I was hoping to make some sheftalia this weekend, a type of Cypriot sausage using caul fat as the casing. So I went to my usual butcher and asked for what I wanted and she seemed to understand.

caul fat

‘I’ll have it on Tuesday afternoon, come in on Wednesday morning and pick it up,’ she said.

So I did and she asked me how much I wanted.

‘How many kilos?’ she asked.

‘More like how many square metres,’ I replied and saw a look of puzzlement on her face. Not wanting to confuse things more I asked for two kilos.

‘I don’t know how to clean it,’ she said. ‘Can you do it yourself?’

No ‘problem,’ I said.

She then came out with the most disgusting thing I have seen in many a year and all the customers in the shop turned their heads away and held their noses. It was tripe of an animal, I don’t know which, but it stank to high heaven.

tripe

I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, she had gone to a lot of trouble to get it, so I paid the minute amount she had asked for and made a bolt for the door. I was almost cheered out by the locals who were all waving their hands in front of their noses and making those very particular Spanish noises of disgust. I drove to the office and before I had even got to the bin there were two feral cats stalking me. In the bin it went, but I must admit as I was driving down the valley I was laughing out loud and I haven’t done that for a long time.

 

Anthony Armstrong Jones has nothing on me.

Carmen is always trying to get me to come to the Wednesday market in Durcal, which is about as appealing to me as having teeth drawn.  But I needed some photos for the website so I capitulated and strung along with my trusty Nikon with the cracked lens, looking for that shot of a lifetime.  The market isn’t that bad, stalls laden with spices, fruit and veg, the odd stall selling tools and myriad selling womens’ clothing of all sorts and, with Spanish widows inmind, all sizes.  Carmen forged ahead, caught up in a spending frenzy, and I wandered around looking for those close-up shots which can sell the area to potential clients and are so good for advertising.  And there were plenty of things to shoot.  The vegetables looked great, as did the bags of spices and I got quite carried away, not looking for anything in particular but more interested in anything full of vibrant colour to fill the shot.  I got some lovely shots of fruit and veg and then my hair stood on end as my sixth sense told me that I was being watched.  I stood up from my half crouch, looked away from my viewfinder and saw Carmen looking at me in shock and horror.  Looking around I saw many other people eyeing me with a mixture of wonder and scorn.  That’s wonder from the men and scorn from the women.  I looked down and realized why.  In my state of artistic reverie I had been snapping anything with a mass of colour, wherever I saw it and with not too much regard of the subject matter.  And I swear, Yer Honour, that I didn´t realise I was taking close-up photos of ladies underwear.  Carmen disowned me and walked away and I actually blushed, the first time in many a year.  But the upside is that I am banned from the market in future, with or without a camera.  So, any of you henpecked hubbies out there who want to know how to get out of shopping trips with the wife, you heard it first from me.

pepperscourgettescherriesunderwear

 

 

More than me jobswuth.

I told you that we had moved into a brand new flat in Madrid, didn’t I?  I’ve no idea when this will reach you as I have, as yet, no telephone line. This is no surprise, it took nearly a month to get gas installed in the flat. Cold showers and sitting around a one kilowatt electric heater were the order of the day during Madrid’s coldest spell for a decade.

The temperature dropped to -8c one night. Now the gas has been installed and the water runs either boiling or freezing, alternating over a thirty-second time frame. It has saved me joining a gym, as the constant nipping back and forth in and out of the shower, and the contractions to all the muscle groups in my body when the cold water hits, are toning me up nicely.

 It has only been a month so far, the wait for Telefonica to get off their fat monopolistic backsides and connect us. It is the usual story, the same as for the gas suppliers. ‘We have installed it as far as the basement, now it is the responsibility of the sub-contractors.’ The sub-contractor arrives and says, ‘Can’t touch that, mate. More than me jobswuth.’ But of course in Spanish. The head-shaking and the sucking in of breath and the tut-tutting is the same the world over, however. So now I am typing to fill in time as I wait for the arrival of both the gasman and the telephone installer. I have dreams of a perfect world where suppliers and installers walk around hand in hand, smiling at their customers and saying things like,’ No, that’s no bother at all, I’ll have it fixed in no time.’ You’d think I was too old and ugly for that, wouldn’t you?

A couple of weeks ago when the gas installer eventually came, he asked me what the problem was. I told him about the water being too hot or too cold and said that I thought the water pressure was too high and that the system was having problems heating the water at that rate. He said he understood exactly what I was saying and changed the thermostat!!! After an hour of the same hot and cold regime, he said, ‘The water pressure is too high and it has jammed a valve inside the heater.’ He fixed that and it was no better, then he realised he had replaced the thermostat with a duff one he had taken from a neighbours house. So he replaced the original and left, without checking anything. I am still doing the soft-shoe shuffle in the shower and am alarmed to find I don’t feel like going to his shop and burning it down, with him inside. I must be going either soft, or turning Spanish. I even feel sorry for calling him out again!! 

P.S.  

Now it’s the day after. Yesterday, eventually, the gas man came and said, ‘Can’t touch that mate, more than me jobswuth. That’s a job for the installer that is. There’s a problem with the flue. The bill for me coming here is 70 euros.’ I think it was the way I stood up and clenched my fists which caused him to leave very quickly, without any money, and I am back to jumping in and out of the shower like a kid playing hop-scotch.

The Telefonica man came and said, ‘Can’t touch that mate, more than me jobswuth. That’s a job for the installer, that is. It ain’t wired up right.’ So the installer came and said, ‘Can’t touch that mate, more than me jobswuth. That’s a job for Telefonica, that is. It ain’t connected right.’ So this message stays in Outlook Express until another day.  

I am not staying in another day to see who turns up, I am going to Lavapies to recruit a team of Arabs who won’t mind doing a hit-job on the next workman who comes through my door.   Por dios! Over a month to get a telephone line, and five weeks to get hot and cold water running when I want it, not when it decides it wants. Welcome to Madrid, joder!!!!!!

 

In the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I arrive in the Plaza Mayor, cold and curious, the temperature little above freezing. I need a hat so wander around the porticos until I find a shop selling gorras. I settle for the cheapest I can get and move on.   A small scurrying man drums me into a bar in one of the corners of the square. He has an impish smile and his head seems somehow divorced from a body clad in white shirt, waistcoat and bow-tie. He dives into the bar and pours me a glass of wine. We talk and he tells me that he is from Ecuador. He carefully explains where Ecuador is, convinced that I think it is in Africa.

‘But no!’ he pronounces. ‘It is in South America.’

He scurries from behind the bar to the street door, where he vainly attempts to drum up more trade.

Dejectedly, he returns to his post and tells me his feelings of being a foreigner in Madrid. It occurs to me that I am a foreigner too, a strange feeling, as I normally feel at home wherever I am. ‘Is it contagious,’ I wonder, feeling the loneliness the camarero obviously feels here in Spain. ‘Or is it because I’ve spent the morning playing chase-me-Charlie across Madrid from one Government Department to another, in a vain attempt to register myself as self-employed?’

‘I live with my brother, we are hoping one day to get Spanish passports so that we can go and live in the United States,’ he tells me.

‘Don’t let that be your dream,’ I think to myself, but say nothing to him, not wishing to dampen the fervour shining in his eyes.

He rushes away to his drumming again, looking anxiously at the parent bar next door which is slowly filling up. In his bar there is only me, and the lack of trade worries him.

His worry transmits itself to me and I feel uncomfortable. I don’t like the feeling of being on the losing side. When he returns I pay and leave.

I cross the square, stopping to admire the paintings fronting one of the buildings. Most of them depict naked women, with abdominal ‘six-packs’ which made me feel inadequate. A road-sweeper with her cart and broom stops to look at me. I feel impelled to speak and ask, ‘What is that building?’

‘La Casa de la Panadería,’ she replies, smiling a one-toothed smile.

‘Interesting bodies the women have, the muscles make them appear a little………..?’

‘Andrógina?’ she offers.

‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘Androgynous, that’s the word.’

She smiles again, and I look at her in a different light, wondering how she came by her vocabulary.

‘Do all Madrileñas have bodies like that?’ I query.

She looks down at her luminous yellow corporation jacket stretched tight over her beer-barrel stomach and smiles up at me.

‘No’ she replies. ‘Not all of them.’

I head for the Metro at Sol and feel suddenly claustrophobic, surrounded by Big Macs, Burger Kings and other multinational fast-food outlets. I notice a sign for a cerviceria down a side-street and slip inside, nearly falling over a young man built like a prop-forward, sitting in a wheelchair just inside the door. He has several beers lined up on the bar in front of him. He drinks determinedly. Maybe he is a prop-forward.

I feel myself relaxing, surprised that I had felt so strange in the street.