Category Archives: Life

The true socialists

The rest of you are right wing, came the barrage,
As they sided with Trump, Johnson and Farage.
Down with the establishment, liberals, and elite,
Roared a rich Greek from his motorcycle seat.
Destroy the Beeb, burn the Guardian, and boycott C4
Alt news is king, journalism’s a bore.
The media’s our enemy, against it we’ll rail,
But don’t expect us to criticise the Telegraph or Mail.
You’re clueless puppets and we’re never wrong,
Is their mantra, a relentless battering ram of a song.
To infiltrate and destroy are clearly the goals,
Of privileged pricks pretending to be proles.
We’re the true socialists they cried whilst raising the fist,
But they omitted a word, and that word is nationalist.

Plastic Chairs in the Forest

When things aren’t the way they should be, something occupies a space it normally wouldn’t, our brains lock onto it like a homing missile, even when we’re not particularly paying attention.

Things like a white, plastic chair in the middle of the pine forest.

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I’m only casually paying attention to the rural landscape outside the car as we drive along a country road through miles and miles of stone pines. The presence of the plastic chair registers a couple of hundred metres after we pass it; my head swivels backwards, but it’s already lost in the undergrowth, so I don’t mention it to my fellow passengers. People dump all sorts of shit near the road, even out here apparently.

A couple of kilometres further on and I spot another plastic chair ahead; my mind’s more acutely tuned in to its surroundings now. This time, as we pass, I notice a woman standing in the shade cast by a tall tree a few metres away from the chair.
“There’s a woman and a plastic chair in the forest,” I blurt out, bemused.
“What?” A turns her head to look at me.
“There’s a woman standing beside a plastic chair in the forest,” I repeat.
It’s especially strange as there’s nothing out here. No towns, villages, shops, nothing. It’s just a country road linking A with B.
“She’s a prostitute,” J says knowledgeably from the back seat.
“Get away,” I laugh. “Why would there be a prostitute in a random spot in the countryside?”
Just at that we pass another plastic chair under the shade of a tree. This time there’s a blonde woman wearing a slinky red dress sitting on it. She looks like she belongs in a club rather than a pine forest. Her wildly out of place clothing seems to confirm J’s suggestion.

But why here? It’s not in the middle of nowhere exactly, but neither is it near, well, anywhere. The very idea of prostitutes in the forest throws up all sorts of questions.
Do drivers just accidentally spot these women lurking in the dappled shade and think “well, that was good timing, I just had a yen for a quick one beside the road” in much the same manner they might develop a hunger a burger at a roadside cafe? How do the women get there? There’s no car nearby. Is there a pimp bus which drops them off in the morning and picks them up again at night? How long is the shift? It must get pretty lonely out here on your lonesome for hours and hours. Is there an app which tells drivers which forests are best for a bit of off road action?
It seems random, bizarre. On a seedy, city backstreet we wouldn’t think twice about passing ladies of the night plying their trade, but when it comes to ladies of the forest that’s something very different. It’s a scenic scene which simply doesn’t equate.

Six months further down the line and we’re driving along a different country road in the wilds of Alentejo when a man in a blue tee-shirt and denims emerging from the forest catches my eye. My initial reaction is that he’s stopped for a piss; the parked truck on the opposite side of the road appears to back this up.

And then I spot the plastic chair.

What’s the deal with the box?

At first it was just a box.

Nine weeks down the line it has become a monument to a generational chasm; a symbol which could either be one of defiance, or simply indolence.

I saw the moment ‘the box’ arrived, delivered by M, the ever-smiling Brazilian friend and ‘fixer’ of Dona C, the man she uses to resolve the more technical problems around her farm. Directed by Dona C, M placed the cardboard box outside A and L’s window on their side of the large, colonial veranda we share. M opened the box, and rummaged inside the cover for a moment before he extracted a sheath of paper which he laid on top of ‘the box’ – assembly instructions.

I could see from the images on its cover that it was an exterior plastic storage cabinet, an extremely useful addition to a veranda which, over the summer months, had become increasingly congested with various items which ranged from inflatable airbeds to sacks of BBQ briquettes, and discarded cardboard boxes to an army of empty, reusable, environmentally-friendly supermarket bags.

That’s A & L’s side, not ours. On ours is a table, chairs and some nightlights. A border of pot plants, ferns, and low dragon palms separate the two. But we don’t stick to it, it’s a casual affair. The utility room we share is on our side of the terrace, the switch which bathes us all with light when darkness descends is on their side.

One summer afternoon, whilst quaffing beer, we’d all had a discussion about the lack of storage in the farm’s outbuildings which now served as both our houses. Ours had been the wine press before it was turned into a home. Although full of character, they weren’t designed for practical living. The arrival of the box looked like A & L had arranged to do something about their outside living space.

Except for the look of… the look of what exactly? Now I come to think back, the look on A & L’s faces when they returned home from work that night suggested they weren’t responsible for arranging ‘the box’ at all. It was the look you get from a cat when you replace its favourite bowl.

A ‘what’s this and why is it here?’ look.

A & L leave the house early and return quite late. The only time they have to deal with domestics is over the weekend. The first weekend ‘the box’ arrived they had friends staying. September is sultry hot here, life is still lived mostly outside. They sat on their side of the terrace with their friends all weekend, we sat on our ‘summer’ terrace at the rear of the house – it’s a tad wilder there, looking into the pines and the sheep’s field. It’s also facing west, so the sun kisses it for longer.

By the end of the weekend, ‘the box’ was still in its virgin condition.

We travelled for the rest of September, but when we returned home ‘the box’ still hadn’t been touched. Three weeks had passed.

‘The box’ stopped being a box and started to become something else. If anything, debris on the terrace had grown, but ‘the box’ remained untouched.

Over the following two weekends, A & L again sat on their increasingly smaller terrace with more friends, ‘the box’ remaining ignored, even though one of their chairs had to backed right up against it as space was now at a premium.

Why? Why hadn’t they assembled ‘the box’? It would make their lives easier, the terrace less cluttered to manage, to keep clean. The night that box had arrived I’d have been cross-legged on the ground, in my element, scratching my head trying to decipher simple construction instructions, and childishly ecstatic at having an opportunity to use the brace of tools I own which rarely get used.

But no, ‘the box’ stayed, well, in its box.

Our travel plans meant we hardly saw each other over the following weeks, the chance to converse limited to the occasional, “hi, how are things?” as we passed each other on our ways to do tasks which meant we couldn’t pause for a decent natter. Summer has now drifted away to be replaced by a cooler autumn. Our paths rarely cross despite our geographical proximity to each other.

Which has been hellishly frustrating as there’s a question that’s burning away which we haven’t been able to ask.

Three weeks became four, five, six, seven, eight… and now here were are. Nine weeks and the box within a box hasn’t been touched. It has, ironically, become the biggest item of clutter on the veranda; the king of the chaos.

Why? The question eats away at us.

I wanted, want, to scale the leafy border and carry out a raid on their terrace under cover of the night, dragging all the meaningless pieces out of the cardboard container to turn them into something meaningful. But when daybreak broke would this be viewed as the actions of a friendly fairy or an interfering ogre?

The untouched box is a conundrum. It has become far more than just a box; its bulk greater than physical. It is a statement of something, but what exactly?

There can be only two explanations.

The first is A and L never actually asked for ‘the box’ and view its presence as a negative judgement on them. Its virginal state is a stubborn statement of defiance. Don’t interfere.

The other is they are simply too lazy to take the time to assemble it. Their weekends are a time for relaxation and pleasure and nothing else. They are a lovely couple, in other ways considerate and friendly. But previous actions/inaction have revealed they can be domestically inept. Possibly they’re simply waiting for the day that M returns and puts it together for them.

Meanwhile the debris grows, sometimes blowing through the terrace like tumbleweed across a prairie. And I wait for the moment when we actually get to have a decent-length conversation with them so I can casually ask: “what’s the deal with that box?”

That’ll probably be sometime next spring.

The Modern Messiah

The stranger walked into the small village, arms spread wide.

“I come to share a gift which will enrich your life,” she beamed.

“Is it books so we can better educate our children?” Asked one villager.

“No,” smiled the stranger.

“Then it must be medicine so we can heal our sick?” Another villager suggested.

“No, it’s not medicine.”

“Aha,” a third villager exclaimed. “You have brought us tools so we can build better houses?”

“It’s none of those,” laughed the stranger as she revealed a sleek, rectangular object. “This is a smartphone. I’m going to show you all how to use Instagram.”

This, depressingly, is a true story, an example used at a travel conference to illustrate how some travel bloggers have supposedly impacted positively on the places they’ve visited.

The Year Facts Died

“Everything you have said is actually factually inaccurate and it’s easy to show you why.”

“But I don’t care, I’m still going to believe what I want to believe.”

There was nowhere to go. Intelligent reasoning has increasingly become something to be scorned and might as well hide out in the woods like a furtive fugitive; hiding from a platitude spouting populace whose brains have been turned to mush.

The zombie plague is upon us.

You’re a typical middle-aged, white male when it comes to racism

… And that’s when she lit the blue touch paper.

It was Nigeria’s fault for playing so poorly in the World Cup.

Ironically we both wanted Nigeria to beat Argentina but as the game progressed our paths took different directions.

Where I saw Nigeria underperforming. She saw injustice and prejudice… fuelled by sniping comments on the Twitter feed she was watching more than the match.

“Ah, I see what’s going on here,” was uttered more than once.

I knew exactly what she was suggesting. But all I could see on the screen was a team in self-destruct mode.

The flash point came during a call for a penalty to Nigeria which, quite rightly, the referee waved away.

“The referee is racist,” came the instant accusation. “I can spot all the signs.”

She went on to read out similarly accusatory comments from her Twitter stream.

“Unless those are from Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, or anyone who knows anything at all about football I’m not really interested,” my patience had worn thin. “It wasn’t a penalty. And, anyway, how can you say the ref is racist?”

“He’s making decisions based on subconscious prejudice.”

“No he isn’t. He’s making decisions based on the laws of the game. Nigeria aren’t losing this game due to prejudice, they’re losing because they’ve played shite. They don’t deserve to win.”

“He’s racist.”

“How can you say that? You’ve no evidence at all.”

“I’ve years of experience in this area and I can spot it.”

We disagreed some more, heatedly, before she hit me square in the jaw with “Yours is a typically defensive and argumentative reaction by middle-aged white men when the question of racism is brought up.”

At that point what had been a heated debate turned personal… ugly… into something far more serious.

Many times during the week we’d talked of instances of gross injustices, prejudice, racism  and had been in accord every time. Insisting Nigeria’s downfall had not been caused by a racist ref but by themselves was the first time I’d disagreed.

“Oh, come on.” I was furious. “That’s bullshit. If you view this match without labels, without seeing colour, then the team which has played better is winning. It’s as simple as that. There’s only one person in this room who’s allowing prejudice to influence their judgement.”

I was hurt and angered by her barbed accusation. In my mind anger jostled with the slightest niggle of self doubt. I firmly believed Nigeria had lost because they weren’t good enough and there was no way she could know if the referee was racist, subconsciously or otherwise. But then again, there was no way I could know for sure he wasn’t.

There was one thing I was 100% sure about. I wouldn’t be watching a football match with this particular friend again. The match had been totally ruined. Hopefully our friendship wouldn’t meet the same fate.

Thanks for that Nigeria.

Just leave the dog alone

“My mother would have phoned the police by now.”

“What?”

“She would have phoned the police or, at least, have rescued that dog.”

“Why?” I looked at the forlorn face of the mutt peering past us and into the restaurant. It had a hang-dog expression for sure as, and this was an assumption on my part based on years of amateur dog psychiatry, it was missing its owner who was clearly scoffing food somewhere in the depths of the same restaurant. But it was absolutely fine, its leash wrapped around a fire hydrant on the opposite side of the narrow, cobbled street.

“Because it’s in distress.” replied my concerned friend.

I looked at the dog again. “No it isn’t, it’s just feeling sorry for itself… as dogs are prone to do when they’re excluded from the social scene.”

“I think it’s been abandoned.”

“What? It has not. It’s just been tied up outside whilst its owner has dinner. I’ve seen similar plenty of times.”

“Well I have never seen a dog left outside a restaurant. In London the RSPCA would have rescued it by now.”

“Well, I have seen plenty of dogs waiting for owners outside bars, shops and restaurants, and if anyone took that dog now it would be a really shitty thing to do.”

At this juncture I have to point out my friend is from London whereas I grew up on a Scottish island where if a dog was left outside a bar nobody would think twice about it. I have seen it in many other small places… which were not London. This time was in an area of Lisbon where there’s still a strong feeling of community. I had no doubt the dog was ‘waiting’ rather than having been abandoned. But London is apparently the centre of the universe and whatever happens in England’s capital city is what dictates… even if you happen to be in a different country.

“Why did that guy duck out of the way?” Inquired an American man of his family on the table next to us. There was a World Cup penalty shoot out taking place on the TV on the other side of our table and the Americans had been giving a running, and quite surreall uninformed commentary throughout the football match. The ‘ducking’ man was a goalkeeper who had just dived the wrong way. Combined with my friend’s insistent and misplaced concern for the dog, I was not having the most enjoyable of dining experiences. Maybe this was also partly to do with the fado musicians, the singer’s soulful voice filling the place with an infectious melancholic saudade. I felt as depressed as the dog looked.

“I’m really worried about that dog.” She wasn’t going to let it lie even though at this point a pair of pugs entered the scene and the dog brightened considerably. His tail perked up and he forgot his owner as he bopped about trying to attract the pugs’ attention. “I think I’ll call the police.”

By this point I was exasperated. I didn’t want to, and it was embarrassing, but there was only one way to knock this nonsense on its head. I stood up and walked over to the barman.

“My friend…” I was making it crystal clear who was responsible for my question. “… is worried that dog has been abandoned.”

The barman looked at me like I was an idiot tourist sticking my nose in… which of course I was.

“It’s a local dog, everyone knows it around here,” he nodded toward a room where the fado musicians were. “The owner is in there. In Portuguese law the dog isn’t allowed in the restaurant. But the dog is fine.”

“Yeah, I know that,” I responded like a particularly sheepish sheep, my travel cred in shreds thanks to my friend. “But my friend’s from London.” I added, as though that explained it.

I fed back the barman’s response which, finally put paid to most of the worries about the dog’s welfare (she still didn’t approve of it being left on its own).

The irony of this little exchange is this is someone who is vehemently and vociferously opposed to the idea of Brits attempting to impose their culture on different nationalities. Apparently there’s an exception when it comes to how other nationalities treat their dogs.

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Why don’t you go to the beach more?

“Why don’t you go to the beach more?”

“Well, we’re working, we’re not on holiday.”

“But why don’t you go to the beach more?”

“When you live in a warm climate and you’re in sun a lot just walking around, the beach isn’t as important.”

“But still, why don’t you go to the beach more?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess we’re just freaks.”

A lot of people only see abroad as the place you go for a holiday.

I’m married to Jill from Home Improvement

There’s a scene in the TV show Home Improvement where Tool Time Tim’s wife Jill insists on talking to him as she walks into another room, her words becoming increasingly harder to make out.

This is a scenario which is played out at least once a week in our house.

“By the way, did you remember to…” A’s voice trails away as she leaves the room we’re both in and walks into another.

“What? I didn’t catch that last bit.” I raise my head slightly higher, straining to hear anything over a spinning washing machine and noisy kettle about to reach boiling point.

“I said, did you remember…” A’s voice rises but as she’s still walking in the opposite direction from where I stand I can’t make out the rest of the sentence.

“I still can’t hear you,” frustration creeps into my voice and I add. “I can’t hear you because I’m standing in a room full of noise and you’re three rooms away.”

“Well I can hear you,” comes the equally vexed reply. “The real issue is you’re a bit deaf.”

The real issue is I struggle to make out words spoken from the other side of a series of barriers consisting of thick, stone walls.

Departure

It’s a ferry which feels like a cruise ship. A DJ plays loud Latino music; a troupe of dancers twirl, swirl and wave at passengers from their stage, a swimming pool barely bigger than the average bath tub. People stock up on plastic cups of amber lager. Beyond the stern, Tenerife’s hooded Auditorium recedes into the distance under typically blue skies.

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Departure.

It feels surreal. The party atmosphere makes it feel like a celebration of our time, more than a decade, on the island.

The cabin we’ve booked for the next 36 hours is cosy enough, the sea is calm and the sunset spectacular. All feels good with the world. Tomorrow a new and exciting day dawns.

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Dinner on the Naviera Armas ferry pops the party balloon. The buffet meal is cheap and the selection is… is what exactly? Not depressing at best. But it’s not even lukewarm. It’s cold.

Tellingly there is a microwave in the dining room. It’s a classy ship where you have to heat up your own food. A rough looking extended Spanish family are wise to the ferry’s culinary flaws, they’ve brought their own food stash and hog the microwave. We muscle our way in and one of them, illustrating how we shouldn’t make judgements based on appearances, helpfully shows us how to use it (we’re microwave virgins). It makes the food edible… just.

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Overnight we sail into rough seas and it sounds as though Poseidon himself is tearing at the hull with a can opener. The metal screams in pain. It’s unnerving. Our cabin is near the prow, right at the highest point of the arc where the ship pauses briefly after rising into the air before crashing back into the sea.

It’s not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed.

The stormy weather doesn’t let up the next day. Getting from our cabin to the less violent rear of the ship involves a bruise-inducing journey of silly walks.

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There are far fewer voyagers in the lounge than the previous day. Many passengers are ill and stay in their cabins. Maybe many passengers are ill because they stay in their cabins.

It’s a long day. Only the ever-enthusiastic entertainment team provide relief from the irritated sea and limited selection of mediocre food. Still we will be on terra firma later, with food in proper restaurants to fuel deflated spirits.

However, an hour from docking and there’s no land at all in sight. There have been no announcements about any delays, but something clearly isn’t right. We should be halfway along an estuary by my reckoning.

I stagger to the information desk.

“Rough weather has delayed us four hours,” I’m told when I ask why there’s no dry land outside the portholes.

I’m not sure when they planned on sharing this quite important piece of information.

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I’m gutted. The sea has calmed but the delay means instead of dining in a restaurant in Huelva we have another meal on board to not look forward to.

We agree the food was so poor we can’t go through another dinner. Instead, I head outside to the the pool bar, the domain of serious drinkers and heavy smokers, to check what snacks they might have.

They have more than snacks, they have burgers and pizza. They have food which looks far, far, far more appetising than the tired offerings in the main dining room. The person in front of me is served with a generous sized, good looking beefy burger. If only I’d ventured outside before we may have ate if not like kings at least not like paupers. I order two burgers and try to avoid drooling.

“Sorry, that was the last one,” the barman informs me.

My misery is complete.