A Winter’s Tale

August and September stretched on for longer than the beach outside my house, offering fresh lemons and limes, sultry nights and swimming in abandoned coves. December however offered an altogether different experience. My idyllic apartment villa has thin paned glass and shutters instead of curtains. Its cool white interior suddenly seemed clinical and the hole in the balcony window seemed to be letting more of its fair share of night air into the house. The sea no longer shone turquoise and seaweed muddied where crystal waters had lapped at the old sea wall. Magnificent storms, graced the skies and thunder literally shook the house. But most of the days were resplendent in abundant sunshine, a far cry from the school-sock grey skies of England. The lanes around the seaport that hubbed with tourists in the Summer were pleasingly quiet. The restaurants had beat had a retreat and resigned their old wood furniture to the inside of their restaurants and even in 21 degree heat by day, waitresses smoked quickly outside their workplaces bedecked in coordinated scarves and hats, shivering and staring at the sky. The sub Saharan salesman boarded the bus without their usual optimistic high fives or back slapping greetings and everything was a little more subdued. At least thats what I understood, however in the week my bank card was swallowed, I got ill, got bitten by a stray cat and went in search of a pharmacy. I only brave driving here in emergencies. I found myself completely lost in what looked to be a respectable rural mountainous area and got out to ask for directions. I was immediately assailed by two dogs, I hightailed it to the vehicle. Feeling queasy and unable to open the window, as I now had a dog at my window and a dog at the passenger window jumping up baring their teeth and inbetween biting the car tyres. I beeped they saw this as a revallie and before I could blink other dogs were barking and following the car down the road. I checked my mirrors could shunt forward two inches and then back two inches. Rabid or not I really didn’t want to run over a dog. Nursing my stray cat bite, I made a determined shunt to the side. More dogs! It was like a Hundred and One Dalmations gone wrong. I ploughed on with this very slow process until I made a break for freedom at a blind bend and whacked down the accelerator, hoping that Chappie and chums were not underneath the car. I checked the rear view and they were coming fast, but not fast enough. I left the area unscathed and remarkably pleased that I had managed to evade my canine aggressors. After winding my way through the mountains I picked up the coastal road again and saw my street swing into view. Too exhausted to search again for the pharmacy. I grabbed every duvet I could find and sunk down, feverish and ill.

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A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.

CagliariOldTown_SardiniaSo, this mornings faux pas started when I asked my lip- locked fellow flyers if I could get past them to sit at the window seat ( note to self, if claustrophobic on one hours sleep- book the aisle.) Schoolboy error. I smiled at the female couple and brightly enthused “Excuse me, ladies.” It turned out that the slightly butch woman with curly hair that mushroomed out from beneath her Belinda Carlisle hat, was in fact a young man; who spoke good English and was now wearing a frown that was more distinctive than his hair. Cue 2 hours of the enraged couple feigning sleep, after I had drank 2 teas and a litre of water. There was no way this window seat girl was getting out to the loo.

It was warm when I disembarked andI quickly located the ladies ( bathroom- not the couple). I had been up effectively all night worrying that I might miss the flight. I was delighted to be greeted at Hotel Miramare, by one of the lovely hosts and the design boutique hotel did not disappoint. The bed was comfortable, the bathroom all dark granite chic and a modern painting of a curvaceous woman with a cascade of green hair black gloves and a small plate of cupcakes was painted on the ceiling. Every room in this hotel is unique and branded with its own style. I stayed in a room previously, that had all manner of items stuck to the ceiling as part of an installation and whiled away the hours deciphering what each piece of the installation was- one item included a small fire engine sprayed gun metal grey.

Impossibly tanned, thin women were crammed into the marina district’s restaurants eating copious amounts of pasta. I am convinced that they only eat in the tourist season to annoy Brits and Germans- in the same way that they rock around London looking chilly in puffa coats during a London heatwave.

My wavy hair had adopted its usual triangular mop look, giving me a sort of Bojo crossed with a sheep dog look. A far cry from the glossy raven- haired tresses of the inhabitants, who can still wear high heels at the age that most old ladies are in the UK are nodding at Dame Thora Heard -as she agonisingly makes her way up the stairs in the good old Stena Chair Lift.

I stopped for coffee and smiled remembering the Italian chap at the airport who was ignoring his girlfriend for the attention of two young teachers from Cork. One of them seemed quite enamoured, until he mistook her sing- song lilt and asked her which part of Germany she came from?

I spent hours, wearing my “respectable clothes” which felt a bit like wearing an antique diving suit and sitting on a sun bed, as the temperature soared. I had also forgotten my sunglasses, so the dark circles under my eyes were set off by manic squinting as I climbed the Castello district looking for somewhere to live.

After four hours of estate agent hunting, I surrendered to dinner. The heat had abated and I happened upon a delightful restaurant at a crossroads. The adjacent nightclub, started to soundcheck and as the bass switched on and off, I noticed another sound and on the other side of the street, sung mass had begun. It was all sounding quite gregorian and then the nightclub rocked out some Slayer. The Priest however, who had flung open his doors welcome in the sheep among the wolves, defiantly found a microphone and proceeded to sing louder. I was stuck in the crossfire of the would- be canonised and the would be Anti- Christ, as a Marilyn Mason track shrieked out from the club. The waiter’s pretended they could hear neither. A scowling widow in black appeared outside the church door, looking ready to do battle with Satan himself and then whipped out a Samsung phone from somewhere in her black garb and stood at the open doors of the church making a call. Various tourists passed the church and peered in, some taking photographs. I noticed that once they had taken Communion the old folks left. Perhaps sensing their time was precious, they didn’t wait until the end of the service. They had had their blessing and were off out the door, some of them hanging around to have a chat, some disappearing off for a game of dominos.The faded glamour of The Valencian – style buildings, cast shadows in the evening light and women hung out their washing on old fashioned washing lines beneath impossibly high wooden shutters. The buildings looked as if they had wilted in the heat, as the plaster eagerly escaped the walls.

I meandered back through the streets and down past the colonade where a man has mice run over apparently happy cats, as a spectacle. Having been up all night, I decided to turn in with the green haired lady and good book.

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The Lion The Ditch and the Microbes.

The Masaimara stretched before us in its green and purple rolling glory. The rainy season had hit the hills and water streamed down the escarpments deviating from the river’s natural courses, saturating the lush green fields. The gentle hum of bull frogs rose up from the side of the roads as our driver tried to face our Landrover away from the driving rain. Thunder rumbled like concealed dragons through the valleys and lightening slashed the looming clouds. I felt very small. Our driver Akatch was keeping it a secret that we in fact, had no windscreen wipers and were stuck in a storm the like of which I had only seen on ominous beginnings to films with even more ominous endings. I certainly was in no hurry to get out of the vehicle to find out what was wrong. Landrover after Landrover passed us, like old work horses at tea time.The guests were heading back for warming drinks at various camps. Our party of four huddled close in huge plastic ponchos, the rain now driving from both directions and our driver remained silent. Putting his head down beneath the open cab he took a breath before announcing that we would have to weather the storm as we had no wipers.

The rivers were swelling and breaking their banks and knowing the danger of being stranded in the open, he lowered the entire windscreen onto the bonnet and valiantly struck out across the water logged roads. He laughed without the heartiness of earlier, previously laughing at his own joke, it was as if the red dust of the Kenyan roads had coated his throat and gravelled his stomach.

Then I saw a tail flick from behind the torrents of water and a large female lion called down to the valley below. Separated from the pride, the only way back was to cross the waterlogged bridge where we found ourselves stranded between two flooding rivers. She was a predatorial beauty and after narrowing her eyes, she stretched into the rain and stalked down the side of the bridge. I was now approximately one foot from a creature capable of ripping apart a wilderbeast. The last time I was this close to a lion, was a safe five foot from a High Definition television set. David Attenborough in a soothing voice says something like. ” and with the rainy season the hungry lionesses luck was about to change.”

Cue close up shot of a struggling impala with long eyelashes limping across the Serenghetti. My safari trainers and I are probably a much slower combination than the doomed antelopes from “When weak creatures die.” Or whatever the programme is called.

Suddenly, the low bars on the side of the stranded truck seemed very low indeed. She stopped next to me, my heart was now racing as she half sat and half stood next to me. My camera beeped, it was out of batteries and the chattering honeymoon couple behind me shifted to the left.I stared down at the lion, her shoulders twitched in the rain, as she stared back at me. I looked away after some time to register the look of panic on the other passengers faces as the lightening pierced the skyline. I had definitely lost the stare out and was in no hurry to reinstate it. I was convinced my eyes screamed broken down prey. The rain started to abate and after a few false starts of the engine, our driver ploughed through the flooding plains of the Masaimara. A mere three more minutes and we would have been stuck until midnight, when the rivers would start to empty and calm. We were the penultimate truck to make it back. The other truck was packed with Japanese tourists, who seemed more concerned with catching airborn diseases in one of the most pure reserves on earth; than they were about the floods and the predators that sought out prey across the plains. This was apparent, as they all had their faces covered with masks as if we were in a state of chemical warfare and not in fact in a remote and foreboding part of Kenya.

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Brace yourself for not- so- good vibrations.

There is nothing sexy about lying semi dressed on a vibrating plate surrounded by a football team. The media might have lead you to believe otherwise. I however, not looking like Eva Mendes on a good day, found myself in the most levelling of positions, in the gym yesterday. The woman at the reception, with impossibly well- arched eyebrows, told me the vibrator was included in my membership. I smiled (Being British, with no comprehension of what this meant) and secretly hoped never to have his conversation again. I soon began to have a vague comprehension, when faced with the reflecting mirrored wall of doom.

“This does not feel like exercise, but wait until tomorrow…” chirped the gym instructor. I was then asked to hold a series of utterly undignified positions. For yoga aficionados incidentally, they made the downward dog, look socially acceptable.

I am not sure I ever want to see the build up to an earthquake ,but it can’t be as terrifying as watching your entire body being shaken at break neck speed with one leg in the air, in front of a hall length mirror. Not unless you lift your eyes to the right and see that the whole of the gym has been swarmed by young men all wearing the same coloured tracksuits. Oh did I fail to mention they also train footballers here? Oh right…the hotel had failed to mention that to me, as well. Not only did the machine make an incredible amount of noise, but there was no getting away from the fact that I was lying upside down watching people do normal gym things, like use exercise bikes, pull weights or go on a cross trainer.

I however was like an experiment for a new blender, with a vibrating platform, holding aloft my five year old trainer at the end of my flexed foot. Yes, amongst the footballers and gym bunnies, not only was I short and unfit, but the instructor had decided to make me look like a freak of nature, at the same time. Incidentally, anyone endowed with an hour- glass figure should not attempt this without the structural support of the Eiffel tower. Lying with my left foot in the air (you have to change feet , to even out the embarrassment- might be something to do with the chakras…I’m not entirely sure) the rest of my body was shaken with incredible force. Imagine the mandatory photos you have taken inadvertently on roller coasters at theme parks. They capture nano -second of unflattering horror, now magnify that by half an hour, with a very public audience. I think somewhere in my public school upbringing, they would have called this character building. I was relieved when the machine finished and I could blend in with the ageing ex pats on the cross trainers. Why did the personal trainer keep having to repeat my name so loudly?

I can honestly say this was nearly as embarrassing as my worst ever teenage moment in history. I had waited what seemed like a lifetime, for the boy I venerated to sit opposite me at lunch. He did this, because there were no other spaces. I flashed him a brace constrained smile and made sure my elbows were not on the table. I ignored flipping a floured bread roll onto my kilt and struck up a conversation, as I did so, the rubber band from my tooth brace, flicked and ended up on the Shepherds Pie, on his fork. I saw it, he saw it, I ignored it ,(outwardly) he put down his cutlery. The three minutes that followed were in slow motion. If I had thought the fork sharp enough, I might have contemplated stabbing myself in the throat with the offending item of cutlery. I, in some kind of nerve related, good –looking, boy, Tourrettes manoeuvre- elbowed my cup of tea, off my tray. It was difficult to ignore the steam rising from the parquet floor. It was the unsaid in the public arena that was the cruel judge. I left the gym grateful that although I had been shaken in a most unbecoming manner, at least I hadn’t suffered any dental related blunders.

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Whats worse than a fat German in Speedos? A fat German without them!

Fitness and I have had a tempestuous relationship. I either loathe it or feel addicted to it, but mainly, I loathe it. In my attempts to rekindle the flames of passion between myself and physical fitness I have thrown myself into the relationship, with no concern for personal safety or dignity. In fact, it has very close echoes to my romantic liasons, which are frequently doomed. Still, a gym membership is less costly than a failed engagement for example, so I battle on.

Being terminally clumsy is neither cute or cooky, as portrayed by Hollywood. It is embrarssing and could end in litigation.

David, a suave young Italian that comes to pilates and circuit training was busy on the Swiss Ball doing press ups. He secretly harbours a bit of hatred for me. Being the only native English speaker in the class the instructor uses him to correctly demonstrate the more complicated excercises and he frequently has to hold positions for prolonged amounts of time.

The Swiss Ball I was given was larger than anyone else’s and my limbs are certainly shorter than my classmates. Incidentally, the classes happen in the middle of the gym, so you always have an audience. I was mid press up when Swiss Ball gate occured. Somehow the ball slipped from under my feet and my body shot to the left. I landed on David and kicked him in the head. This is not the first gym calamity that has befallen myself or my fitness buddies. I try and apologise and he gives me the look. The look that says he will never train near me again. I am quite relieved to be honest. At least we are all now on a level playing field.

After 3 hour of classes I am unable to move and hobble out to the sauna. I hang around for sometime in a towel. Then the steam clears in the sauna and I realise that the two men housed within what is effectively a hot shed with two cramped shelves are in the all together, together. I am British and a lone female. I drew the line at the naked Turkish Baths with two of my most trusted friends, when visiting Istanbul. In an amazing feat of British reserve, we all managed to have an eye locked conversation, as if we were about to take high tea. A far cry from the reality that we were about to be slung on marble plinths and have the bejesus battered out of us, by burly female massueses.  Still, they were good friends, these people were naked Germans and so I turned tail, hopping with my bruised foot, that may or may not have marked the lovely David’s face, and limp off to the female only steam room. There are after all, some English sensibilities that I hold as dear as a very large beach towel.

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Failiure of immigrants to integrate.

Some English people should never move abroad, particularly if they are from Milton Keynes. For a reason best known to themselves, people from Milton Keynes, as well as other Brits seem to want to replicate their entire social circle in the sunshine and avoid anyone native to the country they have chosen for their “new life.” This morning bore out my theory, that everyone from Milton Keynes should have their passports revoked, immediately. I met a father and daughter estate agent this morning who had moved to Spain because there were “Too many foreigners in England.”

Ok, well they didn’t actually say that in so many words, but I know its what they were thinking.

I am not keen on smarmy salesmen, I have dated a few in my time (I live in Essex for goodness sake, you cant move for second hand car dealers and insurance men.)  All of them proved themselves unequivocally to be charlatans, both in their professional and romantic lives.

The early assignation however brought forth a hybrid of tackiness: enter stage right the ex pat salesman, the uber oily and slippery perma–tanned brothel creeper wearing, xenophobe: who has nostalgia for urban British towns circa 1970 when glue sniffing was the original smack and before immigrants started milking the benefits system. At least the terrorists in those days were British, he misguidedly thinks. He doesn’t tell you that he probably never paid child maintenance to Shelly from number 42 after a drunken evening with his best friend’s wife in July 1976. He speaks approximately 4 phrases in Spanish and despite taking siestas himself, thinks the locals are lazy and untrustworthy.

Paul and I found ourselves at the mercy of such hideousness this morning. A sweet older Spanish widow came to meet us, as she was the owner of the property. She carefully showed me around the kitchen, despite my protestations that my brother normally cooks and my suppressed my innate fear of anything that involves using a whisk.

The Ex Pats talked over her as if she didn’t exist and were rude about her appearance and the fact that she walked slowly. They blamed their tardiness on the widow and made fun of her whilst she stood in front of us. My back was well and truly up.

She kindly offered me a radiator from her house and I went to collect a few extra things from her palatial home.  The stroppy daughter rolled her eyes and tried to connect with me, clearly finding the woman a foreign burden. The widow told me that her husband had died and proceeded to show me around her house, this involved looking in her cupboards and toilet. She was not selling her house, but I think she wanted the English girl to see what she was missing, by showcasing her nest egg. I took great interest in her expensive taps and commented enthusiastically on her upscale saucepan set. The English girl was becoming irritated and clearly wanted to finish for the day.

“Not so,” I thought and was delighted when the widow brought out some photographs of her old house.

My brother could not understand what she was saying, when she told me that the aviary above the kitchen contained 12 birds and she claimed that when her and her husband were at the height of intimacy that they would sing.  She burst into song like a bird and I can only imagine how unusual this looked to my brother. It had probably been quite peculiar for her husband, I mused. Paul had no idea that I was having a discussion with an ageing lady about her sex life with her deceased husband.

Miss Milton Keynes was now agitated and shaking her knee up and down and muttering about leaving. I was just getting started, asking the lady who incidentally was very charming and polite, about her life in the Spanish town.  Milton Keynes or MK as I will call her for short, was beside herself. I was beside her, BEING short. She spat some broken Spanish at the older lady and said that we had to go. My brother had gone for the car and there was a look exchanged between myself and MK, I asked the widow the history of the chandelier that hung in the Dining Room.  She was very sweet and MK was ready to beat me to death with a British manufactured hammer, by the time I had finished talking.

I promised the lady that I would look after her apartment and she asked me to wait. She went inside her house for an awfully long time and a dog was peering in the front door, which had been left ajar. I followed her in and could hear her rasping suffocating cough echo through the hallway. The birds were silent as was the whole high-ceilinged house.

“Senora, Senora?” I was starting to get a little worried.

She appeared eventually with a bag laden with fresh oranges and lemons from her garden. She continued to cough a little bit and I suggested she drink some water. I am sure in her 60 plus years she has managed to work out that drinking water is a good idea, if feeling under par. Sometimes I give some blindingly obvious advice.

100 Euros more than we had expected and with a cash payment to the Emperor of Ex Pats, we had the keys. After a gruelling journey it was exciting to have somewhere to put our bags and call home, if only for a month.

I have a feeling our elderly landlady will be popping by, fairly soon. We have bought a box of chocolates and strong coffee in readiness for what may be a lengthy but entertaining visit.

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Paved with good intentions.

When you are aged 34 and 29 at the weekends, it is a massive compliment to be called a senorita. I lapped up all adoration of perceived youth from the men in the lobby. Ok, so they were all over the age of 60, drunk, had rifles and no hunting trophies or any evidence of dead animals, but who cares, to them I was young. I was finishing my Wifi credit in the lobby and was shocked to realize that my newly acquired drunken companions, would not be locking their rifles in an approved cabinet.

Singing what I can only imagine were Cataluniyan hunting songs, they disappeared for the rest of the night, stumbling into the lift which was nearly as old as its passengers. It was only early, at 10.30 p.m; after all, I was only just stepping out for dinner.

Dining alone had taken a turn for the worse. Not only did it mark me out as a social pariah, but also available to any man who was from the Sub Sahara. I once travelled through the Sahara and was a massive fan of bright stars in the desert free of light pollution and completely still. I am not a massive fan of anyone interrupting my dining time, alone or otherwise.

Whilst I fended off the interests of a man whom I could not understand whatsoever; my brother was still in the back of the 4 by 4. Unbeknown to me he was reading in the truck, with some Hungarian wine and a huge pile of laundry. A large blue van pulled in and one of the three men approached the vehicle. In the darkness, he could see no passengers in the front and started move towards the tyre slashed 4 by 4. Paul peered out into the darkness, with his headlamp on, dazzling the wood- be thieves with the powerful petzel light. A veritable Cyclops in the van, the robbers had not banked on a large skin head with a headlight to rise up from his unlaundered makeshift bed. Quick as a flash, they got back in the vehicle and disappeared into the night.

Meanwhile, I was scouring the town for garages phone numbers to try and get the unlocking nut for the Landrover. Well done Landrover, after the unlocking tool was broken, you have made the vehicle a sitting duck. In Hungary, a blacked out 4 by 4 strikes terror into the populace; in Spain it attracts thieves. Unable to get the wheel lock off, Paul remained  sitting duck-like in the Discovery.
He was philosophical about it and recounted the time when he had to sleep in a swamp. The 4 by 4 was taking on some very swamp like qualities and one waft of the door might have seen the robbers off, in any case.

Morning crept up, like 3 men in a blue van, silent and full of hope! Not having a phone with the correct time poses problems, so I slept with the curtains open; half expecting to hear a rifle being accidentally discharged on the floor below, by one of the drunken old duffers, from the night before.

It was time to harness the dramatic skills of the pathos- laden cab driver. He met me at the garage. He launched into his act, using the grubby mechanics office as his stage. His lively hands conveyed the story of a poor man gripped by the cold, a victim of thieves and a tale of hunger and woe. His refusal to be interrupted
amused me greatly. It would seem however, that despite backing up the tragedy with a charm offensive, of note-that the mechanic did not have the part to unlock the stationary wheel.

With my best damsel in distress voice ( fragile and confused) I implored him to help me, holding his gaze for too long, I came off as a bit derranged. The upshot was that we all arrived at the side of the motorway ( including the cab driver who stayed for hours, to watch the drama unfold). In a very unorthodox fashion, the fresh faced young business owner, unscrewed the nut from his own car and used it, as well as a welder, to release the wheel. Of course ,I am an expert on welding, having seen Flashdance a few times too many. I personally felt he had not let the vehicle nut cool for long enough before trying to remove it and hence it broke. I figured this out whilst imagining him somersaulting across the car park in some kind of leotard affair.

Eventually we were back in the road. The car was moving, the taxi driver finally and sadly parted with our joyful company . We then waited a further 4 hours for a spare tyre, as of course, all mechanics need a four hour lunch break. The garage bill was hefty and I tried to memorise the meal from the night before; suspecting that might be the closest I got to a hot meal for sometime.

The news that one of Paul’s sponsors had paid him came as a huge relief. I had spent the last of my money on a pay -as- you (don’t)  go Spanish phone, with a falsified address and no way of operating it.

We drove into the region of Valencia, the Foo Fighters belting out of the stereo as we pulled into Oliva. I had got over my “survivors guilt” of having slept in the two star hotel whilst my brother bedded down in a freezing van. We headed for the luxury of a 5 star hotel. The Gods were smiling as we asked for single rooms in the empty hotel and I was delighted to discover that my room was in fact a double suite. I dragged my body to the bath and sunk into the marble carved bathroom in a haze of utter joy.

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