Consumer Conundrums

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It all started so well. When the parcel containing my new, cotton and linen mesh produce bags arrived I was thrilled with them; a set of six assorted sizes with drawstrings, that I would be able to use for loose vegetables and/or fruit in the supermarket. The bags even came in their own, cute and beautiful bag!

Armed with these and my usual eclectic mix of shopping bags-for-life from an assortment of supermarkets in various countries I set off to Tesco, which serves our grocery needs on a weekly basis.

Taking my usual route through the store I come to vegetables first. I ignore the pre-wrapped, bagged and boxed veg to head for the loose items. I can select broccoli, leeks, onions, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Very good. I choose broccoli, carrots and potatoes, although the loose new potatoes, partially concealed behind a mountain of slickly and thickly bagged ‘Charlotte’ ones are somewhat beaten up and greenish. I do my best. Then I move on to the remainder of the shopping.

This is an eye-opener. We are hosting a BBQ and I want burgers, sausages, mushrooms, salad, tomato sauce and desert, besides the usual household stuff such as cleaning materials. It transpires that not one single item is plastic-free. The cucumber and the lettuce are vacuum wrapped, the burgers and sausages are in black plastic trays with plastic over the top, the sauce in a plastic bottle, the desert in a cardboard box [good] with a plastic window [bad]. The mushrooms are also plastic boxed, as is the sweet corn.

I wend my way to the checkout, where I explain to the kindly, smiling woman behind the counter that I have my vegetable bags and I hope this is ok. She continues to smile as she proceeds to empty the vegetables out of their bags for weighing and I beg her to stop! The bags weigh next to nothing and are mesh, for the contents to be visible. She is still smiling. ‘You’ve saved six bags’ she says, and I tell her that all I’ve learned is that everything is encased in plastic and we, the customers are impotent to solve the problem.

The interest of a young man working at the next-door checkout is aroused and I explain that a plastic-free shop is impossible here. ‘It’s the suppliers’ he tells me.

As I wheel my plastic filled trolley out to the car park I’m thinking this problem is bigger than all of us. Maybe you have a lovely, shiny ‘eco-shop’ in your neighbourhood where you can take your bags and containers and buy your [undoubtedly very expensive] groceries. We don’t. Our nearest refill, plastic-free store is in Dorchester, 34.2 miles away. We have supermarkets. Not everyone has access to fill-your-own shops. And not everyone can afford to shop in one.

In time, perhaps supermarket Waitrose, a five minute walk away will roll out their refill project in all their stores. Until then I can only do my best to reduce our plastic-wrapped purchases.

So I saved six bags.

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Diary of a Consort

stillettos

Wincing, she sinks down into the pink, upholstered couch in her suite, reaches down to ease off the shiny, nude Christian Louboutin shoe with its killer four inch heel. The skin underneath has inflated into a padded blister. She sighs. At least there will be some familiar faces at this evening’s banquet.

This afternoon was a crushing bore of traipsing around, taking tea. Tea! Who likes fucking tea? Everyone knows Americans drink coffee! And she was expected to have some kind of orgasm over the tea set she was given. A tea set! Apparently it’s been made by some fancy British designer she’s never heard of. Oh yes-she went through the motions, said ‘wonderful’, claimed to know this Bridgwater person’s work. She rubs her foot. It might  make a Christmas gift for one of the staff, she supposes.

Then she’d had to trail after Don Fatso while he looked at golf trophies and had to pretend to be interested. As if! She’d have liked to have walked into Harrod’s store or to have sat in the front row at a catwalk show, or to have spent the afternoon in the spa, but no-she’d had to look at golf trophies.

No-there is still more than a week of this interminable tour before they can go home; more boring tea parties, banquets, politicians and their frumpy wives and husbands. More tedious hand-shaking, small talk, having to be entertained while he has his meetings, does his interviews, makes more embarrassing remarks.

She rises and limps to the dressing room, where rails of designer gowns swathed in dust covers jostle and shimmer, sighing as she runs her hands over the luxurious fabrics, pulling a sequinned bodice across her chest, remembering the last American wife who visited the palace and wore a cardigan. A cardigan!

Of course she’s made her own errors, like having her hair loose and wearing a floaty scarf for their arrival at that tiny, scabby airport, where she’d had to walk across the tarmac with hair and scarf across her face and then, to top it all he had to grab her hand again, like the last time and he knows how much she hates it; so at least the breeze gave her an excuse to brush his hand away and it looked like she was holding her hair back. Whenever she clicks the giant screen on there it is again-her image, her hair blown across her face, the silk scarf whipping sideways like a garrotte.

A glossy pink nail has chipped and she clucks in annoyance. Soon it will be time to ring through for a bath to be run, for the beautician to start her make-up, for the stylist to create the casual sweep of her hair, for the dresser to attend.

He’s in one of his moods this evening; pissed because he didn’t get to line up with Prince Harry and that bitch, Meghan! And not the other two, not William and Kate, either. She’s glad, though. It meant that there was no competition in the style stakes, not Kate’s skinny, model-like body, not Meghan’s dusky beauty, not either of their dewy, youthful looks. She peers into the mirror. Her own procedures have stood up pretty well to the travel and the late hours- with a little help from the beautician of course and that old hag, Camilla is no contest.

Not much more of this. Soon they’ll be back in The White House and she can go back to choosing the flowers and getting her summer wardrobe together. With luck he will be too tired and too busy to make any demands and maybe she should think about having her face re-lifted? That should string things out for a while. He can always buy some women in. She smiles into the mirror-as much as her lips will stretch…

 

 

Second Time Around

You know that adage about clouds and silver linings?

One side effect of rain and of confining illness is productivity.

I have been sporadically working on ‘that difficult second novel’ for several years, blocked at times, stuck at times, making excuses, indulging in displacement activity and generally procrastinating. I have taken the almost finished first draft away with me more times than I’ve cared to admit.

When I finished writing the first novel, ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’

I experienced a euphoria. I had written a book, and not just any book, but one that had rattled around in my head for years, niggling away at the edges of consciousness and invading my dreams. The euphoria that accompanies the completion of a novel lasts until the first rejection letter/email appears, or at the first, coldly polite ‘You’ve written a book? Well done!’ from friends and family.

The finishing of a second novel is tempered by your experience of how your first has been received. There is a satisfaction at having got to the end. There is a wry anticipation of the huge mountain to climb that is editing. There is a reluctance, this time, to confess to having produced another tome.

But alongside all this doubt there is a satisfaction and a steely, stubborn streak of determination to have another go. To this end I’ve bought a new copy of this:

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Which must be the first, actual, real, paper copy of a book I’ve bought for a number of years [since becoming a Kindle convert]. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has to be a paper copy in order for scribbling, highlighting, asterisking and tearing out of pages to be undertaken.

When I dip into this writer’s Bible I note that some articles remain from my last copy, as do many of the agents and publishers whose stinging rejections I was handed last time. But there are new, useful chapters. For starters, I’ve learned that my new novel’s genre is known as ‘speculative fiction’. This is useful because I’ve been thinking of it either as science fiction-a genre that appears to be reviled by many agents, judging by their preferences, or as an ‘eco-thriller’; this being a term invented purely by the writer [ie myself] and thus unlikely to score any pints with the publishing business.

Speculative fiction is a genre I’ve been reading for some years, including such novels as the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, several books by Barbara Kingsolver such as ‘Flight Behaviour’ and most recently, John Lanchester’s ‘The Wall’. ‘The Wall’ is a chilling forecast of what could occur in the not-too-distant future if we in the UK continue to pursue current paths and neglect issues like climate change. When I read examples of speculative fiction I am both encouraged by the ideas-some of which are addressed in my own work, and dismayed at how much better written their novels are.

So it’s back to The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, with my highlighter pen in hand. Because you never know…

Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

The Rain Across the Spanish Plain

Sometimes exploring an area in depth can make you realise how woefully ignorant you are, that there are so many world heritage status places you’ve never heard of-or at least-that I’ve never heard of.

Portugal’s Evora is one of these.

We took a couple of days’ beach break, just down the coast from Lisbon, at Caparica, where Lisbon-dwellers come at weekends for sea and sand but precious little else, Caparica being Lisbon’s equivalent of Southend on Sea. On the camp site you could have been fooled into thinking it was snowing, if the temperature hadn’t been 28 degrees, so much fluffy seed was blowing, blizzard-like across the site and settling, ankle deep on the ground or in heaps of white fluff inside the van.

Next, Evora.

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This walled medieval town is a pristine vision in white and ochre, packed full of whitewashed churches, monasteries, ancient university buildings and a wonderful, 15th century aqueduct which begins low, at the top of the town and lengthens as it descends. Homes have been made between the arches:

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The town is quiet, the gift shops awash with knick-knacks, but few buyers. I take pity and buy a small, red, cockerel embellished wine cork for a gift. There are a few other tourists. Did they, like us, stumble upon Evora? Or did they research it at home and make a special pilgrimage here?

For reasons that can best be described here

we need to turn towards the north and make our journey home. As yet it isn’t urgent but I’m aware that it may become so. We set off towards the Spanish border and Badajoz, which we’ve passed by on occasions but have been told is worth a visit.

The weather, never reliably sunny this trip turns overcast once more, but the journey is beautiful-rolling hills and vast cattle ranches, the road quiet and peaceful and we arrive at lunchtime.

The aire at Badajoz is brilliant; easy to locate, a convenient situation just across the River Douro from the town and services all provided free. Little wonder it fills with vans by the evening. We wander across the attractive footbridge, through the gate of the city wall and across towards the ‘Alcabaz’, the citadel which dominates the town from a high vantage point above the town. By this time it is raining and with an afternoon to spend we fritter some of it in a cavernous bodega.

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A return to Spain means a return to tapas, a variety of tasty snacks offered with every drink. Though we’ve lunched it seems rude not to stay and enjoy the fare-and it is raining outside the bar. Badajoz’s cloistered square is beautiful.

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Zipped into raincoats we brave the rain to stroll around the domineering Alcabaz, then it’s back to the aire, where some local residents whose house adjoins it have decided to share their music with us. Freddie Mercury’s vocals are blasted for an hour or two, but since I’m not averse to a bit of Queen myself I think it could be a lot worse…

Next day it’s on to Valladolid, where we make several circuits of the one way system before locating the motorhome parking bays. It’s a quick stopover and our sincere apologies to the parking authority for our inability to pay the 9.50 euros fee, but having managed to retrieve my bank card from the machine when it was stuck I didn’t feel up to giving it a second go!

Onwards and upwards…

 

 

 

 

Turning Portuguese

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The first time we visited Portugal was with a tent, a giant, swish ‘pyramid’ tent that we’d borrowed from Husband’s colleague. I had to crawl in and hold the central pole, getting hot and sweaty while Husband hammered the pegs in outside. On a site at Ancora [north Portugal] where an interested neighbour ‘advised’ us on where to have our doorway, we pitched under some sap-dropping trees that stained said tent for ever, resulting in our having to buy the colleague a brand new pyramid tent when we returned. [We’d also torn the fabric attempting to dry it out in a French motorway services car park].

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This was also the trip when we visited Porto by train from Viano do Costelo, buying return tickets and discovered on our return to the station to get back, that the train ‘does not return from here’. We had a wonderful, dockside meal and returned on a ‘milk’ train, from a different station at about 2am.

During this and subsequent visits, with various vans we’ve done the major must-sees of Portugal: Porto, Lisbon, Guimares, Coimbra, Sagres, Faro-

Mostly we’ve found the west coast to be more pleasant and less developed than the Algarve, but there are exceptions.

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Portugal, like Greece is one of those countries that never fails, with luscious countryside, beautiful historic cities, reliable, warm weather, delicious food [including the famous ‘pastel de nata’ custard pies], a gorgeous coast line and friendly people.

We find Lisbon much changed, with the addition of hideous cruise ships blocking views and throngs of tourists everywhere. Our previous visit was quiet and we were able to stroll the narrow lanes without stepping around selfie-takers. To anyone intending to visit Lisbon and considering an open top bus tour I’d say, ‘Don’t!’ You pay 11 euros to inch along for hours in stifling traffic, a woman wailing Fado songs in your ears. You get to see very little and anything of interest is zipped past or around before you’ve got your finger on your camera shutter.

I can get no purchase on the Portuguese language whatsoever. Spoken, it sounds eastern European with lots of sch, z and cz. Written, it looks remarkably like Spanish and meaning can often be deduced. We know we must take care not to speak Spanish to the Portuguese in spite of so many words being similar, nevertheless Husband is inclined to say ‘gracias’ instead of ‘obrigado/a’ for the first few days. My own knowledge of Portuguese is restricted to ‘obrigado/a’, ‘Bom dia’ and ‘ola’ so it is fortunate that almost everyone here speaks English very well indeed.

The Portuguese are fond of tiling the outside of their homes, which can look beautiful or tawdry; railway stations, hotels, churches-no building is safe from this treatment.

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And neither are the bone-shaking, tooth-grating streets, which are tiled in cobbles.

The Portuguese countryside is strewn with cork oak trees, the cork continues to be harvested and goods such as cork handbags can be seen in the shops. Perhaps the backlash against plastic will see a resurgence of the cork industry? It does seem to be a versatile material with useful properties: lightweight, water repellent, attractive.

In recent years, wildfires have decimated much of Portugal’s forests and evidence of this is everywhere.

Orange and lemon trees abound, in gardens, parks and along the streets. They are all hung with tons of fruit which nobody seems bothered to pick, the ground around the trees littered with fruit just as the plums lie fallow in Gloucestershire.

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Before using the [very quiet] motorways you must register your bank card and attempt to forecast how much toll you will be using, which is tricky. Otherwise you can register at the first ‘portagem’ [toll booths] but then you’ll have no clue as to what is being deducted.

We’ll soon be leaving Portugal and crossing back to Spain-but I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be back!

 

Santiago de Compostela-for Philistines.

Travel along Spain’s north coast and you will be guaranteed stupendous views, beautiful beaches and the sight of a great many ‘pilgrims’ trudging along the Camino de Santiago, following thousand upon thousands of sunburst signs as they make their way towards their Mecca, Santiago de Compostela.

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In true martyr-ish style, wholly in line with Catholic traditions, this Easter’s weather helps them on their way by being utterly appalling. This part of Spain is renowned for wet weather but this year’s exceeds all expectations. The entire country is deluged with torrential downpours while the UK basks in unusual warm sunshine.

Groups of walkers line our route, clad in voluminous, dripping capes that cover them and their rucksacks, giving them the appearance of soggy, deformed camels. Many have walking sticks and a fair number use Nordic walking poles. Is this a true dedication to the cause of suffering, I wonder?

The pilgrims come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and ages; entire families with children, pairs of young girls, single people. Many meet up along the way and travel together, like the two young American girls with a short Portuguese man we met on one of our [non pilgrim] walks. Some look grimly determined, some chat as they walk, others sport beatific smiles as though already transported by their ordeal.

The nearer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrims there are, waiting at crossings, standing on corners, munching things, looking at phones.

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We’ve waited until Easter is over to visit Santiago and arrive on the Tuesday after, thinking it will be less fraught to negotiate the traffic, but we are still caught out by a parade of some kind and must effect a slow crawl through the narrow streets to find the camper-stop, which is situated up above the city-at least we can’t be flooded out. It is well organised and well used, a manned entrance cabin, tickets, a useful city map, water and emptying supplied.

Since there is no sign-from any source-that the rain is going to abate we don raincoats, grab umbrellas and run for the city centre bus, which takes us down into the heart of what is a beautiful, elegant place, wet or not.

Santiago seems designed for rain, cloistered walkways abound and there is no shortage of drains, into which rainwater gushes or tips from rooftop spouts. Crowds accumulate in the worst showers, huddling in doorways or squeezing into tiny shops selling religious icons and souvenirs.

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We are spoilt for choice for our naff shelf collection [read here].

At last we seek refuge from the showers in the cathedral museum, where I am clucked at for photographing. The art works are fascinating and also slightly bonkers, as religious art can be. The topmost floor is open to the elements with rooms off, containing cases of bejewelled, silver or gold crosses and paraphernalia in abundance-a demonstration of the wealth of the Catholic church.

Another set of rooms has wonderful, wall-sized Belgian tapestries depicting country scenes of people carousing at Inns. The detail is worth studying-drinkers at tables, dogs stealing food, babies being fed, a man peeing up against a wall-all most un-ecclesiastical.

When we tire of the relentless deluge we get the bus back to our warm and cosy van.

Next day there is a lull in the rain, long enough for servicing the van, then we’re off to brighter skies, drier roads and a quieter time-and Portugal!

It’s not so far. We stop for lunch on a small quay by the River Minho, choppy waves in the stiff breeze.

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Onwards to Vila Cha, the latter stages of the journey corrugated by cobbled roads. After a series of winding lanes we reach our chosen site, but as we approach we realise-of course! We’ve stayed here before. This is not bad news-the excellent restaurant opposite the entrance is still thriving!