Fresh from Cuba-

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We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!

 

 

 

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Trolling Through Norway

I can’t recall the last time I visited a European country for the first time. [I say ‘European’ advisedly, owing to the fact that ‘Europe’ has come to mean a variety of things in these times; but here I’m using the word in the old, traditional sense-that of the collection of countries immediately surrounding our own, squidgy little UK.]

I have not ventured much into Scandinavia, except four or so years ago to Denmark, so this expedition to Norway is a new departure. I love to see new places. I want to know what grows, what people do, what their homes are like, what they like to eat and how they fill their leisure time. Here are some conclusions I’ve made about Norway so far:

  • The country consists almost entirely of rock, water and trees-with a bit of farmland and a few cities thrown in.
  • Owing to these constituents it is an obscenely beautiful place-that is for fans of snow-capped mountains, vast lakes, cascading waterfalls and gushing rivers. If your preference is for deserts, shopping arcades and uniform rows of parasol-clad beaches I suggest it is not for you. Go to Dubai instead.
  • The weather is a little capricious. It is capable of warm sunshine although this cannot be guaranteed. You might say the changing weather patterns are part of its charm.
  • In order to get anywhere by road you have to accept that tunnels and ferries are a huge part of the deal. There are nearly 1000 road tunnels and more than 100 ferry crossings plus numerous bridges. Some of the tunnels are spectacular in themselves, housing junctions and in one we encountered a fully-blown roundabout, all lit up in blue like a spaceship.
  • Pizza and hot dogs are ubiquitous and popular offerings getting an enthusiastic take-up by travellers and locals alike. This was told to me before departure by my friend Anne-Marit and she was not wrong! We have not ventured into any restaurants due to my next observation, that…
  • Food prices, while not as expensive as we had feared are dear, as is alcohol. Norwegians are bound by strict rules regarding booze. Fresh food items such as vegetables and meat cost the most but staples like bread are not so prohibitive.
  • Living roofs are everywhere-green swards peppered with wild flowers covering every building from barns to homes to bus shelters to public toilets to mail boxes-often entire communities sporting them-everywhere as are…
  • Trolls-probably too many, to be honest-

What else? There is a good deal of graffiti in the cities-but very little in the way of advertising hoardings-nothing along the roadsides or in fields. Most homes are constructed in wood [of course] and many are self-builds. There is a glorious profusion of wild flowers which includes lupins [at least-now in summer!] and the clover, in particular is enormous. Everyone speaks fluent English –and all are pleasant and welcoming! What’s not to love?

Odious ads and Radio Balm

                I always consider we are lucky, here in the UK, to have a commercial free broadcaster. Yes, I know that the BBC has had to take some stick for transgressions lately, both current and historic, -but during periods of travel, when we have had to digest news alongside adverts, I’ve found the TV almost impossible to watch. You get one, aggressively hyper story, delivered in a full-on, excitable manner, followed by what seems like half an hour of fragrant persuasion on the subject of Durex condoms or haemorrhoid cream. The adverts are always much louder than the programme itself, which to me is a most annoying, cynical and patronising ruse.

                Though I seldom watch commercial channels, when I do I am able to appreciate the artistry, irony or wit of the entertaining advert. Many, such as the Cadbury’s Smash ads for instant mashed potato in the 70s, or the Guinness ads of the 90s belong to a kind of commercials ‘hall of fame’. Many, like the Meerkats ‘Simples’ begin by being entertaining and become increasingly tiresome as time goes by.

                One thing I find hard to understand is how advertising can possibly work. I cannot think of one single commodity that I’ve bought as a result of watching a TV commercial. I can see how children become ensnared by their wiles, but fully functioning adults should be able to resist, surely? Or are we all prey to some underlying, subconscious thread that works away when we are unaware or asleep?

                Then there are all the annoying, animated ads that dot the screen when we’re attempting to undertake a serious Scrabble move, share what we are cooking for dinner on FB, look at a news website, forward a funny email or put in a bid on Ebay. They are there, flickering and buzzing away off to the side or on top. Sometimes a little delicate scrolling can put them out of sight, or there is a chance to ‘hide’ them, but mostly they continue to blemish the screen. Heaven knows what any of them are for-I certainly don’t look and I don’t know anyone who does.

                Most of all I’m a fan of talk radio. I can get my regular dose of a ‘soap’, news updates, documentaries, comedy, comment and debate, magazine programmes, consumer programmes, quality plays and literature without any kind of interruption from anyone trying to sell me anything. And all of this can be delivered while I’m occupied, undertaking the sort of menial tasks that might otherwise be quite tedious, such as ironing, washing the floor or peeling potatoes. The visual image, I feel is overrated, just as books, for me are generally superior to their film versions. I expect it’s a generational thing, setting me, as usual, amongst the dinosaurs of the world!

Who do they think we are?

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                Whilst only eight percent of the world’s population uses Facebook, apparently more than half of people in the UK are users. For such a large number of subscribers, it sure does elicit a lot of complaints. Hardly a day goes by without someone posting an angst-ridden message about breaches of privacy or dire warnings of the intimate photos of yourself you posted from a Costa Brava nightclub when you participated in a wet T-shirt competition getting sold on to cynical bra manufacturers’ websites.

                As a digital dinosaur, it did take me some time to work out the privacy settings; also to figure out that I could ‘switch off’ the deluge of spam that showered down upon my page like effluent after ‘liking’ something [in order to get the proverbial, ‘too-good-to-be-true’ offer for something I do not want].

                Then there are the adverts. Manufacturers and companies allegedly use your search history to target their adverts at you, supposedly knowing you better than you know yourself! You would expect, then that the ads down the right hand side of your homepage would be for the very things you know you want and need.

                In the interests of research I have conducted a minor and extremely unscientific study on the subject of my personal ads, to find out exactly what I am like, according to the advertisers. I found the results hilarious.

1. I am a crisp eater.

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The last time I bought crisps, other than those posh ones you buy for pre-dinner for guests, was when my children took packed lunches to school; about fifteen years ago-ish.

2. I am a pet owner.

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About twenty years ago I was reluctantly persuaded by my then small daughter to get a hamster. It was vicious, slept all day, then ran away underneath the boiler and got burned [which did nothing to soften its character]. Much as I like other people’s animals I am not, nor have I ever been tempted to own one.

3.I am a teacher.

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No. I used to be a teacher.

4. I wear this sort of shoe [what and teach?]

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Stilletto wearing is not an activity I’ve mastered, much to my husband’s disappointment. Wellington boots, hiking shoes, trainers and trail sandals are more my style, [although I’ll cope with a low wedge if I have to do a wedding].

5. My holidays of choice are cruises.

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Now this is something they’ve got badly wrong. I have never at any time made any kind of overtures towards cruise companies. The thought of willingly becoming incarcerated in a floating prison with fellow inmates I have not selected, getting stuffed full of food and having to watch glitter-clad cabaret entertainers has never appealed. We holiday in a tiny camper van. Bliss!

6. I am a Bingo player.

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Bingo?

 

7. I wish to make a claim for mis-sold PPI.

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No, no, no, no, no. how many more times? No!

8. I am on the way out.

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They have one bit correct. But a funeral is not, actually on my list of activities to do in retirement. Do they know something I don’t, perhaps?

There are more; ‘grandchildren’s clothing’, ‘cutting belly fat’, ‘betting’,’skiing’, ‘wrinkly eyes’. But in a way, I do find it oddly reassuring that they’ve got it all so wrong. How much more spooky and disquieting it would be if they pushed the things I really do want. What are they? Not telling!