Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Oh The Joys of Sicilian Public Transport…

Taorminha. Sicily’s tourist jewel; the magnet for package holiday visitors and justifiably so, perched high on cliffs, the many levels of buildings clinging like limpets in precarious view of the azure sea and topped by the Greco-Roman amphitheatre with its outstanding panorama of Mount Etna.

We shouldn’t miss Taorminha. Having settled into our ramshackle site overlooking a black beach at the edge of the small seaside town of San Alesso Sicula we investigated transport options. Driving up the almost sheer cliff face was out of the question but buses made regular trips and a timetable was posted at reception.  We strolled out into the modest little town and stopped for a seafront beer then found the bus ‘fermata’ ready for tomorrow.

The bus came, and on time. There were some moments of anxiety as it appeared to go in the opposite direction but then it turned in towards our goal, along the autostrada the finally up a series of hairpin bends, up and up into the town, where the driver reassured us that we should wait, later for the return bus. So far so good.

Even now, in April the historic streets were thronged with tourists, the bars and gelaterias doing thriving business. The theatre and its views are worth the hype. The lackadaisical service at the famous ‘Wunderbar’ was not. We gave up waiting and got a drink at the modest bar by the bus stop. Then we waited. And watched the battered, scraped, stove-in and dented vehicles lurching by. And waited.

‘He’s just late’ suggested Husband, ‘It’s the traffic’.

Less sanguine, I nipped into the information booth and learned that the return stop had been changed that afternoon and was now the bus station, many levels down. It had left. The next bus was at 19.40pm. Wonderful.

We got an overpriced and mediocre meal before trudging down to the bus depot to wait. The sun was gone, the evening cooling. Buses came and went with shrugging drivers. At last, cold and disillusioned we returned to the information booth to be told the bus driver, who’d evidently chosen to go home for dinner rather than do his last run, would come back for us at 21.30pm. Unable to face the inhospitable bus station once more we climbed into a taxi. This is Sicily.

We left San Alesso to meander along the south coast towards Mount Etna and a site that boasted an uninterrupted view of this, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. There among a strip of unedifying bars, guest houses and hotels with bizarre South American influenced names-‘Ipanema’, ‘Mokambo’-we found our site. Clearly Sicilians feel there is no advantage in capitalising on proximity to another tourist magnet. There was no ‘Etna Bar’, ‘Lava Lounge’ or ‘Eruptions Night Club’. The site was modest but clean and adequate, with precious few visitors for such a prestigious position. Etna’s head lay still shrouded in clouds but remained an impressive sight, towering above the coast with snow clad slopes.

Next morning, however we were treated to a clear, unsullied view of the entire volcano and its vast crater. Result!

Going South

While it is fair to say I’m less confident at driving the van than I was I don’t expect Husband to undertake all the driving. On a trip like this it would be tricky to do the distance. So I take a turn to give him a break.

We leave Venice and turn south on the coast road towards Rimini and Ancona. The journey is without incident and a little slow due to the 50kmh limit almost all the way. I am happy enough driving through the built up area where I cannot overtake and cannot be overtaken. At the end of the long day we arrive at a coastal site south of Ancona where a handful of motorhomes have also stopped. The site opened a few days before but is clearly not ready to receive visitors, the bathrooms strewn with electrical cables and tins of paint, the sound of sawing and the to-iing and fro-ing of the workmen as they labour.

At reception I am told to return in half an hour, even though the vast expanse of site is so sparsely occupied as to be almost empty. At last we are supplied with a shower key for a slot to provide hot water, the delivery of which lasts all of 2 minutes-enough time to work shampoo up to a lather and little else…

Of the numerous toilets, only one is able to be sat on, the remaining cubicles being the archaic, squatty type. Half of these are filled to the brim with excrement. We are not impressed!

Next day I take first turn, assured by Husband that we’ll do autostrada; that we can ‘just drive’ and it will be easy. I turn on to the motorway, settling behind a lorry until I feel confident enough to overtake. It is a large tanker. Seeing a space, I pull out into the middle and begin to pass-just at the sign for a lane closure, the tanker’s lane. Horrors! The lorry driver makes his predictable, terrifying move as I am part-way past, indicating and lurching sideways in a bid to bully us in. By now I’m hyperventilating, yelping. Husband urges me to put my foot down and go, which I do…then I am past and I can swing back in, gasping in relief. A few moments later, as we limp along behind the next lorry the tanker driver regains his advantage, displaying his superiority from his testosterone filled cab and I let him go. That’s enough near-death experiences for one day.

Later we leave the motorway to climb into the mountains of Abruzzo and stop at Opi to be greeted by the owner speaking American English in a beautiful, remote site surrounded by towering peaks and woods supposedly occupied by bears and wolves. Across the field there is a lone, Dutch motor-home but the couple are enjoying their solitude. After dinner we sit by a huge wood burner in the empty restaurant, share a local brew of beer and chat to the owner’s daughter, recently returned from Boston.

In the cold night I fancy I hear wolves baying. The friendly site dog is sitting outside in the sunshine waiting to greet us next morning and as I wander up the lane to supply the fluffy donkey with a carrot a troupe of little pigs and a gaggle of white ducks come running up.

Then we are off again, heading down off the Appenines and away to the west to skirt Naples-I am adamant this time that I will not drive on the motorway. But we are to encounter far worse driving related incidents as we progress south.

At last we are over at the opposite coast, The Mediterranean, at Paestum and we settle down for a couple of nights by a beach under the shade of some eucalyptus trees with a handful of German, Swiss and Austrian neighbours soaking up the warm sunshine.

[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

Good News, Bad News

January is a bleak month in the northern hemisphere, even in the most optimistic of times. But add in the various crises and daily, grim news bulletins and it becomes a cold drizzle of misery. The good news is that, like all time, it passes. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ and similar clichés are reminders.

Remember that old game, ‘The Good News, The Bad News’? Well here it is:

The Bad News

Inflation is rising faster than we in the UK imagined, everyone is going to have to work until they’re eighty six and the pound is floundering against just about every currency except Malawi. This is due to a misguided belief by tabloid readers and fans of the ghastly Michael Gove and Boris Johnson that we have somehow ‘reclaimed’ our sceptred isle.

The Good News

                Holidays in the UK might be better value than exotic climes. If you enjoy British cuisine, wet, windswept seaside resorts, austere B&Bs and gift shops selling red telephone box fridge magnets you’ll be laughing.

The Bad News

                A corrupt, racist, misogynistic sex abuser has been chosen to be the most powerful leader in the world.

The Good News

                The possibilities for the arts are endless. Satirical comedy, music, cartoon and parody can know no bounds. The only drawback is that now, before January has ended and the ‘president elect’ has barely been sworn in most of us are sick to the back teeth of hearing about him.

The Bad News

                Here in the UK our treasured National Health Service is beginning to cave in under the pressure of lack of funds and personnel and weight of sick people. The NHS could function SO much better without all the sick people. Most of them are elderly. The population of elderly is growing, further compounding the NHS difficulties.

The Good News

                Most sick, old people turning up at hospitals right now are lining the corridors on trolleys. There are many benefits to this. For one thing, there are enough of them to form little communities, thus solving the problem of old-age loneliness. They’ll no doubt be enjoying a rousing sing-song even as I write and forming lasting [albeit short-lived] friendships. Another benefit is that some of them, whilst either waiting for attention or having heart attacks from all the community singing will croak, conveniently freeing up a trolley space for another old bid.

The Bad News

                Owing to unseasonable, inclement weather in the southerly parts of Europe courgettes are in short supply. Spain, which is a major supplier of these vegetables is experiencing freezing temperatures and snow, affecting their development. It’s terrible news for the ‘clean eating’ brigade and those who seek to replace pasta with courgette ribbons. What on earth will they do?

The Good News

                Courgettes are useless, tasteless, pointless little objects and only palatable when sautéed in butter as an accompaniment to fish. I recommend replacing them with lovely, creamy pasta or incorporating them into something in which the other components have some flavour. Save yourself the trouble of searching for them!

Roll on February!

               

               

               

Living in a Cultural Desert

The time has come to finally accept that summer is now over for this year. We managed to extend it by a month or so by nipping off to warmer climes, but even there autumn is nudging in. I tend to go through a period of mourning at this time-not being a fan of winter, the cold or the dark. We also have to turn our attention to all the outstanding chores that are necessary when one takes up residence in a new abode-a list that is lengthening as I write.

In our absence an invasion of a miniature sort has taken place in that the outside and all its mini creatures has invaded the space. Chez nous has become spider haven, with a spindly arachnid lurking in every conceivable corner. Going to the study to get a pen [with which to redirect a pile of wrongly addressed mail-some of which had already been redirected here] I made the mistake of reaching out only to find I was plunged into an Alien-like scenario, my hand ensnared in a gargantuan, cloying candy floss of gossamer. Ugh!

Outside, much of the stalwart inroads that had been made before departure in taming the rampant ivy, brambles and unwanted interlopers is now rendered inadequate by their enthusiastic return. October is the month I’ve allocated for planting the climbers I’d brought with me when we moved so time is of the essence. Accordingly I’ve now crippled my back and various other parts with a marathon session of planting. Re-acquainting myself with the garden has only served to demonstrate how much work there is to do in it.

This is also the time when I turn my attention to cultural life and begin to cast around for entertainment to fill long, dark evenings. Those who’ve read these scribblings before will know how much I abhor musical ‘shows’ and how much I love a good play. Here in the provinces, however we are not well served. My own small, local theatre has a programme of events that includes a few broadcast screenings but is dominated by tribute acts, mediocre musical soirees and the odd has-been. The venue is run by volunteers, is a cosy and welcoming space with an art deco façade. It should be a magnetic powerhouse of activity.

A little further afield, in the seafront, tourist metropolis only a bus ride away there are two large concert venues, both touting…yes, tribute acts, has-beens and performers I’ve never heard of. There is nothing for it but to go to the movies. The critics have done a hatchet job on ‘The Girl on the Train’ [a novel I enjoyed] so I may have to try Woody Allen’s latest offering.

After much searching I discovered that Nina Conti-a comic genius with puppetry-is on at the end of the month; on I went to the seating plan. Nothing in the circle except for single seats or restricted view. Nothing in the stalls except for single seats or restricted view. It’s no surprise. I’m not the only person starved of quality live entertainment!

The Muddle that is Memory

As I grow older I realise more that memory is a capricious servant and not to be relied on. It unnerves me, this haphazard facility, as it would anyone who has more years behind them than in front. We joke about senility. ‘He makes new friends every day’ we say about close relatives suffering from Alzeimers. But it is a state to be feared as we age, even though research turns up new developments in treatment all the time.

We have travelled down the west coast of France more times than I can either count or care to admit-certainly, during the last twenty five years or so far more times than to London. And yet it takes re-visiting to stir my memories. I am as unable to grasp the gist of a place from Husband’s descriptions as I am able to recall what I went upstairs to get when I’m at home. ‘You must remember’ he says, ‘there was an Irish couple’ [there are many Irish couples] or-‘there was a small bar by the entrance’ [true of so many places].

We visit old haunts, reluctant this time to be intrepid adventurers, having done enough pioneering on the house move front this year.

We find a site, new to us. We cycle out along the salt marsh, a wide, flat expanse of watery fields criss-crossed by irrigation channels. Grey eels undulate along in the water, darting from one clump of weed to another. It all looks eerily familiar then we approach an oyster farm and there, there is the little sea-food shack and bar where I took Husband’s photo on our anniversary-memorable in that his chin rests on his hand and his expression as he peers over the top of his beer is nothing short of grumpy.

We did remember Pornic and eventually the site we’d stayed in. We’d walked there last time and caught the train back. I had a sudden recognition; a path over a deep, rocky cove peopled with dozens of naked men-many in couples. Such sights are not unusual on French beaches. I’ve long since adopted a ‘seen one, seen ‘em all’ strategy for them.

We travel further south to another small, seaside town I’m sure we’ve visited before. The large town square bordered by the post office and the town hall seems familiar, as do the narrow streets lined with bars, ice cream parlours, ‘churros’ counters and stalls selling bracelets, hats and keepsakes. Here in September there is a throng of tourists-many our age or older-wending their way along and pausing to browse the proffered nick-knacks as they chew on sugary, doughnutty churros or tuck into mountainous ice cream cones.

So the memories are there-not readily available as a neat, annotated and dated time-line but in a jumbled, half-buried pile in the cobwebby cupboard of my brain. When one is prompted to surface it is a pleasure. The offspring jest, as I myself would have done when stories are repeated or exaggerated, but this will happen to them, too at some unspecified future date.