Romantic Romania

The vast and beautiful Danube flows through ten countries-more countries than any other river in the world, also forming several borders including that between Bulgaria and Romania.

Crossing into Romania was a little like stepping into a fairy tale, or into a Constable painting, for while the roads, infrastructure and villages were better kept and looked a little more affluent than in Bulgaria the communities were also quaint and olde-worlde.

P1050445

I’ll admit to being surprised, having assumed Romania to be much poorer than its neighbour. Having said this, there were countless signs that Romania is stranded in a bygone age, such as hand-tilling in the fields, hay-making with horses and carts and horse-drawn transport.

The pretty, tree-lined streets of the villages are made up of tiny, single-story homes-many with tiled exteriors in intricate patterns. Outside many homes there are benches positioned to catch the evening sunshine, often occupied by a couple of women in headscarves having a gossip.

On the road we followed an open truck with a horse tethered in the back. The horse was blinkered and attached each side but even so the truck lurched around corners, swaying and jolting but causing no apparent distress to the equine passenger.

P1050428

We stopped for lunch alongside the Danube basin, where the waters again form a border, this time between Romania and Serbia, so that the wooded hills of Serbia are visible on the other side.

As in the previous country [see last week’s post] we’d scant information on camp sites but headed for ‘Hercules’, a tiny, five-pitch site behind a restaurant opposite a busy road and railway line. We drew into the driveway to be greeted by the owner and shown to a place, which was not a problem since we were the only van there. The sun beat down into the small, neat back yard, a chance to relax after the journey. Though small, the site boasted clean, efficient showers, a washing machine and every convenience.

This being one location where our mobile internet was unobtainable we took devices to the bar and used the site wifi while we had beers. Later an Austrian couple pulled in to be our neighbours for the night. We settled down to sleep. At around midnight we were woken by loud, staccato bangs from a building next door and looked out to see the sky alight with fireworks. Odd timing-but who are we to judge on another country’s customs?

Next day we were off north again towards Hungary, travelling through ravishing green countryside and rustic scenes that included thousands of beehives. I spotted them in industrial numbers along the verges and in the fields, often being tended by veiled beekeepers, the results laid out in modest roadside stalls. Then there were beehive trucks:

P1050444

These unusual vehicles were parked in lay bys or pieces of wasteland. It was uplifting to see such a large-scale industry from bees. At least someone is taking care of them!

Having passed mile upon mile of queued lorries we arrived at the border with Hungary. I felt bereft. We’d whisked through Romania in two days and a part of me clamoured to stay and explore, to wander along the village streets and photograph the countryside. But don’t worry, Romania, we will be back. Besides-a visit to Romania just has to include an exploration of Transylvania.

And then there was Hungary…

 

Advertisements

Lower Your Expectations!

A wonderful lady I worked with years ago sometimes used to say ‘Lower your expectations’. She would use this phrase whenever we felt jaded or that events were taking a downward turn. It was intended to be droll-and it was, because it always brought a smile to our faces.

But the idea of lowering expectations is not without advantage. If I consider a worst case scenario in life then the outcome will either be a] as I expected or b] not as bad as I expected, both of which are better than a disappointment.

I can apply this approach to all aspects of life. We have just embarked on a new expedition into Europe, intending to travel in directions hitherto unexplored [by us]. The preparations for this odyssey seem endless and difficult, partly due to it’s being the first major road trip of the year and partly because my brain is losing its propensity to be sharp. I appear to spend a great deal of time writing lists and forgetting to add items, or writing lists that prompt further lists. I begin a task and become distracted by another. I forget what I do, forget how to prepare.

Eventually, however we seem to be ready. We get away on time. We arrive at the ferry port on time. The crossing is uneventful-pleasant, even. We breakfast, we slump, we snooze in the recliner seats of the quiet lounge [both of us having had a fitful and short night’s sleep]. The weather is warm and sunny. This is a bonus, since cold, wet weather was expected for a few days at least. See what I mean? Expect the worst, lower your expectations.

It is easy to see why many prefer the simple process of buying ready-made holidays. Everything is done; everything laid on. You are transported somewhere, you are ferried to sights and brought back [as on cruise ships]. You follow an itinerary someone else has prepared. You look, perhaps take snaps, perhaps buy a souvenir. You are taken home.

The road trip requires planning and preparation. We [mostly Husband] plot each day’s route, we search out possible destinations, we fuel up, shop, service the van [water, waste]. We make decisions, try to agree. We problem-solve. Sometimes we are successful. In the two days since we began we’ve had to overcome irritants like lights that will not switch off, devices that bleep in the middle of the night, van alarm going off [also in the night] and no internet access. Above all we have to adjust back into camper-van life, remembering where we store stuff, routine when we park up, routine when we leave each day.

But we know we must make our brains and bodies work for us if we want to get into healthy old age and I imagine that it’s one of the reasons there are so many ancient motor-homers out here in Europe, just like us. Oh-and there’s the freedom of course. Who wants to be told what to do and where to go? Now what on earth has happened to all my ‘Word’ documents???

 

The Future According to Grace

Developments in technology move faster than it takes to draw breath, don’t they? This is how it appears, anyway to one who is becoming ancient. A small item in the [on line] paper I read bore the headline ‘How to organise and store your digital photos’. Goodness! A couple of decades ago storing photographs was all about new developments in photo albums and shelving. Do you mourn the loss of photo albums? Or are you delighted to have less dusting and more space in your home? So many technological developments concern scaling down-in some instances to nothing at all.

The same applies to books of course. Myself, I am a convert to digital books-with the great exception of children’s literature, of course. To me the content over-rides any sentimental attachment to paper. I am uncertain, however on the issue of ‘condensed book apps’ which precis novels down into 15 minute reads-this may be carrying minimalism a little too far.

Then there is television. Sets are becoming ever slimmer. Who remembers the enormous sets of the fifties with their tiny, flickering screens inside large, elaborate wooden cabinets? And film-videos seemed like an incredible leap forward in innovation but were soon replaced with the much reduced DVDs then the physical was done away with altogether by downloads. Music has moved in the same direction, with one click replacing the need for record players and records, cassette tapes and ultimately CDs.

Could this happen in the kitchen? It may have already begun. The need for kettles has been negated by taps that produce boiling water and there is more in the pipeline [so to speak] with robotic food preparation and smart this, that and the other.

And while all this minimalising, scaling down and disappearing altogether has been going on, we, the owners [figuratively] of all this technology become bigger and bigger. I wonder then that technological wizardry has not been developed to shrink humans, too. Yes, of course there are gastric bands and so on but these are not guaranteed to be successful or permanent. The idea of shrunken food, however has been tackled in literature. Turn-of-the-century writer Stephen Leacock [http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/literary-lapses/10/] wrote an amusing short story about a baby who snatched and swallowed a tablet containing 13 Christmas dinners which did not end happily.

The obvious outcome must be that the need for human beings is removed altogether. I imagine there will be developmental stages where man and computer merge. In the beginning the machine will be an appendage such as we see already [think earphones and those weird Bluetooth thingummies fastened to peoples’ ears]. The takeover will progress with insertions into brains, replacement limbs and organs then mobility aids will remove the need for limbs [now think Daleks from Dr Who]. Reduce the jelly-like substance at the heart of the machine and…Bingo! Man disappears from the Earth to be replaced by technology. I just hope the machines make a better job of it all than we have.

The Dark Screen of Ignorance

You have to chuckle at some journalist’s ideas of we older folks. They consider us to be bumbling techno-phobes who cannot fathom the mysteries of computer-thingies or cope with new-fangled technologies such as mobile phones. ‘Older people’ are often cited in articles or programmes about how portions of society are ‘missing out’ owing to their circumstances. Their bills are higher for not being on line; their inability to surf leaves them stuck with High Street offerings.

It is true, however that there are still substantial numbers of people who, whilst having some access to computers via libraries and so on continue to be stuck in a time warp where developing technology is concerned. I hope some members of my lovely writing group will forgive me when I say that communication has become tricky without the facility of email and that access to information, sharing of work and ideas has never been easier than it is in this age of the internet.

Take social networking. Since Facebook became, much to the annoyance of the young, mainstream, many of my peers adopted it, irritating the young to a point where they all left in disgust. Those who didn’t cited worries over security, concerns over boring content or fears that it is somehow irrelevant or not intellectually challenging enough as reasons. Of course all of these things are true to an extent, however facilities exist to eliminate them. You adjust the settings on security, you scroll past the boring or the mundane. A great deal of the sniping over social media, I feel is fear disguised as snobbery. Who wants to be caught looking at a friend’s holiday snaps? It might make you appear to be interested. Horrors!

Keeping up with developing technology is tricky. As soon as we grasped the fundamentals of email and Google there were Smartphones and apps to deal with. ‘Don’t you Skype?’ ‘Don’t you do Instagram?’ ‘Don’t you use Dropbox?’ The relentless inundation of innovation can leave you flailing with inadequacy; but rather than shrinking in horror at the idea of adopting new technological developments we need to try and apply our ageing brain cells to it.

Of course all this is very well when your children are on hand to assist. Once they have flown the coop though you may find yourself adrift as I did yesterday, making a nail-biting trip to PC World and steeling myself for the fifty pounds fee to repair my laptop, which stubbornly refused to illuminate its screen when unplugged. The cheerful assistant offered me a jaunty smile as he pressed a button on the keyboard, restoring light to the screen. Little wonder-he can dine out [if his PC World salary allows] on the tale of the geriatric ignoramus.

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Pass!

One of the phenomena I’ve noticed in the process of getting older is the process of things passing me by. Some of them pass by from my not having noticed them, some from my not liking them and some from my not knowing about them in the first place.

Is this a natural part of ageing? In his dotage my father took impressive steps into the world of new technology when he not only mastered some elements of word processing but also managed email [albeit in a somewhat antiquated manner, beginning all mails with ‘Dear’-letter fashion, unable to quite take in the informality]. He never got to grips with surfing the net, fearing the exposure of his personal details, perhaps his previous role as secretary to the parish council or membership of the village history society.

The phenomenon of ‘Things passing me by’ has crept upon me despite efforts to keep up. I feel it is the tip of a large iceberg, the top of which is visible, the underparts carrying a mass of culture, technology and who-knows-what-else I cannot even dream of. But here are some of the items on the top-the visible-part of the obstacle:

  1. I know what a smartphone is. I own one. But aside from texts it is rarely used, or even switched on, except for an occasional look at internet, as long as it is not too onerous to access. Most of my smartphone is a mystery. I don’t use the camera. It took me over a year to be able to swipe to answer a call [my call-answering is still not reliable]. I haven’t been able to memorise the number. It has passed me by.
  2. I understand that apps are applications. I just don’t use them. It seems that as soon as I have made the effort to acquire one something else has superseded it. ‘WHAT?’ friends and relations cry, ‘You don’t use ‘Picsnap’ or ‘Instabomb’? How do you manage to live? Surely everyone does ‘Smype’? No, they don’t.
  3. Hit TV programmes. I like thrillers. I like corny, old-fashioned cop detective shows, [like soon-to-be-axed ‘New Tricks’]. I can’t get to grips with ‘Game of Thrones’-nor do I want to.
  4. Talent shows. X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al. Contrived, hyped and wearisome. The only exception I make is for ‘Strictly’. I recognise few of the ‘celebs’ but I like the dancing, although the programme, with its padding, pretend humour and feeble, contrived banter is nowhere near as good as it was in the beginning. I do not, however feel enslaved to watch every episode.
  5. Contemporary music. By which I mean Rapping [I know it is all social comment/poetry and all that, but I can’t conceive of the likes of Tiny Someone, Master Monotony or Kanter East as actual music], Plastic pop [of the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ band kind] and that monotonous, thrumming, repetitive techno you are so often assaulted by in European bars. Give me a blast of Eric Burden delivering his stark rendition of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ any day of the week.
  6. Piri-Piri chicken, Nando’s etc. Where and when did Piri-Piri spring from? I went into a Nando’s for a coffee once.
  7. Dresses worn with leggings. No. Pass by. Please.

If all this sounds curmudgeonly it is probably because I am becoming a curmudgeon. Kay Sera.

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.