Telephony

Twenty four months have elapsed and for once I’ve been on the ball enough to know I’m up for phone and internet software renewal so during a lull in my week I make time to visit the phone shop.

The shop is brightly lit, hot…and chock full of customers. I settle down at an empty desk to wait for service, entertained by three children who are galloping around the small shop floor while their father works his way through the range of products available. The children pause their gallops only long enough for a brief prod at the buttons on a row of tablets lining one wall.

I wait and wait. Shop assistants come and go from the store room. More customers enter the shop. I shed my coat and my scarf, toy with my phone a bit, watch the children.

Some time later an assistant looks up and spots me where I sit at the vacant desk. ‘Have you been seen yet?’ he asks.

‘No’.

He tells me he’ll be ‘one minute’.

After a few minutes he settles across the desk and I explain that my contract has expired. I tell him I am not typical, that unusually I am not a heavy user of my phone, not glued to it, not a taker of selfies [I still use a camera], not a watcher of films upon it, or a downloader of things. I am, still, a laptop user. I type on a keyboard. This explains our use of the cunning, little white pebble that is our mobile wifi, worth its weight in bandwidth, which accompanies us on our travels.

The young man attempts a soft push, offering me extra capacity, extra minutes, an additional tablet device, a line for Husband [who will never be persuaded away from his pay-as-you-go]. I do actually consider the tablet for a few seconds-until I remember the nest of tablets languishing abandoned in a drawer at home. I explain we’ve never, ever exceeded our allocation, never needed to top up. If my existing phone cannot be recycled I’d like a new battery, only. This, of course is not an option-

When I leave the store with my new phone and upgraded mobile Wifi I feel unexpectedly chipper. The new phone is a Huawei. Will I be spied upon? The mobile pebble we’ve used for several years has always been Huawei so I am sanguine enough about having their phone.

At home I follow the instructions for copying everything from  old to new with perfect results. The new phone has a larger screen, is able to alert me with a proper telephone-ringing sound and is fast to respond to my requests.

A few days later the three year old microwave in our kitchen gives up the ghost. Nobody, we find,  repairs microwaves. I go to the appliance store, peruse the display, take my phone, ring Husband, send him a photo of one. He rings me with the results of reviews. I’ve surprised myself by behaving like the rest of society.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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:

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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…

 

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.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Christmas Shopping

I have explained in a previous post my reasons for letting my fingers do the walking this year and undertaking all my Christmas gift purchases via the internet. Once I’d got over mourning for festive strolls along decorated streets lined with extravagant window displays and popping into coffee shops for chocolatey, spicy treats before perusing the German style market accompanied yet again by Slade’s ‘Here it is-Merry Christmas’, Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ or Wizard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ I began to throw myself into digital shopping with gusto.

I was cautious at first, prudently comparing prices and products in the way that internet shopping encourages you to; shave a few pounds off here, get free delivery there, 10% off next purchase, BOGOF et al.

After a while the availability and range began to work their seductive magic and comparisons began to fall by the wayside. The shipping address and personal details were filling themselves in, curtesy of ‘Chrome Autofill’. My bank card number was committed to memory in a kind of ‘brain autofill’. Wonderful! At Amazon a mere ‘click’ would do the trick; forget the card details, even.

I sat back in a satisfied haze of anticipation. I would only need, now to wait for the various parcels to arrive. This haze also had the capacity to obliterate all memory of the items ordered and organised saving of order numbers, invoices etc had of course become sketchier as the shopping frenzy had progressed.

What had I ordered?

I had a vague idea that one or two objects’ origins were not of this country-or even of this continent. No matter. I was in plenty of time.

Wasn’t I?

My fickle fingers made their cautious way back to Amazon, where a reassuring ‘where’s my stuff’ part of the menu led me to at least a reminder of the Amazon purchases I’d made. I looked down the list-a mysterious, eclectic mix of items-and wondered who it was all for. To be fair, some things had arrived, resulting in some unseemly collisions on the stairs [I am not the sole internet shopper in this house] or some resolutely grumpy peering from windows, depending on the time of day.

Some purchases had, allegedly been dispatched. Others had tentative delivery ‘windows’. These tended towards the flexible, eg ‘delivery between 28th November and 20th January’.

Which year? I wondered.

There were helpful notes alongside some. ‘This item cannot be tracked’ announced one. Great. ‘Contact seller’ said another, which I did, via the accompanying proforma. WHERE’S MY STUFF? I shouted in capitals. The thing was supposed to have originated in Hong Kong.

Reader, there are now four days to go and this story is turning into a suspense drama. Will the mystery items arrive in time? Will they arrive at all? Forget Frantic Fridays, Manic Mondays, Shopaholic Saturdays and Tension-filled Tuesdays; It’s all about Waity Wednesdays. I’m off to print out a picture of the missing purchase, which will have to do for now.

Journey to the Centre of the Colon-a gastric Odyssey [with apologies to Jules Verne]

I made a promise when I began this blog-the ramblings of an ageing female-that health issues would not be at the forefront of every post. Every now and then, however there is bound to be some blot on the fitness horizon and this particular blot appears to have eclipsed normal life like a blackout curtain.

In an ironic curve the disease I have eventually been diagnosed with is not at all age related, more an unfortunate plague of a far younger demographic. What is it? It is ulcerative colitis; nasty and incurable, yes, life threatening-well no, supposedly not, except that the odds of more sinister complaints are increased.

Whilst Fiction Month was running its [highly satisfactory] course the writer was undergoing many weeks of initial terror followed by exhaustion and desperation as the slow wheels of our UK health service ground along; well-meaning and efficient but over-stretched and ponderous.

During the past two months life has shrunk back within the walls of the house, where access to bathroom facilities provides a secure reassurance-for now, the only factor that matters. This disease, as all inflammatory bowel diseases [Crohn’s is another] is neither romantic nor noble, reducing us, the sufferers to the most basic of needs- a toilet and means of cleaning up. A walk, shopping trip or evening out becomes an activity to be undertaken with trepidation and vast amounts of planning, but mostly not at all.

With Christmas rearing up I fall eagerly on the reassuring presence of the internet while fantasising about strolling around Christmas markets, choosing ‘real’ items, stopping for coffees, enjoying the ambience of the ‘Alpine Bar’ that popped up in our local town [according to Facebook].

Between sojourns enclosed within the shiny, tiled cell of the lavatory I have enjoyed the luxury of unlimited research time, during which I have discovered the unfathomable ocean of misery that is undergone by those who suffer chronic illness. I am castigated by the small but dedicated carers that are my immediate family for doing this, but to me, ignorance can never be a pleasure. The more I know, the better I am prepared.

The GP [local doctor] who was my first port of call has kindly followed up with inquiries regarding diagnosis and progress but clearly is at a loss to know how to provide cheer amid the gloom. ‘You are on a journey’, she tells me and I refrain from advising her that my travel plans have reduced down to the few steps it takes to achieve the safety of the loo. She does mean well.

In all I have not failed to recognise that I am extremely lucky to have Husband-supporting without false cheer, and Offspring-resilient in her newly acquired nurse’s knowledge. Messages, however brief, from some of those who I’ve plucked up the courage to inform are more appreciated than they can know.

So far treatment cannot be described as an unmitigated success, although I recognise it is still ‘early days’ and that there are further options along what the doctor calls the ‘journey’.

I am learning to appreciate home comforts and I am catching up [via the wonder that is ‘Blinkbox’] on TV and film I missed when I was engaged in more worthy activities.

One tragic casualty has been my writing, the pursuit of which has escaped me. This may change-who knows? What a blessing we none of us know what lies ahead!