Mad Malls or Sad Streets?

I grew up in a series of three small villages, each of which was served by one, modest grocery shop. The first, which I was sent to from age four, was a minute, dark, cavern accessed by a house door and called ‘Mrs Russell’s’. She had a big old, dark wood counter, sold everything, including cheese by the slice-which she cut from a cylindrical block with a wire-and ‘Fruit salad’ or ‘Blackjack’ chews at four for a penny; also ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder which she ladled into a paper bag so you could tear off the corner and suck the powder from it directly.

When I lived in Putney, south London in the seventies, Tesco had a store in the high street which still used counters to serve shoppers-and not a trolley or a basket in sight.

In the UK shopping streets are dying and our own, small town’s high street is no exception, with fourteen coffee shops in one relatively short stretch [making local headlines], too many salons, too many tattoo parlours, too many charity shops and most crucially-too many empty shops.

If shops are empty it can only mean that the rents and rates are much too high. Some of the premises have been languishing unloved and uninhabited for so long that vegetation has taken root inside the windows and you could be forgiven for thinking the shop was selling weeds [like the old dead wasp joke].

We are all too used to supermarket shopping; too used to dashing in, picking up packets of this and that and dashing to the checkouts.

But I believe the only way to revive town centres is to return to smaller stores and  specialist stores like greengrocers, butchers and bakeries. Towns that have such shops are mostly thriving. It would also begin to address the horrors of the plastic mountain we are constructing. Once, people took a shopping bag to the greengrocer and the assistant would pile the items straight into the bag. You would take the bag home and sort the items out at home. Nothing bad happened. Some of the vegetables may have needed washing-a chore that should be done whether they’ve been bagged or not.

Meat or fish would be wrapped in some paper. Bread was the same. Milk got delivered in glass bottles. Cakes were placed into a beautiful cardboard box so that it really felt like a special treat when they were bought.

Aside from these essential shops I’d love to see some real recycling, some ‘upcycling’, a repair-anything shop and a swap shop-or perhaps all of these in one, bigger store.

But all of this would take much more imagination, foresight and gumption than we are ever likely to see from our local council, who would far rather leave shops empty and falling into ruination than lower the rates [or better still, waive them for an innovative project].

Perhaps you, reader have a wish list for your local shopping centre. What would be on it?

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.

January Odyssey 1

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January in the UK is my least favourite month. Gloomy, often cold and wet and with the remnants of Christmas and New Year celebrations clinging like grey cobwebs, it seems to go on too long.
In an unaccustomed surge of January optimism, we’ve heaved ourselves out of the post-Christmas languor to pack up the van, load it with our warmest and most weather-resistant gear and head northwards towards Scotland, a trip we’ve been meaning to do for a few years and only now decided to tackle.
The van, having languished unused for a couple of winter months needed a little de-moulding in its nether regions, otherwise it felt purposeful to be loading up and re-acquainting ourselves with our little holiday-home-on-wheels. There are enough sites open to enable us to travel up [first to Gloucester relatives, giving us a head start] and get around once we arrive. The weather was set to be manageable and Husband assured me that at the first sign of snow we would return, since I was somewhat nervous about getting ‘snowed in’ and unable to return in time for the next [contrasting] excursion in February.
Motorways have conveyed us here and while there were works being carried out almost everywhere the journey was incident-free. Our first, uneventful day took us to ‘Whittingham Club’, a site near Preston and not too far from Blackpool and a perfectly acceptable overnight stop. I assume this is an ex ‘working men’s club’ as it has a club house with a bar, large screen TV, snooker tables and darts plus a bowling green outside. The site facilities are an add-on but serviceable.
Next day we covered the remaining miles to Glasgow by early afternoon, arriving at the holiday park in time for a quick excursion into the city; two stops on a small train from the nearby station.

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Glasgow is just as a city should be; elegant, decadent, grand and squalid. It is busy and vibrant, the architecture both beautiful and innovative, with ugly inserts. The honey and rose sandstone buildings dominate and there is no shortage of galleries, museums and historic sights-too many in fact to see in a single visit. There are areas of development as well as hideous, high rise blocks. The shopping streets are packed with all the usual stores, from up-market fashion to restaurant chains. There is a vast a number of theatres and concert venues as well as lively clubs and pubs.

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Next day we returned in full daylight to take in the award-winning transport museum, the modern art museum, the Necropolis, [a steep hill crowded with mausoleums, obelisks and fancy gravestones] and the cathedral [sadly closed]. From the summit of the Necropolis the tower blocks of outer Glasgow can be seen as well as the grey ribbon of the Clyde. We had no time to tour the art museum, People’s Palace or botanic gardens.
Next day we drove north west towards Lock Lomond, out through suburbs of impressive Georgian sandstone terraces and while I felt it must be a pleasant place to live, I also realised we’d given the more depressed areas such as Paisley a wide berth. It feels good to travel to the outer reaches of the UK and understand that all life does not revolve around the London and the south.

Mistletoe and Whine…

By the time this post is published I will have heard Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’, Slade’s ‘So Here it is, Merry Christmas’, Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’, Wizard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ [a nightmare scenario in my opinion], Shakin Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’, Band Aid’s ‘Do they Know it’s Christmas?’ and all the rest of the sorry, repetitive regurgitation of Christmas musical tat that is on a loop everywhere at this time of year, about 1000 times.

You have to feel some empathy for the hapless shop assistants. Not only must they pander to the whims of increasingly irritable customers whilst wearing ‘amusing’ festive jumpers, hats or elf outfits but must also suffer the incessant caterwauling of the aforementioned Christmas songs; an assault to the ears, a type of audio Chinese water torture.

I am not so much of a Humbug. I like the lights and displays. I like the food and drink. I love bestowing gifts [especially to my grandchildren]. But there are about 100 Christmas ditties that have remained to try everyone’s mental health over the years.

Among the dross, though there are some gems. They are played less often are, perhaps more obscure; or they have fallen into the past to be forgotten by my own [ancient] generation and unknown to later generations. I’ve no clue at all as to contemporary Christmas offerings but I suspect that the Christmas-themed song has become redundant now and that a Christmas Number 1, while being a desirable ambition for a musician will have no relevance to Christmas whatsoever.

So here, in no particular order are some of what I personally consider to be the better ones, the Christmas songs that don’t make me wince.

  • I Believe in Father Christmas [Greg Lake].

Greg Lake’s gentle, winsome melody is a balm to the more abrasive and tedious dross thudding out in each and every store but the lyrics have a little edginess with ‘the Christmas you get you deserve’

  • Fairytale of New York [The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl]

I can’t listen to this without picturing Shane McGowan’s oily, toothless drawl in contrast to Kirsty’s ‘girl-next-door’, fresh-faced persona. But it works.

  • 2000 Miles [Pretenders]

This continues to be my favourite Christmas hit, although it is rarely played. Chrissie Hynds’ voice is unconventional and has that punky twang which makes the song sound plaintive and mysterious. The words could hardly be simpler, with phrases such as ‘it’s very far’

And the worst of the worst?

For me, the ghastly ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ [Cliff Richard] hits rock bottom, with its doggerel lyrics, boring melody and attempts to be quirky- ‘wi logs on the fire’. Really? ‘wi’? 

Honourable mentions should go to Dora Bryan’s ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle’. And while novelty Christmas songs had almost died a death in the last fifteen years or so, this year’s ‘We Built this City on Sausage Rolls’ is hard not to like.

If you’ve made it to the end of this highly subjective post you may have your own preferences. If so I’d love to hear about them! In the meantime-a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to all readers, visitors and especially Anecdotage followers. Have a wonderful 2019. See you next week…

 

 

 

How We Roll Back…

We’ve spent a lot of time visiting south west France now, which means familiarity with the route, as well as the entire area. Nevertheless we still search for new ways to get there and back [avoiding motorways and their tolls]. A few weeks ago I wrote how we set off, where we like to embark, the entire routine.

So then, after a few weeks ‘bimbling’ [Husband’s word], we have to turn the van northwards and consider how we might return. We select a day. On this occasion, Husband came up with a plan to return overnight in a cabin, which appealed until we discovered that the ferry sets off late, leaving little or no opportunity to schmooze in the restaurant and bar. Who wants to drive on, locate the cabin, clean teeth and get straight into a berth?

These days it is neither necessary nor desirable to scramble up the length of France in one, long day and we prefer a gentle, staged journey – still attempting to find hitherto unexplored places.

We opted to return from Ouistreham [Caen] knowing there is a very convenient aire next to the ferry terminal for our last night. We decided to spend a couple of nights at Dinard, which is only a couple of hours away and left us time to explore as well as execute the all-important pre-return shopping spree that is obligatory at the finale of all trips.

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Dinard is situated across the bay from St Malo and probably suffers for it’s glamorous, historic neighbour but we’ve stayed at St Malo enough times. A look at one or two lacklustre ACSI [off season discount card ] sites confirmed that the municipal site at Port Blanc would be a good choice and so it was-with an uninterrupted view of the beach and bay from our van.

The weather by this time had become blustery and drizzly-a reminder that we were on our way home.

The site offered  a bar and pizzas-surprising at this end of season period but not an option for us [I am unable to eat pizzas]. A five minute walk up the road led us to a lively area with bakeries, bars and brasseries. On Sunday afternoon a small stage was hosting a display of line dancing-

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The restaurant we chose was old fashioned but proved popular, as after we’d been seated every table was occupied.

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Dinard is a hilly seaside town reminiscent of Scarborough, with an air of faded elegance-enormous old hotels, a smattering of art deco, luxuriant gardens and promenades as well as ice cream parlours and bars. There is evidence of an interest in the arts, with a film festival running and some impressive sculptures dotted along the prom.

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We walked back to site via a path around the sea wall which wound around the town cliffs, narrow in places and in a bracing wind, but thrilling and with dramatic views.

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We left Dinard to scoop up items on our wish-list from a Carrefour complex the size of five football pitches then drove up our well-trodden route to Caen and to our customary spot next to the ferry. We dodged the motorhome-bore [‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man’], showered and went to get a meal. next day the ferry’s engines woke us at 6.30am, just right for packing up and trundling the 500yards into the check-in queue. Drive on, climb up to the coffee bar, grab coffee and croissant, settle into a couchette. That’s how we roll back…

Housekeeping Secrets along the Road

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           Any lengthy foray into Europe requires aspects of domestic life to be undertaken; there is no getting away from it. Laundry, cleaning, shopping and [depending on circumstances] a degree of food preparation and cooking are all part of an extended expedition.
Luckily most sites offer the necessary facilities for such mundane household tasks as washing clothes and bed linen, with washing machines and driers commonplace-for a price. In spite of this we travel with spares for bedding and towels. We also have a line, clothes drier, pegs, washing capsules and hand-wash detergent. How organised we are!
Vans are equipped with fridges [ours will function perfectly well for a couple of days without electric hook-up] although they are seldom as large as in the average kitchen, so we supplement it with a cold box and aim to shop every 3 or 4 days, which often, though not always coincides with moving from one destination to another.
We don’t leave home without a basic ‘store-cupboard’ of ingredients; mine include: mixed herbs, English mustard powder, Oxo cubes, peppercorns, gravy powder, olive oil, cornflour, tomato puree, tinned vegetables, pasta and rice. We take industrial quantities of tea bags owing to the poor quality of ‘Liptons’ from which 2 bags are necessary to make one, weak cup of tea. Anything else is widely available in the supermarche.
Wandering around a French supermarket doesn’t feel too much of a chore as long as certain aspects are understood. A trolley needs a euro coin to be released; we are fortunate to possess 2 plastic, pretend euros that for some inexplicable reason we call ‘sniglets’, given to us at ‘La Chaumiere’, a Flanders site that is unique for a number of reasons. The supermarket car park must be accessible by van [ie no height barrier] and must have enough space. We look for an area where other vans are parked. Then we ascertain whether fruit and vegetables must be weighed and labelled before the checkout, as nobody wants to arrive with half a trolley-load unprepared.

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Larger ‘hypermarkets’ will often have large vats of delicious concoctions such as paella that can be bought and re-heated. There will also be huge fish counters with mountains of mussels, melancholy crabs and lugubrious lobsters as well as acres of assorted cheeses. So there is never any need to go hungry-

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At the boulangerie a modicum of restraint is always required. Some days we allow ourselves a pastry. I attempt to confine myself to croissants but am inclined to succumb to the pleasures of ‘pain au raisins’ or ‘pain au chocolat’ [Husband’s favourite] on occasion. The French have a proud tradition of ‘artisan’ bread and the array of different types of baguettes or grands pains can be confusing.
Last [but not least] is the beer and wine supply. I confess to being a lightweight these days and may choose a single bottle of white for myself. Husband favours ‘Leffe’ beer and red wine. In these alcohol-enlightened times, even in France the supermarkets are beginning to offer ‘sans alcool’ varieties, which can be very good.
Intermarché, Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefor, Super-U and the ubiquitous Lidl. We wonder what their British equivalents might be? Leclerc would seem to be the equivalent of Sainsbury’s, Super-U more of a Tesco?
For many the demands of shopping and preparing meals while away would not constitute a holiday, but they have not sat outside on warm, light September evenings with beautiful views, sampling the produce that is on offer. And when we feel like it-and the location provides a choice of venues [as last night] we dine out.

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!