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???

 

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Slip Sliding Away

I’ve never been much of a sports spectator. Other than a brief phase of tennis watching in the 70s [I happened to live in a flat a few minutes’ walk away from Wimbledon’s famous club]. I’ve positively avoided watching the sporting activities of others. Exceptions include international rugby games [I’m currently enjoying the six nations championship] and winter sports.
There is something magical about the winter Olympics. The settings are beautiful; other-worldly and mountainous landscapes providing a background for breath-taking races and stunts. Watching daring ski jumpers hurtling down a slope and flinging themselves skywards before landing the right way up and sliding away is enough to make your stomach lurch, as is the downhill skiing or the crazy free-for-all of the speed-skating.
Most of all the new [since 2014], tricksy snow-boarding contests are spectacular and a compelling watch.
It is more than twenty years since I had my own, brief taste of snow-related activity, when I took myself off for a week of beginner skiing in the much-poopooed [by seasoned skiers] resort of Borovets, Bulgaria. I’m sure it wouldn’t do for those who take to the slopes on a regular basis or those for whom a fashionable resort matters most. But for someone who was new to skiing-and approaching middle age, Borovets was just cheap, cheerful and more than demanding enough.
To this intrepid week of discovery I’d added an extra anxiety-inducing element. I was travelling solo. I did have the advantage of being physically fit, having undertaken running and aerobics in the preceding years but I was also reeling in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, which meant that solo travel would be a risky business for my battered emotions. Would I be able to forge friendships, find some kind of transitory support network, have any conversations, bond with fellow novices? Friends counselled for and against but in the end the ‘for’ camp won for advising me to see it as learning a new skill-just like going on a course, which of course, I was!
There is an art to lone travel. When I boarded the transfer bus at the airport I was asked which ‘party’ I was travelling with, a difficult question. When a couple, faced with no spare seats at the hotel’s evening meal, were forced to share my table I thanked them for joining me, shifting my novel [a prop] across to make room. Next morning’s breakfast was a solitary affair.
Then I had to find my ski class. I headed down to the boot room, where we virgin skiers were to be parcelled up into groups, get our lift passes and our boots and skis. Once I was in a group everything changed. We were united in anticipation, endeavour and terror! We laughed, clutched each other, fell over, encouraged one another, made progress. At the end of that first, exhausting, exhilarating day I had a group of friends. We ate together, went out together, drank together, shared our stories.
I loved skiing, but I never did it again. It was not long before he who was to become Husband came along and lone holidays became a thing of the past. There is no doubt that, like most sports, skiing needs to be taken up when young. But that holiday holds fond memories for me, as does skiing, so for anyone who is wavering about skiing-or indeed about holidaying as a singleton I’d say go for it! What can go wrong?

The All-inclusive Trap

Searching for winter sun, an escape from the dreary, grey drizzle or the bitter winds of this UK winter means travelling long-haul. The options are: far east [Thailand etc], Africa [tried, tested and now not tempted] or Caribbean. We’ve sampled a few islands in the West Indies now, with pleasing results, Barbados and Antigua having proved particularly lovely destinations. Mexico, last year’s experiment boasted beautiful weather but was less fun in that there were few options outside of the hotel.
And here’s the difficulty. In choosing a Caribbean or most other long-haul destination you are stuck in the inevitable groove of ‘all-inclusive’ deal, as after intensive research we have found it to be cheaper than either flying and booking hotels separately or B&B. An all-inclusive deal is likely to mean a vast, corporate hotel sprawling on a coastal strip and boasting several restaurants, bars, pools, terraces, a spa, a gym, shops, ‘entertainment’, beach with loungers and umbrellas and the ubiquitous ‘buffet’.
Hotels like these are betting on the hunch that most guests prefer to stay within the confines of the hotel complex and couldn’t give a cow’s udder about setting foot outside the gate to meander in the environs and hobnob with the locals. And it is true for many, who like to get up, sling their beach towels on their preferred loungers, wander into breakfast, order a cocktail and slump then slump on their sun bed until a member of staff bearing a tray offers more refreshment. There’ll be a further stint of slumping followed by lunch…
For some with a more active schedule in mind there might be a short session of aquarobics or pool volleyball-but then it’s back to the more serious business of slumping, punctuated by propping up one of the many bars.
We can manage a day or so of this, given sunny weather and a beach walk. But after a while some ennui creeps in. This is when we need to get out.
On our recent trip to Cuba the few days in Havana was perfect. We had breakfast in the hotel, we were within walking distance of the delights of the city and had the remains of our days free, at liberty to explore. Once we’d moved to the beach hotel, however there was a short stretch of beach to walk and everything else required a taxi or a bus ride-both of which we did. In one direction lay a sterile and uninspiring marina; in the other the town yielded more sightseeing and entertainment and it was there that we avoided incarceration.
One of the reasons for avoiding cruises is the enforced imprisonment aboard a floating, all-inclusive hotel, with nothing to do but eat and drink.
Our next expedition, already in the planning stages will be very different, involving an extensive road trip by camper van. On our journey we’ll stay where we want for as long as we want, moving on when we’ve had enough of a place and opting to explore by foot or bicycle. What a pity we can’t take the van to winter sun destinations!


					

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!

 

 

 

Goodbye 2017…

So how was 2017 for you? Did you achieve goals, fulfil your resolutions, make a fortune and experience satisfactory or heart-warming life events? Or were you mired in failure, misery and crashes and burns?
Most years, of course are a mixture of these experiences, both in our personal lives and out in the wider world.
In our own little bubble 2017 was mostly a great year. We had adventures, travelling first to Mexico [underwhelming], later to Italy in an extensive and audacious camper-van journey involving numerous ferries and taking in a number of different countries en route; we made our familiar late summer trip to South West France.
Then our family was expanded by a new member, an event that few could consider anything but joyous.
The negative aspects of 2017 consist mainly of those health issues which come to be such a feature of ageing and which [of we are not careful] become the mainstay of discussions between ourselves and friends of a similar age. Even Husband, who, in his typical male way likes to brush ill-health under a proverbial rug has succumbed to medical intervention. Matters of corporal dysfunction must be accepted, acted upon and then shrugged off.
In 2017 events in the world arena were disquieting. Despite progress against extremists the world became a more brooding, xenophobic and intolerant planet as global threats, hatred and prejudice jostled with polluted atmospheres, floating ocean debris and catastrophic weather events.
World problems often seem too huge to contemplate. We re-post information about beach clean-ups and re-using plastic bottles. We add our digital signatures to campaigns about famines. We make contributions to crisis funds like homelessness. And yet the problems persist, reminding us of how insignificant we all are, how helpless.
But it is always best to look forward and to be optimistic. I’ve long ago given up making resolutions, although I am determined to complete a project I began two years ago and to get it out into the public domain in some respect. I’ve high hopes for a return to my gym regime once a certain foot issue has been resolved and in the meantime we are busy planning 2018’s round of expeditions, the first of which takes place next week. We’ll be without access to internet for a couple of weeks, conditions which will certainly do us a power of good!
The next two blog posts will consist of a brand new two-part story. This is my new year gift to you, readers. If you enjoy it, please let me know in the comments [and share it with others]. If you don’t, please let me know that, too-and why. After that we will have returned and hopefully with more traveller tales! Happy New Year to all my readers, old and new!

Hopeful Travel on a December Day

I listened to a programme about the way the digital age is influencing literature and drama. Thrillers and crime novels are becoming trickier to construct in these days of mobile phones and closed-circuit TV. It is more difficult to make characters disappear and dialogue has become problematic with the advent of text, email, messaging and so on.
This week’s trip to visit Offspring in her new house illustrated perfectly how our lives have been transformed since devices became essential in our lives. A quick glance around a crowded train reveals rows of passengers travelling together on a shared journey  engrossed in their own little world of screen, plugged in, switched on and oblivious to everyone and everything around them.
Things have moved on since stepping into a carriage and settling into a seat would be interrupted by interminable blurtings of ‘I’m on the train’. A mother climbs on with a toddler and searches for a seat before taking out a phone and placing it in front of the child; pacification by screen. Around me individual travellers sporting earphones are watching videos, listening to something, typing something, reading something, scrolling, swiping, clicking. Almost everyone is lost in their own world, communing with unseen entities.
To me, any unfamiliar travel is interesting, whether it offers stunning scenery or not. This winter trip, taken on a dank and gloomy December day is not pretty, does not offer historic sights or amazing vistas-but although I have my own tiny screens tucked away ready for a waiting room or a platform, I am held enough by the changing views from the window. I like it all. I like seeing the misty fields, the sleepy villages and the towering pylons of the docklands. I like the industrial conglomerations and the uniform suburban streets. I love to peer down into the gardens that line the tracks-abandoned toys, vegetable beds unkempt in their winter state, lines of laundry hanging in the damp air, neat rectangles of lawn and summerhouses with misty windows.
We change trains. The platform where we wait offers people watching opportunities and I’m struck by the way travellers dress. There is a plethora of hole-in-the-knee jeans, a look I’ve not been tempted to adopt, having long ago abandoned high fashion in favour of comfort. On the next train I’m taken with the sight of a man reading a paperback. It is a Dave Eggars novel. I’m tempted to ask if it’s any good but fear I’ll be intruding.
We change again-and again. [It is not an easy journey]. I’m struck by the paradox of this travel. Altogether this expedition to the outer reaches of the capital has taken four trains and a bus. All of the vehicles [including the bus] have been stuffed full of phone-wielding, laptop-tapping screen users. Technology moves on apace. Transport does not.
The return is no better, requiring a bus and a further four trains. The windows are dark. I sit back and delve into the reaches of my rucksack for my Kindle…

It’s Christmas. Happy Christmas to all my lovely readers, whoever and wherever you may be…and a happy and peaceful 2018.

 

Think Yourself Lucky!

It is generally agreed by those of us who live here in the UK that 2017’s summer has been, at best, disappointing. Other than one or two early heat waves, when you had to take to the shade or expire, the traditional July and August holiday’s weather has been unpredictable, heavy showers alternating with wind and cloud, occasional bright patches but never a sustained period of warm sunshine.

This has been good for some; UK tourism is booming [see last week’s post] with ancient monuments, museums, attractions and theme parks all doing well. Other customary, outdoor summer events such as festivals have fared less well, with many having been cancelled altogether.

As a teenager and a young adult I adored hot weather. There was never a hint that exposure to hot sun could be in any way detrimental to health. On a [somewhat abortive, though that is a different story told in an older post] trip with fellow students to southern Europe I equipped myself with some dubious tablets that purported to allow tanning without burning, thus imbuing me with the confidence to strip off and fry myself to a crisp. Later, with the advent of sunblock creams I became more circumspect but nevertheless continued to sunbathe in the interests of maintaining a glowing, tanned skin.

For many retirees a home in the sun is a longed for goal with the result that areas like the Spanish Med are crowded with ageing ex-pats, [many of whom were further encouraged by the ability to draw their pension and enjoy free healthcare whilst living in Europe-benefits that may not, now sustain].

Despite the few remaining climate change deniers, such as Trump, our weather patterns are altering. We bemoaning Brits may grumble about our ropey summers, but southern Europe has begun to experience heat waves with unprecedented frequency and to extremes. Will those who abandoned Great Britain for warmer climes be able to manage life in the dangerously high temperatures we have begun to see?

Myself, while I love the sunshine as much as anyone else I am no longer able to tolerate the punishing heat that I used to enjoy when young and this is a feature of older age. Extreme heat is dangerous for older people as it is for the very young. We travel widely in Europe, Husband and I-but outside of high summer, in late spring or early autumn, when the edge of heat is no longer there, nor are the crowds.

I am as guilty as anyone of moaning about the British weather, but perhaps we Brits should consider ourselves lucky that we are not yet too drought-ridden and baked to live our lives here. We are starting to see the impact of too much rain on our country’s crops and we are prey to floods but other, less lucky parts of the world are seeing far worse conditions. Perhaps a cloudy, breezy, showery summer is not so bad after all!