Why go abroad?

MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND acquaintances are itching to travel abroad after at least three months of enduring ‘lockdown’ caused by the Corona virus pandemic. Although I fully understand their wanderlust, I would not feel happy travelling abroad for quite a long time despite the easing of restrictions that is on the point of happening in the UK and elsewhere. I am not even happy about travelling on public transport despite the enforcement of wearing face coverings and attempts at separating passengers by so-called ‘social distancing’.

 

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Waterend House

We used to own a car until it decided to give up the ghost in the autumn of 2010. Living in Kensington with access to a rich network of public transport and the fact that we used it no more than twice a month, we felt that replacing it was unnecessary. So, for almost ten years we used buses, trains, minicabs, the occasional rented car, and more recently Uber cars. With the advent of the Corona pandemic, we gave up using public transport and confined our activities to where we could reach comfortably on foot, in our case not much more than two and a half miles from home. As it seems likely that Britain will not be free of risk from infection until eventually there is a vaccine for the infective particles, and that might be a long way off, we decided to travel in ‘splendid isolation’ by buying ourselves a motor car. Recently, we bought a small ‘pre-loved’ motor, and this has allowed us to widen our horizons, to roam around a bit more.

My wife and I are amongst those who prefer to travel to foreign parts and have therefore largely neglected the wonders that are literally on our doorstep: the joys of Britain beyond the boundaries of Greater London. Over the years, it has always struck us how different London is from the rest of Britain. Leaving London and travelling beyond sometimes as exotic to us as crossing international borders.

One part of England that is on London’s doorstep but is completely different is East Anglia (the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk). Much of Essex contains the eastern spread of the metropolis and is not too attractive, but further away from London the county is full of pleasantly delightful surprises.

Recently, we drove to the tiny village of Tollesbury near the River Blackwater, one of the numerous inlets on the coast of Essex. Nearby, is the estuarine port of Maldon, made famous for its granular salt that is highly regarded by cooks. We spent a couple of hours sitting in Promenade Park next to one of the streams of the River Chelmer. Unlike popular beaches like Brighton and Bournemouth, Malden is enjoyed mainly by the town’s locals.  The small town, which is on a hill overlooking the river contains many old houses and a fine church containing the grave of President George Washington’s great-grandfather.

Another trip, which I have described elsewher, took us to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. From there, we visited the Suffolk village of Clare. Dominated by the ruins of a castle and the superb perpendicular style Church of St Peter and St Paul’s, and containing several old pubs and other buildings, this small place was once important in the wool industry. Clare College in Cambridge (founded 1326) was so named in honour of Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360), an heiress of the Dukes of Clare. She gave the college a handsome endowment. The three red chevrons on the town of Clare’s coat of arms also appear as part of the coat of arms of the Cambridge college. We spent no more than half an hour in Clare, but that was sufficient for us to want to linger there longer on a future visit.   Our route back to London took us through other picturesque villages in Suffolk and Essex, all of which deserve future visits.

Shortly after our trip to Suffolk, we travelled a mere eighteen miles to Hatfield. Our friends took us from that small town deep into the Hertfordshire countryside to a tiny place where Waterend Lane crosses the upper reaches of the River Lea. We parked next to a lovely well-preserved mainly brick building, Waterend House. The historicengland.org.uk website describes it as: “An exceptionally complete example of a mid-C17 medium-sized country house”, and states that one of the fireplaces within it bears an inscription with the date 1692. I would have loved to visit its interior. Instead, we walked around the almost one-mile perimeter of a huge sloping field.

The field and its surroundings were a ‘breath of fresh air’. The upper part of the field was filled with ripening barley, which swayed like waves when the stems were caught by frequent strong gusts of wind. We walked up a steep slope and turned a corner to join the bed of a long since disused railway track. Near the corner of the field an old brick bridge still exists. Long ago, trains used to run below it. While our hosts’ two dogs sniffed their way around the field, M and G pointed out the various wild plants that flanked our path.

The lower half of the field was a sea of daisies. It looked as if the ground was covered with snow. The daisies were not alone. Small patches of blue flowered thistles and red poppies added to the picturesqueness of the scene. Every now and then, we spotted teazels, both green and fresh and, also, dark and drying out, towering high above the daisies. Along the side of the field that runs parallel to the riverbank, there were elderberries and elderflowers as well as many nettles. M pointed out something I had never noticed before. That is, the leaves of nettles are home to numerous ladybirds. In addition to the large numbers of these creatures I spotted many other small beetles, some of which resembled the ladybirds.

I felt that walking around the field, seeing the swaying crops and taking in the details of nature proved very uplifting and therapeutic after our spell of urban ‘lockdown’. It made me pleased that we had taken the decision to buy our own vehicle to explore the countryside on London’s doorstep, and eventually further afield. England outside London feels like ‘another country’ and is well worth exploring. And, in these times of health uncertainties, it provides a worthwhile alternative to the exotic destinations that we have chosen to visit in the past.

Climate changes

BLOG CLIMATE

 

DURING THE 1980s, I lived and worked just over fifty miles south-east of central London in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns in Kent. Usually, I drove to London on Saturday afternoons after my morning dental surgery session ended at 1 pm. Then, after buying innumerable gramophone records and later also CDs and seeing friends, I would spend the night at my father’s home before returning to Kent late on Sunday evening.

One winter Sunday evening, after visiting friends, who lived in South Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital, I began driving towards Kent. When I reached Lewisham in south-east London, snow began falling lightly. I thought nothing of it. By the time I arrived at the start of the M2 motorway, the situation had changed considerably. The motorway was under several inches of fresh snow. The few vehicles travelling at that late hour drove on a pair of groove-like tracks made in the snow by vehicles ahead of me. It was rather like the page in the song “Good King Wenceslas: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly … In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted’.

The snow continued to fall and by the time I reached the motorway exit west of the Medway Bridge, I decided that it might be better to drive through Strood, Rochester, and Chatham rather than along the motorway that by-passed these places along a hilly exposed rural route, which I believed might have been badly affected by the snow.

It was about 2am when I left the motorway. I joined a line of cars that was crawling slowly towards Rochester – a traffic jam at 2 am. Eventually, I drove across the River Medway on the bridge at Rochester. The traffic was slow moving and dense despite the time. I decided to leave the main road and follow a back road that wound around Rochester Castle and avoided the city centre. I drove about fifty yards upwards along a steep snow-covered lane and then the car would go no further. Its wheels were unable to grip the road and I slid down to the bottom of the hill where I had started. There was no choice. I had to re-join the slow procession of traffic crawling through the interlinked Medway towns.

When I reached Gillingham, it was long after 3 am. I turned off the main A2 road and drove, or rather slid, downhill along Nelson Road which was covered with deep snow. At my street, Napier Road, the snow was even deeper and had not been compressed by passing vehicles. I headed towards my house but could not reach it because my car became wedged in a drift of densely packed snow. It remained locked in the snow for over three weeks.

The following day, the Medway Towns were almost paralysed by the snow. However, the only stretch of railway that was still operating was between two neighbouring stations, Gillingham and Rainham, where my dental surgery was located.  I managed to reach my surgery by train in my Wellington boots and wore these whilst treating the few patients who decided not to cancel their appointments. The only patients who struggled through the snow that day were elderly people who considered that cancelling appointments was disrespectful to the professional. All those brave souls, who made it through the hazardous snow, were seeing me about false teeth.

Although the snow did not disappear from the Medway Towns for over three weeks, the rail service to London resumed quite quickly. So, I continued to make my weekly visits to the capital. Fifty miles from snow-covered Gillingham, London was free of snow. Exaggerating slightly, visiting London was like travelling from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Few of my friends in London could believe that my home in Kent had sufficient snow to keep most skiers happy.

The spectacular change in climates that I experienced that winter when shuttling between London and Gillingham occurred long before the concept of ‘climate change’ became widespread in the public eye.

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

Birthday in Kosovo

K1 PROHOR PC 90 Church ext BLOG

MY BIRTHDAY IS on VE Day (8th of May). In 1990, I celebrated it in the former Yugoslavia. I was driving around Serbia in a rented car with my friend from Belgrade, Raša R. His birthday was the day following mine.

Before I rented the car, Raša, a vey wise fellow, advised me to rent a car from one particular company because its cars carried Slovenian registration plates, rather than Serbian. This  proved to be sound advice.

On the seventh of May, we booked into the comfortable accommodation provided at the beautiful Prohor Pčinjski monastery in the hills of southern Serbia. We decided to stay there two nights in order to celebrate our birthdays.

My birthday wish was to drive into the autonomous region of Kosovo and Metohija, which was populated by a high percentage of Albanians. And, then as now, I was greatly interested in all matters connected with Albania and the Albanian diaspora. Both Raša and I had separately visited the area in the 1970s. We were both keen to see it again.

Raša, a Serbian, had some reservations about driving into Kosovo, where there had been some unpleasant violent incidents between the Serbian and Albanian communities some months earlier. However, he decided that he would accompany me for two reasons. One was that our car bore Slovenian plates, not Serbian. The other related to his excellent command of the English language. He said he would only speak in English in Kosovo, not a word of Serbian.

We set off, driving through the relatively empty Serbian countryside. The boundary of Serbia and Kosovo was at the summit of a low mountain pass. As soon as we entered Kosovo,  we discovered that, unlike the part of Serbia we had just left, the countryside of Kosovo was relatively crowded with people, by the road side and in the fields. The landscape was liberally dotted with recently constructed homes and other buildings. This was quite different from what we recalled of our earlier visits.

We drove into Priština (Prishtinë), the capital city of the autonomous region. The main road was filled with a sea of people. We inched forward. The crowds parted slowly to allow us to proceed. Raša advised, nay forbade, me to sound the car’s horn. He did not want to upset anyone. I had never before driven through such crowds. Four years later, I did it again, but in the central market area of Bangalore in India. There, I and other motorists sound horns incessantly, but nobody pays the slightest notice to them.

We parked in the centre of the city in a car park that looked like it was the site of a large demolished building.

I was keen to buy recordings of Kosovan Albanian music for my ever growing collection of music from all over Yugoslavia.  The best supplier turned out to be a kiosk that sold cigarettes, magazines,  and newspapers. I bought about fifteen cassettes, the kiosk’s entire stock, but had no bag to carry my haul. The enterprising shop keeper saw my plight. He opened a couple of cartons that each contained twenty packs of cigarettes and emptied the packs onto his small counter. Then, he carefully packed my cassettes into the cartons.

After lunch in what seemed to be the grandest hotel in the city, we drove to see the beautiful Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gracanica.  Then we wended our way back towards Serbia, stopping for coffee at Gnjilane (Gjilan). There, I spotted a kebab shop that used a logo identical to the well-known McDonalds ‘M’. When I pointed this possible breach of ‘copyright’ to my friend, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

“This is Kosovo. Anything goes.”

We reached Prohor Pčinjski, where we ate a lavish and tasty dinner. The following day, Raša’s birthday trip was a drive through parts of Yugoslavian Macedonia. After passing some rice paddy fields, we were stopped by a policeman with a speed measuring device. He fined me the equivalent of £1 Sterling for speeding. My friend was fined half of that for not wearing a seatbelt. Otherwise, we had a good day, visiting an attractive small town, Kratovo, and the Roman ruins at Stobi on the River Vardar.

The following day, we drove back into Kosovo, stopping at the small town of Prizren. On both the 1990 and my 1975 visits, Prizren captured my heart more than any other place in Kosovo. Recently taken photographs I have seen show that it is still a delightful place.

From Prizren we drove to a dramatic pass that led from Kosovo into south eastern Montenegro.  We spent the night in Rozaje, a small Montenegrin market town. Thus ended a memorable double birthday celebration.

Soon after we visited Kosovo together, it was time for me to fly back to England. Raša accompanied me to Belgrade airport. Just before I entered the secure departure area, I waved to him and experienced a weird sensation. I felt that Raša knew that we would never meet again.

My sensation was not without basis. Soon after I left Yugoslavia,  the country began its painful dismemberment. Visiting my friends in Belgrade and elsewhere in Yugoslavia became inadvisable.  Sadly, by the time that uneasy peace began to reign again in what was once Yugoslavia, Raša had passed away.

VE Day marked the end of hostilities between the Axis and Allied powers in Europe on the day that was to become my birthday a few years later. The imposition of socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe that followed  did not put an end to festering sores that had been troubling the Balkans and elsewhere since the decline of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires, which had already begun at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This was certainly the case in what was Yugoslavia. During the ‘reign’ of Marshal Tito, a semblance of unity was achieved in his country. However, after his death, as if recovering from a general anaesthetic, old unresolved conflicts reawakened. President Milošević did little to resolve these, but instead helped to exacerbate hem. Hailed by some Yugoslavs, mostly Serbs, as the new hero of Yugoslavia, this assessment was not shared by many, especially the Albanian folk in Kosovo.

For all the opprobrium that was heaped on Serbia during the 1990s, I cannot forget the warmth, hospitality, and friendship shown to me by ordinary people living in Yugoslavia, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Albanians, and many others during the 1970s and 1980s. They did not deserve what befell them during the 1990s and much of the 20th century.

You can read more about travelling in the former Yugoslavia in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey. This illustrated book is available from:

Amazon

Bookdepository.com

Lulu.com

Kindle

Photo shows Prohor Pčinjski monastery

A track in Ireland

ONE OF THE JOYS OF driving a car is that you can go wherever you wish. To get from A to B, you can either take the most direct route or find a more interesting one. We often opted for the latter.

We used to do driving holidays long before ‘satnavs’ and Google mapping were available to ordinary motorists. We relied on maps and atlases, always trying to find the most detailed available.

In Easter 1993, we sailed from Swansea in Wales to Cork in Eire. After a superb breakfast in Cork, which included some of the best black pudding I have ever eaten, we began driving towards Kilshannig near Castlegregory on County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula.

Armed with a detailed Michelin road map and with a whole day ahead of us, we opted for a picturesque, but less direct, route.

Two interesting features of Irish roads soon became evident. First, there were bifurcations or t junctions where the same destination was on signs pointing in opposite directions. This was not a joke to confuse but simply an indication that both roads eventually met in the same place, maybe, for example, having skirted around different sides of a hill. The other thing is that we would be driving along a road and spotted a sign saying it was ‘5’ to the next village. Soon after that, another sign would inform us that it was ‘7’ to the same place, even though we knew for sure that we were going in the right direction. Ireland was busy converting its road signs from miles to kilometres, but many of the signs failed to include to which unit of measurement they referred.

We turned on our radio and listened to a programme in which someone was describing how to improve one’s skills when playing the game of curling. Every now and then, the presenter would say something like:
“Now, you hold it like this, see?”
The only problem was that there is nothing to be seen during a radio broadcast.

It was a lovely day and we were driving with the roof open. We drove past a golf course when suddenly there was a sharp clunk on the strip of roof between the car’s front windscreen and the open roof window. A poorly skilled golfer had made a poorly aimed shot. His ball had struck the car. Had it struck any where else, there was a good chance that it neither hit one of us nor shattered the windscreen.

Eventually, we reached Kenmare, having passed through Bantry Bay. Our most direct route would have been to go from Kenmare to Killarney via Muckross. However, my wife had discovered an alternative route on the map. It was marked on the map using the thinnest white line, which on Michelin msps denotes the most basic rustic thoroughfare. It was the road across a mountain pass called the Gap of Dunloe.

At first, the picturesque narrow road, not much wider than our Volvo saloon car, was easy to negotiate. We notice no other cars on it, but plenty of walkers and cyclists.

Soon, the track began to ascend, but not in a straight line. It wound up in a series of tight hairpin bends with very few passing places. After a while, we met a car coming down in the opposite direction. It was clear to me that my driving skills were better than the other. So, I had to reverse around several hairpin bends to reach a passing place.

We made it over the summit of the pass, and reached our hosts, Rober and Margaret at their cottage at Kilshannig, on a spit of land almost surrounded by sea and distant mountains: some of the beautiful scenery I have seen in Europe.

After welcome cups of tea, we told our hosts about our journey from Cork to Kilshannig. When we told them that we had driven across the Gap of Dunloe, Margaret exclaimed:
“But, that’s a footpath. We have often thought of visiting it, but we were worried that neither our Land Rover or our car would be able to cope with crossing the Gap.”

Adventurous crossing

BEST TO WATCH THE SHORT VIDEO (1 minute) FILMED IN BANGALORE (India) BEFORE READING THIS!

Watch here:  https://vimeo.com/409423869

SINCE THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, and the worldwide decline in road usage, what is written below has temporarily become historical.

Crossing main roads in Bangalore and many other Indian cities requires an act of faith and is quite an adventure. There are, of course, some pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic signals that are usually but not always obeyed. Once we were in an autorickshaw in Ahmedabad. The driver hardly ever stopped at red signals. When we asked him about this, he told us that there was no need to stop at red lights unless there was a policeman nearby.

Despite the availability of controlled pedestrian crossings in Bangalore, most people cross busy roads wherever they feel like and however hectic the traffic, putting life and limb at risk every time.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am singling out Indian road users including pedestrians for their exciting approach to road safety.

Long ago in Rome, I got the feeling that pedestrians who expected motorists to stop at pedestrian crossings mostly stimulated drivers to drive more rashly when they were trying to cross the road.

In another former imperial city, Istanbul, which I visited in 2010, motorists drove fast and recklessly. When drivers paused at pedestrian crossings, it was only briefly. They were like energetic dogs straining on their stretched leashes. I had the feeling that at any moment cars would charge forward to crush the people scurrying across the road.

Indian drivers, although seemingly undisciplined, expect anything to happen on the road, be it a cow that suddenly strays onto the carriageway to vehicles driving in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic and people who have decided to dry their grains on a sun drenched flat road surface. Most Indian drivers, expecting the unexpected, seem to have good reflexes. So, pedestrians wandering across the road wherever and whenever they feel like it do not pose a great problem for drivers. That said, I feel that crossing busy roads in Bangalore requires much courage and faith in the skill and care of drivers.

My approach to crossing busy roads in Bangalore is as follows. Quite simply, I look for someone else nearby who wants to cross. As these strangers are often locals, I assume, perhaps naively, that they are experienced in crossing the road. I join them to take advantage of their supposed experience and because any sensible motorist would rather injure one pedestrian rather than several at once. Foolish reasoning, maybe, but apart from making long detours to find allegedly controlled crossings, I will willingly accept better suggestions.

Well, at the moment (April 2020), the streets of Bangalore and London, where I live, are pleasantly devoid of traffic apart from occasional cars, delivery motor bikes and public service vehicles.

Even in London, where drivers are not mentally prepared for pedestrians wandering into their paths away from controlled crossings, traversing the street ‘Bangalore style’ has become possible. My worry is that when ‘lockdown’ is unlocked, will people in London be able to get out of their newly acquired habit of crossing wherever and whenever they feel like it?

Adventures in South Africa

HOG 5 Barkly Pass BLOG

 

In August 2003, we went on a driving holiday in South Africa, concentrating on visiting places connected with my ancestors who began settling in the country during the nineteenth century. We also saw some places unconnected with my family history. Although the main roads in South Africa were excellent. However, some of the minor roads were adventurous to say the least.

My mother spent the first ten years of her life in a tiny town, Barkly East, in the Eastern Cape. We decided to drive there from Lady Grey, where we had been staying for a couple of nights. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was instrumental in getting the South African government to extend the railway across the mountains from Lady grey to Barkly East. Nelly, a barmaid at the Mountain View Hotel in Lady Grey, told us that the railway no longer ran. About 11 years before we met her, she went on this train along with many other children from Lady Grey on an excursion. Disaster struck. Someone who had had too much to drink took over the running of the train, and it went out of control.  She remembers the train coming to a very sudden halt and being thrown forward. She was lucky only to have received ‘skid-marks’ on her skin: three of her young friends were killed instantly. It would have interesting to have travelled on that line, because like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India’s West Bengal my grandfather’s railway negotiated the steep slopes of the mountains by a series of zig-zags with switchback reverses.

People at the hotel at Lady Grey said that instead of taking a new main road to Barkly East, we should go via the longer but far more picturesque via Joubert’s Pass. This was very scenic but quite hazardous. The road was no wider than our car and covered with loose gravel to which the car’s wheels could hardly grip. I would have enjoyed the spectacular views from the winding road on the way up had I not needed to concentrate so much on keeping the car attached to the road (‘track’ or ‘footpath’ would be a better description of the road). My heart sank when we saw a car approaching us from the opposite direction. The road was so narrow that one of us would have to reverse a long way. Fortunately, the occupants of the approaching car recognised us; they had met us at a barbecue party in Lady Grey on the night before. Kindly, and hazardously, they drove backwards at hair-raising speed along the winding road until they reached a passing place. After the summit of the pass, the road surface improved and we descended into farmland, deserted except for a few sheep and cows. The road wound around following a river, which lay at the bottom of a steep sided canyon. Eventually the road re-joined the main Lady Grey to Barkly East highway.  In a way, this was our ‘baptism of fire’ as far as South African roads are concerned.

Later during our trip, we headed for Hogsback, a quaint place high in the Amathole Mountains about 40 miles northwest of King Williams Town, where my mother and her siblings were born. Some say that Hogsback was the inspiration for his “Lord of the Rings”. However, this is unlikely as Tolkien, who was born far away in Bloemfontein, left South Africa when he was three years old. Whatever the truth of this, we set out for Hogsback from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour.

My wife, our navigator discovered on the map that there was road – a shortcut, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. On our detailed map, the thoroughfare was marked as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, which we interpreted as meaning that it was suitable for saloon cars such as our hired vehicle. We began driving along it through almost level farmland. We stopped to ask a local whether we were on the road to Hogsback. Somewhat drunkenly, the fellow pointed skywards, and said what sounded like:

Herp, herp, herp.”

This we understood to mean that we had had to go ‘up, up, up’ the hill. Gradually the road began ascending, at first gently. A post-office van passed coming from the opposite direction passed us. This reassured us that the road was motorable. Soon, the road became amazingly steep.

This road, the so-called shortcut, proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback. The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steep steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or, more often, walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under-surface. Negotiating the car safely over some of these boulders reminded me of performing some of my trickiest difficult tooth extractions. In the dental situation, the operator has to avoid cutting the patient’s nerves or large blood vessels. On the way to Hogsback from Seymour, the driver has to avoit severing the fuel line that runs beneath the vehicle. One false move, and we would have been in big trouble, especially as on this lonely road there was neither a mobile telephone signal nor anyone else around.   Hair-raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised: “Road not recommended for caravans”.

Later, when we returned to Cape Town, I was talking to a cousin about this road. He told me that he had driven along it but managed to ground the car on a rock and sever his car’s fuel line. I have no idea whether this awful road has been improved, but, even if it has, I will not tackle it again.

Hogsback was delightful. However, when we arrived snow began falling in a serious way. The temperature dropped. The cottage we had hired was freezing cold. One tiny heater was provided to try to warm the whole place. It was useless. Hogsback like large parts of India suffers from cold during winter months. Yet, in both places, proper heating seems to be considered unnecessary. Apart from being cold, we enjoyed our brief stay at Hogsback, where we were fed with well-prepared food in a restaurant near our accommodation, run by Dion and Shane.

The two journeys I have described were somewhat risky and adventurous. Writing this reminds me of the parting words of a librarian in, Philippolis (in the Free State), the birth town of Sir Laurence Van Der Post:

Whatever we die of in South Africa, it won’t be boredom.”

 

Photo taken in 2003 on the Joubert Pass

A town in California

 

Just after Christmas in 1994, we flew to San Francisco in California (USA) for a four-week holiday. My wife was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Before booking our trip, we consulted her obstetrician at St Marys Hospital in Paddington, London. We wanted to know whether it was safe for her to travel at this stage in her pregnancy. The obstetrician did not mince her words:

Yes, go ahead, but make sure that you have good travel health insurance because having a premature birth in the United States might well bankrupt you.”

After spending a few days with friends who live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, we rented a car, an upmarket Toyota, one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. We drove all over California south of San Francisco. Also, we visited the Grand Canyon and saw it under snow. This was a very beautiful sight because the snow had fallen in such a way that the many stepped strata that line the walls of this spectacular gorge were accentuated. We admired this while trudging through very deep snow. In order to enjoy this, we had had to purchase snow chains and to learn how to apply them to the wheels.

One day, we drove south from the snow-covered Grand Canyon to Sedona, a town famed for its vortices of energy. It was a distance of 106 miles. Yet in that short distance the weather had changed from Arctic to summer. And, the following, day we drove further south past Phoenix and Yuma and then through a southern Californian Desert to San Diego. Even though it was freezing up at the Grand Canyon, from Phoenix to San Diego it was so hot that we had to switch on the car’s air-conditioning.

From San Diego, we spent a few days driving along roads close to the Pacific Coast. We visited most of the historic mission stations between San Diego and San Francisco. We also stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur, where the writer Henry Miller once lived. The building in which the writer lived was open to the public. While we were visiting it, my pregnant wife needed to use a toilet urgently. Without making any fuss, the guardian unlocked the toilet that Miller used to use and allowed my wife to relieve herself.

Being fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we visited some of the few buildings that the great architect had designed along the route we were taking. One of these, at San Luis Obisco (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), was a particularly lovely medical centre, the Kundert Medical Clinic that was built in 1956.

On the final day of our road trip, I looked at the guidebook and spotted something that I did not want to miss. To reach it, meant adding 60 miles to our already long (300-mile journey) journey. The place that caught my eye was about 90 miles to the east of our destination Marin County on the left bank of the River Sacramento. The small settlement is called Locke.

Locke is in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. In the 1860s, work was undertaken to drain the malarial wetlands. Many poor Chinese labourers were hired to do this work at disgracefully low wages. In about 1912, the settlement of Lockeport, now called ‘Locke’ was established by three local Chinese merchants. Three years later in 1915, the Chinatown in nearby walnut Grove was destroyed by fire. The Chinese community then moved to Locke and a town grew. Because the Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade Asians buying farmland, the Chinese in the area leased the land from a George Locke.

The town’s population reached 1000 to 1500 in its heyday. It acquired a reputation for its gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. At one point, according to an article in Wikipedia, it became known as ‘California’s Monte Carlo’. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the towns population dwindled because many people migrated from Locke to major American cities. Currently, there are only about ten people living there.

By 1995 when we drove into Locke it was already a ghost town, a lesser-known tourist attraction. However, it did not disappoint us. Most of the main street’s buildings were picturesquely decaying. They were all made of wood, and no doubt highly inflammable. The place looked like a rundown set for a cowboy film, except that it was for real. One of the buildings that had housed a gambling salon, or maybe a brothel or opium den, was open to the public. Its original dingy décor had been preserved. All that was missing was a haze of opium smoke and the poor Chinese workers squandering their hard-earned money.

From Locke we drove west into the setting sun towards Marin County, pleased that we had made the detour to see the fascinating remnant of a far-off era. Our daughter was born three months later, having travelled several thousand miles around the American west in utero.

Hair cut in Italy

Sometime in the 1980s, I was visiting Italy in order to see my sister who lives in the Emilia Romagna region. I landed at Milan and rented a car.

HAIR BLOG

The SEAT vehicle which I hired was tiny and very basic and seemed to lack many items that can be found in other low-cost cars. However, I benefitted from it because it did not consume fuel at a high rate. This was lucky because in those days fuel was extremely expensive in Italy as compared with other countries in Europe. In those days, the petrol price in the UK had just exceeded £1 per GALLON (4.5 litres). In Italy, at the same time, petrol was available at about 1600 Lire per LITRE, and the exchange rate was about 1570 Lire to the Pound Sterling. Nevertheless, I ‘beetled’ around Italy visiting various friends in different places. 

Driving practices in Italy differed from those in the UK. One day, I gave a lift to some Italian friends. At each village or small settlement on the Strada Statale (main road, not a motorway or highway) there were traffic signals at intersections. At one of these, I began to slow down because I could see that the signal was about to turn red. My friends said:

“What are you doing? Why are you slowing down?”

“The signal is turning red,” I replied.

“Don’t be silly, speed up. Don’t let the signal hold us up!”

I cannot remember what I did, but I have lived to tell the tale.

A day or so before I was due to meet my sister, I decided that I ought to have a haircut in order to look presentable. I stopped in a village, where I had spotted a barber shop as I was driving past.

I entered to smart looking salon, and sat amongst three or four other gentlemen awaiting the caring hands of the barber.Eventually, I was invited onto the barber’s throne. I explained what I wanted as best I could with my very rudimentary Italian. However, the barber, a true experienced professional, knew what was needed. 

He began rummaging around in the mop of hair on my head, and then suddenly stepped back as if he had been confronted by a deadly poisonous snake. He raised his hands high above his head, and shouted:

“Forfora”

The other men in the salon shrank back, one or two of them hiding their heads under the newspapers that they were reading. I sat, amazed and wondering about the meaning of ‘forfora’ and why it had caused such alarm.

Then it dawned on me. The barber had discovered dandruff in my hair. He explained something to me that I worked out meant that he needed to apply a special treatment to my hair.  I told him to go ahead. He rubbed some oily liquid into my hair. After a moment, I felt a strong burning sensation. It felt as if something was burrowing down the roots of my hair and into my scalp. As it worked, I thought that whatever had been applied felt as if it was strng enough to kill anything. I just prayed that my hair would not fall as a result of this terrific chemical onslaught.

After a short time, my head began to feel normal, and the barber carried out my haircut. I do not remember how much my cut cost, but I do remember having to pay an extra 5000 Lire for the special treatment.

I doubt that I will ever forget the Italian word for ‘dandruff’, but how often I will make use of this knowledge is questionable.

 

Photo: a hairdresser in Istanbul