My other country, right or wrong

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The Animal Axis of Evil

TFSOM has had to hire extra staff to deal with the flood of applications to join this den of wickedness. Having narrowed the field to two outstanding candidates, the committee has been unable to separate William the Conger-eel and Genghis Kangaroo, extending membership to both.  Congratulations to them and to their sponsors Mick and Jane.

My other country, right or wrong

Living in modestly comfortable retirement outside the UK, I have looked on as aghast as anyone at the mess which has followed the lunatic Brexit vote of June 2016, and at the cast of awful characters it has thrown up. From what has felt like a safe distance, I have shaken my head in wonderment at the colourless, backstabbing weasel Michael Gove, the conceited philistine oaf and failed jester Boris Johnson, the unspeakable Nigel Farage, the slithery, patronising, impervious Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hapless Theresa May, tottering towards the tumbril with those little short steps as if her elbows have been bolted to her sides.

But while I have looked on in disbelieving fascination, I have all along felt complacently detached from the spectacle, because I live in Europe (proper Europe, not Britain), and have worked and contributed here for many years. Now that I am retired here, I get a reasonable pension from the Portuguese state which makes up the greater part of my income, and I feel not only quite lucky, but quite lucky to be a European – and not much like going back to live in Britain. And if I am a properly paid-up Portuguese pensioner, I have reasoned, surely they won’t kick me out just because I’m no longer a EU citizen. Will they?

Well of course, they might.

So the logical next step is to apply for Portuguese citizenship, so that I can have dual Portuguese-British nationality. Unfortunately, any expatriate Brit with an ounce of sense has already taken care of that over the last couple of years, so lazy complacent TFSOM is joining the back of a long queue, cap metaphorically in hand. The first stage is a Portuguese language test, which I will not be able to (even try to) register for until December. After that it will necessarily be a tiresome and apparently very long bureaucratic labyrinth, but theoretically there will be an end to it one day, and I will be the proud recipient of my ‘nacionalidade portuguesa’.

It’s easy for an expat [i] to fall into a habit of mind which patronises, dismisses or is wryly amused by the host nation and its customs (and perhaps particularly easy for the British, who don’t seem to be getting over the empire very well). I have seen people shake their heads, roll their eyes heavenward and say ‘this could only happen here’ in Greece, in India, in Brazil and now in Portugal. They say it in every country, just about different things. I’ve said it myself in all the above places, including Portugal. But when I used the word ‘proud’ above it wasn’t just a manner of speaking, because as the idea of being a Portuguese national has formed over the last few months I’ve realised (slightly to my surprise at first) that I would take great pride in it. There’s a lot to like and admire here. I could start with the obvious: the weather, the wine, the beaches, the birds, the countryside (all lovely); or with the way the country has found its own way to emerge from the global financial crisis, austerity and all that [ii] (very admirable); or to be topical, with the way Portuguese environmentalists have this month stopped Big Oil from drilling off the Alentejo coast (hurrah again). But instead I’ll be taking the usual worm’s eye view of things.

  1. The young aren’t too bad, at least where I live, which is not posh but not rough either. I’m not an especial fan of young people in general, but I like the patient and respectful way Portuguese ones often behave with the old, and the fact that I don’t get my head beaten in when I remonstrate politely with groups of teenagers in the park about revving their motorbikes noisily or damaging the plants. I am also amazed by the way they don’t seem to mind each other’s company when sober. In a café it is not uncommon to see seven or eight young people chatting and laughing for hours round two tiny tables bearing four coffees, one beer and three bottles of mineral water, with no compulsion to drink themselves stupid, nor any nagging by management to consume more (unlike the foreign students I was teaching in Cambridge once, who told me that the local pub had asked them to leave for not drinking enough.)
  2. People like going out for a proper lunch. When I worked, I always sat at my desk eating a sandwich, or forking leftovers into my mouth from a Tupperware, but as much as anything that was because I was busy and not very good at chatting to people. The Portuguese, in contrast, like to get away from the work-place, get their knees under a table and have a proper knife-and-fork, sit-down lunch. I approve of this, also the fact that nowadays you far less often see customers putting away half a litre of wine before driving back to work.
  3. Eating out is quite cheap. It is in general, but especially in the crowded, noisy little lunchtime restaurants which cater to the above clientele.
  4. People don’t go for walks in the country. In Britain, the countryside is seething with cheery ramblers, or fell-walkers with hiking-poles and proper footwear, who say things like ‘Just look at that, isn’t that beautiful?’, and smack their lips histrionically after a gulp of ale, and want to walk miles. In Portugal, once you’ve gone a hundred metres from the last parking-spot, you’re unlikely to be bothered by another soul.
  5. People just put up with each other. For example, there is a certain kind of Portuguese clever-dick who likes to jump the queue at motorway exit slip-roads by cruising slowly along winking in the inside lane, then diving in front of someone else at the last minute. Veronica and I simmer with disapproval, and shake our heads, and say ‘Unbelievable, just look at that fucker, why do people let them get away with it’, and are tempted to drive a yard from the rear-bumper of the car in front, just to stop it happening to us. (Veronica told me she did this once, but it didn’t work out well). However, in a recent road-to-Damascus moment I suddenly realised that it is far better for the blood-pressure if you don’t focus on the dickheads, but on the nineteen people out of twenty who are doing the right thing, which most people in Portugal do. I am working on this.
  6. Nobody in Portugal gives a tinkers about their royal family. Enterprising revolutionaries assassinated the king a hundred or so years ago, and made sure they killed his heir too. His younger brother was deposed after two years and ran off to exile in Twickenham (where he became the first president of the Twickenham Piscatorial Society), and that was that. There is ‘a prominent and active heir to the throne [iii]’ as the website The Mad Monarchist noted a year or two ago, and ‘some cause for hope that the horrendous error of October 1910 may someday be corrected and the royal house of Braganza restored to its proper place on the throne of Portugal’. But if you exclude a few Jacob Rees-Mogg nutters of this type, and Olá, the Portuguese royal family is taken no more seriously than it deserves.

I could go on, but will leave the matter there for now. It goes without saying that none of the foregoing in any way disqualifies me from being patronising, dismissive and wryly amused about Portugal whenever the need arises.

 Sports Couch: Turds of Wisdom

I suspect not many people ever bother to read this section, but anyway the following may amuse:

  1. Sky Sports Cricket have finally got rid of the charmless and unsightly Ian Botham as a pundit, but we seem to be seeing an awful lot of Nasser Hussein, with mixed results. Half-way through the women’s T20 World Cup semi-final, with England having been set a smallish total by a very feeble India, he sagely counselled caution, because ‘make no mistake, this is not a pitch to knock off the runs for three wickets, with three overs to spare’. Sure enough, an hour or so later England had knocked off the runs for two wickets, with three overs to spare.
  2. Or how about Eddie Jones’s prediction before the England-Australia rugby match last weekend: ‘We think Australia will come out like they always come out, like a bull at a china-gate.’

See you soon.

[i] It has recently come to my knowledge that the correct pronunciation both of this abbreviation and of the full personal noun ‘expatriate’ has the pat pronounced like ‘pate’ (though one source did acknowledge the peculiar British variant of pronouncing pat like ‘pat’). How long will it be before Trump tweets: “What’s wrong with these people, why did they stop being patriots?”

[ii] After a few years of conservative government collaborating with the ECB and the IMF in strangling the economy and punishing the population, in the last three years a Socialist-led coalition has dumbfounded neo-cons by increasing investment and public spending, resisting privatisations and reducing both the budget deficit and unemployment.

[iii] This was the Duke of Bragança, who is patron of the Portuguese version of the Duke of Edinburgh award, the Prémio Infante D’Henrique. A year or two ago he came to the school to present certificates. He was a pear-faced, absent-looking man, in late middle-age, with a moustache. He was well-managed by a clutch of camp, snotty little aides, but to the casual observer didn’t seem very active.

Another mixed bag

There are three headed sections to this post. I only point that out because at least one person missed the Sports Couch section of the last one (Heskey admits: ‘Thank Christ for that, I was shitting myself’) because it came at the end of the post.

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Journal: the weather, geronto-bullying, two days in Aveiro

It looks like autumn has finally, properly, come to Carcavelos. Up till a couple of weeks ago we would still get the occasional outlandishly hot afternoon, when flies would wake with a start to find they were alive after all, and blunder about the house buzzing and banging their heads against the windows before dying again, or you would go out with a jacket on only to find it was 80°F outside. But now we have had days of deep puddles, cold, thin, persistent rain, hissing car-tyres and old ladies’ umbrellas knocking your hat off in the High Street. Suddenly it feels like winter is coming.

I have been much bullied by old ladies in the last couple of weeks. In the supermarket, I was jostled in the queue for the cash desk by an elderly, thickset little woman behind me, who needed me out of the way because she was impatient to start laying out her shopping before there was really space for her to do so. When I asked her politely if she would mind giving me some room, she scowled at me contemptuously and did not bother to reply. A day or two later I joined a queue behind another one, partly because she didn’t have much in her basket. However, just as I was reaching the surface where you unload your shopping, she was joined by a young teenager, presumably her grand-daughter, whom she impatiently beckoned forward to push in front of me with a full trolley. As she and the elderly woman began unloading it I (foreign, male, but getting old at least…) was moved to protest, and was once again treated to a blank look of such implacable rudeness that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had spat on the floor at my feet. The young girl at least had the grace to look apologetic.

These things bring to mind a little incident in the busy, picturesque town of Aveiro a couple of weeks ago. It was a rainy morning, and we were about to use a zebra-crossing across a side-street when there was an outraged cry from a young woman stepping onto the other side, as a car not only failed to stop but accelerated across. You will have guessed what follows by now, but the driver was a woman in what looked like her mid-sixties, her face set and looking fixedly ahead as if she was thinking ‘I’ve got this bloody thing moving now, and I’m not stopping for anyone’. As she joined the main avenue, followed by an indignant word or two, I wondered aloud if she even realised that she was supposed to stop – there was a rustic look about her. Veronica’s view, expressed drily, was that she was probably preoccupied thinking about all the things she had to do that day. Veronica has recently read the very funny spoof Ladybird book How It Works: The Mum, the first page from which is reproduced below and has struck a bit of a chord with her, although she is now a three-time grandmother [i].

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Aveiro was worth the visit, if you’re ever thinking of going. We took the train from Santa Apolónia station on Sunday morning, the day after Hurricane Leslie made landfall, and stayed in the Aveiro Palace (the big pinkish building in the first picture), right by the canal. Our room was on the first floor, and had a narrow balcony running its length where you could sit with a drink and watch the canal and the main bridge, with crowds of tourists and day-trippers dawdling about or sitting on damp rowing-benches in moliceiros. These are traditional boats like gondolas only bigger, which used to go out into the lagoon and collect eel-grass for agriculture, but now spend their days carrying tourists up and down the canal.  They are beautiful, but we didn’t go on one.

troncalhada-eco-museum

My research on the reliable IPMA site had assured me that the weather that first day would be decent, with continuous rain to come on Monday, so we thought we would leave the museums for the next day and get out and about straight away. After some lunch we walked west along the broad canal and then north-west round a dog-leg, admiring it all, the moliceiros, the park, the picturesque house-fronts in the sunshine. After a few hundred yards we had left the town behind, and soon reached the bridge and lock-gates where the canal joins the lagoon. We sat on a low crash-barrier for a while, watching the lock-gates working and enjoying the cold fishy smell of the water (or maybe that was just me). By the lock was the Eco-Museum, which was not, as I had wrongly understood from the Internet page, the shed pictured above, but the salt-pans beyond it, which here and there have large signs you can stand in front of, reading all about salt. I do eat plenty of salt and was moderately interested, but there being salt-pans I had been hoping to see some waders too. Unfortunately there was only one bird, poking about as if it didn’t have much else to do. It was a black-winged stilt, a beautiful and elegantly-proportioned creature, but as it was alone I stopped watching after a while, not wishing to cause it embarrassment.

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Late the next morning, Monday, we are standing in light rain in a park I found on a pre-breakfast stroll, looking owlishly at an Archimedes screw by the side of an ornamental lake. There used to be a poster in our Design Technology room in the school where I worked. It was one of these stirring things teachers love to put on their walls, and went something like ‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; let me do it and I will understand.’ On the internet there are plenty of variations on this, sometimes identified as a Chinese proverb, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (incorrectly, as one site primly points out, not that I give a monkey’s). Teachers, and especially educational middle-management types, and even more especially the ones you get at educational conferences, are great lovers of snappy sayings like this (‘fail to prepare and prepare to fail’ is another). We had a principal who had been a big administrator in the IB Middle Years Programme and thought he was a bit of a genius, and he used to say ‘Less is More’ quite a lot. It must have been newly fashionable about that time. I had a lot of trouble with it, because it seemed perfectly plain to me that less of something is less of it and more of it is more. When I was talked through the thing by a patient colleague I grasped the basic meaning, which seemed to be that moderation can be a more effective approach than overdoing things, but I didn’t feel that much new ground had been broken with this idea, once it was stripped of the meretricious gloss of verbal paradox. Anyway, the reason I mentioned that poster at the start of the paragraph is because today the opposite happens with me and this Archimedes screw, which is very similar to the one pictured. When I first learned about them, as a child at school, the principle seemed perfectly clear to me –  you turn that, this goes round, and the water in the screw is carried up and pours out at the top. But no matter how many times Veronica or I turn the handle, nor how narrowly I watch the water, I can’t see how it’s done. I’m like someone watching one of those TV magicians.

After Hurricane Leslie there are still a half-dozen or so fallen trees in the park, which is carpeted everywhere with snapped-off branches and twigs. We wander about, wondering at the destruction, but after a while the rain comes on harder and we head for Aveiro Museum, which apparently has a lot of things worth seeing and where we plan to spend two or three hours. What we have forgotten, of course, is that Portuguese museums close on Mondays. We go to the cathedral instead, which is noteworthy for the beautifully clean lines of its high, square transept, but where we are obliged to put up with a middle-aged Roma woman (I believe you can’t say gypsy these days) to whose aged mother I think I have just given money outside the cathedral. She is having an interminable, angry and very loud conversation on her mobile phone. Before we leave, I approach and ask her if she comes to the cathedral for a peaceful place to think and pray, but she is not amused by this.

Next day we are due to catch the early-afternoon train, but have time to return to the museum if we get a move on. We enter and approach a counter, where a woman on the phone jerks her head to indicate we should go to another counter further on. There, we are told that yes we can have tickets, but the museum will be closing for lunch in twelve minutes, and reopening an hour-and-a-half later. Even so we have time to look at the beautifully-worked marble tomb of Santa Joana and  at the Igreja de Jesus, which is hideously ornate and seems to be composed entirely of gold, in marked and ugly contrast with the stylish austerity of the cathedral.

Vlad the Impala.

… was the happy result of a slip of the tongue the other day, which has given me the idea of founding The Animal Axis of Evil, if I can find enough thugs to keep Vlad company. So far he has been joined by Ivan the Terrapin, Billy the Squid, and Jack the Kipper (not quite an animal, but this is harder than you might think). Osama bin Llama has been rejected on syntactic grounds, but even so I am considering a pair of Jerbils, one of them called Joseph. I have had to reject Lily the Skink, Winnie the Gnu and Robert the Moose as not being anywhere near evil enough, but Onan the Parrot (Dorothy Parker’s pet, so named because he spilt his seed on the ground) asks virtuously: ‘if masturbation isn’t an evil, what is?’ Suggestions for further adoptions are welcomed.

Adagio for Ingerland

It was bad enough having ITV Sport ruin The Verve’s Bitter Sweet (sic) Symphony for ever by using it as the theme music for England football matches. Now Sky (of course) have gone one further by appropriating Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings for their adverts trailing England’s autumn rugby internationals. I confess I had never heard the piece before I saw Platoon, but it seems to me still that the Adagio both dignified and was dignified by the film, in a moving and wholly successful synergy. It is painful to see it used by Sky as the background to a ghastly piece of patriotic doggerel about following the rose through the highs and the lows. They already did this to Nimrod, God damn them.

Toodle-oo

[1] At a lunch party the other week, conversation had turned to the horrors of being a lone parent flying with children, and she contributed the following, in a ‘top this one’ tone and without a trace of irony: ‘I was at the airport recently and saw this poor, poor woman with three young children and a husband’.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we go again…

Soccer - FIFA World Cup England 66 - Final - England v West Germany - Wembley Stadium

The TFSOM offices are knee-deep in postcards sent in by readers keen to hear more about aquarobics classes, megaliths and dog-mess, and concerned that nothing has been posted for a while.  A number of correspondents have been worried that I might already have died, and will therefore have to give up the blog. I am happy to reassure them that my health is relatively good, but I have been kept too busy to write by the following:

  • We spent a week in deepest France, visiting one of Veronica’s brothers and his wife.
  • We spent a week in Yorkshire, visiting just about everyone else in her family.
  • The World Cup is on.

We have also had the builders in, and now summer is starting in earnest, bringing visits from my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, plus my son and daughter-in-law will be over from Australia.

But I thought it would be civil to say hello quickly, so here goes a short post.

France, Vendée, ‘La Petite Noisette’

We were in the Vendée, which France-lovers (not quite the same as francophiles) will already know is a very rural area near the west coast, to the south of Brittany (think wheat-fields, huge trees, stone-built villages, duck-egg blue window-shutters, massive stone crucifixes everywhere.) We spent a relaxing time eating and drinking too much and playing off-piste boules around Martin and Cheryl’s big garden. A gastronomic curiosity (apart from being amazed all over again by the French custom of soaking buttered toast in their morning coffee before drinking it) was the fact that the best place we ate out (by far) was a small village gastro-pub run by an English couple (the worst was a place in Nantes, where I made the mistake of ordering steak, and was served the worst meal I have had set before me in many years [i]). The pub was called ‘La Petite Noisette’, and the food was excellent throughout, from amuse-bouche to starters to fish to puddings. An even greater curiosity was the fact that within ten minutes of our arriving, the place was suddenly filled with a party of over a dozen Scottish, English and Welsh people of a certain age, keen to wet their whistles before their dinner. I couldn’t help glancing from time to time at one of the Scots, a stocky, larger-than-life character who looked exactly like Ally McCoist’s overweight dad, until I realised that it must in fact be Ally McCoist. This gang were finally sat down at a long table, but the well-lubricated roar of rosbif banter, gossip and argument stopped a young French couple who came in in their tracks, jaws comically ajar. Anyway, if you are ever near Vernoux-en-Gatine, in Deux-Sèvres, try the place out. Four of us ate extremely well and drank a litre of decent house wine (OK, I drank half of it) for less than 130 euros.

Yorkshire, leafy Sheffield, the moors,

We were in Sheffield, Veronica’s home-town. Sheffield people are up in arms about all the tree-felling over the last year or two, but outside the not-very-picturesque-to-say-the-least city centre (I am being careful here) it is a gorgeously leafy place, where we had a busy family time, once again involving a lot of drinking and eating. On one outing I had excellent cod and chips, scoffed from a paper bag, followed a little later by half a truly succulent pork pie and a small bag of pontefract cakes, before going home for tea and dinner. On the same outing I had asked for a quick trip up to the moors, where everyone else stayed in the car with the windows up while I staggered about leaning into the refreshing summer breeze, before sheltering for a few minutes behind a large rock bearing a sign announcing forbiddingly that this was Holm Moss Car Park.

The World Cup began while we were in Sheffield, which meant when we weren’t eating we were watching football on the telly, so it was a great trip.

It’s all about the football from here on, so stop reading here if you’re already sick of it.

World Cup Diary

Monday 25th

What is the Icelandic for déjà vu?

It’s like watching someone fall off the waggon the moment they have to spend five minutes with people having a drink. The sports press, commentators, anchormen and pundits succeeded for month after month in presenting a po-faced, rational attitude to England’s chances at the World Cup, but all that has gone in a week. At the start of the tournament, no sane money was on England to win it, because they hadn’t beaten a decent team in a major tournament for sixteen years (that was Argentina by a nicked penalty in 2002). The fact that they still haven’t done so seems to have been lost on everyone on telly except Slavan Bilic. England have just about managed to overcome a not-very-good Tunisian team, they’ve scored a lot against some desperately poor Panamanians, and now they are on their way to the final, to judge by Alan Shearer’s irritating ear-to-ear smirk and the unhinged exclamations of the BBC commentator for the Panama game, viz: ‘England four, Panama nil! The last time England scored four at a World Cup finals, Geoff Hurst scored three, and I don’t need to tell you what happened that day!’

What is the matter with these people?

Now half the nation are busy working out which side of the draw England would most like to avoid in the quarter-finals, getting there being a formality. ITV anchorman Mark Pougatch wonders aloud before the Poland-Columbia game whether England wouldn’t be better off losing to Belgium (as if this Belgium team are going to give England much choice in the matter). To their credit, pundits Bilic, Neville and Wright bat away this notion contemptuously (the scowling, sneering, painfully depressed Roy Keane seems too deep in his own reflections to be consulted on the matter, which is a loss) – but everyone except Bilic seems to presume that England will actually get to the quarter-finals. Having seen a very dangerous-looking Colombia thrash Poland 3-0, I’m not so sure about that. René Higuita was at the match, looking fabulous as always.

Careful, Lee…

After the uproar in the twittersphere about Patrice Evra’s condescending ‘That’s very good’ and little round of applause for female ex-pro pundit Eni Aluko, you might have expected Lee Dixon to think a bit more carefully before patronising the African official in the Russia-Uruguay game with a surprised and approving ‘he’s a good ref, this’. But no, it hasn’t sunk in. Lee, try this simple test: would you say that, in that tone of voice, about a European ref? (No, you wouldn’t, unless she was a woman.)

No truth in the rumours

Spain were clearly relieved that they would be facing hapless, clueless, shagged-out-looking Russia in their quarter-final, rather than dazzling, flavour-of-the-day Uruguay, but some authorities[ii] believe they may be counting their chickens early, attributing the Russian team’s poor last performance to an erroneous reduction in their dosage by what the East Germans used to call the team’s ‘sports doctor’. This problem can be corrected in a day or two, these theorists hold, so we may well see the ten-goal Russia back against Spain, who will be run off their feet and beaten in the last ten minutes by an opponent scampering about with their eyes starting from their heads. However, TFSOM gives no credence to such shameless propaganda by Russia’s running-dog enemies.

Tuesday 26th

Snore-draw

I had painted a wall and was just keeping an eye on it while it dried, so I only caught ten minutes of the France-Denmark game, thank God. There is a strong possibility that the England-Belgium game will be as bad. Let’s hope both teams need to win it, for whatever reason.

The finger of God.

The always-classy Diego Maradona excelled himself again, being captured by the cameras making vulgar gestures (using the middle-finger on each hand) towards opposition supporters below his hospitality box. The Bobby Moore of the pampas.

 Toodle-oo!

 

[i] This was an elementary error, a breach of Eating Out Rule 2 ‘Never Order Steak in France’.

[ii]  Boris Johnson

A sort of day…

 

Morning: Barbershop Man

barbershop

As I go down the stairs of my exercise club, I notice a new poster: a fit-looking young woman in gym singlet and knee-length leggings is bending over backwards, so that both the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands (not to mention the end of her ponytail) are in contact with the floor. The legend is an uplifting ‘Acredita em algo mais’ (believe in something more). It isn’t clear in what, but I suspect in Wellness, or perhaps even in Better, which is what Sky TV recommends we Believe in. Anyway, one for the collection.

An hour or two later, I am at my hairdresser’s for a much-needed haircut. It is a minuscule place inside a small, old-style shopping centre. There are three chairs where you have your hair cut, and two which lean right back so your hair can be washed in a basin and your scalp get a free massage while you nearly go off to sleep. There is also a coat-stand, a tiny counter for bookings and payments, an awful little padded bench strewn with magazines, and a desk affair where manicures are done by a fat Brazilian girl with false eyelashes. It is so crowded that people are always getting in each other’s way and dropping things.

I enjoy being here. My hairdresser Teresa is a lady-like, quietly-spoken Portuguese who says little as she goes about her work; the other two are gay Brazilians (one of whom wears his hair in a little ponytail which he’s twenty years too old for), and the general atmosphere is chatty, gossipy, friendly, mildly camp, occasionally raucous. I am mostly ignored, content to sit and smirk. For what I pay here (ten euros), I would otherwise have to go to a low-end men’s barbershop, where I would get no hair-wash and a terrible haircut (straight Portuguese barbers don’t seem to know anything about hair), and would have to endure at least half an hour – probably more, counting the wait – of old-school masculine conversation à portuguesa. I used to go to such places in my first few years in Portugal, and I doubt they’ve changed much (a few weeks ago my son went to a fashionable one in Lisbon called Figaro’s, and his girlfriend wasn’t allowed inside to sit and wait for him.)

In the traditional Portuguese barbershop, people’s clothes smell of stale cigarette-smoke. There is silence, the steady snip of scissors, the occasional sharp hum of electric clippers, desultory chat. Occasionally one of the barbers will pause, clippers in one hand and comb in the other, and say something ponderous. He will be a male type found disproportionately often in Portuguese barber’s, either as the barber himself or as a customer: middle-aged, more opinionated than knowledgeable, completely lacking any ironical sense of himself, bluff of manner but basically humourless, given to holding forth on football and politics.

I met one or two bores like this when I first came to Portugal. My first wife, who worked for a Portuguese company, would be invited to dinner at someone or other’s house and I would go along as her partner. Such dinners would begin with four or five males standing in a circle at one end of the sitting-room, holding glasses of whiskey and talking about Benfica, or in some households about Sporting Lisbon. Other subjects might be the latest conspiracy theory (Portuguese males are partial to these) or a meal someone had recently eaten, but discussion of other topics was not common. When we arrived I would join this  group, rocking gently on my heels, smiling, nodding, studying the ice in my glass, laughing at jokes I half-understood, wool-gathering – and would mostly be left in peace, while I glanced wistfully at the cackling women getting tipsy at the other end of the room, comfortably sat on sofas and in armchairs (the upright phase of a dinner could easily go on for the best part of an hour.) However, if Barbershop Man was present, I could forget about being left in peace: Barbershop Man does not converse but holds forth contentiously, expecting full attention, and if any slackening of my own was sensed behind my increasingly fixed smile, my upper arm would be touched insistently (I dislike this), or in extreme cases grasped firmly (I like this even less), to restore me to a sense of my social duty.

And now there is in fact a touch on my shoulder: I have been daydreaming and the haircut is done. Teresa carefully lifts off the nylon hair-dresser’s shroud, turns through a few degrees to shake out the loose hair-cuttings, and plies her outsize shaving-brush to clean me off around the neck and shoulders. I stand, thank her and pay at the little counter by the door.

 

Afternoon: a bit of fish       

monkfish

Later, I am at the fish counter in our local Pingo Doce[1]. I have come for a bit of fish for my supper (Veronica is away), and am waiting to be served. I have been waiting a minute or so, which doesn’t sound too bad on Pingo Doce’s part, until you consider that I’m the only one at the counter. I have taken a ticket to be on the safe side, and have been waiting for the lady to officially notice me. I know she knows I’m here, but her back is firmly turned while she gets on with some job she has to do. I am reminded of the waiter’s epitaph[2]. If this was in a TESCO or a Sainsbury’s she’d turn with an empty, well-trained smile, and that singsong intonation they have, and say something like “Good afternoon, sir, sorry to keep you, I’ll be with you in a moment” (though even in a posh place like Waitrose she wouldn’t have authorisation to use the modern and very irritating “bear with me, please”, which is restricted-use for people who answer the phone.)

Anyway and be that as it may, I might as well be a fish myself for all the attention I’m being paid here.

However, there’s no great rush, I still have to choose what fish to buy. I am no expert on fish. There are lots of bream-shaped ones on the slab, mostly silvery, though there’s a quite pretty one called a salema which has yellow stripes along its body (only three euros fifty the kilo, but we’ve had it before and it wasn’t great). The usual diagonal-cut sections of scabbard-fish, lots of colourful little tiddly ones that will be full of bones, a few laughably overrated and overpriced salmonetes, a couple of gormless-looking monkfish, very dead and sorry for themselves with their prognathous lower lips and wide toothy mouths, and their little fishing-poles keeled-over and stuck against their heads. It looks like it’s going to be the usual salmon-steak or  dourada[3] again, though the eyes of the douradas are a bit filmed-over, giving them that seedy, morning-after look which  means they aren’t fresh. I see this look in the mirror from time to time.

After another few moments, I say “Good afternoon”.

She turns her head a couple of degrees, no more, and says “Just a moment” (we are speaking Portuguese, of course.)

I am slightly taken aback by the offhand tone, but wait another half-minute and try again. This time she sounds quite irritated, but after a second turns and approaches the counter, in her gleaming white overalls, gauntlets and wellington boots. She is a stodgy, pale woman of about forty.

I smile winningly and say “Good afternoon” again. She regards me implacably, but after a second or two is able to say “Good afternoon” herself.

Knowing I am committing a basic error, but unable to stop myself, I ask: “Are the douradas fresh? Their eyes look a bit filmy.”

What happens next is hard to describe. The fish-lady doesn’t lift her shoulders, turn her palms upward, or pull down the corners of her mouth like a grouper. Her eyebrows remain unraised, her lower lip unpursed, her chin, unprojected, remains in the default position. And yet she clearly shrugs, in a way I have never seen before, not even in Portugal (where the shrug is reputed to have been invented), and she does it without moving a single muscle. I am fascinated. I watch her steadily, begin to feel rebellious, and once again cannot help myself.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?” I ask. “I can come back when it’s more convenient.”

I’m sure she does the invisible shrug again, or maybe it’s a continuation of the same shrug. Did the first one ever come to an end? Is it a lifelong shrug, a life-style shrug, a continuous way of being? I am out of my depth.

“I’ll just have a salmon steak, please,” I say.

 

Evening: leave everything in the tank

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Since Veronica is away, I am able to indulge myself with an orgy of catch-up televised sport. There is a club rugby match, some cricket highlights, and a football match.

There is very little to report. The football match is Atletico Madrid against Arsenal , a Europa League semi-final which turns out exactly as everyone knew it would. Before the game, Arsene Wenger demonstrates the challenge which football clichés can present to even the most fluent foreign coach. He starts well, promising that his team will play ‘with the handbrake off’, but makes a cock of his next one, assuring his interviewer that ‘we will leave everything we have in the tank’ . I am still intermittently puzzling over this one when I give up on the game and try the cricket highlights. England don’t do very well and neither does the otherwise very good Ian Ward, who seems to have forgotten his algebra when he informs us that ‘for England to win the match, it’s a simple equation: ten wickets’.[4]

In the rugby match the referee is  a slight, sandy-haired figure, and very young. Most of the players are so much bigger they look as if they could eat him in a sandwich. And yet he controls them like a lion-tamer, warning, explaining and guiding players through his decisions; and these are respected right or wrong in a way which would be unthinkable in football, where referees are routinely jostled, pushed and hounded round the pitch by players having tantrums that would disgrace a four-year old. The ten-metres-back-for-dissent rule has something to do with this, and also the fact that rugby’s better calibration of punishments gives the ref the option of the sin-bin, making the yellow card a far more effective deterrent in rugby than in football (where the red card is almost never used for even gross dissent: not every ref has Michael Oliver’s courage). An alternative view might be that quite a few rugby players are relatively rational, recognisably human beings, while professional footballers tend to be overpaid, under-educated virtual halfwits (just look at the excruciating goal celebrations.) Personally, of course, I do not hold this view.

[1] Pingo Doce- a chain of high-street supermarkets

[2]  ‘God Finally Caught His Eye’.

[3] Apparently, gilt-head bream

[4] In fact, Wenger has mixed two clichés: 1. ‘to leave nothing out there on the pitch’, and 2. ‘to empty (or leave nothing in) the tank’.  I’m afraid I’m lying about the cricket quote, which was on another day entirely.

A word to the young

Good morning, everyone. Now, as some of you might know, I will not be here when you return next year, because I am retiring from teaching. And as retiring teachers sometimes do, I am going to say a few words to you, to bid you all farewell and to pass on the wisdom which I have acquired during the course of my long career. I have acquired this wisdom through being what is called a Lifelong Learner. If any of you become teachers, you will hear that phrase incessantly, unless it has become unfashionable by … sorry, have I said something funny? Well, I realise the idea of any of you doing such low-grade work may sound hilarious now, but if things don’t work out for you, you never know what twists and turns life may take.

So what wisdom have I acquired? I am happy to pass it on to you.

(there is an audible click, and a video image of an hour-glass appears on the screen, sand running from the upper flask to the lower).

Study this hour-glass, please. Maria, can I take questions later? All right, what would you like to share?  Yes, you could call it an egg-timer. But the main point is that the sand is running down from the top part to the lower part. And, what, since it seems I cannot discourage audience participation, does the sand represent? May I just go to Veronica, Maria, since she has her hand up? Yes, that’s an original idea, Veronica, but … anyone? Perhaps one of the younger children for a change? Yes, it represents time. It is a symbol, of sorts. And when all the sand has run from the top to the bottom, what can we do? Yes, Veronica, good, but after we have taken the eggs from the saucepan, and cut the tops off quickly so that they don’t go hard in their shells? Anyone? Well, with an hourglass, we can turn the glass round, and the sand can begin running down again. I don’t know why we would want to do that either, Augustas, but the point is that we can. So, what is the big difference between the hour-glass and a person’s life? Well, one big one is this: once the sand of a person’s life has run out, we cannot just turn the glass over and start again. That person is what we call dead.

Now all of you before me today will end up dying: some sooner, some later, quickly or slowly, bravely or not. You must have seen this with pets. Has anyone had a pet which died? Oh dear, can someone pass Daphne a tissue? Thank you. Big blow, Daphne, that’s the ticket. Crikey, that is a big one. Perhaps another tissue, someone.  Or two. Good. OK, now nobody else start, please. Perhaps a joke will cheer us all up. What is the death rate in Portugal?

The usual, one  per person. What is going on here?

Be quiet, can’t stop now. But before that dying day comes you will have a long time to live out your privileged, gated-community lives, unless you are murdered by one of the gardeners first, or die young of a horrible illness. And there is no shortage of opinion regarding how you should set about living these lives of yours. Priests of all religions are an excellent source of ideas, though these often involve following strange rules, and require the ability to believe in life after death. Other people will derive satisfaction from informing you, after Jean-Paul Sartre, that there is no God, nobody watching us and no one keeping score, but that even so we have no choice but to live, and must try to do so meaningfully.

We are condemned to be free.

Thank you, can you be quiet? Yes Max, he was French, excellent, well done! Katie, close your mouth, it’s been ajar for a little while now. Now if you find all that hard to manage, I can only recommend doing what most of us do, which is to spend half our time dreading or enduring the things which hurt, frighten or bore us, the other half looking forward to doing the things we like, and in between as little time as possible noticing how pointless the whole enterprise is. Thus you will probably spend nearly all of your time thinking about the future or the past, but only a tiny portion of it living consciously in the present moment. My own view is …

Excuse me, sorry to interrupt…

Oh for Christ’s sake. Yes?

What is this?

Have you just woken up? It’s a retirement speech.

Yours.

Could be.

This really happened?

It’s happening. As we speak.

It’s, um, how shall I put it? You might want to have a look at it, or is it too late? You can’t say for Christ’s sake in a school assembly, for a start-off.

You interrupted, three times. Look, if it’s all right, I’m shattered.  Can we carry on with this tomorrow?

You’re sure it was the French bloke who said that? Not Siddhartha or Carlos Castaneda or someone?

It was the French bloke. And anyway … look, can we drop this, actually? I’m going to bed now.

Fine by me, keep your hair on. Did you hear the one about the old man going up to bed carrying a glass of water and an empty glass?

Good night.

So they ask him ‘Why are you carrying that glass upstairs?’ And he says, ‘In case I get thirsty in the night, of course.’ So they say ‘No, the empty one.’

And he says, that’s in case I don’t get thirsty.

That’s right, so you knew that one.

Good night.

Good night, sleep tight.

Who else hates the English?

 

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(Continued…)

So Australians don’t get worked up about all that?

Nope. Being descended from a transported convict is a source of pride these days. That’s what I was told.

Pride that your great great great grandfather was arrested for impersonating an Egyptian?

It’s better if he was an Irish political prisoner, but there are only so many of those to go round. Jeremiah O’Donovan was a famous one, he’s on a 19 Crimes label, I think.

Are you telling me Australians don’t even mind the hilarious convict uniforms worn by English nitwits at Ashes matches?

All part of the fun of the fair.

So Australians don’t hate the English after all?

Oh no they do, but that’s because of Gallipoli.

And that was?

Is this a joke? Go and look it up.

OK, so that was in World War 1, when weak-chinned English toffs sent gallant, down-to-earth loveable Anzac boys to certain death in a doomed invasion which the layabout British army was spared, because English toffs don’t give a damn about the lives of Australians and New Zealanders.

Good work, you’ve got it.

Is that what’s known as an entrenched narrative?

It is.

Because of the trenches, right?

Don’t be stupid. Never mind, just be on your guard if you’re in Australia on Anzac day. Or maybe indoors. You don’t want to get king-hit.

And what is that? Simply please, because my brain is getting full.

But we haven’t even started on the bodyline tour yet. OK, king-hitting is a recent Australian custom, when you go and hit a complete stranger in the face, without warning, as hard as you can. It’s hilarious. It can leave the victim with a broken jaw, in a coma, whatever. The urban dictionary has a definition: ‘the most hardcore, damage-maximising, chronicly (sic) solid punch that can be thrown. Send’s (sic) the aggressor off balance if it doesn’t hit the intended target’.

Why do they have semi-educated teenagers writing this dictionary?

Someone’s got to do it, and all the harmless drudges are busy on proper dictionaries.

Who?

Google it, if you can be bothered. Samuel Johnson. Perhaps we’ll hold the bodyline tour over for another day.

Please.

But anyway, it isn’t the Australians who really hate the English.

It’s the Welsh.  

I was going to say the Irish.

And also what about the Scots?

No it’s the Irish all right.

And what have we ever done to them?

Funny man. Plenty, but perhaps we’ll hold that over for another time too.

What about that dressing-room speech Phil Bennett gave before a Wales-England rugby match.

Go on.

“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon. The English”

Fair enough. Nobody likes us all that much, to tell you the truth.

Perhaps the Americans.

The Americans find us picturesque and patronise us, but they also think we’re alien and untrustworthy because we can speak English properly. That’s why they hire our clapped-out actors to be evil baddies in their films.

OK, so I’ll put the Americans down as not sure.

However, I did check into a shitty little hotel in Sri Lanka once, and when I handed my passport over the owner said ‘Ah very good, British,’ and beamed and waggled his head. He said he didn’t trust the Italian and French hippies, but the British were gentlemen. I found the same in India. In fact, middle-class Indians in hill towns are more English than the English ever were. They wear tweed jackets and cravats.

You did the hippy trail?

I backpacked around South Asia. Sorry, why are you laughing?

You did the hippy trail. When?

Years ago now. I was young, and it wasn’t the hippy trail. Anyway, the big difference between the Brits and the French wasn’t trustworthiness, it was dress-sense.

Well, well.

Yes, funny isn’t it. Brit freaks were just scruffy and looked as if they needed a shave and a wash, but the French would make an effort to turn themselves out properly.

Meaning what?

Hippy full fig: beads, hair, Rajasthani waistcoat, pyjama trousers, shoulder-bag with tassles, headband, or if not a headband a hat with a feather. If funds allowed, a monkey on the shoulder, though once I met one with a slightly uneasy-looking cat there.

Shades?

Oh no, no sunglasses. Or sun cream, ever.

The French aren’t very popular either, of course.

I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps not with everyone.

So who do the English hate?

In the last few months it’s been mostly cyclists, I think. Which is something else we might come back to.

TFSOM’s Holiday Project: ten things you can see, hear, touch, drink or eat in Australia.

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  1. The wombat

The world’s most adorable animal. A wombat is like a 35kg teddy-bear crossed with a hedgehog, only without the spines. Looking at the face, there could be a bit of harvest-mouse in there too (a very big one). I stroked a wombat between its shoulder-blades, one evening just after dark, grazing placidly on the lawn at my son’s wedding celebration. They can be seen plentifully in this location, known as Kangaroo Valley. Australians present said they’d never seen one that tame, and I shouldn’t assume every wombat would let me get away with it. Even so, a must.

  1. Hi-Vis parenting

Like many young middle-class Portuguese parents, a lot of young middle-class Australians go in for high-visibility, high-audibility parenting, leaving nobody within earshot in any doubt about their highly-developed skills. Overheard (therefore) on the Manly ferry, as it rounded Bradleys Head on its way to Sydney:

Mother: (excitedly) And when we get round that point there, what are we going to see?

Toddler: (looks blank) …

Mother: (prompting) We’re going to see …

Toddler: (with wild excitement) Tigers!

Mother: No, it’s a building, remember, a big white building

Toddler: (obliged to insist a little) Tigers!

Mother: (obliged to insist a little) No, it’s a white building

(We round the point, to see The Opera House 2 kms off in the distance)

  1. Sydney Opera House

Not white in fact, but a gorgeous creamy caramel colour. Unexpectedly huge, and even more beautiful than the hype has led you to expect.

  1. The Friday afternoon yuppie piss-up

From late Friday afternoon onwards, drinking places like the The Island or the Manly Wharf Hotel are crammed with smartly turned-out Sydney-siders, drinking with a single-mindedness which would make a football hooligan stare. The Island is on a posh boat with a flat bottom, and the cheerful roar it gives off can be heard half a kilometre away. It can be rented for a very reasonable $25.000 a day.

By the way, a Sydney-sider is defined simply enough in Wikipedia as ‘a native or inhabitant of Sydney, Australia’. The Urban Dictionary goes further: ‘a person who lives in Sydney, Australia and really hates Melbourne. Their hobbies include sooking about how Sydney is better than Melbourne because they have a massive chip on their shoulder. Most of them are having trouble dealing with the fact that Sydney has had its day, and Melbourne has no where (sic) to go but up.’

If you’re now wondering what ‘sooking’ means, the barely literate and apparently not very self-aware Urban Dictionary can help again: ‘to act like a pussy ass bitch. Wine (sic) like a two year old’

So now you know all you need to know about Sydney-siders.

  1. Asian tourists

Year-round, Sydney boasts large groups of Asian tourists, mostly female, often wearing colourful hats or visors. Polkadot patterns are often seen. These groups queue with other groups of Asian tourists at the main attractions, so that they can take photos of one another grinning and shrieking in front of  them.

To summarise the remaining items:

6-9.  Tasty pies, good coffee, birds, The Royal Botanic Gardens,

There are pie-shops everywhere, and the takeaway coffee is always good. There are loads of birds, and the botanical gardens are very nice, with great views of downtown Sydney, the harbour, the bridge, the opera house etc.   Shit, this isn’t very good, is it?

Not great. How long were you there?

Two or three weeks.

Perhaps something else will come to mind. You know you haven’t even managed ten items. Perhaps you need to change the title to ‘nine’.

I can’t be bothered, to be honest.

Ok, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did you read about that cricketer David Warner hating the English?

Yes. He seems like a nasty little git.

Very much so. At least he’s lost the parade-ground moustache.

What I didn’t understand, though, he said he has to dig deep into himself to activate his hatred of us, which seems like a greater effort than any self-respecting Australian should have to make.

Ha ha. Who’s us?

What do you mean? You’re English, aren’t you?

I’ve got a good quote I found in an article. Do you want to hear it?

If you’re not English, what are you? OK, go on.

It’s some Aussie bloke who was chief executive of Australian Rugby Union during the 2007 World Cup, and he said: “Whether it’s cricket, rugby league or rugby union, we do all hate England. All I’m doing is stating the bleeding obvious. No one likes England … Sadly, this is all a by-product of their born-to-rule mentality. It’s been there for a long time now and nothing has changed.”

Yes, Warner also said history was a big part of it. You can see his point, of course. They have a wine called Nineteen Crimes, which is nineteen of the 200-odd offences that could get you transported.

Such as?

I happen to have the list here. One was ‘Petty Larceny. Theft under one shilling’.  Another was ‘Stealing fish from a pond or river’. Have a look for yourself.

‘Impersonating an Egyptian’ is a good one. And ‘Stealing a shroud out of a grave’. They were weird times. 

They also have a beer called One Fifty Lashes, which is what the bloke who first brewed beer there got for stealing the ingredients, so the legend goes. They seem to revel in all this stuff.

Good beer, is it?

Excellent. Australia is awash with excellent beer, mostly pale ales, draught or bottled. That’s my tenth point, thank you.