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.

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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’.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forewarned…

grim-reaper

Why I am writing this blog

This is a new blog. WordPress say new bloggers should say something in the first post about what their blog is going to be like and what the point of it is.

I live in Portugal. I am retiring from work very soon, and people concerned for my mental welfare are keen that I should keep myself occupied. They fret that I may become depressed if I knock about the house doing nothing. This is nonsense, because I don’t get depressed. However I may become:

  • bored
  • scared
  • gloomy
  • prone to bouts of staring introspection
  • unable to get up in the morning
  • a convert to Catholicism

so I have had to give it some thought. My wife will not be retiring for a year or two, and likes to assure me that a lot of my time will be taken up with cleaning, changing bed-linen, dealing with laundry, planning meals, sorting out the garden, going to the supermarket, cooking dinner, loading and emptying the dishwasher and so on. She also thinks it would be good for me to have an allotment and to spend more time with the grandchildren.

So I have decided to write a blog.

Why a blog?

Two reasons:

  1. I enjoy writing, and a blog may help the time pass more quickly until I can give up without embarrassment and begin quietly waiting for my final ailment.
  2. The other week a colleague at work said ‘Well, you could always write a blog’.

What will the blog be like?

  •  A sort of irregular journal, a way of publishing mockery and sarcasm at the expense of things which annoy or amuse me. There will be quite a lot about living in Portugal, language, sport, and what’s on British television. It will mostly aim to be humorous, but not always succeed. It will avoid complex issues like the plague.* It will not, even intermittently, be Tolstoyan in its seriousness, ambition and moral scope.
  • There will be anecdotal descriptions of incidents, places and so on. The easily-embarrassed reader may wish to give these literary sallies a wide berth, but I enjoy writing them.
  • It will be a ragbag of bits and pieces, reminiscences, jokes, other people’s poetry, critical comment on old pop songs nobody cares about any more…
  • And so much more.

* I don’t have much to say about the plague.