Europe in a dash

Of course the aim of this one year trip was to spend most of our time in India. Due to my injurious delay we ended up in the UK in the summer school holidays which rendered nearly all travel prohibitively expensive. So, when the month ticked over it was time to be off to visit friends in Europe.

Part 1: Sicily

First off the list were Mick and Kath in Sicily. Out first experience with Ryanair wasn’t too bad. There was a big delay by the time we flew into Comiso. The car rental queue was not so much very long but very slow and took over an hour. Poor Mick and Kath endured the wait with us. By the time we set off in convoy it was around midnight. We had to park the car one side of the river and all pile into the Toyota Landcruiser to make the last leg to the farmhouse. It had changed massively since our last visit in January 2014. The inside looked fabulous and we were treated to a brilliant bean and vegetable stew by Kath all harvested from the land around. The kitchen had been done really well and main room was beautifully homely, of course decorated with many Afghan and Moroccan homewares and furniture. The real bugbear has been the electricity which is still to be connected. There is a generator that provides part time power but solar, and therefore full-time power, is still in the pipeline.

Waking the next morning allowed us to appreciate the beautiful setting. Jackie, having been mauled by mozzies during the night was keen to move to the ‘matchbox’ (their small flat) in Modica. Kath had to be in the UK the next day for work so took the bus to the airport. The matchbox had also changed a bit in that the last time we saw it, it was being pretty much used as a storeroom. It is very compact but a nice space. The mezzanine bedroom area works really well despite the occasional head knock. Parking was easy in the town but as usual in Modica there was a bit of an uphill walk to get to the matchbox.

Mick needed to devote much of his attention to the other bugbear of the farmhouse, the river. It had decided to destroy much of the ford in one of its bad moods. This had led to Mick’s early departure from the UK to fix it. There had been a trail of nuisance in getting the materials and lining up the labour to help fix it.

We used the time to do some further exploring and top of our list were the legendary mosaics of Piazza Armerina. Luckily, Mick and Kath’s friend and local real estate personality Ramsay, had advised us that the satnav would lead us to the middle of a field if we used it. He was bang on for that one as that’s where we ended up before having to use old school techniques like following signs. Easier said than done but we arrived there reasonably early (again advice from Ramsay) and beat much of the increasing loads of coaches that seemed to bring only crowds of old people. The mosaics were quite amazing and those with the wild animals and the bikini girls were a great source of fascination.

The following day we had a late afternoon drive to Pozzallo and finally a splash in the Med. We did some exploring on the south coast seaside towns the next day. It was a pretty coastline, but the towns often were littered with deserted buildings that were a bit of an eyesore on the drive. Eating out was excellent and of course reasonably priced. Laura and Oriol from Spain arrived after the second day with a strong desire to stay at one of the yurts on the farm. The threatening deluge of rain never eventuated so the farm was never cut off as predicted and the ford was repaired. There is a hell of a lot of work that has gone into the farm and I have to say I would no longer have the energy or at least the desire to undertake a project like that. It has been an adventure for them and I think life should be nothing but an adventure.

Part 2: Malta

There is always a lot of fuss involved with flying, especially the 25 minute flight to Malta from Comiso. After locating the car hire people (not that easy despite having an office at Luqa Airport) my first surprise was that they drive on the left. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a breeze after driving in Italy where there is a certain ‘style’ to driving that I am pretty used to now. One thing I am not used to however is their occasional suicidal acts of overtaking on blind bends. Nuts.

We stayed in an Airbnb in a lovely part of the capital, Birgu which is across the harbour from Valetta but part of the same network of cities (I think).  The second surprise on arriving at the accommodation was that they use British power plugs. We were rather unprepared for that as we had come equipped with European ones and left the British ones in Epsom. Reminder to do more research on coming to a new country next time. Birgu was delightful with narrow cobbled streets and houses with colourful balconies.

We drove the next morning to Rabat where there are lovely walls and streets as well. We visited the extensive catacombs which were interesting. There is some nice coastline on the island and the good weather meant there were still plenty of tourists. That meant crowded beaches. European style beaches mostly with the usual set up of deckchairs and umbrellas. Give me an Aussie beach any day.

Much of the main island is fairly barren with few trees and lots of rocks. The coast is better. We had a swim at the Blue Grotto on the south coast. A lovely setting but the swimming area reminded more of Clovelly in Sydney. Much of the walled towns have a Game of Thrones feel and I know it has been used as a location for that series including the neighbouring island of Gozo. While I like the series, I wasn’t particularly bothered about hunting out locations. It was great to take a small boat across the harbour to Valetta. The highlight for me was the palace armoury museum which had a quite amazing collection of armour and old weapons. After three days we flew for the first time on EasyJet back to Gatwick. On previous trips to Europe I had avoided these budget airlines as I had been able to get similar fares on Air France and British Airways.

Part 3: Ireland

Two days after getting back to London we were on our way to Ireland. We took off in bright sunshine and flew over Wales (also in bright sunshine). I was glad I had been allocated a window seat and had to evict a grumpy old Irish woman who had occupied it. Stuff you entitled old git.

We were originally going to stay with Siobhan and Bill, but he is quite ill now and their house was having government sponsored modifications made so we stayed in an Airbnb a bit out of Kilkenny. It was great to catch up – especially Jackie and Shove getting some girl time together. We did a limited amount of sightseeing. Kilkenny Castle and some of the surrounding countryside. Of course, there was the well documented (on social media) visit to Tipperary – not much to see there and down to Waterford. Ireland was a bit more multicultural than I expected. Especially a town like Waterford where there were all manner of races and nationalities noticeably present in the street. In the centre of Dublin there was little evidence of anyone even speaking English in the street. A pleasant city but it didn’t grab me especially. Probably more for the young and those out for a drinking good time.

Part 4: Spain

Well always one of the favourites. This time we didn’t really travel anywhere but completely chilled out in Denia. The place was largely devoid of tourists and pleasantly quiet. I was chuffed to get a near new Ford SUV for a week for the grand price of £45! I’ve been amazed at some of the prices of rentals. We had a Ford Fiesta for 3 days from Gatwick for £14.50! I’m at a loss to know how they make money.

The area of Spain is so familiar to us. It was good to meander around and of course spend time with Phil and Mara. We had some great lunches and a more than a few laughs. It’s always good to return to our second European home. We climbed the Montgo – that is Phil, Jackie and me. I had done it before we left Denia in the 90’s when I almost ran up it. I took a more sedate pace this time. It was relatively easy to climb and we were cooled by the brisk north wind. It would be a bit harder in full sun and heat. The hard part was coming down. We went over the other side towards Xabia and eventually to the town of Jesus Pobre. It was a bit of a hard one for me. I had worn sandals as were the best footwear for my readjusted toe. The route down the other side had quite a different surface with some razor-sharp rocks on the path and it required care to not lose footing. Falling over would have involved shedding blood. The view over the coast was great. Going downhill was always going to be a test of me knee and foot and so it proved to be. My knee was in a fair deal of discomfort by the time we reached to road at Jesus Pobre. It was frustrating as it took away some of the pleasure of the walk and reminded me of the toll of the passing years and accumulated injuries. We resolved to come and spend three months on the Costa Blanca at some point and venture to the north west of Spain which I have wanted to see for years. It’s always a case of being there reminding you of what a lovely place it is. Coming back to Gatwick I went from left hand drive automatic SUV to right hand drive Golf seamlessly. It’s less of a challenge the more you do it – the brain just clicks over.

England and Scotland continued

The thin veneer of heat that passes for summer in Britain is retreating.  Of course, this has been one of the greatest summers ever. Only the great summer of 1976 bears comparison and constant reference is made to this in the media and the street (by those old enough to remember). I can’t make this comparison personally as I first arrived on these shores in 1977.  The temperature came dangerously close to 37oC at its peak but overall it can be called benign by Australian standards.

But as we get further into September the cool mornings and occasional brisk winds remind us that we are heading into Autumn. What a lovely time to have been here! The beautiful sunny days and green countryside are blissful. So much of our time here has been spent driving along roads with overhanging trees that filter the sunlight to make peaceful, secluded enclaves. There was a slight harshness to the sun in the summer when you walked over open ground. Now that has passed and the soporific pleasure of basking in fading full sun is divine. The trip to Scotland was lovely but the nights noticeably cooler. How British to spend so much time discussing the weather. But when it is lovely it is a time to rejoice here. The atmosphere of the place is so dependent on it. Places that seem lovely now will soon be cruelled by the grey blanket of winter that lasts as long as an Australian summer.

One downside of being here at this time has been the fact that travel to Europe is so expensive. From the middle of the month we hit the road to Europe for a few short bursts. A lot more time could have been spent here but with the focus on India, it’ll just have to be another time.

Living here, I have also fallen victim to an extent of Brexit fatigue. It now seems that stupidity will prevail and it will happen. Probably in the worst possible way. Now there will be a morbid fascination as to how it will unfold and if it will be as destructive as many think. Deal or no deal, it is clear that some things will continue as before for a while as there is simply aren’t the resources to make it happen from day one. HM Customs (or whatever they are called now) have said they don’t have the resources to stop every truck entering from the EU and will just wave them through until they can come up with some way of managing. There will be a lot of unintended consequences – mostly bad but there’ll have to be some good.  The Tories are set to tear themselves apart over it. Probably a good idea the Conservatives (like the Liberals in Australia) split into factions of centrists and right wing nut jobs. In the UK it’s really all about Brexit whereas in Australia it’s the moderates versus the coal loving, gay hating, bible thumping dinosaurs. Either way the parade of clowns “ruling” both countries is risible. More fun to be had in the chaotic beauty of India. No order to be sought there, just go with the flow.

Scotland was lovely and great to see other people not seen in years. Again, we were blessed by the weather. Dundee seemed thoroughly pleasant despite its reputation for being poverty stricken and drug ridden. Other travel so far has taken us to the West Country, Norfolk, Derbyshire, Kent and the New Forest. Nearly all in bright sunshine through the green and pleasant land. More travel in the British Isles awaits. Ireland and Wales have yet to come.

Amongst the joy seeing our old friends we are reminded also how random and cruel life can be. One of our Scottish friend’s life had been hit with tragedy, two suicides and illness had decimated her close family.  A couple known to Jackie for years (and to me for that matter) had been cut to one by an untimely death from cancer. Another friend had lost a nephew recently through a freakish accident. One other friend who had seen off an abusive relationship was faced with breast cancer. I admire the way she could brush it all aside and embrace life. I guess our close family was very near to tragedy but luck was on my side. But to reconnect with old friends is to give meaning to our presence here. It is life affirming and it feels that to have embarked on this adventure is a way to seize the day and live in the present. It also shows how our focus has shifted. Our ties to Britain have weakened. Time has taken quite a toll and the place has lost its magnetism. Its withdrawal from Europe has also lessened my pull towards it. It’s like seeing a once admired relative become grumpier and weaker, with more of the already fading mystique leaving a feeling that maybe there was less to admire than originally thought.

England

Fitting back into England has been a bit like putting on an old glove. On the surface it’s easy but there is a definite lack of connection. Maybe that’s because the ties to Australia are stronger than they used to be.  There are times however when it has such a strong familiarity about it I feel almost at home. I remember a TV show in Australia about expat poms and how they felt about their experience there. Some had not found what they wanted and gone back and others were quite at home in the sun and warmth. One particular Brit had said he didn’t miss much but proximity to Europe was one of these. The best thing about the UK, he said, is France. Can’t help agreeing with that.  One friend thinks this country is in a collective state of depression (well it always has been to some extent).

Proximity to Europe brings the subject of Brexit. There’s a definite negative feel I have about the place as it seems to lurch towards a disastrous hard Brexit. As far as Brexit is concerned there are a multitude of views from our friends and others. Some voted for it and regret it. They say they were lied to, which is definitely true. Some friends are planning to buy a place in Spain but voted for it anyway and are a bit confused why that plan will now be a lot more complicated, if it’s achievable at all. Lots of people think it’s nuts while one friend who lives in Romania hasn’t really given it loads of deep thought but has just said he has no idea what will happen when it does happen. Hopefully there won’t be a time when he is sent home and needs leave his partner and young daughter behind.  Of course, two particular acquaintances were diehard Tories who loved the whole idea of tipping the place upside down. Like many in this category they had some money (either earned or inherited) and at least one had a foreign passport. Older people without a job and livelihood to lose supported it in droves and no doubt still do. It will mostly affect the poor who supported it because they saw the EU as the source of the erosion of their world and the prospect of even more Johnny Foreigners overrunning the place. Essentially racism lies at much of the heart of it. More than one person has thought the old (meaning white) Commonwealth should band together as a jolly club and trade together like to old days. But the old days have passed.

Which brings me to another noticeable point about London – the disappearance of the Australasian community. Years ago, it would be unlikely that the person pulling your pint in a central London pub would not have an Antipodean accent. Clearly there are a number of reasons for this as this BBC article from a few years ago says: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25401024

There are of course large numbers of them somewhere but the old ritual of moving to London on the old working holiday has clearly pretty much died.  I think it’s not just cultural reasons, although someone should tell the older Brits that Australians and New Zealanders don’t really look towards the “Home Country” the way they once did. I think a lot of it is economically driven as well. The London working holiday was largely driven by the tyranny of distance and the vast expense of travelling to the other side of the world. This is no so much the case more really with the massive fall in airfares. Any office in Australia will always have a roll call of those on holiday in Vietnam, Slovenia, New York or Peru. Off for a few weeks and back to your comfy home. With travel now an off the shelf commodity for many and gap years also an industry that offer a myriad of possibilities beyond cramming ten to a tiny flat under the grey skies while working hard at piteously paying jobs to fund a jaunt round the sights of Europe in an old Kombi. Mind you that wasn’t quite my London experience. I have never been to the Bierfest for a start or much of that “circuit” but still did enjoy the company and friendship of my compatriots when I lived here.

But as I rapidly head towards senior status (well I’m there already but don’t qualify for the pension) I have seen quite a bit of change in the world and while it’s not always great I have learnt not to fear it but embrace it. It’s lovely to have spent this time here. The wonderful summer is a lovely accompaniment to travel through the benign green and pleasant countryside. To catch up with old friends is always lovely especially when their lives have been good.

I’m not the same person I was when I last lived in the UK and it is not the same place. No tears to shed about that. It’s nice to see old haunts and to remember the years in London which were largely very happy ones. When you are young the place is rich in adventurous possibilities while now I am merely a visitor. A well acquainted one but a visitor nonetheless. While I have easily able to reintegrate on one level there is also no going back. Once this was my home and I didn’t want to leave but I feel no great pull to stay. For now, being a visitor is good.

There have been some setbacks this trip. The main one has been the difficulty of renting the house. Never expected that one. With its conversion to an Airbnb, more income will eventually flow. There has been a run of other misfortunes. Kicking it off was my phone. Somehow the sim cards managed to dislodge and jam in it. It required major surgery to extract them. This rendered me totally phoneless for several days. I thought I might die from withdrawals but it actually wasn’t so bad. In the course of the sim card surgery the tray had to be cut. My slightly unusual phone meant that I had to buy a replacement part form China which will take up to a month to arrive. Now I have to exist with a phone that is simply a phone.

Secondly the Citroen Berlingo acquired an overheating disorder and the cause is not immediately clear. It can still run short distances but we have been forced to hire a car to get any sort of distance. Shit happens and often in stinking piles.

I’ll just keep looking forward. First to some time near the Mediterranean and then a sojourn in warmer and more exotic climes.