Friday, September 30, 2005

Costa del Sol, Spain

Here I am getting a tan in the land of the Moors, the flamenco dancers and the cockney villain fugitives. Still mooching and hoping unethically that the Avian Flu will drop a few quid off a flight to Jakarta.

The beaches of the Costa attract tourists in their millions each year. Its attraction are numerous and varied so, of course, I headed off inland. Specifically to the town of Ronda, a fortressy type place that seemed to serve as a sort of St Tropez for the Moors, judging by the amount of little palaces around the place. Like a lot of Spanish towns these remnants of an Arabic culture mingle with very large Christian statements of conquest such as massive churches or cathedrals. The Spaniards knew they had reconquered the real estate in a far better state than they left it and wisely kept a lot of it. However, they did feel the need to ensure everyone knew who had won. It's hard to fault them as the Reconquista lasted for the best part of 500 hundred years (with the odd decade off).

Ronda is quite a nice place if you don't have vertigo. An even better place if you bring along someone with vertigo and happen to be slightly cruel. I have used my stay there to try and develop Mediterranean drinking habits. I failed. My hosts managed to drink on after I had crawled into bed and yet still managed to get up in the morning and go and earn a living. Meanwhile, I took several hours to coffee up before taking the best part of a day to do a 8 page website.

Ronda holds Spain's oldest bullfighting ring. I was intending to do my cultural piece on bullfighting but apparently there aren't any at the moment so I couldn't go and see one for myself. I don't want to go because of some innate bloodlust, but because I don't get it. The way of life in Southern Spain is in a way the most civilized on the planet and the corrida seems at odds with that. The bulk of it I understand, even approve of. I like the idea of annoying a very large and dangerous animal and dodging it when it has a go. It smacks of something cooked up by drunk blokes and therefore is probably good fun. Add the funny clothing and you have a recipe for what would make a great stag do. What I don't get is the killing bit at the end. It's not as if the bull is going to call his mates and jump you on the way home because you showed him up. It seems somewhat gratuitous to kill it.

Since I couldn't get to see one and catch the vibe of the crowd and the spirit of the thing I will have to keep my prejudices on the type of person who enjoys these events. Namely, that there is something slightly wrong with them.

Ronda is a nice town to get lost in and so I have more of a feeling than specific descriptions of the place. The old town is still intact and hasn't gone overboard as a tourist trap. The new town is also a pleasant place to relax in though less coherent. I distinctly remember a statue of what is meant to be Hercules and a couple of lions. It might have alluded to old legends about the place but what sprang to my mind after seeing the mullet and the loincloth was Tarzan. Beyond that the town has a great vibe to it. Apparently loads of artists thought the same and so the place has become of interest to the beret and sandal crowd.

Next I moved on to the small village of Salares in the hills next to the coast. I must point out at this stage that my movements are not really a result of some great talent to see alternative sides to tourist destinations but a testimony to the my good fortune of knowing a fantastic couple, N and P, who live in Ronda and also have restored a house in Salares (by restoration I don't mean fitting a new kitchen and buying the right terracotta, I mean transforming the ruins of a Roman watchtower and a wine depot into a very comfy house).

Anyway, my Salares trip was for me the sort of boho visit to the rurals that are made by urbanites to maintain some delusion that their woes are due to the complexities of modern life instead of admitting that they are whingers. This started it off to plan as I crossed the Roman bridge and set to work clearing some brush in N and P's garden plot. It wasn't really work as I am still childish enough to find pleasure in breaking things, even dead branches. So there I was, the visible foreigner, sweating in the sun, doing manual work with a scenic backdrop that would make a good postcard. Most bucolic. I felt that I should either be writing the defining novel of my generation or hiding away from some dark and fascinating past. I was, of course, enjoying myself.

My plan after my little foray into the world of real work was to go and join the festivities in the village. It was a party weekend where the villagers celebrated their culture and Moorish past. I pompously visualised myself, sipping wine and watching the simple pleasures of simple folk (tests of strengths, beauty contests, the torture of some barnyard animal etc..). The locals, however, refused to cooperate and went highbrow. The party kicked off with a lecture on relativity by a professor of Malaga University that I probably wouldn't have grasped even if my Spanish went beyond the “get me a beer, I'll have the ham, don't punch me ” level. They capped off the evening with a concert of Arab music. So much for the primitive mores of mountain folk.

The middle of the day was more in synch with my preconceptions as I signed up, along with my dad, to a slinging competition. The local goat herds use their slings to direct their animals. If the goats move in a direction he doesn't want them to go, he whizzes off a stone to crack against some rocks. The goats then move in the opposite direction. Having seen the speed of these things I agree with the goats. I am also less impressed with the biblical David. Goliath was a fool to go up against that type of weapon. The goatherds are quite good at this and rightly so. If they screw up the goats go wandering god knows where or worse could end up like Goliath. The locals have a great recipe for goat though, so maybe there is some leeway as far as training accidents go.

The local champ sent one of his missiles into the target (a metal barrel set up on the slope on the opposite side of the road) on his first go and then withdrew. It took the rest of us a dozen tries and one girlie shifting of the target closer to us to finally get two other winners. Like most of the competitors I managed to get the hillside but not much more. I wasn't even bad enough to merit recognition unlike my father who caused great mirth and managed to hit someone standing behind him. All in all a great afternoon.

All these events were interspersed with the most common pastime of these parts; drinking. It was in one of these scenes that appeared the local legend; Frasquito. When you see a half drunk septuagenarian astride a mule, serenading a woman half his age when her partner is present, you know the fun is going to start in earnest. Even his mule was a reflection of the character of the man. At first glance it looked as it was kitted out with wonderful traditional gear. A brightly coloured woolen saddle with tassels and a leather bridle with inlaid images. However at close look you realise that the images are not religious icons or images of long-withered Andalusian beauties of his past, but cut-outs from cheap porn mags of the seventies. The man has style.

It would be easy to picture the man as a figure of derision but it would also be foolish. For all the comedy his presence adds to a shindig, one must remember that he is exactly the way most people would like to be when they grow old. Despite the fact that he has nearly half of century over me and is sozzled most of the time, I am acutely aware that he could outdrink me, out-party me and walk me into the ground if I was stupid enough to challlenge him in any of these fields. In his late seventies he is fitter and more active than I and most people my age who don't wear khaki for a living. He reputedly took a couple of very serious hill walkers, with all their space age gear, up a mountain equipped with a pair of sandals and a jerkin of wine; all this after a night on the lash. They ended up knackered, he went on to party. A true hero.

For some reason he didn't win the slinging contest. I suspect he didn't want to. When some of us novices were faffing about with the things on the terrace of the local cafe, he promptly demonstrated his effectiveness by wanging a stone a few inches too low from the bulb of the street lamp he was aiming for. Maybe he only truly shines when some mischief is possible.

That's pretty much it for Spain unless I can do either see a corrida or witness a botellon. Botellon is Spanish for “loafing around the streets drinking alcohol”. It has merged into some sort of phenomenon that has caused some stir with the Spanish government. From what has been described to me it is a far cry from the degeneracy of British high streets but it might be worth a look.

So unless I update the Spain page my next entry should be from Indonesia.

Hasta Luego


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Strasbourg, one of several capitals of Europe.

It seems inevitable that this blog will sometimes reflect the cities and places I visit in a slightly unfavourable light. Strasbourg makes this difficult for me to do this as it is the town of my birth and my childhood. Never the less, I will still try.

For all cretins who can’t be arsed to look at a map, I must state once and for all that Strasbourg is in France not Germany and that you will always be the one who is made to feel really thick when playing Trivial Pursuit. I will concede the town’s decision to put the street signs in Kraut can lead to confusion (in theory it is not Kraut but Alsatian, a distinct dialect that just happens to written exactly like German, have the same grammatical rules and sound very, very similar. Do not say this to the locals as Alsatian identity consists of 2 centuries pretending not be German). Strasbourg also happens to be a fine gem of a city, a place fit to raise yours truly. I myself am aware that some of my attributes reflect both German and French culture. By that I mean that I have a beergut as well as being work-shy

Another difficulty I have is in providing a description of the town is that I have mainly visited places that have a sentimental connotation for me, usually places that serve booze. I have wobbled through the streets in the wee hours, slightly cupsprung, reflecting on my previous presence in some of these places, also in the wee hours and also drunk. As Strasbourg is a beautiful place I can now see that that my youth’s haunts were indeed splendid. This has taught me a key lesson in life, that it is far better to behave disgracefully in a nice setting. To act foolishly, as any pissed teenager will, in some gritty concrete shithole makes you look part of some scene of urban decay but to do it in a scenic plaza or on top of a medieval cathedral is bohemian high jinks. That’s why it’s more fun to yell drunken abuse and fall over at a wedding than it is in a car park. Context is everything.

If you want a guided tour of the place, I’m sure the town has some sort of website telling you how fucking great it is. Knock yourself out.

One thing that I think I should recommend is to go eat in Winstub. Alsatian food is German chow cooked in a French way. It is satiating and still tastes nice. The places are also more friendly and relaxed than standard restaurant. A good waiter will impress you with his dedication to the French concept of terroir (no, I’m not going to translate complex French notions). I distinctly remember a podgy chap waxing lyrical for a quarter of an hour on the great virtues of some spirit made out of the buds of young saplings. It was a beautiful demonstration of his love and knowledge or all things good and traditional. We bought the spiel despite the fact that he had basically told us he was flogging wood alcohol and ordered the round. It was vile and the effects on some of the party were nefarious to say the least. One in particular, that will remain anonymous, managed to fall unconscious in several places in the course of the evening (bars, the boot of a car after a quick punch to the gut, the stairwell of a block of flats, six feet away from the couch he was aiming for, two feet away from the couch he was aiming for) and ended at midday in a lunch and breakfast type place, drinking beers and asking two kindly middle-aged chaps if they were child molesters. Glorious stuff.

In Paris I was parasiting off wage-slaves which meant that my days lead naturally to visiting the place as my hosts were off sucking up to their bosses. In Strasbourg, I do not have the same impetus as most of my friends have rigged up their lives to do as little as possible yet earn enough dosh to develop drinking problems. This leads me to my next cultural interlude:


First of all I must state that this is not a criticism. I am fully aware that calling myself a backpacker does not change the reality of me being unemployed and that my days are filled with many hours of fuck-all. I did work and save for the privilege of doing so but I know that if I could do otherwise, I would. So here goes:

1. Find the right job:
This might seem contradictory to proper slacking until you look at the provisions that the French state makes for a select group of workers; its employees. A friend of mine has been paid as a teacher (in France they are civil servants) for the past 4 years despite managing to see only one group of her unfortunate charges through a school year. All she had to do to achieve this was lie on her back and watch her husband sweat. She got pregnant. The intricacies of baby vacations in France still elude me but she seems fully aware that she can contrive various ways to play with her sprogs at the taxpayer’s expense and not get fired unless she touches up one of her charges and, what with the disproportionate power of unions in France, even that isn’t a cert.

2. Find half a job:
The people with whom I am staying are artists, a.k.a alcoholics with delusions of grandeur. A lot of them have managed to gain the coveted status of “intermittent du spectacle”. From what I understand they get to work part-time rigging stages or anything else remotely linked to art and get shedloads of benefit payouts the rest of the year so that they can be creative. This was set up so as to ensure that French culture will not be stymied by the harsh reality of the market. It has been kept in place mainly because of French paranoia about being swamped by American cultural imports. The idea of producing stuff that people might actually want to see and hear is seen as an Anglo Saxon barbarism. The UK is overrun by shit music and film because a lot of people are tasteless fuckwits but France is overrun by equally worthless stuff because the French state pays for it. Hooray for culture.

In case you wander what my arty acquaintances have produced thanks to this system please follow the link I undertand they will have samples of their music online as soon as they find the time (sober up) to finish their website. When they do and if you are brave enough to try it I strongly recommend you lower the volume on your PC and ensure your pets are out of the room. If, like me, you are not quite sure in what language the chappie is “singing” in, I have been told it is English. Clap, clap for the valiant efforts of France to preserve its culture.

3. Don’t get a job and read books.
Become a student. In Blighty, Tony Blair has decided that today’s youth are somehow less deserving of the same free university education he and his Oxbridge mates got. As a result, anyone wanting to develop their minds past the age of 18 must saddle themselves with crippling debt. The French have decided that it might be in the nation’s interest to have an educated workforce have wisely decided to cough up for a few years at Uni. However they have been perhaps a tad too generous.

Most French universities do not have a pre-selection and as a result, any cretin who barely scraped a pass at the French equivalent of A-levels can sign up for any thing they want. Unsurprisingly a lot of them fail dismally so the powers that be give them a few more chances to find a course they have at least a faint chance of passing. Once this is done and provided you don’t fuck up too badly you can carry on waking up at noon and scribbling bollocks about your preferred subject late into your twenties.

4. Don’t get a job at all
I also know people who somehow manage to lead a decent lifestyle despite being dole-monkeys. I could say that this is an example of the abuses of a welfare state but I suspect that their families are coughing up. That or low-level drug dealing.

There was the cultural bit. I am off to do what many French people my age does; smoke cigarettes and watch the Simpsons. I love the way this travelling malarkey is constantly flinging new experiences in my path. I’m sure I will one day be able to tell you how people in Turkmenistan smoke cigarettes and watch the Simpsons. The road beckons.

A final note on Strasbourg. It is a nice place to go to and a nice place to leave. Like all home towns, Strasbourg for me is somehow the real starting point of my travels. The evolution of the people here and the place itself retain my interest far more than it really should. Mates who, like me, have fucked off elsewhere become items of perpetual motions. Strasbourg presents me with a paradox; I wish for it and my friends here to evolve, change and progress but part of me wants it frozen in time. I have this selfish desire for the whole place to become a time capsule to my youth. A sure sign I am getting old and, judging by the last paragraph, a sure sign that I should drink some fucking coffee and stop being a sentimental whiner.

Got to go now, this twatting frog keyboard is driving me up the wall and I am going to spend a quarter of an hour correcting typos. If you are eagle eyed and can still spot mistakes; fuck you, this isn’t an essay.

Tchuss (German for cheerio)


Thursday, September 08, 2005

Well here I am in Paris perfecting my mooching skills off yuppie relative. Interestingly, I have finally visited stuff that I forgot to for the 2 years I lived in this place. When you arrive in a town you tend to sort out the essentials such restaurants and boozers and forgo the cultural stuff. This time however, I am a happy tourist.

You might want a plan when visiting Paris as most of it makes for bad strolling material. I have always been a fan of small winding streets when it come to ambling and, in Paris, these are reserved for a small amount of areas. The long and wide avenues that caracterise Paris are not the result of an innate French flair for the grandiose but a more pragmatic need to be able to shift troops quickly around the place and shoot Parisians, a sentiment shared by many a visitor to this place.

So off I trotted to the Ile de la Cite, the central island that held the original tribal settlement before the romans decided they liked the place. The big attraction on that island is of course the cathedral of Notre Dame, made famous by Victor Hugo with his novel about some cripple stalking a gipsy girl and now popularised further by a musical comedy that has spread across the world like syphilis. Notre Dame is quite a dumpy cathedral in comparison with others and I tend to like my cathedrals tall and elegant. To me, spending time around Notre Dame is like watching Dawn French; I know she’s popular but I dont know why.

So therefore my recommendation for the best visit on the Ile de la Cite is a small Gothic Church called the Ste Chapelle and this for many reasons.

Firstly the chapel in itself is quite interesting. It was built by Louis IX in 1248 to house the relics that had been twocked by crusaders in the Holy Land. It is very brightly colored which makes a nice change from the usual grey associated with medieval stuff. If you have time you can look at the stained glass windows that have loads of little scenes of churchy stuff but interspersed with the odd images of knights beating the crap out of foreigners. There is also a very nice balcony with a great little arch engraved by scenes of Judgement day. On the far right there is the customary scene of hell where those who failed to live up to Jaycee’s standards get grabbed by monkey people and worked over big time. Medieval architecture buffs like to point out that you often see a crowned head amongst these figures as a reminder that all are equal in front of God. In this one, I could make out 3 crowned heads amongst the half dozen getting the SM treatment. I reckon St Louis was not very saintly to his employees and the artisans had a very clear idea of what type of folk would head south on D day. The one big spoiler is that the French (remember this next time you hear Chirac waffling on about preserving french culture of the depradations of the free market) have stashed a gift shop right inside the building, blanking the left wall of the lower chapel.

The other reason that the Ste Chappelle is fun is the location. It is in the courtyard of a vast structure that houses the courts, the headquarters of the local CID, and a regular copshop. You might be sharing a queue with the relatives of people about to be sent down. And if you see people crying around the entrance it is safe to bet that it wasn’t the beauty of the stained glass that did it. It is worth walking around the building to see perps being ferried to any of the institutions present in the compound. However, this is not as fun as it would be in the UK. The way the french police treat suspects makes sniggering quite difficult. The complex also has representatives of the different types of coppers that France has doted itself with.

As I would like this blog to be educational I will occassionnally provide little bylines about the various facets of the countries I visit that another traveller might find useful. My first attempt to do this will be:


Many tourist guides will tell you to contact the fuzz for help or directions. They do fail to mention that not all cozzers are the same in France and it is worth knowing who does what.

-The Gendarmerie:
Technically they are soldiers not plod but they do mainly police work. You will also see soldiers patrolling the streets in France but these are just soldiers. In rural areas the gendarmes tend to be quite jovial and are appreciated as they are the only plod about. In urban areas they protect stuff linked to the military .
Liked by: Astonishingly for a law enforcement outfit they are reasonably popular with the French. Partly because they are not as vicious as regular filth but also for cultural reasons. A popular series of slapstick comedies in the 60’s probably gave them a more genial image than they deserve. Also they are familiar to French children as the local version of of the Punch and Judy puppet shows are distinctive by the cries of “ Attention le gendarme” as children barely able to walk learn to help semi-criminal figures escape the clutch of the boys in blue in a great interactive experience.
Disliked by: Other sorts of coppers

-The Compagnies Republicaines de Securite
Known with little affection by their acronym, the CRS are a full time riot squad created immediately after the liberation of France in 1944 to control the population and minimise looting. Their main, if not only function in life is to beat people up and therefore attract high quality applicants. They are easily recognisable in full gear and when dressed down they are distinguishable by the fact that they keep their shinpads for some reason. You can ask them for help but it is probably best to find a regular cop.
Liked by: The state. Leftwing agitators who need to prove that they live in a fascist state. Shop owners unlucky enough to be visited by a rampaging mob
Disliked by: Anyone who has been on the receiving end of their dispersal techniques

-The Police Municipale:
Many towns have their own police force and the quality varies greatly. These are often unarmed and perform community relationshippy types of things as well as crime prevention. Paris is not allowed by law to have their own police force. The last time Parisians did set up some sort of urban militia they got a bit carried away and the subsequent period is known as “The Terror”
Liked by: Not seen as serious enough to be liked or dislked

-The Police Nationale:
The longest of the many arms of the law in France. They have many subdivisions but the basic beat plod are actually OK. By British standards they would be seen as arrogant but if approached (ie: like a big dog who is probably nice but might turn nasty) correctly can be of use. The only exception to this rule are the sections known as la BAC who deserve a dishonorable mention below.
Liked by: It is of good form in France to be seen to dislike the filth but most citizens actually think they are alright. They had a rep for racism and brutality (not undeserved) but are slowly shaking it
Disliked by: Crims and anyone who has been a victim of their racism and brutality

-The Brigades Anti-Criminalité (BAC)
If you live long enough in France you might one day pass upon youths (probably of immigrant origin) being manhandled, yelled at and generally treated like shit by thuggish men wearing red armbands. These are not, as one might deduce, a fascist vigilante group ethnically cleansing their neighbourhood, but the proud boys of the BAC. The Bac are strike teams who target low level criminality with the same methods and subtlety that the apartheid era South African Plod used towards race relations. Perceived by social comentators as having a large role in the dismal state of trust between the plod and the inhabitants of French housing estates.
Liked by: Possibly themselves but as they have a high rate of suicide I wouldn't bet money on that
Disliked by: Everyone else

Anyway that was my little cultural piece. I will now go forth and do what a lot of Parisians do in the summer; bugger all. The French state may be trying to revitalise te economy but the offices of the Mayor of Paris seem intent on encouraging idleness. They even dumped sands on the banks of the Seine to create their own beach. They also litter the many parks of the capital with reclined chairs that are used for the great Paris sport of watching life go by. Actually this is a half truth. Paris women usually take a book with them if they are alone in a cafe or park. It is the men who look at passersby, and by that I mean women (I can’t fault them for this as Paris totty is indeed of the highest quality as far as leering goes)

Quick tip: Paris is not very friendly towards users of drunk radars. I myself like to take mapcheck breaks in the late night bistros on the way to wherever I go. They are populated by many an old drunk who will kindly explain to you all that is wrong with France/the world/you. The North African ones are usually the friendliest.

Next stop Strasbourg

Bises ( French for airkisses on the cheeks)


Monday, September 05, 2005

As the purpose of this blog is to report on the places I go to I might as well start now.

The very first leg of my Homeric trip is a mysterious and exotic city. Brighton, East Sussex, UK. A wonderful place where the fashionable, the old and the gay congregate to live by the sea and buy kitchenware (so it appears). I am also here to develop a vital skill to all backpackers: Mooching off a relative.

What to see in Brighton:
-The Brighton Pavilion. A faux-Indian folly built by George the 4th as a splendid example that blue blood and old money do not equate with taste. He approached architecture with same qualities with which he dealt with his finances and his love life; with laughable incompetence.

- The Brighton Piers. One is a burnt out shell half collapsed into the sea and the other is not worth seeing. I have never understood the British seaside fascination with piers. As far as I can see they are basically pontoons with huts. However, a good ruin is always nice. They should torch the other one for the sake of symmetry. I’m sure Brighton’s cider addled teenagers will soon make this so.

-The people. Brighton has developed into a mecca for the weird. You can wonder around the town and watch the natives help Britain’s ever-growing debt recovery business in a quest to ensure they get their own unique style. As a result they all look the same. As my only consideration for any purchase of clothing for the past year has been jungle rot, I find it very amusing

Myself, I have decided to make my last days in Blighty consistent with the rest of my time here by going to the pub, drinking ale and eating pies.

Next stop, the most overhyped town in the world. Paris


Sunday, September 04, 2005


This blog is not a result of a strong desire to air my thoughts. It stems from a far greater human instinct; lazyness.

I have just joined the mass of happy people who traipse the globe in a quest of self discovery, their faces revealing awe, content and digestive problems. From now on I am no longer an office monkey but a backpacker. Hooray

This blog is to avoid having to email relatives/friends/ex-colleagues who claim to want to stay in touch so as to make my desertion less awkward. Now they can all log on and find out what I have been up to.

As to why I am doing the actual travelling the answer is strikingly banal. Getting closer to 30 and realising that this is the last chance to do something like this. Baby boomers are retiring this year and they have always been a selfish lot. Even worse, they will probably live long and will expect people my age to work until 75 and be taxed mercilessly to pay for their yoga classes. My generation being politically apathetic, statesmen will be quick on the mark deciding who to suck up to and who to bend over a barrel, legs spread and all greased up.

Therefore I will wander the globe to witness all manner of peoples and place. Hopefully I will learn from the many cultures I will be exposed to. Doubtless their different perspectives, such as focusing on not starving, will enlighten me and kill off any internal whingeing. I will then be able to settle down, get a career and develop an interest in modular furniture.

Hope you enjoy this,

Hugs (the manly type with your arse stuck out and one hand patting the shoulder blades brutally hard),