Nothing doing, Part 1

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I suggest that if you intend to read right the way through this post that you make yourself a cuppa, get a nice biscuit, sit down, take a deep breath and read on. You see it has been nothing short of full-on for the past two weeks or so and I assure you that I have plenty to tell you about. We’ll begin what seems an eternity ago on Wednesday 27 July.

We had been visited at the Magic Caravan here in Alyth 2 days earlier by Mary’s brother Bruce, wife Gillian and the two children, Thomas the human whirlwind and Sophie the fairy princess. We had lunch together in the awning and at some point Bruce mentioned he was going on a historical walk around St. Andrews (he works there at Madras College) guided by a former colleague and Chemistry teacher. Mary of course said she really fancied going along too and as I have never turned down a chance to visit my Alma Mater – studied there ’71-’76 – we told Bruce we would turn up at the meeting place (The Central Bar!) on that Wednesday at 10 a.m.

Now that may appear a tad adventurous of us at first glance. No, not the historical tour, you silly things. I mean of course promising to be in St. Andrews at ten in the morning when we are resident on a campsite near Alyth. That’s a good 30 miles to travel including crossing Dundee from north to south at heavy traffic time. Added to that, Lord and Lady Burton aren’t world-renowned for getting up just after dawn, the crack of or otherwise. Indeed we sometimes wonder if we could get a clock with a dial that only spans 10 a.m. until 1 a.m. as the intervening hours are not popular with us. But Mary was super-confident and determined to take the tour and I wasn’t far behind.

At half past eight that Wednesday morning we were up, showered, fed and brushed. By 08.45 we were on the road to Dundee, over the Tay Bridge by half past nine and parked up in the grounds of Madras College (Nice one, Bruce!) by ten. Inside the Central Bar we were introduced to fellow participant Olaf, a Depute at Bruce’s school, and the guide who was introduced to me as Ross Napier. “Not Ross Napier, ex-hockey internationalist” I quipped. “The very one” came the reply. I couldn’t believe it as the guide was a contemporary of mine at the University and I remembered him as a terrific hockey player alongside my old pal Chris Healey, as well as a useful football player in the Sunday League. He didn’t really recognize me of course as I spent most of my time in the library studying. I’ll wait while you stop laughing!

The tour itself was laid-back and interesting and although we knew many of the things Ross pointed out and explained to us we learned a great deal more about the history of the “Home of Golf”, a quite bloody history might I add. They certainly enjoyed a good old burning at the stake did the residents, seemingly happy to burn both Catholics and Protestants alike! Quite surprisingly, John Knox himself escaped the execution pyre because he was actually too valuable to get rid of after he’d been captured. Lucky boy!

Ross, Olaf, Bruce and Mary discuss the Cathedral

Ross, Olaf, Bruce and Mary discuss the Cathedral

We visited St. Salvator’s church, quadrangle, the castle, the cathedral, St. Mary’s College (where I studied Theology) and some of the old buildings. Behind the postgraduate hall of residence Dean’s Court, we were ushered into a delightful set of gardens where we paused to appreciate the scene and the utter silence of this inner yard. We were also shown a plaque recounting the meridian line established by James Gregory way before the Greenwich Line took over.

The Plaque in South Street near St. Mary's College

The Plaque in South Street near St. Mary’s College

A highlight for me was a look inside a café which occupies the ground floor of the former Old Students’ Union on North Street. I have many fond memories of this place during my first and second years of study at St. Andrews and I went to ask if I could get upstairs to the area where the snooker rooms used to be but they are all modernised now. I still dream about the higgledy-piggledy stairways within this rabbit’s warren of a building. We had lunch for old times’ sake with Bruce in that Old Union building then bid him farewell, but it wasn’t back to Alyth for us. Oh no, we drove back over the Tay, on East out of Dundee and up to Gavin’s in Arbroath where we had been invited for tea.

Arry on her princess chair from Spain

Arry on her princess chair from Spain

Gavin was alone with granddaughter Arry while Mum Eve was down in London with friends. We spent some time out in the garden playing with the bairn then had tea together before I took on the role of story-reader for my wee gem. I did it brilliantly of course and in no time she was happily in the land of nod. This gave us some time to catch up with Gavin before it was time to head back to Alyth which we intended to reach via the wee roads of Angus instead of down to Dundee and out again. Victoria was asked to keep us right and she did, finding the absolute shortest route via roads one car-width for 10 miles at a time and passing through some excellent farm yards. Pitch black, full beam, trees, rabbits, geese, tractors, owls, you name it, we saw it!

Two days later, I dropped Lady Burton off at her sister Ally’s house and headed down the dual carriageway to Perth then Crieff then Comrie just outside of which I’d hired a static caravan on a farm as the base for this year’s Munroamers. There were only to be the four of us this year with Greg stuck at his work harvesting on the estate. What a pity! I got there first and settled down to wait for Scott who arrived a couple of hours later. We then prepared tea as we awaited the arrival of George and Gavin who made it by 20.30. Tea was a paella made partly from a tin I’d brought back from Vilanova, but with extra chicken, chorizo (sorry Spanish friends!), prawns and peas added.

Not bad!

Not bad!

Naturally, we had the odd beer or two that evening while we discussed the challenges that lay ahead over the next two days. All four of us were up for it though so we chilled and enjoyed our surprisingly comfortable lodgings. This was actually the first time we had ever met up the evening before Day 1 as opposed to meeting up on the morning of Day 1 itself and it’s a recipe we intend to repeat. A great night’s sleep was interrupted only by the loudest mooing you have ever heard, what with there being a field of cows and one very happy bull just 20 metres away! By the end of our visit, George was convinced that the farmer actually had a mooing machine and megaphone trained on our caravan so loud were these cow noises! Great laughs though!

Our static caravan

Our static caravan

Day 1 launched with bacon and eggs (eggs only for George the vegetarian), several attempts at writing off the loo, a short drive in Scott’s car to the south shore of Loch Earn and that was us ready to walk. Our targets for that day were Ben Vorlich (3231 feet) and Stuc a ‘Chroin (3198 feet), two medium-sized Munros making up the south-east corner of the Western Highlands. The weather seemed particularly kind to us as we left the loch shore and we were optimistic of a reasonably dry walk up and back.

The classic team photo before hitting the mountain

The classic team photo before hitting the mountain

I have to admit I found the early steep path really hard work but somehow or other I found a second wind and slowly but surely made my way up behind the 3 boys to the upper slopes of Ben Vorlich. As always the false summits and boggy areas were particularly punishing but with just the right amount of stops for water, food, a chat and a chance to rest I made it to the top, albeit more slowly than previous years and probably to the great frustration of my boys who were champing at the bit to move faster. They were awfully good to me however and ladled praise on poor old Dad for getting to the top.

Still Game!

Still Game!

Looking over to Stuc a’ Chroin from the summit of Ben Vorlich we could see the route down below which twisted up to a small boulder field before stopping at the foot of a huge outcrop of ominously dark rock negotiable with care. Inspired by having bagged our first target we went for it down the south slope of Ben Vorlich and were cruelly surprised by just how much height we had to lose before levelling out on the bealach and setting off back up. As we approached the rock we studied it carefully before unanimously agreeing to take the alternative route to the right straight up the Coire, in itself a bit of a challenge. Our hands were still needed in places and although I continued to struggle, the boys sprinted up and waited for me at the col before we made our way more easily round to the summit.

The rock scramble of Stuc a 'Chroin

The rock scramble of Stuc a ‘Chroin

As usual, the way back down proved to be the sore bit, especially on our knees, as we had to walk with the brakes almost permanently on. But we got back to the car after the predicted 8 hours and not one drop of rain had fallen on us, just like last year in the Cairngorms. While the boys prepared the Haggis, Neeps and Tatties I had brought for us I was permitted a wee 5 minutes in the bedroom and I’m ashamed to say it ran on a bit to something more like an hour and a half. Tea was brilliant as were the beers but we were all quite tired and ended up watching “Predator” on the TV before hitting the hay.

Day 2 involved cleaning up and having breakfast (Dad’s famous omelettes) before driving off in the cars back to Comrie where we parked up, got into Scott’s car and drove to the access point for our target Ben Chonzie (3054 feet). I’d been up before with some pals many years before but it was new to the boys and convenient to bag on our last day. The weather was markedly colder and cloudier today but there was still no rain although we began to see it in the adjacent glens. Fingers crossed! Our legs were all pretty good but I was still finding the steep bits hard going. However I surprised myself by reaching the plateau without incident, then it was a mile across a flat top following some convenient fence posts to the sheltered cairn at the top where we had lunch.

Ben Chonzie summit

Ben Chonzie summit

As you can see from the photo it was a bit fresh in the wind at the top and we reckoned it wasn’t far from zero up there so we were happy to get cracking back down and out of the worst of the wind. The route back was exactly the way we’d come as there was no reasonable alternative but we made short work of it and I even had time to tell a dog to get lost when it came barking at us. Great things these walking poles! The boys had been wearing their Fitbits throughout and, down in the car park Gavin came up with the route from Day 1 as plotted by his wristband.

Technology, eh?

Technology, eh?

We had done our target in 4 hours which was the least expected by the description we’d read beforehand, so well done to all of us. We realized also that this was the first time in ten years that we’d been out on the mountains and it hadn’t rained on us. That was probably a reward for almost drowning in it last year in the Lairig Ghru. Difficult memory, that one!

The boys drove off back to their respective partners while I cruised back to Dundee where Mary’s Mum pampered me with tea, a sleep and a long soak in a deep bath. Thanks Mum!

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Scottish Summer

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It is absolutely hammering it down outside and the sky is a uniform grey: uniform, not even 50 shades. This morning there were six or seven families in various types of tent pitched out on the large expanse of grass that makes up the middle of our little caravan park, the 5 roads, here in Alyth. It’s just turned 13.45 and they’re all gone. It won’t be because they have to work tomorrow or get the kids to school because it’s a public holiday and it’s still the summer holidays from school. No, it’s because of the rain. We’ve been here a week and it’s rained every day at some point, even on Tuesday when the temperature peaked at 27 degrees, the hottest day of the year.

To be brutally honest, the weather doesn’t bother us all that much, given where we live most of the time. But we do feel for all the people who spend their lives in Scotland or all those who visit our beautiful country. We’ve met 3 couples from the latter category here on this campsite and they have spoken with resignation about their visit. The first two stayed one night each on their respective tours, both couples sleeping in a wee tent next to their cars. Both had breakfast in those cars as the rain battered their flimsy accommodation to the ground. They both agreed that Scotland is immensely beautiful ……… if you can see it through the stair-rods. Brave faces were to the fore but we could see they were being sorely tested. God bless!

Mary’s Mum is apoplectic about how awful the weather has been. If she can’t get her sheets hung out on the drying-green then it is officially a state of emergency at her house. Given that she finds things to wash which others simply do not perceive, you can take it that she finds herself glued to her Tablet, examining the weather on a half-hourly basis and making advance plans for the next whites or coloureds wash with military precision. She soldiers on with admirable stoicism but we can see how the weather breaks her heart.

The rain has just gone up a further two levels of ferocity here and we are extremely thankful that the Magic Caravan continues to be 100% waterproof. I must admit that we did have some qualms about spending 6 weeks in our first-ever caravan after it has been sitting out at a storage site in Birkhill to the north-west of Dundee. But we have to say that it took no more than a rub down inside and out to restore it to presentable level and once hooked up to the mains we were delighted to find that everything still worked, lights, sockets, fridge, water-pump etc. I have given it a replacement fully-charged battery with new terminals and all is now well with the internal 12v system which should stay topped-up once I have attached the solar-power trickle charger I bought at Maplin’s.

At the 5-Roads campsite

          At the 5-Roads campsite

We arrived here a week ago today after an excellent 8 days in Tayport at Mary’s brother’s house where we looked after their amazing cat Zak while they holidayed down in the Lake District. We enjoyed ourselves on the other side of the River Tay from Dundee and the view back towards the city as we would drive along the coast road from the bridge to Tayport ranks as one of the best we have seen anywhere. Strange how you can travel all around but still be moved by the beauty of a place where you have spent the vast majority of your life. The only near-equivalent I could conjure up was the view of the St. Lawrence River from the Olympic Stadium in Montreal but even then the Tay with the two hills of Dundee in the background wins hands down. Stunning!

Dundee seen from the Tayport road

Dundee seen from the Tayport road

Catching up with the family has taken up most of our time since our return to Scotland. We started with two nights at Scott’s flat in Falkirk after we left Mike and Het’s in Kendal, that being the final stage of our journey home. There then followed 1 night at Mary’s Mum’s (luxury!) then meeting up with George and family for lunch, tea with Greg and Karen in Montrose and a brief stop-off at Gavin’s in Arbroath on our way back to Tayport. We actually went to see where Karen works, a popular stately home near Montrose called The House of Dun and, after a cup of tea at Karen’s café, Greg took us around the ornate gardens which were really beautiful. I think we’ll be going back to visit the interior at some point next month.

Lord and Lady Burton

               Lord and Lady Burton

Out of the blue we found ourselves invited to a wedding reception at the famous Invercarse hotel in Dundee following a conversation between Lady Burton and the new groom, her ex-French Teacher Brian Gould. We had an enjoyable evening dancing both modern and Scottish and we caught up with uncle Gerard who was in attendance along with a smattering of old Dundee teachers.

The groom, Lady Burton and a tramp!

     The groom, Lady Burton and a tramp!

I did the driving that night, mainly because I’m being very good following a spate of high blood-sugar tests. The good news is that my full blood tests came back on Thursday and showed readings lower than last year and such as to cause no concern to the doctor. This was a great relief to both Mary and me and suggested I’m behaving myself (at last!).

On Friday we had my cousins Stef and Renée over for fish and chips in the awning and the weather was kind enough to at least not rain while we were actually eating! They will be reciprocating this evening with dinner at their house in Blairgowrie where we will also get a chance to catch up with their lovely children Ricky and Teresa, both adults and doing well. Yesterday Mary went off in the car – strange, that sounds like she exploded! – to meet with some old school chums in Dundee and three hours later I took the bus to Dundee to meet up with George, Ben, Gavin and Arry to go swimming at the Olympia pool where Scott used to be a lifeguard. I had a wonderful time with our grandchildren, splashing around, getting zoomed around the Rapids, buffeted by the Wave machine and enjoying the thrills (or should that be terror?) of sliding down the green and red flumes. I think I found them fun but maybe my heart thought different!

I’ve firmed up several details for the next few weeks. Next Friday we’re off up the mountains as we always do in early August. Not Lady Burton of course, as the “Munroamers” as we call ourselves is strictly male-only and includes only me and my 4 sons. Unfortunately only three can come with me this year, Greg being the odd-man-out as it’s harvest time on the Estate where he works and he’s needed there. I’ve booked a big static deluxe caravan near Comrie for our accommodation and we’ll be within spitting distance of Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin and Ben Chonzie which are our three target mountains for 2016. On Monday, Mary and I are off up north to visit brother Joe & wife Mo at their house on the banks of Loch Carron. This is becoming an annual pilgrimage and we never fail to have a great time catching up. A small libation may even be taken!

We’ll stay there until Thursday morning then drive back to Dundee for one night before heading to Powburn in Northern England for the annual get-together of Mary’s family at the scout camp. This year, for the first time, we’re going to be taking grandson Ben with us as he’s nearly 5 and will be starting school a week later. But instead of coming home on the Sunday as usual, we’re driving back over to Kendal to help Mike and Het celebrate their joint 60ths! Ben will be there too and I’m sure we’ll have a ball. When we get back to the Magic Caravan on the Monday, we may just have a rest!

Aunt Ellen called two days ago to inform us that uncle Peter (Dad’s wee brother) had passed away in Cardiff at the age of 80 after being ill for a while. I have fond memories of Peter grabbing me around the waist and lifting me up to the ceiling in Grandma’s house in Leeds when I was a wee boy in the early 60s. Our thoughts are with his wife aunt Anne and her children. RIP uncle Peter.

Peter was the brother furthest to the left in the photo on page 73 of “Georgie”, a photo of Dad’s Mum and Dad and all of his siblings. I think uncle Terry and auntie Pat are the only two survivors of that splendid photo. The two memoirs continue to do well both at Waterstones and online at Amazon. I am busy having “Wee Georgie” reprinted yet again (200 more this time) and I suspect it won’t be the last. I have a signing at Waterstones in Dundee on 13 August, my third such event and once again they asked me, not the other way around. Slowly but surely I am beginning to feel the urge to write again so you never know what I’ll be telling you in the next post. Disappointingly, book 2 of Socrates the Snail remains frustratingly unillustrated and I can’t seem to find a reliable artist anywhere who can meet a deadline. Do you know anyone who might do the job for me?

Well that’s us up-to-date today. It hasn’t actually stopped raining but at least Ginger baker is no longer practising his favourite drum-solo on the roof of the Magic Caravan. I leave you with Arry and Ben post-swim. Wonderful, but then again I AM their granddad!

Uber-cute!

                Uber-cute!

Just at the last second before I posted this, I’ve received the first photo of Fred and Jeanette’s new motorhome. I wish them all the possible joys in their new abode!

Absolute luxury!

                Absolute luxury!

Post-Referendum

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Well, that’s it then. We voted and the “No” side won by 55% to 45%. We’re staying a part of the UK and agreeing to let Westminster run things for us, yes, you know, that Tory Government that ignores everything which isn’t in the south-east of England. 2 million people up here voted “No” last Thursday and I still don’t know where they all came from! 2 million people who were simply too scared to give independence a try, who believed all the scaremongering and everything they heard and read in the media.

The BBC were utterly despicable in their biased coverage of the campaign but thanks to the wonderful power of social media the truth was spread throughout the land almost as quickly as the deceit was broadcast. Many eyes were opened, including my own. Scotland has been politicized by the referendum process and people have been encouraged to find out truths for themselves rather than rely on traditional media sources. So, enough of that for the moment, although we can’t wait for all the new powers we’ve been promised! (We won’t hold our breaths).

Mary and I are quite excited again at the prospect of driving back to Vilanova soon. Theoretically we should be leaving tomorrow so as to arrive by the 25 September, but that has had to be put back because of the launch of my memoir “Wee Georgie” which goes on sale in Waterstones of Dundee tomorrow morning. I was surprised but delighted that they accepted my book for sale in their store as all the advice I’d read suggested it was a waste of time trying to get them to accept the work of an independent author such as myself. However, the content and the very professional appearance of the printed book must have impressed their regional manager enough to persuade her to give the work a go, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have my book on display in the country’s leading bookstore.

I intend to see how the book sells for the next few days, maybe try to arrange a signing in the Dundee store, organize for someone to look after my online sales at the website and then we will probably head off to Spain. So we could be back in the caravan any time between 1 – 10 October, knowing that Mary’s sister Alison and her family are booked to stay at Vilanova Park for a week from the 13 October. Greg and Karen have just returned from another 10 days there as well and have reported temperatures above 30 degrees and the high season just coming to a close.

I’ll leave you with a photo of my books in Waterstones, but take a glance at the face on the shelf behind. Yes, it’s Scotland’s guru himself, Alex Salmond, the man who persuaded 45% of us to vote for self-determination.

Bucket List: tick!

Bucket List: tick!

 

Day 2/122: It’s a Family Affair

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“And so it came to pass that George led his wife Mary out of the strange town and back to the place from whence they sprang. They were led there by a bright light in the sky with “Easyjet” written on it which took them to a place called Newcastle where they boarded a huge iron donkey. When they arrived at the town of their birth, all the inns were full and they could not even lay their heads down at their old dwelling-place, but they found a stable spot next door thanks to a generous uncle and there they remained.

And it was there, with the whole throng of jigsaws looking on, that Mary’s time came and she brought forth a Xmas present which she wrapped in glittery paper and laid under the coffee table. Outside, the news spread rapidly of their arrival and two wise queens (Mum and Alison) hurried to meet them, bringing gifts of milk and bread on which they feasted along with a fish supper! And a heavenly choir of Christmas Number ones rang out through the BBC singing “Last Xmas I got really drunk, but the very next day I fell in the Tay, this year I stuck to the beer, I only drank Carlsberg Special!”

Right, here’s the modern version. The Saturday before we returned to Scotland, all the pals had a pre-Xmas dinner under Fred’s awning. It was a rowdy affair with buckets of food and drink, a Danish Secret Santa and a viciously competitive game of Settlers, won by my partner Het whom I abandoned halfway through due to Spanish tummy.

A smug Het with Boab and Kev keeping the evening sombre!

A smug Het with Boab and Kev keeping the evening sombre!

Now, how I got involved I’ll never quite know but there I was on the Wednesday and Thursday before we left, sitting in Mary’s classroom dressed as Santa Claus giving out presents and certificates to the pupils! Great moment when they crowded around me for the big photo and one wee boy whispered to his pal “Mira, su barba es falsa!” No need for a translation there I think. On the second night I even stayed behind to talk to the parents….. and what did I get for my efforts above and beyond? A parking ticket! Yes, I was nicked for overstaying my welcome. And it wasn’t even a sleigh!

On the first night we missed the usual weekly meal up in the restaurant as we were down at the school, but I kept the suit on to drive back up to the campsite where we surprised the diners with a visit from Santa. Much fun was had by all and even the staff joined in!

Santa al bar!

Santa al bar!

Eventually we flew back on 20th December to be at the christening of our granddaughter Artemis that Sunday. The day went very well up in Arbroath and Eve’s parents did us proud with a wonderful spread. The whole family was there including the boys’ mum Isobel and her sister Dorothy so all sides were fully represented. Young George was the godfather and Nellie’s wife Lyndsey the godmother. The star of the day was passed around a million times but took it all in her stride, crying only when I personally tried to hold her. What? I hope you’re not laughing!

Oh, this is interesting, Mum and Dad!

Oh, this is interesting, Mum and Dad!

The next couple of days in the run-up to Xmas were ridiculously busy as you might well expect but I was concentrating by then on getting my book some publicity locally. It was truly a wonderful moment to have in my hands a physical copy of the book with my name on it and I was very proud of it. Eventually, a week later, there was an article about me in the Dundee Courier coinciding with me doing a book signing at the Nisa supermarket just down the hill from the flat. The day went very well, I met several old friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and I sold 25 copies of “Socrates”. By the end of the holidays that figure would be 33, an unanticipated bonus.

My 5 minutes of fame

My 5 minutes of fame

Christmas Day was mass in the morning, followed by a short visit to Mum and to Alison, then back up to Eve’s parents for a buffet. By then, Scott’s Canadian friend Simon was with us, having come north from Cambridge where he is studying. A couple of days later we took Simon to St. Andrews and showed him around the beautiful University town and of course its golfing icons.

We continued to visit as many folk as we could, squeezing in some priority time with our grandson Ben (boy, has he made progress over the last few months!). On the Saturday between the 2 festivals we had the traditional Kelso AFC smoker night out, this time with everyone in Blues Brothers garb. Naturally yours truly walked off with the prize for “Best Dressed” although some suggested it was “Best in Show!” Anno Domini is inevitable however and by half past nine I was safely curled up on the settee snoring my head off. I even missed MOTD!

Best Dressed, sunshine!

Best Dressed, sunshine!

One day George and I took Ben to the soft-play centre “Pirate Island” which is always a bit of a laugh as we adults scamper around trying to keep up with Ben who runs around in perpetual motion mode. I still managed to meet other friends and ex-colleagues there so had a busy few hours. However I found time to properly catch up with my first-born and find out where his life is and where he wants it to go next. He seems focused but like so many parents is suffering from so many sleepless nights over the past 2 years. I’m sure we all recognise his situation, or at least thank God we were spared it. I wasn’t!

The best moment was at the very start of our visit, just after we had stepped off the plane in Newcastle. Greg called to tell me he had just been informed he was to be taken on full-time permanent at the packaging factory in Montrose where he had been working for the previous 3 months. After news like that I needed no further Christmas presents. Well done my boy. I am hugely proud of you and your perseverance.

The last few days were a bit frenetic and before we knew it was time to pack up and come back to Vilanova. Not before I took Ben to Toys ‘R Us and bought him some Thomas the Tank Engine stuff. Nice that was! (Am I sounding a bit like Yoda?) We saw everyone one last time, hugged, kissed, made promises we can’t keep, hopped on the train and went back down to Newcastle for tea and a bed at Dorothy’s. The next morning we took an early taxi to the airport and had a trouble-free flight back to Barcelona. Mary found it especially exciting…….

I'm Mary, fly me!

I’m Mary, fly me!

Het and Mike picked us up at El Prat, delivered us safely back to the campsite then gave us dinner as all the shops were closed for the feast of the Epiphany which is Spain’s real celebration of Christmas.  These two have become close friends over the year just finished and we’re sure that that will continue to be the case for many years to come (unless I never get the Vilanova Cup back from Mike!) This morning I had breakfast outside the awning as you can see and it felt really surprisingly good to be back.

Nothing like a nice cuppa!

Nothing like a nice cuppa!

So that’s it, we’re back and Mary was at work tonight as usual. Thanks everyone for a great Xmas break. We had a ball. Pity it didn’t snow though!

I leave you with a cracking  photo of my grandchildren and some supposed adults!

 

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Ben’s Mum Fiona, Artemis, Scott, Ben, Artemis’ Dad Gavin

Day 124: Arrivederci Scozia!

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We blinked, and it was time to fly back to Italy. At least that’s how it felt when we woke up this morning in Arbroath, knowing that, all being well, we would be going to bed in Bergamo, one of Milan’s other airports. Our 2 weeks back in Dundee had simply flashed by, despite the feeling that we had done visit after visit to our friends and relations. We had spent time with our hosts Gavin & Eve and Mary’s mum, George & Fiona and Daniel & of course my only grandson Ben (he’s walking!!), Greg & Karen, Ally & Dave and Sarah & Stephen, Dorothy & David and Beth and Zach, Claire, Kate, Andrew & Sam, Bruce & Gillian, Thomas & Sophie, Renée & Stef and Ricky, Cissie, Marie & Ian, Steven and Mary and kids, Mark and Claire and kids, Annie, Nicole, Megan & Niamh, Chris Healy and my former assistant Frédérique, former neighbour David Stanley, all the lads at Kelso (great night by the way!), Roy & Eileen, former pupil Ray McKinnon, Jane & Joe McGalliard, Pat Herrmann, our dear neighbour George Scott, and Virginie and her greyhound. We had even survived and almost become friends with Gavin & Eve’s cat Sofia. We were acquainted with a talking doll called Elsie, an Arbroath pub which plays Scooter at a thousand decibels when there are only 2 old men in the place, Mary went to a funeral and my blood cholesterol came back at 3.6, the best ever. Sorry to all those we failed to catch up with: we don’t love you any less, we just didn’t find a space this time around.

Gavin was charged with getting us to Edinburgh airport by 12.30 and he duly obliged, although his Ford Focus gave him a couple of scary moments going uphill on the motorway. We hugged him and bid farewell before jumping on the shuttle bus which dropped us outside Departures. Now we had to face our biggest worry. Was there more than 20 kilos in our case? We had not been able to check the weight back at Gavin’s as Eve has no need for bathroom scales. Ok for those built like a fairy, but we mortals need to keep a check on the pounds (or stones!). To our relief the case weighed in at 17 kilos, causing Mary to quickly stuff a few more items into it before the rollers took it away to the mysterious avenues behind the check-in desk. Would they notice the long-necked wheel brace we had in it? I’ll explain later.

As we waited to board we were bemused by the number of people who insisted on queuing up to go through the boarding gate when all tickets have a specific seat allocated in advance. We both sat and read until the queue moved past us then we followed them all on board. The flight was just what you would expect except for a magic few minutes right after I woke up from a brief snooze. We had soared through the clouds above Edinburgh, reaching blue sky within a minute and then enjoyed the sun slipping gently down to our right as we left Scotland then England behind. I nodded off as darkness invaded the sky over the Channel.

When I awoke half an hour later, we had caught up with the sunset on the Earth’s curvature and it left me speechless. Picture a canvas black at the top morphing into navy then light blue. Underline it with a brush stroke of dark grey clouds whose lower edge leads to a layer of dazzling orange slowly fading to red as it bleeds into the sharp teeth of the high Alps with east slopes black against the setting sun. My words cannot do it justice. “Beautiful” is genuinely inadequate to describe what we witnessed.

Safely back to “terra firma”, I slipped off to the toilet while awaiting the arrival of our baggage on the quivering snake. And there, within the gent’s at Malpensa airport, I saw a display of talent worthy of a standing ovation on the “X-Factor”. To the right of my ceramic friend stood a man in his sixties directing his outpourings with his right hand while his left thumb tapped out a “Wish you were here” or some such greeting on his mobile ‘phone. Need I say more? Genius! He was particularly adept with the letter “P”!

Luggage reclaimed, we left the airport and Mary called the car park where we had left the Audi. She was very impressive with her use of Italian in telling them where we were and soon we were in the car and off to Bergamo 40 miles away. Victoria was primed with our new hotel address after a sudden change yesterday led to an upgrade and credit note (That’ll do nicely!) from Hotels.com We found the hotel, checked in and went to the restaurant. A young girl came and translated the posh menu for us, we had a drink and then sat down at table, choosing the bar instead of the dining-room. When Mary’s meal arrived and the silver cover was removed, she gasped audibly as her eyes fell on what appeared to be cooked starfish! We’re not exactly sure what she had been brought but clearly the girl had not possessed the necessary English vocabulary to describe what she was recommending. The squiddy-starfish-octopus thing was replaced with a fillet steak which did the trick even if it bled a little more than anticipated.

I am writing this up in the luxurious room we have been given and I have just booked another top hotel for our return to Bergamo in a week’s time. By applying the credit we had been given, next week’s hotel cost us nothing. When I was young, nothing was a lot of money you know. How times change.

I had chicken tonight, but tomorrow it’s Turkey!

Day 123: Alba back.

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Today we were coming home. After seventeen and a half weeks, 123 days wandering around eastern and southern Europe, we’d be flying back to Bonnie Scotland to spend a fortnight in the company of assorted family and friends, celebrating Christmas and the New Year, not to mention Karen’s birthday, Eve’s birthday and my Greg’s birthday. We were beside ourselves with anticipation, unsure of how we would react to returning to “normal” life or to society as exhibited by the inhabitants of Dundee, Scotland.

It’s just that we’ve seen so much. Things that surprised us, things that intrigued us, things that puzzled us. They do things differently on the continent. That is not a judgemental comment but a statement of fact. What we would consider ridiculous, they consider perfectly normal. What they consider extreme we consider everyday. We are different but variety is indeed the spice of life so let’s have a lot more of it. An open mind goes a long way!

The arrangements for getting back to Scotland went without a hitch. We took the Audi to the long-stay car park behind Terminal 2 at Malpensa Airport, Milan where we’d booked it in for the next fortnight, got a shuttle from there to the terminal, checked in our one suitcase, waltzed through security and had breakfast in the departures lounge. The weather was excellent so we knew there wouldn’t be any delays this morning.

We took off at 12.50 CET and two hours and fifteen minutes later we touched down in a rather wet but welcoming Edinburgh. Communication with Gavin led to us meeting him shortly afterwards and we were on our way back to Dundee. Our first stop was Mary’s Mum’s house to let her know we were safe and sound then, after a warming bowl of Dorothy’s delicious mud soup and a cup of tea, Gavin whisked us up to Arbroath where our daughter-in-law Eve was waiting to greet us with a glass of champers.

Eve pulled out all the stops to make us feel at home, preparing a truly delicious meal for the four of us before we retired to the lounge to talk over what had been happening in our absence. We caught up on family events and discussed the merits and demerits of living in Italy as Gavin had done for a year 10 years ago and before we knew it, it was time for bed, especially as our hosts had been up from the early hours.

I find myself slightly unsure as to how to bring this last post before the Xmas recess to a close. We always planned to be back at this time and now we are here we are glad of that decision. But a bit of us wonders if we ought not to have stayed away for the whole 9 months as going away again after the New Year will be that little bit more difficult. Nonetheless we have come back and hope to get invites to come and see you all over the festive period. That would be really nice.

After a short trip through Holland and Belgium we have done some serious visiting in Germany and Italy, coupled with a brief flirtation with Switzerland and Austria. Each country individually has its pluses and minuses and it is almost unfair to compare them to each other. None of them had anything that suggested they didn’t want foreign visitors.

As for caravanning round Europe, well, it has truly been amazing. The Magic Caravan has performed beyond our expectations in terms of habitability and all of the campsites have been reasonable although some were obviously better-run than others. What has surprised us most has been the lack of caravans on tour, in comparison to the spectacular number of motor-homes coming to the sites. Caravans have accounted for less than 5% of the vehicles we have seen and it seems that nowadays everyone owns or has hired a big, fancy motor-home to come and tour around in. What I simply hadn’t anticipated was the low number of campsites open over the winter and the scarcity of people using those which were open. Being totally alone on a site miles from “civilisation” has not been an experience we wish to repeat too often and, although we have had no problems of any kind on site nor come to harm in any way at all, we still have felt a little isolated in a forest, up a track, up a hill in pitch dark and absolute stillness.

Let me finish this first half of our adventure by paying tribute to my wife Mary who has shown total confidence in my judgement and decision-making, and has surprised me on a daily basis with her get-up-and-go attitude to the things I have asked her to do over the past 4 months. She is a brave young woman with a real appetite for adventure and the unexpected, and if you had seen her with me on those high, scary terraces up the mountains above the Cinque Terre just a few days ago you would understand why I hold her in such high esteem. Mary I salute you!

This is the last blog post now until 04/01/13 when we fly back to Milan, but remember that Socrates 6 will be posted late on Christmas Eve as a wee present to all the kids (although I know the adults will be just as keen to find out what our favourite snail has been up to!)

Merry Christmas everyone, and a happy, successful 2013. XXX George & Mary