Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right
22 November 2023 | Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
As a fully paid-up Guardianista, I am fully aware that blanket, stereotypic statements along the lines of:
"Portugues drivers are a bunch of needle-dicked maniacs with the road sense, consideration, and analytical skills of a horde of deranged lemmings."
are lazy, bigoted, xenophobic generalisations that have no place in civilised discourse. So I shall recast the comment:
"The great majority of those individuals who drive Portuguese-registered cars on Portuguese roads do so in a manner which could reasonably be construed as supporting the proposition that they comport themselves in a pattern consistent with their being a bunch of needle-dicked maniacs with the road sense, consideration, and analytical skills of a horde of deranged lemmings".
Chief amongst their litany of challenges to the doctrine of Darwinian selection is the practice of tailgating. If you drive along a Portuguese road at anything less than the square of the speed limit, you've got 34 seconds, max, before you've got a beaten-up station wagon full of live chickens trying its damnedest to climb in your boot. This happens with such frequency that you end up shrugging it off as just one of the things you have to put up with, if you will persist in the insane practice of driving on Portuguese roads.
Until, that is, the full, potential lethality of the practice is brought home to you.
We were doing about 90 km/h down a deserted two-way road. Well, deserted apart from us and the bloody great black SUV slewing from side to side, less than a bonnet's length from our rear bumper. About ½ a K ahead, hazard lights caught my attention. There was a breakdown recovery truck on the hard shoulder, with a Merc lashed on the platform.
As we got closer, I could see that the truck's left-hand wheels were just over the line marking the inner limit of our lane, so I moved across a metre or so to the left, so as to give him a bit of clearance, simultaneously easing the speed to around 80. The SUV copied, except for the slowing down bit. You could now just about slide a Rizla between his radiator grille and our rear foglight.
So far, so nothing out of the ordinary.
It was when we were almost alongside the truck that things really started to go pear-shaped. His hazards went out and, without so much as a 'by your leave', he started to pull out into our lane. I was spoilt for choice: get sideswiped, move into the oncoming lane and overtake him, or slam on the brakes and hope that Shit-for-brains behind me had the reflexes of Bruce Lee.
What's that you say - Blast the truck with the horn? Yeah, I thought of that. Did I mention that we hadn't had this car long? This was only the fifth or so time I'd driven it. I knew where most of the controls were - a bit hazy on lights, rear wipers and aircon, but generally, I'd got the hang of most of it. The central locking was a law unto itself, but the horn? No idea.
You can tell I'm not Portuguese - I've never used the thing, not in anger, not even out of idle curiosity. When a Portuguese buys a car, the first thing he checks is the horn - how do you work it and how loud is it. Well. It stands to reason; he uses it more than any other control.
Indeed, in Portuguese folklore, the car horn has magical powers. When a Portuguese driver is confronted with a delay of more than five nanoseconds, his immediate first response is to blast his horn. At its siren call, irreparably broken-down, smoking wrecks miraculously restore themselves to perfect working order and the tailback just melts away. Stubborn traffic lights fluster and turn, apologetically, to green. The horn's basso profundo chivvies roadworkers into pulling their fingers out and getting those bloody traffic cones in the back of the van where they should be. At the first beep, traffic police sheepishly shut down their roadside checkpoints and get on with their proper job, which is fining tourists for not carrying all the right documents with them.
This magic is dose-dependent; the more horns you've got going, the more powerful the spell.
Two beeps good; four beeps better. Forty beeps, a force to be reckoned with.
However, I digress.
So, having wasted precious milliseconds determining that the horn was not an option, I returned to the three that were. Getting sideswiped didn't appeal, and slamming on the anchors would, most likely, result in Twatfeatures behind us ending up in our back seat.
I turned my attention forwards. Chummy in the tow truck continued on his intercept course. I could see the road for about a kilometre ahead and it was empty, so I plumped for option two, signalled left, pulled out into the oncoming lane, and put my foot down.
As did the dickhead in the Datsun behind.
The only difference being that when he put his foot down, something happened.
Up until then, I hadn't fully appreciated just how underpowered a Seat Ibiza is. Flooring the pedal made not a jot of difference. The engine tone continued to hum nonchalantly along, unaffected. The tachometer and speedo remained stubbornly unmoved. I dropped it down into fourth. The only discernible difference was the pitch of the engine. The car remained resolutely at the same speed. At which point, the inevitable happened and a car coming the other way hove into view, about a kilometre down the road. We must have had a closing speed of around 200 km/h. That gave us about 18 seconds before all three vehicles underwent a major restyling.
I looked around and gained little comfort. Tail-end Charlie was still intent on humping the Seat, and judging by the clouds of oily black smoke, Mad Max in the tow-truck must have had his foot flat to the floor.
I went for the option that looked to be the least unsurvivable. I flashed my hazards twice and slammed on the brakes, hoping that the Datsun driver noticed and at least took his foot off the throttle. Luckily, he had, and the two of us slotted neatly in behind the tow-truck. Five seconds later, an open-top Merc flashed by the other way at speed.
I looked in the mirror. The Datsun was still behind us, but for some unfathomable reason he was now leaving a safe margin between us. The road ahead was clear. I waved him on, and he nipped smartly past with a friendly wave of acknowledgement.
Thirty seconds later, we had a petrol tanker up our arse.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles - Preface
14 August 2023 | A farce in three acts.
OK, I admit it.
I'm an idle sod.
This is the first blog I've posted in five months, compared with one a week at the peak of my productivity. It's not all my fault, though. I need a modicum of stimulus to get my creative juices flowing. [Enough of your adolescent smut.] Something needs to happen to spark a blog off. When you're full-time cruising, things are happening thrice weekly. The blogster can afford to be selective in choosing the topics for a blog entry.
In these post-fulltime cruising, post-brexit, post-covid, days, however, it is all too easy to succumb to the siren call of the mundane, quotidian, life. Hence the five-month furlough.
In my defence, though, when I do eventually get round to posting a blog entry, I don't bugger about. So, in recognition of something actually happening, I present 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles', a stonking 6000 word blogbuster of a post, conveniently split into three parts to enable those readers with the attention span of a slime-mould to consume it in bite-sized chunks.
Oh - and I've made a couple of changes to the format. If I couldn't read it, what chance did the rest of you have? In addition, I've given up the pointless struggle to insert proper footnotes. Asides will now be placed in the body of the text, in square brackets [Thus]. These can be safely ignored.
As, on reflection, can the rest of it.
Go on - off you go.
Scroll down. bite the bullet and click 'Older'.
You know you want to.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles - part 1
14 August 2023 | Sliding Doors
It's a funny old world, isn't it.
We take our leave of transiting the high seas and head for the inland waterways of France, the yottie equivalent of a nice little bungalow in Surbiton, and people complain that we're hard to get to. Before we made a tactical withdrawal from saltwater cruising, our intrepid friends and followers would, just to see us, fly through three different time zones and land on some primitive airport, perched precariously on an uninhabitable speck of volcanic rock, rising vertiginously from the storm-tossed sea. Once they had negotiated the terminal building, which had been knocked up that very afternoon out of bamboo and duct tape, they would take their lives in their hands by getting in a motorised bathtub masquerading as an inter-island shuttle boat service. Two spray-soaked, emetic hours later, they would issue fate the final challenge and take a local taxi, driven by a sleep-deprived, clinically depressed crackhead along a potholed mountain road with herds of skittish goats on one side and a precipitous drop on the other, to whichever isolated, Godforsaken anchorage we happened to be in.
Now we're right next-bloody-door in France, one of the most civilised and technologically advanced countries on the planet [Come on - you may not like it, but you know in your hearts it's true.], and all they can do is whinge about how difficult it is to get here.
"Well, you've got to cross the channel for a start.", they bleat.
Oh, Poor Loves. There's a tunnel, for Christ's sake. You can take your car through it. Take a train through it. If you're too claustrophobic to go under it, go across it or over it. There are more ferries and cheap flights than you can shake a government fuel subsidy at.
"But Brexit's made it sooo awkward nowadays. The queue from Dover stretches back to just south of Wolverhampton."
Bugger! OK, I'll give you that one, but no more of the Brexit business, alright? Don't get me started.
"Then we've got to get all the way across France."
Come off it! I know France is big (for Europe), but it doesn't hold a candle to the likes of Russia, China, or the States. Or even Mauritania for that matter. Out of all 195 countries on Earth, France comes a mere 42ndin terms of land area. Even its old colony, Algeria, thrashes it 5:1. As for 'All the way across', we've already established France as one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. The French public transport system, they proudly proclaim with classic French hauteur, is second to none.
Is it bollocks.
Much as it pains me, I have to concede that the wusses, jessies, carpers, snowflakes, and big girls' blouses are right; it is far easier to get from the UK to some insignificant, isolated, rocky, volcanic fleck like Nisiros than it is to get to Saint-Jean-de-Losne, only 40 kilometres from Dijon, the 17th biggest city in France. Hell, it's less than two hundred K from Lyon, France's second biggest city. [There is some debate about this]. What is it, you may justifiably ask, that has managed to coax from my lips (OK, fingertips) such a rare and grudging admission of being in the wrong?
Direct experience, that's what.
We had to get ourselves the two thousand-odd kilometres from Praia da Luz to Saint-Jean-de-Losne. This involved a taxi to Faro airport, a Queasyjet flight to Lyon St. Exupery, a taxi to where Lyon really is , [As opposed to where GreasySweat claim it to be, which is in a field halfway to Dusseldorf], a train to Dijon, and finally a taxi to Saint-Jean-de-Losne.
Those resilient few of you who have stuck with it thus far may well comment on the unexpected preponderance of taxis in this itinerary.
There was a reason for this, and it came in the form of 58kg of luggage comprising four computers, a set of speakers and other random electronics, along with enough charging power to refill a Tesla in 45 seconds. That was just for starters. On top of that, we had books, boots, kitchen appliances, navigational equipment, and footwear I didn't even know I owned, let alone wore.
Wait - there's more.
I was just drawing breath...
...three months' supply of drugs for our many varied and interesting medical peculiarities, four pairs of glasses each, a hair dryer (Don't ask), a set of Wahl super taper professional hairdressers' clippers, a sphygmomanometer, three corkscrews, four concertina files of assorted paperwork, and a socket set. Oh - and a toothbrush. (each).
All this paraphernalia had been stuffed into a total of four cases, with dimensions and weights straining at the limits of SleazyBet's byzantine luggage regulations. Hence the taxis. We weren't going to make arses of ourselves, puce-complexioned, grunting and stumbling on and off crowded buses and trams, dragging and heaving hernia-inducing dead-weights up and down stairs. Oh no. 'Have pension, will taxi' that's our motto. That way, all we had to do was get ourselves and our luggage to the Gare Part Dieu and on to the TGV. Then we could lay back, relax, and snooze or play on our phones all the way to Dijon.
Ah, the TGV - Le Train de Grande Vitesse, the pinnacle of France's technological and organisational savoir faire. It operates at up to 320 km/hour , [Or 200mph for the blue passport brigade and our American cousins. Or 16000 rods, poles, or perches per puncta for Jacob Rees-Mogg et al.],and has a safety record that puts Network Rail to shame. According to the SNCF puff-piece: "In almost three decades of high-speed operation, the TGV has not recorded a single passenger fatality due to accidents while running at high speed on normal passenger service." Mind you, with that many qualifiers in the sentence there can't be that much competition. You might as well add "On a Thursday, while heading magnetic North and with a driver called Reg."
However, despite all this technical exhibitionism, the TGV still has its faults. Consider the innocent-looking statement '...get ourselves and our luggage... onto the TGV.' Sounds a piece of piss, doesn't it. This illusion continued when we arrived at the platform, towing our sum worldly possessions behind us in our co-ordinated luggage set that, somewhat unnervingly, strongly resembled a family of dead hippos.
The TGV sells itself on speed, and the biggest obstacles to achieving this speed are the self-loading freight, or 'passengers' as they self-identify. They will persist in getting on and off. What's more, they have the effrontery to demand that the train remain stationary while this exercise takes place. Personally, I'd instigate a system based on the old no-stop, mailbag pick-up hooks from the steam-powered glory days of British Rail - a bit bumpy, but little more crowded than cattle class on Ryanair.
SNCF, however, are more Old-School in the field of customer service, and devised a procedure that minimised the time passengers took to board and exit without playing whac-a-mole with them. This is based on allocating a specific seat to each passenger and then throwing phenomenal amounts of computing power and a slack handful of dodgy algorithms at the task. That's guaranteed to turn out well, N'est-ce-pas?
Of course, for this to work, the freight need to know where their allocated seats are. First signs were promising. Having lugged our dead hippos up the three flights of stairs to platform H, we were pleased to see TV monitors strategically placed along the platform at 20 metre intervals, all of them in unFrench agreement that the next train, in 12 minutes, would be the 2442 TGV to Paris, stopping at Dijon on the way.
Things started to look even better. Seat allocations comprised a carriage (voiture) and a specific seat (siège) within that carriage. We scanned the platform. Behold! All along the platform were markers 'Voiture 1', Voiture 2', etc. We swooned with wonder and admiration at this manifestation of French organisational genius. As Florence was to Stendhal so was the Gare Port Dieu to us. We consulted our tickets: Voiture 08. We found the sign for Voiture 08, parked our deceased pachyderms and sat on them. [OK, pedants. The order pachydermia is obsolete. Hippos are actually in the order Artiodacyla, which includes pigs, goats and sheep.
But probably not for long. Whales and dolphins are starting to stir things up in this little taxonomical backwater.]
Bang on time, in came the train. We stood expectantly as the carriages flashed by and gradually slowed, then stopped with the doors directly in line with the 'Voiture 08' sign. What a brilliant system. Well, it would have been, had the doors been attached to voiture 08. Although we had been unable to find any identifying numbers on the carriages themselves, we were pretty sure that our seats weren't in the restaurant car. Nor were they likely to be in the first-class carriages either side of the restaurant car.
Frantically, I rushed up and down the platform, fruitlessly searching for some Romany-type code giving the carriage number to the initiated. When that failed, I made the mistake of applying logic and maths to the problem and tried counting eight carriages from each end. One outcome was first class and the other consisted of luggage bays, toilets, and cleaning supplies.
We were not alone in our confusion. A sizeable contingent of bewildered, panic-stricken tourists, befuddled visiting academics, and disorientated hen parties reprised my performance of Marcel Marceau in the role of Buster Keaton. They, however, did not have a bloat of deceased, semi-aquatic herbivores to increase their bargaining power.
Liz, meantime, was guarding the baggage and, unwittingly, threatening to cause chaos on a pan-European scale. Even SneezyPet's miserly baggage allowance makes a very effective chicane if carefully placed. Boarding slowed to a trickle through the doors to not-carriage-8, and a crowd of voluble French stereotypes formed, swelled, and gesticulated upstream.
The TGV 2442 was at serious risk of running late, putting a sodding great blot on the French family escutcheon. Things were starting to look ugly. Liz, faced with an angry Gallic wall of shrugs, moues, arms thrown skywards and nasalised diphthongs, steadfastly held her ground.
Just as it looked as if the gilets jaunes were about to come out, our saviours appeared in the form of a petite, unstereotypical, unFrench Madame in an exquisitely stylish business suit, and Moussa, a train cleaner of, I suspect, Senegalese heritage, who wore a somewhat less stylish reflective tabard and matching comfy-fit trousers. Moussa spoke Wolof, French and some German, while Madame seemed to speak every European language fluently except, possibly, Basque, in which she could 'get by'. I reckon that her definition of 'getting by' in Basque involved idly writing haikus in it on the napkin over coffee.
Hizkuntza bat bakarrik.
A language alone
Egungo aitzindaririk gabe.
With no extant forerunners.
Aupa! (Lau etenaldiren ondoren.)
Bum! (followed by four pauses)
They expressed sympathy for our plight but insisted that it was essential that the 2442 left on time. Failure to do so would do incalculable harm, economic, social and reputational, to most of western Europe. You're an intelligent, erudite, sophisticated bunch, so I'll precis their argument for you in the next, unedifying, episode of Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Once you've gathered your strength, click on 'Older'.
Go on - you can do it.