The Ghosts of Christmas Past
24 December 2023
Those were the days, my friend...
Do you remember The Good Old Days? You know the ones - post Adolf Hitler but pre-Donald Trump, those halcyon days in the Goldilocks zone between Bing Crosby's last, coma-inducing croon and Kanye West's inaugural grunt when the midwife smacked his arse; The all-too-brief intervening period of civilisation in mankind's inexorable journey from barbarism to decadence. The pinnacle of human progress that began with the refreshing iconoclasm of That Was The Week That Was, and finally gave up the ghost with the emetic sight of Nigel Farage's wrinkled buttocks on prime-time television.
John Cleese's career has mirrored this decline and fall, from the initial cynical optimism of TW3 through the hit & miss of Monty Python and on to peak at the unparalleled genius of Fawlty Towers, only to fade, wither and ossify until he became a sad, real-life Basil Fawlty, a parody of his own parody.
And, it grieves me to say, as it is with John Cleese, so it is with us.
For the select few, for twenty-one glorious years, the run-up to Christmas was a time of gleeful anticipation. Parents sent their first-borns to check the post every fifteen minutes. Cohabitees wrestled fractiously in the race to the post-box. Maiden aunts glared imperiously over their spectacles at any parvenu that had the temerity to even think of getting between them and the letterbox. Sisters-in-law scheduled appointments with advisory panels of Oxford dons.
And what was it that prompted this frenzy of epistolophilia? Well, I'll tell you, since you ask. It was the imminent arrival of the Newbury Christmas card. This, as erstwhile recipients will recall, was lovingly hand-photoshopped and whimsically designed to incorporate allusions to notable events and the zeitgeist of the year just past. It also contained the round-robin, which detailed the highlights of the year as experienced by the Newbury household.
Or, to be more precise, it detailed what purported to be the highlights as experienced by what purported to be the Newbury household. In reality, it was a thinly veiled, ham-fisted, sub-Swiftian parody of all those smug, self-congratulatory hagiographic wads of A4 that thudded onto our doormat with depressing frequency, usually concussing the cat in the process.
Almost all of these missives followed the same, dismal, pattern. They were all written by self-satisfied, faux-modest, pathologically overachieving middle class virtue-signallers. Their tone was, without exception, teeth-gratingly jaunty and nauseatingly self-deprecatory. This was as nothing, though, compared with their nausea-inducing accounts of the superhuman achievements of their obnoxious, precocious offspring.
In the most exquisite of ironies, then, here is our own round-robin; not only ripe for parody but not even printed and sent in physical form. Nope - here is our ultimate concession to the forces of barbarism, the electronic Christmas round-robin. At least we get the opportunity to write out that pair of amoral freeloaders Tamsin & Tobias.
Following the unfortunate incident with the toxic waste and the PPE sweatshop on the Bibbi Stockholm, they are currently languishing in HMP Belmarsh at His Majesty's Pleasure. Just think themselves lucky that Andrew's not king.
So, let us cut to the chase.
What with one thing and the other (one thing being Brexit and the other being Covid), our circumstances have changed somewhat over the last few years. We had been full-time boat bums for fourteen years, blundering our way around the Med and the rivers and canals of Europe. Our general plan, such as it was, had been to carry on in this vein until we succumbed to some exotic disease or fell overboard. However, Britain's cutting off its nose to spite its face in 2016 effectively put the block on our proposed wandering descent into ga-ga land, and we had to rethink.
The major stumbling block in the brave new world of independence, sovereignty, self-determination and no bloody foreigners, was the 90/180 rule that would now apply to us. The exact workings of this fiendishly complex regime would give quantum electrodynamics a run for its money, and they are understood by a maximum of seven people on the planet, none of whom happen to be immigration or border control officers. In essence, though, the upshot is that we would be limited to alternate periods of three months in the EU, followed by three months in the UK (or Rwanda, if we'd picked up too much of a suntan).
So, we sat down with a stiff drink and had a big think. We always have a big drink before making life-changing decisions. We find that alcohol enhances rational evaluation and critical thinking, whilst inhibiting rash, impulsive and ill-thought-out judgments. After several rash, impulsive and ill-thought-out plans, we came up with a slightly less rash, impulsive and ill-thought-out one, and decided to run with that while the going was good.
The core idea was simplicity itself: become resident in some Schengen country or other and take advantage of Schengen's lack of internal border controls to drive and cruise around Europe ad libitum. The question was, which Schengen country? Shouldn't be too difficult a decision - there's only 26 to choose from. What with Brexit and the UKIP shenanigans in the European Parliament, over half of those would be glad to see the back of us, and unlikely to look kindly upon a couple of refugees from perfidious Albion scratching pathetically at the door and pleading to be let back in. In the end, we settled on Portugal, on the grounds of weather, ease of obtaining residence, proximity to the boat, already having friends and family there, and already speaking the language. Job done. We parked up the boat in France for the winter, loaded up the campervan and tootled our way through Spain and Portugal to Praia de Luz, where we set about applying for residence.
We should have known better. We had failed to factor in the labyrinthine, obstructive, Kafkaesque, misanthropic, self-serving, bloody-mindedness that characterises Portuguese bureaucracy. All bureaucracies follow Parkinson's law(1) , but the Portuguese have turned it into an art form. What is more, they have turned it into a societal black hole that sucks in everything around it; time, money, manpower, resources, goodwill, sanity and the will to live.
We have no excuses for such an omission. We had previous on this. We had lived in Portugal in the 1980s. Despite this, we were staggered by the amount of paperwork involved in everyday life ashore, especially in Portugal. We have been here for four years now, during which we have been assailed by a barrage of paperwork on six fronts: residency, taxation, personal documentation, healthcare, house rental, and, most dispiriting of all, matters vehicular. All Portuguese bureaucracy is cantankerous, stubborn, obstreperous, and intransigent, but the Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes is in a different league. By comparison with the IMT, the border police are one rung down from sainthood.(2)
The IMT are not satisfied with merely making work for other officials. They do this with gusto, but it is only one part of the jigsaw. They are equally adept at making work for average Joe Motorist and minimising any productive activity on their own part. They have an arsenal of weapons at their disposal in this unequal struggle, but prime amongst them are the form, the filing cabinet, and the waste bin.
The game begins when poor 'Zé Povinho is cornered into entering into dealing with the IMT. In our case, we were hit on all fronts in a combined bureaucratic barrage. We needed to matriculate the campervan and fit Portuguese plates, so that we could insure it. In order to matriculate it, we had to officially import it from The Netherlands. To do that, we had to fill in six forms and supply the following documents:
Dutch vehicle identity card.
Proof of Dutch deregistration.
Dutch bill of sale.
Portuguese IPO (equivalent of the MoT).
Photographs of the vehicle, including tyre dimensions, chassis number and engine number.
Gas system inspection report.
Certificate of conformity (Whatever that is. A promise not to have strange haircuts?).
Tax Identification number.
Proof of address in Portugal.
Proof of payment of import duty.
Declaration of technical characteristics.
Certificate of exhaust emissions. (How it managed to pass that, I've no idea).
Proof of valid Dutch insurance on date of entry to Portugal.
Declaration of engine number.
And still, after four years of paper-wrangling, it sits, unregistered, in our drive.
How, you may well ask, do they manage to drag out even that amount of paperwork for four years? I think I've spotted a pattern here.
As an opening gambit, they give you a form to fill in. Then they find fault with it and tell you to do it all again. They can be quite inventive with this. I picked up the appropriate form from them, laboriously filled it in without error, only to be told that it was an out-of-date form, that had been superseded and was no longer valid.
"But you gave it to me. Why give me a form that's not usable?"
"It was valid when we gave it to you. It went out of date between then and your bringing it in."
"In two days?! And that was over a weekend! Haven't you lot heard of transition periods?
"Look. The two incarnations of this form contain exactly the same information. The only difference is that two of the boxes have swapped position. Any fool can read the data from either form."
"We don't read them, the computer reads them. It can't read the old form."
"It could bloody-well read it until Saturday morning. What did you do, give it a lobotomy with a cattle-goad across the CPU?"
You've got to know when to hold and you've got to know when to fold. If you're playing with the IMT, then fold. It's easier in the long run - they hold all the aces.
Their next trick is to lose most of the documentation you've already sent them, adding insult to injury by peremptorily demanding that you send them copies, and make it snappy or they'll send you back to square one. They can play this one up to three times if they're feeling lucky.
If you get this far without giving up, they move up a gear and start demanding paperwork that you haven't a snowball's of getting, much of which, I strongly suspect, exists only in the darker, fevered recesses of the bureaucratic brain.
However, softly, softly catchee monkey. After four years, three customs agents, one accountant, one lawyer, two opticians, two doctors and half a rainforest we have, with the notable exception of the campervan, got all our paperwork in order. We are documented up to the eyeballs, officially resident, health system registered, tax resident, car-owning and long-term renting a nice little end-of-terrace house with a cat-proof garden.
There are just a couple of flies in the ointment. We can't afford it and we don't see enough of the boat.
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
Fourteen years, in the blink of an eye. Fourteen years of taking our privileged life for granted. Those fourteen years had been the best of our lives, the most challenging, the most exciting, the most stimulating, the most terrifying, the most enjoyable and the most satisfying.
And the cheapest.
Most people would consider us inordinately lucky, but that's not enough for us. We missed the boat life. We were starting to feel trapped in a rut. We were by nature boat-bums, not ex-pat ghetto dwellers. Three months a year on the boat was poor compensation. Besides, the financial implications of the move to Portuburbia were not sustainable. As boat-bums we lived within our means. Not so in our current circumstances. Our tax bill had doubled and along with rent, took nearly half our income. On top of that, we had to moor and maintain the boat for the nine months of the year we weren't using it. Our disposable assets, after fourteen years of small, but steady growth, took a nosedive. Something had to give. So we had another stiff drink and big think, and came up with a cunning plan:
1. Fly to France.
2. Drive boat down the Rhone to Beziers.
3. Lift boat out of water and put on convenient low loader.
4. Fly to Portugal while boat is driven to Lagos.
5. Put boat back in water and move to berth in marina.
6. Move out of house and onto boat.
7. Live on boat and potter around coastally in fine weather.
All that should save us about 10 grand a year, but there might be a bit of a liquidity problem in the changeover period.
Wish us luck.
1. Parkinson's Law is based on three primary premises:
• Work expands to fill the time allotted.
• Officials make work for other officials.
• Officials strive to increase the number of subordinates, not rivals.
2. The border police used to be known as the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF). The department was closed down two months ago after three SEF officers didn't seem to realise that their job description didn't include taping up an innocent Ukrainian, beating him unconscious and then leaving him to die, alone, from asphyxiation.
3. The Portuguese equivalent of 'Poor Joe Public'
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.