All posts by wheatypetesworld

Zambia: Marketing skills

Let’s talk about markets.  All over the globe I have visited markets and shops where bargaining skills are the maker or breaker of the outcome.  But I have to admit that I am really rubbish in some people’s eyes here.  I see something I like and ask the price.  I may dabble in a bit of a haggle, but ultimately I know that I can afford it and rightly or wrongly assume that I am a richer person, so after a desultory haggle end up paying way over the odds for the said item.  It doesn’t bother me particularly.

But when it comes to marketing skills, Tash and my brother Paul make me look like my beloved Aldershot Town playing against Man. United in the FA cup (we lost 4-1 at home).  They even had special commemorative tee-shirts printed for that one.  But that is a side issue.  Back to markets.  Tash is determined and hard, telling the seller exactly how much he or she is ripping us off and is quite prepared to start to walk away.  She has even been known to reduce the sellers to bad-tempered pleas of, “You’re killing me,” even teary emotional eyes, followed by a price much closer to the locals’ rate than I could ever hope to achieve.  It is all done with a smile.

Paul is in a league of his own.  It is sort of like the Monty Python of marketing approaches.  He will have the seller in stitches and offering a reasonable price whilst laughing like a drain.  The market just over the Zambian side of Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders, or Victoria Falls) was a great example.

After a few days exploring the Zambezi and the Falls from Zimbabwe we crossed the bridge into Zambia.  At the time, border guards were concerned to ensure that there were no entry or exit stamps from South Africa in your passport, sometimes at gun-point.  They did so quite aggressively.   The border sign into Zambia was tagged with the words “Zambia – the friendly country.”  Then there were the currency rules which stipulated that you could only take a tiny amount of Zimbo dollars out of the country.  We had to hide currency in our socks.  The Falls sent an incessant drizzle on to the bridge at this time of the year but if you could get across then you were rewarded by the experience of standing with your toes in the Zambezi a few yards from the precipice where the mighty river tumbles down over 100 metres into the narrow gorge.  This is over twice the height of Niagara Falls.  On the Zambian side, you could cross a footbridge over to an island above the cascade.  You could not even see the far end of the bridge which was obscured by the spray.  The river splits into a multitude of channels some 1700 metres wide before forming an incredible curtain of water, throwing spray up to 800 metres skywards, being visible from nearly 40 km away.  It is big.  You got very wet even crossing the bridge into Zambia.  On a full moon you can even see lunar rainbows against the big, starry, African sky. 

In Zimbabwe I had fallen in love with marimbas.  I can never forget the trio we saw on the Zimbabwean side.  One had a kind of wooden sound which reminded me of steel drums, the second wafted in and out like a pan-pipe, whilst the third thumped out a bass-line like a tuba.  Sometimes all would drop out except a single, quirky timber note, but a fraction of a second after the foot-tapping would expect.  Then another would interrupt with a crazy hammering, working up to a crescendo.  A second or so of absolute silence except for the night insects who take the sound-stage for a moment followed and then back into the melody they started with.  Try listening to that on the banks of the Zambezi, watching lizards climbing up the telegraph poles in the middle of the tables overlooking the lazy, upstream river and enjoying a beer and tell me you are not moved!

Apologies, I have gone off again, we must get back to the market.  We were first greeted by hopeful money changers, desperate for any hard currency.  These included the border guards.  A young boy limping along, one-legged with the aid of a single crutch, with a practised expression of pain, pleads for hard currency.  Bystanders are eyeing our bags.  Tobacco, biros or tee-shirts are all items which are suggested as “currency” in transactions.  Any currency is acceptable. 

“I’ll give you five Zimbabwe dollars and ten (Zambian) kwacha,” my brother is saying.  The man shakes his head. 

“You must give me 25 dollars.”

“No.”

“You give me 25 dollars and I give you a present.”  He holds up a kidney bean necklace.

“I’ll give you five dollars, ten kwacha and four Botswanan Pula.”  The man is shaking his head again.  It is not clear whether he is refusing or trying to work out the exchange rates.

“But I’m giving you a free picture of Kenneth Kuanda,” declares Paul, holding out the Kwacha for the man to see.  Criticising their president is certainly not a wise move here.  But my brother is smiling.  Several of the other curio-sellers within earshot burst out laughing.  Amidst the hilarity the deal is struck.  The ladies in our group manage to avoid taking off their tee-shirts to throw into other proposed transactions.  Then Paul comes up with what I can only describe as a silly but naughty look on his face.  “Happy Birthday, brother,” he declares, holding out a marimba.  It had cost him ten Zimbo Dollars, a biro and his David Gower cricket hat. 

Perhaps these sorts of markets and his time in a very poorly paid VSO posting in Zimbabwe were what honed his bargaining skills.  I don’t know.  But I do know that I have a way to go to get to that level.

Rich Man's War

Tash found a great phrase today which described the decades-long conflict between Iran and the USA as an on-going “shadow war”. But let’s not forget that those who make the ultimate sacrifice on both sides were once children. And probably poor children. If they had been put together when they were children, they would probably just played a game of football…

Steve Earle says it perfectly in this song (you need to listen to the words):

Rich Man’s War
International Day at school in Tripoli. They say it is 9950 km from Texas to Tripoli; but I don’t believe that.

The Netherlands: Spreek Nederlands (speak Dutch)!

The first time I visited the Netherlands was in the late 1980s.  I was determined to be polite and to learn some Dutch, so I spent time rehearsing a phrase from the Useful Words and Phrases section of our guidebook – the Rough Guide to Amsterdam, I think it was.  I kept practising each syllable until I had it pretty much perfect: Ik heb een kamer besproken.  I have a room booked.  I would speak to them in Dutch,

Sadly, there were at least two fundamental flaws with my cunning plan.  This immediately became apparent as soon as we arrived at the guest house.  At first, the man asked me to repeat the well-rehearsed phrase, and then he gave a friendly, but long reply… in Dutch.  Oh, I had forgotten that they might actually answer the phrase, or pass comment, or ask a relevant question.  I looked blankly at him.  “Would it be easier for you if we spoke in English?” he enquired, smiling.  So my first attempt at Dutch was a complete failure. 

I have met Dutch people all over the world since then and maybe I have just been lucky to meet only the lovely ones, but have found them to be uniformly friendly, helpful, interesting and polyglotonous; speaking perfect English is like learning to crawl, it seems, for many of them.  I have at least now learnt a few more useful snippets in Dutch, along with some of the likely responses.  Ah, you can’t beat experience.

But if you remember, there was another fundamental flaw in my preparations.  We mustn’t forget that.  The thing is, if you look up my phrase, Ik heb een kamer besproken, on Google Translate, you get: I have discussed a room.  Discussed a room?  What sort of prat walks into a hotel and says, “We have discussed a room.”?   But that is what I did, it seems.  No wonder the man smiled and gave a long and considered question back to me…. Apparently, the phrase I needed was Ik heb een kamer geboekt, as far as I can work out.  Apologies if that’s odd, too.

One day I will go on an immersion course and learn perfect spoken Dutch.  There’s one for my bucket list.

luxembourg

The previous night’s stop before traveling to Liechtenstein had been in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. We plan to fill up on petrol there where it is cheap, and cigarettes are only a third more expensive than in Slovakia, so we stop at the first service station. The queues could have signified an oil crisis, but in fact merely show that everyone else has had the same idea. There are two boys directing the vehicles into lines for the twelve pumps and a bit of a party atmosphere. People are hanging around chatting outside their cars or motor homes while they wait. But it is efficient. Fill up, drive to the booth (a bit like the ones on toll bridges) where the cashier pushes open a metal drawer to collect the money, pass over the card reader or give change. Up goes the barrier and off you go. Or you would have done had the motorway not been such a stop start affair. 

I was looking forward to Luxembourg, simply because I have never met anyone from there.  I don’t even know what they call themselves.  Luxembourgish?  Maybe Luxemburgers.  Nevertheless they were an elusive race, even in their own country.  At the service station there were German and Belgian cars, French and Dutch, but no Luxembourgolian.  I bought a baguette and coffee but don’t ask the girl who served me where she is from.  If I started a “Where are you from?” conversation with a random young female, even if in an honest quest to meet my first Luxembourgino, Tash would… well let’s just say “I choose life”.  Another way to get yourself in trouble at a Luxembourgillon service station would be to take advantage of the free massage service offered to travellers by a very nice young lady.  I sort of like Luxembourg but still cannot say for sure if I have met a Luxembourgian.  Finally we head off the motorway into a rolling, rural setting which reminded me of Devon. I had thought of Luxembourg as a city. Wrong. The goal of finding out more about the little countries beginning with ‘L’ is achieved, however I did manage to lose my car key in Luxembourg. Tash had assured me that it must be somewhere in the camper, so I had used her key. Mine never turned up though. Finally, in desperation I later emailed the friendly Dutch couple who ran the campsite. They immediately replied that they had found the key in the shower and were kind enough to send it to Slovakia, refusing any payment for their efforts. 

The whole sorry affair with the key was just another chapter in the lost car keys in Europe saga. Once, in the Ardeche, Tash had pulled me in to a river to swim. The Vauxhall’s keys were in the pocket of my swimming shorts. The keys are, to this day, at the bottom of a river in the Ardeche. All this led to an encounter with Eric le Garagiste. But not before I had had to purchase a pair of Incredible Hulk swimming goggles to search the muddy water, much to Tash’s amusement. Eric le Garagiste, his side kick used to tell us, was always out buying bread, or eggs, or doing whatever it was that he did all day. But rarely did he ever take on the role of Garagiste. We did catch up with him once, only to have a conversation about how he did not want to break the window to get in, and how if it had been a French car he would have been in by now. The conversation ended with him pronouncing solemnly, “La prochaine fois, Monsieur, achetez Francais!” All this took days and it was not until the evening of the day before our ferry back from Calais that he was in. OK, the car started with a screwdriver, which Eric le Garagiste/obsessive grocery buyer kindly donated, and now it was an all nighter back to the port. This did at least have the advantage of a drive through the very centre of Paris in the small hours when the streets were completely empty.

I have a wall map at home with pins in the places we have visited. Tash smugly points out that I should have one of Europe, but with pins showing the places where I have lost car keys after the Luxembourg incident. “I never lost any keys before I met you,” I tell her sulkily.

South africa

There is a nerd on this plane.  He is not reading his book or chatting to the traveller next to him.  He isn’t even watching the in-flight move, but is still staring fixedly at the screen above him watching the real time map.  OK, I admit it; that nerd was me.  I couldn’t help it.  I clocked that we were over the Sahara somewhere between Tunis and Algiers and that the temperature was -49 degrees Celsius and this struck me as curious when in a desert – I was hooked.  I have always been sent on flights of fantasy when faced with a map and the romance and lyrical qualities of place names.  This flight was a good one for that.  I was en route from London to Johannesburg for a teachers’ exchange programme with our partner school in Warrenton, near Kimberley, South Africa.  So, there I was enjoying the poetry of Bakwang, Lubumbashi, Kitwe and Luanda, rolling the names of Kinshasha, Lobito, Menongue and Bujumbura around the tongue in my silent thoughts, sent into paroxysms of pure joy when above Lilongwe and Cabinda.  Yes, I was that nerd.  My line manager, whom we liked to call “Grandad” (he may have been called Derek, or Duncan, but we’ll go with Grandad for now), was to join the exchange a few days later so this was a solo travel for the moment.  Because of this I felt OK – maybe even good – about my nerdish behaviour; there was no-one to point out my short-comings. 

To get to Kimberley I had to change planes in Johannesburg to get a flight there before an hour’s drive to Warrenton, named after Sir Charles Warren who came here in search of diamonds in the late nineteenth century.  Boarding the internal flight, the lady at the gate told me I could not take the gun into the cabin on the plane.  I opened the case and showed her my guitar, realising that I had returned to the frontier world of sub-Saharan Africa.  At Kimberley I am met by the Principal, Mr. Moleme, and Lois, who was to be my host for the visit.  Mr Moleme is very round and has no hairs on his arms; Lois is small and smiley.  After a few chores in town and lunch we drive the 70km to Warrenton through dry, flat veld, pock-marked by tired-looking, thorny trees.

As my hosts lead me into the staffroom the whole place erupts in high-pitched, tongue-waggling whoops which subside into a harmonised A capella welcome song to a clapped accompaniment and belted-out melody.  I am then introduced to each teacher in turn and asked to make a speech.  It is a cold night, but the nerd lies awake in bed listening to the night-insects rather than his I-pod.  This is a place of sounds.

After powdered instant-coffee-flavoured-drink and a cold shower, I leave for school with Lois at 7a.m.  It is an hour’s walk.  I am introduced in the assembly.  When I had arrived, the courtyard had been a cacophonous rabble of rag-tag students.  Then one young teacher, very pretty with long braided hair, suddenly boomed out the first line of a call-and-answer song and instantly the whole school was singing.  So they were quiet for the introductions.  Then I was to have a meeting with the Senior Management team, which was delayed by a couple of hours while they sorted out a problem: one of the students has been caught breaking into a house and stealing firearms and a DVD player.  Finally, they return from the police station and my timetable is arranged.   On the agenda for today is an “orientation visit” around the school.

Lois’ house

There are thirty classes in the school.  Not all of them have their teacher in today, but they are either working quietly or just sitting doing nothing.  The playground for the four-year-olds is surrounded in barbed wire.  Some windows are half-missing, leaving a lethally-sharp half-pane of broken glass.  Some of the classes I visited had friendly welcoming teachers, others were more reserved in their welcome.  The school officially has students from 9 to 14 years-old, although many are much older.  They do not have birth certificates and often do not actually know their age, but some are clearly way too old for the school.  Some of the older ones are practising for a debate.  The subject under discussion: Crime does Pay.  The student currently behind bars at the police station comes to my mind.

Mr. Moleme has asked me to run some staff training sessions on computer skills.  No-one turned up for the first session, so I chat to a student who shows me how to use her spinning-top.  Then I find the school secretary to ask if I should go somewhere else now.  She lives in Kimberley and commutes for two hours each way.  But, she tells me thankfully, she has only been robbed once in the past twenty years. 

Lois likes to watch TV.  It is all in Zulu or Africaans.   One the second night she declares, “I am going out” and disappears for the evening with a friend.  The TV is still on and for once it is a programme in English.  Lois must have switched it to an English channel before going out.  It is a gameshow called “You’re Hired!” –  The show that brings down South Africa’s unemployment… Saturday by Saturday.  Two contestants battle it out to win this week’s job on offer and you at home get the chance to choose one of these lucky hopefuls… It takes an hour to do this.

On Sunday morning Lois tells me that we are going to church.  “What are you going to wear?” she asks me.  I am a bit flummoxed.  What is required, I wonder?  Something smart….  I think… hmm.    The conversation went something like this:

“Well… white trousers, black tee-shirt and jacket?” I venture.

“Do they need ironing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me see.”  I go and fetch them for the inspection. 

“I think they’re OK.” 

With a tut, they are whisked away to be ironed.  It is a forty-minute-walk to the church.  We pass other churches on the way; some looked just like any other house, others were made of corrugated iron.  One was even a marquee.  At Lois’ (brick-built) church, people sing as they file in.  The singing is fabulous.  Hymn-books are used to drum out the rhythm on.  There are two lay-preachers.  There is a priest, but he has lots of churches to oversee, so this is the norm.  Five teenage assistants, in scarlet robes, flank the preachers.  After twenty minutes or so of singing and manic handshaking with everybody you could reach, we can finally sit down on the wooden benches.  I don’t understand any of the service because it is all in Tswana.  Mr. Moleme is here.  Lois tells me he hardly ever comes.  He offers us a lift home after the service and we stop at a prayer meeting at the house of a recently-deceased church-member.  After that we visit a teacher whose youngest son has just lost a leg, drunkenly falling off a moving train.  Mr. Moleme says he will call this afternoon and take us game-viewing.  He is in a jovial mood and in the car sings along to his favourite country and Western artist, Kenny Rogers.  We get to the game park at about three o’clock, only to learn that the game bus only leaves at nine or two, so we can’t get in.  But we do detour on the way back, to a private game-ranch.  But when the farmer hears Mr. Moleme’s voice on the intercom, he tells him that there is no-one here so he cannot come in.  Oh well, at least Grandad was supposed to be arriving the following day.

From Lois’ living room: Paraffin heater and hat from Lesotho.

In the evening, Lois tells me that she never wanted to host this visit.  All the teachers at school are gossiping about it and demanding that she share out the presents I must have brought for her. 

Walking to school the next day, I nearly bumped into a man.  “Sorry, Master” was his reaction.  Mr. Moleme asks a teacher to accompany me on this morning’s lesson visits to translate; she complains bitterly.  He insists that because of the language barrier, I should be accompanied at all times.  As we go to the class room I apologise to the teacher and ask if this is a problem for her.  “I must meet with the other teachers,” she tells me and walks out of the class room, leaving me alone with the forty or so children with whom I shared no common language.  Time to open the gun case and teach them a few songs.  The teacher returns.  “I am teaching a numeracy lesson now,” she announces.  I don’t understand it, because it is in Tswana.  At the end she comes over to me.  “Tomorrow you can come and teach them this song about food.”  She then sings me a song.  “Because I can’t teach them singing.”  Next door the numeracy lesson is a call and response style chanting: very “School of Rock”.  The teacher translates the lesson on cultural differences I had prepared and was the epitome of helpfulness.  And so the visits to classes continued.  I notice that when children, even as young as five, finish their work they sit and wait in silence until the teacher calls them over to have their work marked.  Then they go back and sit in silence while the rest of the class go through the same process.  It crosses my mind that I could get their own back for them by asking the teachers at tonight’s training to sit in silence doing nothing for half an hour…

Mr. Moleme has called the school.  He is in Kimberley and can’t find Grandad.  He had even waved the sign saying “Grandad” in the faces of all arrivals (that was my idea).  It turns out that Mr. Moleme is one day early so had driven one hundred and forty km for nothing.  He will have to go back tomorrow.

In the computer suite the machines are brand new and unused.  Most staff have never touched a computer before, neither do they want to.  Mr. Moleme has insisted that they come and they are grumpy about being kept at school after 2:30. But amazingly, they very quickly became engaged in learning how to use Microsoft Word and Paint, or mostly did.  One very short, older teacher, they told me, liked to use his diminutive stature to hide amongst the students in order to avoid work.  He sits with his arms and legs splayed outward and appears to be entirely floppy.  He will not move the mouse unless I take his hand and move it for him.  “I just want to rest,” he complains.

Mr. Moleme called a staff meeting to welcome Grandad the next day.   “Please, let us all be here to give him a warm welcome. Please!” he implores the staff.  “And I must inform you that attendance at training sessions is part of your contracts.  You must attend.  Please!”

In class the good-singing teacher from the assembly is using the lateness of children to practise their English.  It is a call-and-response conversation.

“Good morning, Learners.”

“Good Morning Miss ____ .  How are you today?”

“I am fine and how are you?”

“I am fine.  May I join the class?”

“Yes!”

She asks me to teach them a song.  I am pleased to hear some children singing “No Woman, No Cry” as they are walking off for lunch.  I taught other lessons, Literacy and Cultural Studies as well as Music. 

Grandad gets a welcome as amazing as the one I had received on arrival.  His reaction is to hold his arms aloft, as if he had just scored a goal.  He lands on his feet with his host teacher.  The house is across the road from a bar and his host, Vince, has arranged a barbeque for all the teachers to welcome him.  Grandad has managed to obtain some Bristol City soccer shirts for the school team, which he presents.  The teachers all go into a gaggle and are talking frantically.  “They are saying that they like the shape of your body!” Lois tells Grandad.  They decide to give us African names.  Under apartheid, all African children had to have a European Christian name.  If you had no idea the authorities simply gave new-borns a European name when they were registered.   Now most Africans from those times prefer to use their African names.  Grandad tries to get them to call me “the small one”, when he is Christened “Ramoleli” (“the tall one”), but they settle on “Ramino” (“Music Man”).  At our official “christening” assembly the next morning a dozen or so staff are sporting their new Bristol City shirts and Lois is immaculately-dressed in a smart suit and wearing a Bristol City scarf as a headscarf, African style.  The rest of the staff are complaining that they had not been given any presents.  Later in the morning, a plush white BMW pulls into the school yard.  It is the Mayor.  “Where is my Bristol City shirt?  Did you bring me any whisky?” he asks.  The Mayor wants to establish a link with our town council.  He instructs us to come to the Mayor’s office the next morning to help shoot a promotional video to take back to our town council in support of his bid for linking.  In the event he was more interested in the finalising the finer points of detail for the visit he was convinced would now happen in late December.   He even phoned our local town hall to get the name of the mayor there and gets me and Grandad to type up a letter which we are charged to deliver upon our return.

Grandad and I were also summoned to a local political meeting where each attendee was to give a speech on what the latest developments were in their organisation concerning the problem of combatting Aids.  The school Health Committee, the ANC and a home care organisation were amongst the speakers.  Being from a primary school in the rural South West of England we had not really got much to report and tell them that we are here to learn from them.  Guest expert speakers are invited into the school to raise awareness and the home care people tell us that people here will not go to clinics to be tested for fear that the lack of confidentiality will mean that the whole community will know if they are HIV positive.  Even to be seen going to be tested will be enough to start tongues wagging.  The volunteers help with daily tasks such as cooking or cleaning and cold call to ask if anyone in the house is ill or whether the inhabitants are taking their prescribed medication.  Teachers are vital in providing information to the workers. If a child vomits at school they will inform the clinic.  At school, children known to be HIV positive are given dietary supplements.  The last Friday of each month is an Aids awareness day with specialist lessons, speakers, drama groups and the like.  At the meeting all agree on sending a stiff joint letter to the hospital complaining about a lack of confidentiality on behalf of the staff.  After the meeting Mr. Moleme has rearranged the failed visit to a game park and we were not disappointed this time.  He even stood us a takeaway to eat in the car while we all sang along to Kenny Rogers.

There is a printed agenda for the special meeting at school to arrange a send-off for Grandad and I.  The items are numbered but they begin the meeting with item number nine, followed by item number five…  Tasks are delegated and it is a fantastic send-off.  Everybody drank so much that one teacher gashed his head falling out of Lois’ kitchen; another leaves the kitchen for the lounge and then gets lost in the crowd, begging people to help her find her way back to the kitchen; a little old Xhosa woman insists that I should marry her before I leave, while Grandad is under a blanket having a good old grope at the young good-singer teacher who has removed her braided wig for the occasion, but that’s as far as Grandad will go because he is afraid of getting Aids.  So, it was a night of no sleep before our return.  Grandad is asleep on the plane as we hit the south coast of Britain and the in-flight map has been taken down.  No matter, the nerd knows we are now passing over Crapstone, Beer, Staines and Slough.  When the two South African teachers pay their return visit to our school, they will think they have landed on the Star Ship Enterprise when they see all the technology and paraphernalia we have in UK establishments.  It’s a long way from Warrenton.

Ba-da-bing, we got a glawning

It has been a pretty shitty time lately, but I can not really say why… it is to do with a horrible, unmentionable thing. So to find a second hand glawning and wood-burner accoutrements for sale was the perfect antidote. OK, so it did involve 3 days of withdrawing max-cash on Tash’s credit card, but hell, we f-ing deserve this. However it should be mentioned that we have no less love for dear Peaches even though we now sleep in a new place… This is what it looked like:

CZECH REPUBLIC: Into hyperspace in prague

I was disappointed with what I had hoped would be the perfect surprise birthday weekend in a posh hotel in Prague.  A colleague had said, “I’m sure it will work, I’d love it if someone did that for me.”  OK, so it wasn’t the lovely hotel in the Tatra Mountains that we had stayed at before, when we found an absolute bargain rate, but I did try my damdest to find a suitable 40th birthday getaway. 

So here is an episode that summed up this posh hotel.  We came down for breakfast on day one and the restaurant was emptying by the time we got there – it was a birthday weekend so why get up early?  But there were dirty spoons and cutlery on the floor.  Congealed egg was spread ebulliently along the breakfast bar as were other breakfast-end-of-service congealments (that is a made-up word invented by this trip).  The large restaurant was all but empty by the time we got there: a smartly-dressed waiter is having a laugh and sharing something on his phone with a colleague while we try to enjoy what is left of the four-star breakfast. They are even flicking starched napkins at each other. We can not get their attention to ask for coffee.  These men are loud and more concerned with their bravado than their roles.

Suddenly the men break into a half-run, half-walk; something between a turkey trotting or a stiff-legged, pompous-running warthog came to mind.  It was as if the waiters had suddenly gone into fast-forward or hyperspace mode.  They are swishing rather than flicking napkins now and ostentatiously gathering up cutlery from used tables with a great clanking of metal, still moving at a cross between a walk and a sprint.  One even begins to pay some attention to us.  He asks if everything is OK, but disappears before we can answer or even ask for a coffee.  It was if a switch had been tripped and a dirty, slovenly, slattern of a breakfast room, a trickery of a four-star restaurant, had been mystically propelled into hotel heaven, but at a somewhat over-enthusiastic rate.  It was at this point that I noticed a be-suited man picking a baked-bean covered spoon off the floor and removing the congealed-egg-cutlery from the breakfast bar: the manager had arrived.

And what I learned from this trip? DO NOT EVER TRY TO MAKE THE PERFECT ESCAPE BY LOOKING AT THE NUMBER OF STARS THE HOTEL CLAIMS TO HAVE.

Iceland

Underfloor heating has always seemed the height of luxury to me here in the UK.  Barely two per cent of houses use it.  They’re the people with toasty feet in slick, modern, well-heated homes.  It should not be such a great thing really.  After all, 1,600 years after the Romans left Britain (and they had the hypocaust, or underfloor heating), sixty per cent of households in Germany, and eighty per cent in Scandinavia use it.  But to us here it is still the holy grail of home-heating luxury.  So imagine discovering a country where a whole city has underfloor heating.  Even outside!  Take a stroll around Reykjavik mid-winter, and you will discover that in addition to private homes, pavements and carparks are kept snow-free by this method.  It is achieved through geothermal sources which tap in to the volcanic landscape and eighty-seven per cent of heating requirements are covered by this green energy source in Iceland.  The hot water from the taps smells sulphurous. 

Another reason to like Iceland and its volcanic landscape is that when volcanoes erupt, like Eyjafyajallajökull did in 2010, and send ash clouds over Western Europe, planes can be grounded.  You can be stuck back in the UK on a visit from Slovakia and it can take your employers a couple of weeks to arrange a “rescue bus” for Slovak and Hungarian-based staff giving you an extra two week’s holiday: which is what happened to us.  We even liked the financial crisis in Iceland in 2008.  A year later Iceland was still a cheap destination to visit thanks to this, which is why we decided to go there in December 2009.  The rugged landscapes were covered in snow (but not the pavements and carparks) and we toured the “Golden Circle, visiting the geothermal power station at Hellisheiõi and (frozen) Gullfoss (“golden”) waterfalls and geyser.  We tried to see the northern lights one night, but it was too cloudy.  Painted wooden churches in the snowfields with wild ponies, gave the landscape the air of a 3D animated Christmas card.

In Reykjavik we walked along the seafront admiring the sculptures against the backdrop of white mountains across the bay.   Some way along was a ramshackle seafront building, cluttered with metal debris everywhere, and inhabited by a sculptor who seemed to specialise in industrial raw materials to make things like a wooden cross pierced by hundreds of large, rusty nails, or a noose made of scaffolding. 

You have to admire the use of clean energy in Iceland.  But it does come at a price.  In the country’s most southerly village, Vik, each of the 318 residents permanently keep a packed rucksack of essentials by their front door.  The idea is that within forty minutes of any warning of an imminent eruption from the nearby Katla volcano they can be home from work, collect their emergency bag and be at the safe meeting point by the hilltop church to await air evacuation.  But wait a minute.  Wasn’t it a volcanic ash cloud that grounded all of those aircraft in 2008?  The thought occurs…  You may be up a hill, but how will anyone get there to rescue you?  It seems as ill-thought out as the preparations England (population 67 million) made to counteract the (by then) well-used long throw routine when Iceland (population 350,000 – plus 2.3 million tourists each year) knocked them out of the 2016 football European Cup.  Not that I’m bitter, or a sore loser or anything.  I just thought I’d mention it while thinking about Iceland. 

Katla is well overdue for an eruption.  Hailing from Vik must be like living under a permanent death-threat.  Or being an England goal keeper.  The volcano is under a glacier, so add flash floods from melting ice to the dangers from lava and ejecta.  It erupts every fifty years or so.  The last eruption was in 1918.

Iceland is a country worth visiting.

Germany

I have very fond memories of Germany.  It was always the country that involved a long drive on our regular trips between Slovakia and the UK, and some places became regular haunts and favourites to stop at, like the Gasthaus-Pension Hofmann in Oberdachstetten, Bavaria which was so lovely that we made a point of stopping there despite a quest to find different routes each time.  Here there was a classically fierce, but kind frau, who terrified and charmed in equal measure.  One year we slid down the long track up to the guesthouse, set in beautiful Bavarian snow-clad grandeur and frolicked in the snow on improvised sledges. The breakfasts were hearty, as was the welcome. 

That year was snowy.  It was Christmas and the autobahns were slow due to the weather conditions.  I always loved driving under the runway at Frankfurt, where sometimes, if you were lucky, you would pass under a taxi-ing plane right above you.  It was a route-marker that said, “You’re a good way along, now”. 

But this particular year it was a hard drive – the day before Christmas eve.  We had not quite reached Frankfurt airport and impressive Squaire, constructed over a railway station: an enormous “groundscraper” (a large building that is only around a dozen stories high but which greatly extends horizontally) like some gargantuan rounded cuboid-shaped animal brooding next to the motorway, just past the airport. 

We had stopped at a service station and this was the place where the car conked out.  If there was any luck involved in this, at least it happened at a service station, rather than on the highway. We asked in the restaurant and they directed us to a phone the other side of the car park.  “This is going to cost an arm and a leg,” was my first thought.  We waited for about forty five minutes.

A young mechanic in a breakdown truck arrived.  He spoke good English, which he was keen to practice.  He told us about his brother who lived in England… and I still worried about the impending cost.

“It will drive for a bit,” he told us, “follow me slowly.”  He took us through a service exit to a nearby garage which was just closing for the holiday season.  Here he persuaded the mechanics to replace the part needed while we waited.  It cost us about fifty euros, but he did have a debate with the mechanics there about how it was Christmas and the charitable thing to do would be to do half an hour’s worth of overtime to help travellers get home to their family for Christmas.  I thanked him profusely for that and then broached the big one: “How much do we owe you?”

“It is Christmas,” he told me.  “No charge.  Have a safe journey back to your family.”  Need I say more about my experiences in Germany?