Thursday, 30 June 2011

Ricky Gervais on how not to contract a certain disease. Unbelievable.

Bear with me, please...

I know I bang on about this, but I'm here, typing this post, listening to a 24/7 stand-up comedy channel on iTunes having just signed off Skype with the family back in France. I realise most of you have been doing this for years but I've just discovered it and it's absolutely life-changing. Being apart from the loved ones is not a fraction as painful as it once was and it's nice to have a little more variety in my listening choices than just Bayerischer Rundfunk, excellent though it is. Just to put this in perspective, this comes from someone who still marvels at the miracle of the landline telephone and the fact that the vast majority of homes in the developed world have running water. I hope I never lose this ability to gape, open-mouthed at things that teenage entitlement junkies regard as old hat. Unlike many, I will never cease to find joy and amazement in what so many others consider basic everyday requirements. And this from someone who has had computers since 1997 and had a mobile phone in 1995, so it's not like I was unaware of the concept, just a bit slow keeping up to date with it, that's all.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


I'm sitting here in my kitchen in Bayreuth, listening to Radio 4 on iTunes Radio and waiting for my freshly-made cup of PG Tips has brewed sufficiently to be acceptable to a card-carrying Englishman like myself. There's a pot of Marmite in the larder and a few jars of Patak products in the fridge: mango chutney, korma curry paste and mixed pickle. To all intents and purposes I'm one of those nightmare British expats on the Costa Brava who is basically just looking for Luton with a bit more sun and cheaper beer, but the reality is that this parochialism is very recent and only indulged in because it's possible: computers can now locate you wherever you want and provide you with anything in any language and the Britfood came from an Asian supermarket in the centre of town, here. When I first moved to Germany in 1987, none of this was possible (at least not in Koblenz) and the irony of the matter is that the increased 'internationalisation' of just about everything we see around us merely serves to push people further back into their narrow-minded cells. Seems to be a contradiction, doesn't it? But it's not. Here's why:

Using Koblenz, 1987, as an example: if you arrived from abroad, you would have needed at least a smattering of German in order to get the basic legal residential requirements done: registering yourself and, if applicable, your family, finding out where the relevant government offices were located etc. Then you would have needed to register yourself for tax purposes with the local finance offices, inform the police where you're living etc. Not one of these services was available in English, so my second day in Germany was spent wandering around town with a phrase book and a pile of official papers (contracts etc) from the local theatre, my employer. After a few hours I'd got everything done, so I went home and continued studying the language. This being 1987, there was no satellite TV where I was living and all radio stations were - naturally - German. The message was clear: learn the language or go under. Now it seems that none of that is necessary and the eternal celebration of one's origins merely pushes new arrivals further back into their caves. You have satellite TV as standard, so you need never learn that pesky new language, cuisine has become so international that you can enjoy all of your own delicacies from home without ever having to buy what the locals eat. Chances are there's also a thriving, convenient expat community which will jovially sound the death knell for any remaining urge you may have entertained to actually mingle with the natives. Many people even survive in France without learning the language, and that's quite some achievement.

Being honest, I like having a little piece of England where I live, but I say that from the standpoint of someone who speaks five languages and has lived and paid tax in seven or eight different countries, only two of which were English-speaking. The books on my bedside table are in German and Spanish, the magazine in the loo, French. Here in Germany, I prefer coffee in the morning and my beverage of choice is Weissbier. Think global, drink local.

Good place to spend a summer.

This is where I've been coming every summer since 2004. Great place to work, great music, great institution. Long may it reign:

Let's hear it for Richard Wagner.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Economist. Excellent magazine, dreadfully inefficient service.

Until a few days ago I was a subscriber to that superb weekly, The Economist. Now I'm not. Here's the story...

I signed up in February and thoroughly enjoyed reading practically every word. I say 'practically' as there is so much information that you'd need to forgo sleep for five nights in order to cover it all before the next edition rolls up on Saturday morning. Being a passionate amateur scribe I decided to order their Style Guide from their online store. This book offered tips and guidelines on how to achieve something approaching the house style. It was available on its own or as one of a trio of books, the other two being the Numbers Guide, a sort of basic economics textbook, and the Pocket World in Figures, which contained profiles of all the world's major countries, including GNP, birth rate, average annual household income etc. You get the idea. I decided to order the book trio and, just as advertised, the little parcel pitched up three weeks later and contained the pocket guide and two copies of the Numbers Guide. Yup, the Style Guide was nowhere to be seen.

I got on to The Economist immediately, who requested I return the rogue copy of the Numbers Guide, upon receipt of which they would then send me a copy of the Style Guide. To cut an amazingly long story very short, they never managed to send me what I'd ordered and paid for, instead constantly sending me mails expressing their sympathy and proffering their apologies for this inconvenience. Come June, a full five months after initially asking them to send me the bloody book, my patience ran out. I asked them to either send a copy immediately to the address where I am currently working or to terminate my subscription, reimbursing almost €100 of unused capacity.Well, blow me down with a feather, they had that money transferred to me within 48 hours, regretting that I had chosen to sign off from their publication. I replied that I regretted it too, but drew the line at being taken for a fool for months on end, adding I would gleefully re-subscribe when their Customer Service Department improved beyond being a courteous reply service and actually took care of its paying clients. I also expressed surprise that they would clearly rather jettison a paying customer than actually send him the product he'd ordered and paid for. I'll phone them soon just to find out what exactly the deal was as it has left more than a nasty taste in my mouth. In the five contentious months I corresponded with three people in the CSD, none of whom seemed to have any connection with the other two. It was like banging your head against a brick wall, made worse by the fact they always sent very concerned and responsible-sounding stereotypical responses.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise. Flat Earth News primed me on the cost-cutting that has been going on these last thirty years in the press and it seems that those pesky, customer service types who are bad for profits are the first people to be cut, their jobs reduced to a few stereotypical e-mail responses and the hope that the aggrieved customer will eventually just go off and crawl under a stone, his spirit broken to the point where he can't even bring himself to bad-mouth the company. Not me, sorry; I'm not going to rest until I get a satisfactory response to my questions. Wish me luck; I may need it.

Interesting concept.

The library in this lovely little town has moved and expanded. It's now a spacious, user-friendly and courteous institution which is a joy to visit. They also have a café on the second floor with a wonderful roof terrace, yet the café itself has a difference...

The café itself is staffed by a number of people who all have one thing in common: they are slightly handicapped. One has Downs Syndrome, one appears just slow and another seems to suffer from a form of Asperger's Syndrome, yet all muck in and make the place work. My espresso macchiato was excellent, served with a little chocolate and accompanied by a glass of water. The sun beat down on my parasol and I was in heaven: 34° centigrade and a beautiful coffee on a stunning roof terrace. When the Germans do something, they do it well. Ideally, I'd like to spend every day in the library, but work, rather unfairly in my opinion, forbids! Now it's time for a cup of tea on my own terrace, a few pages of my current book then back to work for 6pm, but not before hanging my washing out to dry...

Monday, 27 June 2011


It may not be the fastest connection on the most up-to-date computer in the world, but for me, it's discovering a new way of living. I'll explain: Germany has a chain of coffee merchants called Tchibo. Apart from caffeine-based beverages they also sell good quality boots, panties, kitchen appliances, computers etc. In short, a cross-section of many things we believe we need on a day-to-day basis. Having learned from Deutsche Telekom that their USB-stick internet connection costs €5 a day, I decided to follow a colleague's advice and see if Tchibo had anything like that. Answer? Oh yes, they did: the stick was €29,90, and for that you get a month's free surfing, then every subsequent month with unlimited access is €19,95. It seemed too good to be true, but I tried it, anyway. After phoning up to activate the SIM-card I was expecting to have to wait another 48 hours before anything worked, but, lo and behold, it was ready for service when I got in, tonight. So, this post comes to you courtesy of an extremely good chain of coffee peddlers based on the eastern bank of the mighty Rhine river. I'm sure this kind of revelation is old hat to many of you, but, for me, it's life-changing. Can't wait to Skype with the family tomorrow morning without having to cart my stuff into work and risk being overheard. We get more private the older we get. Don't blame us, it's the way life is.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Slow Sunday

Here, in our Northern Bavarian cultural residence, we are no longer allowed to rehearse on Sundays. That in itself is not a bad thing, but overlooks the fact that if you work six days out of seven it might actually be useful to have a free day when you can get boring, everyday stuff done, like shopping, washing and the like. OK, you can wash on Sundays, but pretty much everything else is a no-no: museums and swimming pools are closed, shops barricaded up (well, they're not, as there's no vandalism here in Bayreuth, but you get the point). It was even more extreme when I moved to Koblenz in 1987: the weekend curfew began at 12 noon on Saturday (except for the so-called 'Long Saturday', once a month, when the shops stayed open until - wait for it - 2pm!) and encouraged hibernation until 9am, Monday morning. The idea is to encourage family life, and that is incontestably a good thing. The strange thing is that Germans have the smallest families in Europe, if they indeed have families at all; their birth rate is, along with Austria and Spain, the lowest in the European Union. Just had a nice Skype session with Mrs. Fingers. The Fingernails are both at friends' places this weekend, so my dear spouse is feeling particularly lonely at the moment.

This post is coming to you courtesy of a TMT Hotspot in the theatre. I'm completely alone in these hallowed Wagnerian halls; in fact, I don't even know whether or not I'm allowed to be in this particular part of the theatre campus, having reverse-opened a fire door to get here. I just hope no-one from security has seen it open and locked it again, then I really will have a solitary Sunday.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Jumble Sale

When we lived in Germany you couldn't move for jumble sales, or flea markets (Flohmärkte) as they were called: they were to be found in every town village, neighbourhood, whatever at least twice a month. The French have 'attic clearances' (vide greniers) but you really have to be alert to see where they are, for commonplace they are not. Anyhow, there was one organised in the square just downstairs from our flat so Mrs. Fingers put her name down for a pitch and went up to our little studio to retrieve all the things we no longer need, use or value and which weren't broken. You hand over €10 to the organising committee, set out your stand, settle back in our folding chair and pour yourself a cuppa from your thermos, providing no potential customer insists on wasting your time by actually wanting to buy something. This is France, after all. The weather was fantastic and most of the other parents in our school circle either had stalls or came by, generously buying the odd thing they'll never need.

We ended up selling about 80% of our wares, no mean feat considering the competition. It's a very good area, so it was a bit like going to the Oxfam shop in Highgate Village to pick up an Armani suit for £20, sort of a thing. I let a few things go very cheaply just to get rid of them. There's no point dragging them back to the flat for the sake of a euro or two. I'll post a few pictures just as soon as the upload function chooses to work, again.

Miracle of miracles, it works.

There's another in September. Come on by.

Northern Bavaria

The funny thing about where I spend every summer is that you can have all kinds of weather every day. Today, for example, it was sweltering until about 2pm, when it turned chilly. Each day can bring you sunshine, hail, sleet, rain, sunstroke, famine and drought in equal quantities, a formula which is then repeated practically every day the entire summer. Now, looking out of the window, I can see that it will rain cats and dogs within five minutes. Curioser and curioser. Work starts tomorrow morning, so tonight will be all about getting ready. And having some beer.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Blagnac Airport, Toulouse

So we're off again. I'm starting to feel like a real musician, again: spending more time in airports than at home but it's not the same without Mrs. F and the Fingernails. We'll see each other in England in late July.

Getting through security was typical: only four machines staffed out of a possible eight this morning, resulting in a fifteen-minute wait just to be frisked by a bored minimum-wager. God knows what they do when there's a lot of traffic. The loos are a bit cleaner than they were when I left for Santiago a few weeks ago but you never quite get a away from the feeling that any service provided is done grudgingly at best.

Tonight is the famous, Jack Lang-initiated Fête de la Musique, an impro jamboree to celebrate the first day of summer. Bands set themselves up on street corners, solo artists stand in shop doorways etc etc. Anyone can go into the street and make music. It's a nice idea and there are some good acts, but most is just pure shite. Getting out of the country this morning is like grabbing the landing bars of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Better sign off before my free wi-fi runs out. More soon from Germanland.

Friday, 17 June 2011

And yet...'s told me anything about the amazing magnetic properties of 'Last Post'. Maybe it's become a cult page where people claim to have discovered coded messages from John Lennon or some such. Stranger things have happened.

Changing places

In order to maybe sleep better, we've put our bed in the sitting room and the piano and DVD player in what used to be our bedroom. The Fingernails think it's great, apart from the fact they have nowhere to sit when they watch a film. We'll have to remedy that. It's funny seeing our bed basically next to the open kitchen. Beyond it is our Chesterfield sofa, so it almost looks a bit kinky, like having a place for people to sit and watch us in bed. Could be something of a money-spinner, though, a bit like an Annie Sprinkle art installation. We don't actually give a flying one, to be honest; it's as if we lived in a studio flat with a couple of extra rooms and if it helps us escape the noise of Madame Loony Tunes' cocain-ridden felines at 3am upstairs it'll all have been worth it. The next step is moving out and getting somewhere bigger. How many years has it been since I first broached this subject? It's not really a problem, though, seeing as the flat has almost doubled in value in the meantime despite the 2008 crash. It really is all about location, location, location...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

OK, tell me...

...please, someone, why you read 'Last Post'. I just can't fathom it. Answers on a postcard, please...


I'm always amazed at how adaptable human beings are. When Mrs. Fingers told me that our pleasantly lunatic neighbour had finally moved in and that her cats basically kept her awake from 3am onwards every night, I had a nasty feeling in my stomach, one where the misgivings about returning to a city centre flat surrounded by pollution and inconsiderate fellow humans outweighed the anticipation of seeing my family again. Now, three days later, I've found that the cats aren't a hundredth as annoying as I'd imagined and life is, once again, 100% toulousaine. It'll change again next week, when I fly off to Germany for the summer, but, at the moment, it's like I'd never left. Our ability to live in the present (if needs be) is astonishing.

Never underestimate our capacity to cope.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Something which I don't understand is how (or why) so many visitors to this site choose to read the post entitled 'Last Post'. It's a pretty anonymous few lines I scribbled down around midnight a couple of months ago but seems to attract an inordinately high number of viewers. Does anybody have an idea why this may be? Is it a default page from one of the referring websites, or something?

Anyhow, back in Toulouse. Back's playing up terribly, due to having slept badly for about an hour in my lovely economy class seat somewhere between Santiago and Madrid. After a three-hour layover in Barajas the connecting flight to Toulouse was delayed, adding another hour to an already very long journey. It's hot, here; hot and smelly as people are too self-centred to put rubbish in bins and too stupid to shower and then use deodorant. I know it's a cliché, but it's true: a lot of people in this country are just plain dirty. There, I've said it.

Back to my Horlicks and a comfy bed, providing our lunatic new neighbour's collection of seven playful cats doesn't choose to rehearse their version of Riverdance on the uninsulated parquet floor upstairs (see posts from Autumn, 2008).

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Hasta luego, Santiago...

Time to say goodbye to Chile, at least for the time being. One of my colleagues picked me up and took me to lunch at his magnificent house just north of Las Condes to have a barbeque with his family and a few friends. It was wonderful to see another part of the city and actually experience a bit of 'home life' after three weeks of service flats and artistic itinerants such as myself. I won't be so indiscrete as to post the pictures I took of his house and garden, but here's one of the urban freeway, the Kennedy, out to his district:

Once again, it seems the point cannot be made. You probably can't see the Andes in the background, the mountains that make practically every city vista a jaw-dropping experience. Wherever you turn (providing it's all points east) , you've got this imposing, snow-capped mountain range looming over you. It's hard to describe its impact but I find it awe-inspiring and can't wait to bring the family out here to see it. Quite frankly, I often wonder if you can find a way of making things work in Latin America, why bother with Europe at all? It's something to bear in mind...

Anyhow, here's a final picture for you. It's of my computer just before I started writing this post, with my Bip! card. A Bip! card is for public transport and can be loaded with as much or as little money as you like. You have to be careful, as the cost of using the buses and underground varies according to the time of day. They say underground and buses are combined so you don't pay twice if you connect between the two services within half an hour or so, but something went awry when I went to Los Dominicos the other day and I ended up paying a lot more than I would in just about every European city save London, Zurich and Moscow, I think. Will have to get genned up properly if we come back next year:

Note the charming iSight webcam sitting atop my 2005 iBook G4. Yup, I'm still in the Dark Ages. No mobile, no car, no integrated webcam. But I'm sitting in Santiago de Chile and you're not, so there.

Nighty night.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Killing Time II

Well, my case is packed, my boarding pass printed off and now I'm just waiting for a colleague to get in touch with a view to lunch. It's been a wonderful three weeks, made easier by the use of Skype to keep in touch with the family. It's a boon and, like I said before, I never want to travel under any other circumstances again. CNN Chile has been running the same four or five non-stories since 9am this morning. It's great for my Spanish; if there's anything you didn't understand first time you get another twenty bites of the cherry before the sheer vacuousness of the reporting starts to melt your brain.

It's been interesting on a personal level, too. I was wondering how easy it was going to be to continue not to smoke, and it turned out to be an awful lot easier than I thought. Since I've been here the country has passed legislation bringing the anti-tobacco law into line with the over-the-top European version, though I don't know when it'll come into effect. I'm still very pro-choice in this matter (it'd be grossly hypocritical to be anything else with my history) and feel that if people wish to smoke then they should have facilities as comfortable as those now enjoyed by non-smokers. However, we know how insensitive legislative juggernauts operate once they've got a following wind. Whatever happens, governments will want to recuperate ex-smokers' lost tax income somehow, so expect renewed campaigns to get everyone to buy chewing gum, patches and the like instead of suggesting they just read Allen Carr's book which is, basically, all you need in order to stop smoking for good. I know what I'm talking about, here.

It's now nearly mid-day and it's yet another gloriously sunny autumn day. I'll miss pretty much everything about Santiago save for the pollution...

Dignified Strays.

One thing I noticed about Santiago very early on but have consistently forgotten to record, is how dignified their stray dogs are. None of this foaming at the mouth nonsense for these denizens of the street; they sit or lie around very tidily and will often accompany you for a stretch of your walk home, invariably in pairs. You'll be flanked by a couple of canine bodyguards who want nothing more for their efforts than the chance to hang out with a complete stranger for a couple of hundred yards. On a couple of occasions, while I've just been standing around, admiring the view, a brace of Rovers have come up and sat down, one on either side of me, facing the same direction as I. It was as if we were imitating the garden gate of a particularly tacky suburban mansion. I'm also surprised at how healthy they look. True, they have great weather and probably know their way around the restaurant bins of the district, but the point is there's absolutely nothing stray-like about them. A human parallel would be, say, a large group of chartered accountants lying out in the sun or sitting obediently and minding their own business on the edge of pavements. I shall miss them when I leave on Sunday.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Las Condes - a breath of fresh air.

With my time in Santiago running out and still not having anything in my case for the Fingernails I decided to track down a mercado artesanal and found one in the neighbourhood of Los Dominicos in the urban community/town/city of Las Condes, a sort of Chilean Beverly Hills tacked on to downtown's eastern border. The guide books instructed me to take the metro to Escuela Militar, then take the 401 or 407 bus and get the bus driver to tell you when to get off. Having obediently bought my Tarjeta Bip, a sort of latino Oyster Card, I did exactly as instructed and consequently wasted about half an hour. I could have stayed on the metro until Los Dominicos then just walked the two minutes straight ahead through the park to the church and found the market on its right hand side. Still, taking the bus enabled me to see quite a lot of this rich town (average annual household income: US$67,500 - a chunk of change in any country or language, let alone Latin America) and rather nice it looked, too. It also helped that the sun was shining, but, then again, it's all it ever seems to do, here.

Once you hit the end of the line it's like stepping into a different country: one where you can breathe. There was space, too, in abundance:

So off I headed over the park towards the church:

That's a pretty crappy picture, but you get the idea. The market was delightful; I spent a happy three hours, there:

That's where I had lunch. Nothing spectacular, but OK.

It's like a two-acre campus with little streams running through the pathways, little cafés here and there and unexpected little pathways that lead off to little, shady squares. Fantastic, actually; really well done.

I caught this man polishing off his bishop in a studio. I took other pictures, but they're pretty much the same as these. The lens on this little digital camera doesn't have great depth of field, so you can't really make out the mountains in the background, which is 90% of the charm of places like this. Anyhow, I got lots of lovely prezzies for Mrs. F and the Fingernails and then headed back to Lastarria to Skype with the missus and then run off to work, which I shall do now.

Missed, again.

No can do at the Centro de Arte Alameda: the Screaming Finns started at 7.15pm, while I was still at work and I've already seen the two films starting at 9.15pm. Couldn't even tune in to the Playoff Final between Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica. The offbeat Argie offering at 10.30pm is too late for me; I'm concentrating on getting up early tomorrow to find something for the Fingernails. They're expecting Lapis Lazuli, but I think they've already got some, so I'll go for Chilean ponchos, or chamantos as they're called in this region. They can put them over the dirndls we got them in Bavaria and really confuse any passing anthropologist.

I've just seen that Universidad Católica beat Universidad de Chile 2-0, so the opening 2011 season is finished, and with it my wish to see a Chilean football match live. These playoffs just coincided badly with work. Maybe next year, if we come. Nice to see that Chileans also go in for retarded tattoos, like that famous, fat Newcastle United supporter in England. Actually, I'm not sure if this final is over two legs or not. Pretty academic; I won't be able to get to a match before I leave on Sunday.

Blimey! Turn up and scratch the surface...

I don't know if there's something in the air, but since I've been in Chile, two momentous domestic issues have been brought to light. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, aided by the CIA, deposed the elected Marxist president, Salvator Allende, who, apparently, subsequently commited suicide with the help of his friend Fidel Castro's AK47 rifle on...wait for it...September 11th, 1973. Neither rifle nor bullets were ever recovered and his family was forbidden from seeing the body. There was never an enquiry into his passing. The day I arrived in Santiago the news channels were full of the story of Allende's remains being exhumed and taken for forensic analysis to determine the real cause of death. The suicide theory has been doubted by many for a long time yet only now are steps being taken to ascertain whether or not he really did top himself or whether Pinochet's mobsters bumped him off. A week later, my old friend Pablo Neruda enters the frame...

Just before going off to visit Neruda's house in Isla Negra I blithely remarked that I knew nothing about him, save for the fact he loved women and died the year Pinochet came to power. What I didn't know was that he was not at death's door in 1973 but, according to friends who saw him a day before he died, a healthy, 69-year-old shagmeister who had, a couple of weeks previously, published a withering tract condemning Pinochet, more or less the day the dictator seized power. The next day he had died of...prostate cancer. Hmmm. The Chilean Communist Party is insisting on an inquest into his death. If this continues, the poor old current Chilean government is going to have its work cut out: there are 725 cases of alleged human rights abuse pending against their former dictator, who died in 2006, having sidestepped, with the help of our 'socialist' Foreign Secretary of the time, Jack Straw, all attempts to bring him to justice. It's just one big fucking game for them, isn't it?

By the way, there is something in the air. It's volcanic ash, and it'd better not prevent me from getting home on Sunday.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Chilean MILF politicians v. Blair's er, 'Babes' (sic)

Brits first, sadly. At least that gets them out of the way. The following three politicians were instrumental in the cynical, wanton destruction of my country which occured on their watch from 1997 to 2010:

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Harriet Harman. Please don't try to give her back. You may also be familiar with Jacqui Smith:

The only true words she spoke in the whole time she had her snout in the Westminster trough. There's also this creature called Estelle Morris:

Here's her potted CV, in case you're interested:

Estelle Morris (Birmingham Yardley) - When Labour came to power in 1997, Ms Morris had been an MP for five years and was appointed as an under secretary to the Department for Education and Employment. She became the first secretary of state for the new Department for Education and Skills after the 2001 election. But in October 2002, after a series of fiascos she surprisingly quit, saying she was not up to the job. After a backbench stint, she returned as a junior arts minister in 2003 but finally stood down as an MP at the 2005 election. She was made a life peer in 2005 and is pro-vice chancellor of Sunderland University. 

Good to see talent being rewarded, isn't it? How much did you, the UK taxpayer, pay for her Westminster education? Will your children have a free run through university to make amends for this blatant profiteering? Thought not.

Chile is South America's economic success story. It's not hard to see why. Carolina Goic, will you step forward, please:

Ena von Baer's dimple is, in itself, allegedly responsible for $45bn worth of exports:

And just in case the deal could go either way, Santiago would roll out their secret weapon, Ximena Rincón, to ensure the signatures favour the GDP of the long, thin country:

The nice thing is that it's not considered a crime to be beautiful down in this part of the world, unlike in our over-legislated failed European Social and Economic Experimental Zone.What's important is that these babes are also apparently extremely good at what they do. In Europe, we only seem to respect female politicians if they look like Andrea Dworkin's ugly sister, even if they then prove themselves to be as inept as the trio I featured at the beginning of this post. So let's hear it for Chile. One, two, three...

More Chilean MILF politicians

This country's just got it all right. Ximena Rincón, a Christian Democrat MP, has been on CNN Chile talking about food labelling and she's hot. Line up Ena von Baer, Carolina Goic and this latest manifestation of political fantasy alongside the likes of Jacqui Smith, Harriet Harman and some other overweight, frumpy so-called 'Blair Babe' and see which country's more likely to inspire you to start stimulating your gross domestic product. Seeing as every other aspect of British society has been dumbed down to the level of an afternoon TV game show, why not politics, too? At least if our representatives were more comely more people might actually get interested in this most important civic duty. If it takes making the actors prettier, then so be it. I mean, look what Blair and Brown were able to get away with because no-one could bear to watch...

Chilean Misinformation

Having apparently been misinformed about the screening date of the film about the screaming Finnish male voice choir I decided to go and see an independent Argentinian film at 10pm this evening, the first of a mini festival. Being a fan of all things Argie I was looking forward to it. I turned up at the Centro de Arte Alameda at 9.55pm only to find the box office closed and a poster advertising the Screaming Finns as being screened this evening at 7pm. What about the Argies, I asked. Oh, that starts at 10.30pm and the tickets will be on sale outside...

The cinema's website is positively gallic in its uselessness. The only way of being certain what they're showing is to turn up in person and take a chance. I didn't finish work until 7pm so would've missed the Finns anyway, but

Ena von Baer has just been on CNN Chile, commenting on Ollanta Humala's presidential victory in Peru. That little dimple in her right cheek drives me insane...

OK, back to poorly-advertised cinema listings in South American capitals. Oh, what the hell. CNN Chile's current big-haired News Anchor, Paulina Yaurur, looks straight out of a Venezuelan soap opera; you could imagine her squaring up to her sister about flirting with her husband before firing off a withering threat and exiting stage right, shapely hips a-swaying, to dramatic music and a close-up of her worried sibling. I've quite clearly got too much time on my hands. Not surprising, seeing as I should be watching a film about down-and-outs in Buenos Aires.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Serious Socks

If all you aspire to in life is to get your socks from the Co-op, I seriously suggest you take a flight to Santiago de Chile, where socks are taken incredibly seriously (as they damn well should be):

Yes, there you have it: THE NATIONAL SOCK INDUSTRY! Take that, Tie Rack; Bugger you, BHS: the Chileans are serious about what they put between their skin and their shoes. Those two ladies you see in the picture are also representative of the general customer flow; at no point was there no-one either in front or inside the shop. Not many things move this august race as much as the brush of sensual alpaca wool against a willing toe or brazen heel. Until we take our feet this seriously we'll be condemned to Sunday League Podiatry whilst our mirror-shaded latino despots-in-waiting dry hump our Old Traffords, our Wembleys and our Shea Stadiums with their immaculate, fragrantly manicured size 10's. And yes, I have had a couple of drinks.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Traditional Haircut

Whenever I'm in a wildly different culture from my own, I always seek out a service which teaches me more about the locals than any guide book ever could. Not restaurants, not night clubs, not beach bars or the like: I look for an old-fashioned barber's shop, the type invariably run by a man in his fifties or sixties whose father founded the shop in the 1940's, kind of thing. Anyone who's been to El Vendrell in Catalunya will know the Plaza Mayor with its memorial to the great 'cellist Pau Casals as well as its old barber shop, called, simply and logically, Peluqueria. Well, this establishment will cut your hair better than any salon costing ten times more. Your hair is washed with the use of a large jug of water the proprietor fills from the tap (yes, it's warm) and you can admire the bottles of Vitalis and the decades-old posters and adverts he has hanging on the walls, stained in a bygone age when smoking was compulsory. As you'll be the only unknown who has frequented his shop in the last ten years or so he'll bring you up to date with everything that's been going on in the town since he last had a tourist in the chair. I found the same thing in Mexico City. Even though we spoke Spanish, my man in Central America insisted on proudly using the one English word he knew: Trim, and was suitably happy when I understood first time without him having to repeat it. He brought me up to date on crime in the Zona Rosa, how the little green and white Beetle taxis should all be banned and the fact that the air is so polluted that birds in the Parque Chapultepec would literally fall dead out of the trees.

I looked in the mirror this morning and decided I had too much hair on the sides. If you've got a broad face like I have, it makes you look like a bad joke in a Hall of Mirrors, so I decided to check out an ancient little barber's I pass every day on my way to work. Blink and you'd miss it: it's just a small, ground floor plate-glass window with graffiti on the frame. The dingy grey net curtains just about put the words Caballeros y damas in relief. No contest, this was to be my place.

Inside was like a tiny sitting room with a single chair for the cut and another for washing, bolstered by a couple of cushions. Yes, for CLP$3000 (about €4) he'd be happy to wash and cut my hair. I was probably the first tourist he'd seen in many a long year so he told me all the things I should see in Chile and Santiago, asked after my family, told me about how the country had advanced since Pinochet and warned me about the people most likely to steal my bag. It was still pretty early so I went back home to do some work. Later, when I passed on my way to the 'office', I popped in to ask if I could take his picture (see below). Not a problem, and would I like a cup of coffee? Sadly, I didn't have time, but he's extended the invitation to whenever I want to take him up on it.

See what I mean about his sitting room? And this on one of Santiago's busiest streets in the business district. He looks a bit like Fabio Capello, actually. What's more, the cut is superb; he took off just the right amount and now I don't look like a Cheshire Cat as drawn by a seven-year-old, anymore.

So, if you're in the back-of-beyond and need a bit of info, just look for the local Sweeney Todd. It beats most other ways of genning up on a place.

My Office

A Steinway, Richard Strauss and one of the most handsome offices this side of anywhere. Poor me, eh?

We're even going to let people in to see it!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Isla Negra and Valparaiso

Getting to the Central Bus Station couldn't be easier from where I'm staying: fifty yards to the metro station Universidad Católica, then eight stops direction San Pablo and Bob's your uncle, you're there. Then again, time was on my side and I was really curious to have a look at Gustave Eiffel's Estación Central, just one stop before the Busopolis, so out I hopped. It is a jewel, beautifully symmetric and flanked with palm trees. What's more, it's tiny when you consider that Santiago is home to seven million people. The only services which run are suburban commuter trains and a line to Callán, about eight hours to the south. There's a special offer there for the equivalent of €15 return, so that'll be something to do the next time I'm here. Trains really are the soul of a country in the way that coaches could never be. Anyhow, in the absence of a good old push-me-pull-you to Pablo Neruda's gaff I decided to walk the one stop to the bus station, and it was then I was reminded where I was. As soon as I left the station area, the Third World hit me right between the eyes. Boarding the Avenida Bernardo O'Higgins were rows upon rows of the kind of shops you see in documentaries about drug traffickers in Honduras or some such. The faces of the locals were etched with struggle and resignation, the majority of the shops crumbling or boarded up. The deafening roar of the traffic and the exhaust fumes were overwhelming, even at 9.30 on a Sunday morning. My blond hair and comparative tallness started to get the odd, questioning look so I did what I always do in these types of cases: I walk around as if I owned the place. You'll be amazed how people will leave you alone if you seem to know your way around. I reached the bus station not a moment too soon and got a return ticket to Isla Negra on a Pullman bus which was leaving five minutes later. If you've never travelled by bus in Chile (they're actually what the British call coaches) then I have to tell you it's a delightful experience. The stock is new and clean, the service courteous and punctual. My three-hour round trip cost €10 (CLP$7000) and there was even a bonus later on, but I'll get to that, later.

I settled down into my comfortable seat and the bus drew off. We went through the run-down western suburbs of the city before hitting the motorway and the sun decided to come out. The landscape could have been around Barcelona or Los Angeles, it was absolutely identical. You still get the feel of being amongst the pioneers when you see the little bodegas by the side of the road; wealth, here, is unequally distributed; you've got Mayfair and Thamesmead with little in between. After stopping at a few almost Wild West-like towns we got to Isla Negra at around 11.30. It's a village composed of a main street with shops and restaurants, virtually all the housing overlooking the sea. A little sign indicating a dirt track showed me where Pablo Neruda's house was, so off I set:

It's not a David Bailey, I know. The house was a little further down:

That's more the little café-restaurant behind. The light was dreadful. Here's another view of the house:

The original house, to the left, is only about 70 square metres, so he built the 'boat' on the right to house his collections of pretty much everything known to mankind: shells, ships in bottles, masks, butterflies etc etc. Goodness only knows when he found the time to write. The coastline is ruggedly attractive:

...even if it doesn't compete with the Giant's Causeway or the Amalfi Coast. Our guide was excellent, really taking time to explain everything and answer as many questions as we could come up with. I got Mrs. F a collection of his poems, the Antología Fundamental, which is as good a place as any to start.

By now it was time for lunch. The restaurant looked quite good, but I wanted to try my luck with a local joint, so I hiked back up the hill into the town, and it was then the lustre started to fade. The only problem with the seaside is that it attracts chavs. This is the same the world over. I suppose in Latin America they're called 'chavez' and they were certainly out in force this afternoon. When all is said and done, it was a bit like having Dickens' house in the middle of Blackpool. Isla Negra is much smaller but the social and material detritus that seaside resorts excrete makes any stay beyond the absolute minimum complete torture for me. I found a little local restaurant, ordered my lunch and started to read the paper. The Chileans started to come in to eat around two o'clock and one particular couple caught my eye. It was a father with his maybe five-year-old son. The lad had a lollipop in his mouth and the first thing to appear on the table was a pair of bottles of Fanta. Honestly, love this country as I might, but they can't teach Britain anything about eating habits. It's a bit like a latino Rotherham.

It was still pretty early when I paid up and left so I decided to get the first bus going anywhere and then see later. Within ten seconds a bus to Valparaiso turned up so I decided to go for it, after all. I'd had a few gulps of good sea air and now the Gods had clearly decided it was time for me to live the romance of that grainy photo taken through the rain-lashed windscreen so many years before. The weather even tried to play ball: the first raindrops I'd seen since arriving started to run down the windscreen. I dozed off and woke up on the outskirts to Valparaiso, a seaside city, a cross between a shanty town and Malibu with the most enormous market running about half a mile east to west leading up to the central bus station. Walking around outside, I have seldom felt so foreign or so conspicuous, so I flipped into Russian oligarch mode. The amazing market continued into the main square so I wandered in to see what kind of bric-a-brac merits a price tag in this part of the world. For the most part, you could have been anywhere, but the amount of German books, magazines and artefacts on sale was rather fascinating, particularly as all the books were stamped as having belonged to the Deutscher Verein Valparaiso, the Valparaiso German Club. I bought a cushion cover and a stole for Mrs. F, both hand-made by a lady from the north, the stole being made of Alpaca wool. It's apparently a Chilean ruminant which is in danger of extinction. If you're unfamiliar with them, here are a few pictures:

The last one's just had a haircut, in case you were wondering. So, with a bit of local arts 'n' crafts in my bag along with a few more pairs of cheap socks and a hand of bananas, it was time to find the sea. Unfortunately, the most direct route to the sea was via Valparaiso's version of South Central LA, so I decided to just call it a day and go 'home'. I was hoping my return ticket from Isla Negra  would be accepted, but the bus driver was having none of it, insisting I buy another ticket. The nice chap at the booth agreed to change it, free of charge, for a single from Valparaiso to Santiago, so that turned out nicely. The bus was packed and I nodded off shortly after we pulled out of the station. One quick metro trip back to Universidad Católica and I was soon boiling the kettle for a welcome cup of tea. All in all, a lovely day out. I still don't know anything about Pablo Neruda aside from the fact he loved to collect things and clearly didn't see the best parts of Valparaiso, but there's time for all these things; life hasn't finished, yet.

Chilean MILF politicians.

You know it's time to go home when you start developing crushes on female Chilean politicians, but Ena von Baer and Carolina Goic really do it for me. Where are their counterparts in our governments? I can't see them. It's a real shame. OK, enough of that. I'll post about Isla Negra and Valparaiso, next. Actually, last thought: as far as I've been able to ascertain, virtually all the visible powerbrokers in this country are of European descent, even down to CNN Chile's version of Larry King (or should I say Piers Morgan, now?), Tomás Mosciatti. I could be completely off the mark but that's the way it seems from the perspective of a new outsider.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Pablo Neruda

Ever since I saw a picture in a magazine taken from the front seat of a car I've dreamed of a town on Chile's coast. The photo was grainy, evidently taken on a rain-soaked motorway and featured an enormous exit sign to Valparaiso. A mountain range was visible. Knowing the country was thousands of miles away only added to the romance. There seemed something so utterly almost extraterrestrial about the place that I decided I had to go there at some point in my life. Now that my enviable profession has decided to pay me to sit at this legendary location's gate, I find I'd rather go to a coastal village and stumble around the house of a poet I know nothing about. If I had another free day I'd love to go to Valpo, as they call it here, but I don't. Come tomorrow I'll have spent two weeks in an intensely polluted city in dire need of rain and I'm just gagging to get a bit of fresh air in a place where there are fewer than 65000 inhabitants per square metre. Or should that be kilometre. Doesn't matter, you get the idea. They've invited me back next year, so maybe I'll do my 'dream town' then.

Yup, this poet I know nothing about is Pablo Neruda. Apart from the fact he died the year Pinochet seized power and that he loved women he is a closed book to me. He was also an inveterate collector of pretty much everything, apparently. Sorry, there won't be any insights into his oeuvre, I seriously know jack all about this guy. I hope Sunday will help. I'll probably get Mrs. F a collection of his poems in an attempt to get her to read more in Spanish. She's a native speaker by virtue of her mother but treats it too cavalierly for my liking; she speaks fantastically but could have an astounding level if she exercised it a little more. This is the monolingual child speaking, here; I would have given anything to have grown up bilingual and cannot bear to see people treating their gifts casually. It might fire her up for coming over here next year, too, not that she needs any encouragement on that score.

I haven't been to South America's Pacific Coast since 1997 when I flew into Lima and cruised up to the Dutch Antilles via Ecuador, Columbia and Venezuela. My previous brief visit to Chile was a couple of days in Punta Arenas before tripping over to Ushuaïa and down to the Antarctic for a few days, so this particular visit is certainly more substantial, even if I am spending most of it in the geographical epicentre of the capital. If anything, it makes me ever more determined to end my days in Patagonia, free of neighbours and any other rubbish that might possibly pollute your life. There's a lot of graffiti around Santiago about 'Free Patagonia'; it's funny how the subjects change all over the world. I'm rambling, now, but it's only because I'm incurably in love with South America and can't really believe my luck that I'm being paid good money to be here. A word to the wise: if you end up practising a profession you didn't actually want to pursue, give it your all, anyway. Your efforts will take you where you want to be. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Sleep well.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Doors

Well, that didn't quite work out as planned. I got to the cinema, only to find that the Documental del més was still a film made by French actress Sandrine Bonnaire about her autistic sister, Sabine. It didn't appeal, my shallow personality is ashamed to say. Quickly eyeing up the list I saw there was a documentary about The Doors, When You're Strange, directed by Tony DiCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, whoever they are. Kick-off was 9.15pm, so I bought a ticket and headed back to the flat for dinner.

The cinema had a group of acrobats doing yoga in the foyer when I first arrived. When I came back they were taking it on turns on the trapeze they'd suspended from one of the beams. It was rather nice. Sala Dos, where my film was playing, was upstairs over crumbling steps and impossible walkways which ended up in a fabulous, rather run-down bar area overlooking Santiago's main traffic artery, the Avenida del Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, or Avenida Alameda, if you feel so inclined. It's enormously broad in the former communist bloc school of urban planning and puts me in mind of Moscow's Kalinin Prospect. Sala Dos was tiny: six rows of four fifties-style cinema seats (or probably actual seats from the fifties, come to mention it) with an extra one near the front, presumably because they had room for it. There were six of us to witness Jim Morrison's rise and fall. I didn't realise that he, Hendrix and Joplin were all 27 when they died. Anyone who normally takes even a passing interest in pop music knows this, I'm sure. For my part, I first heard their music just after his death was announced in February, 1971. Funny to think that Mrs. Fingers was a mere month old when he died. Funnier still to think that if she was put on this earth to replace him, she encapsulates his soul in rehab.

The shouting Finns start on June 8th, so there'll just be time to catch it before heading back to Europe.

By the way, this Bernardo O'Higgins was quite a colourful chap; I suggest you look him up.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A week in the Pyrenees, as experienced in early May.

If your ideal holiday features banned substances, alcoholic excess and ambiguous morality you might want to ask your travel agent about Ibiza. If, however, your feelings are awoken by the prospect of bathing in the same mountain spring as Henry IVth before strolling through a wood straight out of the sagas of Merlin, might I humbly suggest the Haute Pyrénées in France’s deep south ?

For those of you not familiar with this particular corner of Sarkozyland, it’s the French-Spanish border territory between Toulouse and Lourdes. The gîte we booked was a converted, nineteenth-century barn; lovely in principal but even after its costly makeover more suited to housing hay than half-cut holidaymakers. Built into a hill, the ground floor was half underground and no amount of dishwashers, satellite TVs or rustic light fittings could deflect from the fact that it was as damp as hell; three lizards doing the backstroke around the kitchen table were a sufficient giveaway. They could have added a couple more windows ; despite the glorious sunshine we awoke to every day upstairs in our bedrooms, going down to prepare breakfast was akin to a trip to the basement in a Hammer Horror film. Fortunately, there was an east-facing terrace where we could have a sun-soaked start to the day.

A more general point concerning barn conversions is the fact that you can take a crumbling, derelict artefact, give it a lick of paint and shove it into the limelight but it’ll still be as limp and damp as it was when it first saw the light of day. Anyone who has observed Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party will tell you this. A barn will always be a barn, even if its proud owner wants you to think it’s a castle. If you’re in any doubt, make sure one of your party has arthritis ; they’ll tell you soon enough.

All that aside, the barn was a few hundred yards down a dirt track, which made the car ride the kind of thing you’d pay £5 a go for at Alton Towers. The lady who handed us the keys was as talkative as you would imagine someone who lives in the middle of the Pyrenees would be, considering we were probably the first people she’d spoken to since 1985 to whom she was not directly related. When she unlocked the front door to the barn/gîte, she warned us that it was ‘pretty cold’, which did make me wonder why there wasn’t at least enough firewood to tide us over the first night. The option was electric heating which would be tallied up and billed extra at the end of our stay, should we be rash enough to use more than a single lightbulb for half an hour, offpeak. Other extras included bedding and towels…hmmm…You might be thinking I wasn’t overtly enamoured with the first impressions of our trip away from the big city, and you’d be right. Things could only get better, but get better they certainly did…

The location, the vallée de Lesponne, is stunning. This part of the Pyrenees could not be more different from the streetwise, money-grabbing Alps if it tried. At 700 metres altitude we weren’t in skiing territory, but practically every house in the surrounding villages was a fully-functioning farm. There’s a living, working, viable community there which is not reliant on hoards of Hooray Henrys descending every winter and turning the place into Sodom on the Slopes. Many restauranteurs and hoteliers in the villages are younger families without any trade experience who have given up city life in search of something more fulfilling. If you’re in Lesponne or nearby, pop into Chez Gabrielle, a hostel cum restaurant which also houses a delightful curiosity : a grocer’s shop kept as a museum. Said Gabrielle of the title kept the shop until the early 1980’s when she retired. Even then it looked like something out of the 1940’s. The current owners have preserved it exactly as she left it and guests can wander around, admire its retro beauty and overdose on nostalgia. Our lunch, comprised entirely of local produce, was superb : a nutritious garbure, honey-fried lamb and a courgette soufflé preceded by local saucisson and topped off with crème catalane. If you’re passing, give them your support, they deserve it. Follow the road another seven kilometers to the end and you’ll come across another debutant hostel which will serve as your base for your hike to the lac bleu as well as other landmarks. They’ll be happy to serve you a beer or two, aswell.

The simplest pleasure on a gîte holiday is just striding out of your own front door with your lunch in a rucksack. Every time we did this in Quercy a couple of years ago we were adopted by a filthy local dog who looked like a canine Bob Marley. Interestingly, the same thing happened to us this time in the Pyrenees. Are these dogs robots provided by Gites de France for our vacational pleasure ? You might almost think so, particularly as the one we had recently was just as bizarre as our Rastaman from 2009 : to all intents and purposes he was a dalmatian, but had the head of a rottweiler, six nipples and full male reproductive equipment. He looked like the kind of dog a ten-year-old would draw to frighten his little sister. It was as if Tim Burton had decided to work for the Disney Corporation. He was a great companion, though, seemingly enjoying his day out with the new kids on the block before we all headed home. We visited waterfalls, scraped our way through unchartered forests and marvelled, as pathetic city dwellers always do, at the purity of yet another mountain stream.

Our local Sin City was Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a gorgeous little town of around 8,000 inhabitants which is rather like a cross between Bath and Clochemerle. It has all the required faded elegance of a provincial spa town yet supports innumerable hotels, restaurants, town centre businesses and a rather large casino. We fell in love with it and vowed to return at the very least as visitors, but ideally as property buyers. If you find yourselves there, get your bread from Thierry Sauvage, Boulanger Artisanal, just opposite the covered market ; you will not regret it. It was also in Bagnères that we found out about the fontaine de Crastes just outside the village of Asté, a spring discovered around four hundred years ago and a favourite haunt in his time of Henry IVth, who praised the healing qualities of its mineral-rich water. A local health shop owner advised me to go there to bathe my eczema-ridden hands, so off we trotted. I’d had this atopic eczema for two months yet, after two fifteen-minute sessions at the source, it had completely disappeared. My hands felt afterwards as if I’d massaged them with cream moisturiser. Needless to say, as soon as we returned to the stress of the city, it all came back, but we were all left stunned by the ability of this water to boot a skin condition which confounds conventional medicine, effortlessly into touch. Our resolve to move to Bagnères-de-Bigorre became even more determined.

Having cured your body of unsightly skin conditions, you can then turn left out of the fountain and walk further into the forest to the Casque. The path will take you through dried streams, lichen-covered trees, impossibly huge, asteroid-like rocks, planted in your way as if freshly arrived from another planet. The sight of the sun piercing the trees was the stuff of legend, we felt in the presence of magick. The fact that a simple mountain stream had eradicated my eczema on the spot might have had something to do with it, though. It also occurred to me that there might be malevolent springs, too ; maybe our Disney dog had fallen into one and emerged equipped for all manner of things.

On your way back to the Lesponne valley, you might want to visit the Grotte de Médous. It’s on the outskirts of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and is open all year round. Most of the tour is on foot but finishes up with a 200-metre underground boat trip which children of all ages adore. Tradition was observed in the form of the tour guide, a young student whose training course was apparently modelled on Soviet shop assistant motivational techniques. She couldn’t have sounded more bored or resentful of our presence if we’d been actively preventing her from attending her own wedding ; even her reminder to us that she was only renumerated by the grace of our generosity contained no hint of hope or charm, just annoyance that she’d been condemned to work and study – free of charge – in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Poor love. Don’t let her stop you from visiting the grotto, though ; it’s fantastic.

Leaving this corner of paradise was, despite our troglodyte accomodation, the most difficult farewell of recent years. We’ll be going back, but if you all beat us to it and push the prices up, I might have to, in true barn-owner style, send you a bill for the extra.

Screaming Finns

What's more, Screaming Men is in Finnish with Spanish subtitles! Who said the European dream was dead, eh? Eh? Oh.

South American Indie Cinema

Just got back from a showing of Metro Cuadrado, a film by Nayra Ilic, a young Chilean film director. It tells the story of a couple moving in together and basically going backwards instead of blossoming and progressing. This was at another indie cinema, the Centro de Arte Alameda, a great theatre I'll be returning to tomorrow to see a Finnish documentary, Screaming Men, a film about a choir that just shouts. They perform law texts, national anthems of the countries they visit, children's songs, instruction manuals, the lot. Promises to be quite an entertaining evening. Apparently, audiences in all countries are just bewildered. So we'll be bewildered, too.