Archived entries for Spain

Towards my thousand-yard-stare

Apologies for the lack of entries of late, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling, most of the visits for the first time. Some photos, if you’re interested, can be seen in the picture gallery.
Of course, in an ideal world I’d be sitting here with a full-length beard, several battle scars from my daring encounters with the darker side of human nature and a glass of strong whisky to take the edge off the flashbacks. Alas, we can’t all be Indy, which I suppose is why my “scars” comes from a Gillette razor and I’m sipping a cup of mint tea. I can see it now: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Ginger Nuts.

I went to Slovenia, to an awards ceremony (European inventor of the year) in Ljubljana, the capital, where I interviewed a man who invented what he called “telepresence” surgery. The is essentially a robotic machine guided by a surgeon, with the robot arms capable of performing incredibly precise operations and even, to my amazement, able to cancel out tremors in the surgeons hands. I also spent a good 15 minutes trying to explain what a flapjack was to a poor shopkeeper who clearly didn’t have any, had probably never heard of them in his life.
“OK, so you get oats, and…oats, you know, like the farmer grows in his field. Farmer…the one who has the fields and the sheep and drives a combine harveste…do you know what? A Mars bar will be fine.”

I went to Ireland, for a wedding, which was held in this gorgeous castle near Warrenpoint. I’d never been to Ireland or Northern Ireland, so it was an extra treat to spend a day in Dublin and then take a bus over the border. Gorgeous country. We had to sleep in Dublin airport, though, which wasn’t too much fun, but hey, we saw the sun come up. Well, Zoe just sort of watched it sleepily but of course I had to take some photos. OK, in hindsight perhaps I didn’t to take quite so many arty shots of, er, the luggage trolleys bathed in golden orange or, um, the nicely lit airport stairs. Yes, OK, we were a tiny bit late (“Look, there it is! Check in…check in for Brussels, yep…is now closed.”) but it’s part of the adventure really, running for the plane. I could even hear the Indy theme tune as we sprinted past gate 5, looking for gate 42.

Then to Bath, to visit my brother, a BBQ (someone had a BBQ, I mean; I didn’t go and visit one) a chat with his friends, and a chance to relive students days. Long summer nights lazily cooking sausages and talking about the girls on the psychology course. Piles and piles of notes, textbooks with carefully constructed but essentially pointless bookmarks, look at all the colour highlighters I’ve got! That night last week, what were we drinking, was it two for one on lighter fluid? D’you remember, we all go so wasted we all ended up sharing a bin outside the police station, waiting for Spar to open.

Also to Oxford, more student days, a visit to my sister who’s finished her first year. Watching the posh students celebrate graduation or, in some cases, trying to absorb the shock of that truth (universally known) that it’s possible to have too much of a good time:
“I mean, yars, OK, vomiting onto old Perkins during class wasn’t the most frightfully clever thing, but I mean, come orn, they’ve gorn and shown a jolly good sense of humour failure with this “you are forthwith suspended” nonsense. Tell them they can’t, Father!”

Last night I was in Germany, a quick trip over the border to watch the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain. It was great fun (despite Germany losing to Spain) trying to order things in rusty Anglo-German (“Now vee vould like der bill, bitte”) and struggling to lift, let alone drink, huge tankards of Kolsch beer. For my first visit to the country it was certainly a memorable experience, watching a football final accompanied by the surround sound of loud Germanic chanting and the constant presence of those red, yellow and black flags.

Four new countries, three months, catching up with two siblings and recalling it all in one blog entry. Less Indy, more “Mint Tea”, but it’s still been a fast-paced few months.

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)



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