20 January 2010

Alans article in the Leinster Leader

Schnitzels European Adventures.
The Big Freeze 2010.

So I’m in Spain, and all I keep hearing about is the weather in Ireland. The Homeland I call it. They are calling it the big freeze 2010, the coldest, snowiest and most paralyzed Ireland has ever been, or funnest if you ask anyone under the age of thirty. My mam told me on the phone that it was -12 degrees. I laughed. Silly mammy. Its not her fault, she’s from a simpler time. -12 bff ha ha. It can’t be minus 12 silly mammy. It can’t be -12, 0 is freezing. 0 is a block of ice. What happens if you freeze a block of ice? Nothing. It stays the same, its frozen, its already as cold as it can get. -12 doesn’t exist, 0 is cold enough, it’s the coldest. You hang on there lovely mammy, I’ll check the internet, silly billy. MINUS TWELVE!? What the, how the…what?
I was genuinely flabbergasted, I was sitting on a beach in a pair of floral shorts in Malaga, not even able to summon the imagination to pretend to understand such levels of extreme cold. How did this happen? And then it came to me; the feckin’ recession. Everyone has tightened their belts to the extent that they wont turn on the heating and this has led to freezing streets thus eventually the temperature drops to a moronic -12. It’s strange the world we live in, everyone is trying to be good, trying to save money, trying to cut back on power for the environment, and what do we get in return? The whole country freezes over. Thanks mother nature, real sound.
Here in Spain they use a system that we really should look into as a nation. They have a giant suspicious yellow ball that hovers in the sky and radiates heat. This is good as it provides the country with heat and light and therefore amalgamating those two treacherous bills. It must be a massive bill though, if it heats and lights the whole country? I hear you say. Well yes, it is quite a huge bill, but when they divide it between 45 million people, it really works out cheaper than our Irish bills.
On my travels I met a Swedish couple who were backpacking around Europe. And, as is usual with people you just met, conversation runs dry and you automatically switch to old faithful, the weather. Sure enough they said in a very sexy sleek swedish accent ‘In Sweden it is very cold’ to which I responded, ‘oh yeah? Ha ha well I feel sorry for you, I really do, but in Ireland its -12’. Then I leaned back with a smug look on my face. To which they replied with absolutely no comic timing ‘In Sweden it is -50.’ Obviously seeing my shocked and speechless expression they continued ‘basically, if you go outside, you die.’ For lack of anything better to do after my whole world was shaken up one more time I told them to shut up and kicked their backpacks. Then I left the room.
Since all that I am glad to have received the news that someone has turned the heat back on and Ireland is back up to a trusty, comfortable 3 or 4 degrees.

Alans article in the Leinster Leader

Schnitzels European Adventures.
Madrid and Alvarro.

We were meeting friend in Madrid, Alvarro a guy who had done his erasmus in our college in Limerick last year. We were hoping he might have a driveway that we could pull into and sleep without any fear of being moved along by the police. We did not have his phone number so we spent the first 2 or 3 hours in Madrid walking around the lamp lit streets looking for an internet café. Alvarro had left us his number in an email. By the time we actually got out to his house it was 2am, his mother and sister were still up. This was not france. They did not have a driveway, but what they did have was bundles and bundles of kindness and generosity. Not only did they talk us into sleeping on their lovley warm couches, they also fed us, washed our clothes and told us about cool things to do. After two weeks in the van it was paradise.
Because of Alvarros wonderful family we found it very hard to leave Madrid and so we spent about a week on those couches eating that food, enjoying tremendously free warm showers. This gave us a lot of time to really explore the city. I suppose I was previously ignorant to Madrid. I knew it was the capital of Spain so it would be a big city, I knew Real Madrid were from there, but I was ignorant of the New Yorkness of it. Its really a massive city with bright lights that never cease. The town does not sleep, the massive Schwepps advertisement, akin to one of Times Square, would keep the streets alight with lack of sun.
The streets are crowded, mobility on Gran Via, the main street is no easy feat. If you were a thief escaping the scene of the crime you would be much better off trying to hide, fit in, camoflauge, with the masses than to run through them which I’m sure would prove impossible. Many of the streets when viewed from a raised focal point, ie the low wall of a fountain, are filled completely with just heads. On these streets the only option is to move with the crowd, there is no overtaking.
Madrid is really wonderful for its old architecture with enormous palaces and cathedrals and museums. Even a beautiful garden designed by none other than Galileo Galilei. All of this stuff could be studied and looked at for days on end. But I have to admit that possibly my favourite thing about the city was a little café bookshop called JJ’s. It is well off the beat and track, hard to find even if you have directons and a map, but when you find it you realise that there a few things more beautiful than an Irish accent in a foreign country. Its an English speaking establishment and the full downstairs area is a second hand bookshop in English. We sat there for hours drinking tea and coffee and I read about half a book which I was then forced to buy by an overwhelming urge to finish it. I highly recommend this little place to any English speaking people living in Madrid.
We racked up €210 worth of parking tickets in this great city, luckily for us they have municipal police and they don’t know where we live.

11 January 2010

Alans Column in the Leinster Leader

Schnitzel’s European Adventures.
Getting to Madrid.

Madrid was going to be aweseome. We both needed someone else to talk to, somewhere else to sleep, something else to eat, Madrid was our light at the end of the tunnel.
And because nothing ever works like that, because you can’t just walk to Mecca, some all powerful being, some bully to be honest, threw every plague in our path. Of course I exaggerate a tad, there was no frogs or locusts, but there was very nearly floods. We were supposed to leave Bilbao and arrive in Madrid that night. It took us three days. We decided on the scenic route. This failed due to accelerated diminishing sunlight and tons of rain, the van struggled with the twists and turns and wetness of the road so we got back onto the motorway and pulled into a rest stop to sleep and cut our losses. Day 2 was admitedly semi our own fault we slept long into the day and then really stretched out the showers in the rest stop which cost €1.70. We got our moneys’ worth. It was already getting dusk but we figured sure it’s the motorway, we can drive easily in the dark. Our all powerful enemy had other plans, and he unoriginally chose weather again. His weapon of choice this time; fog. A fog so thick I could spread it on my toast, and just as you don’t appreciate an untasty spread, I did not appreciate this fog that had me creeping along the motorway at 50km an hour. Eventually we gave up, it wasn’t worth it, so we pulled into a rest stop that was probably walking distance from the first one, had our dinner and went to bed early like grumpy old men.
Day 3: it was already ridiculous, we should have been in Madrid the day before yesterday, today we were going to weld the accelerator to the floor and really clock up the miles. If we kept a steady fast pace we could be there in four hours. Hands gripped firmly on the wheel, sitting in my best Schumacher pose I pulled out of the rest stop, got up a good speed, a truck was in my way, I pulled out to the fast lane to take him over and…kaput. The accelerator was not in the mood for me today. I watched the truck ease past me and I had no choice but to hold in the tears and free roll onto the hard shoulder. We had broken down. At least it wasn’t weather this time, sadistic bastard. I opened the bonnet realised the oil was low so I topped it up, closed the bonnet and attempted to start the engine. Rinrinrin. Nothing. It wasn’t the oil to I tried to open the bonnet again..kaput. Wouldn’t open. Lovely. A maintenance guy from the motorway pulled up behind us, hadn’t a word of English, he looked in the engine and said, very prophetically, “kaput”. I had to agree, what else could I do? So he phoned the police because they ‘spoke English’, I understand that much, and he proceeded to cut mushrooms from the roadside with a pen knife and stuff them in a plastic bag in his pocket. Then he called the police again, presumably to tell them to hurry up, he said something to us about “chicas, marijuana, and Barcelona” and then he left us there alone. Eventually the police showed up, one English expression learned off, which he engaged with sufficent anger, “This is Spain! In Spain we speak a Spanish!” that was it, he then seemed very angry at us for both not speaking Spanish and for breaking down. We really were being inconsiderate I suppose. He had a gun so I just stood there and said si si si. Until eventually he said the word mechanic to which I said si si si with a lot more enthusiasm. The police sped off and we had to play the waiting game again, not too long after, the mechanic, our messiah showed up. Once again, no English. He looked at the car and asked “kaput?” to which I confidently retorted “kaput.”

Alans Column in the Leinster Leader

Schnitzel’s European Adventures.

Apologies for the lame title, it just came to me and I giggled so I felt I had to go with it, to share my giggle with the few who might enjoy crap puns. Anyway, after a very small amount of thought you may have come to the conclusion that this article is about Bilbao and that I thought it was brilliant, and you’d be right. So brilliant in fact that I decided to devote this weeks article to it fully.
Here is a city gleaming with self pride, street cleaners work at every hour of the day keeping the place looking ready for the arrival of the Queen of England who is notoriously fussy about tidy streets. In Bilbao the word architecture means ‘to build something interesting as we have to look at it everyday’ as opposed to Irelands philosophy of ‘lob it up quick there and sell it off’. The most obvious example of this is the phenomenal Guggenheim Museum. It might be an original thing to do here to talk about some less obvious more quirky choice of building. But I just don’t want to, this building should be talked about a lot, it is fantastic, almost using the word literally like it is out of fantasy of the imagination. It is so perfectly bonkers, so intellectually idiotic, so beautfully absurd and altogether bizarre. If you have not seen the structure get a ticket to Bilbao or at very least look at it on your trusty interweb.
It is almost like the designer gave a piece of paper and a crayon to a four year old and put the child on a sea saw and told him to draw a big house. This little experiment turned out to be stunning to the eye, it is not rare to see people standing, staring and gasping, not so much forgetting to breath but perhaps trying to breath the magnificence in. After staring at it for some time you come to the conclusion that you want to climb to the top, grease yourself up, and then slide down to see where it takes you. You could literally sit and look at this edifice all day let alone the art it holds on its interior walls.
The greatness of Bilbao is certainly its architecture. They didn’t just build the Guggenheim and then say ‘sure that’s enough’. they really put effort into many of their designs. Shadowed in Bilbao, some of these buildings would much better cause a stir in a different city.
I did have my issues in Bilbao. I wanted breakfast but I could not get anything that even resembled a decent first meal of the day. At first I was put out by the smoke in all the cafés, this is one of the worst things about Spain, they are yet to bring in the smoking ban, and you forget the huge difference it actually makes, eventually I got a Spanish omellette but it was not good, seemingly Spanish omellettes are great unless they are actually Spanish. Here they serve them cold, the inside is wet with egg or cheese I don’t know but it was a struggle to eat. Anyway I laboured through it and went back outside to look at the hefty man made objects.
(Email: alanbennett8@hotmail.com for comments or suggestions.)

27 December 2009

Alans Column in the Leinster Leader

Schnitzel’s European Adventures.
Like crossing the road.

You are more likely to boil an egg in luke warm water than you are to find parking in Bordeaux. Seemingly everyone has parked their cars and gone to bed, hence the city being nicknamed ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The second part of the nickname because the city is tremendously beautiful. It is not a cryptic pseudonym. This is a city you should definitely visit if you like buildings that weren’t built yesterday. Wonderful arches, bridges, monuments, buildings and even roads decorate the city. It makes you feel that nobody works there, the locals just bask in the beauty of their surroundings and gawk insatiably at the complexities of the stonework.
If Bordeaux is called ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ then Biarritz should be called ‘The Windy Beauty’. If you are using this column as a travel guide then my tip for Biarritz is wear heavy shoes. If you are a particularly light person, perhaps a heavy hat would also be advisable, or maybe a strong partner you can cling onto. It is not to say that the town is not sleeping, this is no different in our experience of French towns so far. It was baron. Not a human in sight, I’m sure in summer it’s hopping, but November is not its prime. Maybe it should be called ‘Sleeping Windy Beauty’. Its massive waves attack the gorgeous coast line in a spectacle that is better viewed from behind the stone wall 20 metres above. It is borne on a cliff edge and driving along above the beaches with the splash of the crash of the wave reaching up that high it gives you what I would consider the Biarritz feeling.
We entered Spain as if we had crossed the road. There was no sign, no elaborate ‘Welcome to Spain’ no ‘Viva’ or ‘Vamos’, nothing. I only realised we were in Spain when I saw a shop called Pepe’s. Then I noticed that I no longer had any idea what signs said, and the Renaults and Peugeots turned into Seats. Spain immediately seemed, for lack of a better word, poorer. Construction seemed endless and somewhat futile, like you could guess many of these structures may never be finished. Streets seemed less clean and organised.
We got to San Sebastian expecting surfer parties and a crazy night. No matter what anyone tells you, November and December is not surf season on the west coast of France and Spain. We were told it was and we learned the hard way, it was like a French town, everyone was indoors, perhaps afraid of the wind, I don’t know.
If you did not know, you could guess that it was just south of Biarritz because it shares the same ferocious savage waves that seem to have some sort of a feud with the beach and want to damage it furiously and repetitively.
Next stop is Bilbao which is slighty inland so will be hopefully less windy but what it lacks in blow it will make up in beauty.
(Email: alanbennett8@hotmail.com for comments or suggestions.)