DOG DAYS – revisited…

Sometime around the mid 90’s of the last century, for some reason I can’t remember now I decided to make a series of 6-box comic strips describing amusing experiences that had had happened to us – “us” being my wife Dido, our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, and yours truly – on our travels. Thus, while all of them are based upon actual events, some are more close to actuality than others.

1: Aura’s Big Sniff

I’m starting this series off with one of the less exaggerated episodes. In fact this is true in every detail, except that it happened in London, in The Alexander Fleming Pub in Paddington and not in the famous old wine bar in Malaga (La Antigua Casa de Guardia) in which the drawings are set. In addition, the barman at the pub was so amused by what happened that he gave Aura a Cumberland sausage as a thank you for making his day!

Again, do please click on the images to follow the comics in all their glory…

2: Phoning From Bar Angel

As with the previous episode, this too actually happened as described, but at the location depicted. Bar Angel was one of a handful of bars and restaurants located in our local mountain peublo blanco (white village), and in the days before mobile phones had taken on here in Andalusia, provided one of the few pay-phones in the area…

3: A Dog in the Room

This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!

4: Michelin Maremma

This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as we wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sautéed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly-American patrons at the neighbouring tables!

And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…

5: Short-Back-and-Boobs!

This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her, and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!

The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.

Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…

6: Swatting the Fly…

This one speaks for itself…needless to say, we avoided further visits to this couple.

7: Dido’s Strong Swim

The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…

8: The Last Almond

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the bejesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia, almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…

CHILE – OUR REAL CARTOON ADVENTURE (revisited and refined)*

In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work to be visually recorded and so she appointed me her video cameraman.

When we arrived, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now, over 30 years later, Dido and I agree that it remains one of our two or three most remarkable joint experiences.

We decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons. Presented here are a selection of those pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is relatively little breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries. These pictures are a humorous and affectionate record of all aspects of the-then new democratic Chile, through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.

In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!

When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suitcases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too, until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a  driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our second evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still quasi vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…
The breakfast at the Hotel Splendid in Calama turned out to be as “charming” as the sleeping arrangements. As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a food-stained pinny –  if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast…

Back in the early 90’s the place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, at least if one considered oneself a real traveller, was “Bobby’s Place”. From what I can recall Bobby herself (Bobby was a she not a he) was an Australian lady in late middle-age. She was the epitome – almost to the point of being a walking-talking cliché – of the intrepid travelling adventuress, finally settling down in the  evening of her years. Long silver hair tied back in a ponytail; sun-stained leathery skin; bright eyes glistening with weary knowledge and intelligence, she could have been Karen Blixen’s antipodean younger sister. And her eponymous establishment was as laid-back, affable and welcoming-yet-world-weary as she was herself. We loved almost everything about our stay at Bobby’s – the faded Hemingway-esque hunting-lodge atmosphere, chilly evenings, sat around the vast open fireplace sipping her delicious pisco sours and the clean, comfortable quiet rooms. The only feature of Bobby’s place which failed to please was the shower. Not so much a shower actually as a gravity defying twin trickle/dribble of water which miraculously descended in a form of arc, so that if one stood beneath the shower-head it missed one altogether. Getting clean meant opting for one of the two dribbles  and having the patience of a saint…
Bobby had a large dog of mixed parentage and as with his owner, the dog was hugely affable towards all the guests staying at his mistress’s establishment. But on occasion, with guests who reciprocated his friendliness, he would take a special liking and become virtually inseparable. During our stay the dog took just such a liking to another couple. His affection towards them was understandable as they were particularly charming and charismatic. A little older than us, she was German and ran a travel business in Santiago, while he was a  junior English diplomat on secondment at the British Embassy. They’d come to San Pedro for a romantic long-weekend and their favourite pastime (when not in their bedroom) was going for ambles alongside the local river. On the third afternoon of our stay we were sitting on the stoop outside our room when we were confronted with the scene portrayed in the drawing above. But it was only later that night that we found out the story behind the picture: Our couple had gone off on their usual riverside walk accompanied by the dog, which was fine, until they passed by a woman grazing her two sheep. Without warning the dog jumped one of the sheep and killed it. The woman, naturally distraught and angry began screaming and shouting at our couple for failing to control their dog – at which point, as if on cue, the local mounted policeman appeared. After listening to the woman he told our couple that they would have to compensate the woman for her dead sheep. When they then explained the situation and their relationship to the dog, the dubious policeman told them to take him to the actual owner of the dog, which they did, with him – bearing the woolly carcass on his mount – the bloodied dog, the woman and her remaining sheep in tow. Of course Bobby sorted out the situation, and even cooked the sheep a couple of days later for her guests. It was the best mutton stew I ever tasted!
During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be a highlight of our visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, aware of the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus, it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 k’s and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there, and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles, or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…
No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture above. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas, believing we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull-out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…

The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

Before we began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids in Santiago, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree it was like walking into a dazzling palace of kitsch. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every façade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the landlady: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: with her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is so infectious she had the knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture above describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver  and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
As a fitting finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he – in fact I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. Thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.

Gibraltar’s Very Little Italy

We’ve been to Gibraltar several times over the past two years and each time we seem to discover something new. For such a small territory it’s surprising how many little secrets it manages to keep from the general tourist and day tripper, who’s itinerary seems restricted to a cable car ride to the top of the Rock, finished off with a pint at the pub and a plate of fish and chips. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, which do at least ensure the preservation of hidden gems like Rosia and Catalan Bay for the lucky few.

Our discovery of Catalan Bay was particularly accidental, as we had to arrange a last minute trip to Gibraltar, and the only room available was at the Caleta Hotel, on the relatively remote (remote only in a Gibraltarian sense), sparsely populated, eastern side of the Rock. But while the the bay on which the hotel sits may be named for Catalonia, the seaside hamlet along which it resides is far more reminiscent of a Sorento on the Italian Riviera – albeit, in microcosm.

Moreover, with the Caleta Hotel being Italian owned, with an Italian head chef, this tiny enclave has a feel and an atmosphere all of its own.

I would recommend the hotel as a decent place to stay (comfortable rooms and a bar and restaurant with a stunning, maritime outlook), but it’s to be torn down in January, with a Hilton rising up in its place. Nevertheless, for those visiting Gibraltar for more than a day or so, Catalan Bay is a charming place to visit.

Despite the overcast skies, I think these photos offer something of the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of the place.

A “ROSIA” FUTURE FOR GIBRALTAR – and a rock-solid present…

Following on from my earlier post on our initial return to Gibraltar after a gap of over twenty years, we have managed to visit several more times, and on each occasion, we have become increasingly impressed with life on the Rock. There’s no doubting that the drab and dreary Gibraltar of last century has been consigned firmly to the past and that a new, confident and energetic modern little city is rising in its place. Moreover, the once-faded and shabby old town centre has been sensitively spruced up and now stands above its modern surrounds like a proud grandparent watching over its thriving progeny.

“Unique” has become a much overused and abused term, but in the case of today’s Gibraltar it really is just about the only adjective that does the place justice. From its airport runway pedestrian crossing (sadly, to be lost very shortly to a new tunnel) to Rosia Bay, where one swims alongside giant container ships, not to mention it being Europe’s only truly harmonious “multiculture”, Gibraltar is a total one-off.

The iPhone snaps below hopefully transmit some of that uniqueness, and a sense of its intoxicating optimism…

Looking south from Rosia Bay, across the Straights toward Jebel Musa (the “other” Pillar of Hercules) and the Moroccan Coast. An anglers and swimmers idle, a mere fifteen-minute walk from the old town…
Looking north-west from Rosia Bay toward the southern Cadiz province coast. My intrepid wife Dido can just be made out taking a choppy swim to the right of the photo. The waters here, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, are very cold this early in the year, and the only other person in the water was a retired Royal Navy diver, and he was in a wet suit – the wimp!
A decaying old mooring jetty between Rosia and Camp Bays, one of the few remaining monuments to the “old Gibraltar”…
Concrete picnic tables at Camp Bay, looking remarkably like an Anthony Gormley sculpture (only better, for being accidental), with the busy Straights in the background…
For those craving authentic Spanish beach cuisine, but too lazy to traipse across the border into neighbouring La Linea, Gibraltar is now blessed with a handful of genuine frieduras and chiringuitos, such as Cabana on Camp Bay. The only difference from La Linea, is that here your waitress or waiter is as likely to have a Scouse accent as an Andalusian lilt, but never fear! The fried boquerones (whitebait) and the grilled calamares are every bit as delicious as along the coast…
Meanwhile, just a short stroll away in the old town, one is suddenly in a different world, that feels something like a cross between Hampstead (in London) and Valetta, with a touch of Toulouse, depending upon the light, the weather and the time of day. The one place it doesn’t feel anything like, despite being filled with Spanish workers and tourists, is southern Spain!
The old centre of Gibraltar has been blessed with fine English buildings since the Georgian period, but again, it’s only in the past two decades or so that both its government and its people have restored these architectural gems to their former glory. This house is an excellent example of what I mean, and with it’s Decimus Burton-style balconies and iron work, it has a fabulously classy colonial look…
And I could not end this piece without a couple of views of Gibraltar’s most famous feature. This one, taken early on a chilly late Spring morning, with a high sea mist clinging on to the Rock like grasping fingers…
And finally of course, a slightly unusual shot (from Western Beach) of what is arguably the most famous sphynx-like profile in the world (except of course for that of the Sphynx itself).

COME FLY WITH ME?

in my dreams at least

With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.

One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.

However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.

Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…

BATHERS AT KINNERET – 1982 – oil on canvas: As mentioned before on these pages, the Sea of Galilee has proved a fertile source of inspiration for my art, over many years. This typical Shabbat scene, of three generations is hugely evocative for me. I’m particularly pleased with the way I captured the large bulk of the grandmother, deftly negotiating the stones, while carrying her grandchild with almost nonchalant aplomb.
HOTELS, SAND, SEA AND SKY (Tel Aviv) – 1992 – oil (impasto) on canvas: Tel Aviv is an addiction for me. I crave to be there when away, and yet the place drives me half-nuts when I’m there; partly through sensory overload and partly through it’s 24/7 urban intensity – like New York City, on steroids. It’s of no surprise to those familiar with Israel’s second city, that National Geographic regularly lists it in its top 10 “beach cities” of the world. This is the closest I ever got to revealing its brutal-yet-beautiful physicality in paint. One can almost feel the hot summer breeze, and taste of salt in the turbulent air – and as for the light…
OUTSIDE THE ALCAZAR (Seville) – 1985 – oil on canvas: “I fell in love with Seville” is one of those traveller’s clichés, like “I love Paris” (which I do not), or “I love Rio” (which I need to visit again to be certain). But in my case, this is the truth, partly, perhaps because I also experienced romantic love in Seville; twice. Generally, I’m not one for painting anything through rose tinted spectacles, but in the case of Seville, it’s virtually impossible not to. Perhaps that’s why I’ve sold every single painting I ever made of the place. People just love a bit of rose, and bit of ochre, and touch of sienna, and certainly a great deal of violet…
JOLANDA AT GARDA – 1983 – oil on canvas: If anywhere in the world can compete with Seville for romance, then the Italian lakes is that place. But, whereas the feel of Seville is defined by strong colours, bright light and deep shade, the Italian lakes are bathed in subtle, seasonally shifting tonalities. If Seville is all about the passion, than Lake Garda, seen here in mid-winter, is all mellow contemplation. Love takes many forms, after all.
DIDO AT COQUIMBO (Chile) – 1992 – oil on canvas: Sadly, this photo is slightly out of focus, but the painting remains the one I was most pleased with from our time in Chile. The region of Coquimbo (in common with much of the southern Atacama Desert) had just experienced its heaviest rains for over 40 years, resulting in the greatest cactus flowering most Chileans had ever witnessed. I’ve rarely felt more privileged as a traveller, before or since, and together with the Sinai Corral Reef remains the most wonderous display of nature I have ever seen.
DIDO AND LYNNE AT TONGOY1992 – oil on canvas: Back in 1991, when we were there, Tongoy was somewhere between a sleepy fishing village, and an even sleepier seaside resort. It felt a bit like entering a scene from a Steinbeck novel, and I half expected to see the skeleton of a giant marlin lying on the pearly white sands. It was off season, and we (and the fishermen too of course) had the place to ourselves. A precious and serene memory.

SYDNEY OR MELBOURNE?

LOCAL / NATIONAL RIVALRIES between urban giants

Cities that enjoy unrivalled pre-eminence within their countries are rare and especially in many of the lands of the newer worlds. As a native of London – a city which similarly to Paris and France, enjoys sole national supremacy – this phenomenon has always interested me. While this development seems natural in geographically enormous countries like Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), China (Beijing and Shanghai) and the USA (New York City and Los Angeles) it is also true of smaller nations, such as New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Rome and Milan).*

City rivalries develop for a whole host of reasons, including geography, internal competing nationalisms, politics, local nationalisms, commerce and of course, history. Occasionally these rivalries can blow up into full blown rows, and given sufficient regional identity, even war. Often, newer countries with two or more “competing” cities have avoided potential trouble by creating distinct administrative/political national capital cities – such as Brasilia, in the case of Brazil (cf Rio versus Sao Paulo); or by elevating a non rival city to the same position – such as Canberra in the case of Australia (cf Melbourne versus Sydney). Even in newer countries with relatively long-established capitals, such as Washington DC (USA) Durban (South Africa), and Ottawa (Canada), these cities rarely evolve into their respective nations commercial or cultural urban powerhouses.

Presented below are my thoughts on three famous urban rivalries I am familiar with…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is melbourne-v-sydney.jpg
MELBOURNE AND SYDNEY – I seem to recollect the late, great Clive James once describing Sydney as appearing like a fabulous jewel neckless from the air (or words to that effect), and while there’s no doubting that Australia’s largest city wins hands down in the beauty stakes, I have enjoyed my visits to its great rival, (and nearly as large) Melbourne far more. Apart from its truly iconic architecture and geography, Sydney seems parochial and dull compared to its cosmopolitan and vibrant Victorian neighbour. Not only is Melbourne the beating heart of the Aussie arts and culture scene (with all due apologies to the Sydney Opera House), it’s also the sporting capital; not just of Australia, but of the entire southern hemisphere; and not to mention, a gourmet’s paradise – I mean, where else in the world (including Greece) can one find a truly great Greek restaurant?!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is toronto-v-montreal.jpg
TORONTO AND MONTREAL – With the risk of this beginning to seem like an exercise in contrary-ism, I often find myself not liking the cities I’m “supposed” to like, while preferring their less hyped rivals. In truth, this might have more to do with the fact that I have always had a conditioned reflex against hype of all kinds, in all walks of life. Thus, I guess that I was always going to be one of those oddballs who much preferred Toronto over Montreal. In fairness, and unlike with Melbourne and Sydney, there isn’t much to distinguish the two Canadian giants vis-à-vis appearances – although even the most die-hard Montreal lovers would probably own that Toronto’s lake-front profile gives it the edge in looks. No, it wasn’t the appearance of Toronto that got under my skin so much as, like Melbourne, it has that almost tangible zing of a happening, swinging town, in stark contrast to Montreal’s overwhelming atmosphere of stale lethargy. Moreover (and this also resembled the Aussie cities), whereas Toronto felt confident and assured, Montreal felt arrogant and complacent.

TEL AVIV AND JERUSALEM – Of the six example cities discussed here, I know these two the best. Having lived in Israel on two occasions and having spent months of my life in both towns, not only do I understand their “todays”, I also have a first-hand knowledge, going back half-a-century of how they got there. For all sorts of obvious, geo-political, geo-religious and geo-cultural reasons (far too complex and difficult to enter into here) Jerusalem is not so much a city, as an agglomeration of fractious urban communities, crammed uncomfortably into a relatively small area. For all its stunning beauty, this has been Jerusalem’s problem for the best part of the past 2000 years, and doesn’t look like resolving anytime soon. Everything about Tel Aviv however, exists in the starkest of all contrasts. While Jerusalem could be as much as four-thousand years old, Tel Aviv is barely one hundred! Whereas Jerusalem is defined by religion and cultural conservatism, Tel Aviv is aggressively secular and culturally progressive (in the good, true sense of the term!). While Jerusalem is aesthetically exquisite, Tel Aviv is an urban dichotomy of 20th century ramshackle and dusty, and 21st century jagged and shiny. The two cities could not be more different, and reveal the two faces of Israel. Which face the visitor prefers will depend much upon their own peculiar political and religious sensibilities. As for me, these days, in beautiful Jerusalem I feel disconcerted, saddened and alienated, while in ugly Tel Aviv, I feel energised and optimistic, and very much at home.

*Apologies to residents and fans of cities like Chicago and Vancouver, who could justifiably argue that in North American terms at least, I have overlooked these towns equally valid competing statures to those named – perhaps in the interest of preserving my hypothesis. However, while there can be no doubting either city’s cultural and commercial importance and influence, in a broad metropolitan sense, not to mention for sheer industrial and commercial might, they are dwarfed by the cities mentioned.

NO SAD HILL, SADLY

WHAT WE DID NoT SEE AT SANTO DOMINGO DE SILOS

Normally, my travel themed posts concentrate on things we’ve done and seen. However, while I was preparing this short piece on our two stays in Santo Domingo de Silos I discovered that what is arguably its most interesting feature – and certainly its most famous tourist attraction – is something I never knew was there!

Briefly, Santo Domingo de Silos is a small town (more of a large village in actual fact) near the ancient royal city of Burgos in the north of Spain. Until 1968 it was most-known for its ancient Benedictine monastery (which closed its doors in 1835) and for possibly being within the estates of one Rodrigo de Vivar – otherwise known as Charlton Heston…I mean El Cid!

All this changed however in 1968 when the local cemetery, known as Sad Hill (Cementerio de Sad Hill in Spanish, apparently?) was used as the location for the final scene of the movie, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The combination of Sergio Leone’s super-terse direction; Enrico Morricone’s slow-build-tension music; the three actors involved (Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef); and the surreal cemetery itself created one of the most memorable – not to mention imitated and parodied scenes in the history of cinema.

Until this morning, I had always assumed that the scene was filmed somewhere in the Almeria region, like the vast majority of Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” location shots. I’d also assumed, given its unusual configuration, that the cemetery was an outdoor set created for the film. Never did it occur to me that it was an actual place, and one that I’d been a mere five minute walk from on two occasions.

Unfortunately, my past obliviousness means that the pictures illustrating this post, of the picturesque town and its other environs, do not include any of Sad Hill Cemetery. Fortunately though, we plan to pass through the area again in the near future, and although our main reason for doing so had been to sample the delicious local roast lamb, we now have Sad Hill firmly on the agenda.

UNEXPECTED TERPSICHORE…

…and how two ice cream ladies ended up being PORTRAYED on the wall of the chilean embassy in london…

During our 1991 visit to Chile we took a day-trip from Santiago to Valparaiso, to have a look at the National Congress building, but mainly to try and get a feel for one of the great ports of the Americas. In the event, the building was nothing to write home about – an unresolved confusion of brutalist classicism – and the port area was more plain sleaze than the Hemingway sleaze I’d been hoping for. Sadly, we lacked the time to explore more of what was once described as “the Jewel of the Pacific”.

Although blurry, this photo inspired not only the oil painting below, but later an entire series of my most abstract attempts at capturing human movement…

However, as often happens when travelling, memorable moments occur when least expected, and from surprising sources. In this case for example, it occurred buying ice creams in a gelateira by the bus station, when my wife Dido and our companion Lynne got into conversation with the two ladies running the shop, about Chile’s national folk dance; the Cueca.

This spontaneous display perfectly captured a trait of understated assuredness that we often encountered in Chile – a trait for which the Cueca is the perfect expression…

How or why what happened next, I can’t quite recall, as the two women, in the sweetest and most obliging of gestures suddenly broke into song and started performing the dance. Fortunately I had my camera to hand and was able to get a visual – if slightly unfocused – record of the impromptu outbreak of traditional Terpsichore. Happenstance often resulted in my camera being my sketchbook, and this turned out to be a prime example as I found the fuzzy photos more than adequate reference for a later work back in my studio.

…a trait I endeavoured to capture in this,* and at least two more versions of the painting, La Cueca. The version here was included in an exhibition I had the following year at the Embassy of Chile in London, and which was subsequently purchased for the embassy. I often wondered what the two ladies would have thought if they knew?

* This was one of the first times I used black ground on a canvas (I’d often used the technique in commercial work), and I found it a dramatic contrast to the broad, bright impasto gestures knifed on top. The painting was about five-foot (about 152 cm) square.

THREE DAYS IN DUBLIN (or mental ramblings from a bar stool) – Day 3

SOUP AND SANDWICHES

By the final day of his visit to Dublin Simon had become aware of the lunchtime omnipresence of “soup and sandwiches” on offer throughout the city.

Soup; Hot, thick, cream-of-whatever, mostly from cans, served in ubiquitous, small, deep bowls made of chunky catering porcelain, like large handle-less coffee mugs. And sandwiches; sliced white slices (as often as not), separated by processed cheese squares and a little salty butter (as often as not). This was of particular interest, bearing in mind the ever-growing profusion of exotic eating establishments in the city, including everything from Mexican cantinas and sushi bars to Michelin approved temples of “modern Irish” cuisine. And not to mention the overflowing platters of traditional meat, veg’ and spuds available at every pub and bar. Yet, in spite of this, by far the most popular lunchtime fayre was soup and sandwiches.

            So it was, on this third day when Simon opted for a bowl of soup, only to be asked by the barman if he would “be having a sandwich to go with it” that he finally realised that this austere combination of glutinous liquid and chalky dough was in fact, a national dish, on a par with Dublin Coddle, Irish Stew and Guinness and oysters.

            Like some latter-day sacrament for the wayward Irish. A subliminal jog to their collective guilt for their drifting inexorably away from their Mother Church. Amidst all the wealth and opulence of modern Dublin, lurking behind stacks of Texas ribs and Thai prawns was the frugal bowl and the modest plate. The blood and flesh of Christ at large – an omnipresent reprimand to sophisticates and a daily rebuke to trendies.

            However, it was all for nought, as the process of drift had started at the very same moment of the Church’s inception on Irish soil, since when it had begun its epic yet ultimately doomed battle. To be sure, Saint Patrick’s anchor had sunk deep into the ancient fibre of the land, but this had merely delayed the drift and increased the pain as its hooks grappled hopelessly against the constant inexorable shift of the sands.

            There could be little doubt thought Simon. He could see it on the pale, wind-swept faces of the young Irish girls incongruously bearing Gucci handbags. He could see it too in the ruddy cheeks of young Irishmen projecting awkwardly from their Dior suits. He could sense the awakening phoenix behind the sad and fiery eyes of a people for whom the Cross had formerly represented the only ladder from which to ascend from the bog of despair – but who now, with a tenacity borne from centuries of interminable struggle and hardship were reclaiming their pre-Christian birth-right of Celtic gold.

            As he sat at the bar that fresh sunny afternoon, Simon had this thought; That the day might not be so far off for Irish men and women, when soup would be simply soup, and bread would be bread, and by which time nobody would want to eat it anyway – and Ireland would at last be replete and content.

Adam Green, Dublin, 2004

“THERE IS ANOTHER SKY…” *

With the festive season well underway (Hanukkah is already over) and the year wrapping up, we now find ourselves dashing madly between Jönköping, London, Oxford and finally Malaga. All of which means that once again I have only a little time for writing these posts.

Normal service will be resumed in the new year, but for now and the following post, my pictures will have to do most of the talking for themselves. In this case, here is a collection of amazing skies I have been fortunate to find myself beneath from time to time, both at home and on our travels…

*Emily Dickinson

Altocumulus floccus – Antofagasta – Chile

Pisa – Italy

Altocumulus lenticularis duplicatus  at sunset – Axarquia – Spain
Winter Sky – Canillas de Aceituno – Spain
Lorne Pier – Victoria – Australia

Winter Sky – Netanya – Israel
Sun Break – Southern Ghaats  – India

Altocumulus stratiformis translucidus undulatus – Atacama – Chile
The Golden Hour – Netanya – Israel

The Sea and Hills of Galilee from the Golan Heights – Israel

Water Spout about to Hit the Shore – Netanya – Israel