Saturday, March 13, 2010

An awful lot of talking (for me, probably not for some).

Another airport, another chance to sit down & update these musings. This time it is Madrid Baribas Airport & I am at the end of ten days in Spain. Due to a slight adjustment in my sleeping hours towards what seems to be the Spanish norm & a very intense week I am having a little trouble remembering exactly all that I have done & seen in my brief time here. I do remember that for my first three days (spent in Madrid) the weather was pretty average (by London standards, bad by Madrid standards) - cloud, light rain & cold. First impressions were of the Metro from the airport in to the city - & those impressions have lasted; the Madrid metro has all the good things about it that the metro in Paris has (quick, on time, regular trains, clear & easy to understand maps & signage), but it is also much cleaner & newer & with far fewer beggars. In the central city my hostel was easy to find and about average. I think Thursday afternoon & evening were spent walking around the central city & getting orientated - which is very easy to do & I found plenty of parks, small side streets & hills to keep me interested. Like most old European cities, the streets are mostly small & twisty - but with some quite wide arterial routes that help one from getting at all lost. I made the mistake of bringing a very good book with me (thanks a lot Neil) - the second in the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson, where one of the main characters is the most unlikely hero (if you like a good thriller/crime novel with a decent plot, I would do well to recommend these books - that's for you Dad), so when I got sick of walking around in the gloom it didn't take much to persuade me to go back to the hostel & read. Madrid of course likes to party, so my few nights at the hostel did not exactly provide me with sound sleep to prepare me for the exhausting week at Vaughan Town.

Back to Madrid, Friday was spent at various galleries & museums. The most famous of which are the Museo Nacional de Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum & the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. The Prado was a great collection of art & is a much more manageable size than the Louvre - a lot of Goya, Raphael, Bosch, Titian & pieces from other Spanish & European artists. My favourite of the three was the Thyssen - the landscapes (my favourite - I get a little sick of endless religious art - Rest on the road to Eygpt, & so on - & portraits of people that I know nothing about) there were fantastic & it wasn't as crowded as the Prado. I'm still a complete ignoramus when it comes to modern art, so there was little to interest me in the Sofia. My antipathy towards modern art was well reflected by one of the first rooms I went in to in the Sofia - a long room painted in white that had a few slabs of steel of various lengths standing on their long edges. How a room that looks like the guys in the caster have got a little keen with the slab cutter & then done a little extra scarfing can be construed as art is completely beyond me. Steel can be used to great effect in architecture, but slabs are hardly interesting enough to look at as art. Even Picasso's Guernica was disappointing - needless to say was the highlight of the Sofia for me was the viewing point of the city from the third or fourth floor. Also that day was a rail museum which were interesting enough considering there was very little translation in to English & my Spanish can generously be described as poor.

A bit of lie in on Saturday, conceding that my book was much better than the weather, before heading to the Palacio Real de Madrid (the royal palace of Madrid). Thanks to my Madrid Card (which is not nearly the great value that the London, New York & Paris Passes have proved to be) I was able to skip the ever-growing queue to get in. Another typical impressive palace, but thankfully not nearly as extravagant or large as Versailles - but pretty fancy all the same. I also spent a bit of time wandering around some of the many parks & green areas in Madrid, which were very nice considering the drizzle. That night was a small tapas evening at a bar for the English-speaking volunteers to meet each other before the week of a lot of talking, something I was unsure I was up to but willing to give it a go. It was a little strange to speaking only English in Madrid, but nice to meet people with accents from all over the world. The night continued for a few of us in various other bars & I was back in the hostel late for me, but early by Spanish standards & the curse of "I know I have to get up early to meet some form of transport & so now I can't sleep" struck & I had very little sleep before dragging myself out of bed & off to meet the coach & most of the rest of the other Anglos I would be spending the week with - one bonus of being kept awake was the conclusion of my book, I'm looking forward to starting the third one & the movie of the first installment that is just being released in English. A pleasant drive through the Spanish countryside for three hours south-west(ish) & we were almost in Portugal before we stopped at the hotel in the National Park that would be our home for the week.

Most of the Spaniards at this particular course work in the hospitality industry & quite a few of them work for the same chain of government owned hotels & know each others; even so I imagine there were quite a few nerves of their part as the program kicked off with introductions from all participants & a basic outline of how the week would work. The whole idea of the program is to improve the English conversation of the Spaniards & get them used to hearing different accents (of which we had quite a few - different parts of England, Glaswegian, Aberdeen, Irish, American, French & my Kiwi one - thankfully, a lot of the more difficult accents for the Spaniards to understand [including mine] had been softened somewhat by travel). We must have had about twenty one-to-one sessions during the week, each of the three meals of the day were at tables of two Anglos & two Spaniards, a few group activities of the team building type & the socialising were all of course in English - it was quite intense for the native English speakers, & was clearly exhausting for the Spaniards who had to think almost every time they said or heard anything. I was surprised that I managed to talk so much, even if I often found myself repeating similar stories to numerous people. Of course, working & growing up in NZ were common subjects (which started to make me a little homesick after the third or fourth time) as well as my trips to Kenya & Canada and also what I was planning on doing in Britain. For me, it was a great way to meet some local people (rather than just being a tourist the whole time), understand the country & culture, & get to know some great people.

Perhaps the most surreal part of the week was during the evening meeting (a chance to perform a song, skit, tell a story or so on) on Monday night when two different groups of people got up & performed Argument Clinic and the Four Yorkshiremen skits made famous by Monty Python. I was slightly annoyed I missed the opportunity to participate in those - the saddest thing would have been that I could have probably done so without a script. These sketches led in to a long discussion at dinner with one of the Spaniards about Python & how well it translates in to Spanish, our favourite movies & lines - that was one conversation I would never had thought I would have! After a couple of grey days, the sun came out for the rest of the week on Tuesday & many of my one-to-ones were spent walking in to the small village close by, or the opposite direction down the road, to escape the confines of the hotel & ward off cabin fever. We were lucky to be able to do so - apparently the other group were in a much smaller hotel & had a lot of snow & were stuck indoors for most of the week - it may have driven me mad. Bird watching, gypsy jump, castle... bridge. It turned out that just down the road from the hotel was one of the best places in Europe & the world to see various species of birds - vultures, eagles, storks & many others. During another one-to-one, Ricardo drove me down to the Gypsy Jump (the name - from a local legend - given to the two large rocks standing tall either side of a narrow gap in the Rio Tajo - the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula) to spot the vultures - with the aid of some binoculars & Enriques' powerful monocular we could easily see many vultures flying around & nesting on the rocks; we were also lucky to spot a couple of the less-frequently seen black storks. Another outing was to the small castle (a keep really) on the top of the rocks above the Gypsy Jump that was built by Arabian goodness knows when - the panorama from here was spectacular & it wasn't all that cold.
On Friday it time for goodbyes & the bus back to Madrid. After a week of way too much food & too little sleep it was nice to get back to Madrid. But of course there was that common drawback of traveling & meeting so many wonderful & interesting people - every silver lining having a cloud & all that - you go your separate ways with no guarantees of crossing paths again, but what happens there remains to be seen. Six of us English speakers found a much quieter hostel than the one I had been in the week before & after a movie for some of us, I was in bed at the comparatively early hour of one o'clock to have the best sleep I had had for some time. Up to see brilliant sunshine, pack up & on the Metro to have brunch with a distant cousin I had never met - our great-grandmothers were sisters, that makes us third cousins (I think). A very pleasant two hours meeting Christine & her roommate & once again eating well too much (not to mention three cups of tea - Christine is British after all) before heading to the airport...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Back to the gloom - but now we see the sun.

The London weather has turned over a new leaf for March - the last two days have heralded brilliant sunshine & something bordering on warmth. Apart from that, the last two and a half weeks since returning from Canada have been pretty gloomy & wet. Not that that has mattered too much as I've been staying up much too late watching the Winter Olympics - fantastic & quite addictive viewing Consequently, I haven't taken a single photo since my return & may have some trouble remembering what I've been up to. Nice to catch up with NZ cousin Chris for his birthday the day after my return - & good to see the expecting couple Sasha & Blair, who are planning their return to NZ in a couple of months.

I haven't been quite the tourist around London that I was when the weather was more conducive. Nonetheless, I've managed to finish off looking around the National Gallery - unfortunately mostly during the very busy period of half-term. I particularly enjoyed the English landscape work of Constable, Turner & so on. While the National Portrait Gallery is a lot smaller, I enjoyed looking around there yesterday - will be back some time to finish - I liked to see the pictures of various scientists from the 1800s, especially Faraday & Lord Kelvin.

A couple of days last week I had to head in to the city briefly & it was definitely museum weather. The first time I went to the Hunterian Museum (Royal College of Surgeons) before heading out to catch up with the Patricks. The museum is roughly a third of what it was before it got hit during the Blitz and is what remains of John Hunter's collection of all sorts of anatomical specimens from humans & animals - from the days of surgery with public viewing, a shortage of corpses for scientific study, & grave-robbers supplying the demand for bodies. It was much larger than I was expecting & the history of the medical profession was fascinating; I'm sure all the displays would have been even more interesting if I was medically trained. The best part however was the rather extensive display of surgical instruments (some quite disturbing of course) & the history of the surgical instrument making trade. This was of interest to me as it was in this trade that my grandfather apprenticed in for seven years from 1939 & then worked in. It was great to see quite a few (ten to a dozen) instruments made by the company he trained & worked in (Down Brothers) during the period in which he was there - even if he didn't make the exact instruments I saw, I'm sure he must have made some ones that were identical to those on display.

Opposite the Hunterian Museum, across Lincoln's Inn Field is another fantastic free museum. The Sir John Soane Museum was left to the nation by Soane on the condition that it be free for everyone to enter & it be left in the state in which it was when he died. Soane was one of Britain's greatest architects (his work on the Bank of England) may be his most well known, even if little of it except the imposing outer walls survives after expansion in the 1920s & '30s. The museum is based on his three adjoining houses - Number 12, 13 & 14 & is filled with his vast collection of paintings, architectural drawings, sculptures & ancient artefacts. Soane was famous for his use & exploitation of natural light in a time when there was no electric or gas lighting in buildings. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 'The Picture Room', a reasonably small room in which there are over a hundred paintings (& not all that small ones at that) ingeniously hung on the front & back of large hinged false walls. The two series of Hogarths in there are quite something; there are also numerous pictures of Soane's designs & buildings. Outside of The Picture Room two Canalettos of Venice are pretty neat, as is the sarcophagus of the Egyptian King Seti I (died 1290 BC) that Soane bought after the British Museum refused to pay £2000 for it. The Bank of England museum was only a couple of tube stops away & with spare time, I very happily whiled away a couple of hours learning about the history of the bank, the British currency & currency in general. As one would expect there is a bit of loose change of various ages lying around - also some ingots of gold, one of which you can pick up ever slightly (the case it is in is somewhat restrictive).

Saturday last I was down in Farnborough staying & riding with a MTB mate - Andy. It turned out to be the largest group ride I've ever been on - almost thirty people (& one dog, not on a bike) I think. Naturally, it had been raining for quite a few days before so the forest (mostly in & around MOD) land was pretty wet & muddy - just as well the sand drains reasonably well, or else it would have been even worse! We all met at nine o'clock (the earliest I had been up & out of the house in a couple of weeks) near the Basingstoke Canal - after general flaffing around & waiting for a straggler we were out riding just after half past. Thankfully the ride was a pretty easy pace, mostly due to the size of the group I think, & there were no real hills - this was good as it was my first MTB ride for the year & it was really wet (but not cold). There were some nice bits of singletrack & as always, I was pleased to be back on the bike. It was a little odd riding near a military firing range - there were some pretty decent booms not all that far away from where we were. Returning back to Andy's place we were of course soaked & needing to clean bikes & ourselves (with the final bike clean this morning I've found I am in need of a new pair of rear brake pads - I'm sure they weren't that old). After sorting myself out & watching Italy beat Scotland in the Six Nations, it was a pretty short drive up the M3 & M25 to the Patricks where I was babysitting for the night.

Yesterday was the first of the cracking days of sunshine, so Walking London came off the book shelf & I tried to find a walk that I hadn't done yet in the central city (didn't want to head too far out as the ground is still pretty soggy). Found I hadn't done the Covent Garden walk yet, so that was a pleasant stroll. Not too much I hadn't seen before - a lot of theatres of course, & the houses of all sorts of literary figure & the rather fancy Savoy.

That's about all the news - apart from the half-hearted start to the job-hunt; it's a bit of a trade off between finding a job I could do & starting to earn some pounds or waiting for a job that I like the look of & might be a bit more challenging. And I'm going to Madrid on Thursday for ten days - that all happened very quickly. For half the time I'm volunteering at some English language internment - where basically you sit & speak English to Spanish people who are learning the language. I don't know too much about Madrid, but it looks pretty neat, so it should be a good week & a bit.