Barry Napier

5 POSTS

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It was our third trip to Malta – said to be the hottest part of the Med – and the first few days sent us variable weather, just like a UK Spring. After that, we got the sun and heat we both wanted and on went my shorts! I walked out with tanned arms and face complemented by white legs.

First trip we used the famed old Malta buses – they rattled and groaned and broke your back but were great fun. Windows were held in with sticky tape, seats bounced around because they weren’t fixed to anything, and there were holes in the floor! By our next visit in 2004, sadly, most of the old buses were upgraded and much of the fun had gone.

The next trip we hired a car – or at least that’s what they called it: a Maruti, which I had never heard of before, a kind of box half the size of a Mini that rattled and squeaked just like the ‘buses. I’m not too sure, but I think the handbrake worked…

On our first trip to Malta we saw why most tourists use the buses – there were maybe only half a dozen proper roads. The rest of the roads, as we discovered in very rough and noisy rides, were simply millions of holes joined together by little bits of tarmac or compacted soil!! We were tossed up and down and sideways amidst terrific noise, as dusty fourtrack jeeps, pre-war farmers’ trucks, and horses and traps, hurtled towards us on our side of the road! But, it was hilarious and highly enjoyable.

Almost every home has an icon on its walls near the front door, ranging from a flat plaque to full-size standing figures, many behind glass, with ‘burning’ electric candles. The figures covered a religious spectrum, from Mary to Christ on the cross to complex tableaux. In main towns such as Valletta and Mdina large religious figures stand raised on corners of buildings overlooking the streets. Full-size lit statues can also be found on remote rough roads set in farm walls and buildings.
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In the Cathedral at Victoria, capital of Malta’s sister-island, Gozo, the décor is amazing. The building has about a dozen full-size tableaux of Christ, Mary, etc., complete with Roman soldiers. The colours are brilliant, and the reason people are ‘hooked’ by all the splendour is easy to see. One interesting figure of Mary has a silver dagger thrust into her chest to depict the grief of a mother who has lost a child.
Even the buses have small figurines, many in glass cases near the driver, which usually decorate the cab bus with religious depictions and texts. Some carry slogans like ‘Jesus loves me’ or ‘Jesus saves’. But, they didn’t stop drivers aiming their buses like missiles down roads designed to crush the limbs and spines of all with brittle bone disease! And driving around roundabouts was, well, life-threatening to say the least. Maybe that’s why locals cross themselves when they get off the bus – probably thankful they reach their destination alive!
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Usually I attempt to try out a few words of a local language, but I couldn’t make head or tail of Maltese, which did not have a written form until the 1900’s. The language is Semitic and sounds more like Arabic than the usual Mediterranean tongues. So, on this trip I stuck to English, remembering a visit to Spain when I ordered 4 kilos of nuts in my ‘made-up’ Spanish, instead of the quarter pound I thought I had asked for!
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For our entire holiday, folk were driving around every part of the island in long convoys in everything from battered trucks to cut-up cars with no insides except for a driver’s seat. They waved huge flags, some national and the rest EU (European Union), and played music loud enough to wake the dead! After a week we found out it was coming up to major elections and one party would take Malta into the EU. Unfortunately, the EU party won and the people were ecstatic about it…they will soon discover what membership really means!

We made a bit of an error the day after the election and decided to drive into Valetta after the evening meal in our hotel at Buggiba in the northeast. A nice stroll around the massive fortified walls next to the magnificent harbour would be relaxing. Oh boy!! We discovered our mistake too late. As we turned the bend of the hill leading up to central Valletta, we joined nose-to-tail traffic and nothing moving.
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Both inward and outward main roads were jammed with every conceivable type of vehicle, all hooting their horns, playing loud music, and blasting hand-held gas-powered bull-horns. Flags were waved from every vehicle and building and people yelled jubilantly. Police just strolled between vehicles, having a smoke and waving back with jolly banter! The atmosphere was electric with fervour and good-natured celebration.

We sat and sat until it got dark as the whole island excitedly celebrated the outcome of the election. Slowly, police siphoned vehicles the wrong way around a huge roundabout near the city’s main bus station, but we were in the wrong lane and had to continue at a snail’s pace sandwiched between rumbling fourtracks made ten times bigger by jumbo-size wheels.

Eventually, remembering my youthful days driving in manic London, I forced my way across a stream of three lanes of traffic, aiming to get off the streets occupied by the most zany folk I had ever been deafened by. Because we were hemmed in by huge trucks, I didn’t know where we were until we rounded another bend. At last I saw we were near the wonderful Lascari War Rooms (the WW2 base used by U.S. and British leaders) set 300 feet under the absolutely awesome solid rock that is the foundation for the harbour fortifications.
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I drove to the uncluttered road in front of St Elmo’s Fort and parked the car. The sounds of jubilation were fainter here. We decided to just stroll around until the parades died down. Hm!! We walked to central Valetta and were met in every street by thousands of joyous, friendly people; flag-waving crowds with a deafening cacophony of sound! But, unlike in the UK, here we felt safe, even amongst crowds in the dark, which is a tribute to the Maltese people. Getting nowhere, we walked back again through a maze of narrow back streets, taking some (many!) wrong turnings until we finally found the car again.

With few lights or signs to guide us, we just drove to…no idea…but we eventually suddenly found ourselves alongside the most brightly lit, tall hotel, one we had never seen on previous visits. As we drove past we looked up and realised it was an enormous ocean cruise ship!! So, at least we knew we were under the huge city fortifications, skirting the docks and moving west!

We continued on and took turnings away from the city centre to avoid the crowds. Trouble was, we also avoided any semblance of direction, going in circles, then zig-zags, in and out of the Three Cities opposite Valletta and eventually ending up near Luqa airport in the extreme south! Ah well…I turned around and headed for what I hoped was the coast road back north to Buggiba (we stayed on the edge of town, in St Paul’s Bay, where Paul was shipwrecked). We eventually made it, thanks to the law of averages rather than to my skill as a navigator.
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The car was a boon, because we could go wherever we wished. Our eyes were fed by beautiful azure seas whose brilliant, sparkling colours included deep to light blue, greens and blacks. We could gaze to the bottom, it was so clear.

After taking the ferry to Gozo for the second time, and visiting the delightful capital city, Victoria, Diane and I headed for the coast and hiked around a short headland, brilliant white in the sun, to see a cave we spotted from the hill-top, close to salt-pans. I struggled onward manfully and when I looked back I thought “How unusual, Diane’s paddling in the sea!” I asked if she’d enjoyed it, and she grumbled and mumbled…one of those times a husband knows he has said something he shouldn’t have. It turned out she had slipped sideways down the rock and cut her feet in the rocky pool! Coincidentally, I had watched another (male) tourist do the same thing by the cave, moments before. I made suitable sympathetic sounds and then kept my mouth shut!!

On we noisily hurtled in our Maruti… In spring and summer, most of Malta is dusty and rocky, with roads that would make Tibetan mountain passes seem smooth and docile. The country areas, though contained on a small island, are ‘remote’ in the sense they are reached only by roads that are nothing more than dirt tracks with large holes.

Yet, even in the most remote parts, you suddenly come across these amazingly ornate large religious figures with burning candles, emblems of the overwhelming influence of Roman Catholicism. They are at the sides of roads, attached to houses, in the middle of fields with nothing else around. Many are set atop crumbling stone walls. There are cathedral-size churches in every town and village, built and funded by the locals in competition against other villages, and dwarfing surrounding houses. Convents are dotted around the island, in ordinary streets and houses. Churches display huge crosses, lit by fairy lights.

Apart from one or two larger towns, there are no shopping centres, or shopping malls and big stores. Shops are found almost by accident, down alleyways, in rooms of houses. Lots of fruit and vegetables are sold from barrows at the roadside, even in towns. Most of the subsistence farmers will go out of business by voting to join the EU. They don’t know it yet. They could only see the possibility of getting grants for joining but have yet to learn what it truly means – rising taxes which lower incomes and thus push up prices of goods, stifling laws and loss of sovereignty. I must admit to meddling by writing a letter pointing this out to a Malta newspaper. But when the votes were counted the pro-EU folk were ecstatic.
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It is likely Malta will generally come out okay, but I guarantee holidays in Malta will become far more expensive once membership is finalised and they start to use the ‘Euro’ currency (they still use their own Lire, sometimes called ‘pounds’). Yet another nice place in the sun will come under the control of faceless Brussels.
So, get there now, before the pseudo-sophistication that comes with big money starts to reshape Malta. Then, maybe, your lasting impression, like mine, will be of a quaint community with all the charm of a rustic hideaway with all the safety of pre-war England.

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We were to go to Dublin in February 2006. My eldest son (`BJ’) and his wife, Jo, are rugby football fanatics and wanted to see the international game between Wales and Ireland. We have not had many times together, so I pushed the cost bit (Dublin is expensive) to the back of my mind and looked forward to a family get-together. I was accompanied by my wife, Diane, and my youngest son, Iain.

What happened? The day before we were due to travel, Jo discovered her passport was out of date! So BJ and Jo didn’t go, and the reason for our very expensive short break suddenly evaporated. Everything was already paid for, so there was no point in cancelling – I was also using the visit to write a few travel articles! We used a budget airline, Ryanair, and those who book-in early can have `priority’ stamped on their boarding cards, and get on first. We reached Dublin in less than an hour and I went to find the car rental desk. Got the car and we were away. Well, almost.
First, I had to find a way to get out of the car parking area…I drove around many times looking for the way out. There was just a single barrier, but the arm was down and there was no slot in the machine to put my car ticket into. Eh? Eventually, an airport worker saw me going round in circles and said “The barrier is automatic – just drive up to it and it will open.” So I did and we were out at last.

The drive into Dublin was easy, almost one straight road, but it was during that drive I discovered a big negative about Dublin – traffic! It was fast and continuous. Dublin has pedestrian crossings, but I’ve never seen such slow changes. Waiting to cross roads must have taken two days off our visit time. We got to the correct road, Parkgate Street, and looked for the Ashling Hotel. According to the map, Parkgate Street was literally less than a quarter of a mile long, but could we find the hotel? Nope! I drove up and drove down, then repeated it, time and again. We did that for over an hour. So, I drove back to the start point and sat looking at map, hotel directions sheet, and buildings. Okay, then, I’ll drive down the main street (Parkgate) toward the centre of the city.

As we drove Diane said “There it is!” and I quickly turned left as other vehicles screeched around me. Left again and we were in front of the hotel – not in Parkgate Street, but in Benburb Street! Was this one of those famed Irish moments? The hotel gave the name of the main road closest to its location…hm. A little further down was another Irish moment – a sign on a gate that said “If you enter, you will be on premises.” Okay.
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After signing-in we went for a quick walk. In true explorer style I said “I think the centre is this way”. After all, the hotel literature tells us the centre is “only a 15 minute walk away”. An hour later, and we were still on the edge of town, and the weather was clear but very cold. I was looking for the famed Temple Bar and, without doubt, the map shows it as a single street fronting the River Liffey, which runs through Dublin, giving it a north and south side. Could I find it? Nope.
Next day I discovered the map had its own Irish moment, because Temple Bar was behind the riverside and was a small area, rather than a single street! Oh well. Anyway, we were hungry and we crossed back over the river and found the small Jervis Shopping Centre. In we went, cold. We walked around for a few minutes (it really is small) and found a fast-food floor on top. That will do! I ordered croissants and coffee. The person serving was Eastern European and I didn’t quite understand his English. We came to a sort-of understanding as to what he was actually saying and I handed over some Euros to pay. He asked for another fifty cents, and I handed him a fifty coin. “No good” he said. I had given him a UK fifty pence coin that had found its way into the Euros. He huffed, and I just ignored him, giving him a large denomination Euro note instead. Dublin is an odd place in many ways. I expected it to be closer to British than foreign, but it was unlike other places I had been to. Can’t really explain why. And, almost every other accent I heard was east European, Russian!
We had an evening meal later in the bar of the hotel – the restaurant was expensive. Average food costs in Dublin run from about 6 Euros (sandwiches) to beyond 30 Euros. That’s about $7 or £4, to $35 and £20. Most places, however, charged very much more. There are hundreds of eateries, mainly crammed into in and around the main tourist areas of Temple Bar, Grafton Street and O’Connell Street (north of the river). You can certainly get into the well-known eateries like Bewleys, so long as you are willing to wait for ages. Bewleys is very interesting – a take-away on the left, a sea-food section on the right (with dishes from 25 Euros) and an `ordinary’ section at the back with less expensive meals. The same wait was experienced everywhere so we tended to go for very small, reasonably-priced cafes just off the main streets.

Second day I thought we would drive through Dublin to the docks, to find a particular restaurant, ready for the evening. I reversed the car out of the parking space in the hotel and prepared to turn down the ramp to get out…and…scrape, scrape! Yes, I had driven over an absurdly placed low kerb sticking out from the corner, gouging the skirt of the car. Great! That’s an extra cost to the holiday. We started to drive through the city and found the docks, but nothing else. The drive was frenzied and anxious, such was the traffic. Forget this! No restaurant and no place to stop…back to the hotel and park (carefully). The whole journey took about an hour, over a distance of no more than about 4 miles. If you visit Dublin, don’t attempt to drive in the city! In Ireland they drive on the same side as us in the UK, on the left – but even I found it hair-raising. A cheap modern tram system runs all around the centre, so try using it. It is safer and more convenient and you can get on and off anywhere along the route.
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Park the car and out again. This time we stuck to the riverside road and finally reached Halfpenny Bridge. At one time you had to pay a toll of half a penny, hence its name. Across the road and through the archway and we finally found Temple Bar. It’s only a small area, and the best features are the very colourfully painted pubs.
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From there we went to Grafton Street, an older shopping street, and then into a larger grander shopping mall (it would fit into a corner of an American one), with ornate ironwork. It took up the corner of Nassau Street and Grafton Street. Outside was an Irish drum player, sitting on the plinth of a bronze statue of Molly Malone.

We came out of the mall and tried to make our way back toward Temple Bar. Oh, I forgot to say – we were in the middle of a full-scale riot. Republicans rampaged from O’Connell Street, north of the river, up the hill through Temple Bar and into Nassau Street. We turned up Nassau Street to be stopped by a wall of riot Gardi (police). It was absolutely freezing.
Next day, Sunday, I relented and took the car out of storage – we would drive north of the city, up the coast and then west. We went through small towns with nothing of real tourist interest, and found ourselves in the port town of Drogheda. It was very cold and nothing seemed to grab us enough to get us out of the car, so we drove on into the countryside. My impression of that part of Ireland is distinctly indistinct. The countryside was uneventful for miles and miles. So we turned back again to head back for Dublin and only on the outskirts did we find two small towns of interest – but it was now late in the day, so we went to the hotel.
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Monday. Iain and I go to find the Guinness Storehouse, a five-storey museum. As we walk we realise the enormous size of the brewery site. It is massive. The museum is big and noisy, but in a nice way. It costs 14 Euros entrance for adults. What makes it worth a visit is the social and economic history it contains. On the very top of the building is a round glass fronted room with a bar. There you get a free pint of Guinness (or soft drink) and a view of Dublin which, it must be said, is not spectacular. You can also see the same view from Chief O’Neil’s Chimney Tower on the other side of the river (costs 4 Euro).
Back again to the hotel – Diane didn’t want to visit the brewery – and we got in covered by snow. On the way back out again, the sky was clear. We all went back to Temple Bar, this time for an unhurried and non-riotous visit. Tuesday, we looked for the `Viking Experience’, advertised on leaflets and in guides. But guess what? We searched and searched, and couldn’t find it anywhere. We went back to the Tourist Information Centre, and yes, the leaflet definitely called it the `Viking experience’. We found the street it was supposedly on and, you’ve guessed it – another Irish moment! Oh, okay, I said, we’ll go to the museum called `Dublinia’ instead; we could see it the other side of the cathedral. Over we went and…the `Viking Experience’ is not a separate attraction on a separate site – it is inside the Dublinia museum! And on a totally different street!
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It cost us 6 Euro to get in and I was disappointed. What we saw did not live up to its leaflet description. I expected a mock-up Viking village, but what we got was a standard museum presentation mainly on posters. Overall, I do not rate it, but its use is in the information about early Dublin. T hat last evening we threw caution to the wind and ate in the hotel restaurant. Cost us about 30 Euro each. We left for the airport in plenty of time. As I parked the car and the rental guy looked it over, I was expecting a big bill for the damage to the skirt, and to pay for fuel…but he said nothing and we were away! We again had `priority’ boarding cards, the flight was shorter, and we got through baggage reclamation quickly, so all was well.
My total impression of Dublin? I had always wanted to go there, but the actuality was not as good as the hype. It is more busy than `lively’. The traffic was horrendous, and there is very little to see apart from in the very centre – O’Connell Street, Temple Bar and Grafton Street. Loved the colourful pubs, though. I think the way to approach Dublin, especially if you are travelling a long way to get there, is to try and discover the history, from Viking times onward. It was a bleak and dreary place until recently. Maybe sun would enhance a visit – but you would struggle to find much by way of tourist spots in the city itself.

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My wife, Diane, and I have got just two days to explore central Berlin. After leaving our Hotel, the Relexa in Anhalterstrasse, we quickly find the only remaining stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall, alongside the original old cobbled street. Behind the wall is the `Exhibition of Terror’ containing photos of people shot trying to get over the Wall. It mixes strangely with modern life, but it is something essential, if grim, to retain. Just past this is the famed Checkpoint Charlie, complete with pretend guards and guns. Reminding us that life goes on, regardless of a murky past, is a quirky shop selling East German military and polizei caps, and uniforms, at a very reasonable price!
Returning to the main thoroughfare leading to Berlin central (`Mitte’), we reach Potsdamer Platz. We are amazed by the breathtaking modern architecture of the three huge business towers, whose angles and materials give them an almost surreal look. As if to soften this tough financial image, brightly coloured tents litter their base, selling hot-dogs, beer and crafts. Between the Platz and the Brandenburg Gate appears a large plot of land that is at first perplexing. It contains hundreds of grey stone blocks, all different heights and widths, with a maze of pathways between. Then we find a poignant plaque set in the pavement – this was a monument to the Jews killed by the Nazis, built over what used to be Hitler’s bunker. Diane didn’t want to walk the pathways, saying it would be too upsetting, so we carry on, returning our minds to happier themes.
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Not far away is the Brandenburg Gate itself (`Brandenburger Tor’) where, as I read the blurb on a poster, an old lady saunters up to me and flashes the front page of a dubious magazine from under her coat. Its cover has a picture of a clothed man and a woman in a compromising position. The old woman asks me something in German. Shrugging, I just say `Britischer’. She says `oh’ impassively and saunters off again. I am unsure what exactly she is doing, but it seems furtive and possibly illegal! Under the archways and we stand in the square, looking up at the golden statues on top of the Gate. At the other end of the square is an amazing, full-size, photographic copy of the whole Gate, on a plastic sheet covering a building site – a brand new metro station.

The imposing Reichstag is just down the road from the Gate toward the river Spree – though, at first, I confuse the back for the front. Its parking area is filled with the most expensive looking police cars I have ever seen, all top model Mercedes and BMWs, some with darkened back windows and curtains. We stroll down to the riverside and find three small white crosses, with photos of people shot by the East Berlin guards for attempting to swim to freedom. Then, we go around the real front of the Reichstag and come across the huge expanse of ground made famous in films of Hitler’s rallies. The concrete has been replaced by grass, but the view is still imprinted on the minds of the whole world, a chilling reminder of unchecked dictatorial power.
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In the centre of the Reichstag (now used by the German parliament) is a big glass dome, open to the public and offering a great view of Berlin. But, the public happens to form a very long queue, so we skip that, hoping to get in tomorrow. Back at the Brandenburg Gate, we have been out just over 3 hours and our bellies tell us it is time for a snack. We enter an expensive-looking restaurant, where a waitress speaks in German. Again I say `Britischer’, trying to shrug amiably, and she replies in German. In English, I ask for a snack. She responds in German and hands me a different menu… also in German. I say we want something light. Trying to describe `light’ with my hands doesn’t work. She goes away. A second waitress comes over and asks, in broken-English, “You like a croissant with bacon and cheese?” I give up and meekly reply `yes’. I’d written down some useful phrases, but the sheet is still in a bag at the hotel! After this we make a quick exit and take a closer look at the Gate.

Leading from Brandenburg square is the Unter den Linden, a wide, tree-lined road with several lanes. It allows the grand statues and buildings space to breathe and show themselves off, which they do, admirably. As I look in a shop window, a youngish but dowdy man approaches me. He, too, furtively opens his raincoat and flashes the same magazine shown to me by the old woman, muttering in German. `Britischer’ I reply. So, he disappears, too. Have I got a `furtive’ magnet attached to my head? Just past Museum Square with its fine church and contemporary arts building, over the bridge, we have a close-up view of the tall communist-built Fernsehturm tower (television tower, with restaurant), that can be seen from almost anywhere in Berlin. We wanted to go up to the top, but, where’s the entrance? No idea! We’ll return tomorrow.
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Heading back to the Gate, we come across a very impressive car sales building and are blown away by a gleaming new Bhugatti, a beast of a sports road car. Then, we notice a lower floor containing antiques.We go down to see what’s on offer, wearing our trekking jackets and rucksacks, looking like fish out of water…Salesmen in pin-striped suits and dickie-bows hover everywhere, and a German TV crew takes close-ups of very small jewellery, costing hundreds of thousands.

When I visit a new place we usually take in the location of the main attractions on the first day or two. Then, we return to visit sites already ear-marked. This time? Inexplicably, we decide to go west to the Charlottenburg area, thinking it would be a great place to buy gifts for Christmas. What a mistake!
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So, today, Tuesday, we start out in high spirits, and reach the edge of the massive Tiergarten, filled with grass and trees. It used to be a hunting park for royalty. The trees have that wonderful autumnal mixture of browns and reds. Cyclists speed past, some singing to themselves. Groundsmen clear fallen leaves and one is flirting with an attractive female jogger. It is, well, a happy place, and we enjoy the walk immensely.We keep going, and going…and going. Finally, we reach the wide Strasse des 17. June. Eastward we can just see the Brandenberg Gate. Westward, we see a gigantic gold statue atop a monolithic, extremely tall, plinth, the Seigessaule (triumphal column). Until 1938 it stood in front of the Reichstag. It is reached via underground tunnels and there’s a great view of the park from the top.
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With one eye on amiable but maniacal cyclists, we plod on, enjoying the lovely blue skies and slightly warm temperature, thinking of the presents we’ll buy. On the outskirts of Charlottenburg, we walk past a huge Mercedes showroom, filled with every model you could think of, displaying prices proving the British are paying well over the odds for their imports!Eventually, we reach the university and sit down. The shopping area remains elusive, so I make an executive decision to give up! We’ll return to Berlin centre instead, using the west-bound Strasse des 17. June.

Like an oasis in a desert of extra-wide martial boulevards, we see a secret bakery tucked away underneath the railway station just past the university. I try my old trick again: shrug, look helpless, and say: “Britischer”. Also shrugging, the shop assistant replied: “I don’t care”. So, I choose what looks edible. Two of those…and… two of those.

At the western end of the Tiergarten we find a park bench. By this time our feet have been worn away to stumps and bending to sit hurts my back. But we’ve got food (we think) and the day is wonderful. As we start to devour a puffy pastry appley thingy, a man in dungarees, pushing a leaf blower, blows leaves everywhere, mainly on us. But, we sit resolutely munching our rations. Who cares – it’s almost romantic!

We finish off the sticky `something’ filled with currants, cinnamon, wash it down with mineral water, and carry on, enjoying the lovely day and people-watching. We pass an older man, trying to fix his bike, his rucksacks and bags piled against a fence. He lets out an angry, exasperated yell. I don’t offer to help because by now I can’t bend down! And, anyway, all I can say is `Britischer’.

We reach the Siegessaule again, and marvel at suicidal Japanese tourists trying to dodge the extremely busy four-lane traffic to reach the statue. I like statues, too, but not enough to get squashed for. Maybe they don’t like tunnels. On we travel with aching feet to the Reichstag. We note, and studiously obey, the graphic signs telling us there is a ban on sun bathing, lighting fires, and barbeques under trees. The queue to get into the building is still long! By now it is getting darker, so we again return, giftless, to the hotel.

Later, in the hotel restaurant, we are served by the best waiter I have ever come across, in any country. Özgür Üzmen, is a personable young man, knowledgeable about wine and food, flamboyant and welcoming, chatty and very friendly. He wishes to make us feel at home…which he does, wonderfully. For three evenings he has gone out of his way to give us a special table. On our days out, we only spent 15 Euros between us, but at dinner I made the mistake of asking Özgur for a `good’ wine. It turned out to be 60 Euros (72 US Dollars, or 41 English pounds) a bottle!
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Berlin seems to contain a large number of exhibits and buildings devoted to two of its most horrific eras – the Jewish holocaust and its brief affair with communism. The magnitude of these times cannot simply be forgotten. Yet, today, Berlin is a happy and prosperous place. Its architecture is superb and its spirit is big! Its past does not detract from its position as a great tourist venue.

Though it has the usual expensive restaurants, food is generally cheap enough, and many exhibits are free. Next time, I will have to master use of the `bus and train services, but we enjoy walking anyway, especially as Berlin is `walkable’. Maybe next time we’ll visit just before Christmas: German festive fairs are legendary. Our two days in Berlin didn’t quite go to plan; our return flight was turned back twice and the `plane was changed! But what the heck – we loved it and will just have to go back again to see all the bits we missed.

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British tourists have no problem with the lingo in foreign lands – if the locals don’t understand your English you just say it again, but louder. The trouble is, the foreigners don’t understand this rule of linguistics, though it has been a simple method used for centuries.

 

My very first trip abroad was with my wife, brother, and his wife, in the early 1970’s. We did one of those swift three-day things to Paris. On that trip I became a seasoned traveller. Follow my example to the letter and you, too, will join the elité.

 
The Laughing Policeman
We reached Gare du Nord railway station without hassle and, because of my utter lack of foreign language skills, I was chosen to ask a policeman for directions. Half a dozen of them stood outside the railway police station and the one I spoke to was quite jolly and amiable. He had one of those pencil-thin moustaches, so he had to be real. Showing him the address, I asked in perfect English, “Can you tell me where this is, please?”
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He didn’t understand me in his perfect French, so I repeated my query, this time more slowly, again in English. With many smiles, arm movements, and conferring with colleagues, he promptly launched into a kind of machine-gun French. I listened intently – at least that was the look on my face – for about ten whole minutes and kept nodding or saying ‘Aha’. He pulled me toward a wall map, waving his hands over it. Maybe he wasn’t so sure I was so sure, which I wasn’t. Finally, with arms akimbo, he seemed to indicate (?) he’d finished. His face beamed, so I said ‘merci’ and strolled away again. I was none the wiser, but advised everyone to ‘go this way’ after spying a metro sign on the wall. They hadn’t seen it, though!

 
The Scornful Street-Trader
When we reached the metro station nearest our hotel, we got out into a cobbled square flanked by tall old houses and shops, full of character.

 

I made the mistake of trying to ask a local the way again. This time I showed my crumpled bit of paper to a kindly, elderly, man with a fruit barrow. He listened and called over to his friend selling newspapers on the other side of the square. The last bit was “Ha, ha…Anglaise!” as he pointed to his head a few times.

 

He said something else as well, which probably meant, “Lovely chap – just can’t speak our language.” Then he did something with his fingers, but not sure what.
Suitcase-laden, bedraggled and hungry, we walked up a side street, stopping outside what seemed to be a closed butcher’s shop. Maybe we would come across the hotel by accident. Or maybe there was another maybe.
Reluctantly, I approached a pedestrian, waiting for another insult or smirk. He was a lovely gent in a beret. With broken English and many arm and hand movements, I think he said we were actually very close. I discovered I had the same penchant for not understanding foreign arm movements as I did for not understanding speech. So we ambled this way and that, pretending to be ever so interested in shuttered shop windows.

 

Then, by magic, the street name appeared. The hotel was like buildings you see in the films, up an alleyway. We were on the very top floor, reached by a long, winding staircase, with old wrought-iron handrails and no carpet. The walls and stairs were painted in ancient gloss, lit by a timer-bulb that went out after a minute or so.

We were at the very end of the top floor, with one toilet in the passage-way. It had a window overlooking a cast-iron stench pipe. Our rooms were original, small and very old, with a tiny, dangerously loose balcony. We saw buildings with crumbling tall chimneys and patched, odd-angled slate roofs, to match the crumbling walls. As the sun went down the sight was wonderful. Well, the tops of the roofs were. And everything inside our rooms remained rickety, even the stale air.

 
The Foot-Bath That Was’t
I decided to wash and change and saw two rough cubicles with curtains. One contained a ten-thousand year old ceramic basin. In the other, I washed my feet in the peculiar bowl with a spout sticking up. My more-travelled brother later told me it was a bidet, gently explaining how it worked and what it did. I preferred my own version.

 

Later, we strolled down quaint narrow streets, enjoying the old-world charm of the buildings, trying to avoid twisting our ankles on the cobbles in the dim light.
Then, torrential rain made it all so, well, wet! We reached a street with cafés as the black sky suddenly chucked its entire contents over us, and a bit more meant for Austria. We were soaked in seconds! There was nothing for it – we dived into a corner café and found ourselves in one of those local places only locals eat in.
The signs were French, the talk was French, and the good-natured owner ushered us toward a table in French. We thanked him in English and asked for a menu. To my amazement that was in French, too. Don’t the French realise the British don’t talk foreign? Speaking loudly just wouldn’t work here! The locals gazed impassively at us and chuckled in French.

 
Cold White Soup
I looked at the menu, completely mystified. Finally, with the confidence of a British tourist, I pointed to a menu line… Yes, I’d have a bowl of that steaming-hot soup and crusty bread. A few French minutes later I was mystified by the extra-large bowl of cold white stuff and bowl of sugar, handed to us by our genial host.
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It was kind of smooth with soft bits. It wasn’t ice-cream, so what was it? It was sour! My brother, slightly more international than I because he’d been to Spain for a week, offered an explanation – it was natural yoghurt. I’d never seen yoghurt before. Put some sugar on it, he advised. So that’s what it was for! I left the ordering of coffee to my brother and didn’t ask for anything else to eat.
The rest of the holiday consisted of walking very fast everywhere (because we couldn’t decipher the metro signs) until our feet nearly fell off. But we covered a vast area and many sites. We loved it. Just a pity the French speak French.

 
Red Faced – Twice!
Then came the top of the Eiffel Tower, where I needed to spend a penny. Actually, it turned out to be five centimes, paid to a middle-aged lady wearing a pinafore, who sat knitting something yellow just inside what I thought was the men’s toilet. My brother chuckled and stayed outside. With horror I saw a raised platform behind a glass panel. There were urinals open to full view of the passive-knitter. She didn’t take a blind bit of notice of my blushing face, and I was too desperate to leave again!

 

Then, as I did what gentlemen do, I glanced nervously behind me to make sure she wasn’t looking my way. And almost died when I saw women walking past into the cubicles to our rear! My brother stood in the doorway enjoying the look on my face, and the girls fell about laughing uncontrollably.

 

Rough justice intervened, though; my wife and sister-in-law suffered the fate of all laughing females…they had to pay their centimes and rush to the cubicles, trying not to notice the men! Serves ‘em right!

 

It didn’t end there…later that same day, alongside the river, I again had to use a toilet (I think it was the fizzy drink) but none was found. Finally, as I began to feel more than uncomfortable, my brother pointed to a strange looking edifice in the middle of the pavement. It was a round iron-work fence-thing without a roof and something like a naughty word scrawled in chalk on the outside. ‘Go in there’ he said confidently. What for? I asked naively. It’s a toilet, he said. I was confused. Impatiently, he told me to just go in and trust him.

 

I found an opening (no door) and walked in. As if in a maze, I walked timidly around the narrow spiral walkway and reached a central short row of urinals and that was that, or so I thought. My relief, and water stream, stopped abruptly when I heard the click-click of women’s high heels outside, passing. Only on my way out again did I realise the iron ‘fence’ was full of large holes and anyone passing could see inside!

 

That day I almost died twice of sheer embarrassment, and my jolly relatives enjoyed every minute of it. But at least I was now an assured, seasoned traveller.

0 803

EasyJet Flight 4565 from Berlin, leaving at 2.30pm, 10th November, 2005, began as any other…
As favoured Class A passengers, my wife and I swaggered aboard the great iron bird ready to choose our seats. Wanting extra leg-room we sat next to the emergency doors over the wing.

 

The usual gesticulations and chat were effortlessly, performed by the bubbly cabin crew and we soared away into the bright blue yonder, unaware of the soon-to-unfold drama in the skies. When the stewardess asked me to read the emergency instructions for opening the wing doors, I quipped “Shall I practice?” Pretending not to have heard the joke a million times before, she smiled and bantered with me, probably hoping I would just shut up.

 

About 20 minutes into the flight, over northern Germany, a curious white panel suddenly lit up next to my head. On it was the ominous legend: ‘Slide Armed’. Taking that to mean something awkward, I couldn’t help wondering if the door was properly shut, or if it was about to be ripped open by the pressure, sucking everyone out to their doom. The senior stewardess walked calmly to the flight cabin to speak to the pilot, who was, I think, in the staff sauna at the time.

 

As the crew decided who would jump out first, I planned what to do when the door ripped off. It was now up to me to save the whole ‘plane, at least until it hit the ground at devastating total-annihilation speed. I decided that when the call came and the door flew away to clobber a productive Bavarian cow below, I would push my legs hard against the seat in front, or maybe stick them to the side, so that they jammed tight. No doubt this would break my legs, but what is pain to a hero? At the same time I would press backward into the seat I was sitting on. Then I would keep my back to the opening, making sure my body prevented anyone from being sucked out to their inevitable and probably yucky demise.

 

Obviously, some would be dragged toward the opening, but they would be stopped by my selfless sacrifice.
Of course, because of the freezing atmosphere outside, my whole back would be racked with agonising frost-bite, requiring an operation to remove one half of me when I got back home. But, that’s the price I had to pay. This was all worked out by the time the warning siren started to blast in my ear. The higher the ‘plane climbed, the louder was the siren. In the end the pilot had to get out of the sauna and decided to go back to Berlin. I just sat stoically, the unsung almost-hero, waiting to do his bit.

 

Back in Berlin, the engineers got on and nonchalantly pushed their hands around the edges of the door to see if anything was stuck, and fiddled with a few technical pieces. One engineer found that when he pressed the inside plastic edging into place the light went off. Fixed! He told the pilot who, by this time, had transferred into a fluffy white bath towel, hair still wet but manly.

 

We were off again into the now darker blue yonder. But, life is full of surprises…
Back in my seat, I started to read my book…only to glimpse, out of the corner of my right eye…yes, the white light telling me the slide was armed (again)! I imagined that if the sign could easily be lit and the slide could be armed without provocation, then the door could just as easily get ripped open and finally hit a productive Bavarian cow on the head in a distant Black Forest field.

 

The stewardess went to see the pilot, who was, by this time (I think), in his shorts under the fast-tan machine. The crew were called to the front for an emergency panic, but decided to stay calm for the sake of all those non-heroes who thought it might be best to scream and run amok just because of imminent death. What made matters worse was the crew had not yet brought along the wagons with snacks, gifts and drinks! Eventually, the pilot announced we were to return, for the second time, to Berlin. Surely a first in aviation history – twice in one day, on the same ‘plane! My wife and I were advised to sit at the back, “just in case”, so I told the cabin crew my brave plan to save everyone. I was clapped on the back and the lady sitting opposite wanted to buy me a drink for my bravery. They recognised my qualities.

 

We got back to Berlin again and had to leave the aircraft. We’d get another ‘plane, we were told. We all trooped off in chaotic formation and returned to Departures 65 to await our fate. Then along came another EasyJet ‘plane (or the same one after being scrubbed), to be refuelled and restocked with food. Meanwhile, we all had to identify our own baggage on the tarmac, which was then put onto the new (or scrubbed) ‘plane. It was now dark and raining.

 

Eventually, we were allowed back on the ‘plane and sat in the same seat, next to the emergency wing doors. When the time for bravery came, I wanted to be the one with half my body removed from its frostbite, sure in the knowledge that I had saved the deserving, the not so deserving, and maybe some who would never be on my Christmas list. As a reward for taking part in the record-breaking return of the same ‘plane not just once, but twice, we all had a free drink. I requested lobster and champagne, but was gracefully refused.

 

As the single (small) drink flowed, everyone was happy, apart from the crew, who now had to deliver drinks they would not normally have given. But, the whole ‘plane was in a great mood and we arrived back home in one piece. I never had the chance to prove myself as a genuine, one-of-a-kind hero, and I never had to lose half my body to frostbite. But, the EasyJet crew all proved their mettle, their homeliness and their professionalism. As we all left the aircraft, I smiled the smile of an unsung hero and said to the senior stewardess, in a kind of heroic drawl (which I thought was attractive), “Y’know, tonight we became kinda ‘family’”

 

She clasped me around the waist, and I returned the gesture, as we briefly kissed each other’s cheeks, whimsically. The pilot came out and added a quip of his own, but no kiss. We waved to each other as I left my near-moment of fame.
That night, the crew and I were magnificent, and are now bound together as one family, by a single moment in history, when lives (almost) hung in the balance on board Flight 4565.