Friday, June 11, 2010

Funny things happen travelling

Funny things happen travelling
Torrey Orton, Barcelona, Spain
June 11, 2010

Travel isn't always illuminating or diverting, but it seldom has none of these. This trip is no different, though I pay more attention to capturing illuminations than I used to. My pocket note pad is gathering stuff at an alarming rate. I'm about to start investing in those bound "moleskin" ones which will make them collectible. Ah, the pretences.

Anyway, travel to foreign parts is even more likely to have diversions, with occasional illuminations in train, and some of these follow. I call them "funny things" because they are variously strange, surprising, laughable, shockingly unexpected, pathetic….I mean no item to add to the evidence base for those who consider foreign ways impenetrably dopey, immoral, etc. They are presented in the order of their occurrence. For example,

A gluggy tale In the loo of the flat we shared in Cauterets, France (which I recommend to walkers and skiers, the flat that is) there was a well-fitted 20 cm. wide hand basin of recent design and even more recent installation, meeting health expectations, etc. It had a little towel rack next to it and a bar of soap was provided. The thing was this – the bar kept sliding into the bowl and lodging over the drain. It did because the inbuilt soap space (whaddya call such a thing?) was slightly inclined towards the bowl from left to right to allow the residual water to run off the and the bar to retain its barness rather than descending into glug, the prime enemy of happy relationships…. However, the design was ever so slightly off…the wet soap slid relentlessly, as reported above…and we all tried hard to make it stay in its allotted spot and no one could so; we always found the bar slowly descending as said towards the bottom of the basin…a good idea gone wrong or just a bargain purchase failure?

A nice touch to being in a town long enough to go to the croissant shop several mornings in a row is having had the good chance to find the best local one the first time around (confirmed by trying both of the other offerings by chance). On the third morning the management volunteered that they would be closed (as normal, but not advertised because everyone knows when core sustenance providers are open and closed in the neighbourhood in France) and that I could find the desired articles around the corner. An unexpected virtue of having enough French to seem I know what I'm doing.

And a thing that happened on the way to another scenery in the Pyrenees: we drove up the perilously poised Col de Tourmalet passing a small pack of uniformed cyclists halfway, surrounded by a small but diligent filming crew front and back. We made it by with some help from the crew and pushed on towards the top with growing apprehension about the distance from the road edge to the bottom of the ski slope (1000 metres). On arrival, in a temperature of about 5C we savoured the ride and pondered the quick follow up of the cyclists, met by more filmers and shortly thereafter by more cyclists coming from the other direction, more filmers, and a general conflagration of made-my-day joy from one of our foursome! Her joy was Contadorian – as he emerged out of the second arriving group and she got a chance to attach herself to the media scrum for a few minutes. Note that we had NO idea such an event was occurring that day, so the lions of chance were at work for us – chance that we did not fall over the edge and that we did arrive just as the cyclists did; and the rest is family history for her, whose eldest daughter is a cyclist of some standing herself in triathlons and both are serious Tour de France followers just warming up for the annual round shortly which was part of the rationale for the Col visit in the first place! Mum's a fair performer on the wheels herself!

While I'm on bathroom stuff, there was the hotel of the Mercure brand in Toulouse where we spent a couple of nights in support of the Millau Viaduc visit ( a 200+ Ks drive away). A wonder of cleanly modernity including both loo and bidet all packed nicely into a good space with normally restrictive shower for lads of my proportions (but then I wonder about really big guys whose heads could hardly be got under the rose). The loo however had been designed by true midgets so there was about 15 cm. between the bowl and the wall, into which space a doubler role dispenser of vital papers was also squeezed at a height about 30 cms above the bowl. You, too, can calculate already that this is a tight fit, even for less disproportionate types than myself. I've seen similar in China in earlier years where there had been no social history of private loos to instruct builders with appropriate proportioning of loo spaces. But in France, in the third largest city in an international hotel chain, in a very generous allinone bathroom space by five star standards in a three star hotel?? Weird funny. There was not that much funny in the utilisation struggle but some physical training effects were achieved over a few days.

We had passed thru Irun station on the way home to Paris from Torremolinos, Spain, in 1972 with a lasting impression of Franco's ever ready search for the enemy embodied in the coldest looking eyes we'd ever seen on a secret policeman searching each carriage for enemies of the state. On the way to San Sebastian, that impression, without the eyes, was recreated a few days ago in arriving at Irun around 10pm – a station of astonishing blankness, greyness and enclosedness. Only one way led out of the platform into a room with no directions and a couple of customs agents sort of manning an X-ray machine (turned off). A small crowd of arrivals gathered in the small hall, a few oriented towards the machine and all of us needing to get on the next train to Lisbon, from which a scad of other ends could be reached, amongst which ours of San Sebastian - next stop on the line! Having gotten on the train to Lisbon and travelled 15 minutes, we arrived in San Sebastian unannounced by anyone. If we had not known the first stop was San Sebastian we might still be trying to get back there from Lisbon now. A little consultation with other passengers confirmed what we knew must be true: this was San Sebastian. It was an introduction we could not recognise to a serious low grade glitch in directions in Spain. The glitch has stood up for five days in Bilbao, Bermeo, Bakio, Gernika, and eventually Barcelona. It appeared in trains, busses, undergrounds, funiculars, museums, shops in a plethora of forms with a constant threat of misleading, though never quite really getting us into trouble. We eventually began to develop a work around – basically, assuming that whatever directions there were would be faulty to some degree. Not an irritation after a bit just something funny, like user directions in IT applications and tools which never seem able to take a naive user's viewpoint.

While in Bakio, a seaside resortish spot principally for Spaniards I suspect, I had another kind of funny, the potentially highly embarrassing sort. After a lunch of disappointing ordinariness in a spot masquerading as the local eatery of choice, I sought out the loo. It was quite passable, as had been true in Cauterets and various other places. Especially, since it was in a cellar, it was well lighted. So I went in for serious business and a minute later all the lights went out. I had failed to notice that they were on automatic – they were a self-starting minuterie. Fortunately, I had scanned the service available and checked off against a notional required list before even setting to. Paper source was remembered, roughly, though not checked for fill level. Double fortunately, paper fill was good and access was manageable with some contortion of left shoulder, arm and hand. In brief, I escaped with all needs satisfied and no self-regards injured. But, what a joke on a supposedly knowledgeable traveller.

After visiting some new acquaintances in Gernika we moved towards parting, powered by their need to see their kids who had been in the care of a "kangaroo". It turns out that the local term for a baby-sitter is kangaroo. Strange. They said it had to do with the pouch. Skippy, what have you done? Their only previous exposure to things Oz is an artist friend - Bill Kelly - who's been involved for ten years in the memorialising of the 1937 Gernika bombings. I don't think he's even drawn a roo…but ?

While one of the above said roo users was showing us around Gernika, one stop in the rain included a last minute (the present Basque police officials in charge of the Basque parliament site were trying to close it down for the day) stop at the Tree of Basque. There at the edge of the fenced in ground was a 100 year old blue gum ( I think). The mountains of the Basque area are now half given to gum plantations for wood pulp, so the species is very common, just not huge examples. Our history follows us around, or more likely we are constantly awakened to the fact it is always there.

Walking down a main drag in Bilbao three days ago brought us in reach of a demo breaking up around midday. We had seen outliers of it in another part of town earlier in the morning, so the fact was not surprising. The stunner was not that they left a trail of promotional handouts behind them; it was the tune they were chanting: a Spanish version of "workers united will never be defeated" in the exact rhythm and tune we are so acquainted with. Not a few were carrying some red banners and the local news reported the next day that 150,000 marched in Barcelona the same day in protest over proposed reduction of public sector pay to cover GFC debts incurred by the usual suspects (hmm, that just slipped out naturally, 'the usual suspects', so it must be appropriate in this context!).

There seems to have been a strong loo theme here. When I first noticed it, I shied away from it in slight embarrassment. Then giving the fact some space to display itself I noticed that loos have three significant features: they offer little space to avoid what's present, they are concerned with core business and any variation from standard core business protocols stick out baldly. Variations in more everyday matters more easily escape notice until they coalesce into persistent deviations from expectations. Or, so I suppose.

So, a final funny. Somewhere in Toulouse I was in front of the smallest urinal I'd ever seen. While there are many wonders which can be elicited from such facts, the one I want to note is that it had a perfectly situated porcelain fly in it to assist aim – a really good idea if the container is slight and aim is known to be flagging.


1 comment:

  1. The fly in the urinal is an innovation claimed by the designers of Schiphol Airport in Amersterdam. ( It is frequently cited in the lean manufacturing world as an amusing example of what is called visual systems or visual signals. In lean manufacturing a process (in this case taking a leak) is in control if it is performed consistently without error and with a minimum of directions. Thus, the fly target that focuses the male mind holding the penis. The aim improves without the need for any verbal instructions or other guidance