Tag Archives: holiday

Inflection point

It was an eighties telly in a seventies wooden box – complete with shutters you could draw across the screen, like music hall curtains closing on Spandau Ballet. A boxy remote the size of Dagenham was optimistically labelled with the full range of digits, only three of which had purpose. The remote did have a red button: for turning off the TV. I pressed, and held, and a red light on the remote blinked furiously until an overlong timer fired and the TV switched off. Not standby: off. The power button on the TV popped out with an alarming clunk. The not-flat, not-square tube crackled with static.

“Lift.” Feet up for Mum’s hoover, a frantic round of pre-holiday housework.

I’d been parked in front of the TV for a couple of hours watching the special coverage of Columbia’s maiden flight, Live by Satellite from Cape Canaveral. But Young and Crippen wouldn’t be flying that day: the pocket-protected NASA techs were taking no chances. Even with the world watching, another few days of tests wouldn’t matter. The shuttle programme was several years late already.

By the time Columbia arced into the Florida sky, two days later, we were settled in to our cottage at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Fancy. Launch was at 7am EST, one hour behind us, and since that time on a Sunday was in those days purely a hypothetical concept I didn’t watch it live. I saw later replays on a snowy hotel portable, Barbados TV showing a feed from a US network. It was 12 April 1981, twenty years to the day from Gagarin’s flight, and three days before my twelfth birthday.

Later, I’m asked: “Do you want to go waterskiing?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t want to.” I’d been skiing on previous holidays and enjoyed it. Grab the handle, crouch in the water, let the skis pull you upright as the motor roars, lean back, bend the knees, relax the shoulders, smile for the instamatics. Push down a little with either foot to drift to one side, even over the wake into choppier waters. Keep going until your arms fall off.

This time, though, I didn’t want to ski. But I did want to. I just didn’t want to belly-flop forward when the speedboat surged, or to catch an edge while waving to the beach, or to lose my balance venturing out of the wake. I didn’t want to fail. Failure was not an option, I’d decided.

I watched from the boat and from the beach. “Your turn next Dave?” No. My bare heels dug deep in smooth Caribbean sand. I retreated into my head: to science fiction, or the notebook in which I scribbled snippets of rubbish eighties code.

But even though puberty was beginning to ensnare me, dragging me to surly adolescence from the cosy certainties of childhood, I was no vampiric, coal-impersonating minigoth. I sizzled gently in the April sun, and swam where the spiky, poisonous sea urchins had been cleared. I explored the coast a little with my brother and his friend Robert, here with his parents in a multi-family extravaganza. We played shuffleboard – essentially, man-sized shove ha’penny.

My family tried again to persuade me to go waterskiing. Again I refused. “I just don’t want to.” It had become a point of principle: the more they went on about it, the more I was determined not to do it, even if I secretly wanted to. I just didn’t want to enough.

At some point during the holiday, I don’t remember how or when, I became friends with a girl called Carrie. Or Kerry. Or something like that. She was about my age, maybe a year older, on holiday from Florida with her family. We, like, totally hung out.

By her last evening on the island, the now-twelve-year-old grown-up me was beginning to wonder whether this qualified as a bona fide holiday romance. Perhaps it was, I thought, but as far as romance was concerned I was still skiing resolutely within the wake. After dinner, just the two of us, on a beach cool and quiet bar the lazy Caribbean rhythm of gentle waves and broadcasting crickets, we lay on sun loungers under moonlight and talked about everything – nearly everything. It was getting late.

“So… can you stay out a bit longer?” she asked. It seemed an Important Question.

“Um…” A little downward pressure on one ski and I’d start to drift to the wake. Push left, go right. That’s all I’d need to do. Simple, easy. “Er, I’ll need to go and check.”

I caught an edge.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mum back at the cottage. “Time to stay in now.”

I somersaulted into the sea, skis cartwheeling off, handle skipping away in pursuit of the boat.

I don’t think I saw Carrie again. Or Kerry. Whatever.

On our last full day in Barbados, the constant nagging finally broke me. That’s not strictly true. “I tell you what,” said Robert’s dad, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you waterski.”

There’s a photo somewhere of my brother, me and Robert, skiing three abreast. Easy money. I fell over while peeling off to ski unpowered to the shore, but that’s life, I guess. I lost no time in collecting the cash.

That holiday was memorable for many reasons: for beginnings and endings, for decision and indecision. For an uncertain glimpse into a future not to be, from a present clinging to the past. And for one other thing.

On my twelfth birthday that Wednesday, I had a few presents to open. One was small, no bigger than a packet of cigarettes. It was a silver box with an LCD display, a volume wheel tucked along the short side, and a single small button on top. When you pressed the button the box spoke the time. “It’s nine forty-three AM.” And there was a stopwatch. “One minute, ten seconds elapsed.” And an alarm. “Attention please. It’s ten fifteen AM. Please hurry” – followed by a few bars of music. It seemed magical, impossibly small.

I still have it. It’s by my bed, as it has been for thirty years, now grumpily sharing space with my iPhone. It’s seen me through school, college and nearly two decades of work. I never sleep late enough for it to wake me these days; it’s a backup, chiming and talking at 8am, 8.05am, and 8.10am, reliably, reassuringly. Eighties technology in a tens world.

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Croatia

Ah, holidays. One minute you’re anticipating a week of sun and relaxation on the Dalmatian coast, the next a friend is screaming in agony after slipping on some wet steps and badly breaking her leg. Melanie has form, but twelve hours into the holiday is a new record.

For future reference, the Croatian for 999 is 94. Not that we knew that at the time. We soon learned that most of Split, the closest city, is a grimly post-communist forest of tower blocks with a cheap and efficient – and grey and understaffed – A&E. Happily they did a great job of straightening up Melanie’s zombie foot in a flight-ready cast, then turfed her out into our waiting people carrier for a hellish journey back to our villa in a Croatian monsoon.

Chris spent the rest of the evening speaking to insurance droids on hideously expensive phone calls. He thanked one American lady for her help, who replied, “Just doing my job, sir.” With a straight face Chris answered, “All the heroes say that.” Thankfully he hung up a few seconds later so that we could all burst out laughing.

Chris and Melanie flew home the following day. The rest of the holiday was significantly less eventful.

We had rain, and lots of it; we recreated scenes from Doctor Who; we ate identikit cheap food, in the main; we visited a national park and its stunning waterfall; we saw Roman ruins; and so on.

My photos (and the Doctor Who photos). See also photos from Louise, Chef and Lynda.

(Melanie, incidentally, had a couple of pins and a plate inserted in Addenbrookes and is now home, being attended to by nurse Chris.)

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The Gayaway

That was a… unique week. I was holidaying with gaychums John and Roger at the Barbados Apartments in Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria, an area described variously as Spanish Brighton or Disneyland for Gays (though Disneyland is pretty gay already if you ask me). I returned light of head, light of wallet and lobsterish of hue, with a blue-edged soul flecked with volcanic sand and the fag lag of New York time on the Gran Canaria clock.

Our days enjoyed noon-ish starts, late lunches, a couple of hours of gay beach, silent contemplation/internet, dinner at ten, partying until late/early, and bed. We never left the bars before 2am, and were dirty rotten stop-outs until 5am more than once. According to my extensive records this was the greatest number of consecutive late nights + drink + dancing I have yet experienced. And I enjoyed it. The novelty played a part I’m sure; the sun and heat too. Plus scenery of both landscape and portrait aspects.

The gay beach, to a first approximation, consisted of older, larger, leather-skinned Germans working on their all-overs, and younger, lightly bronzed gym residents with stomachs you could bounce 5ps on. Coming a distant third were the Persil-white Brits and Irish, embracing the empinkening with relish, beer and insufficient sunscreen. Poor John overdid it that first day and a shoulder blistered up. Memo: ice, not aftersun.

The fastest path to the gay beach crossed a stunning expanse of sand dunes. These have a capital-R-Reputation, of which we saw some evidence from a safe distance. A few weeks before the holiday I had a dream in which I said the words “meandering through the sand dunes of Sodom.” It made me wake up laughing. It also led our friend Ali to create a T-shirt for the holiday, which I’m ashamed to say I didn’t wear lest it be misconstrued. I might bring it out for special occasions.

The central gay area in Playa del Ingles is the Yumbo. Drab, sun-bleached tat-n-caff shopping centre by day, it transforms into gay bars, clubs and… other establishments after dark. A bizarre juxtaposition of trashy drag acts, presentably seedy leather-clad dancers, decidedly sleazy entrances into dens of unknown sordidness, and families with young kids wandering about at midnight. Funny lot these continentals.

We favoured La Leche, a light, open, breezy bar with milk-based decor, yer standard pop toons and the occasional live act. We also haunted clubs like Mykonos and Mantrix (less seedy than it sounds). We saw many of the same faces day after day wherever we went – a quintet of Dutch guys, including it seems the Milky Bar Kid himself, seemed to stalk our every move.

We didn’t dare visit Bunker, Gran Canaria’s self-proclaimed sleaziest establishment. The posters boasted/warned “anything goes”. I imagined a gruff Yorkshire-born manager running the place, slouched at the bar surrounded by gin and depravity with some form of jazz cigarette dangling limply from his lips, casting a lazy botoxed eye over the writhing dancers and occasionally crying out “Maureen! Maureen! Clean up in suckateria three!” to a long-suffering post-op assistant. There is, you might not like to know, a web site; it is unlikely to be safe for your workplace.

Our hotel was pleasant enough. Stamped gay-friendly on Thomson’s web site to ward off the loons, it was nevertheless virtually gay-empty on our holiday. A few twinks here, an ambiguous twosome there. Mostly Spanish families with holiday apartments decorated by blindfolded dustmen and Blue Peter competition winners and, oddly, a great number of straight Irish teenagers permanently on the cusp of being ejected by management for booze-related noisiness. One of them, in a conspiratorial whisper, asked me what I thought our swimming pool resembled. He agreed.

We found, to our surprise, a couple of decent restaurants. Not just resort-decent, but decent-decent. La Liguria just opposite our hotel was a fine Italian with freshly made pasta and other delights. Mundo, down the road, was oddly decorated but busy and equally excellent: when the waiter/proprietor recommends you don’t order something on the menu you know you’ll eat well.

I’m almost shocked to say I think I’ll return to the area again. A different time of year, though – gay high season, October to March – and it’d be fun to stay in an exclusively gay hotel if only for the lols. I might need a little recovery time first, though. And a flat stomach.

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Tuscany photos

I’ve finally uploaded all my photos from Tuscany. You can see them, plus those from Chris, Melanie and Andy, in a lovely little Flickr group. We’re still waiting for Chef’s photos.

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Towers and showers

Under grey skies we sped first thing to Pisa. There is after all a substantial dearth of photos of the work of 12th century cowboy builders, and especially of 21st century tourists pretending to prop up said shonky works as if they were the first to think of such an idea despite half a dozen others on either side in exactly the same pose.

I suggested that we four gentlemen in the party should arrange ourselves in a near-vertical for a photo we could christen the Leaning Tower of Geezers, but I was cruelly shunned. I’m sure it’s not an original idea but it was MY unoriginal idea, dammit, so intrinsically better than those propper-uppers.

It was to be a relatively short visit. We bypassed the infinite row of market stalls selling leaning limoncello bottles, ferchrissakes, and drove to Lucca for lunch.

Inside the still-imposing medieval wall protecting the old town we found a pretty piazza retaining the oval shape (and supposedly some original stone) of a Roman amphitheatre. We parked our collective behinds at a café. Beer, pasta, sunshine.

And then thunder. A darkening. A few heavy drops of rain. Folllowed by half the Med.

Safe under canvas we waited out the storm with another beer. It was thirty minutes or more before the rain relented; we started back to the car but got nowhere before the other half of the Med descended.

No escape. Well, Chris and Chef had bought umbrellas from an enterprising tat-seller and Andy had a waterproof jacket secreted about his person just in case, but Melanie and I had decided to risk it. It was a long, wet walk in an ever-increasing monsoon.

It was like those adverts where beautiful youths frolic in a rain shower. Identical in fact. Maybe a marginally lesser degree of frolic. And much, much more water.

And an hour in the car back to the villa. Nice.

Memo to self: beach holiday in spitting distance of food, drink and hotel next.

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Disco statues and Michaelangelo Harryhausen

Florence is a sprawling mess of a city. Generally scruffy and overcrowded, it seems to consist of a few priceless jewels and a surfeit of German tourists.

It’s kind of like London: a city city. Unlike Rome, which is a world heritage site masquerading as a capital city. Or Cambridge, which is technically a city but is in truth little more than a machine in the service of the university.

Around and about Florence today we saw: a pig-ugly railway station (we parked nearby); some gobsmacking but not exactly understated architecture (the duomo); a comedy bridge (the Pontevecchio); several dusty side streets (in search of food); and a piazza looking like Ray Harryhausen’s props cupboard, full of amazing statues.

One of these is a copy of Michaelangelo’s David (the original is in a gallery we had no time to visit). Apparently I’m named after the statue – the real one not the fake. I confess I can’t see any resemblance. I’m the better-looking, obviously, but maybe an inch or two shorter.

We also ticked off the Uffizi gallery: a job lot of paintings of Madonnas with brats (not from Africa) plus a few instantly familiar pieces such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (bird on clam shell). You could tell the famous ones easily enough: they were enveloped by tour groups like nesting bees and barely visible behind over-reflective protective glass. I don’t know why they don’t just put up photocopies, most people would be none the wiser. The Queen’s a photocopy, you know. The real Queen is made of porcelain and too fragile for daily use.

Also at the Uffizi, amusingly, a room of disco statues: a cross between the Doctor Who episode Blink and Saturday Night Fever. Photography was banned, so I took a couple. They may or may not be attached in some way to this post.

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Icebergs, dead ahead

Bracing, that’s the word. Bracing. No it isn’t. Arctic. That’s a better word. Arctic, with a hint of polar.

It’s our villa’s swimming pool. So tempting after an hour or two on the Tuscan griddle, yet icy enough to cause all manner of breaths and oofs and oaths and screeches once the water tickles above the knees.

The trick is to get in and keep getting in until there’s no more in to get. Dangling a tentative foot, taking your time, easing yourself in, all these leave enough wiggle room for your body to talk you out of it.

Yesterday I managed fifteen lengths (the pool’s about 12m) before my body started shutting down inessential services and my fingers turned yellow (I have the circulation of the M25 on a bad day). Today I achieved twenty lengths, at least one of which was accompanied by a heat-seeking guided beetle of some kind. Not coincidentally that was a length swum freestyle. Bit of front crawl, bit of backstroke, bit of gay flap.

I doubt I’ll keep up this rate of progress. I am by no means a fast swimmer, despite my otter-like nature, and I think I’d be in danger of icing up after about 30 lengths. I don’t want to end my days a danger to shipping; or worse, Leonardo di Caprio.

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A Tuscan raider writes

My first flight was in 1975. I was six (that very day), had long blond hair and was mistaken for a girl. The whiff of airplane fuel sends me straight back: the excitement of a glimpse of Concorde’s nose through a window, the Stepford stewardesses with rictus grins and rictus hair, the choking cigarette smoke recycled constantly through the cabin to avoid a trail like the Red Arrows but made of cancer.

The modern airport machine still whirrs, with added security theatre and subtracted liquids. We still check in, though Ryanair calls it “baggage drop” and makes you print your own boarding cards at home. We still dutifully submit ourselves to X-rays and metal detectors, with ever-increasing intrusiveness, ceremony and general pointlessness.

Our flight to Pisa, for a week in the Tuscan sun, required us to endure a couple of hours in the company of budget airline Ryanair. No frills indeed: not even a seat pocket, and I guess the constant aural advertising and trolley shopping constituted our in-flight entertainment. They even sold smokeless cigarettes.

But a seat-back sign told me, along with pictographic and implausible escape instructions, that I could make and receive phone calls on the flight. I resisted the temptation, for I would only have texted or tweeted or bellowed “I’M ON THE PLANE” like a gurning poltroon. I nearly did it anyway, like the excited, blond, girlish six-year-old I still clearly am.

A few hours later, after nearly an entire orbit of Pisa, a close encounter with a kerb that may return to haunt us, plus a visit to a Tuscan Tescoalike, we found our villa. It is most acceptable. We may already need to buy more wine.

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One Wedding and a Barbecue

Forgive me readers for I have sinned. It is one month since my last blog. However, I shall make amends with three in quick succession.

A couple of weekends ago a number of us travelled to Winchester to see the family Shire. Several of our happy band stayed in a 1960s hotel apparently designed before the invention of the curve. To call it ‘boxy’ would be like calling the Pacific Ocean ‘slightly damp’. However, the rooms were pleasant enough and there was free entertainment in the form of a wedding reception taking place around us. The ratio of tattoos to bridesmaids was sufficiently high to make the playing of Una Paloma Blanca in the adjoining disco a desperate inevitability.

I briefly enjoyed myself watching slightly squiffy guests fail to deal with an automatic door that didn’t. Each of them entered the magic zone, hesitated in pathetic expectation, and wafted at the HAL 9000 sensor watching darkly over them. I explained repeatedly to ever-deaf ears how the vaguely foreign receptionist was busy rebooting Windows for Doors or whatever to make it work again. The rufty-tufty blokes of course tried to manhandle the puny door open, to no avail. I ventured to a middle-aged couple how I was glad there was no fire, but I don’t think they got my point. They were probably wondering who the hell I was, standing in the middle of a hotel/wedding reception and certainly not dressed for the occasion.

The hotel in all its Tetris ugliness squats right next to Winchester Cathedral. A fine view for some from their hotel window; the glory of the council offices for others, including me. Still, that wasn’t why we were there.

It being the height of summer, we walked in increasingly threatening clouds to Andy and Lisa’s. There we spent an enjoyable afternoon and evening indoors watching Andy and Bob trying to keep dry while tending the barbecue. We all ate far too much, as per. Alcohol was consumed (but not by me: still waiting for the all-clear from the doc). Children ran around and latched onto Chef and Chris for entertainment purposes.

Next morning we breakfasted early at the hotel to avoid the wedding guests, who were scheduled to descend en masse at 9am. We were also just ahead of them when checking out a couple of hours later. The usual wandering with cameras followed, punctuated by the standard pub visit (“the best pub in town” – A. Shire) and a refuelling stop at Pizza Express (where “express” was not the word of the day thanks to the crowds of families).

Photos: me, Lynda, Andy Heckford, Chris, Melanie.

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Olé

IMG_2237More or less everything I knew about Spain I learned from Fawlty Towers, until two weeks ago when I departed these shores via the medium of Stansted for a week in Andalucia with Mike/Cline, Louise/Adrian, Chef and Andy. My goals were sunshine, relaxation, reading and sight-seeing, roughly in that order.

We flew to Malaga and drove in a convoy of three cars (don’t ask) an hour or so north on roads that became ever more crinkly and decrepit. Our villa, located 7km from Valle de Abdalajis, lay up a dirt track 1.01 cars wide and bordered by rockface and air. Stunning views, naturally: you always get stunning views half way up mountains in the middle of nowhere.

Thus began a week of expeditions (or the avoidance thereof) of varying lengths to places of interest. And a week of navigational hilarity in which we, again, forgot lesson #1: it is not permitted to allow Chef to navigate within two hours of mealtimes.

Places visited by some or all of us included Antequera, noted for its mountain backdrop shaped like a stereotypical Native American profile; El Chorro, with gorge and comedy walkways for climbers; Cordoba, which apparently has a bridge (I didn’t go); Puerto Banús with its nobs and yachts; the Alhambra at Granada, which is not a bingo hall; and Gibraltar, where you don’t turn your back on the apes if you value your crisps.

Amusingly, while waiting our turn to go round the posh bits of the Alhambra, I noticed that I was being watched by a gentleman sitting on a bench. I glanced over; he was rather obviously giving me the once-over, and smiling. After verifying that my flies were properly zipped, I wore matching socks, etc, I mentioned it to Mike and he confirmed my suspicions. Next time I looked, the gentleman’s male companion had also engaged scanners. And before I knew it he’d pulled out his camera and was deploying tactic #94, Taking a Photo of Someone Interesting While Pretending to Photograph a Friend.

Naturally I took a photo of them as he did so.

Then he got his camcorder out. Big cowardy custard that I am, I let them get on with it rather than go over and talk to them. However, I am now dedicating my life to discovering those photos and that footage.

All this and more is fully documented in the Avaragado and chums: Spain 2009 Flickr group. Or if you’ve seen everyone else’s, here are just my photos.

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