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UK

Camp site address: Guests in Bolton

Mobile phone is +44 (0)7941115660

Skype  Phillips.Ingleton.

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Understanding the Italian Post Office.

No, this isn’t a rant about the non-delivery of something in the post (you know, what the Americans think is the “mail”).
This is your insider’s guide to using a post office in Italy.
The first thing you will notice is that there are nearly as many counters as there are staff. And they are scattered around the building so that some can only be found after a little journey, or two…
The principle is that there is a different counter for each type of transaction. So posting a letter would be at counter “P”; buying a stamp would be at counter “S”; drawing cash would be at counter “B” and so on.
Italians don’t really go much on queuing. It gets in the way of greeting old friends, relatives and chatting up any pretty girls in the vicinity.
So they use the numbered ticket system. Very logically, there is a numbered ticket for each counter. Press button “P” to get a number for the Post A Letter counter, right?
If you want to draw some cash so that you buy some stamps in order to post a parcel to Spain you will need a numbered ticket for each of those counters. Simple. Until you realise that it is entirely probable that your numbers will be called to the posting counter before the stamp counter and way before the cash counter. The only safe way is to get the tickets for each as you finish with the previous. Of course that does make the job a tad longer – maybe half a day or so.
If you are Italian, you will immediately recognise that I have misrepresented this. Of course stamps and posting letters and parcels are done at the same counter. I just wanted to get the principle across without making it seem as complicated as you and I both know it really is!
OK. You have walked in and have located the counter you need first and, with a bit of careful surveying, you have located the machine that issues the numbered tickets. Good. Your ticket says you are in position P125 and the large sign above the P counters say “Chiuso”, 41 and 92. Chiuso is closed; 41 went off on other duties before calling customer 42 and the person running the only working counter is serving ticket number 91. So, 125-91=33 people ahead of you in the queue.
No.
Wrong.
For lots of different reasons, not so.
As you sit down and watch the next 5 customers being served, you may be tempted to do a bit more maths. Each of the 5 customers were at the counter for approximately 10 minutes each. You have 33 ahead of you so you can expect to be served. It is now 11am. 33 x 10 = 330 / 60 = 5:30 + 11am = 4:30. But they close for 2.5 hours from 1:30 till 4:00 so you should be dealt with at 4:30 + 2:30 = 7pm.
No.
Wrong again.
You will be out of there all done and dusted well before lunch time.
You may also think to yourself, “I could go and sit outside in the sun for half an hour rather than sitting here watching a series of repeating advertisements on the plasma screen. Now don’t get me wrong. Italian post offices are nice smart, well equipped places. But sunshine is better…
Don’t do it.
You may well lose your place and have to start from the bottom of the first ladder.
There are techniques available for you to deploy here.
1. “Can I have a form, please”
You may need a form that needs filling in. Hover by the person currently being served and when you see them start to fill in their form or get some change, ask the teller for your form. Now you have established a relationship with the teller and can come back to him or her any time there is a break. These people are brilliant at multi-tasking and can quite happily serve three or four people at once, albeit a little slower, and only one of them needs to be the person with the right number. This fends off any complaints about queue jumping.
2. The Dead Tickets
So you just did the maths and worked out that you have a 3 hour wait. You are 125 and 91 is being served. Then suddenly the numbers wizz through at the rate of 1 per second and there is just a couple ahead of you!
Did a string of people decide not to post that day after taking their tickets? How did the teller know they weren’t waiting behind a pillar? Being a foreigner, I was taken in hand by the other attendees. As the number display did its spurt towards my number, several people told me to go to the counter. I showed them that mine was still 4 away from the current but it seemed they all knew what number I had and I was almost pushed to the counter. I was still one away from the displayed number when the teller smiled at me and held out his hand to take my parcel. I am nervous, expecting 124 to come screaming out of the background demanding retribution for taking his or, worse, her place. I confess, I haven’t worked out if there is some form of telepathy at work here. Would a runner have fetched me from outside the door if I had just popped out? I really think they might!
3. The Ticket Swap
You have ticket 130. You hover near the counter carefully placed so you can see the display and you can see anybody approaching the counter. Ticket 93 is called but nobody is approaching the counter. You go immediately to the counter, screwing up you ticket and throwing it in the bin. You are now presumed to be ticket 93! This explains why most customers don’t display their tickets so that anyone can see what they have got…
I must admit to be somewhat surprised that there were no recent immigrants offering to give you an earlier number ticket as you come in – for a small consideration. If they made the deal an exchange for the one you have just taken, they should be able to keep that scam going all day without ever having to take another ticket themselves…
There may be other sub-plots involved in the queuing system that are far too subtle for me to catch.
Now comes the process of posting a parcel. It is going to Spain.
First it must be measured and the dimensions entered into a computer. Then it must be weighed. This is entered into the computer. This is necessary because, like some in the UK, carriers charge by density which must be calculated by the computer and, again like the UK, the postal system often uses private contractors along the way. Quite how many decimal places are required in the final specific gravity result was not clear to me.
There are three services which we offer that will get this parcel to Spain. Which would you prefer to use?
I decided to just point out that it was a laptop computer which was worth about €800 but as it was going back for repair, I really was not concerned with the time taken to arrive. What I was clear about was that I wanted it fully insured.
“In that case, please fill in this form here, sir. The cost will be €48.” As I am filling in the form, the teller asked, “Is there an invoice in the parcel?”. I tell him there is and that I have a copy of it but not with me.
“That is fine. We don’t need it unless the parcel gets lost. But it does mean that you could have better insurance for very little extra money.” I agree to that and am asked to fill in the other half of the form. The cost has gone up to €50.76 so I am happy enough.
Everything looks set to go but…
“Have you got a Codice Fiscale? We will need a copy of it.”
A Codice Fiscale is an Italian Tax Number. I had discovered that they were needed now for a lot of different transactions in Italy – like getting a Pay-as-you-go SIM card. But anyone can have one. You just go onto the government run taxation site, fill in a form which doesn’t require an address and you get a code immediately.
“I haven’t got it with me”, I explain. The teller is very understanding and asks if I can remember the number. “Well, your parcel cannot go until you give us the Codice Fiscale”, says my teller friend. (We have established quite a good relationship by now.)
It is now 1pm and they will close for the two and a half hour lunch break at 1:30. Off I go back to the van, fire up the computer, find the document and think to myself – if I stop to break out the printer, I won’t get back before they close. I have the GPS which can display photographs quite well so I transfer the image of my CF card to that and rush off back to the post office.
At 1:25pm, I am greeted by two tellers like a long lost friend. No kissing but hands are shaken and certainly no question of waiting in any queues. I offer the image of the Codice Fiscale in full colour.
“Ah, we need a copy of it. I will see if it will photocopy off the GPS!”, says one of the tellers and disappears out the back. A few minutes later, he comes back and tells the other teller that it hasn’t worked. A quick conference is held. I am shown a bit of black paper so that I can see that the photocopier has worked. “we are going to try and send it without the copy. It may or may not work. We will just hope.”, says my friend.
Whilst we are waiting for the teller behind the desk to do his stuff, the guy on my side is chatting about the state of the Sicilian world, we find we have acquaintances in common, and he explains how so many customers do not show proper respect for the guys working at the post office. “They just won’t keep silent while we try to work”, he tells me. At this point I catch the eye of the other guy who rolls his eyes at me!
Suddenly, there is great excitement from both members of staff. The system has accepted the parcel. I am given the receipt and escorted outside by one of the tellers. We continue to set the Sicilian world to rights for another ten minutes and part the best of friends.
There are many ways to pass the time in the sun. This has been one of them. I wonder wether the parcel will get to Cartegena.

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Goodbye to Old Smokey

I have smoked a pipe since before I left school 55 years ago. Alright, I always smoked a “boy’s tobacco” and only about 2oz (50 grams) a week. It has always been part of me. I couldn’t really do without it. I even used it to measure the severity of life’s little problems – how many pipes it would take to solve one!
Two weeks ago I put Old Smokey away together with half a packet of tobacco and about 15 lighters. Not required anymore.
No, this isn’t some steel willpower. I didn’t even know I was going to give it up. No-one even suggested that it would be a good idea. Yet I am very content with … well, another pipe which doesn’t need tobacco!
Smoking the pipe.JPG (560x600 pixels)
I bought an e-pipe. It is really an inhaler like people use when the suffer from asthma except that this one is designed to look like a really nice rosewood pipe. I can puff away at it and instead of smoke it gives me water vapour, rather like cooled steam and has nicotine mixed with the steam. The hat has nothing to do with it – I was talked into buying it by a part-time Monk, but that is another story!
The idea is that nicotine is the stuff us smokers are addicted to, not the rest of the 4,000 odd chemicals that processed tobacco contains. And because the steam evaporates almost instantly, there is no chance of anyone getting a dose of it from me. And nicotine isn’t carcinogenic! I’m even able to spell that word now.
No more mucky hands. No more burnt clothes. No more pockets full of ash. No more ash trays full of stinky tars and wet leaves. No more smell of old ashtrays – yes, I knew I smelt like that!
But this last week has been much more of a journey of discovery than I could ever imagined. It has taken me into a strange new world of people who call themselves “vapers” and talk about “attys” and “carts”. That is atomisers and cartridges, I have learnt. They rabbit on about juices that they have tried. There are 410s, 501s and 901s. It seems these are all models of e-cigarettes! There are forums full of people talking about how many days they have been “vaping” and off the “analogues”. It makes Dungeons & Dragons game plying nerds look sane!
Apart from the strange language these guys get into, there is the chemistry. Actually, it is more about maths.
As a vaper, I can choose how much nicotine to add to my basic vegetable glycerine “juice” which is the “wicked” on to the hot element and turned into the steam – which is what I happily suck at as if it were the old tobacco smoke. But how much nicotine do I need?
I had to start from the basis that I smoked 50 grams of tobacco a week. But here is a very strange thing. Cigarette packets have to carry their exact nicotine, tar and Co2. But pipe tobacco carries none of this information. Cigarettes, on the other hand tell you all that information but never tell you how much tobacco they contain! So finding out how much nicotine I am accustomed to taking in becomes a problem. Probably at least a six pipe problem…
I cheated and having discovered that a pack of 20 “normal” cigarettes contain 0.8 grams per fag, I am equating my 50 grams a week to 10 cigarettes a day. Now that is 40 cells of Excel spreadsheet just getting that far.
A little more surfing the net and I discover that the strongest nicotine solution that is legal is 7.5%. The strongest actually sold is 5.4% and the common “full” strength is usually 36mg per millilitre. Whoaa! There is another little mathematical trap for the novice chemist. We suddenly swap from % to absolute weight. Burn up a few dozen more Excel cells and I calculate that what I am used to puffing equates to about 6mg per ml – about half of the lowest manufactured juice. I am forced to mix my own juice using the concentrate and mixing it with zero-nicotine glycerine to get the wimpish strength that I am used to smoking.
Here is the portable lab:
The Kit.JPG (781x600 pixels)
The good news is that all this stuff is readily available. Even the flavours are easy to come by. Did I mention flavours? There is a whole new dimension I’ll tell you about in just a moment!
The whole vaping scene is about making up the right juice for an individual need and taste. The basic glycerine is used in everyday cooking so easy enough to buy. But flavouring? Yes, we are talking about tobacco flavours but we are also, it seems, talking about food flavourings. That is what the happy vaper buys. Candy flavours, as the Americans will insist on calling it. The stuff they put into boiled sweets. Of course, the vaper’s chemistry is all water based, so the oil based flavours are out of the equation.
So, if you see me happily “smoking” my e-pipe with a satisfied smile on my face, it is quite likely that I am actually enjoying a Chocolate smoke, or Strawberry, or Bacon Sandwich or…  Of course there are tobacco flavours too. I guess there has been a bit of a row between the tobacco manufacturers and the flavouring manufacturers as many of the flavours have been renamed. Mailboro is now called Cowboy Country; State Express 555 is now M4 Highway and, my favourite but not as a flavour, Camel is now called Dessert Hump! Anything Lorann.com sells in their food flavourings may now be legally “smoked”.
For those interested in going down the vapour route, the result of my calculations in Excel form are is here: http://kvisit.com/S-Ydv I shall try and do a more detailed description in the next few days.

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Teaching Windows a Foreign Language

This is a technical post for the non-technically minded.
It started this morning with a knock on the door from a German lady. She and her husband had just been to the supermarket here in Catania, Sicily and bought a new netbook – just like the one they already owned.
They had asked the guy in customers services wether it could have its language changed from Italian to German. “No problem!” said the guy.

The netbook has Windows 7 Starter on it.

The first problem for the new owner was that he didn’t have enough Italian to understand how to ask it to change its Mother tongue. So a neighbouring Dane had suggested that the English gent would be worth asking!

Now I haven’t progressed beyond Vista yet and my mind is still pining for XP. My Italian is only slightly better than my German. I can just about manage to eat with my rudimentary Italian and would starve in Germany without the aid of others less linguistically challenged. So looking at the new netbook left me not much better informed than the frustrated owner.

Having spent a while looking at the Microsoft website and others, I learned that the Starter version is a cut down version of the real operating system. I had thought that that meant some of the new features of Windows 7 wouldn’t be available in the “Starter” version that tends to be pre-installed on new netbooks.

I hadn’t appreciated that it meant that they had removed a lot of the functionality that was present in older iterations of the product. It is a bit like buying a new model of car where the tyres are no longer supplied as standard – or did Mercedes already cover that ground? In this case, you only get one language and that will be the one for the country where it is being sold. No, of course no-one ever buys a netbook whilst in some other country than their own. It would be sort of rude, wouldn’t it?

The Microsoft website is quite enthusiastic about the fact that their downloadable language files are available for free and in 95 languages as long as you don’t want Chinese. Seems there is a political issue with offering Chinese. Not at all sure what since you can get it from lots of other sites and it almost certainly has been assembled at Microsoft. When, however you go to the download page for your copy of politically safe German, there it is. The file with a warning sign saying that Mr Gates’ team have ensured that it won’t work unless you have bought the Ultimate or Enterprise version of Windows 7.

Cost of Netbook: €200.
Cost of upgrade operating system so that it stops talking in a foreign language and lets you use it: €180.
I think my German friend was right to be a little disappointed with his purchase.

I know that I have a character flaw that causes me to get unreasonably upset when I think people have been ripped off. More so than when I get ripped off! Neither of us really fancied the discussion with the supermarket management in a language neither of us could really speak.

At this point, I was so incensed that I would have been willing to indulge in piracy against Microsoft without a second thought. Actually, I had the XP installation disks from a laptop that had long since died on me so I felt entirely righteous about offering to put XP on the machine in place of Windows 7 and he clearly thought that would be an even better solution. We discussed the effect on his warranty and agreed that this wos the way to go. I took the machine away to do the deed.

An hour or so later, I had a better idea. If I were to partition the 250Gb hard disk and make it a dual boot machine, maybe the warranty would still be valid. Simples.

I soon had a clean formatted 108Mb E: drive ready to take XP. I had dusted off my external USB CD/DVD drive and satisfied myself that I had set the netbook so it would boot from the CD in preference to the hard disk.

OK. I am a dinasaur. My main machine these days is a quad processor with 8Gb of Ram but I still run ancient DOS software like FoxPro and Power Basic in DosBox so it shouldn’t be any surprise that I still have a bootable CD with DOS 6.2 on it. That is my trusty testbed. It booted the machine up just fine and quickly. It is wonderful to see the speed of the antedeluvial software running on a wizz-bang modern PC but that is another story.

I fetched my XP CD and tried the boot. Oh dear, it couldn’t see a hard disk at all. A little head scratching and I realised that SATA drives weren’t around when they devised XP so it wasn’t really surprising. But, hey, there is a facility in XP installer for supplying drivers for storage devices it doesn’t know about. There is the solution.

Wrong again! XP installer is absolutely convinced that your machine has a floppy disk drive A: on it and wants that to be where the drivers are. I tried spoofing it into thinking that a pen disk was the floppy. No. Couldn’t evev assign the CD as A: because it wants the A-drive before it lets you have access to DOS.

At this point I was ready to give up and go and buy a floppy disk! Having recently put DosBox on my machine, to have a floppy disk drive would really have made it look like an original IBM 8086… Fortunately, it was getting on to 10pm so I couldn’t go to the local Media World and had to try another route.

Back to Google and another search brought salvation with a bit more information about Vista and Windows 7. It seems that they have just restricted the system to a single language in the registry. Change the registry entry and it will allow you to add another language. The problem then is that whenever Windows does an update, it puts the registry back where it was and you lose your second language. The answer to this one might be just to stop it doing the updates but that would seem an unfortunate way to go. Then I came across a free bit of software called Vistalizator (www.vistalizator.com).

Although this little gem was written for Vista, they have a Windows 7 version. It makes the change to the registry and installs the second language for you right up to the point where you select the new language as the primary one.
You do have to download the MUI Language file from Microsoft – a snip at102Mb. However, Vistalizator also stops the update from changing the registry back again. But even if it didn’t, it is a very easy matter to re-run the program to set it back again.

Of course, I then had a netbook in German which I didn’t understand any more than I had the Italian but its owner was very happy with it.

At last I have the answer to the language problem which is useful for the next time when it might be Japanese to Swahili knowing my luck! All I need to find now is how to get Windows & to allow me to set a workgroup name for the LAN. Why, oh why, does Microsoft think we will learn to love them if they persist with these silly games?

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What do we do all day?

People do ask me what I do with my time as a fulltime traveling pensioner. So I thought I might have a look at a couple of days when we didn’t do any of the obvious things like shopping or sightseeing.
This blog is a rambling account of those two random days.
 
Can’t cope without problems…
Traveling around Europe in a motorhome or caravan is a lifestyle that has problem solving at its core. It is easy enough to adapt to the limitations of living, even cooking, space. Thinking back to living in a house, we didn’t really use most of the space we had. You can only sit in one chair at a time and only sleep in one bed at a time. The fact that we now use the same chair to eat, read, “work” and sometimes just sit and watch the world go by, is no great hardship.
The difference lies in the reaction to the things that break or malfunction.
Back home, a blocked sink; a blown fuse; leaking roof or flat car battery can all be addressed by a call for the relevant “expert” if you can’t do it yourself. For the long-term camper, that is a much more difficult solution. First you have to find the “expert” and the Yellow Pages are not in English. Then you have to explain the problem in a language which, even if you can get by in, will be difficult when it comes to the technical jargon relating to your problem.
Enter the community of the camper. Most sites of any size have a collection of residents who have a life time of experience and a wide selection of skills to offer. And offer, they do!
A trip to the dustbin to empty the rubbish will almost certainly involve a conversation on the way there and another on the way back. You get to meet everyone within a few days. Here we have a farmer, a structural engineer, two teachers, a taxi driver/mechanic and a florist – just to name a few.
Not only have they their formal skills but, since most are well over 55 years old, they have hundreds of years of experience between them.
We tend to become aware of anyone struggling with a problem. Help is readily offered because they are your neighbours.
 
Help can be mandatory.
When we arrived in a fairly large van on to this fairly tightly spaced Sicilian campsite, we wanted to get into a pitch that overlooked the sea. But it was not going to be easy to get onto the pitch because of the many obstacles like the sun canopies etc. Within minutes, I had a team of half a dozen people watching every corner and side – all giving instructions from their vantage point! Now this might be annoying and confusing in the real world but, hey, there is no rush. No-one is hurrying you along. You can take all day to maneuver you van into just the right spot and it doesn’t matter.
 
Is Denmark the right way up?
Yesterday, I was wondering what I wanted to do after breakfast when there was a knock on the door. A Danish neighbour had a problem with his laptop. His screen had suddenly turned upside down and he didn’t know why or how to get it back the right way up. Somebody had told him that this was something I might be able to help him with.
Now, this is a matter that is different for each make of laptop and, of course, his machine is all in Danish. But it doesn’t really take long with the help of the internet and the owner providing translation of what the screen is saying. And within half an hour the matter is resolved.
 
Is Sweden switched on?
An hour later a Swedish neighbour asks for help with his electrics. It turns out that in two years, the mains fuse has never blown before so he has never needed to know where the mains fuse box was located. That one took a little longer.
Each job is an interaction that develops into a conversation and an exchange of tales from our histories.
This time, I discovered that the Danish pay 180% tax on the purchase of a car or motorhome… I learnt that you can buy a Mercedes car and run it for two years as a taxi and then sell it without the tax at a figure that means you have had the car for the two years without costing anything!
I also learned that one of the Swedish shipyards built a ship so big that it wouldn’t fit under the bridge to get it out of the Baltic Sea. The only way that it could be done was for the ship to be driven at full power that the stern went down under such acceleration!
 
And there are always things that you can volunteer to do.
 
Problems don’t have to be real.
As I sat and watched the waves breaking on this rocky coast, I started to wonder what could be done to get some of that energy harnessed. I know it is being done but various schemes but they all involve putting machinery into the sea. That seems to be asking for very high maintenance costs. So the idea came to me that it might be possible to put a plastic tank in the waves which would cause air to be sucked in and blown out. If one could bring that air movement ashore so that there were no moving parts in the sea, there might be a better sort of wave engine to be had.
Wave engine.jpg (5.0KB; 144x173 pixels)
On the way to the rubbish bin with the recycling, I stopped to talk to Gunther, a German Structural Engineer, and told him of my idea. He said it wouldn’t work in the Mediterranean because the waves weren’t big enough and patted me on the head!
Now, you will understand that this is a challenge that has to be met. Back in the van and a little research with the Italian Meteorology department and a lot of refreshing of memory about things like the number of foot pounds to the kilowatt-hour produced a spreadsheet that showed to my satisfaction that the average wave height of 1.2m would be enough to produce 800 watts of electricity from a 2 litre piston/tank. It might have confused any onlooker as to why I would have been standing on the rocks at nearly midnight with a torch and a stopwatch but I hadn’t thought till then to find out how many waves you get to the minute!
Tomorrow, I shall present my findings to Gunther and see if he still feels inclined to pat me on the head…
 
The pleasure of doing a job – just because you don’t have to do it.
Yesterday, I decided that something needed to be done about the campsite WiFi equipment.
Guiseppe had had the engineers in to fix it. I saw him wandering around the site with his laptop. I guessed he was trying to check that the signal was getting to everywhere. But I also know that you can’t really tell that way. You may get a signal which is too weak to be sustained. You may get a signal that is coming from a mast that won’t reach the same point tomorrow. T really find out what was what, he needed to a site survey using the right software.
I can do that, I thought!
A day of looking for the right software on the internet and then half a day, off and on, getting to know how to run them (couldn’t find any one bit of software that would do the whole job) and finally, half a day putting together the survey and a report to explain the findings.
I presented the report to Guiseppe, an hydraulics engineer by training, who immediately wanted to find out why the two repeaters he thought were working, weren’t working at all.
Off we set with his screwdrivers and my kit to investigate.
What we found inside the repeaters was a mass of rust! The engineers who had set the equipment up had used good sealed weather-tight boxes but then drilled a large hole in the underside to get the aerial cable in. Sadly they hadn’t taken into account that the repeaters are within reach of the breaking wave spray when stormy. This, of course, had resulted in water being driven into the boxes from underneath which they hadn’t sealed. Guiseppe used some Italian which needed no translation even though I had no idea what any of the words were! I also understood that my report would be sent immediately to the IT engineers for action. In a month or two, they should have a working system…
 
Dept. Of Transport Acquaintances?
I remember working with an engineer who had spent most of his working life thus far working on the Cross Chanel ferries. He had made many friends in his job but always refused to acknowledge them as such because ships move on and he never knew when or if he would meet them again. . They were always referred to as Board of Trade Acquaintances.
We said goodbye to an English couple off to explore more of the island and to the Swedish couple off to visit the Mars factory on the West coast. Both will probably be back in a week or two.
The French couple with the delightful deaf child will be away in the next day or so. And so we, too, will move on to have a look at the other end of the island.
Are they friends or Dept of Transport Acquaintances? Only time will tell…
 
And then there is the rest…
Bear in mind that there are books to be read; emails to read and send; forums to be contributed to and Face Book to be dealt with. And we have talked to all the children on Skype.
There is shopping to do; water to fill, waste water and loos to empty; running repairs to fix; the van to wash the Sahara off; cooking and washing up and the laundry…
From this, you will appreciate that even finding time to go sightseeing and shopping becomes a matter of careful time-management.
What should the answer be to “What do you do all day?”

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Monkey on a Tractor

Monkey.JPG (135x131 pixels)
One of the things which happens on campsites in the Winter is that the residents get to know each other and even become friends.
The point was illustrated for me some time ago when I talked to a fellow whose wife had died two years earlier.
He had gone home but become bored and longed to be out and about in his motorhome again as they had done together.
So he had gone off on his own.
His daughter was much concerned about this and kept ringing him up and telling him to come home.
“What do you do all day, on your own?”, she asked.
“Well,” says the septuagenarian, “the rubbish bin is about 200 yards from where my van is parked. That is an hour’s journey and about 6 conversations away!”
Perhaps one of the joys of the lifestyle is the constant supply of new people who haven’t heard all your stories and jokes. And, of course, one gathers stories and jokes as you go.
Tractor.JPG (142x120 pixels)
Bjorn (named changed to protect the guilty) is Swedish and of similar advanced years to most of us traveling pensioners. He is a retired farmer, he says, but actually I suspect he was a senior engineer for a major tractor manufacturer on the sales and marketing side. He is certainly one of those men for whom the phrase “A thing of duty and a boy forever” was coined.
It seems that his company decided to sponsor a European circus troupe. As part of the deal to get the tractors publicised, an act was included in the show.
The basis of the act was a clown trying to direct traffic opposed by a monkey driving a tractor. Great fun and a lot of scope for laughter.
Obviously the tractor was driven by remote control with Bjorn hiding in the audience.
On the night in question, the monkey was particularly excitable and was playing with everything on the tractor it could reach.
At the same time, a Red Indian troupe was establishing their act which followed the monkey’s but erecting an Indian Tepee at the other side of the ring.
Sadly the monkey finally found a way to reach the all-important switch that cut off Bjorn’s radio link. The result was a panic-stricken Bjorn rushing out of his hiding place to get to the tractor and stop it. Not before it had run right over the top of the tepee, narrowly missing several surprised not-so-braves.
Kind of inevitable?

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At Last, I Understand…

We have been nomads now for 18 months. During this time I have spent all too many hours reading motorhome related forums. When it comes to the topic of full-timing, somebody will always post the comment, “When you fulltime, you have to remember that it is a lifestyle, not a holiday”.

I have never understood this remark – until this week!

We have been very happy with our nomadic existence but there have always been two nagging thoughts.

The first is “We really shouldn’t be having a life without responsibilities and commitments. It’s wrong. We will have to pay for all this self-indulgent fun sooner or later. It is The Law, be it Sod’s, Murphy’s or whatever…

The second is “We should be doing something. Just sitting around in the sun is no way for people to live. What would the Rev. Calvin have to say? Where is our Protestant Work Ethic?”

Last week all that changed. We have seen the light and we are born again.

It started with an old conversation about writing a book. For those who didn’t know, Liz and I used to write for a living. Really boring factual stuff, usually commissioned by publishers. Nevertheless we enjoyed doing it and managed to make a living out of it. Then Liz found some information from the British Library Theatre Archive Project and started to think about the possibility of a book based on this material. A few more days and it became clear that the topic really fascinated her and we decided that “the book” should be started. Really started. We even researched software to make the gathering of information more orderly.

At much the same time, whilst reading the daily questions and answers on the forums, I started to think about how the same questions came up over and over again. I thought about the way in which only the bare bones of answers were forthcoming because that is the nature of forums. Actually, one of the forums, http://www.MotorhomeFacts.Co.UK, had instigated a little project where members were asked to contribute articles for a collection of FAQs. The project resulted in a useful collection of informative articles and then stopped there. Noone had thought about who owned the copyright and therefore doubts were raised about publishing the articles other than amongst the members. The project has stalled since last March as a result. All that useful information and few people able to see it!

I will write an Owners’ Reference Handbook, I thought, and started to put down an outline.

A few days later and we realised that our attitudes had changed. We both had a purpose. We were no longer feeling guilty about being pure hedonists. We felt Calvin might smile upon us again.

We had moved from extended holiday mode to a lifestyle choice. Where better to be writing our books but sitting in the sun overlooking the blue Mediteranean in January. Oh, it feels so much less self-indulgent even though we know it isn’t really!

Anyone want to proof read Chapter 1 – 3500 words on Gas?

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An Underwater Trip to the Supermarket

Yes, we know that the UK comes to a halt when it snows. We know that is because it is rare and we are never ready for it.

But before you complain too much let me tell you the story of my journey to the supermarket yesterday…

The idea was simple. We had invited some friends round for a drink & pizzas at 7pm so it seemed a good idea to pop out in the Smart car to get a supply of wine.

The next village has a small Conad but not much in the way of quaffables. Liz wanted to get the van respectably clean inside, so I decided I would do the shopping alone. I knew there were supermarkets at Ragusa, 19 miles and 40 minutes in the car. But we had been there a couple of days ago. Why not go somewhere new?

I consulted the map and decided that I should go to Gela. The guide book said it wasn’t worth visiting so I wouldn’t be wasting a trip out without Liz because she wouldn’t want to go there anyway. It is 28 miles and 55 minutes according to Autoroute, so off I set at about 12:45.

The weather forecast said we should expect 14mm of rain over 11 hours! But, hey, it doesn’t rain in the car or supermarket; it wouldn’t worry me.

The trip there went pretty much as expected. A few puddles across the road and a couple of them quite deep but nothing to cause alarm. Reached Gela at about 2pm, filled up with petrol and bought cigs etc at the Tabachi. Now for the supermarket…

I drove through the town but didn’t see one. I drove round the outskirts and didn’t see one. I drove round the inner town and didn’t see one. But I did see a large police station. So I parked outside and approached the door. It clearly wasn’t intended to be the public entrance, so I asked a policewoman passing by where the main entrance was. Somehow, she decided instantly that I was not a local and was English. Must have been a detective! Anyway, she told me that there was no public area and then immediately told me to follow her. She led me into the centre of the building which was designed rather like the spokes of a wheel. In the middle was a large atrium with a number of policemen having a conversation.

“Which one of you lot speaks English?”, says my guide. One of them steps forward and says to me “I speak a little but I would do better in French.” Now, I have a policy of always trying to speak the local language even if offered English, knowing I can give up and resort to English or French is a bonus. I asked where the local supermarket was. I explained that I was looking for an IperCoop, Auchan or a Simply sort of supermarket. Immediately his friend said “You will have to go to Catania for that but it is a 100 miles!” No, said I, I want somewhere more local. ” Well you could try Licata, there is a big shop there!”, offers another one of the policemen.  Now Licata is another 20 miles further along the coast on small roads. It would mean another 45 minutes driving.

“No. is there not a shop in Gela?”, I say. My first volunteer agrees that there is a EuroSpin in Gela and he watches while I put its location into my GPS.

At this point, I remember that I also want to buy a USB Hub so I ask where I might get one. He doesn’t understand what that is because I don’t know the Italian or French for USB or Hub. But we manage to establish that it is a part for a computer. Now yet another of the assembly of policemen goes off to one of the offices and fetches another lady who is clearly one of the station IT staff. She does know what a USB Hub is and also knows that there is a distributor in the town who may be open. Sadly, none of them know the name of the relevant street so the GPS is not going to help.

“Don’t worry about that” says my new friend. Yet more policemen are fetched and they explain to me that the new policeman will drive there so I can follow!

I thank all the now considerable gathering and off I trot after my new guide and his colleague. A large police van is fetched and waits for me to get my car behind it. Off we go on what turns out to be a 10 minute journey snaking round the back streets of Gela. Once there at the closed shop, I say my thanks and farewells to my guides, who seem to have thoroughly enjoyed escorting this strange car with the steering wheel on the wrong side.

At this point, I can log the spot on the GPS and set off to the EuroSpin. This turns out to be a sort of poor man’s Lidl. It has a reasonably large wines section but there is nothing on the shelves priced much above 5 Euros. But that is OK. I am not looking for expensive quality and I select 6 bottles of assorted mysteries to try.

At this point I had been in the shop for the best part of 45 minutes. When I came to leave, it was pouring down – like a cloud burst and customers are refusing to go out to their cars. I explain to one fellow that I am going out into the downpour. I have my umbrella and I am English so I am well used to such weather. This causes much amusement to the cowering customers and off I go.

Now to drive back to the computer shop.

As soon as I get onto the main road; a dual carriageway, I realise that the puddles have become street-wide rivers! The closer I drive, very slowly,into town, the deeper the river becomes. It isn’t helped by the fact that the water has pulled a sheet of plastic, that covers the underside of the front of the Smart, down at the front. I now have a large water scoop! Every so often I have to pull over onto the river bank, get out with the umbrella and re-clip it under the front bumper. Not fun.

On reaching the inner ring road, I see complete chaos. The problem is that Sicillian roads are built without two features common to all UK roads. No drains and no camber. None at all!

As I plough cautiously down the main drag, the first thing I see is a very large section where the water is about 30cm deep. I can tell this because, sitting right in the middle of it and all alone, is a lovely new drowned BMW. What else? The driver can’t do anything about it because the water is higher than his sills. Without drains that might have eventually allowed him to dry out, I am not sure what the future holds for him.

I decide that, under the circumstances, I could use the service road around this urban sea, even if it does mean going the wrong way down the one-way system. It is Italy, where No Entry signs are only advisory after all! This gets me some progress. Then the service road comes to an end but there is another one on the other side of the main road, so I cautiosly motor-swim across to it. At this point I realise that I am leading a little convoy or mostly 4x4s in my little Smart car!

Eventually, I make my way onto the main road out of town where the tarmac is only 10cm below water level and getting better as we go up hill. There is a new phenomenon to deal with now.

There are many potholes that have been patched with tarmac. The water pressure has caused most of them to erupt like small volcanoes. I quickly learn that if you see a puddle surrounded with black pebbles arond it, don’t go through the puddle – it is a bit like driving off the edge into a small swimming pool!

This lesson learned, and observing a few drowned Pandas in them, I am making better progress but there are still sections which are really too deep for such a small car. However, I decided that when I got an Italian 4×4 right up behind me, it would be wise to pull over and let it pass. This way I can chose my own speed and course. This decision led me to the solution. I had let a small lorry past me who then plowed immediately into a deep bit. As I was now fairly close behind it, I discovered that his double wheels pushed most of the water to the sides and I could follow in its tracks without getting submerged – as long as I continued to tailgate it.

The route home was not qiite what I intended. The GPS had clearly been on the vino again and there were several blocked roads; either with drowned vehicles and some with official barriers.

By the time I got home at 7pm, the 55 minute 28 mile journey had taken me three solid hours and 44 miles.

Now just consider that this was all caused by about half an inch of rain over an 11 hour period!

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Italian Lessons on Traffic Management – Seriously!

It is a standing joke that when you hire a car in Catania and return it without any extra scratches, the hire company will give you a certificate that qualifies you to drive anywhere in the world!

On first impressions, the city is chaotic and terrifying for the Northern European driver. But somehow the traffic does keep moving, albeit slowly and in jumps and starts. Pedestrians seem to be able to get where they want to go and scooters – well they are a law all their own. The best advice is to never look in your rear view mirror because doing so is worse than cholesterol for your heart.

Then, after a day or so, you become slowly aware that the city works. There are more vehicles per square meter than is possible, but it works!

Eventually, you start to wonder how. What is it that makes this traffic anarchy, not only work, but actually feel less stressful than Paris, London or Munich?

Contra-Flow Bus Lanes

The first thing that struck me is that all the bus lanes, and there are many, go against the flow of traffic.

This has two effects. Cars do not enter the bus lanes like they normally do elsewhere. In with-the-flow bus lanes, the thought is that “I can just nip in for a moment to get through and any bus will have to wait a moment if one appears. I can even park in the bus lane if there are no yellow lines to say I can’t. After all, the bus can pull out to get past me.

With the against-the -flow, you know that you would meet head on and you would be holding up the whole system while you tried to get back on your own side of the road. Of course, parking becomes a total blockage and is not risked. It would become immediately apparent when the next bus arrived and be very embarrassing to the perpetrator.

Double Parking – A Good Idea, really

Catania benefits from many wide streets. Almost all of them have marked parking bays next to the curb. However, double, even triple or quadraple, parking is the norm. There is a convention that makes this work.

Basically, if you want to park for more than 10 minutes or so, you need to find a parking bay on the kerbside. This can be done by double parking until one becomes vacant.

If you are only going to be a few minutes, you double park near your destination without worrying about the cars you may be blocking in.

If you need to get out and are blocked, sound your horn. If you are double parked and you hear a horn, check to see if it is you who needs to move your car and do so as quickly as possible.

If you are parking in an inner bay but only intend to be a few minutes, either put your hazard warning lights on or leave your car protruding into the double parking lane. This warns otheres that you will be moving soon and they should avoid blocking you if possible.

For the system to work requires patience but given that parking only takes a few moments under this system you can afford a couple of minutes delay – it is a lot quicker than having to drive around for 15 minutes trying to find a non-blocked parking spot, probably 5 minutes walk away from your target destination.

Traffic Lights

There are very few traffic lights even at major intersections. Negotiating these crossroads requires an awareness of other drivers and extreme caution. The result is continuously slow moving traffic and very few accidents! Nobody assumes right of way.

Of course you do need to concentrate and not allow yourself to mentally drift off…

Pedestrian Crossings

These are plentiful, very wide and only rarely covered by traffic lights. They are also largely ignored by pedestrians.

The rule is simple – drivers always stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road irrespective of where they may be.

Where there are pedestrian lights, drivers will stop to allow pedestrians to cross but as soon as the crossing is clear, they do not have to wait for the red light to change but can proceed anyway.

This approach saves a lot of wasted time and makes the delay of getting pedestrians across no longer an irritating delay beyond the neccessary.

Speed

Speeds above 10 or 15 miles per hour in a town is very rare. Strangely, this does not seem to be a problem.

There are two reasons for this.

1. The traffic is usually moving to some extent. You always feel to be making progress.

2. You know that when you get where you are going, you won’t be wasting a lot of time finding somewhere to park

3. You get used to planning your journey on the slower but reliable pace.

It is interesting to note that even when the streets are empty, drivers still tend not to drive much faster.

If Catania were an English town with the traffic density it has, there would be constant gridlock. Accidents would be frequent and road rage predominant.

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Italian Highway Code

1. If the car is stationary and the horn isn’t sounding – its parked.
2. There are no hard shoulders on Urban Motorways – they have been replaced with special overtaking lane and scooter tracks.
3. Roundabout priorities. The rules relating to give way to those on the roundabout have been replaced as follows:
a) Give way to the fastest, then
b) Give way to the biggest, then
c) Give way to the driver with the most determined expression, then
d) You – if you are quick, otherwise start again from a) above
4. It is an offence to park more than three deep beside the road
5. Pedestrians. Do not stop for them on pedetrian crossings unless they have a red light over them. It confuses the pedestrians and highlights you as a foreigner.
6. In urban traffic, do NOT use your rear view mirrors. Such actions can cause heart attacks.
7. When stationary in a line of traffic, pull in your side mirrors to prevent injury to overtaking scooter drivers.
8. Bus lanes may only be used by:
a) Busses,
b) Taxis,
c) Scooters,
d) anyone else in a hurry.
9. Parking in single carriageway lanes is only permitted if hazard lights are used.
10. When following another vehicle on motorways, leave enough room between you and the vehicle in front for 1 cyclist. Any more is considered a waste of space.
11. All speed limits are optional. Driving at or below these advisory limits is impolite to other road users.
12. Road rage is unheard of in Italy. All manoeuvres are considered worth a try. Road excitement is normal especially when a manoeuvre proves unworkable (on this occassion)

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