Travels in 2012 (Part 2 of 4): A Plastic Union Jack in Devon

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack**Ok pedants, let's get this out of the way: I know that it's technically only the Union Jack when it's flown on a ship (otherwise it's just the "Union Flag") but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I'm going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse ("actually, did you know..." If you're at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it's probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: "The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom." And Wikipedia's, like, always right. Right?

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack*
*Ok pedants, let’s get this out of the way: I know that it’s technically only the Union Jack when it’s flown on a ship (otherwise it’s just the “Union Flag”) but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I’m going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse (“actually, did you know…” If you’re at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it’s probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: “The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom.” And Wikipedia’s, like, always right. Right?

YES, 2012 was a special year for the Union Jack, its big outing. Sure there had been that Royal Wedding thing back in 2011, but that was really just practice for the Main Event. The Diamond Jubilee. Oh yes and the Olympics, that was happening too. Man there was going to be so much flag waving! And all the the little Union Jacks, all in a line, flapping along as bunting. It made an old Jack smile just to think of it. All over the UK, the Union Jack snapped back and forth in the wind. Well actually, it mostly hung in a damp kind of way, twitching limply in the drizzle. But in its mind, it was flying straight and true.

They grow up so quickly...

They grow up so quickly…

THE BEGINNING of June 2012 was special for those of us living in the UK, because we all got an extra bank holiday in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This was combined with a bank holiday that usually happened at the end of May but had been moved to June to make a Super Mega Weekend of four days. As is traditional for bank holidays, it rained throughout. London was the epicentre of it all, culminating in a Royal Regatta down the Thames with all the Royal Family in attendance. What a treat.

Naturally my partner, Beckie, and I decided to leave London, to escape the Jubilee madness. After consulting transport information, road atlases, the stars and a palm reader, we decided that the most auspicious time to leave this city of 8.2 million people would be the Friday evening before the beginning of the four day weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

The advantage of this plan, I discovered, was that it mitigated the risk of the car breaking down. How? Because when you’re stationary, it doesn’t matter whether your engine works or not. The car didn’t break down, but if it had, we could have pushed it all the way to Devon and we’d still have got there at the same time. We finally arrived SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS LATER.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn’t had time to clean the oven for our arrival. We have never cleaned our oven. In my entire life, I think that I have only ever cleaned an oven once, and then under duress.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn't had time to clean the oven for our arrival. I have never cleaned our oven. This picture of a nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility - such as are found scattered across the south west of England - was actually taken the year before, when we'd last stayed with them. Then it was sunny. During the jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don't clean your oven when I come to stay? Don't expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

This nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility I actually photographed the year before, when we’d last stayed with our friends in Devon. Then it was sunny. During the Jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don’t clean your oven when I come to stay? Don’t expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

IF WE thought that in leaving London, we were leaving the Jubilee celebrations behind, we were wrong. Devon is a place of winding, single track roads, hemmed by ten foot hedges. We’d round a blind corner (which is every corner on every road in Devon) to discover that we’d entered a small village or hamlet – every single one bedecked in bunting and Union Jacks. For those non-Brits reading this, please understand how odd it is for us (or how odd it was before 2012 anyway) to have flags anywhere. We’re not like North America, where everyone has a flagpole in their garden. Once, when I was on business in the US, I mentioned to one of my US colleagues that I”d heard that some people in the US wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent flag burning. He nodded vehemently, and proudly showed me a picture of the flag that he has hanging outside the front of his house. “It just makes me mad when I see flags that are all raggedy,” he told me, “when people just aren’t caring for them. I think, have you no pride?” He was driving at the time, and stared moodily at the road, no doubt picturing all the injustices that flags were suffering around the world, before adding: “If I saw someone right now setting light to a flag by the side of the highway, I’d stop this car, get out and punch them.”

In Britain, we have a different relationship with our flag.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it's raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had it in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it’s raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had one in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

JubilympicsAnyway, thanks to the Jubilympics, Union Jacks are cool again. And there was no escaping them in Devon. Or the rain.

BUT ON our final day, the sun came out, we went to a Jubilee Party and I almost felt patriotic. We were in the tiny village of East Prawle, on the coast. We lunched in the tiny  pub, the Pigs Nose; it was the kind of place with boat hooks, nets and smuggling paraphernalia on the wall, exclusively cider on tap, and where everyone talked like a pirate. It was exactly what I love Devon for. And, yes, everyone was very understanding when the barman announced over the PA that a car with my registration number was parked on the village green and was preventing the village’s Jubilee party from being set up. Very understanding.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I'm not used to green space. That's why I mistook your village green for a car park.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I’m not used to green space. That’s why I mistook your village green for a car park.

We ate some pie, drank some cider, and went for a walk along the coast.

Sailing Coasting

And when we came back, we joined the East Prawle Jubilee party. There was a folk band, there was sun, there were Union Jacks. Yes the ground was a bit wet and yes some idiot had left tire marks all over the village green, but for a few wonderful hours, I was happy to wave a flag, cheer on kids in swing boats and dance with strangers. I’m not sure how much it had to do with Queen and country, but it had everything to do with community.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

I'll be honest, I don't think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

Advertisements

Travels in 2012 (Part 1 of 4): An Orange in the Alpuljarras

HAVING COMPLETED stage 1 of the annual accumulation of stuff that is Christmas (stage 2 is when you need another bookcase/shelf/cupboard/box in which to put all your new stuff), it occurred to me that 2012 has given me more than consumer products, it’s also given me some travelling tales which I have yet to share. And what better way to share them than through the medium of objects? If the BBC can do it, so can I. Like a shameless album of b-sides released for Christmas, this is a look back at my travels of 2012.

Object 1: An Orange

Object 1: An Orange

And where better to start than an orange? This particular citrus was photographed hanging in the garden of the casita which we rented for a week, in the Apuljarras, Andalucia, Spain.

It’s an orange remarkable not just for the novelty of seeing it on a tree rather than in a supermarket, but also for the fact that it witnessed myself and Beckie, my fiancee, alive and in one piece despite driving on Spanish roads. Ok so Spain isn’t as bad as Central America (where it is common practice to overtake on a bend with simply a hoot of the horn to warn oncomers), but the key difference is that we were behind the wheel, not a grizzled amigo, no stranger to RTA roulette, as was the case when we were travelling in Central America. The casita was deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains and we had no choice but to drive there ourselves. Although actually it wasn’t the mountain roads which were the challenge: it was Malaga.

ARRIVING AT Malaga airport we found the free shuttle bus to take us to our ‘budget’ car hire firm, a short five minute drive from the terminal where all the well known car hire firms were. “Solo mi hoy,” our driver told us as he threw our bags into the back of the minibus and ran around to jump in the driver’s seat. “Arriba arriba!” he shouted as we struggled to do up our belts and he accelerated up to 100 miles per hour. I was glad that Beckie had volunteered to be the first to drive on account of me having a sprained ankle.

Exactly what Malaga doesn't look like. In fact, this is the far lovelier city of Granada, where we stayed for the first week of our Andalucian adventure. That's the Al Hambra in the foreground, largely considered to be one of the must see historical buildings of the world. It rained every single day we were there.

Exactly what Malaga doesn’t look like. In fact, this is the far lovelier city of Granada, where we stayed for the first week of our Andalucian adventure. That’s the Al Hambra in the foreground, largely considered to be one of the must-see historical buildings of the world. It rained every single day we were there. I don’t care if it was a once in a life time cultural experience: I still got wet. I get enough of that in London.

“So,” said the woman at Nisa car hire when we presented our documents, “the insurance that you have covers the wheels and the bottom of the car, but none of the windows or body. Do you want to take out full insurance? It’s six euros a day.”
“Si, si. Definitely. We want the insurance. Por favor.”
“Good,” said the woman behind the desk, “because your car’s covered in scratches already, so it’s hard to find the new ones when you bring it back in.” I smiled encouragingly  at Beckie, and endeavoured to limp a little more convincingly.

“Drive on the right, give way to the left,” I told Beckie as she pulled out of the car hire firm at about two miles per hour onto a roundabout where Spanish drivers were hurtling about with little regard for life or death. Encouraged by my advice from the passenger seat, she navigated our battered car through the streets of Malaga. “That’s good, that’s very good, now remember to give way to the right, yes, that’s it, you’re quite close to the curb now. Really close to the curb. Watch out for that… really close REALLY CLOSE.  You’re going to HIT IT! Ok good, well missed. Ok we also just missed our turning. No I wasn’t looking at the satnav either.”

Part of the Al Hambra. I mainly took this picture to demonstrate that it had stopped raining, however briefly.

Part of the Al Hambra, an amazing Moorish building of incredible architectural and cultural significance. I mainly took this picture to demonstrate that it had stopped raining.

Despite my prophecies of doom as we drove along, Beckie did a fantastic job of getting us to our hotel. I certainly would not have done it so calmly. We arrived successfully at the hotel to find an empty car park.

“Good, now just put it in one of the spaces.” I was starting to get the hang of this driving thing. However, after Beckie had five attempts to put the car in a space – driving forward, then back, then forward again to straighten it up – I was starting to think that my cheerleading from the passenger seat was ineffective. Then the receptionist from the hotel came out. “Please,” she shouted, “for the love of God, stop reversing!” You’re the only people in the hotel tonight, it doesn’t matter where you park.” The two of us were silent for a moment. “Well, I think that we did a really good job there,” I said, nodding, “good reversing.” Beckie gave me a look that confirmed my suspicions about what added value my driving advice was bringing. We had arrived on holiday.

Evidently it didn't rain in Moorish Spain, as there were holes in the roof of the Al Hambra.

Evidently it didn’t rain in Moorish Spain, as there were holes in the roof of the Al Hambra.

We were in Malaga for one night only, before moving onto the lovely city of Granada. I have blanked most of that journey from my mind, but I do still occasionally get flashbacks to the bit where we ended up in a pedestrianised part of the city and had to slowly inch our car through crowds of people before dropping off the curb and back onto the road. Granada: I love you, but what is going on with your road system?

I won’t rehearse our week in Granada, save to to say that IT RAINED. I may already have mentioned that. Next stop: Las Alpujarras.

OUR CASITA was at the end of an unpaved road, which we inched along at about 5 miles per hour, rocks flying everywhere. We were deep in the Alpujarras, near the town of Orgiva – and, yes, the sole reason that we had come here was because we had both read and loved Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons, an account of how he and his wife had moved to the Alpujarras and bought a farm. On our way down the rocky track we passed some workmen digging a hole by the side of the road. I nodded to them in a manly fashion, I hoped giving the impression that I knew where I was going and that every day I drove over uneven ground in a totally inappropriate car. They didn’t nod back.

Remarkably, we arrived at the Casita in one piece: the rain had gone, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Our garden looked like this:

Oranges! In a tree! In our garden! That's what travelling is all about.

Oranges! In a tree! In our garden! Surely this is what holidays are all about?

My guide to making your very own orange juice:

First: collect your oranges.

First: collect your oranges.

Select only the best ones.

Select only the best ones.

It's ok to eat oranges from off the floor, right? There's no three second rule or anything? Don't worry if they're dirty. It probably won't kill you.

It’s ok to eat oranges from off the floor, right? There’s no three second rule or anything? Don’t worry if they’re dirty. It probably won’t kill you.

Be wary of buzzing things in the tree above your head. It could be a bee. A killer bee.

Be wary of buzzing things in the tree above your head. It could be a bee. A killer bee.

It's a killer bee! Panic! Panic! Remember: don't drop any oranges when you run away like a girl.

It’s a killer bee! Panic! Panic! Remember: don’t drop any oranges when you run away like a girl.

Don't worry, if you didn't drop any oranges then it's ok, you didn't look that stupid. If you did drop oranges: return to step 1.

Don’t worry, if you didn’t drop any oranges then it’s ok, you didn’t look that stupid. If you did drop oranges: return to step 1.

Next: cut your oranges in half. Getting bored yet? Don't worry if not, you soon will be.

Next: cut your oranges in half. Getting bored yet? Don’t worry if not, you soon will be.

Now, squeeze your oranges. By now you should be beginning to wish that you'd just bought some orange juice from the shop.

Now, squeeze your oranges. By now you should be beginning to wish that you’d just bought some orange juice from the shop.

Well done! You've successfully navigated the perils of killer bees, looking like a moron, and repetitive strain injury to deliver one glass of orange juice.

Well done! You’ve successfully navigated the perils of killer bees, looking like a moron, and repetitive strain injury to deliver one glass of orange juice.

Finally: drink your juice! Refreshed? Good, because someone else probably needs a glass as well. Return to step 1. Remember to remind yourself that you're on holiday.

Finally: drink your juice! Refreshed? Good, because someone else probably needs a glass as well. Return to step 1. Remember to remind yourself that you’re on holiday.

We spent five blissful days sitting in the sun and reading. It’s lucky that we didn’t want to go anywhere, as the morning after we’d I’d arrived we walked up the dirt road to go to the town. About half a mile up the road – the sole access to the Casita – was a hole, dug by the workmen that I’d nodded to the day before. It stretched across the entire road. We were able to walk past it, but there was no way you’d get a car past. It was Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. There wasn’t a single workman in sight. Whilst we were staring at the hole, a local resident struck up conversation with us. We told him that we were leaving on Wednesday. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I spoke to the workmen yesterday. They said that they’re probably going to fill it in by Tuesday.” I shrugged, as is the Spanish way, put it to the back of my mind and went to the shop to buy some orange juice.

On the penultimate day, there was a power cut. We noticed because the beer wasn’t cold in the fridge. It was a minor disaster, but we soldiered on. That evening, we lit candles. It was romantic. We did note that the other casitas further down the road seemed to have electric lights, but thought no more of it. On our final day, we were still without electricity, so we called the owners of the Casita, who (of course) lived in England. Was it the fuse box that had gone? No it wasn’t. What could it be? They arranged for a handyman to come out and have a look. About an hour later, a small German arrived on our doorstep. He looked at the fusebox. He looked at the electrics. Then he went outside to the road, where the electricity meter was housed. “Aha!” He shouted, when he opened it up. “Here is your problem! You have no electricity meter. They have come and taken it away!”
“Who has?” I asked.
“The electricity board of course.”
“But why would they do that?”
“Well, the owners must be not paying the bill for this to happen.”
“Right.”

That night we had candles again. It was less romantic.

Still, we left the next day refreshed and rejuvenated in a way that can only be achieved by time away from home. This lasted half a mile, until we reached the hole in the road. Which was still there. A large man in a hard hat and a high vis jacket stood next to the hole, his belly poking out from under his T-shirt. He idly watched me inch the car up to the hole. I stopped and wound down the window.
“Is it possible to drive over?” I asked, in my broken Spanish.
He looked at the car, he looked at the hole.
“Si,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Si!” He nodded more vigorously this time.
I folded in the wing mirrors, hugged the car to the wall and started to inch across the remaining strip of road, my friend in the high vis jacket gesturing me onwards.
I nearly made it, but for the fact that my back right wheel fell into the hole with a bang. This didn’t deter Mr High Vis though. No, he manfully got behind the car and pushed, whilst I desperately revved, aggressively spun one of my wheels and generally covered him in dirt. And then suddenly there was traction, and we were away! We left the workman behind us in a cloud of dust. I gave him a cheery wave out of the window, shouted my thanks and was silently grateful that we’d taken out the extra insurance on the car. Thank you Mr High Vis. Sorry about covering you in dirt!

PERHAPS THESE stories don’t reflect the culture, history and learning that we experienced on our trip to Andalucia. And there was plenty. From marching bands:

orange19To people in silly hats:

orange20

But sometimes when you travel, it’s the mundane that sticks in your mind, the familiar things that you end up doing differently. And for me, Andalucia was all about getting my orange juice in the morning.