Feel like a tourist?

Don’t know where to start with this one. Partly because I fear trouble lies ahead and partly because it genuinely is difficult to talk about raging furies… and I’ve got one going. Expect me to scuttle past the incorrigible and the politically correct (again) into something recognisably ill-advisedly human. And try to – yaknow – gimme the benefit.

Friends and followers will know I live in Pembrokeshire. We (I mean us as a family, personally) have got bugger all in the way of gargeous property, moolah, land or any of that stuff but what we have around us (my god! Jewel of jewels!) is the coast, The Coast Path, the twinkling sea and the gannets and the smell of mackerel or gorse or honeysuckle or horse-shit or ploughed fields, or the quiet glory that is a mown meadow sprawled out with a single grass-stem in its gob, reading and baking to hay under a smiling, banjo-playing sun. We’ve got all that, always, and particularly in the last week or several we’ve had shed loads, barn loads of it; I’m pretty clear that it’s not just my heart that’s been singing.

Now our tiddly but kinda pleasantly bijou home – four foot deep in kids, animals, wholefood-in-boxes and yeh, animal hairs – is denied a sea view but the total wonder that is the high-rez surround-sound cliff-top is but a hundred and nine point six-two-five yards away. (I labour this because it’s important – key, even – to the unseasonal angst I am about to unleash). Visitors come because they know about, or know something about what Pembrokeshire is.

These visitors, or grockles as we call ‘em, when they fail to reverse into passing places, or sit stupidly and wait whilst a zillion horses clop to all intents and purposes on the spot, preventing us locals from doing actual work in Haverfordwest or Milford, these vis-i-tors do come. (These particular horses, by the way are so experienced and so dumb that you could doughnut your Audi mid-ride and they would barely register your presence, so the alleged courtesy of sitting quietly, engine purring a self-righteous countdown for the life of the planet whilst the (Alexarrnder look! Wubberly geegees!) clomp past is utter townie doe-eyed bollocks). But I do digress…

Visitors stay next door on both sides of us, because on the one hand local people (Guy, computer guy who moves into his garage conversion) cash in and on the other a genuinely delightful family from Brighton/London/all over use their own, second gaff and/or rent it out. In passing I will say that I’m more offended by the amount of money folks charge than the practice of renting out but our hamlet effort is about 40% aliens in the summer and this sometimes feels… undermining. Anyway.

Last week some folks rented Guy’s place and once or twice I said hello to a bloke maybe sixty-odd on my way for that essential snort of briny wotsits with the dog. If pushed, I might place him in ‘The Merch’ on account of his propensity to wear apparently the same white vest for three or four days running whilst having a smoke on the doorstep. Plus he had that slickish back-combed barnet-thing redolent of greasy galley-food and cheery but solitary maritime banter going on. It is arguably entirely irrelevant that this gentleman was/is undoubtedly from Northern Ireland… but it is also undoubtedly true… and so I record the fact.

For some days we had no meaningful contact until one evening Bethan my wife heard The Family Next Door ‘gassing’ in the back garden and described their exchange as being ‘like something out of a cartoon’ but this comment hung, shorn of impact, undervalued, in the air at the time. Then I had a proper conversation with this guy. He nailed me slightly as I passed with the pooch.

You gotta television picture? he asked.

Yeh, we have – and no probs. You have a problem with yours, or what?

Nothing for three days.

Aaah. Hang on (I say) the BT lot were carving up the hedge the other day and bunging up a new pole… they’ll have maybe cut the wire, the donkeys. Happened before.

He neither confirms nor denies that he’s heard this story but I’m somehow immediately certain that Guy has already explained this one to him… and that he’s unimpressed. His manner shifts slightly towards the Miserable Git About to Bore the Universe end of the market. But… I don’t want to hate this man. In fact I want to give him every chance to pull through to Genuine Bloke In a Spot-hood, me being a sucker for well, anyone who patently ain’t posh. I wallow in the possibilities for a moment, giving him every chance – after all, he isn’t posh, he doesn’t reek of privilege, he’s got a working man’s hands and face and manner – no, I don’t want to be hating him, do I? What’s he on about, really?

Me and the wife can just about manage without the telly like but it’s not been easy with the children.

Oh right.

And you got a mobile signal at all?

Nope. Nobody does mate. It’s just a fact of life. You’ll get a mobile signal up there (I point) or up there… but not here. No chance. Just the way it is. Pembrokeshire. Although I reckon there’s something quite nice about not being available when you’re home, to be honest…

Well the telly being off hasn’t been good. Okay for me and the wife but what’s the children (who are grown up, by the way) gonna do? They’ve gone home. Couldn’t stand it anymore… and what happens if there’s a fire and you’ve no mobile… the place is gonna be burnt down before you can do anything…

I’m weirdly stunned; in shock; but immediately the rage is rising. All I can actually get out before easing away is

Well if there’s a fire we’d use a landline, first up… and then we’d probably step outside and call for help or run to the neighbours, as yado…

But I’m already walking away, right? Having swiftly computed the black-and-white of what he’s said, the psychotic, poisonous essence of it… that the children have gone home because there is no telly… walking away, the fury rising yard by yard as I contemplate firstly shocking, summary violence and then calm towards something more proportionate. And then back to justifiable violence once more. Finally I settle and simply wonder what exactly it is that stops me from saying this;

Let me get this right you complete fucking moron. You and your family of unfeeling arse’oles have come to Pembrokeshire where you could walk to a sensational cliff-top in one minute, from where you could walk possibly the finest stretch of coast in Western Europe, or drop down onto a beach that cries out for games or swims or dog-walks or digging or rock-pooling or surfing or paddling out in a sit-on-top or okay just lounging in yer humming fucking vest… and your kids have gone home because there’s no telly? Is this what you’re telling me? With a straight, slightly unremarkable face? With no sense that this marks you out as right up there with the dumbest creatures that have ever walked this earth? You’ve firstly chosen – unless this is some surreal Community Service Award thing(?)- to come to the most beautiful place any sentient being could imagine and then both brain cells have triggered fall-into-a-decline mode because you can’t plonk yer idle underwashed bumholes in front of a gogglebox? In weather that might only be described as absolutely fucking magnificent? When the sun is beaming for you and the gannets are plunging and the sand-eels twirling and the bass practically coming in their pants with excitement… because the whole natural world is screaming ‘Look at me I am a wonder!!’ You, my friend are farting in the living-room and smoking on the doorstep and quite simply unaware… of the presence or value of anything. Well I’m sorry not to sympathise or support your campaign to reduce the rental fee against my friend and neighbour, Guy – that’s where you’re Neanderthal logic is going, right? – but having now reflected upon this and without needing to put this to the committee that is my family and our dog and the pigs in that field… I’ve decided we’re gonna eat you. Bethaaan! Get the knife!

This is clearly how it should have gone. It didn’t, because not only have I read stuff which argues against violence even under appalling temptation, in the main, I believe it. However, despite the need to defer to certain moral guidelines re how we might describe or appreciate other humans, I choose to show no pity in my description of this man and his dumb family, even after a day or three’s reflection.

Yes I know not we’re all reliant or addicted to something and that for many that thing is the telefuckingvision. I find it difficult, though, to claw back from the brink of homicide in this case. To have actually gone home (or in the parents case allowed their offspring to make that choice) is, as we say in Wales, ‘beyond’. They are thus anti-life and their obvious ignorance – traceable to lower life-chances as it may certainly be – offends me so significantly that I react… so. I wanted to cut him up and maybe not eat him but spread him out there for the gulls and the ravens. That feeling remains.

There are bigger questions here, on education and sensitivity and reliance and lack of opportunity as well as issues (of course) around my own levels of tolerance. But in the short term I am left with raw anger at the crushing, crushing stupidity of this ‘ordinary’ family. And sure, sadness that this is where we, the world, the people, the nation, some of us are at – mindless and dead to the most wonderful of things.

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What I did in my holidays, by bowlingatvinny, aged 624.

Travel. Culture. National ‘type’ or character or that thing about how a place feels. Rich but loaded territory. I stumble over it here and waft airily through memories following a break in France and Spain, foolishly crossing over into stuff which we may have to label judgement; knowing it’s not just ludicrous but probably downright wrong to make comparisons between places. It is, however, bloody tempting to try to capture some sense of what was wonderful – what we loved most.

Hey look I’m still cruising down the slope back into the Valley of the Working. Having recently nosed through the Vallée d’Aspe and then gawped at the Pyrenees from both sides, I remain 70-30 (percentage-wise) in the grip of Post Hols Daze-Virus Effort. And I have no raging urge to deny the affliction by deigning to re-enter normal life. Why should I, when so recently we were on Penä Oroel in the balmy heat watching some Aragonese bloke launch a paraglider? Into thermals us West-Walians would poetically-enthusiastically describe as liftin’ with vultures, mun? Why would the everyday exclude or even intrude on that? No, let’s loiter in that memory, please, have tâpas with it and drain the slowest of slow coffees. Until finally we click over into school pick-ups and yaknow, rain.

Yup we went from Wales to France and Spain, flying Stansted-Biarritz and picking up a car to skirt, drift and boot through the mountains to Jaca, Aragon. Critically, we could stay with friends in a tiny hamlet where climbers wipe before entering Los Pirineos; both on a financial level and in terms of accessing local cultural/geographical highlights this helped. In fact it simply made it possible.

Emerging from the likeably tiddly airport at Biarritz, more than faintly disoriented by the cack-handed Megane somebody foolishly hired me, we GET AWAY remarkably. Admittedly I’m looking for the wrong mirror/wrong life-endangering juggernaut but we are unmistakably away and into the drive – into our holiday.

We see some French roads – some Basque roads – and trees and villages. We look at the strangely conflicted words on the signs and fail (consistently) to say half of them. Whilst not quite meandering we draw in some of the local stuff – sweetcorn, mainly – and the colour red and the colour white. And tiles. Then poplars being sentries but maybe the sort that welcome rather than guard. We get in to that French Basque zone, gently… but sure… like tourists. Wondering how San Sebastian can be the same place as Donostia summink-or-other? Maybe searching for some dubious link between Basque and Welsh but ultimately leaving that one be. And just looking.

The flight had been okay. Ryan Air. Meaning a slightly edgy mob of wannabe guitar players, surfers and youngish families, all pretty unashamedly shedding the usual courtesies (here I do mean the passengers more than the staff, who were fine) and unzipping that myth about Brits queuing beautifully. The head stewardbloke – who may in truth have been directing the frenetic activity around him from a position of some Eckle(s)burgian insight – was actually genuinely good value as local prompter and wit, as well as accommodating er …host.

However the incoming flight had been slightly late, meaning an almost worryingly quick turnaround – raising certain perfectly legitimate questions. Like would the pilot need a drink? Or a kip? Would they make sure they had air-in-the-tyres/diesel in the tank/a shammy leather handy to wipe the driver’s window? We were all thinking this, or the aerial equivalent, I know: not just little old ahem plane-phobic me.

No the flight was fine but I’m kindof with Dennis Bergkamp on this. And soon enough, as our drive progressed (and my palms aired) there came to pass a seamless and vacation-appropriate gradation into ease. Bidache; Navarrenx; Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The visual momentum built as we went from countryside with a whiff of the special, to full-on gobsmacking, as we slid, in fact, into the Vallee d’Aspe. Now ’twas proper rip-roaring glacial scenery and proper mountains seen very close up, from the laughably tight valley floor. A brief, syrupy downpour and then tunnels into the guts of all this rock; into Spain.

We’d slithered south-easterly across France and now we plunged north-south just the few tens of kilometres to Jaca, through the area allegedly dotted with ski-resorts. (They are there – around Candanchu – but they simply weren’t on the mission schedule.) With the east-west grain of the Pyrenees at our backs as we ploughed on, we began to recognise gaps or drops into sleeping but boulder-strewn streams and the shoulders of some of the peaks; all this hauled or sprung from the memories of our previous visit, three years ago. We knew something of this place, ‘course we did. And the names now… Sabinanigo, Huesca, Castiello de Jaca. Familiar but still exotic.

About three hours all told to get from Biarritz to our stony, amiably street-dog-friendly village. Clunk the doors and look at the mountains – the foothills actually – Los Pirineos now being a few klicks to our north. Feel the hard, Spanish sun; the heat. A quick shuftie at the map confirms we’re at about Snowdon-height, looking up to between six and seven thousand feet; Snowdon times two, pretty much. Visau’/Bisaurin away and left, Monte Perdido maybe an hour going right. Hikes immediately – and I do mean immediately – available…

Wow. Must walk up there later – remember that next ridge? We walked it. That do-able on a mountain-bike?

(Answer – no, not for me – I tried it. Constant slippage or wheelies or punishing, pointless effort in near enough 90 degrees. My fitness is decent but we just skated on the gravel, on the dust. To be fair it was crazy steep.)

There followed days of exploring and rediscovering. Trudging then latterly floating up Penä Oroel , part shady yomp, part dreamy alpine meadow, concluding with stunning open views which genuinely (in that inadequate phrase) stirred the soul. Or driving with relentless purpose to blissfully little-known pools – pozas – to launch into deep pockets of sometimes shockingly refreshing mountain water. Then perhaps most memorably of all, trekking the bulk of a day, through, over and onto retreating snowbanks around 6,000 feet, faithfully following cairns in the absence of signage or people, to scale Pico d’Aspe. Looking down on France and the universe and (real) chamois(es?) flitting over the snow.

Mix in a dollop of ice-cream or fried squid in the town (Jaca), twenty minutes of Real Sociedad on the telly in the sports bar, plus a mowsie round the cave-cathedral that is San Juan de la Penä… and there you have it – or a flavour of it. Wonderful things and daft things. Like my daughter blowing all her holiday money on riding at Caballos el Pesebre, where instead of Pembrokeshire Nags there were sub-Arabian beauties. Where she cantered round (almost absurdly but beaming) beneath Los brooding but beautiful Pirineos. And I just sat and watched and read further into Homage to Catalonia!

I can’t pretend we engaged deeply with either the local social or political milieu. I am aware, for example, of the disaster that is youth unemployment in Spain and have views on that. I know that dangerous wee bit about the Spanish Civil War and have some relevant history; some; enough maybe to feel the nearness of Franco and hear the enduring bitterness towards the Guardia Civil. But we were tourists, staying with a family of (fluent Spanish-speaking) non-natives. So what was it, exactly, that made me fall for Spain?

The Pyrenees I find stunning and evocative. I failed, I admit, to entirely separate the view from the heroic defiance, the anarchistic militancy and indeed the sacrifice of the population (as was?) Ground like this is going to foster pride and passion and maybe a little wildness and given the essential local connection between folks and earth through time it makes sense that something preciously approaching a worker’s province could emerge here. I am very close to writing that you can still see that – feel it – the land simply seems worth fighting for.

In the 1930’s a truly remarkable revolutionary fire swept through much of Spain and continued to flicker defiantly here, in the forests and the farmsteads. Partly, no doubt, because the geography is with the rebel, the guerrilla, not the government. Partly, I like to think, because the people are big enough, generous enough to battle in order to share. Standing on a peak in Aragon, looking at a land that could not be mastered – not that gorge, not that Alpine slope! – I got sucked into all that… romance.

It’s a leap from here/there to the following – that I prefer Spain to France – but I will make it, without, on this occasion accounting for the frisson around the subtext. I’ll simply own up to the preference for (imagined) 20th century Spanish defiance over (imagined) French capitulation; that should do it.

There’s a certain deep richness to rural northern Spain which blows me away. Kindof uniquely. There is, in Los Pirineos, this endless slew of mountains, a splendid, inviolable peace; no doubt related to – arising from? – the scope, the scale of the view, the physical realities. But there is something else, beyond, beneath.

Even allowing for the fact that I was re-reading Homage to Catalonia at the time of our visit and am therefore likely charged with Engaged Lefty Wistfulness, I will dare to suggest that culture, politics, the mix of daily grind and grand philosophical breach – of war, of war, in fact! – breathes into this. In the wonderful, silent greenness of the slopes and the ochre plain I found something very rich and hearty and intoxicating. And though on returning to the French side I was much taken with St Jean de Luz in particular – Spain does it for me.