Monday 24 September 2012

How did my belly burn the baked beans?

 The Snapper and I had not been away for two and a half years, during which time we’d lived through many stressful life events. We really needed a break, so I ignored the fact that we couldn’t afford it, surfed d’internet and booked us a lovely little self-catering housheen called ‘O Serro’, a mile up a hillside outside the Portuguese village of Santo Estevao.

At this point I need to point out that I find little so irritating as scribblers waxing lyrical about their time away in hot climes, while you’re sitting at your kitchen table in the West of Ireland, sheltering from the wind and rain, sipping your tea as you try to figure out how to pay the leccy bill. The only reason I feel free to write about my rare holidays is that I am never one of those columnists who goes ‘away’.

You know the type - ‘So and So is away’, ‘Blah de Blah will be back next week’. They are, to my mind, a bunch of slackers. If I have a colyoom to write, I will send in copy week in week out, whatever terrible or wonderful events might be taking place in my life.

Despite holidays generally being considered testing for relationships, the Snapper and I enjoyed a perfectly uneventful and exceedingly relaxing time. She read a big thick book each day as I stared out into space, regarding the view of olive trees and the nature of the Universe.

Then we went out to dinner in inexpensive local restaurants, drank too much wine, and the next day did the same again. I swam in the pool at 5 each day, by which time I had it all to myself, and a couple of times we went into the town of Tavira, the jewel of the as yet unspoilt East Algarve. 

It was a fantastic holiday, yet almost completely void of scribbleworthy events. But there was that strange business with my belly and the burning of the baked beans.

In our little holiday kitchen there was a set of black hi-tec smooth glass electric hobs, with little red lights for controls, a locking device and a Masters Degree from Harvard University. 
It required only the slightest of fingertip touches to activate the hobs.

Being ‘orribly Ingerlish, I enjoy a fry wherever I am, so I was scrambling up the eggs on one hob, turning the rashers in the pan on the other, while the beans were just heating up slowly on the back hob - except no, they weren’t - they were bubbling away like mad bad beans intent on baking themselves into a vile glutinous goo.

Looking down at the super-sensitive control button, I saw that somehow the temperature of the back hob had gone from a lowly ‘3’ to a high ‘9’, so I quickly turned it down, only to find a few seconds later that it was somehow back up again.
Did the hob have a mind of its own?
Was it built by Germans to confound this dumb English mind?
Was it some kind of safety device that tried to stop tourists eating bad things that might kill them prematurely?

 No, because if it was that, the beans would survive while the super-fatty Portuguese bacon would have been zapped to oblivion. Waving a finger an inch above the button I watched the numbers riding up from 3 to 4, 5, 6. Aha! The controls were designed so that you didn’t even have to get a mucky paw-print upon them.

Trouble was, as I reached over to stir another pot, your scribbler’s belly was hanging over the controls. My voluminous middle regions were casting a shadow which was turning up the hob and causing my baked beans to bubble and burn.

‘Tis a sad and terrible day when your belly ruins your food before it has a chance to digest it, but it gave us something to laugh about as we ate our breakfast, and the fact that this sad tale was the only noteworthy event of our 10 day stay shows what a splendid holiday we had.

Indeed, I wondered what on earth I’d write about if I lived there, with my notepad blank for over a week. We had barely left Knock Airport on our return when I was off scribbling like a mad thing.

As I turned Shaaany Car onto the N17 from the airport exit, a giant sign declared that the McWilliam Park Hotel was just 15 minutes away. A yard further on, a roadsign stated Claremorris was 28 kilometres away, which set off my mental arithmetic buds, arriving at the conclusion that to get to the hotel in the advertised time I’d have to drive around 112kph, which is not only illegal but massively unlikely, given the multitude of slow Holy Drivers travelling the roads around the Marian Shrine.

I mooted the hotel owners might argue that when they said ‘15 minutes’ they didn’t really mean it literally, but more, that conversational Irish kind of 15 minutes, as in

‘Sure it’s only 15 minutes away, d’ya know, like!’
which can mean anything up to an hour.

Whatever the reality, it was great to be back in the land of obfuscation and paradox. A mere half hour later I stood in a roadside shop, staring at two different special offers for Diet Coke. One shelf had a label offering 1.25 litres for only €1.00, while a few feet away another offer suggested I should buy 1 litre of Diet Coke for only €1.50.
My brainbox was blitzed by the early morning flight, so I called over the Snapper.
“Which one do you want, babe? I can’t work out what it all means!”
“It means we’re home my love!” she offered wisely, and for that my notebook is truly grateful.

 For information about O Serro, contact:
Joe and Kersten Funck-Knupfer
Tel. +351 281961692

Monday 17 September 2012

Sit back, relax and enjoy the torture!

Thanks to

“Where are we going on holiday?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see where Michael O’Leary wants us to go.”

Such is the power of Ryanair that when the Snapper and I planned our first holiday for two and half years, we knew that we’d be going somewhere that the airline flies to from either Knock or Shannon.

At this stage of things I’m pretty familiar with the Ryanair website. I know how to jump through its hoops, finding all the new places where a box has to be checked, a drop-down menu has to be obeyed, and am aware that if we want to check bags and take priority boarding, we can add around €100 to the advertised fare.

O’Leary is the catalyst of a massive success in social engineering. We all do as we’re told. We fly from Ryanair airport to Ryanair airport. Terminals are filled with passengers pulling little 10kg bags, which don’t have to be checked in, because if everyone checked in bags Ryanair’s planes couldn’t be turned around in 25 minutes. If they take longer than that, the company starts to lose money.

It’s all about speed, which is why passengers are herded onto flights in such a way that your colyoomist finds it difficult to resist the temptation to start going “Mmmooo-ooo!” and “Baaa-baaa-baaa!” as we’re moved along.

From the days when the journey to a foreign destination was something to look forward to, flying is now the opposite of exotic.

To be fair to Ryanair, they do what they say they will. They get you there on time, a task admittedly much facilitated by timetables that allow at least an extra half an hour on the actual flying time.

As a grown-up, I’d really like to believe I have some control over my own behaviour, but for some reason flying Ryanair drives me demented. I know that their website will be testing, so I play by O’Leary’s laws until I want something different, and then choose to pay him handsomely to do it my way. All fine and fluffy enough, but every time I slump down in my seat on the plane, I try and fail to contain my ire.

I know the flight is only an hour or two out of my life. I know that the cabin crew are just doing their job; that it’s not their fault. I know what’s going to happen and know that I am capable of being a strong person.

But as soon as the attendant comes over the tannoy and tells us to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight, every muscle in my body goes tense, including the ones that seem to crush my brainbox. It’s ridiculous, I know, especially as I am well versed in the ways of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I’ve meditated, been mindful and spent a wedgy chunk of my life trying to improve my infantile reactions to known stimuli.

This is my known stimulus: ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.’

Maybe if they didn’t say that, I’d manage better. Maybe if they said “Sit back and prepare to be bombarded by an incessant series of sales pitches delivered with no enthusiasm by an exhausted and overworked crew who have to pile through this entire damned list five times a day, at ear-screeching volume levels, in a variety of completely unintelligible accents!” I might be able to handle it just a little better.

Instead they tell me to relax and then tell me that onboard today we have cold drinks, hot drinks, pizza, other hot food items, sandwiches and model planes. We are also privy to the exclusive sale of wondrous contaminants like Jade Goody Toilet Water and Essence de Beckham. If we want to help the Children of Syria then Ryanair’s partners, the Untied Nations’ Unesco will gladly take contributions for the kiddies. 

Then they try to sell us telephone call cards, scratch cards, cigarettes that have no tobacco and little sachets filled with gin and vodka, by which time I want to grab the entire box of whiskey sachets (whiskey sachets? Yuk!) off the trolley and gorge on them until I rise again, reinvented as a mad dribbling laughing crazily Soldier of Fortune bent on revenge.

If I know all this is going to happen why do I get so upset? Well, here we come upon another great aspect of the Ryanair phenomenon. Just before I start to get too down on myself for reacting so pathetically to someone simply trying to flog me a train ticket for the Stansted Express at the same time as they try to sell me Hertz Car Rental, I find I’m not alone.

In one way or another, Ryanair manage to drive everyone crazy. Some cannot stand O’Leary himself, but I have no beef with the man. He is no hypocrite, brazenly representing 21st century corporate culture in all its single-mindedness. Others are driven insane by the website, but as I said, I’m over that. Others go bananas over the online check-in, or the credit card charges, or the weight restrictions.

The last time I flew Ryanair we passengers had been sent to board the plane, only to find ourselves jammed up against a locked door at the end of the corridor. A security guard the other side explained that we shouldn't have been sent there yet, as the plane wasn’t ready.

All classes of Ryanair life were in that human wedge. Hand Baggage Only's rubbed shoulders with Luggage Checkers and Priority Boarders. One bloke had even paid to reserve his own seat.

Yet together we grumbled and gave out, and as my ears filled with the collective dissenting voices of all these others, I started to feel less worried about my own Ryanair neuroses.
Ryanair, like death, is the great leveller. 

We all use it and even though we dislike it for a variety of different reasons, within our common bond of loathing we are building a happy and burgeoning sense of community!

Saturday 15 September 2012

Trap’s hiding behind a herd of elephants!

(Better late than never -  this appeared in last week's paper, but I've been away on my hols, so apologies if it seems out of date. Normal service resumes on Monday.)

Who knows how Ireland will fare in their World Cup warm-ups, but whenever I see Giovanni Trappatoni, I laugh privately inside. I can’t help it, and it’s not just a little giggle. It’s a bloomin’ great big guffaw.

What right do I have to mock the man? Well, the Irish national team’s manager certainly had a record worthy of respect, before he took the Irish job. He’d won all the major UEFA competitions together with league championships in four different countries, but the first time I heard about him was back in June 2007, when he was manager of Red Bull Salzburg.

I’m apologising in advance here, my colyoomistas, because I’m brazenly about to publish a clip from a colyoom some of you read in this noble rag five years ago.

Back then I played it just for laughs, but today you’re reading it because we now know well who he is. As your manager, he’s been extracting the urine from your country for years.

Anyway, first the laughs. Here’s the clip from the June 2007 colyoom:

‘ Giovanni Trapattoni, who I strongly suspect might be Italian, is the coach of Austrian soccer champions, Red Bull Salzburg.
Showing a poetic talent that, despite his managerial achievements, suggests he might well have followed the wrong career, Snr. Trapattoni let rip at a bunch of German journalists who were criticising his fitness coach, Fausto Rossi.
“Our training is strong. Is modern. Training wins also. I have 21 trophies. There is blah, blah, blah from you. Fools write who know nothing. Blah, blah, blah, blah. I can understand people paying. No problema! Let whistle, is right. Have lost. But run 90 minutes! I am a professional when it comes to psychology. We train, make fitness. You people always make qua, qua, qua! Shit fools!” ’

Doubtless the words of a genius, but is he somebody you’d want as your boss? Not your football team’s boss, but actually yours?

Would you like to go into a meeting on a Monday morning and be told

“We must for to go biff sales and then bang bang very physical on budget deficit it will be.”
It’s neither politically correct nor internationalist of me to suggest that working for someone who doesn’t speak your language might not be the best scenario, but when the leader of your pack is meant somehow to transpose charisma through an interpreter, it’s like expecting your rasher to go “Oink!”

Yes, major global negotiations are successfully completed through interpreters, but when it’s just you and your boss and he doesn’t understand what you’re saying and you haven’t a clue what he’s on about, it just doesn’t work.

Footballers need to want to play for their managers. They need to be inspired and enthused by them.

A lack of common language was a big part of the problem with Fabio Capello’s England team, but while it was the elephant in the room in his case, Trappatoni’s stewardship of Ireland has a herd of elephants trampling throughout the building.

The man doesn’t go to games. He has teams of people who go to games for him and he watches videos, but Fabio went to games, and England’s new manager Roy Hodgson has announced plans to see a game in every Premier League ground at least once this season. 
Hodgson already has long-standing relationships with many of the Premiership’s other managers, has known all the players for years and in his own way, speaks their language.

Obviously Trappatoni knows his stuff, but at this stage of his career you have to forgive him for taking the big paycheque and sitting back. I know there are legions of Irish fans out there protesting
“But he took us to the Euros, and only Thierry’s fingers stopped us from winning the World Cup and and and...”

Cop on lads. The spirit of Roy Keane is upon me. Stop thinking so little of yourselves. Stop expecting to lose and stop being satisfied with making it to a tournament every ten years.

There are loads of excellent Irish players in the Premiership, Championship and SPL. Having closely watched the evolution of your Boys in Green for 20 years, I’ve enjoyed the journey from Saint Jack’s “You’ll Never Beat The Irish’ boys, solid at the back and capable of miracles like beating the Italians in a World Cup, through Mick’s more attacking formula, with Duffer’s speed and width, Dunny’s defensive heroics and Robbie’s boyish Lineker love of toe-poking goals.

For a while Ireland looked less frightened of losing and had more belief in winning, but now, after Brian and Stan and Trap it’s all gone wrong.

Never thought I’d say this, but Keano for Ireland. Raise the bar.

Everything I’ve read of Trappatoni over the years concerns his on-off relationship with Irish players. Apparently, his preferred method of dumping players is by text message. I’d say he was like a teenage girlfriend, but that’d be unfair to teenage girlfriends. He’ll fall out with you over the most infantile matter, and then say “If you call I might pick up but I’m not calling you.”

So the talent that might have been Stephen Ireland goes missing, alongside Hunt and Hoolahan and all the many others who have been in or out of favour, and still he doesn’t go to games.

To judge footballers you have to see them play. It’s not difficult, even when you have to suffer the ignominy of having your annual salary cut from €1.7m a year to a measly €1.5m.

Awwww. Poor diddums. Somehow he even managed to wring some positive PR out of that gesture, saying he understood the state of the nation.

For that dosh you have to recognise the faces of and be at least speaking to all your best players. Trappatoni is having a laugh and the sooner it’s dealt with the better. There’s a tremendous team of Irish Internationals out there. It’s just such a shame they don’t play for Ireland.

Monday 3 September 2012

The dangers of shopping with testicles!

Every year it rains buckets throughout July and August, yet every year everyone says 
“Sure isn’t it terrible, we’ve had no Summer at all, no Summer to speak of at all!”

Well I’m not disappointed, because that was a typical Galway Summer.

Being a pedantic old sod, I was much more irritated by the little sponsorship identitag Avonmore showed before the Summer weather forecast on RTE.

“Add some plant sterols to your daily routine” or somesuch it said, as we were shown a glass of Avonmore Heart Active milk being poured into a bowl of cereal, blueberries, peaches and other fresh fruit.

You’re eating blueberries, peaches and other fresh fruit? So why in the name of all good things in the Universe do you need plant sterols in your milk?

Harrumph and middle aged man’s pathetic little grumble over, I’m looking forward to that reversal of weather we in the West of Ireland enjoy in Spring and Autumn, with high pressure bringing dry easterly winds.

I love those sunny Autumn Galway days, where there’s a nip in the air under clear blue skies and the tourists have all gone home thinking it does nothing but rain in Ireland.

Time to sit in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one, and look at the withered plants that once dared to impose colour onto those wet Summer days. So don’t be in a rush to put away your garden furniture.

I’d be sitting on mine, were it not for the misguided generosity of Soldier Boy.

‘Twas years ago, a few days before the Snapper and I were to be married, that Soldier Boy headed out to buy our wedding present. He’d asked, so we said any help with garden furniture would be brilliant. We were living in a terraced house with a tiny patio garden, where a small table and chairs would do the job.

So off he went to B&Q to buy just that. His intentions were more than honourable but he was still physically attached to his testicles, so as soon as he entered the shop his Alpha Male eyes were drawn to exactly where B&Q wanted them: a massive gas barbeque on display, pure cool, with shelves for your kebabs, scrapy area for your scrapy bits, handles for your tools and skewers, hangy hooks for your cold bottles of beer and pepper spray canisters, and an area underneath big enough to store the smoke-infused wood chippings of four giant redwoods. 

Best of all, it had a huge lid with a built-in dial that had a needle that had a Red Zone.
I imagine Soldier Boy coming over all wobbly.
This was a barbeque with a Red Zone.

Man oh man oh man! How could they not want this? 
Wasn’t it the best thing anyone could ever buy anyone for a wedding present?

A few hours later the Snapper came home and jumped out of her skin when she saw two people crouched down in the back garden. To make the best ever barbeque the best ever surprise, Soldier Boy had secretly recruited the Snapper's friend, climbed over our back wall, opened the gate and assembled the barbeque for our delectation and delight.

We all stood back with our hands on our hips and looked at it. The air was roasting from the glowing smile burning off Soldier Boy’s proud face.

“It’s great mate! Massive. Let’s sit down and look at it. Oh we can’t. We’ve got no garden furniture!”

Now we had a vast new barbeque but nowhere to put it where we might not see it. We moved it over to the fence, where after a few weeks it started to become one with the clematis. When it threatened to become more hedge than barbeque, I went back to B&Q and paid 40 quid for its own special made-to-measure plastic cover.

Then a chefly friend of the Snapper asked us he if he could borrow it for his annual summer bash, so off it went to Knocknacarra, where he had to spend 25 quid on an adapter so that it could run off an Irish gas cylinder. Then he had to buy a gas cylinder, and then he cooked up a storm on it, using all the jangles and mangles and blowers and stowers because he’s a chef and knows how to.

He has it still. We don’t need it, but ironically now have a garden big enough to swallow it up and spit it out, as if it were merely an insignificant little pipsqueak of a barbeque.
So that friends and family visiting for the wedding might sit somewhere, the Snapper and I nipped off yet again to the dreaded B&Q and bought a table and four chairs for the patio. 
The set proved perfect, so of course, years later, we bought it with us the day we moved house.

Solider Boy arrived to help early that day, eager and happy to start shifting all our stuff, for which I was truly grateful.

In fact so great was his spirit and enthusiasm that I still smiled and never said a word as I saw him unload the garden table out of the back of the van, and slam it onto the gravel of our new driveway. I smiled even as I watched the fittings and rivets fly off the table into the distance, knowing that he had no idea the table was truly broken.

A small strangely poetic part of my soul saw the irony in it; thought it was funny. I waited a long time (in truth - until I needed to have one over on him!) to tell Soldier Boy that while he’d acted with generosity in his soul, thanks to his unique efforts, we now had neither a table nor a barbeque.

Enjoy the sunshine when it comes. I’ll be lying on the grass.