It was going around at the end of February, and I came down with it that weekend, feeling it in the back of my throat during School of Rock. By Tuesday I was in nasal gridlock; which was bad enough by itself, but worse was having to get on a plane the next morning.

One session in the cabin-pressure brain vice later, I was back in Belgium—for five days, half of them at a work event in Leuven. It’s a pleasant town; there isn’t much reason to spend more than a day there as a tourist, but it’s fine if you’ve got other business there. The food’s good, as it always is in Belgium. I self-medicated with half a kilo of pralines. (It can’t have been enough, because I was still clogged up on the flight back; my ear canals were an Adventure in Sound. Whatever it was, it lasted another week.)



Espanyol ee Inglis para Turists

Inglés para viajar vs. Spanish Phrase Book

“Ekskiúsmi, du iú spíiks pánish?”

A-blo mwee poko espa-nyol. ¿A-bla oosted een-gles?

“Ái iast spíik e litl... uát táim das de tréin lif for Lándon?”

—A medya no-che.

“Dats véri léit.”

—See, es tar-de.

“Uér is e réstrant, plíis?”

Kheere a la de-recha, ee seega todo rekto asta lyegar a la ofee-theena de too-reesmo.

“Oukéy. Kuul. Cénkiu.”

[Él va.]

“Ái javn’t anderstúd énicin.”



More Animal Poems

The Flamingo

There is a lake in southern Spain
Unknown to any gringo
Where you can see, in view full plain,
The flaming pink flamingo
Arguing with all the rest
In his peculiar lingo
About which Beatle was the best:
John, Paul, George, or Ringo.



Wonderful Land

You know how travel is all about seeing things you’d never see back home? Well, if you’re from Britain, Australia or the U.S., I can guarantee this is something you’ll never see back home.

Mike Oldfield Graffiti

Ubeda, Spain, 14 February 2004.




Parts one and two, for those coming in late.

Travel around Andalucía for long and you’ll climb a lot of hills. Every second village seems to be built on one, with a castle at its peak. The horizon in the countryside is a sine wave broken by blips of blocky square waves.

There’s a reason for it, of course: for a thousand years this was one of the most contested territories on earth. A few centuries of Visigoth rule gave way to half a millennium of the Moors, who in turn were pushed back over the centuries by the Christian reconquista.

It takes a special brand of righteousness to see the displacement of a civilisation three times as old as the U.S. as an elaborate undo command, but then there are those today who would have the past half-millennium of Catholic history replaced by a new al-Andalus: Spain as blackboard, wiped clean again and again, with traces of old chalk showing through.

The traces of Islamic Spain certainly are glorious. Seeing them, it’s impossible not to dwell on what once was, and what must have been lost. But it’s important to keep these treasures in perspective: they’re noticable because there’s so much of the new around them. The “uninspiring outer suburbs” the guidebooks complain about around every historic centre simply didn’t exist a few centuries or even decades ago. There just weren’t as many people.

Similarly, the survival of the Alcázar, Mezquita and Alhambra need not imply the loss of dozens of their equals. These buildings were the most important of their time, with more work devoted to their creation than any other. And they’re still here; parts have been damaged, it’s true, and a lot else has been lost, but these have survived, and they’re the equal of any monument in the world.




You wait a whole month for an entry, and then two come along at once. Part one is here.

Whenever you travel somewhere new, its tastes and colours and sounds rush at you like a happy child. Like in my favourite photo from Andalucía; the one I never took.

After a morning of wandering around Cádiz, we stopped at a pavement café just up from the markets for lunch. Not the best food we’d had, but some of the best entertainment: at the table behind me a small boy was capering about in full Spider-Man costume, lacking only web-shooters and the bit covering his chin. Jane pointed him out just as he ran past us and uphill to the end of the block. He turned around; paused; and then galloped back down with a big toothy grin on his face, his eyes meeting mine as he passed. Click. (If only.)

Jane watched him throughout the meal, and I snuck a peek once or twice. He was hiding behind the waiters as they were taking orders and watching for customers. Their professional mien was undermined a bit by juxtaposition with a five-year-old in red and blue.

Eventually a woman in her fifties (it must have been his grandmother) called him over and started shooing him up the street. He skipped and danced around her—then give her a Spidey-powered poke in the bum. The last I saw of Marvel’s most popular superhero, he was being chased around a corner by a feisty señora twice his size.




It was way too early to reach the airport. We’d meant to spend the morning seeing Malaga—a quick wander round the centre and perhaps the castle before we left Andalucía—but it all went wrong. The autopista from Nerja was fast enough, but the traffic slowed to a crawl at the edge of the city; and then we lost the signs to the centro, ending up there only by chance after half an hour of random circling.

I spotted a blue P and joined a queue of cars headed down a ramp under the tree-lined main street. Every few minutes another one of us was let through the barrier, until it was our turn. Our turn, that is, to join a line of cars all realising at once that there were no free spaces; or, more accurately, that the free spaces so carefully accounted for in the one-in, one-out calculations had been taken by drivers with special parking needs. Like the need to see a bloody optometrist and stare at an eye chart with a big white line painted down the middle, for future reference.

I drove round and around that pit of carbon monoxide, losing space after space to cars driving the other direction or just behind or ahead of us. The clock kept ticking—there went the castle; there went the cathedral; there went any point in even getting out of the car—until eventually we pulled up at the ticket machine, paid €1,80 for our “parking”, and left.

After taking an hour to get that far, it took barely ten minutes to get out. And since Malaga airport is only a few miles south of the city, we got there way too early. Not before I’d missed the turn-off and driven dangerously close to the tower-blocks of Torremolinos, though; I did a desperate U-turn around an obelisk ringed with sphinxes and labelled MONUMENTO AL TURISTA, and found the right exit next to the San Miguel brewery.