Monday, October 31, 2005

Blogs - profit or loss?

25% of employees in the US spend on average 3.5 hours per week or 9% of their time engaged in some way with non-work blogs according to a report by Advertising Age. Perhaps companies could use another handy javascript tool to enable them to track the difference between what they could potentially make from blogs and the workplace productivity they already seem to be bleeding?

Friday, October 28, 2005


Somewhat mis-cued CNN piece yesterday on how Guatemala has "shed its bloodstained reputation", that refuses to confront the irony that Latin America's war-zones have become much more dangerous places for visitors since the locals stopped systematically fighting each other.

The fact that Antigua's name even means old is obviously a key draw for the more discerning gringo visitor!

After Hurricane Stan Panajachel must surely have enhanced its reputation as a "scruffy beachfront town". Beta not go there right now.

Pyramid of the Crescent

Scandalously overlooked by the MSM yesterday was this story about what US-based Bosnian archaeologist Semir Osmanagić claims to have discovered within the suspiciously pyramid-shaped hill of Visočica - nothing less than a 12,000 year old Teotihuacan-style tiered pyramid built by an a obscure race known as the Pre-Illyrians. Osmanagić believes that the project would completely change Bosnia's significance in the world of archaeology. Indeed it would, as it would have been erected several thousand years before Mesopotamia and the discovery of agriculture!

Compulsive Viewing

British TV studios may echo to the famous warning about children and animals, but Ankawa, one of TVe's flagship programmes since its launch last June, amply demonstrates the deep-seated Spanish psychological need for spectacles of incipient danger and unruly bedlam.

Hosted by Andaluz crooner Bertín Osborne and involving a panel of small kids and lots of visiting exotic animals, you could say it was a children's programme - except that unlike say Blue Peter, it has a prime-time slot (10pm-midnight) and features outbursts of verbal obscenities, racism, sexism, animal-porn, in fact, you name it, it has it. Except perhaps expert naturalists; and safety, as the show's regular activities include blindfolded z-list hispanic celebrities sticking their hands into boxes containing surprise fauna, such as cobras, parrots and lobsters, and tigers and elephants often wander freely around the set.

The kids on the panel are almost as freakish as their pets. The other night a little girl invited to talk about her pet canary* mentioned that she had visited Africa and Nachete, the most inaguantable brat in residence, screeched "Allí hay mucho negro!" (There are loads of blacks over there). There used to be a black kid on the panel, but he appears not to have survived.

Another piece of compulsive Spanish television viewing is Vamos a Cocinar hosted by prestigious Asturian cook José Andrés. Not since Keith Floyd has TV cooking been such fun to watch, and unlike the itinerant dipsomaniac, José Andrés regularly comes up with dishes that look as if they might also be fun to prepare and consume yourself! His kitchen monologue, a mix of informative and witty chatter, is irresistible - a vast improvement on that blathering old woman Rick Stein and the muculent Gary Rhodes.

When not appearing on TVe José Andrés is Washington-based and has related to his viewers the problems he faces smuggling specialist Iberian embutidos (sausages) into the USA. (If you've seen Maria Full of Grace you will understand how challenging this might be!) He has four restaurants in DC - Jaléo, his flagship, along with Café Atlantico, Oyamel and Zaytinya.

Credited with having introduced the 'small plate' concept to America, it appears that ungenerous portions come naturally to a fellow that has the canny look of a parsimonious provincial. (V calls his salads ensala-nadas!) Yet small can be beautiful - such as his simple little tapa of serrano ham chopped up with the scooped-out interior of a ripe fig. Olive oil is something he never stints on though.

Watching him wiping his eyes as he cut up some onions for an escabeche the other night it was plain that he has yet to discover V's trick for avoiding this sort of tearful chopping - if you place a little glass of water near the onions the offending molecules seek out this liquid instead of your eyes. The only other way is to use a very sharp knife which doesn't break down the cells so much. (Since I originally posted this José Andrés has recommended cooling the onions in the fridge before chopping, a tactic which makes the emerging sulphur gases less volatile.)

As if on a mission to wipe out the memories of some of the less entrancing experiences of continental cuisine on our recent trip V has had a very inventive month in the kitchen. The highlights have been a side-dish of red cabbage cooked slowly with balsamic vinegar honey and sultanas, and quince shallow-fried with white wine and honey and served with a mixture of basmati and nanjing black rice. She's also done great things with the orecchiatte we bought near Modena.

Another denizen of the wild Iberian frontier of political correctness is Maria-Rosario-Cayetana FitzJames-Stuart y Silva, the Duchess of Alba, one of Europe's great aristocratic eccentrics and a descendent of our own James II. More on her another day perhaps.

*The bird actually belonged to her grandmother and has 'died' four times, each time seamlessly replaced to spare the old lady from grief, though the little girl had failed to consider the possibility that her abuela was watching the programme that evening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Can you trust CGM?

A couple of days ago the Guardian set out to undermine some of our confidence in consumer-generated media by assembling a team of topic experts to review a fairly random set of Wikipedia entries. You have to wonder whether any of them went on to correct any of the errors they detected, which is after all the whole point of this marvellous resource.

Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World (highly-recommended!) gives the Wikipedia article on the Basque people 7/10.

He cites three main objections to it, one of which reads as follows: "The entry talks of Navarra as though it is a non-Basque region where a lot of Basques happen to live. There are actually seven Basque provinces, each with its own dialect of Euskera and slightly varying traditions. Four of them are in Spain and Navarra is one of them."

Hang on. There are three provinces in the autonomous Basque region of Spain, and Navarra isn't one of them. It may be part of the mythical fatherland, but so was Czechoslovakia as far as the Germans were concerned in the 1930s.

Navarra/Nafaroa/Navarre has always been an unusual trans-pyrennean hybrid. It almost became a nation state in its own right and gave the Bourbon/Borbón dynasty (not generally Euskera-speaking) their first monarchical gig before they went on to rule both France and Spain. Although the north of the old kingdom is indeed culturally Basque, the Navarrese sided with Franco in the Civil War.

Anyway, the "territorial agenda" is once again big news in Spain. Yesterday ETA indulged in some small scale bombings, just to remind everyone of their continued existence. The nationalist-dominated Basque parliament is pressing for direct EU representation and want to scrap the Statute of Guernica (part of the 1978 constitutional fudge), in order to reposition the three provinces as free associates of the Spanish state.

The debate is now more open as Zapatero has established an annual parliamentary debate on regional matters. His predecesor Aznar didn't exchange a single word with the Basque leader ('Lehendakari') Juan José Ibarretxe for the last two years of his premiership. Indeed the former PM probably signed up to Dubya's coalition of the willing partly in order to give the War on Terror some domestic dentures. He managed to outlaw Batasuna, the political wing of the more hard-line Basque nationalists, but the strategy came unstuck when his party was ejected from power after trying to pin the blame for the Madrid bombings on ETA.

The Basques have more to lose than the Catalans, who appear to be driven primarily by a wish to have to pay less for the lackadaisical diegos of Andalucia. (Catalunya knocks up 18% of Spanish GDP). They too have drafted a new 'Estatut' which the PP says threatens the inviolability of the Spanish state. Is this the beginning of balkanisation or readjustment to changed international institutional circumstances? The role of the traditional nation state in the global economy is certainly not the same as it was in 1978, but these debates are spiced up with the condiments of identity, culture and historical politics.

Zapatero sits on top of an informal coalition. His party, the PSOE has historical sympathies with the Catalan workers, and right now he needs to hold their support in parliament. Interesting times.

Another one of Kurlansky's objections to the Wikipedia piece on the Basques was that "It says: "Aquitanians spoke a language which is proven beyond doubt to be akin to Basque." I am not familiar with the Aquitaine language but would be very surprised if it bore any relation to Euskera, the Basque language."

Yet clearly some scholars do believe that the Aquitanii had Basque roots; and when you search Google for 'basque AND aquitanii' you find several pages that support this - such as this one on, which refers to "Basque names of deities or people in late Romano-Aquitanian funerary slabs."


The King of Norway's big white yacht, Norge, is still moored beside St Katherine's Dock this morning. It's crew, mostly gathered aft at a wooden table when I passed, were all wearing black sweaters and berets giving the impression that the vessel might belong to a vintage Bond villain.

The Queen of Norway and crown princess Mette will attend a literary luncheon at the Groucho Club in Soho today. Not the sort of thing our own philistine monarch goes in for.

CNN has had little time for Wilma, even when it whooshed up the west coast of Florida - they're definitely bored with storms now. Hurricane coverage is all about the story, not the news. Katrina fed the story of American social and racial division and the incompetence with which Louisiana's officialdom went about sheltering their population. Wilma could have fed a story about how surprisingly competently the Yucatan authorities went about a similar task, but this story isn't about Mexicans and they have been almost totally invisible within the blanket media coverage about dream holidays that became a nightmare.

Talking of which, Kasbah (2000) is a Spanish-Argentine take on the holiday from hell formula. Spain is the only Western European nation with (more or less) one of those American-style frontiers with Third World otherness, permitting its citizens to climb into their cars and drive south into a dusty place full of dirty, dodgy indigenes and proactively unhelpful officials.

The plot is baroque and increasingly ridiculious and soap opera-like as its unwinds. Essentially though it is about Mario (Ernesto Alterio), bastard son of a wealthy bastard, who finds himself vacationing in picturesquely inhospitable Morocco with his beautiful, money-worry free half sister Laura (played by Elena Ballesteros), who promptly vanishes - a key moment, because up until that point she was probably the main reason for watching the film! Cue dodgy natives and unhelpful officials, obligatory jail room scene etc.

Mario's situation at first seems unfortunate but he seems to invite more and more trouble for himself. His salvation clearly lies in falling into the slinky arms of kooky hippie Alix (Natalia Verbeke - who also starred with fellow Argie Ernesto Alterio in El Otro Lado de La Cama) and avoiding the more muscle-bound alternatives attached to the torso of pyschotically-chippy trucker-mercenary Rodrigo.

By the time Laura reappears it no longer seems important, as the film appears to have degenerated into a video for its own soundtrack. Entertaining enough though.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Autumn of the Patriarch

I got through this novel the same way it was written; fitfully. García Márquez spent the best part of seven years (1968-1975) refining it before finally submitting it for publication in Madrid and it has taken me almost twice as long to cross the finishing line.

Borges famously observed of Gabo's One Hundred Years of Solitude that "The first 50 years aren't bad at all". Here it's not so much that you feel that you are progressively moving from the depths to the shallows, but that you are getting less and less out of this imaginative swirl of hyper-history.

'Patriarch' has an Amazon sales rank today of 53, 486, the lowest of the Colombian writer's three acknowledged masterpieces. (One Hundred Years of Solitude is at number 513, whilst Love in the Time of Cholera is a respectable 2,759th.) There's no doubt that it's a much more challenging read than the others. It sports an experimental style Gabo is said to have borrowed from Faulkner, but reminds me of nothing less than the sparsely-punctuated emails I get from friends and family in Guatemala, with their never-ending sentences often bearing sudden, disconcerting shifts of perspective.

It belongs to an illustrious quartet of novels that represent the worst excesses of Latin American despotism in the twentieth century. The others are Yo, el Supremo (1974) by Augusto Roa Bastos (not one I've read), Miguel Angel Asturias' El Señor Presidente (1946) and Mario Vargas Llosa's La Fiesta del Chivo (2000).

Gabo deliberately made his patriarch a composite, containing elements of all the solitary, paranoid tyrants he had ever read about, and while this makes for an elaborate and powerful portrait, at times it lacks the red passion of real history in its veins - a quality the others have in abundance. This tendency towards the generic is further exacerbated by Gabo's intention to use this exploration of the "solitary vice of power" to throw further light on the character-type, abundant in all his novels, that is congenitally incapable of the emotion (and virtue) of love. The resulting re-imagined archetype is eerily reminiscent of not only of the twentieth century's most notorious dictators, but also of some of its Popes and celebrities, most obviously Michael Jackson.

Just outside the big trio of the Gabo canon lies Chronicle of a Death Foretold, possibly my favourite of his works. It too is stylistically complex, beginning with its own conclusion and then spiralling around the preceeding events before returning on the last page. It's also a lot more like a real story, with the necessary elements of dramatic tension so clearly missing in 'Patriarch'.

Still, there's no question that this novel deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. Every ten pages or so Gabo distills a landmark hyper-truth from another striking image that emerges triumphantly from the metaphorical glut. This literary sorcery is just enough to keep you turning the pages.

Gabo's anciano crepuscular has the walls of his palace toilet whitewashed each day so that he can keep up to date with the latest malicious graffiti-gossip, yet by the end of his unfathomably long reign it is he alone who is scratching "Que viva el General!" onto these same walls, while in the afternoons he watches ersatz episodes of telenovelas on CCTV, created specially for him.

In this autumn of his rule, after his nation's gringo creditors have carried off the Caribbean sea in numbered pieces, the General discovers that it is "impossible for him to give an order that had not been carried out long before", that his officers and ministers are keeping him in "the senile backwater of the hammock", yet don't dare kill him because they know that afterwards they would have to kill each other.

"We ended up not understanding what would become of us without him" admits one of the many voices making up what one critic has called the "stream of national consciousness".

Gabo is said to have recommended Gregory Rabassa's English translation as an improvement on his original! This may have further embittered Guatemala's Nobel Laureate Asturias whose own masterworks fared less well in translation. In spite of the faults of the English-language version, El Señor Presidente ('Mr President'!) is still my strongest recommendation to anyone that only has the time (or stomach) for one Latin American literary tyrant.

(PS: It was Edith Grossman not Gregory Rabassa who rendered Love in the Time of Cholera in English and bizarrely skipped a whole page in the process. The mistake is hard to detect because fortuitously some continuous sense has been preserved, but it does significantly change the meaning of the scene that has been thus accidentally abridged.)


Both Creep and the recent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre demonstrate the extent to which gruesomeness has become the standard surrogate for genuine suspense in this genre.

Roger Ebert said of the latter film that it is "vile, ugly and brutal..don't let it kill 98 minutes of your life". Well, it only killed about 60 of mine as I switched on just as the first young hippie was being scrapped for parts.

From what I saw it actually felt more atmospheric than Creep which made ineffective use of its promising location in London's Underground and sewer network. First-time director Christopher Smith decided for some reason to replace the dead glamourous teen formula with a dead unlikeable adult formula, thereby depriving his film of the approbation of shallow end of the market.

Storm Season Update

There's some photographic evidence today that damage to Playa del Carmen has been less severe than initial accounts suggested.

Nevertheless it is being reported that Hurricane Wilma may cost Mexico 0.25% of economic growth this year and that damages may add up to $1.5bn. The regional association of hoteliers is seeking a $500 million loan from Mexico's development bank, claiming that their collective losses are running at $7m a day.

At 10pm Friday (local time) the eye of Wilma was located directly above the Mayan Palace Hotel, a particularly nasty example of mass tourism development along the coast between Playa and Cancún. (It would be too much to hope for that this gruesome structure requires demolition now!)

BBC Breakfast this morning featured a telephone interview with some moaning Brits, stuck in their ruined hotel in Cancún and wondering when someone English-speaking will come along and help them.

The eye of the storm passed well to the north of Tulum, whose beaches are reported to be re-opening already. Cozumel faired less well, as Wilma devastated the same northern portion of the island lashed by Wild Gilbert in 1988. (With 882 millibars of pressure Wilma briefly exceeded Gilbert's record low of 888.)

Cozumel was hit again by Roxanne in 1995, then the first category 3 in the western Caribbean sea since Hurricane Hattie (category 4) in October 1961 - the storm that destroyed Belize City.

Monday, October 24, 2005


"Membrillo!" V chirped excitedly, and quickened her pace towards the entrance of Domaine Morizet in Viré.

Christelle Morizet turned out to be the most welcoming of cave-dwellers we came across in Burgundy. At a long table with a chequered table-cloth we had a compact feast of cheesey delicacies washed down with Viré-Clessé, their delectable local white wine.

At the end of the session she sent her daughter out to collect some membrillos for us, a bulbous velvety-skinned fruit known to the French as coin, and to the English as quince.

Native to the Caucasus, the Greeks brought quince to the Med. The Romans carried them on westwards to Spain, where they are today cultivated in greatest density around Córdoba (Roman Corduba). The Romans also concocted an alcoholic beverage called Cydonium from this naturally bitter fruit.

We later found another good example of a quince tree in the middle of a peristyle courtyard in Pompeii. The fruit has a long association with Venus, Goddess of Love and patroness of the Campanian city. In earlier Greek myth it was in fact a quince that was awarded to Aphrodite following the Judgement of Paris.

Presumably it the Spanish and Portuguese that carried membrillo to the New World. V's mother used to make mermelada from membrillos. Indeed the English word marmalade comes from the Portuguese word for quince - marmelo. When V was around eight she remembers regularly accompanying her father on trips to one of his terrenos near Paramos called El Rastro.

Many years ago there used to be an adobe brick slaughterhouse close to this plantation and the bones of dead cattle still emerge from its dusty soil and buzzards dally in the skies above as if genetically-programmed for this long-discontinued blowout. (Similarly, vultures return annually to the great gorge of Ronda in Spain where the carcasses of horses killed in the bull-ring were tossed before the advent of more humane times..when they chucked dead fascists down there instead.)

While her father was distracted in his negotiations V would slip away into a neighbouring plantation, climb up into the upper branches of a quince tree and begin the harvest. You're not really supposed to be able to enjoy membrillos raw, but V swears that her afternoon spoils were always thoroughly delicious. We shall see what culinary fate awaits the membrillos we brought back from Viré.

Playa Destroyed?

Only last December we gave serious consideration to buying some beachside property in Playa del Carmen, which we have used several times as an arrival point before proceeding on down to Antigua.

Hurricane vulnerability was one of the key reasons we decided against in the end. So many of the properties sported palapa roofing that it was clear how susceptible to decapitation the main tourist and residential area would be.

In the end Wilma hung around above the town for 36 hours. Today water levels are said to have reached the third floor of some of the main hotels along the beach.

Playa has been the fastest growing town in all Mexico for nearly a decade now. With reports claiming that the Mayan Riviera is likely to be out of business as a tourist destination for at least four months, one can only imagine the personal devastation to the thousands whose subsistence economy is based on the presence of foreigners.

Let's hope that Tulum wasn't badly damaged. However, if ever there was a place that deserved to be trashed by Mother Nature it's Cancún.

The Seventh Archangel

El Séptimo Arcángel (2003) is an impressively unpredictable Argentine thriller that opens up a wealth of interesting possibilities for itself only to run out of steam a bit towards the end. Watching it reminded me how rarely Hollywood is prepared to show real moral transformation in its chief protagonists - circumstances are nearly always a test of character, not vice versa.

Here the lead character is man called Luciano who has been siphoning off funds from his Korean employers. Betrayed by his own cousin, the supermarket firm's accountant, he is given 24 hours to replace the missing money. Meanwhile his girlfriend walks out on him.

Abortively he turns to petty crime yet is hamstrung by fits of remorse (another aspect of the crime thriller we hardly ever see in American cinema). This state of mind prompts him to wander into a gathering held by a strange protestant cult (which turns out to be a kind of urban guerrilla group), where he meets a police commisario that all-too-easily pays off his debt for him. These new circumstances encourage Luciano to leave behind his pathetic, passive self and adopt a rather less palatable, assertive persona, bent on revenge.

As ever with Argentine films, the sound quality is regretably poor.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Mar Adentro

The English translation of the title of this extraordinary film captures only one aspect of the ambiguous, original Spanish phrase.

There was a TV movie made about Ramón Sampedro's life in 2001 (who died in 1998) and to some extent the Alejandro Amenábar has built his story around the skeleton of a based on a true story TV format, bringing to the subject some of the preocupations we saw in Abre los Ojos and The Others, and using it to address some very interesting questions about the value of human existence.

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw wrote The Sea Inside off as an "unchallenging issue movie". However, an issue movie is exactly what this isn't.

Ramón Sampedro was himself very clear about the fact that he spoke as a person and not as an issue. He had to fight hard against those motivated by the belief he had the power to become "contagious" through the set of ideas and issues his private cause represented in society.

Rather than being a film about suffering and disability, Mar Adentro is one about human limitations in a much wider sense. Our freedom is never absolute, but for most the limits, personal and circumstantial, are hard to define without us an obvious frame of reference like Sampedro. He inspired love and gave meaning to the lives of his household while at the same time he sensed that he was depriving them of a piece of their own potential for liberty.

Is a human life one's own private property, as Sampedro believed, or does it belong communally to the circle of one's friends and family? Is it death we fear most, or is it grief?

Amenábar clearly wants us to share the mixed emotions of those who were charmed by this ship's mechanic paralysed from the neck down at the age of 26. It's important that at the end that we sympathise with his fight for death, and yet also sense that we will miss him when he's gone.

Sampedro assessed his situation and chose death. Like the great stoic thinkers of Antiquity, he anticipated a restoration of the kind of non-sentience that preceeds birth and considered that this was unlikely to feel bad beyond the moment of extinction. It is this coldly rational view of the bleakness of one life that gives this film its universal impact.

There are great lines ("You learn to cry by smiling") and great sequences, such as the debate between Sampedro and the quadraplegic priest Padre Francisco:

Padre Francisco: "Freedom without a life is not freedom."
Ramón Sampedro: "A life without freedom is not a life."

Even setting aside the subject matter, Mar Adentro is a marvellous piece of film-making and cinematic story telling. Amenábar's technique is faultless from start to finish. His cast, not just the Oscar-nominated Bardem, are all superb. The film also serves as a paean to rain-drenched Galicia.

Meanwhile, over on the Beeb I caught a single episode last week of Beyond Boundaries, a mosquito-on-the-nose documentary about a group of differently-able Brits attempting to cross from Atlantic to Pacific at the point their ancestors would have built the canal, Nicaragua.

This lamentable programme demonstrates that wheelchairs have the potential to be as unwelcome a presence in the rainforest as pushchairs in supermarkets (or anywhere really).

It is founded on the unstated, yet overtly cynical observation that people with disabilities can be amongst the most spoiled and self-centered members of our society. The resulting spectacle is as uplifting an insight into the human spirit as Big Brother.

Resentment was focussing on Charlie; deaf, black and gay, but able-bodied enough to appreciate the essential futility of the whole exercise. Who knows what the economically-cripped forest dwellers of the Mosquito Coast make of all this. If anyone is benefitting, it certainly isn't them.


Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes said yesterday that their love is "stronger than Hurricane Katrina". Let's hope it's stronger than Hurricane Wilma too, because they're planning to wed in Cancun next month. (Holmes has been seen on the circuit recently alongside the woman known to her Spanish detractors as Possespice, the fasson victim.)

My friend Mark from Belize sent me these images of flooding on Caye Caulker which yesterday caught a side swipe from wild Wilma. High ground isn't really an option there!

V's niece Jeannette has been feeding us details of the damage done by Stan. This public beach at Panajachel is no more.

Antigua got off very lightly, but the countryside to the north-west of town suffered flooding of varying degrees of severity. The house of V's tia Yema in Pastores was inundated with muddy waters from the river behind; news that saddened me because I know how hard she worked to keep her home impeccably tidy.

Brain Tremors

V has vivid memories from Guatemala's great quake of '76 (measuring 7.6) which include huge cracks opening in the ground in front of her house before closing again without a trace.

There are similar eyewitness accounts from the massive earthquake (estimated at 7.5) that hit Pompeii on November 5th AD 62. One man relaxing in the baths at the time recounted how every last drop of water in the pool he was in disappeared into a gaping fissure before being squirted back out again.

It seems that some of these experiences at least can be put down to hallucination - the effects of major eathquakes include disturbances to the inner ear, which means that the first set of aftershocks take place inside victims' own heads.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fertility in Pompeii

Skeletal evidence from the remains of Pompeii's elite women that died as a result of the eruption (beyond childbearing age) shows that the average number of children they had given birth to was less than the two required to maintain population levels.

The reign of Nero had witnessed a wave of ancient metrosexuality (known then as mollitia - culpable softness) and parents of both sexes were becoming less well-disposed towards the civic duty of weplenishing the wanks of Wome's quack legions. Inheritance law and the clearly-understood dangers of pregnancy compounded this decline in manly values.


How could José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero be anything other than a good bloke? Just look at him. The other day he was attending a Franco-Spanish summit seated midway down a long table of busy-looking ministers. The cameras caught him looking around with one of those classic "which page are we on?" expressions.

An incident earlier in the week saw him in solemn procession with the back of one of his trouser legs caught in his sock. Security agents trailing him tried to discreetly dislodge it while he continued onwards, oblivious to this sartorial indisposition.

Zapatero still has the aura of a man utterly surprised to find himself living the life of his nation's political leader; almost as if he thinks he must enjoy every second because soon someone will tap him on the shoulder and tell him it was all a hideous mix-up.

Sneezing Swans

Spain's Queen Sofia has been in Guatemala this week, surrounded by officials intent on reinforcing the message that the country's severed highways and bridges represent a singular calamity and not just a regular feature of the rainy season in Central America.

Spain has now surpassed Sweden as the largest provider of emergency financial aid to the region ( €55m) and Mel Gibson has pledged $1m of his own cash. The US government has increased its initially paltry offering to $350,000 (through USAID).

Meanwhile, as Hurricane Wilma begins to swing by the Yucatan, the check-in desks at Cancun's airport are faced with long lines of the kind of daredevil holiday-makers that book their Caribbean vacations in early Autumn.

The flu pandemic of the 1968/9 season killed 750,000, making it the least deadly of the twentieth century's outbreaks. At the other end of the scale the 'Spanish Flu' of 1918 (appropriately a strain of swine flu) attacked lung cells not usually vulnerable to this type of virus.

Miseryguts has been stockpiling cans of food for around 3 years in preparation for the great bird flu plague which the media feels is now upon us. The H5N1 variant of avian influenza has been around since 1997 and has yet to be sustainably transmitted between humans. Those that catch it from a sneezing swan appear to have a 50% chance of survival. Nevertheless the kind of antigenic shift needed to make this a genuine threat to mammalian health could result in a low pathogenic form with reduced instances of mortality.

El Maquinista

The Machinist is a densely atmospheric Spanish production starring Christian Bale in dramatically condensed form as the paranoid Trevor Reznik; a role in which he skirts the edges of both horror and comedy.

Ultimately V and I differed substantially about how unsubtly it went about its subtleties. For my part, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. It was well filmed, well scored and evenly suspenseful. V found the knot of the mystery rather too easy to unravel ahead of the plotline, but I considered the intellectual engagement welcome after recent disappointments like Creep.

My one criticism would be that it wears its influences a little too brazenly. If you have vivid memories of either Memento or Spider for instance, they may prove distracting here.

Living off an apple and a can of tuna per day, Bale shed 63 pounds for the role (a method acting record) and ended up weighing just 120 pounds.

Friday, October 14, 2005

La Sin Ventura

Another tornado in Birmingham, hot on the heels of the recent immolation of Wallace and Grommit, but this week's most disaster-prone EU nation has been Spain - first tropical cyclone Vince made landfall near Seville on Tuesday and then yesterday it was the turn of Catalan town Girona to be flooded out by Biblical downpours.

When the rains come late they come hard. So it was on September 11, 1541 when Guatemala suffered its most notorious mudslide, which brought an end to the two-day reign of the country's second governor, the beautiful 22-year old widow of the Conquistador, Doña Beatriz de la Cueva.

When news reached Santiago of Pedro de Alvarado's death (crushed when his secretary's horse fell on top of him during a punitive expedition in Mexico), Beatriz daubed the palace and cathedral with black paint and shut herself up for days. The rain started to come down incessantly and a bad case of bowel trouble in the Volcan de Fuego set off a series of powerful tremors. Beatriz emerged from mourning on September 9 in order to engineer her election as the colony's new ruler, presciently assuming the title of La Sin Ventura, the hapless one.

Two days later she was dead, drowned when mud dislodged from the slopes of the Agua Volcano deluged the fledgeling capital. Legend has it that Beatriz fled to the Palace's high chapel with 8 of her ladies in waiting and Anica, one of Alvarado's natural children. Her lifeless body was found still clutching the altar crucifix, the child's nearby. Leonor Alvarado Xicotencatl , the Conquistador's seventeen-year old daughter and heir had survived by clinging to the branches of a tree.

The disaster resulted in the removal of Santiago (Antigua) to its present site further away from the skirts of the volcano on which the course of the mudslide can still be made out.

In my readings about Vesuvius I have come across the phenomenon of Bradyism, whereby ground levels can move up and down by 10m or more in a very short period of time in areas subject to a lot of seismic activity. During their childhood a couple of V's brothers once came across the intact remains of a sixteenth century church buried beneath a coffee plantation on the finca. Given the location of this find it would make sense that it was associated with Alvarado's original settlement, but it is said that la Nena does her best to prevent news of this site spreading in order to avoid academics and other undesirables encroaching on her enormous estate.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Aid for Guatemala

International aid for Stan-stricken Guatemala has been pouring in. Sweden: Q45m, Spain: Q11m, Venezuela: Q8m, Canada: Q6.5m, Taiwan: Q5.2m, Italy: Q2m, Germany: Q1m.

GB? Still thinking. USA? $50,000!

However, hit US show Survivor is being broadcast from the north of the country right now and the producers have promised to help out a bit.

Sadly, Guatemala will yet again miss out on the big soccer party. The finished the CONCACAF qualifying competition with a 3-1 win over the ticos at home, but the pinche Mexicanos went and lost to Trinidad, most probably willfully.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Blessed are the Pacemakers"

For Geraldine and Paul's wedding mass was performed in three languages Eurovision-style, the presiding priest Don Giuliano leading in Italian, assisted by a giggly co-compere that did her best to track him in both English and French. The Don, a full-sized character, went on to take more snaps of the happy couple with his pocket camera than anyone else on the guest list.

Paul appeared a little unpracticed during the French parts of the promesses, inadvertently delivering his acceptance of marital responsibility in the future tense. "Oui, nous acept-ONS" his bride corrected him sternly, and then lifted her eyebrows demonstratively to the congregation as if to deliver a Crowe-like "are you not entertained?". We were. Another batch of stifled sniggers arrived just after Paul's recitation of the line "When I grew up I finished with childish things".

The weather, which had been uncomfortably hot outside the hilltop Church while we awaited the groom, had turned decidedly nippy by the time the bus finally managed to cram itself into the lane leading up to the Villa Grazioli- on its third pass. While white-jacketed waiters scrambled to move the champagne reception indoors we fingered a buffet on the front lawns and shivered to a selection of lift music classics delivered by a bloke with an electric keyboard.

Premium quality was reestablished in the grand frescoed hall where the sumptuous binge was formally opened with a speech from our elegant and gracious hostess, Kirsten, whose birthday it would also serve to commemorate. (Paul should have little trouble remembering this most important date in his mother-in-law's calendar!)

At dinner, we found ourselves posted to the 'couples' sub-section of Paul's circle on a table rather suspiciously called The Untouchables. Each little grouping had been christened with the name of a memorable movie, but we were not alone in detecting an intentional subtext in this instance. Neutral territory it might have been, but being part of the groom's numerically-outnumbered contingent felt very much like belonging to the away supporters section. Like the pomerium that used to separate the ancient Roman urbs from the infames living beyond the walls, there seemed to be an intangible buffer zone between us and the semi-impermeable set of European socialites that made up the bulk of the bride's tifosi. Perhaps this existed in order to prevent verbal transmission of the folklore of Paul's bachelorhood, or perhaps it arose because we were regarded as a bunch of uncouth barbarians from the north. The (inevitable) man in the kilt probably wasn't helping our cause all that much.

Ours was a fine company though - Sam and Steve, Tony and Katy, Edward and Hisham. We were missing them all when we set off south the following afternoon. After a week of solitary adventure it had been both strange and agreeable to suddenly find ourselves amidst such a large gathering of friends.

Before the main course was served we were summoned outside for a "special event". V, accustomed to Guatemala's multi-casualty firework extravaganzas took a seat on the lawn well back from the gasp-inspiring display. I stood half way between her position and the main crowd, but still ended up with a speck of warm debris in my eye.

The night's other entertainment included a magician, a caricature artist, a mad waiter and a powerpoint deck packed with images from Geraldine's childhood and adventurous life before her fateful encounter with the "perfect English gentleman" - who merited a couple of slides at the end. The best man's speech was initially suppressed, but later allowed in a closed-doors session in the bar to a fairly select audience. By this time some of the guests were sporting their third outfit of the day.

The eating, drinking and dancing carried on for hours throughout all the interlocking, painted antechambers of the 16th century villa's primer piano. The building was used by the German High Command during the Second World War and trashed by squatters after it. In its reincarnated form as a fine hotel it would be the ideal venue for one of those Eyes Wide Shut-type parties, but the groom has put such childish things behind him now!

However much you eat, you're always able to find room for some tiramisu; but an end to the evening there eventually was, and when we returned to the Verdeborgo with the Cottages we found our way blocked by another vehicle seemingly parked at the main crossroads. The driver inside looked dead, but was in fact merely taking an overdue siesta. V bravely knocked on the window a few times until he came round and squinted at the four of us in abject bewilderment.

Andora Homicide

Having translated and Googled the necessary keywords I have now established the context of the media circus we came across in Andora, Liguria on Tuesday September 27th. I'm beginning to think that this was the scene of Luigi Verri's arrest rather than the home of a distinguished, retired avvocato.

Pic 1
Pic 2

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Torre Pendente

Some more pics...

I'd passed by Pisa's Campo di Miracoli on my inter-railing trips in the 80s, and was determined not to leave it out once again.

This complex of beautiful Romanesque building is set on a wide lawn next to the walls in the north-west corner of the city. Wherever you roam you are bound to be ruining somebody's photo, but in spite of the frantic hordes, it's a very rewarding piece of sightseeing.

All three structures were intentionally off-perpendicular, though over time the famous tower has come to seem more and more like an outrageous folly.

The outskirts of Pisa have one of the classic Italian 'squareabouts' - essentially a four-way crossroads with no traffic-lights or obvious indications of right of way.

Grottaferrata is one of those places whose name is hard for English-speakers to pronounce without sounding either over or under cultured. It's a quiet suburb of Rome, one of the Castelli Romani beneath which the lights of the eternal city twinkle enticingly every night. At its northern edge it blends with Frascati, famed worldwide for its unpleasant wine.

One of the best meals we had in Italy was on the eve of the wedding at Il Sentiero in Rocca di Papa, a winding 15 minute drive from the Villa Grazioli. By the time all the flights carrying family and friends from around the world had unloaded, it wasn't until after 10:30pm that a group of around 50 of us set off for this informal four course meal. That the restaurant could serve such great food to that many people, that late, is a testament to its quality. The wine was also superb (apparently not the local stuff served at the reception) and only cost 5 euros a bottle, so many of the guests looked a little drained in the church the next day.


US General John Abizaid recently compared Al Qaeda to McDonalds, which made me wonder whether OBL's French terror cells are staffed by closet Christians.

While the Italians have their Slow Food Society, the French just serve fast food slowly. I'm not a massive fan of McDonalds' menus, but when you travel along France's E roads the evil arches perform the function of the Aires on the autoroutes - predictable, routine spots for a coffee and a bathroom break. Except when you walk in and find that there's only one person behind the counter, both serving the customers and preparing their orders!

In order to preserve their culture of small independent retailers in town centres the French have allowed the surrounding ring roads to become encrusted with a thick coating of major chains: Buffalo Grill, LiDL (clearly the most omnipresent retail brand in Europe!), Casa, Carrefour etc.

In Italy, the urban tangenziale are stock-car circuits where the driving is mostly of the hand-to-hand variety. Gone are the tight little roundabouts with pretty lawns and flower beds and McDonalds restaurants are generally to be found somewhere inside, hidden within the dense urban core and without the useful en-suite car park area. Still, the espresso coffee they (sometimes) serve is amongst the best I have ever tasted!

Guatepeor and Muzaffaraworse

The same Mayan mud that the Blairs were rebirthing in a couple of years back has been sliding down hillsides and causing devastation across Central America, with rural Guatemala particularly badly affected.

Somewhat unusually, the global news media took an immediate interest, probably because a) the root cause was a topical tropical hurricane and b) one of the worst-affected locations was Santiago Atitlan, on a lake visited by thousands of tourists each year and where many foreigners have established expensive chalet-style homes.

It's clear that the Spanish have been especially speedy in delivering assistance, both here and over in Pakistan. Typically the UK media is determined to give the impression that the relief effort has been both patchy and predominantly British.

Officially the death toll from Stan in Guatemala is 652, but unofficial sources suggest that the real figure is in excess of 1800. Whole communities buried by landslides have been abandonned and declared mass cemeteries.

The economic damage is likely to be long lasting: for instance 75,000 hectares of the 185,ooo dedicated to sugar cane production have been flooded.

As with Mitch 8 years ago, the storm aftermath has included roadblocks, hoarding, corruption and vehicle hold-ups. Last week a team of Welsh broadcasters came close to being lynched and killed by an angry machete-waving mob in a Guatemalan village near Chichicastenango , apparently mistaken for government surveyors speculating on sacred Mayan land.

Another calamidad publica that afflicted Guatemala last week was a 5-2 trouncing by the pinche Mexicanos that leaves them in 5th place in their qualifying group, two points adrift of Trinidad and Tobago, now favourites to clinch the play-off place for Germany 2006.

There was also a moderate quake (5.8) in the region on Friday. President Oscar Berger has declared 3 days of national mourning.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Six Countries and a Wedding

In total 3453 miles, 14 overnight resting places*, a couple of shunts and an unscheduled 3 hour pitstop in Pavia for new brake disks.

Along the way we've had plenty of opportunity to tuck into weird and wonderful foodstuffs of the like we'd never try at home...such as Nutella!

We've tested and collected an eclectic assortment of bottled liquids ranging from the grand vins of Burgundy to an unlabled home-made rosso we bought from a peasant farmer on the Sorrento peninsula. In shops at least the beer is remarkably cheap in Italy, 45c, and a two litre bottle of mineral water costs just 16c. We've also stocked up with several years' supply of balsamic vinegar (from a supermarket between Modena and Reggio).

We'd only been in the country for 30 minutes when we came across our first bustling murder scene (in Andora). It was hard to piece together the precise chain of events from the visible evidence not obscured by the throng of absurdly overdressed reporters - a smashed first floor window, a taped up car with a dented front wing and forensic teams in white full-body suits coming in and out of a boarded up Ristorante - but a tally of more than one stiff seemed likely. (I shall use the Net to investigate further.)

The Belgians may drive faster, but the lack of any basic highway etiquette makes sharing Italian roads with the natives a particularly challenging experience. You can't keep your distance, because if you leave any space in front of you the guy behind will immediately assume it belongs to him. Our biggest bump occurred in rolling rush hour traffic in Milan when a car came straight into us from the rear, prompting V to jolt forward into the one in front which in turn passed the disfavour onwards to another vehicle. Fortunately, the PT Cruiser has excellent front and rear bumpers and we found ourselves unwounded, though a little shocked. Oddly the last car in the chain had come off worst.

It probably was also fortunate that all the drivers involved were female. I myself reversed into an expensive-looking silver-grey Merc in Siena, braking just in time, but just touching its bumper. When I got out to deliver my best British "Scusi, the Merc's occupant launched into a spectacular series of gesticulations, and it became clear from his references to blind women that he had failed to notice my GB number plate and and had concluded that V was the culprit. I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing, which I just knew would complicate matters even further.

When a bus stopped in front of me in a narrow street I had attempted to pass it, not seeing the temporary traffic light on the right by the pavement - a fairly standard misadventure facing right-hand drivers on the continent. The guy in the Merc must have seen what I was trying to do but was clearly determined to quickly close down the space before I could get back to safety and I'm sure that much of his Latin vexation derived from the fact that we had apparently dared to call his bluff and carried on backwards regardless.

Will be publishing all the photos in sequence. The first two sets encompass the journey down through France and the ride along the Rivieras into Tuscany.

* Gevrey-Chambertin, Rhône Valley (nr Vienne), Fréjus, Finale Liguria, Lucca, Grottaferratta/Frascati (x2), Sorrento, Orvieto, Florence, Cremona, Torno (Lake Como), Stresa (Lake Maggiore), Besançon and Bruges.