Archive for February, 2011

I’ve just read a review of The King’s Speech that mentioned the Oscar winning movie had been rated ‘R’ in America due to a triumphant chorus of ‘fucks’ emanating from the mouth of Colin Firth’s Prince George. It got me thinking about differing attitudes to swearing and language in general.

There’s a forum I dip in and out of now and again where there are a couple of pseudo-intellectuals who positively abhor the use of swear words (an indication of commonness and a lack of education) and the  decline of grammar in general (people who used txt spk or modern abbreviations like FYI should be taken out the back and shot).

Personally I think this view is a load of old bollocks.

There you go; I’m uneducated and have a limited grasp of the language because I’ve used the term ‘bollocks’. Maybe I should have used ‘tosh and nonsense’ instead (actually I quite like that as well), but I enjoy the sound of ‘a load of old bollocks’ – it’s colourful, descriptive and is fit for purpose.

Similarly, when I’m seriously exasperated by something I’m prone to exclaim ‘for fuck’s sake’ or ‘FFS’ if I’m using the polite version in company – either way I’m apparently committing serious offences against the English language. However, it fits exactly the feeling I want to convey; ‘for heaven’s sake’ ‘for goodness sake’ and ‘for Pete’s sake’ just doesn’t cut the mustard (no offence Pete whoever you are). And if it’s good enough for Prince George then damn it, it’s good enough for me. Plus I’m working class west of Scottish so the urge to profane now and again is simply part and parcel of my genetic make-up.

I don’t use swear words excessively; most of the time those who do make me feel uncomfortable. I say most of the time because there are some people who make swearing sound a very natural and rich part of their vocabulary whilst there are others who simply make it harsh and ugly. The Irish are good at swearing (In Bruges just wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny without the liberal swearing); of course often the Irish replace the ‘U’ with an ‘E’ to make a more socially acceptable Feck. The Scots are pretty good at it (Billy Connolly also not as funny without swearing) and the Mancs also do it well (Shameless). Cockneys I’m less sure about.

I appreciate that many people find swearing offensive and whilst I respect their views, I definitely don’t agree that people who use swear words are defiling the language. Approve of them or not, many are good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon words that have as much a right to be in existence as any other.
There are loads of non-swear words that I find much more offensive and where I wouldn’t swear in the company of people I don’t know, and some that I do, there are plenty of people who happily use their offensive words in front of me…and I’m talking about racist, sexist and homophobic terms here. However, words in themselves aren’t offensive, they’re just a jumble of letters, it’s how people use them that can often dictate whether they’re offensive or not.

I also heartily approve when people – usually the young – take words and turn their meanings on their heads, or invent completely knew terms. It keeps language fresh and interesting, but that doesn’t mean the old words should be packed away never to be used again, it simply means that as time goes by our well of words becomes deeper and deeper.

To me language is a living organism that is constantly evolving – words should be set free and allowed to roam wherever they want to go, not restricted to a dingy cell where they remain staid and static for evermore as some academics would have it.

Some academics, but not modern lexicographers it seems. I was blown away when I watched this clip for the first time (thanks Julie Hume). Erin McKean is simply inspirational and very funny and, amen, I worship at her church. It’s a bit lengthy but anyone interested in the English language should enjoy it…unless they’re like the pseudo-intellectuals I mentioned at the start who no doubt would completely dismiss it because Erin’s American and what the hell do Americans know about English.

Anyway, back to the swearing. The King’s Speech being designated an ‘R’ rating because of swearing rankled. You can blow people to smithereens in any manner of glamorously gruesome ways and that’s absolutely socially acceptable but a stammering Prince swearing is deigned too much for anyone under 17 to be able to handle. Doesn’t that strike you as being worryingly skewed logic?

It reminded me of a story about a B52 aircrew who were told to remove the word ‘fuck’ from the fuselage of their bombers because it was far too offensive.

Think about the irony of that little gem.

Last night I saw something that sent a shiver of excitement down my spine and brought a tingle to my tastebuds; something that seductively whispered ‘carnaval is here’ in my ears and had me licking my lips in anticipation of the maelstrom that was about to assault the senses of anyone who had the courage to plunge into its all-consuming madness.

I’m not talking about seeing the carnaval stage taking shape or the mini taster parade to announce this year’s carnaval queen candidates…no, I’m talking about a force that was responsible for pulling me out of a decade of being a pescatarian and back, grunting with desire, into the world of the carnivores again.

I’m talking about a food stall extraordinaire…Mesón California.

Forget the wussy bite-sized montaditos of the Madrids and the Barcelonas of this world; at Mesón California you get Desperate Dan-sized, jaw testing versions. Check out the picture if you think I’m exaggerating. These are montaditos for real men – and women of course – and being carnival, also for ghouls, vampires and slutty nuns and nurses etc.

Its erection is the sign for me that carnaval has arrived and I’m positively salivating at the thought of my annual pilgrimage to worship at this exquisite shrine to Spanish street cuisine.

It’s funny how it’s so easy to take where you live for granted…and to forget what treasures exist on your doorstep.

Yesterday we made an impulsive trip (the sun was shining, inspiration wasn’t) to the ‘new’ Humboldt’s Mirador which is only a few minute’s drive away. The ‘new’ is an ironic ‘new’…you’ll see what I mean when you read Andy’s article in Tenerife Magazine.

As we sat in the better-than-a-good-British-summer warm February sunshine overlooking the La Orotava Valley and a snow clad Mount Teide we first tried to spot our house (somewhere in the middle of the picture). Then we sought out some of the special places surrounding us. Places that are quite unique in their own way and yet many remain unseen, or unvisited by most visitors to Tenerife.

Places like…

Abaco: A wine bar and live music venue in a Canarian mansion where visitors are welcomed by artistically arranged displays of more fruit than you’d find in the average supermarket.

Playa Bollullo: My favourite beach on Tenerife and a bit of a trek to get to which keeps it from being manicured and mainstream.

Lucas Maes: Simply one of the best restaurants on Tenerife where both the food and the décor is mouthwateringly delicious.

Los Rechazos, Pico Viejo & Bar Canario: Three excellent bar/cafes that are positively buzzing in the morning as everyone and their dog stops off at one of the trio for a morning coffee and snack before heading into work. One of the bars is also one of the few official outlets for buying CD Tenerife tickets – an added bonus.

And finally, the spot where the photo was taken; Humboldt’s Mirador. Possibly the best vista on Tenerife and that’s not just my opinion. Mr Humboldt and the Indiana Jones of his time, Richard Francis Burton both agree.

It’s pretty special to live in a location that has those on the doorstep.

p.s. Please, please, please ignore the typo in the picture…even if the best worker on Tenerife does actually own the cafes.

T, author of the absorbing zephyrliving blog, has a very good point. ‘How can you mention the statue of the dancing dwarf and not include a photograph?’ She asked after I’d rattled on at about dancing dwarves and Chris C’s ship the Santa Maria being parked on the equivalent of La Palma’s high street without actually including any photos of either.

The truth was that the sun went for a ciggie break behind a cloud at the time I was taking photos of both and the results were disappointing.

But T’s right – you can’t talk of dancing dwarves and surreal ships without proving their existence so here’s the evidence.

Dancing...or bursting for the toilet?

"Are you sure those compass readings were accurate?"

Oh… and just for T, here’s a photo of the ‘uber cool shoes’ mentioned in another previous blog.

Okay I realise that nowadays they look like something your granny would slip on to go outside on an icy day but they were cutting edge at the time of purchase – honest.

My cool Schuhs - a bit past their best. I know how they feel.

The Crotchety Local
The traveller didn’t expect to be showered with gifts but neither did he expect this reaction.

“Ha! Are you trying to tell me I don’t know my own land?” The old man shook his fist in the traveller’s face. “You come here from your fancy lands and try to tell me how to go about my business. Bah.”
The old man sat back down on the rickety stool beside his empty barrel. “I know exactly how things work here. They work the same way they always do and always will. But you don’t know about that; you’re not from around here.”

And with that he turned his back on the traveller, looked to the skies and began to mumble an unintelligible prayer.

Behind his eye-patch the traveller’s empty socket began to ache in frustration but he merely clasped his hands together and bowed.

“As you wish,” he smiled at the cantankerous old man’s back and carried on along the dry and dusty road.

The Old Soldier
After about 10 minutes he came to the exact same scene he had just left. At the side of the road another old man in a uniform sat beside an almost identical water barrel. The barrel, like the one belonging to the cantankerous old fellow, was completely empty.

“Hello friend,” the man exclaimed. “I’d offer you water, but I have none.” The man stroked his chin and looked skyward. “It’s strange, I have lived on this island for two decades and for most of that time I could rely on water falling right on this spot at the same time every month. For twenty years my barrel has been full enough to keep my family free from thirst. But in the last two years…it has rained less and less and now there’s hardly a drop.”

“I know my friend,” the traveller patted the old man on the shoulder and then told him what he had told the old man down the road. “Your tale is no different from that of many people all over the world. But I have good news. Scholars have discovered that the currents in the great oceans have changed their flow and because of that so have the weather patterns. The rain is still falling…just not here.” The traveller pointed to a hill in the distance. “Move your barrel to the other side of the hill and you will find that soon it will be filled with water once again.”

The old man looked at the traveller for a few moments without saying anything.

“I don’t recognise you; you’re not from around here,” he finally replied. “You won’t understand, but the rain always falls in this spot and if I wait long enough I’m sure it will do so again.” He shook the traveller’s hand. “Thank you for your advice, but I think I’ll just stay here.”

The traveller scratched at his eye-patch, made his farewells and continued along the road until he met yet another man with another empty barrel. This time when the traveller told the man about the change in the great oceans, the reaction was different.

The Man Who Listened
“Hmm,” pondered the man. “I haven’t been here very long, my barrel has never been filled with water; so what’s the harm in trying what you advise. I shall move my barrel to the other side of that hill.”

At last the ache in the traveller’s empty socket eased. He journeyed to the end of the road where he caught a ship bound for other lands.

Two years later the traveller found himself back on the island travelling the same road as before, but this time the route led him first to the valley where he had advised the men to relocate their barrels.

As he entered the valley the third man he’d met came rushing towards him, grasped his hand and pumped it furiously.

“Thank you, thank you,” the man exclaimed. “I did as you said and within a few weeks the rain came and my barrel has been filled with water ever since.”

The traveller was pleased to hear about the man’s good fortune and, after sharing some water with him, decided to seek out the two other men. When he came to the place where the old soldier had been there was no sign of him. All he found was a few broken shards of wood; the remains of the barrel. The lack of rainfall had clearly forced him to leave the island.

He moved on until he came to the barrel of the first man he had encountered. Lo and behold the crotchety old local was still there, sitting beside his barrel. The old man eyed the traveller up and down and recognition spread across his features.

“HA! I remember you,” he shouted. “You said there would be no water, well you were wrong and I was right. I told you that you didn’t know how things worked here and I was right. To change would have been stupid…stupid.”

The traveller walked over to the barrel and looked inside. There was water in the barrel…but it barely covered the bottom. It was clear that there was still hardly any rain in this valley.

The traveller sighed, rubbed his empty, aching socket and walked away from the man without saying another word.

Who says in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?

When the plane took off in the howling wind and with the rain monsooning it down how was I to know that it would be clear skies and blinding sunshine when I touched down in Santa Cruz de la Palma 30 minutes later?

The grey and moody weather forecast had meant I hadn’t even bothered to bring any sunglasses and I was left squinting unattractively at everything like Vincent Van Gopher from Deputy Dawg.

As it was only 8.30am none of the shops had opened yet. However, an African hawker was just finishing setting up his stall in a small plaza and, as any visitors to the Canary Islands know, African hawkers generally = sunglasses.

I’d fancied changing to a pair of classic 60s style anyway (not just because George Clooney tends to favour them) so this was as opportune a time as any to pick some up. It also revealed two very different approaches to bartering. Our friend Linda’s (who has clearly been to the RADA school of haggling) and mine.

I chose a suitable looking pair and tried them on. Andy confirmed they looked good (not George Clooney good, maybe more John Belushi Blues Brothers good) so it was just a question of agreeing a price.

“Diez euros,” asked the hawker.

“Hmmm, seems a bit much,” I responded, but without any conviction. I’m crap at bartering and I know it…more importantly so do the vendors I’m bartering with.

Friend Linda adopted a much more imaginative approach to his asking price. Clutching her heart and gasping she staggered backwards, grabbing on to her husband Robert for support.

“Okay,” laughed the hawker. “Eight euros.”

Seemed fine to me, so I paid the man and saved my eyes from being blistered by the sun.

I just wonder how much I’d have gotten them for if Linda had gone one step further and fallen to the ground and then thrown in some convulsions for good measure?

“The dwarves are philosophical,” The little birdlike woman pointed to her forehead and then launched into a rapid fire tirade of Spanish that made me feel as though she was machine gunning me with words, the majority of which were flying past my ears.

Why oh why did I have to ask about the dwarves?

Luckily a shot of pure amphetamine in Havana (the café not the city) had heightened my senses and I was more tuned in than I deserved to be given that I’d been up since 5am. The waitress in Havana had insisted the amphetamine was black coffee, but I knew differently.

Anyway, by reaching out and grabbing some of the words that were spiralling around my head I learned that I was standing in the oldest shop in Santa Cruz de la Palma; the British and La Palma enjoyed a good relationship that stretched back centuries and that the husband of the woman standing next to me, who was nodding her head at everything being said, was the most famous singer on La Palma.

What I didn’t learn, apart from it being philosophical, was why, every five years during the Bajada de la Virgen celebrations (the last was 2010), there are dancing dwarves in Napoleonic headgear. I know when it was introduced (1905) and by whom, but not why. She might have told me but if so it was amongst the many words that got past me.

I got the impression the little woman would have spent the day bombarding me with stories of La Palma and entertaining though she was, the translator function in my head had long since entered the red danger zone and was about to explode. At the first opportunity I bade her hasta luego and left the shop to stand in the warm sunshine in front of what must be the prettiest row of houses in the Canary Islands; the casas de los balcones.

I’d forgotten how much I liked Santa Cruz de la Palma, it’s a quirky place with a unique character and the sort of colonial architecture found in La Orotava and La Laguna on Tenerife mixed with a slice of downtown Havana and Bourbon Street, New Orleans to add a soupcon of spice.

Restaurants are attractively inviting, bars are intriguing, some featuring artwork that reinforces its Cuban connections and old men smoke home grown hand rolled cigars that they claim are almost as good as the real Havana’s. Its main street is populated by stylish Palmeros dressed to kill from one of the individualistic fashion shops that share street space with barbers and newsagents that look as though they’ve time travelled from the 50s. There are few visitors on the streets and you can spot them instantly; they appear drab compared to the sophisticated locals.

With another four years before the dwarves dance again, the only chance of seeing one was beside the naval museum at one end of the main street. A statue of a dancing dwarf who looks as though he needs the loo might sound surreal…and he is… but the naval museum is equally bizarre as it’s housed inside a full-sized replica of the Santa Maria parked on the street. Whilst the exhibits inside are interesting its real draw for me was the opportunity to come over all Jack Sparrow on its prow.

My encounter with S/C de la Palma’s unofficial tourist guide and a stint on the high seas left me feeling peckish and the Encuentro arepera on the little plaza offered the perfect antidote. Okay, not exactly Cuban as the little deep fried filled cornmeal pancakes dished up in areperas are Venezuelan. But it did add more weight to the feeling that I was sitting in a plaza in South America rather than the Canary Islands.

Like I said La Palma is quirky. Where else could you eat South American street food under the gaze of a dancing dwarf who’s…err dwarfed by the hull of one of Chris Columbus’ ships that just happens to be moored on a main road?

What exactly did that waitress put in my coffee?

I’m a happy bunny. For months I’d been gutted that my favourite tapas restaurant in Puerto de la Cruz had closed down. Not only was it located in a wonderful old building it was atmospheric as hell and full of characters – maybe too much authenticity for the average visitor as it never attracted the customers it deserved.

Then, one day recently, I actually took the time to read the small notice pinned to the restaurant’s wooden doors and my world was set on its axis again; the note read:

Cha Paula has moved to Calle San Felipe

Cha Paula lives – YAY – and whilst the new building isn’t quite as colonial as the previous, it’s still rustically attractive. Most importantly the restaurant’s characters have moved with the furniture.

Once again I was able to tuck into the best small squid I’ve tasted on Tenerife and order the chorizo de Teror just to watch friends’ faces as the waiter proceeds to napalm the table.

And just in case you think that the tapas is named chorizo de Teror because of the pyrotechnic display that accompanies it and it’s a misspelling on my part, Teror is actually the name of the place on Gran Canaria where this dish originates.

Still it also works for me if you were to add another ‘r’.

New Look for Living Beneath the Volcano

Posted: February 10, 2011 in Life

Just thought it was worth mentioning to anyone who thought they’d hit the wrong link, this is still Living Beneath the Volcano.

I simply looked at the old layout and thought it looked tired and in need of an early spring clean – so this is it. A bit grungy, but sharper and more dynamic looking…I think so anyway.

I hope you agree.

I’ve just read a blog by travel writer David Whitley about the pros and cons of guide books.

I’ve used a number of the guidebooks that David mentions and go along with Lonely Planet as my first choice. I’d opt for it over the Rough Guide mainly because of my experience of something that the blog touches on; who is best placed to write travel guides; a local ‘expert’ or a visiting one?

David comments ‘it’s far better that someone goes in fresh and researches it meticulously than someone who knows it like the back of their hand gets lazy and assumes the reader does too.’

Seems a far point except for one thing – ‘unconscious incompetence’, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

When it comes to travel writing, the web is full of absolutely awful copy…and some of the biggest names in travel are the worst culprits for churning it out. Generally speaking a lot of travel companies are feeding readers the same old bland guff that any half decent copywriter could glue together after half an hour of research.

The question is this. When everybody has access to the same research material what do you do to ensure that your travel advice and guides stand out?

Chris Clarkson of had one answer – you use locally based experts to give you a warts and all (within reason) guide to holiday destinations. No amount of dipping in and out of a place can keep any ‘visiting’ travel writer up to date with the location no matter how good their research skills are.
That quaint little gem of a bar or restaurant just doesn’t have a website to tell you all about it…hell half the time it doesn’t even have a telephone. And if you don’t speak the language – forget it.

Travel advisory site Simonseeks has gone some way down the same road. Its guidelines for applying to be an expert states: ‘You will need to live in the destination that you are interested in covering, or at least visit regularly, and have got to know it over a significant period of time…’

Using specialist knowledge from a local insider can give travel guides a different voice.

Saying that, I agree with David’s suggestion that writers in situ can get lazy…on the other hand being a ‘visiting’ expert doesn’t exclude writers from the same malaise. I’ve read any number of rehashes of the same article, even on the same travel website, by visiting ‘expert’ travel writers.

And that’s where the unconscious incompetence comes in. You may be the most meticulous researcher on the planet with the gift of bringing holiday destinations vibrantly to life, but unless you know a place exceedingly well you simply just don’t know what you don’t know.

Maybe to the general public that doesn’t matter, but if we’re talking authenticity and accuracy it should. Of the last four articles I’ve read about Tenerife in the UK broadsheets for example, there have been quite basic mistakes in every one. Mistakes that an experienced ‘local’ writer wouldn’t have made.

For travel guides – online or in print – visiting writers just aren’t paid enough to be able to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.

And that brings me to why I ditched the Rough Guide in favour of Lonely Planet. My Rough Guide to Tenerife completely ignores the area that locals considers to be one of the best for restaurants (King Juan Carlos eats there when he visits) even though it is a route that every traveller followed before mass tourism turned the spotlight on the south. But that’s not its worst crime. The only two bars that its visiting ‘expert’ author recommends in Puerto de la Cruz don’t get going until after midnight and are frequented by ‘barely in their teens’ Canarios; Most Rough Guide readers are in for one hell of a shock when they enter one of those recommendations…unless Rough Guide readers are mainly sixteen year old binge drinkers with a taste for thumping Latino music and Spanish pop rock.

If the Rough Guide can get such a popular holiday resort like Puerto de la Cruz so wrong how can I trust them when it comes to China, Kenya and Thailand…unless I know they’re written by writers who actually know the place i.e. live there and therefore not make rookie errors.

In the end what I actually think is that the best person to write a travel guide is someone who not only knows a location thoroughly (whether they live there or not) but who is also as comfortable in a cheesy karaoke bar as at a classical concert; likes wandering around museums, churches and old buildings as much as theme parks and shopping centres; gets nearly as much of a buzz from being alone in the great outdoors as they do from being bumped and jostled in a fiesta crowd of thousands and relishes wolfing down a good home made burger at lunch before sitting down to art on a plate cuisine for dinner.

Convince me of that up front and I might trust your guide.