Normally when I go back to England for a family visit - which I always do at this time of year - I don't pay much attention to the ajarn website, apart from updating the job ads of course. So to keep things ‘ticking over' I've decided to write a daily diary of my trip back to Europe.
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I'll be flying to England on September 22nd, spending five days in Birmingham, followed by a week at my parent's home in rural Spain. Then it's back to England for another four days at the end of the holiday. God willing I'll be home in Thailand - and in the arms of my loving wife - on the 8th October.
Truth be told, apart from the odd lunch appointment, I don't have a great deal planned. It's going to be very much a ‘go with the flow' sort of visit.
So let's see what England and Spain have to offer - and we'll make the best of it.
So here is my accommodation for the fortnight.
In Birmingham, I'll be staying with my brother and his partner (and their four children) in the suburb of Boldmere. The larger and more well-known town of Sutton Coldfield is a brisk twenty minute walk away, if like me, you are too stingy to pay the bus fare.
Birmingham City Centre is also twenty minutes away by train.
This photo is looking down towards Boldmere High Street (with our kid's place on the right) The high street is a modest affair but not without its charms.
There are several good coffee shops, a fine selection of Indian restaurants, Chinese takeaways and kebab shops (as you would expect) There's an excellent Wetherspoons pub called The Bishop Vesey, a Tesco Express, a Travelodge and the prime attraction as far as I'm concerned - a branch of Greggs the Baker.
But what I really admire about Boldmere is how even in these times of economic uncertainty, traditional 'old school' businesses like the greengrocer, the out-of-town gents outfitters and the olde worlde sweetshop have all managed not only to survive, but to flourish. Long may it continue.
My Mom and Dad's home in the Spanish countryside is a complete contrast to the bustling suburbs of Birmingham. They both retired from the rat-race some fifteen years ago, emigrated to Spain for the warmer weather and lower cost of living - and have lived in the village of El Fondo ever since.
El Fondo is in the Alicante Province in the south-west corner of the country. The kiss-me-quick coastal resort of Benidorm, the expat enclave of Torrevieja and the beautiful city of Alicante (with its international airport) are all less than an hour's drive away. However, my folks live inland in an area of vineyards, mountains and bodegas that for a couple of Euros will sell you as much red wine as you can carry.
The photo below shows El Fondo during rush hour. You should see it in the depths of Winter when it's even quieter!
There have been two noteworthy events in El Fondo's history. That time when a family of gypsies wandered through the village flogging hand-made tea-towels - and then in more recent times, when a strange animal decided to make El Fondo its home and was spotted skulking around the village just after dark. It turned out to be a cat.
I'm joking of course but to say El Fondo is 'peaceful' doesn't quite do things justice. However, when Mom and Dad first moved to the village, it was a vibrant little community, with them being the only foreigners in town.
The local Spanish - most of them elderly - welcomed Mom and Dad with open arms. There was always a neighbor knocking on the door to offer some freshly-made paella or similar Spanish treat. Mom would often joke that because the Spanish are the most enthusiastic of greeters (kisses on both cheeks, etc) it would take hours to walk from one end of the village to the other.
Sadly, times have changed. With each passing year, the village population has diminished as the old folk have either passed away or become too frail to look after themselves and gone to live with sons and daughters in neighboring towns. Many of the properties have fallen into disrepair.
But Mom and Dad remain here in their little corner of Spain. And this is where I'll be staying for six days.
Tuesday 22nd September 8.00am
They say the world is divided into two distinct groups: early airport people and late airport people. And that's why I'm here at Bangkok International just before 8.00am for a flight that doesn't leave until midday. I am the ultimate early airport person. And there's a good reason for this.
Twenty odd years ago - with time on my hands and money in my pocket - I took myself off to the Greek island of Corfu for a fortnight of what kids get up to in their first flushes of independent youth.
After what felt like one long 14-day party, I overslept on the final morning and faced the prospect of not only missing the flight home, but being stranded on the island for another week with barely two drachmas to rub together.
But a crazy taxi-ride from one end of Corfu to the other got me to the airport with five minutes to spare. Security staff had to drive me across the runway in one of those little cars with the flashing lights to a plane that was almost ready for take-off.
My stress level went off the scale that day and it was a long time before my heartbeat returned to something like its normal rhythm.
The incident left me scarred for life. From that day to this, I arrive at airports ridiculously early and I don't do flights where the layovers are less than two hours. Those are the rules.
But of course being an early airport person leads to one major problem - the realization that once you've checked in and gone through security and immigration, you now have the best part of four hours to waste.
Other passengers seem to kill time at airports with little effort but I've never grasped the attraction of wandering aimlessly around duty free shops, testing the latest masculine fragrances from Calvin Klein, trying on ridiculous-looking headphones and fingering giant Toblerones. I prefer to find a quiet seating area far from the maddening crowds and amuse myself with whatever electronic devices I have to hand.
A nice discovery
Because I was at the airport on my own and had no one to chat with, I decided to try out one of the CIP first class lounges - and very impressed I was too.
There are six of these lounges scattered around Suwanabhum and all seem to offer passengers the same deal. It also doesn't matter whether you are flying economy class or business. Anyone can use a CIP lounge.
For a thousand baht you get two hours access to unlimited food and drink (including spirits and alcohol) free wi-fi and comfy armchairs. They even provide hot showers if you're the sort of traveler who likes to get naked before a flight.
I've walked past these lounges many times and never once felt tempted but I'm well and truly a convert now.
OK, the food selection will never win any awards (mainly bland-looking sandwiches and pies) but as a package, the CIP lounge definitely works. It's a far better alternative to toughing it out with the great unwashed in Burger King and the other shitty restaurants on offer
In terms of scheduling, I'm booked on a Lufthansa flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt. Then I've got three hours on German soil (time for a small draft beer perhaps?) before catching the one-hour connection to Birmingham, where hopefully my brother will be waiting for me. I'm due to land in ‘Brum' about 11pm local time. It's then only a short drive to my brother's home in Boldmere.
Door-to-door, the total journey is just shy of 21 hours.
I'm looking forward to the long-haul leg of the trip because I've splashed out on Lufthansa's relatively new ‘premium economy' seat. For 50% more than the cost of an economy class ticket, you get a larger seat in a specially designated area of the aircraft, with extra legroom, meals served on proper plates, your very own armrests and wait for it - a complimentary bottle of drinking water.
The on-line reviews are positive, but as one experienced flyer put it - you won't be disappointed as long as you look on it as premium economy and not some sort of ‘business class lite'. That sounds fair enough.
Lufthansa also give you a very generous 46 kilogram baggage allowance. I can check in not one, but two suitcases provided neither case exceeds 23 kilos. It sounds like an amazing deal for drug traffickers, but as it is I've managed to squeeze my modest pile of clothes into just one case thank you.
Eventually the time comes to board the plane. My first impressions of the premium economy seat are good. The passengers settle themselves in for the eleven-hour flight and the captain comes on to tell us the route we'll be taking and the altitudes we'll be flying at. I'm with comedian Jerry Seinfeld on all that frankly pointless trivia - "hey! Captain! as long as you get me to where it says on the ticket, just do whatever you gotta do and let me sleep"
But the captain sounds like he's in a good mood, with no dark thoughts and free from political or religious leanings. I don't need to explain that bit do I?
Anyway, see you in Frankfurt.
10.00pm Frankfurt Airport
I won't go as far as to say 11 hours just flew by but thanks to a couple of decent in-flight movies and the odd cat-nap (I can never sleep soundly on long-haul flights) I've made it to Frankfurt.
Frankfurt Airport is peaceful at this time of day. Most of the shops and restaurants are empty and the staff are all playing with smartphones in an attempt to alleviate the boredom. It feels strangely like the Germans have kindly kept a whole international airport open just for me.
The passengers on the 70-minute flight to Birmingham are mostly business people. Many of them appear tetchy and overworked. Perhaps meetings went on too long or liquid lunches didn't meet expectations, but something has put them in a bad mood and their sole objective seems to be to get into as many petty arguments with security staff as possible.
"What do you mean I have to put my bag through this X-ray, I already X-rayed it at a machine over there? This is preposterous"
I think there are interesting comparisons to be drawn from the two sets of passengers I've encountered today. On long-haul flights, there is a sort of underlying camaraderie. You can see it in the snatched conversations and small talk as people queue for the lavatories. It stands to reason I suppose. You've got 200-odd passengers on-board and everyone knows they're going to be stuck on an aircraft for the best part of half a day. It's important that everyone gets along.
Business types on short European hops, especially late at night, have no time for such pleasantries. They've had a murderous day of spreadsheets and overlong PowerPoint presentations. The moment they locate their seats and stow their gear into an overhead bin, there's a race to fish out a Kindle or an i-pad or whatever electronic distraction it takes in order to not have to make conversation or eye contact with the people around them.
So while I'm sticking the boot into business people, perhaps I can take you briefly back to the late 80's.
I worked at Birmingham Airport for a short time on the customer service desk of a major car rental company. Even though the salary was appalling given the amount of work and the unsociable hours, to this day it's still the best job I ever had. I loved that busy travel hub environment and shared some great times with an amazing team of people.
But you're never truly satisfied with your lot. Every day I would watch business people with their smart suits and designer briefcases flying out to exotic cities like Paris and Hamburg and think - ‘one day that's going to be me'.
Fast forward a decade or so and it was me. I was a sales manager jetting around South East Asia with deals to make and hands to shake. And I hated every fucking minute of it, sitting alone in a strange hotel room in a strange neighborhood, flicking through the TV channels to find something in English and wondering if I should risk trying to fathom out how to use the trouser press. Not to mention the tossing and turning at night over the stress of unachievable sales targets.
Since then, I see globe-trotting business people in a totally different light. I don't feel an ounce of jealousy. Sympathy yes: jealousy, no.
Wednesday 23rd September
I'm determined to ease myself in gently. Today is all about taking things at a nice sedate pace. I've made the mistake in past years of trying to do too much on that first day back. Whether it be lunch with relatives or evening drinks with old friends, eventually the dreaded jetlag will catch up on you. It always does. Better to not make any appointments at all and just enjoy your own company for a while.
So it's a day of shopping, well, a half-day at least. After a fine sausage and bacon cob from the local bakery, I catch the local train just one stop into Sutton Coldfield. I love train travel in the UK, especially once the rush hour is over and you have a whole station to yourself. The staff in the ticket office greet you with enthusiastic good mornings, and when the train arrives (bang on time) it's warm and spotlessly clean. I can never understand why the British complain about its train system so much. It's still as good as anything I've seen in the world.
The Gracechurch Shopping Centre in Sutton Coldfield has seen better days. Like many suburban shopping centres around the country, it's suffered in recent times through the loss of some of its high street retail giants (Woolworths being just one example) but it's hanging on in there. Despite a prevalence of charity shops, Poundlands and low-end supermarket chains like Aldi and Lidl, it still boasts some of the big boys such as WH Smith, Boots and Marks and Spencers - all of them noticeably quiet on a grey Wednesday morning.
My first port of call, as always, is the Sutton branch of Three Mobile, who do an excellent pay-as-you-go sim card package with unlimited internet usage and phone calls for just twenty pounds. It's a perfect package for folks like me who aren't interested in direct debit contracts and all that palaver but simply want to check e-mails and post updates to Facebook for a couple of weeks. So in no time at all, I'm connected with the world again!
Clothes-wise I've travelled fairly light, so I wander into Next for Men to pick up half a dozen plain t-shirts. I had intended to buy a couple of pairs of jeans as well but Next didn't offer anything beyond slim, skinny, ultra-skinny and the next cut where I think staff just paint-spray your legs blue. Even the straight leg jeans are really designed for a much younger man but I trudge to the changing room, squeeze myself into a pair and then look in the mirror and laugh at how ridiculous I look. "Just the t-shirts thank you"
It was Chicken Club Wednesday at The Bishop Vesey, a Wetherspoons pub in Boldmere, where I decided to have lunch. For those of you not familiar with the UK, Wetherspoons is a huge British pub chain. There might well be a Wetherspoons on the high street of virtually every city and town in England. In many ways they are the Tesco of the pub world. When an independent pub closes down (as they do with alarming regularity these days) there's a fair chance that Wetherspoons will take the premises over. It's nigh on impossible for anyone to compete with Wetherspoons. They buy stocks of food and drink in incredible bulk and offer eaters and drinkers the best deals in town.
I had a piri-piri chicken breast fillet with chips, salad AND a pint of beer for less than 7 pounds. The meal wasn't particularly memorable but it filled a gap and sometimes that's all you're looking for. Wetherspoons knows its market - and even at three in the afternoon, The Bishop Vesey is full of white van men (the slang term for self employed tradespeople such as builders and plumbers) all supping pints of ale and taking advantage of the buy-one-get-one free happy hours.
The evening is spent just sitting and chewing the fat with my brother and his partner. It's good to catch up on what's happened in our lives since we last met 12 months ago. I manage to last until ten 'o' clock and decide that that's enough for the first day. I climb into the guest bed and I'm fast asleep in seconds.
Thursday 24th September
I wait until the morning rush hour is over and catch the train into Birmingham City Centre. Except no self-respecting Brummie ever refers to it as 'the city centre'. To us it's "to go up town" or "I'm gewin up town". That's the way it's always been.
I'm most eager to see New Street, Birmingham's major train station, which has recently undergone a major re-development and had millions of pounds lavished upon it. Anyone who has travelled across England by train will have probably gone through Birmingham New Street at one time or another - and the memories will probably be unpleasant ones. For decades it's been a dark, dank subterranean cavern of platforms and ongoing construction work, staffed by jobsworths who didn't give a shit. But time has caught up with New Street and I suppose the public demanded something more befitting of a second city transport hub.
Today is the official opening day and the station is a hive of activity. Police, security staff and events planners are buzzing around and chatting on walkie-talkies. Joe public are also present in great number, standing arms akimbo and nodding appreciatively or taking photos on smartphones. New Street certainly looks impressive. It's become a combination of train station and shopping mall with an enviable selection of international restaurants to boot.
On my annual trips back to the UK I rarely venture into the city centre. Truth be told, I fell out of love with it a long time ago.
Back in the 80's, when I was a serial pubber and clubber, the city centre was the only place to be. You had thousands of young people, dressed up to the nines and all out to have a good time - especially on a Friday and Saturday night. 'Posing' and being seen was the name of the game. There was only ever a moderate police presence and there was rarely any trouble to speak of. But the good times didn't last and in the 90's the city centre rather lost its way thanks to cheap booze and an increase in anti-social behaviour.
But today the city centre feels like a place rejuvenated and I like the direction it seems to be heading in. For the first time in decades, the city actually has an 'international feel'. Not only can Brummies be proud of their gleaming new train station but in the future, there will be a HS2 high-speed train link between Birmingham and London that will whisk commuters to the capital in an unbelievable 49 minutes at speeds of 250 miles an hour.
There's already talk of Birmingham eventually becoming a 'satellite city' for well-heeled business people who can work in their London offices but take advantage of Birmingham's cheaper housing.
There's no doubt about it. These are exciting and prosperous times for Birmingham. The city has got its eye firmly on the future.
There are two other reasons why the city felt a much more agreeable place to walk around. Firstly, there was a noticeable absence of 'chuggers' (charity muggers) - those painfully cheerful folks who accost you in the street and try to get you to sign up for regular charity donations via direct debit, for which of course they earn a commission.
I am unfortunately a charity mugger's dream. I get stopped by them all. I remember one year plucking up the courage to ask a young female chugger in Shrewsbury why I seemed to be such a prime target for these guys. "it's because you have such a kind face" she replied.
And secondly, there were no sinister-looking groups of jobless East Europeans, hanging around in shop doorways and passing the time by wolf-whistling at pretty, female passers-by.
Yes, I think it's fair to say that today I felt proud to be a Brummie!
Friday 25th September
Today is a busy day for the Williams clan. It's my Aunt Jean's 60th birthday and it's going to be a day of eating, drinking and making merry. Jean is the younger of my father's two sisters and the only one still living in England. The older sister Ann, emigrated to America some 20 years ago and apart from the odd e-mail exchange, there's been very little communication.
I always make time for my ‘Auntie Jean' when I'm back in England. She's the kindest, most generous and most thoughtful person you could meet. Even though I live on the other side of the world, she never misses a birthday or Christmas card and she was extremely good to me when I was a small boy.
Jean was probably no more than a teenager herself but on many a Saturday she would drag me around every trendy clothes shop in Birmingham. Not something I was particularly enthusiastic about but every time my spirits flagged, Auntie Jean would ply me with as much candy and fizzy pop as I could stomach. To a seven-year-old, it was a most agreeable arrangement.
Today also gives me the opportunity to catch up with Jean's two daughters - Katie and Laura. I think that ‘daughters of my aunt' makes them my cousins doesn't it? - but like most men, I'm hopeless when it comes to describing the parts of a family tree beyond parents and siblings.
But undoubtedly one of the saddest aspects of being so ‘geographically challenged' is that you miss out on family members growing up. Katie and Laura are both now heading for their thirties and sometimes I still feel like I hardly know them. One moment they were a couple of giggly teenage schoolgirls - all puppy fat and Spice Girls posters - and the next minute they had blossomed into fine young women with careers and long-term relationships. Oh where did all those years go?
But to bring you up to speed, after finishing college, Laura moved from Birmingham to London for several years where she worked for Burberry Fashion House and became very much ‘the big city girl'. Then she jacked in the nine to five to go on a journey of self-discovery and ended up in Australia, where she met and fell in love with a big, butch Aussie naval engineer (as you do)
Laura adores her life down under and I can't ever see her returning to live in the UK. Like me, she's found a better life in a faraway land. But she's made the long journey home for her mom's 60th birthday celebrations.
After years of study, the other daughter Katie has qualified as a doctor specializing in children's nutrition. She's intelligent, beautiful and has an incredible future ahead of her. She's also the first member of the Williams family to become a doctor and needless to say, we're all tremendously proud of her.
Katie has made the considerably shorter journey up from London to join the party today. I'm so looking forward to seeing Auntie Jean and ‘the girls' again. There's always so much lost time to catch up on.
For lunch, we've reserved a table at The Plough in Harborne - which is definitely one of Birmingham's more affluent suburbs. The Plough is what I think is defined as a 'gastro pub'. I'm not sure what that involves other than to give the restaurant a licence to serve food on wooden boards and charge the earth for everything on the menu. The eye-watering prices clearly aren't putting off the punters though. It's full of Harborne 'yummy mummies' trying to keep their designer toddlers amused while they get pissed on the house white.
The Plough isn't really my scene but Auntie Jean enjoying her birthday bash is the main objective and that box gets well and truly ticked. She's surrounded by friends and family and there are balloons and bunting and a mountain of cards and presents to open - only going to show just how popular and highly thought of she is. Auntie Jean looks very happy.
In the evening, a smaller and more select group of family members all find room for a splendid Indian curry. Now this is my thing! Mouthfuls of spicy chicken balti scooped up with chunks of fluffy naan bread. This is food as it's meant to be.
I end the day by giving my belly a pat. There will have to be some serious ab crunch sessions in the gym when I return to Thailand in about twelve days time. I feel like I've gained ten kilograms already.
Saturday 26th September
After yesterday's exertions, I'm thinking of taking today at a more genteel pace but the sun is shining and there's barely a cloud in the sky. It's not a day for staying indoors and just lounging on the sofa in front of Sky Sports (as much as that appeals to me)
The first port of call becomes the enormous Tesco supermarket at New Oscott. I need to change some leftover Euros into Pound Sterling (leftover from last year's trip to Northern Spain when I grossly over-budgeted) but more importantly, to do some food shopping for my Mom and Dad.
My brother and I are off to Spain on Monday morning to see our parents and it's an opportunity for us to treat them to some of the 'tastes of home' - the foodstuffs they either can't buy there or are ridiculously expensive.
So Paul and I dart up and down the supermarket aisles and fill a large shopping trolley with all those UK favourites - Typhoo tea-bags, Ovaltine, Colman's sauce mixes, tins of red salmon, corned beef, Cadbury's chocolate bars and other goodies too numerous to mention.
At the checkout, I survey the small mountain of food and we congratulate ourselves on a job well done. It gives me a nice, warm feeling to carry all that stuff over to Spain because I know how much our folks appreciate it.
I can't leave though without commenting on just how mind-blowing the selection of food has become in the average UK supermarket. Is it any wonder there are so many obese British waddling up and down the aisles when there are so many temptations? You can even buy pre-cooked and frozen baked potatoes. Just stick 'em in the microwave but lose none of that conventional oven-baked taste.
I started to think about how convenient supermarket shopping had become. Tesco has self-service checkouts, on-line delivery and pick-up points where you can call ahead and collect your shopping at a designated point. In other words a Tesco employee traipses around the acres of floor space and does your shopping for you!
But this is how life has become in the UK. If you have a computer and an internet connection, there's almost no need to leave the house. Doing your shopping on-line is just the start. You name it, everyone I've spoken to so far seems to order stuff like clothes movies, games and furniture over the net. My brother told me he even pays his window-cleaner on-line. The future is crazy.
In the afternoon, I passed a pleasant few hours with my brother and his partner in a sunny Sutton Park. I can never comprehend just how large Sutton Park is but it covers over 2,000 acres and is the seventh largest urban park in Europe and the second largest park outside of a capital city. And it's right on my brother's doorstep! How I envy him because it's a wonderful place to go jogging, walking or to just enjoy the great outdoors.
Sunday 27th September
Of all the things I miss most about life in the UK, Sunday league football is near the top of the list. I never played all that often but I was an avid watcher from the touchline.
I loved every aspect of Sunday morning amateur football. It invariably started with a convoy of MOT failures pulling into the car park fifteen minutes before kick off. Then there was the sight of twelve bleary-eyed men, looking as though they had just come straight from the pub, struggling to find twelve matching football shirts. Finally, the realisation that the match referee had been told the wrong location and was now lost on the other side of Birmingham. Sometimes it was a wonder the match got started at all.
But despite all these obstacles that the players had to overcome, once the game did start, it was always fiercely competitive.
The game I watched this morning was no different - except the players were all ten years old and under and one team included my little nephew Joe. This was my first chance to see him play in a proper, organised game.
I stood on the touchline with a small bunch of enthusiastic and vocal parents and together we cheered on two teams of young lads - all dreaming of being the next Messi or Ronaldho.
Joe's team lost 10-0 but despite the scoreline, they gave a good account of themselves. The opposing team were a little older, physically bigger and had been training together for longer. The result was not entirely unexpected.
However, despite a thrashing, Joe pulled off some terrific saves in the goalkeeper's jersey and deservedly earned a few pats on the back at the final whistle, including a hearty well done from the manager. I was pleased for him.
In the afternoon, the weather was glorious - so we all went for a walk around Lichfield, which is a quaint cathedral city about 15 miles from Birmingham. In the past, no trip home was ever complete without spending a couple of hours in Lichfield but the last time I went, several years ago, it was a huge disappointment. Despite the cathedral and historic buildings looking as magnificent as ever, the high street and shopping centre appeared tired and worn out. Many of the cafes and quirkier retail outlets had closed down or were boarded up completely.
So it was encouraging to see that Lichfield was enjoying something of an economic renaissance. Well-known department store Debenhams had opened a new branch at one end of the shopping centre and this had clearly had a positive effect. The cash registers were ringing again and Lichfield was well and truly back on the map
Monday 28th September
3.30 in the morning and my brother and I are sipping coffee in his back garden.
Neither of us makes much in the way of conversation but who knows what to talk about at such an ungodly hour? We have a 6.30 flight to Alicante in Spain and the taxi is coming in half an hour.
Birmingham Airport is chaos! There are long lines at the check-in and passengers are glancing nervously at watches. Getting through airport security is also a long and stressful process.
If a bunch of highly-paid executives are thinking of getting around a table to discuss the cause of Birmingham Airport's problems, then let me save you the bother. Too many passengers on too many low-cost flights taking off in too short a time period. You're welcome.
But seriously, I wonder how much revenue Birmingham Airport loses by making passengers spend hours checking instead of allowing them time to browse in the duty free shops or order food in restaurants, etc? It sounds like business suicide to me.
We make the plane with just twenty minutes to spare and take our seats among the Benidorm hen parties (in high spirits) and the old age pensioners (blocking up the aisle and taking forever to put their bags in the overhead bins)
The chief stewardesses both have unnaturally orange-coloured skin and are both called Kelly. They perform an unenthusiastic saftey demo (which no one watches) and eventually we're up in the clouds.
We arrive in Alicante ten minutes ahead of schedule, collect our luggage and make our way to the arrivals hall where Mom and Dad are waiting. It's good to see them again. Even though we talk regularly on Skype, it can never take the place of the warmth and love of a mother's hug.
Dad looks well. A little tired and pale, but surprisingly chipper for a man who has recently had a fifth operation to remove a tumour. As the day progresses, the colour returns to his cheeks and he begins to look ten years younger. I think our arrival has done him good. At least he now has someone to talk about football with.
In the evening, we all enjoy a reunion dinner of wine and tapas in a nearby village before crawling to bed about 10pm. We've had enough excitement for one day.
Tuesday 29th September
When it comes to owning a computer and being connected to the world via the internet, I guess you could say my Mom was late to the party. Although she had craved an internet connection for many years, there seemed little chance of ever receiving a wi-fi signal in her tiny Spanish village
But a couple of years ago, things started looking up. Some trees got chopped down (or did a mountain get moved?) - and suddenly El Fondo stepped into the 21st century. Mom and I could chat to each other on Skype. We could share photos on Facebook. A whole new world opened up.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks - and it was certainly a steep learning curve - but the way Mom has mastered a computer has astounded us all. Sometimes, with me in Thailand and Mom in Spain, trying to explain folders, hyperlinks and toolbars via a Skype connection pushed us to the limits of our patience - but we got there in the end.
However, there are some things that can only be done face to face - like replacing the ink cartridges in a printer for example. So part of the morning was spent in the IT section of a local hypermarket, looking for replacements. Hopefully Mom can do this herself next time.
For lunch we had a menu del dia (the menu of the day) at a local restaurant run by twin brothers from Uruguay. We've been to 'Restaurante Oasis' in Pinoso many times. It's a great favourite among the local expat community, not just because the place serves great food at reasonable prices, but their customer service is second to none. The Uruguayan brothers greet every customer like an old friend. Every diner is made to feel special.
Most restaurants in Spain offer a 'menu del dia' - a cheap or 'cheapish' three-course lunch, which is often subsidized by the Spanish government to ensure that working-class folk (particularly farmers and labourers) always have the opportunity to eat one decent, square meal.
It's a splendid idea but the quality of the menu del dia varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant. But at Oasis, it's always top notch. You get a choice of starters including soups and cold meats, a selection of main courses (pork, chicken, fish) and a tasty choice of desserts. Plus as much salad, bread and wine as you need. Oh, and a coffee to finish. And you get all that for just 9 Euros! It's an unbelievable bargain.
The cost of dining out has increased the world over, but eating out in Spain is still tremendous value for money. I mentioned the tapas and wine that we enjoyed on our first evening. The bill came to 16 Euros for four of us - for plenty of wine and plenty of tapas.
Wednesday 30th September
The weather in Spain at this time of year is always unpredictable, Summer is over and the darker nights are drawing in. When I came last year for six days, it was nothing but grey skies and rain for the entire duration. But today is glorious. It's very much 't-shirt and shorts' weather so my brother and I drive into nearby Monovar with a plan to mooch around the old town, photograph a few churches and perhaps enjoy a 'cafe con leche' at a pavement cafe.
Monovar is one of many good-size Spanish towns in the Alicante Province. It's a nice enough place to walk around in a 'thank you God for not making me live there' kind of way. Even at 10.30 in the morning, the streets are deserted and half of the shops are still closed and shuttered. We search for a town centre where perhaps there might be a fountain, a park, a town square, a selection of bakery shops and cafes. Eventually after walking in circles and going past the same church six times, we come to the conclusion that Monovar doesn't actually have a centre. What you see is what you get.
I think Spain is a wonderful choice of country for an expat to retire to but the pace of life is far too slow for me. Shops often open late in the morning and when the business day should be in full swing, the shopkeepers all decide to close in the afternoon for a siesta. And once again it becomes a ghost town. How is anyone open long enough to make any money?
But the Spanish love it this way. They are creatures of habit and fiercely proud of their culture and traditions. As long as there's a free table at the cafe where they can drink, smoke, chat with friends and watch the world go by, they're by and large content. Life is not something to be rushed.
For lunch, Mom and Dad treat us to a tapas taster menu at the rather swanky La Romana Spa and Hotel. Don't be fooled by the dusty dirt-track that cuts across farmland to the entrance. The spa and hotel complex is five-star luxury - certainly for this part of the world.
Both the food and service are superb and it's a pleasant change to converse with a waitress who speaks fluent English. I lose count of the number of courses but they include lamb in filo pastry parcels, crepe triangles with Serrano ham and deep-fried crispy rabbit. The dishes are all beautifully presented and I'm not sure if the prices keep out the riff-raff but we are the only ones enjoying lunch. Maybe everyone else was being pampered in the spa rooms?
With two hours of daylight remaining, my brother suggested 'a nice afternoon walk' - "just a couple of miles through some of the local vineyards, on to the main road and back to the village" he said.
It didn't turn out to be one of his better ideas. We set off hopelessly underprepared with no water and no sense of direction. We walked through several hamlets where the locals stared and dogs barked and threatened to chew our legs off if only they could get out of their cages. I seriously began to wonder if we were going to get out of this alive. We'd also lost sight of the main road that was our route back to civilization.
Eventually we got lucky and stumbled upon a tractor track, which led to a paved road, which led us back to the main highway. The ordeal was over - but we arrived back in the village feeling parched and exhausted. A gentle afternoon stroll had almost turned into a ten-mile fight for survival. I'd never been happier to see my parents' house.
Thursday 1st October
We took advantage of another glorious sunny morning to tick off a couple of local towns. Firstly Sax, which is notable for its archeological findings and attractive 11th century castle. I had walked or driven up to the castle several times in the past and didn't really fancy it again, but I'm always up for a browse and a rummage in a charity shop - and there is a fine Red Cross charity shop in the city centre run by two friendly retired ladies, who judging by their accents both hail from the north of England.
On the same street is the Spanish equivalent of Cash Converters - an Aladdin's cave of electrical appliances and assorted nic-nacs and bric-a-brac. Spanish people looking to make a bit of extra gambling money can take in their microwave, old guitar, grandmother's spinning wheel, etc and the item is displayed in the shop at a price agreed between seller and shopkeeper. If or when the goods are sold, the shop takes a 20% commission. It sounds like a nice little business if you can put up with people calling you all day long and asking if you've sold their mother's wig and wedding ring yet?
In the afternoon, my brother and I drive into Pinoso for a couple of light ales. We like Pinoso. It's more vibrant than other towns in the Alicante province and has a sizeable expat community.
We always frequent the same bar - possibly because it's the only one open during the siesta hours. It's run by an English couple who have zero customer service skills and no business nous whatsoever - but they are typical of many British expats who have chased the Spanish dream and a new life in the sun, only to end up eking out a living - in this case, running a bar that's reliant on a handful of hardcore regulars and borderline alcoholics. And the odd once-a-year visitors like us.
But there obviously isn't enough profit to be made on sales of alcohol so most of the bar has now been turned into a strange sort of convenience store / corner shop for homesick expats. Packets of Wagon Wheels and McVities Cholcolate Digestives jostle for shelf space with Colman's mustard and jars of Patak curry sauces. None of it fastidiously arranged but unlovingly plonked down wherever it fits.
It all smacks of a last desperate attempt to earn enough to pay the bills and avoid returning to the Boltons and Burnleys with the Spanish dream in tatters. But there are now so many British expats in that same boat.
But to brighter things and one of the highlights of our Spanish break - Carmen Del Campillo, just outside Crevillente and often referred to as 'The Moroccan Secret Garden'. Mom and Dad had been promising to take me here for years. Every visitor they have brought here has fallen in love with Carmen Del Camillo - and it truly is unique.
The Secret Garden is very hard to find. There are no signposts or arrows pointing the way. You hear about it by word of mouth or you are taken there by a friend. The last thing the Moroccan owners want is to start getting favorable reviews on Trip Advisor. It's a place to meditate, a place to clear the mind. Or somewhere for a special date perhaps.
After being free to wander around the outside gardens and fountains, you ring a bell and are greeted at the gate by an elderly man in traditional Moroccan dress. From there you are free to explore the incredible labyrinth of candle-lit paths, exotic vegetation, secret rooms and bedouin tents that comprise The Secret Garden.
Conversations are hushed. Comments are whispered. For once it's a place where every visitor respects the desire for peace and reflection.
The six Euro per person entrance fee (which you actually pay on the way out) entitles you to one free drink from an extensive list of fruit teas. The Secret Garden is such a worthwhile experience. But what a pity that the staff are so miserable!
Friday 2nd October
Even though my parents are the only expats living in their remote Spanish village, they have a terrific support network of other British retirees living in the area. And they all look out for each other.
It's always a great comfort for me to know that should either mom or dad suddenly be taken ill or perhaps hospitalized for a lengthy period of time, there will always be someone to lend a helping hand.
There have been times over the past few years when my parents have needed a lift to the doctor's surgery, an airport pick-up or maybe just a friendly face to sit and chat with them at a hospital bedside. Thankfully there is never a shortage of volunteers, so I welcome the chance to meet any of the ‘expat gang' face-to-face and say thank you, albeit indirectly, for being there in times of need - people such as John Sharpley and his charming wife Barbara.
John and Barbara have invited us over for morning coffee at their beautiful Monovar home. Both are extremely well-travelled with plenty of stories to tell but what I've really come to see is John's collection of movie memorabilia. Framed photographs of Hollywood stars line the walls. There's even a life-size cardboard cut-out of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. But in a corner of the living room is John's pride and joy - an original, fully-functioning replica of the American jukebox used in the film ‘Ghost' starring Patrick Swayzee and Demi Moore.
To any music lover, it's a thing of exceptional beauty and John is clearly a fan of late 50's America - the great Rock ‘n' Roll era.
"Oh to be a teenager growing up during that period" says John, "America must have been the greatest place in the world at the greatest time in history"
After a pleasant couple of hours chatting to John and cooing over his jukebox, we return to El Fondo. A Spanish neighbor has turned up and makes a beeline as we all get out of the car.
Jo no longer lives in the village but she's here to give her ‘second home' its monthly dust and polish. I haven't seen Jo for several years but she remembers me and is eager to greet me in the traditional Spanish way.
Run for the hills! - it's the dreaded kiss on both cheeks. The British are simply hopeless at it. We've barely mastered the handshake. How are we supposed to cope with kissing a relative stranger?
There are just so many things that can go wrong with the traditional Spanish greeting, as I ably demonstrate when I attempt to kiss Jo's left cheek as she tries to do exactly the same to me. Jo tilts her head quickly to the other side to minimize the embarrassment but somehow I end up giving her a head-butt. Perhaps it's best if I stick to shaking hands - or just stay indoors and avoid any social contact at all?
In the evening, all roads lead to The Village Tavern in La Romana. On Friday nights, they do a fish, chips and mushy peas special. So the evening is passed eating a good old British meal in a good old British pub. I think I'm allowed such a divulgence because it's my last night in Spain. Back to England tomorrow!
Saturday 3rd October
We rise early for breakfast because we want to make the most of our last day together. But even though my brother and I don't need to be at Alicante Airport until four in the afternoon, there's that heaviness in the air that always accompanies a day when family members have to part company for another year.
We spend the morning looking around the magnificent Castilla de la Mole in Novelda before enjoying a final ‘menu del dia' - our last meal together.
Time begins to go fast. Too fast. And suddenly we are saying our goodbyes in front of Alicante's main terminal. Is there anything worse than those airport goodbyes? I try to hold it together but mom and dad both become emotional and I realize there's little point trying to put on a brave face.
The two and a half hour flight back to Birmingham passes without incident. Well, apart from Birmingham Airport being its usual ridiculously slow self when it comes to delivering passenger baggage from aircraft to carousel. Sort it out guys!
Monday 5th October
Yesterday was very much a family day - Sunday lunch, a walk around the park with an ice cream - and some shopping in Marks and Spencers.
My wife (as she always does God bless her) had sent me on a specific errand to buy two packs of plain black ladies knickers. She's extremely fond of her M&S lingerie you see.
So armed only with a photograph on my mobile phone of the particular cut of knickers that my wife wanted, I looked for a kindly shop assistant to both assist me and get me the hell out of the women's underwear department as quickly as possible. Well, I found just the right person. Not only did she direct me to where the goods were displayed but she held up a pair so I could take pictures and text them to my wife who was on-line in Thailand.
So if you were in the Marks and Spencer's lingerie section in Sutton Coldfield at twenty minutes past one on Sunday afternoon and saw a member of staff holding up little black ladies panties as a middle-aged man took photos - it was me!
It's a horrible drizzly English Monday morning - virtually the first rain I've seen since I got here - but I don't care that much because I'm excited about today. I've got my travel hat on again and I'm taking the train up to Yorkshire to see a good friend who has recently settled in the village of Burley-in-Wharfedale with his Thai wife - after living for 15 years in Thailand!
I'm eager to see how he's getting on and how quickly he's adapted to the English way of life after being away for so long.
I'm at New Street Station an hour before the train arrives (there goes that ‘early airport person' again) so I kill twenty minutes in a station café and take out a second mortgage to buy a sausage and bacon cob and a hot chocolate. Then I stand on the platform (because there are no seats) and await the train to Ilkley in South Yorkshire. I always feel a tingle of excitement when I look at the departure boards and see all those destinations I could be catching a train to - Plymouth, York, Edinburgh, Macclesfield. I could spend the rest of my life just going up and down the length of the country on the brilliant, albeit pricy British railway network.
I change trains at Leeds and realize it's the first time I've ever set foot in the city. If it's anything as grim as its train station, then I'm probably not missing much.
Eventually the train pulls into Ilkley and my friend and his wife are already on the platform to meet me. Maem is dressed in an enormous parka. She's already feeling the cold. I ask her about the one thing she misses most about Bangkok. "The hot weather" she replies. I haven't got the heart to tell her how cold it will get in January and February.
We go for lunch at a completely empty Wetherspoons type pub and order hamburgers, chicken tikka and a cheeky round of alcoholic drinks. This is always a mistake on my part. I'm possibly the world's most pathetic daytime drinker. One pint of bitter shandy and I'm ready for an afternoon nap.
But there's no time for sleeping because my friend has got shit to show me. We start with the house in Burley which he's recently purchased. The house needs a lot of work doing but has enormous potential with tidy gardens and on a clear day, a nice view of the Yorkshire moors. I'm sure once the work is all completed, they'll be very happy there.
We pick up my friend's son from school and then I pop in to say hello to his mother. I've met her once before - in Bangkok several years ago - and she's an interesting lady. She's an ultra-strict vegetarian and also forms one half of a folk music duo, who write all their own songs and play local pubs and folk clubs in the Yorkshire area. When I arrive at the house, both she and her male partner are performing in the bedroom (I'll revisit that sentence later) and the strains of "Oh where is my raggle taggle gypsy" and "my love's gone away to sea" are filtering down the stairs.
My friend's mother also lives in one of the ‘roughest parts of Bradford' - the suburb of Manningham. At least that's how my friend has built it up. It doesn't look the slightest bit rough to me though. I live in Samut Prakarn, East Bangkok. I‘ll decide what the definition of ‘rough' is.
To a true crime fanatic like me, no trip to Manningham in Bradford is complete without a walk down Garden Lane, to specifically number six and the imposing detached house that in the 1970s belonged to Peter Sutcliffe - better known as The Yorkshire Ripper.
I snatch a quick photo of the property. This is no time for selfies. The house has to be captured alone in a single photo - silent and brooding. The keeper of lord knows how many dark secrets.
We drive around on a little mini-tour of Bradford. It's a city I've always wanted to visit probably out of morbid curiosity more than anything else. We stop off for a photo in front of Valley Parade, the home of Bradford City Football Club and enjoy half a pint of bitter in The Bradford Arms pub on Manningham Lane - once one of The Yorkshire Ripper's favorite watering holes. It's one of the most run-down and depressing pubs I've ever been in and a handful of weathered locals eye us up suspiciously - but the atmosphere is electric.
We finish the night at The Kashmir Restaurant on the other side of the city - one of Bradford's original Indian curry houses. It's been around for years but it retains all the original old school charm. There are laminated menus that are greasy to the touch, there are old chairs stacked in the gents toilets and our table-top could do with a fucking good wipe, but the chicken dupiaza, the onion pakoras and the mango lassi are as good as any I've tasted. And the food is cheap.
Tuesday 6th October
I had booked a one-night stay at The Crescent Inn in Ilkley for probably two reasons. Firstly, it was only 300 metres from the train station and secondly, it scores an average of over nine on booking dot com.
My expectations were high and The Crescent truly lived up to them. The room was well-appointed with plenty of wardrobe space, a modern bathroom, a strong wi-fi signal and two packets of tasty biscuits on the hospitality tray (that's generally enough to keep me happy). The staff were friendly to a level well beyond the call of duty and the full English breakfast (included in the room rate) could barely fit on the largest of plates. Look out for another good Trip Advisor review is all I can say.
I rose early to eat breakfast and settle the room bill so I could spend a couple of hours exploring Ilkley itself. It really is the prettiest of northern towns, as good as anything I've been to in The Lake District or Derbyshire Dales and I can give it no greater accolade than that.
I walked street after street, all crammed with quaint tea shops and gift shops with immaculate window displays and past small parks and memorial gardens, their rows of plants and flowers trimmed to perfection. The whole town was a blaze of early Autumn colour.
But something suddenly hits you after about thirty minutes of walking - more so in a place as beautiful as Ilkley. The realization that you are alone and you are the single traveler. There is no one to share the moments and the experiences with. There is no one by your side to appreciate that centuries old stone church or that window display of tea cups and teddy bears. I contemplate how much my wife would enjoy being here and I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness. The spirit of travel and adventure instantly starts to flag.
I've had this same discussion with many travelers on-line and personally I think solo travel sucks. Other travelers swear by going it alone but it's definitely not for me. The best moments in life are nearly always the ones shared with others, particularly loved ones.
In a somber and reflective mood, I head back to the hotel earlier than I had planned, pack my bags, say my farewells to the staff who had taken such good care of me - and make my way to the station.
When I reached Birmingham, it was chucking it down (to use a good Brummie expression) I took the local train out to Wylde Green and the rain got even heavier. Not quite the kind of monsoon downpour we get in Thailand but close enough. I knew taking a raincoat would turn out to be a good idea but I still got home with soaked jeans and sneakers.
I had a few hours to dry off before one of the highlights of my England visit - the annual pilgrimage to Coles Lane, the home of my beloved Sutton Coldfield Football Club - a non-league football team I've followed for a good number of years
I'll resist the temptation to bore you with reams of football stuff but 'The Royals' by some miracle, have now reached the dizzy heights of The Evostik Premier League. They are now just three levels below the actual English football league proper. It's an incredible achievement considering they survive on gates of barely 100-150 fans coming through the turnstiles and they pay their amateur playing staff in the region of 150 pounds a week. Many of the players have been on the books of larger professional clubs in the past but inevitably failed to make the grade. Now they are daytime plumbers and electricians and turn out for Sutton Coldfield on a part-time basis.
I took my brother and one of his good friends along with me to the game and a great night was had by all. Sutton ran out 2-0 winners to further cement their excellent start to a season in a league where they are probably punching above their weight. Not only that but I got to meet the friendly Neil Morell, the gentleman who handles the football club's twitter account. Neil and I had communicated many times on-line and now he could put a name to the face and knowing I was a supporter living on the other side of the world, he insisted that we hang around at the end of the game to meet the team manager and share a beer in the social club.
Wednesday 7th October
My last day in the UK and it's another rainy, grey morning. I wouldn't want it any other way because it puts me into going home mode.
I'm not keen on 'final days' at all. The airline have e-mailed me to say I can now check in on-line and to remind me not to put explosives in my suitcase. It feels as though I now have the task of killing 24 hours before the journey home begins.
I start the day with a packing dummy run. I've got that 46 kilo baggage allowance going back and I fully intend to abuse it. I buy enough chocolate and confectionery in Poundland to open my own shop. My wife has also requested scones and clotted cream so if you're in the Samut Prakarn area on Friday, you're most welcome to pop round for a cream tea.
At midday, Auntie Jean drives over to Boldmere with Cousin Katie and the three of us enjoy a leisurely lunch in the local Wetherspoons pub. Our lunch date begins with an impromptu cabaret as two policemen arrive to eject a homeless alcoholic gentleman who has been sitting in the corner in a drunken stupor and is now starting to verbally abuse the customers around him.
The vagrant is clearly well-known to the two officers and they politely give 'Tom the Drunk' two chances to get up and leave quietly. Tom obviously isn't keen on the idea. The officers start putting on their blue disposal gloves and all the people in the pub start wondering if this could get nasty. Thankfully it doesn't - well, only for Tom. It takes the cops three seconds to grab an arm each, hoist Tom from his chair and open the swinging entrance doors with Tom's head.
Later that afternoon, as I stroll up Boldmere High Street, I see Tom is horizontal and spark out on a bench in front of Greggs the Bakers.
In the evening, my brother and I stroll to The Horse and Jockey in Sutton Coldfield for a last beer. I ask to borrow one of his big coats because the temperature has plummeted to single figures and I'm really feeling it. I grab a woolen scarf out of his winter rummage box to complete the outfit. Unbelieveably there are still customers walking into the pub dressed in t-shirts. But on the walk home, it feels like a day in January. I swear I've got frostbite in my toes. Definitely time to go home.
I hope you enjoyed the diary.