Busted, my money laundering schemes, drug dealing and terror financing days are over.

bank_edit

HSBC, surely a giant in the banking world and one at the very cutting edge of managing the security of its clients. Maybe so. But not for me. I am not a great one for change. I resisted the smartphone until someone gave me an iphone a few years back and even now, tend to use it just as a telephone. My car is older than Henry Ford, my computer is a big beige thing and I have only sent two tweets.

Where was I. Okay, HSBC. So I have an account that I sort of forgot about. Not a big deal really, there was little inside it. Then one day I get a letter from the bank advising me that as the account has shown little activity over the past year, they were assuming it was dormant and were going to close it unless I got in touch. I figured an easy fix would be to simply transfer some money into it for a few days, then take it back out. That would show activity and keep it from being closed. As I said before, technology like online banking hasn’t really excited me much so I simply phoned them like I have been doing for a few years. After following the recorded instructions I suffer the elevator music whilst my call was put through to an operator.  I finally speak to a human who wants to run through some security questions to ensure I am who I say I am. Easy enough, I know my codes and  I know the answers to my personal questions. I correctly answer the code numbers and we were onto the ‘questions only I would know’ part.

“When did you open your account with HSBC?”  Pardon I replied. She repeated the question for me, not that I hadn’t understood it, no I understood, I just hadn’t expected a question I had never been asked before and one not on the security questions list. I replied that this question was a little oblique as I really had no idea when I had opened the account. I knew it was around 20 years ago, maybe closer to 30 now but to dig up the specific date from my head was like asking me what was my favourite present from my 7th birthday party. Plain impossible. Not deviating off script the operator asked again. I told her this was silly and plucked a date off the top of my head, the only date I could think of at the time. Mach 21st 1980. The day JR Ewing was shot on the the TV show Dallas. A show I thought was pretty rubbish but  was one everyone talked about non-stop at the time speculating about who had killed the nasty oil magnate.

Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. The operator then advised me that as I had answered incorrectly, she would be putting a block on my account. I told her it was going to be blocked anyway which was the reason for my call. I then asked her if she knew the date when she first opened her bank account. She said she couldn’t remember. I then asked that didn’t she think this was a rather silly question to ask customers and she agreed but said there was nothing she could do. Could you ask one of the pre-arranged questions I suggested or put me through to someone higher up the chain or give me the branch number so I could call direct. No, no and no. I would have to visit my branch and resolve it there.

Then a few weeks later I get a letter from the bank. The theme of the letter was their concern for customers security, in order to detect and prevent fraudulent activity they wanted some more information on me. A form was enclosed for me to fill in. Questions included asking me what my annual income is, which countries my net worth was held in and do I intend to continue transactions as I have done in the past and if not, why not. I filled it in. The letter told me I had just 14 days to do this. So I did.

I then get a letter back telling me that the details I had provided were incorrect and that they were placing a restriction on my account limiting me to ATM withdrawals of £50 per day. I am confused. The account they were asking about does not have an ATM card, is, according to them, due for closure and following my telephone call, has been frozen anyway.

On top of that. The account I use for daily stuff has now also had someone review the security who considers my regular US payment to a company called Netflix or something, that has been going out every month for the past two years, as suspicious and have rejected it. Fortunately Netflix have a superb call centre and they apologised for cutting off my service, gave me 2 months free, put me back online and are happy to accept payments from my other online bank and did this all in a single 10 minute telephone conversation.

The bank also decided a direct debit to British Gas could not possibly be for gas used to heat the home or cook, the clue being in the name, but no that must for sure be another one of my clever scams.

HSBC, take some time to listen to me. You know my address, you wrote to me remember, twice, and both times I have responded. You know I have been a customer since forever and you get to see all the transactions I make. My 10 bucks a month to Netflix is honestly not an elaborate money laundering scheme, the regular payment into my personal account from my business account, which has also been with you since Mr and Mrs Bieber took a few sweaty minutes making a baby, is not the result of any drug deals, arms deal, terrorist financing or robbery, if it were, I would certainly qualify as one of the least successful, stupidest and poorest criminals.

Oddly, you are quick to block payments to anyone other than the payment you yourself take for my poorly performing ISA which you sold to me on the pretence that it would grow and grow because your teams are so in tune with the markets. It’s grown very little by the way. Your experts aren’t quite the ‘experts’ you think, unless you mean expert at frequently increasing the fees for badly managing my fund. That transfer continues, them paying themselves they don’t see as suspicious.

Why ask me to make up my own personal security questions if you’re simply going to hit me with one of your own and one I suspect anyone over the age of 40 wouldn’t be able to answer off the top of their head.

I fear for the future if my insignificant financial transactions can in anyway be seen as of concern, especially since you managed to miss the Mexican drug lords who laundered $881 million through you yet crack down on me for having a dodgy direct debit with British Gas. The opening gambit on your letter says you are committed to protecting customer accounts which I guess you are succeeding in doing, my accounts are now so well protected, even I cannot get into them. It will be goodbye HSBC once I have sorted this mess you created out and I offer the few people who will ever reach this far a little advice, do not bank with HSBC unless you want your ISA to go down and your accounts to be blocked for the illegal activity that is subscribing to Netflix.

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I dived with Debbie and upset a few locals…

scuba_doll

Throughout most of my twenties, I  managed to be banned, removed unwillingly or refused entry from far too many bars, clubs and restaurants. It’s not something I mention with any pride as it most often meant humiliation and led to me spending weekends trying to find places where doormen didn’t recognise me, with or without my stick on beard. I can even say, with much regret, that I was once asked to leave Germany. That happened the day I arrived and before I had even left the airport. A misunderstanding shall we say. Fortunately, having since been back into Germany a few times with no questions asked or problems, I think the authorities have agreed with me it was just a simple, silly  little misunderstanding. However it has taken over 20 years for the town of Weymouth to see our little misunderstanding with any leniency, as one summers afternoon in the early 1990’s, this picturesque seaside town told me to leave and  never to come back.

My visit to Weymouth was to enjoy my passion at the time, scuba diving. It was back then a rather ideal spot for wreck dives with a number of interesting old boats ending up on the sea bed at various depths, it was also a good place for novices to run through some open water training as there were many sandy spots between 10 and 15 metres deep. For me though, having done the wrecks to death and helped countless students achieve neutral bouyancy, I was there that day to enjoy a few drift dives with my buddy. A drift dive is where you basically drop down to just above the sea floor and let the current push you along, you’re a passenger on nature’s very own sightseeing bus, just enjoying the ride and enjoying the landscape. Now the waters off the UK do not give you the visual experience of somewhere like the Bahamas or Thailand. It lacks the colourful and exotic wildlife, lacks the crystal clear visibility and a dry-suit is pretty much mandatory. But that aside, it’s still great fun. There’s lobsters and crab, cuttlefish in the kelp, big grey, green and brown fish and curious seals who like to race alongside you showing off their aquatic talents. Another bonus for me is that there are less people about. Drift dives need a current whereas if you’re diving a wreck or practising your buddy breathing, a current is what you do not want. So most dives are scheduled around the tidal window. You enter the water as the tide is slowing, enjoy you sunken boat and aim to be back as the tide begins picking up again. I remember many dives where the small window meant the dive site could look like a supermarket car park with dive boats battling for space over the wreck. On a few occasions I even managed to ascend the wrong anchor line and climb into some other clubs boat. But as we’d all come from the same launch site, I would generally end up close to where I started and got to chat with some other divers on the trip back. So with all the boats ashore when the current is running, a drift dives gives you a bit of solitude.

Because you are underwater and moving along, your support boat has to follow you so you don’t run into any trouble and  it can see where you are when it’s time to pick you up. It follows you by the use of a surface marker bouy which you have tethered to your kit. The bouy itself is generally in the ‘diver down’ colours so other watercraft know to give you a bit of room. I do have one of these but managed to misplace it the day before. Not wanting to miss out on things I called a mate to see if he had one. He didn’t, but he did have an inflatable sex doll, Debbie I think was her name, he’d got her from his stag night a few months back and she was still in his garage along with the ‘L’ plate stuck to her chest. That’d do I thought, after all, the support boat would always be close so all should be okay. I inflated the doll on the drive down using my air cylinder to check whether Deb was seaworthy. Arriving in Weymouth she needed a top up, so a few more blasts from the cylinder and her perky little breasts were back to their full glory.

We’d planned our dive to run along the cliff line. The current would be fairly quick and I knew the seals would get curious and soon come out to play. Buddy checks all done, we slipped into the water and began our descent.

I love this part of the dive, looking up, watching my bubbles and looking into the blue nothingness of the ocean. Well, green nothingness in the UK mostly. We hit our depth and within minutes seals were dancing and weaving between us. It was a great experience, one where time vanishes and the moment absorbs you. Maybe 20 minutes we had been down when the line to the surface began being pulled hard. I guessed the support boat were calling us, urgently it seemed as I was being quite literally dragged to the surface. Looking up I could see the boat, but next to it was another boat, a much, much bigger one.

We surfaced, our little inflatable dwarfed by the menacing hulk that was the Coastguard rescue boat. I unclipped myself and climbed aboard, no they yanked me aboard. I guessed their mood was one of anger and annoyance. But them being the ‘officials’ and me not wanting to start anything, I let them shove me about and lead me below to a room where the captain was waiting. A man of few words it seemed. “Sit there and shut the f#%* up!” was the first thing he said followed by “You two w@#*&>s are going to get a well deserved kicking for this and I hope they make you pay the costs for this silly joke of yours.”

It turned out that someone walking their dog on the cliff had spotted our Debbie floating and, her being out to sea bobbing about all pink and fleshy coloured, it looked to them like it could be a person. Worried that it was a dead body, they called the police who called the Coastguard who quite rightly launched an urgent rescue and recovery mission. They were really not pleased to find that the panic was all over a blow up sex doll and were even less pleased that it was being used as a surface marker bouy for two brain-dead halfwit divers who should have had at least a slim idea that Debbie could, from a distance, like from the cliff tops, look like a real person.  Back on dry land we were met by the police and their flashing blue lights, a crowd of curious onlookers wondering what was going on, an official from the town hall and a journalist who was relieved there was no dead body after all and over the moon that he now had the scoop of the summer for the local newspaper.

We were fined for wasting the rescue services time, Debbie was confiscated and we were banned from the town, the police, in their car with blue flashing lights, followed us to the town edge to make sure we drove off into the distance, glad, no doubt, to see the back of us. In 2011 I wrote to them asking if the ban was still being enforced as I wanted to build some sandcastles on the beach with my son. They never replied. I have since built some great sandcastles on the beaches in southern Spain instead. Any thoughts I had of returning to Weymouth have gone as the Spanish coast provides far more interesting dive experiences, the sand is more ‘sandy’ and the weather needs no mention. My son and I, away from the eyes of his mother of course, once built a ‘sand-woman’ in homage to Debbie complete with open mouth, embracing arms and spread legs. We did hide her modesty with some shells though as I didn’t want to be drawn into a educational lesson type moment with my son and the thought of the beach police fining and banning us from the town would see me on the family naughty step for eternity.

Honestly, explaining where babies come from is the easy bit..!

rude_rat

I think I have most of the attributes that go towards good parenting. I make up fun bedtime stories, know where we keep the plasters, let them win at board games, fake interest in their PokemonGo progress, drive them to school in the mornings, help with the homework and bounce with them on the trampoline. I am hard when I need to, soft when I should be and always, without fail, up for a cuddle. What I am no good at, and have been dreading since their birth, is explaining where babies come from.

I had hoped the subject would come up when their mother was about and I was in the garage, or away, or out of the house. I had managed to avoid the initial preamble quite well, the standard ‘you came from you mummies belly’ had worked for a number of years. But then forces beyond my control started to up the pace of my son’s questioning. It began when he came to me with ‘Lizzie’, his pet lizard, cupped in his hands, a look of worry on his face. ‘Dad’, he said ‘I am worried about her, she’s all squishy and spongy.’ I felt her abdomen and he was right, something wasn’t right at all. We put her onto the table so we could inspect her some more and she immediately flattened her body, arched her head upwards and started lifting her feet one after the other. We both just stared as one by one, little white eggs started popping out. ‘That isn’t poop for sure’ commented my son before charging off to alert the rest of the family that they should all come quickly to see. The eggs survived a night before Lizzy ate them but this had opened up a whole new world of questioning. How had she gotten pregnant? How long had she been pregnant? And where do babies come from exactly? I was lucky in a way as the sexual antics of a reptile are a fair way off from humans, so explaining things felt easy at this point and thanks to Google we all learned things without me having to draw a willy. But I was to be tested just a few weeks later when the rabbit decided to give birth as well. An egg is one thing but a baby rabbit is an altogether tougher subject. Our rabbits spend most days humping each other and how we laugh at their antics, I’d never considered trying to explain why our furry pets jumped on each other’s backs to the children, the pet shop had told us they’d been sterilised so I never gave much concern that their constant attempts would lead anywhere so we always said they were just playing about having some fun. Now we had a problem. Now it looked like I was going to have to draw a willy after all. I hoped the burden of explaining sex would fall to the school and checked the class syllabus in the hope that it was coming up soon. No luck, it wasn’t due until next term and the lady of the house was firm in her belief that on most jobs, most, if not all things and subjects family related, she has the final say. Vagina’s, semen, where things get stuck, who does the sticking and why, would most definitely be my job and mine alone. Reluctantly I got my pencils out, opened my sketch pad and began my introduction.

I will skip the detail, it’s enough to say I felt my class was a success and not as embarrassing as I had thought, although as an illustrator my willy drawings were pretty rubbish. Job done now let’s go hit the trampoline.

So a month or so passes and my son comes rushing into the lounge urging me to come quickly to see what Snouty, our pet rat, was up to. We have two rats, both male and both incredible pets. Friendly, playful and always doing things that make me realise how clever they are. I can spend ages watching them play, watching them eat and enjoy their fearless curiosity as they explore their world in my office. So I was interested to see what was happening to excite my son so much. I wish now I had been somewhere else, anywhere, but not in the house!

We found Snouty sat like a human, his back legs in front, his bottom on the floor, like he was sat in a chair. Very funny position indeed. But shockingly, looking closer it was clear he had his willy in his hand and was giving it right good tugging. I thought explaining the act of sex was hard work and my basic sex education class had wrapped up any further explanations but I was wrong, my mind was now racing about how to explain masturbation. And what is a rat doing bloody well masturbating anyway! Snouty made the whole thing doubly complicated when his dexterity enabled him to reach down and pop his willy into his mouth. Things went further pear shaped as by now my daughter had joined us and, on witnessing this act of self-fellatio, decided mummy should come and see, we should take a photo and tell everyone else we ever meet what we had witnessed because it was for them, the funniest thing they had ever seen. I failed as a parent at that point, I was overcome by inaction, and from nowhere, out popped their devices to video and photograph our rat having a bit of a self indulgence. The rat was totally unconcerned at all the attention and carried on enjoying himself, only stopping when he reached climax. That gave us all pause for thought and for a moment there was complete silence and we all stared, mouths open at what was going on before the children burst into giggles and began asking me what had just happened.

I had managed to dodge questions about a lizard laying eggs, joke away humping rabbits and stumbled a little when the baby rabbit appeared, but now I feared I had a difficult task ahead of me to explain not only a masturbating, willy sucking rat but one that quite happily ejaculates onto his own stomach! Before they had time to bring up the questions I knew were coming, I declared it was time we hit the trampoline and ran off like a madman!

Cleverness is something that rubs off…

clever_mouse

I will clarify firstly that although the title is true, it doesn’t relate to me in that even being surrounded by a host of clever people, I am still as daft as a brush and in the ‘thick as a brick’ category, I am the odds on favourite to win. The children coming home with gold stars, ‘A’ pluses in their SATS and shining in their Spelling Bees gives me pride but I look at their maths homework like they ask, then cloud over after a few seconds before making my excuses and disappearing off to the far less challenging subject of finding a lightbulb to change. No, their cleverness hasn’t rubbed off onto me. It has however, rubbed off onto one of the family pets though, the mouse of all things.

We took a long vacation over the summer and on our return, having collected all the animals, my son sets about giving them all a cuddle. The mouse, she got some extra special attention and gets to play in my sons overgrown locks of hair. All fun and lovey. All smiles and giggles. Then the mouse leaps onto the sofa, off the sofa onto my daughter’s lap, off her lap onto the floor and under the sofa. That’s the last anyone has seen of her for the past four months. Since taking up residence in the sofa I have dutifully left out food and water for her and spent hours fruitlessly constructing a myriad of humane devices in an attempt to catch her. But it seems my efforts have been wasted as she manages to outwit each and every trap I set. Each morning I check the trap and each morning the bait has gone. Trap one was a bucket. A ramp led up the bucket and over the top was a thin wooden dowel running through a cylinder that had a tasty grape glued on with some raspberry jam. The theory was simple, she climbs the ramp, walks onto the cylinder, the cylinder rotates around the dowel and she slips off into the bucket. Nope, it didn’t work. She managed to get the food though. So maybe she was managing to jump out of the bucket. Okay, the next version of the trap used a deeper bucket. Still a nope. The design went through various modifications, all failures as after three weeks of hunting it was always the same, empty trap, food gone.

The next design employed a counterbalanced bit of stiff cardboard with the bait perched on the end. Think of it like walking the plank but the plank is not fixed. So once your weight goes over the point of balance, into the bucket you fall. Even after numerous fine tuning and tweaking, the bait was gone but there was no trapped mouse.

So after a few weeks the family are finding this rather amusing and weirdly routing for the mouse. The clever ones sticking together it appears.

A complete rethink had me build a new trap. She obviously has the balancing skills of a squirrel so my next trap aimed to beat her through deception of a more cerebral kind and used a plastic water bottle with the top half hinged with a couple of cocktail sticks and some rubber bands. The lid was connected to a pin in the base by some string and on the end of the pin was a grape. She pulls the grape, this pulls the pin, the pin releases the string and the rubber bands snap the bottle closed. A+ in geography children, paa! Come here and check out the genius that is your daddy. The following morning the bait is gone. Version two used stronger bands and I trimmed the hinge a little so the whole device was more sensitive. Nope.

The wise here would simply suggest I purchase a proper humane trap and stop wasting so much effort. And that is exactly what my wiser better half did. Unlike me, she didn’t spend half her waking life working on trap designs and the other half in the garage building them. She just went onto Amazon and bought one. I reckon the plan was to give it to me for Christmas but seeing my frustrations made it became an early gift, partly to stop me feeling bad that a field mouse had managed to outsmart me I suspect. The design was good, a trapdoor actuated by a small bar the mouse would step on as it moved towards the bait. A fraction of the size of my traps and visually far exceeding my chunky, blu-tac, masking tape and glue efforts. But it didn’t work. She took the bait and the trapdoor was closed but it was empty of any rodent. The next day we knew she was just having a laugh with us, food was gone and this time the trapdoor was left opened. Like the scene from Spy Kids, she had stepped over all the lasers and simply walked in then walked off with the booty.

It will soon be five months now that she’s been teasing me. A clever mouse in a clever family where it would appear the only one with the brain the size of a rodent isn’t actually the rodent, it’s me. And to further rub salt into my wound of inadequacy, the light I changed now isn’t working. So when you suggest someone is so stupid they couldn’t even change a lightbulb. You’re referring to me.

Maslow got it wrong, he never considered the rise of the ‘all you can eat buffet’…

chinese_buffet

Years ago I remember my marketing professor introducing us to this chap who, he told us, took some time to look closely at people and their buying habits. This was before they became known as consumers and before anyone had worked out why they consume. Abraham Maslow was his name and he came up with this Hierarchy of Needs concept, suggesting that as one need is satisfied, the next need then needs sorting out. Seems a reasonable sort of assumption, once you’ve got the basics taken care of, you’ll be wanting to top it off with something else, a little luxury maybe. But back in Abe’s time, no one had come up with the idea of the Chinese Buffet.

My children, their friends and everyone else, judging by how busy and how many of these places there are, can’t get enough of them. Here’s why. You pay to enter then proceed to eat and drink as much as you wish. We don’t go too often, weekends when we do, as they don’t open till 8.30 which puts us way past the children’s school day bedtimes. So if they’ve behaved well all week, they earn a late pass and can choose between a late night movie or a family binge out at the Buffet. After accidentally letting them watch ‘Saw V’ for a few minutes my 11 year old now has a comfort blanket and sleeps with the light on, so movie night has no appeal whatsoever anymore meaning the buffet option is the predictable winner.

Now not to come over all Ebenezer Scrooge like, I see this family event as a bit of a challenge, rather like at the BBQ’s the school throws during the summer months where my sole aim is to consume and drink the equivalent of that terms school fees, at the Chinese Buffet, it’s the families obligation to aim to eat the cost of entry. So if the entry is 20 Euros per person, a chicken and chips supper cooked at home would come to say 4 Euros meaning we’d need to eat 5 of them each and, to then get the value I’m expecting, we’d need to each eat one more. Obviously 5 chicken and chip suppers is a bit silly, where’s the variety, but you get the gist. Our Buffet of choice has a wide choice, from most things that live in the oceans, most edible land animals and every food group known to man. There’s a chef who’ll fry it, grill it, boil it or bake it any way you like. You can go Asian, Mediterranean, British and all styles and flavours in between. For refreshment you have beer on tap, with and without alcohol, the entire Coca Cola portfolio, a choice of hot drinks and of course water. For dessert you can go mad with all manner of cakes, buns, ice-cream and sprinkles, yoghurts, fruits and my favourite, spray on whipped cream!!

With dates known a few days in advance, if all goes well and my little ones don’t end up on the naughty step, we have time to starve ourselves in preparation to ensure the objective of eating as much as we possibly can is achieved. I can offer some timely advice at this point to those keen to follow, advice which if learnt the hard way, like me, only ends in disappointment. Do not start your fasting too early as you will end up taking a snack, that snack will be something like a few bars of chocolate with a tasty caramel filling, more than a few generous handfuls of peanuts and a family sized bag of cheese and onion crisps. Nope, peak too early and you will not be able to eat anything like your 5 chicken and chip suppers. The trick is to begin fasting just a couple of days before and ask your good lady to hide or lock away sweets, chocolates and snacks leaving just some fruit and vegetables to nibble on.

The Buffet owners are well aware that people of my type are numerous and their business model is designed to ensure me and a boatload of capable eaters do not strip their margins. One way they achieve this is to set up shop in the equivalent of a warehouse, fill it with more seating than a football stadium and decorate it in the cheapest ways possible. Ambiance is not a word that pops up in their business plan, dining and experience are also absent. But those words aren’t in my head at all either, “I could eat a horse” and “let me in, I am starving” are though.

We take our table and draw straws to see who gets to mind the coats and bags (oddly always me), then everyone makes a bee-line for their starter of choice. My daughter comes back with a bucket full of muscles, my son comes back with one plate of fries, a plate piled high with noodles, 5 spring roles a side of stacked gherkins and a pile of king prawns. I wipe away a tear I am that proud. My better half, never sticking to the programme and refusing to join in what she calls ‘silly’ returns with a bowl of salad. If the truth be known, she doesn’t really like this type of place, her argument being that any establishment that takes away your plate but leaves your knife and fork is just not right. She comes along to keep us in line and acts as the designated driver.

Round 1 very much goes in our favour I think. A total entry cost of 53 Euros and, by my rough calculations, we’ve munched our way through 21 Euros worth so far. My daughter goes freestyle for her next round mixing a selection of coated fruit slices from the chocolate fountain, a plate of king prawns, sliced ham and some fries. My son puts a lump to the back of my throat, returning with a few large steaks, chunks of garlic bread, more prawns, more fries, a burger and some hot chillies. The good lady opts for some salmon, grilled with lemon and some rice. But not to worry, even without her active participation we have all but covered our costs by the end of our 4th collective visit to the food counters. Drink has been a major contributor to our success as I believe I am on my tenth large beer by now and my selfies are starting to attract stares and ‘tuts’ from fellow diners.

Fellow diners, that’s a odd term. Males usually, carrying multiple plates stacked to overflowing with food. I once saw one who must have had an entire ribcage on his plate, a whole lobster on another plate balanced on top and above that a medley of octopus leg looking things, in his other hand he held two plates of stacked fries with a cheese burger perched on each. If I had a pen and if he had had a free hand, I would have shook it and got an autograph. It’s the males again who seem to be constantly pouring beer from the tap whilst the women tend to gravitate towards the water cooler and the lighter, healthier choices. I have seen some monstrous eating from some women for sure, but on the whole, it is the men who do the heavy lifting.

By the end of the evening, the end being decided by a now fed up and embarrassed wife who’s been kindly stacking our plates and cups (seriously, they don’t have glasses, just wax paper cups) really gives us a feel for our accomplishments that evening. “Dad,” says my son, “I don’t think that pile of plates would fit in our dishwasher’. I agree, there is at least two machine full loads there, not even counting the plates they had to take away to give us room.

In three short hours we have consumed our entire entry fee and then some. I am happy, the bargain hunter in me has succeeded. But the rise and rise of these places worries me. Not only will they overtake the Burger King’s of the world as a way of instantly feeding the children, they’ll add to our obesity crisis, the fishing grounds will be all but wiped out, more forests will fall to make way for more grazing land and my beer belly will cast a wider shadow until seeing my feet becomes a memory. We are no longer just satisfying a need then moving to the next, Maslow was wrong. We are exploiting our needs, they can never be satisfied, we don’t know when to stop. A sad thought that haunted me as I was helped into a standing position by some guests who knew the score all too well. Sure we had beaten the buffet, but the cost was high physically. I had eaten my body weight, had drunk a barrel, maybe more, standing was a struggle, moving near, impossible.

However there is a positive. With no need to eat at all for the next few days, we have saved a small fortune. There’s no reason for the weekly shop which means no need to fire up our dishwasher for a bit. Now, where did she hide the snacks..?

The morning battle and why I no longer take part…

school run

Normal people seek out a car park. Normal people open their wallets, feed the machine, press the button and take a ticket. In our neck of the woods though, that’s not the way to go about things as everyone simply refuses having to pay to park, especially if they think they are only going to be 10 minutes. The local council doesn’t want to build any more car parks, it’s a wasted investment. See, build a free car park and you’ll never get your investment back, build a pay one and you’ll never get your investment back, don’t build one and you get to keep what you would have invested. Instead, the council used this ‘investment’ to promote itself and attract more tax paying businesses by offering them a money saving deal. Build your offices here and we’ll possibly, though probably not, enforce the health and safety regulations regarding how many toilets per person you need to provide, but we’ll certainly not enforce any regulations regarding how many car parking spaces you need to have. So build an office for 500 people, create maybe just 50 parking spots and let your remaining employees fend for themselves along with those who work in the other 100 office blocks that took advantage of the local council’s ill considered offering.

Throw in a few schools within this same built up commercial area, all pretty big ones with 400 to 500 pupils for each one. Site them on single lane roads, a few on a one way road and in the middle put two car parks, both free. Now, around here, a free car park is more attractive than a Supermodel on a nude beach and therefore more crowded than said beach. Let’s do the maths. Six schools, 500 pupils each, say 2 children per car, what’s that..? Around 1,500 cars dropping the kids off. Then add in the workforce, that’s another 2,000 cars give or take. A conservative guesstimate therefore gives us 3,500 cars, in a rush, all aiming for pretty much the same point at pretty much the same time. Add in that each of them is more important than anyone else so ‘giving way’ or leaving space for anyone is the job of the car behind, not them.

Two lane roads, some roundabouts, pedestrian crossings and a couple of residential rat runs. That pretty much lays out the landscape for you. Now add in a whole pile of drivers with the observation skills of a cricket bat, the temper of a rudely woken hibernating bear, no regard for traffic signs or speed limits and no idea what an indicator is for. Hold that image for a bit… Just as you’re convinced a Spanish driver can no longer completely shock you with their insane lack of driving ability, they show just how inept they really can be by, having arrived at their destination, parking.

In France they call it the ‘French kiss’. This describes the little touches their bumpers make to the cars parked in front and behind as they parallel park. In Spain it’s more like a ‘fist’. Along the same lines as the French only the space doesn’t have to be big enough for your car when you start the manoeuvre as it will be plenty big enough when you’ve finished. Rather than look over your shoulder to get a feel for distance, you wait until point of impact. Add in lack of clutch control with a heavy throttle foot and you can start to see why car repair businesses do well out here. I read a local magazine where the editor was recounting an afternoon sat in a Marbella café watching some chap park his car. He said the minor damage inflicted on the other car was just that, minor, so other Europeans should just relax a little and take the Spanish attitude towards parking, less stress. He may have a point. But I’d guess he doesn’t have a very nice, nor very expensive car and hasn’t considered why Spanish insurance is stratospheric.

Remember the car parks..?  two of them, both free, one with space for 200, the other with space for 100. Creative parking means a car park with 100 painted bays will fit 200 cars even allowing for those special people who take two bays by parking at a silly angle, so 400 cars are sorted. 3,100 to go. Street parking is all double or treble parked, no-parking zones are full, roundabouts are full and so are the pavements. Even the little park has been commandeered. What was once grass is now just mud and ruts, what were newly planted trees are now dead flattened sticks and what was once the pathway itself is now the entrance. A bit of a squash but everyone is in. At some point you’d have thought the Police would come along and do something, get people to show some consideration. They do turn up but what they do is just stand in the middle of the pedestrian crossing and stop traffic so those parked in the big car park can cross the road. Not issue tickets or have a bit of a chat to those parked badly or those blocking the exits, or blocking the pavements or double parked. No, they do the job of the ‘Lollypop Lady’. And even though the pedestrian crossing is traffic light controlled they just stand on the crossing furiously blowing their whistles, stopping cars with the flat of their hand when the light is red, waving everyone across when the little green man appears. Which I thought was the whole point of traffic lights anyway!  And the whistle they endlessly blow has no effect on the drivers, they’re sat in their tin boxes listening to music, it’s me and my ears that suffer being stood right next to them. And they have no effect at all, the traffic still does not flow, how can it when PC Plod has just whistled at a bus to move forwards onto the roundabout where it now has to stop which then blocks those crossing from the other side.

Look around and not surprisingly, you’ll find the Police car parked illegally on the pavement itself. If the Police don’t give a rats about where they park, just as long as it is close enough so they don’t have far to walk, and can’t be bothered to start handing out a few fines, why should anyone else worry. Heaven forbid if the police started doing their job and did a bit of towing and ticketing, the locals would kick up a fuss about the parking, the local council would hear about this and maybe, just maybe, the businesses and schools would be forced to contribute to the problem they are mostly responsible for. And pigs might fly. To take the absurdity of things further, the main car park has recently been developed into a residential home. We lose 200 parking spots and the development attracts another 100 cars to the morning jolly.

Me, I have retired from this daily battle. Instead I drive my troop close to the school then we get out and walk. It’s only a 2km stroll, takes less than 10 minutes, wakes us up, gives me some exercise and parking is easy. Okay it’s a pain in the rain and the cold is cold but I kind of enjoy it now. I enjoy watching the frustrated drivers peering ahead trying to see what the delay is, which of course is the same thing that delayed them yesterday, the day before yesterday and every day before that. I smile at the irony of the boxed-in parents angrily blowing their horns in the hope it will attract the attention of the now empty cars boxing them in when only yesterday, they were the one’s doing the boxing-in. And here’s the funny thing, on a normal day, walking is usually faster.

A reminder to keep you gate shut…

Man stood next to compost pileThe other day we had a dog wander into the garden. It wasn’t a stray, it looked healthy, was excited to play with me and chase a ball, enjoyed a biscuit or two but had no collar or identity tag. This is pretty normal, having a dog in Spain is not like having a pet in the true sense of the word. It’s rather something for the children to keep them occupied. Owners by law must have their dogs ‘chipped’ but never seem to bother with an id tag giving a phone number, so unless you’re inclined to make the journey to a vet, finding the owner can be difficult. Owners rarely make sure the garden is ‘dog proof’ and in my experience, care little for the animals themselves, usually leaving them in the garden whilst they go to work. So they often manage to find a way just wander off and either get run over or end up in our garden because someone, not me I might add, always seems to leave our gate open.

Anyway, we called security and told them we have got someones dog in our garden, gave a pretty good description and suggested they come round and take it away somewhere safe until the owners can be found. We wait, wait some more, and wait a bit more. By now, it’s getting dark, the dog wont go, we try but instead he just follows us around, if we go out the gate he comes along for the walk but follows us back in and ends up sitting on our front doorstep. My little ones come home from school, fall in love immediately, ask if we can keep him and spend an hour having fun with their new playmate. Later they suggest he needs feeding, the dog must be hungry it’s been here all day after all. Not being dog owners, we obviously have no dog food in the house, so with two excitable little children both wanting to feed the dog, good old dad jumps in the car and pops down to the supermarket to buy a tin of dog food.

I pick up two cans, a packet of dog biscuits and head to the checkout. A bit of a line because there is only one till open, even though they have 5 tills. Still, no big issues for me as the people in front seem to be like me, carrying just a handful of things and the person being checked out has almost been processed. In and out in less than five minutes.

No, a heaving and a grunting from the aisle behind eventually reveals a tired looking bloke pushing a trolley, a trolley so full, it is actually bending and swaying and its shadow is blocking out the special lighting that’s supposed to make crap old vegetables look like freshly picked vegetables. Poor chap. No, poor me, the woman in front of me has been holding their place in the line. A cunning plan for them to avoid wasting their precious time actually waiting in the line itself. Thank you very bloody much. I expect them to suggest I go in front considering I only have three things in my hand. No. This is Spain, I must wait my turn. However, from people standing too close to me at cashpoint machines, I know how to do the ‘stare’. It’s a warning stare, a stare you do not want to mess with, a stare that says, ‘back off’, ‘beware’, ‘don’t mess with the likes of me’. So I do my best ‘you are going to die’ stare.  And although it fails with fat mum and dad and small army of children with  a full years shopping for microwave food and just add water snacks and a small chocolate hillock in their trolley, it worked with the girl at the checkout who quickly tells me to move in front and she’ll have me through the till. I am not sure if it is someone up there looking after me or someone up there is looking after the Grizzly Adams family, as I swear, if the ‘stare’ hadn’t worked, I would have shoved the dog food into his fat ugly face and tipped his trolley onto the floor.

So, back home, I find out the dog has gone. Walked off all on its own apparently. My saddened son desperately wants to feed it so we have to go out looking for it and after the effort it took buying the stuff, I too want the damned thing to eat it! We’re wandering the estate when security drive past, they stop and ask us if we’re the people who called about the dog. Mr. Big Ego with his gun and badly fitting uniform gets out, leans against the car and explains that the owners have been worried sick, looking for it all afternoon and wanted to know why we didn’t call security earlier. I explained to the security guard that we did indeed make the call, six or seven hours ago and that it’s not my job to help people who can’t be bothered to buy an identity tag for their dog and if they leave their gates open or don’t fence in their yard properly, what right have they to moan when they finally discover where it is, they should be thankful it’s alive. In fact, I should charge them for ‘dog sitting’ or at least the cost of the ‘lost dog’ posters they would have ended up having to get photocopied and stuck on lamp-posts in the area. I go on to explain how lucky the owners are the dog gravitated to our garden, where, being a family of dog lovers, we take care of lost looking furry animals like they are our own. He agrees. But then suggested that complaining about people leaving their gate open when we’d left ours open was a bit rich and asks where the dog is. Not exactly sure I reply. It’s run off…

The next stray animal that comes into our garden I will simply shoot it before the children come home from school, bury it in the compost heap and be done with it!