Nine brief encounters, nine wry smiles

Walking is a good way to meet people, though often these meetings are fleeting. Here is a mini-album of encounters Emmy and I had during our walks in Portugal-Spain and the UK. Each was ultra-brief but images of the personalities involved have somehow stuck in my memory.

The Scottish shopkeeper

We spent a couple of hours in Dumfries in southern Scotland. I wanted to visit the house where poet Robert Burns once lived. It was somewhere near the centre of town but I couldn’t work out exactly where. I noticed a sign in a shop window: Streetmaps of Dumfries, £2.50. Inside, money changed hands and I turned to leave with a map.

“Hoo long are y’heer foor?” the helpful gentleman behind the counter asked in a thick Scottish accent.

“Just a couple of hours.”

“Och, y’dinna need a map then. Gie it back.”

I handed over the map. The kindly Scot turned to a photocopy machine and photocopied the part of the map that covered the centre of town. He pushed the £2.50 back into my hand, and, spreading the photocopy out on the counter, explained in detail how we could get to Robert Burns’ house.

I tried to pay for the photocopy.

“Och,” he said, “no charge. If you save money I’m happy.”

In the sitting room of Robert Burns’ house, Dumfries. I found the house with the help of a thrifty Scot and a photocopied map.

The “funny” taxi driver

Taxi drivers are talkative and funny, right? Sometimes talkative… yes, but not always funny. We took a taxi from Stratford-upon-Avon to Chipping Campden. I walked from our apartment to a taxi stand in a nearby Stratford street. The driver greeted me with a smarmy cheesy grin. I explained that I was going to Chipping Campden – about 20 kilometres away – but first we had to pick up my wife and two bags from our apartment.

“You’ve got three women in your life? How do you do it!?”

When we arrived at the apartment the driver lifted our two suitcases into the boot of the taxi.

“One’s heavy, the other’s light. I bet I know which one belongs to the missus, eh?” (nudge nudge)

I sat in the front seat, Emmy sat in the back.

“I’ll have to be on my best behaviour,” said our hilarious driver, jerking his thumb towards the rear. “Back seat driver, eh?”

The waitress with a midlands accent

The restful view of sheep grazing outisde Bennet’s Restaurant, Wrightington, where I failed to understand the word “koof-fa”.

Driving down the M6 we stayed a night at the Wrightington Hotel and Country Club in the English midlands. Attached to the hotel, Bennet’s Restaurant has a restful view over a neighbouring meadow filled with grazing sheep. We enjoyed a very good meal there, pampered by an attractive and attentive young waitress. She was hovering over me as I finished my dessert.

“Would you like a koof-fa?”

“Excuse me… a what?”

“A koof-fa.”

I looked around bewildered hoping to see a koof-fa somewhere in the restaurant. Emmy (who is not a native speaker of English) intervened.

“She means a coffee,” she whispered.

The forgetful waiter

My dinner of fish steaks in Ponte de Lima. But where was the entree?

The restaurant in the Imperio do Minho Hotel in Ponte de Lima (northern Portugal) is not renowned for its food, so to attract customers they have installed a big TV screen tuned to a sports channel. We sat down not far from the screen. The waiter took our order.

“We’ll have soup first, please, followed by fish steaks with vegetables.”

The waiter was looking at the TV screen as he noted our order.

Fifteen minutes later the fish and vegetables arrived, but no soup. The restaurant staff were standing around the TV their backs to us.

“Excuse me! DESCULPE!”

The waiter turned, saw my waving arm and came to our table walking crab-like sideways so he could keep the football action in view from the corner of his eye.

“Where’s our soup?” I asked politely.

“Soup? Soup? Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry, I forgot the soup. But you have the fish, no? It’s enough.”

On the TV the crowd roared and the waiter hurried back to the game. As for Emmy and me, we ate an ordinary but very filling meal. The waiter was right… it was enough.

The know-it-all from Austria

At breakfast in the Ashton House B&B in Painswick we were joined by a couple from Austria. The husband looked remarkably like the composer Franz Schubert with small wire-frame glasses, pork chop sideburns and ruddy cheeks.

“You are from Australia? Australia is in the Far East, isn’t it. In fact the very word Australia means the land in the east.”

“Actually,” I said, “Australia comes from the Latin word australis meaning southern.”

“No! No!” he shouted excitedly in a heavy German accent. “You are wrong! Here’s proof. Austria is the English version of Österreich which means the land in the east. Austria and Australia are almost the same, so Australia must mean land in the east too!”

I was used to being the only know-it-all at the breakfast table and was about to defend my monopoly when I received a vigorous kick under the table from Emmy, so I kept quiet.

Jesus Christ

Tourists get a souvenir photograph with Jesus Christ in Santiago de Compostela.

In the Praza do Obradoiro, the main square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, there are plenty of opportunities for pilgrims to part with their cash. For example, for a small “donation”, you can have your picture taken standing beside a meticulously costumed live figure of St.James. Even better, right beside him, Jesus Christ himself is waiting to be photographed (see pix).

Emmy took my picture receiving the benediction of St.James, but when I turned to Jesus Christ I found the Son of Man besieged by a long queue. I decided to come back later.

It was early evening when we returned to the Praza do Obradoiro. St.James was still there and still doing brisk business.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” I asked him.

St.James didn’t understand English, but a bystander helped me out.

“You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” she said. “Jesus Christ has gone home for dinner.”

I get the blessing of St.James (Santiago).

A meticulously costumed Jesus Christ (before he went home for dinner) and his apostle St.James.

Mark Webber’s Portuguese fan

As we negotiated the alleys of Fajozes Village north of Porto a four-wheel drive screeched to a halt beside me. The driver was a young man around twenty years old but already balding. He had seen the small Australian flag sewn to the side of my walking hat.

“You… from Australia?”


“You know Mark Webber?”

Mark Webber? The name rang a distant bell somewhere on the horizons of my memory. Wasn’t he a Formula One racing car driver?

“You mean the Formula One racing driver?”

The young man was overjoyed.

“Yes! Yes! You know him!”

“No, I don’t know him.”

Despair. Then his eyes lit up.

“You live in Queanbeyan?”

(Queanbeyan is the nondescript New South Wales town where Mark Webber grew up.)

“No, sorry.”

Gloom again. Then I added:

“But I live in Canberra which is just ten minutes from Queanbeyan.”

Joy. His hands shot out of the car window and he clasped mine in a warm handshake.

“You live near Queanbeyan!? Amazing! I so happy! Mark Webber best man!”

He revved the engine of his car, lowered his head, and shot away behind a cloud of dust and diesel. He was a happy man. He had come closer to his idol than he ever thought would be possible.

The crossword puzzle fanatic

In London Emmy and I did a guided walk through the Notting Hill area. It was an entertaining walk, taking us along historic streets, past the houses of celebrities and into the travel bookshop that was the main location for the famous movie Notting Hill.

I noticed a woman in our group carrying a newspaper. As we gaped at the house once owned by Madonna she opened the newspaper, folded it a few times and began filling in a crossword puzzle. We walked on and she followed, head bowed, frowning, doing the crossword as she walked. She muttered to one of her companions.

“What’s bygone. Seven letters with a ‘q’ in it.”

The walk culminated in the crush of the Portobello Road market. Our guide let us loose to browse.

“Fruit and vegetables that way,” he said pointing up the street, “and antiques that way,” pointing in the opposite direction.

“That’s it!” said the crossword lady pulling the newspaper from her handbag. “That’s the answer. Antique. I’m so glad I came on this walk!”

The plainspeaking publican

The ivy-covered Major’s Retreat is the only watering hole in the hamlet of Tormarton, a day’s walk short of Bath on the Cotswold Way. On the evening we visited, Emmy sat at a table examining the pub’s menu while I put my elbows on the bar and ordered a pint of cider (for me) and a small glass of apple juice (for Emmy). The publican was talkative. He spoke with a plummy accent and had a vaguely military bearing consistent with the name of the pub. He recognised my Australian accent and we exchanged banter about the fortunes of our respective national cricket teams. As I put my hands around the two glasses I asked:

“Should I pay for these now, or later, together with our meal?”

“Oh, we’ll put the drinks on the tab for the time being.”

“How long can they stay on the tab?” I said, making a weak attempt at a joke. “Until after we get out the door?”

The publican laughed.

“I’ve got a shotgun under the bar here.”

He pointed at the front door.

“Before you could reach that door…” his eyes narrowed, the smile faded, his voice hardened and rose a little, “I’d put a barrel-full of buckshot up your arse!”

And I don’t think he was joking.

Tormarton’s ivy-cloaked pub, The Major’s Retreat.


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