Tuesday, 15 December 2009


I'm often asked what the weather is like in the Azores.

Being much further north than the Canaries and Madeira, the weather is correspondingly not as good as in these holiday hot-spots and I answer the question by saying the weather here is pretty similar to the west coast of Britain in terms of sunny, windy, rainy, cloudy-ness but about 10 degrees centigrade (18F) warmer over the year.

That figure of 10 degrees was one I'd sort of plucked out of the air by educated guesswork hitherto but I actually sat down the other night and compared three years of mean temperature statistics from Flores airport with those of Benbecula airport on an island off the west coast of Scotland (stats obtainable off the world wide interweb) and, lo and behold, the average difference was precisely 10 degrees C. (That's another question I'm asked a lot - what do you do all day? Well there you have the answer and it's a damn sight more fun that what I used to do, I can tell you.)

That's Benbecula airport above. Flores airport below:-

As it happens, the weather's a bit of a hot topic here just now. It's a fact of life on Flores that, in winter, you can't take it for granted that the plane will be able to land. So, if you're booking a flight from Lisbon to Scotland on a Friday, it's prudent to fly from Flores to Lisbon on the Wednesday so as to build in a day's slack in case the plane can't land on Wednesday and you don't get away till Thursday. If the plane does manage to land, then that means an extra night in Lisbon but, as we are flying to Scotland from Lisbon on Friday and the mid-week weather chart is looking like this (the Azores being right in the eye of that storm):-

... that extra day's slack is looking like quite a good insurance policy right now. The wind hasn't started to blow yet and if you don't hear from me again you can take it no news is good news.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Emotion, doubt, desire, influence

The thing about learning a foreign language is you discover how little you know about your own one.

For example, did you know that English only has two tenses - present ("I work") and preterite (aka simple past - "I worked")? Portuguese has four - present, preterite, future and imperfect (which is a bit like "I used to work").

Of course, English is quite capable of expressing these extra two tenses and many more besides but has to do it through the medium of compound tenses which employ auxiliary verbs such as be, go, have, will etc. You can really pile these on to come up with such constructs as "I am going to have been working". Don't ask me what that tense is called by the way (and certainly don't ask me to translate it into Portuguese!)

Another thing is that, in my ignorance, I thought the past participle of a verb was simply its preterite (simple past) tense form. The preterite and past participle of "work" are both "worked" but that's because "work" is a regular verb in English. The difference only appears in irregular verbs, for example "to go": the preterite is "went" but the p/p is "gone". Ditto I speak, I spoke (pret.) and I have spoken (p/p) etc. (But not all irregular verbs have p/p's different from the pret. - e.g. I think, I thought, I have thought.)

The p/p is the verb form used in compound past tenses. Scottish football managers (soccer coaches) struggle with this and are wont to deliver themselves of such utterances as "We've came to Celtic Park with low expectations but the lads done great, they've gave 110%, and we've went home with a point, Jim." (They're also apt to dig themselves in even deeper by adding what's known in English as a Colemanball such as "... we've went home with a point and you can't do any better than that, Jim.")

Where was I before I digressed into football? Making an arse of myself, actually, because when I said the p/p is the verb form used in compound past tenses what I meant was compound past perfect tenses. I think. Because there are also compound past continuous tenses - e.g. I was speaking - which employ the present participle ("speaking"). And, indeed, present and future continuous tenses (I am speaking, I will be speaking.) The past participle is also used to form the passive - i.e. "I have been spoken to by her" as opposed to "She spoke to me". Although passive might be a mood as opposed to a tense. I think.

Now Portuguese has compound tenses and participles, past and present, as well. Portuguese past participles are always different from the preterite (simple past) even with regular verbs. But it's never safe to assume that the same sequence of words translates as the same thing. For example, Eu estou falando literally translates as "I am speaking" and Eu tenho falado as "I have spoken" but that's not how you would say either of these things in Portuguese (at least not in European Portuguese - Brazilian may be different).

There's a lot to the learn so the following quote from chapter 40 of Teach Yourself Portuguese Grammar is the understatement of the year:  

"It is not surprising that many, if not all, learners throw up their hands in horror at the sheer mention of the word "subjunctive". Having spent precious hours mastering various sets of verb endings, it is frustrating to be presented with a completely new range." 

English has a reputation as a dfficult language to learn but at least our verbs are relatively easy and we don't have subjunctive. Or so I thought but actually we do - it's just that subjunctive in English is a bit subliminal and old fashioned and, in practice, nobody bothers about it much anymore. It certainly needn't cause a learner of English to throw his hands up in horror.

If "to boldly go" is the most famous example of a split infinitive, the most famous of the subjunctive's relatively rare appearances in English is "If I were a rich man ..." The fact that it's "were a rich man" rather than "was a rich man" is subjunctive, apparently. Also, we know that Jesus saves so have you ever wondered why God save [not saves] the Queen? That's subjunctive as well, apparently. You're not ordering God to save the Queen - after all it's not good form to address the Deity in such peremptory terms even where the safety of the Queen is concerned. Rather, you're saying "Let/may God save the Queen" in the sense of wishing/hoping that He will. And as TYPG tells me, expressions of emotion, doubt, desire, influence and counter factual situations (I'm not a rich man but if I were ...) call for the subjunctive. Life is one big subjunctive, really ...

How did I get started on this again ...?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

History of Scotland Part XI

I left you last time mid 9th century when Kenneth MacAlpin - reputed the first King of Scotland - had amalgamated the Scots of Dalriada in the west with the Picts in the east to form a kingdom called Alba. But this wasn't yet the whole of what was to become Scotland as we know it today.

To understand the history of Britain in the 9th to 13th centuries, you have to imagine two regional "superpowers" - Alba in the north and Wessex (the embryo of what was to become England) in the south - and their interactions with surrounding smaller statelets. You can add Norway as a third superpower due to the Viking settlements in the British Isles at the time.

In a process stretching over 400 years, Alba and Wessex gradually swallowed up weaker neighbours, kept Norway at bay and ended up as Scotland and England eye-balling each other over the medieval Iron Curtain of the Solway-Tweed line.

That would be a good point to stop reading if all you need is an executive summary of the early Middle Ages until you get to more interesting bits like Wallace and Bannockburn.

But as for the detail, as this is history without looking it up, all I can remember of the key landmarks of the consolidation of Alba/Scotland is:-

1018 - King Kenneth II (I think) of Alba defeats the Angles of Northumberland at the Battle of Carham on the River Tweed and extends the south east boundary of his kingdom to the Tweed.

1034 - King Duncan (he who Shakespeare had murdered by MacBeth) of Alba also becomes King of Strathclyde. With its capital on Dumbarton Rock, this was the last P-Celtic kingdom in Great Britain outside Wales and Cornwall. It had kings with names like Owain and Rhodri so thank goodness that sort of nonsense was stamped out in 1034 when Strathclyde became part of Scotland.

There's no unanimous academic opinion on when "Alba" fledged to become "Scotland" but I personally regard it as being the mid 11th century when it looked like this:-

Alba/Scotland is the pink bit. Above (purple stripes), is Moray which had a very ambivalent and not well understood relationship with Alba/Scotland. West and north (green) you've got the Earldom of Orkney and the Kingdom of the Isles under the suzerainty of Norway. Galloway in the south west (yellow) stubbornly independent.

1093 - King Edgar I of Scotland and King Magnus Barelegs of Norway do the famous "Everything you can sail your boat round is yours" deal. This is the episode you learnt about in Primary 6 when Magnus got his chaps to carry him in his boat over the isthmus at Tarbert and thus claim Kintyre. It's apocryphal, of course - Scandinavian history is littered with similar tales across the Viking world. The result was that Norway conceded the mainland to Scotland while keeping the islands. But the reality was more like Dutch and Greek UN peacekeeping generals deciding zones of operation in the eastern Congo ...

1124 - I have in my mind as the year in which an infant girl had her brains smashed out on the mercat cross of Forfar on the orders of King Alexander I of Scotland, her crime being to be the Anastasia Romanov of Moray. In other words this is when Moray's pretensions to independence from Scotland finally end after much strife.

116? - Galloway's pretensions to independence are crushed. I forget the detail now.

1266 - Norway cedes the Western Isles to Scotland. This followed the Battle of Largs in 1263 in which a Norwegian fleet attempting to assert suzerainty over the Western Isles was defeated by bad weather more than anything else. A bit like Scotland qualifying as a result of Andorra holding Moldova to a draw but Norway recognised it could not hold on to such far flung territories long term. Orkney and Shetland remain Norwegian till 1468.

That's skipped lightly over 400 years. I think I'll need to come back and fill in some intervening details in later posts.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Trust Busting

Remember Kinsey Gin - brewed from girders in Motherwell, Scotland (that well known centre of gin distilling) and retailing in Freitas, Braga & Braga's supermercado at an eye-catching €4.72 (about £4.30/$7.05 at tonight's exchange rates) a bottle?

Well imagine our dismay to go into Bragas' minimercado (sub-branch in Fazenda das Lajes) to find the price had escalated somewhat:-

I knew it was too good to be true. I'd been convinced all along €4.72 was due to one of Braga's girls (or boys - there's at least one) getting the bar code wrong and the price was really €7.42 (or even €14.72).

Imagine our surprise, then, to go into Boaventura Ramos (BV's as we call it) ...

... to find (a) Kinsey Gin on sale; and (b) at the suspiciously similar price of €6.98. My first thought was Senhor BV had discovered this cheap Scottish gin and decided to knock it out at that price, then Senhor Braga had wandered in on a fact finding mission and immediately jacked up his retail price to a similar level in response.

Then imagine our further surprise (just how much surprise can you take in one day?) when the talão (till receipt) handed to us at the checkout of BV's was headed Freitas, Braga & Braga - it seems BV's has been taken over by Bragas'. So, with gin prices being hiked by 50% overnight, if a crack squad from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is not on its way to Flores, bouncing over the waves in a Zodiac under cover of dark, black turtle-necked Milk Tray ad-style, then - er, well, perhaps they could get their secretaries to book them a flight on SATA Air Açores. When it's convenient ...

(Quick digression but we had to think whether the turtle-neck chap in the Zodiac was Milk Tray or Black Magic. What was the BM ad? "Who knows the secret of the Black Magic box?" rings a bell)

Anyway, the last bastion of competitive retailing left on the island is Arlindo, owner of the Miniflor minimercados in Santa Cruz and Ponta Delgada and the Superflor supermercado in Fazenda (pictured above). He's still knocking Malaquias Branco  white wine out at €0.97/litre. In a possible sign of things to come, Bragas' discontinued MB a couple of months ago.

The future's bleak - the future's Braga.   

Arvores Natal

I don't know who pays for them - the junta da freguesia (parish council), I expect - but Christmas Trees are given away free here. They pile them up in the car park and you just go down and take your pick. Which is nice.

For those interested in the botanics, they are Cryptomeria Japonica, the forestry plantation tree of choice in the Azores. An exotic conifer of the cupressus (cypress) family, it's closely related to the fast growing Leylandii of nuisance hedge infamy. So come Twelfth Night, you can stick your tree in a pot and it'll be there as a bigger tree for next year until it gets too big to get in the house. Then you can plant it in your garden and annoy your neighbours.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Corvo - Part 2

To get up to the caldeira, we needed a taxi but, as there isn't a taxi rank on Corvo, we were contemplating going into a bar to see if any one knew of one when we came across the Corvo branch of Rede Integrada de Apoio ao Cidadao (RIAC). The lady therein spoke immaculate English (with a North American accent) and phoned us a driver.

As Vila Nova do Corvo is such a small place, he was almost there before we got back out to the street. Another English speaker (with a North American accent), Joao drove us placidly up to the caldeira. Now I have been there before (when we were here on holiday in 2005 before we came to live on Flores) so I've seen the caldeira of Corvo before but two observations even so:-

1. When you look across to Corvo from Flores (and most people get no closer), what you don't realise is that it's basically an extinct volcano and the top third is hollow:-

2. Not only were we lucky to get to the island at all but we had the double good fortune that the summit and crater weren't enveloped in cloud as they are so frequently so we got to see the crater (caldeira) AGAIN! This is it (although I have to admit this is a pic from 2005 because it was sunnier that day):-

Also, because I'd seen the caldeira before (is this a third observation?), I found myself more interested in the terrain of Corvo above Vila Nova:-

Back down at the quay, we'd timed it perfectly for a death defying leap on to the heaving deck of the good ship Santa Iria. For the return journey, there were another three passengers including a jolly smiley German (altogether too jolly and smiley for my taste, but it takes all sorts, I suppose) with one of these - I don't know what you call them - but it's a thing you lie back on and pedal:-

My first thought was how did he pedal that up to the caldeira? But then my second thought was how did he pedal it down from the caldeira - can he put his legs into a low gear? Actually, these were thoughts #2 & 3, thought #1 being how did they get this contraption aboard? It was too delicate to be hoisted aboard by the crane and the Santa Iria doesn't half heave about in the swell through a matrix of 2-3 metres in-out and above-below the quayside at Corvo. Thought #4 was thinking in response to a question from said German as to whether there was a bike-spares shop in Lajes das Flores? That doesn't count as a full blown thought as the simple answer is No but I had to consider if the garage in Santa Cruz might be able to help (unlikely) so let's call it thought #3.5.

Anyway, on the return journey, the weather deteriorated somewhat:-

Now, that may look benign to you but let me tell you it was the only moment I could get my camera out (a two handed exercise) without being thrown across the deck or else (far worse) getting the camera drenched in salt water. Latterly, it was a bit crowded in the wheelhouse sheltering from the spray coming over the bow:-

All in all, a great day and thanks to the crew of the Santa Iria. As a minor league nautical cove, I was impressed with how they swooped round at Corvo to berth bow out when the ship had neither bow-thruster nor mechanical windlass to work the mooring warps. Respect - put that in your risk assessment and smoke it Caledonian MacBrayne!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


There's a new post about Corvo below but it's showing up out of sequence - it's two posts below, beneath the SNP rant and Respect for JA's chimney operations.

I think this is because entries are posted in the order you start composing them rather than the order you publish them and there's nothing you can do to change it. How daft is that? From the blogging arm of Google, the internet company which made it's fortune by being user friendly. Mind you, I suppose Blogspot is free so you can't complain. (Well you can - you can write to your MP.) But really - more things to get cross about.

As Sybil Fawlty so memorably (and accurately) put it "And the reason why it's cheap IS IT'S NO BLOODY GOOD!"