Sunday, 28 February 2010


I hold cars in even lower esteem than computers in the "if they're working they're great but if they're not I don't want to know" stakes.

This is because I'm a wee bit interested in computers but not even the most vanishingly small bit interested in cars. I'm as interested in cars as I am in electric sockets. By which I mean "I'm happy my TV works because it's plugged into an electric socket but beyond that, I just so don't want to know". Translate that to cars and it's "I'm happy we can go to Sta Cruz every second Friday after the boat's in ..."  You get the picture.

This is the car ...

... and this is an electric socket

In fact, I love electric sockets 145 times more than I love my car (make that 697 times) because I don't have to take my electric sockets to be periodically inspected.

We're talking about what we Brits call the MOT Test. It stands for Ministry of Transport (although probably now rebranded "Directorate of Life Long Motive Solutions"). In Portuguese, it's the infamous inspecção.

The good thing about inspecções in Portugal is they're only every 2 years (every year in the UK) but the bad news on Flores is there isn't a full time garage that does them. Instead, the inspectores visit the island three times a year for three intensive bouts of inspecções of the vehicles due to be inspecçionados.

Imagine my lack of enthusiasm, therefore, to discover from the delphic (to put it at its highest, as we lawyers are fond of saying) notice put through the letter box a while back that our car was due to be inspecçionado in the current bout. 

Having somewhat buried my head in the sand about this, I steeled myself to pull out the last test certificate the car received two years ago. Three of the faults which would involve failure at subsequent inspection if not remedied had been dealt with. But one remained for the simple reason I hadn't an effing clue what it was. Medios baixados or something.

Quick visit to a neighbour revealed it was that the headlights were aligned too high. As I've no idea how headlights are correctly aligned, I approached this by adjusting them to the lowest possible alignment on the basis that, if that would give rise to a fault to be remedied, then at least it would be a different fault.

Feeling reasonably confident, I set off for the inspecção. I had an appointment for 5.30pm but "do the math" as one of my Canadian born neighbours put it - a third of the island's vehicles had to be inspected in the course of 5 days so you're talking about roughly 100 vehicles a day. Little wonder the marcações (appointments) were running a tad em atras (f***ing late).

At around 8.45pm, I was at last waved into the inspection hall. It couldn't have been any more threatening if it had had Arbeit Macht Frei written above the door. The young man wore a white coat and his "kerb-side manner" left a little to be desired: I felt about as invaded as if it was my rectum that was about to be examined, rather than my car.

Having noted the hunted look on earlier clients' faces exiting clutching red "FAIL" notices (a number of them with much newer and posher motors than mine), my bowels lurched when the inspector wheeled up the headlight alignment testing machine. A piece of kit, all mirrors and reflectors looking like the bastard offspring of a solar power station and a microscope, I felt sure it would unmask my crude attempt at inspecção result rigging. As with all white coated torturers, however, the young man gave nothing away as he noted the result on his clip-board (actually, it was a sort of palm pilot thing beaming the results directly to the computer).

When he was all done, the chap said "You may place your car outside and then enter my office" in a "Ve have vays of making you talk" sort of accent. I was half expectng a bunch of goons in leather jackets to exact dire revenge for the headlight malarky so imagine my relief when I see Mr White Coat pulling a green "PASS" notice from the computer!
Three minor blemishes to be sorted prior to next inspecção - No mention of headlights (!) but a reversing light and a registration plate light bulb is out. That's no problem but the third one defies my limited powers of Portuguese comprehension:-

860 - Livrete - Divergencia de dimensões dos pneumaticos, sendo equivalentes

Something about a little book and a discrepancy in the dimensions of my tires being equivalent????

If there are any Portuguese speakers out there who can tell me what this is, then I'd be very grateful. I don't want to have to be thinking about it on 21 March 2012. In exchange, if anyone needs their headlights realigned, then I'm your man.

Monday, 22 February 2010

History of Scotland Part XII

In the last episode of "History of Scotland", I whizzed through 400 years from the mid 9th century to the mid 13th covering the period one noted historian called "the making of the Kingdom". In this episode (and maybe the next couple as well), I want to go back and look at a couple of episodes within that timescale.

First, Macbeth. We're all familiar with the Shakespeare play but how much of it is true - if anything?

Well, the first thing is that Macbeth did actually exist. He was the king of Alba (Scotland) from 1040 to 1057. Macbeth was his first name (quite a common name in 11th century Scotland) so the notion of his wife being called "Lady Macbeth" is a nonsense. Her name was Gruoch, as it happens.

He did come to the throne following the death of a King Duncan (1034-1040) but not as a result of the murder of an octogenarian dinner party guest as the Bard of Avon would have us believe. Duncan - who was in his 30s at the time - was killed in battle with Macbeth's forces but that was par for the course in 11th century Scotland, in fact de rigueur: a coronation just wasn't a coronation in these days unless accompanied by the severed heads of the outgoing administration.

Shakespeare was right about Macbeth being the Thane of Cawdor in as much that Cawdor is a place near Inverness in Moray and Macbeth was indeed from Moray. Below is Cawdor Castle but, of course, none of these buildings date as far back as the 11th century when Macbeth was around.

 Picture credit - youngrobv (Rob & Ale)'s

In previous episodes of History of Scotland, I've alluded to the fact that, in the Dark Ages (pre-1000AD), Moray had a very ambivalent relationship with Alba (Scotland) so Macbeth, as a Moravian who ruled Alba, has some claim to be the first king of all Scotland.

A reign of 17 years was long by the standards of the 11th century and Macbeth went on a pilgrimage to Rome during his reign. Going to Rome would have taken months if not years in these days (especially if you go on British Airways) so Macbeth was obviously sure enough of the stability of his regime to be able to turn his back for that long. So clearly, he had a tip-top human resources department and had carried out all the necessary risk assessments and stress tests - "Oi! MacDuff! You might be the Thane of Fife but I say NO!" (That's a Harry Enfield gag.)

And what about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane? Well, once again, these two do actually exist. They're both in Perthshire, about 15 miles from each other in the heart of what would have been 11th century Alba. Dunsinane - which is locally pronounced "Dun-SIN-an" rather than "Dun-sin-ANE" as the play would have you believe - even has the remains of a Dark Ages fort on it suggesting a fitting location for Macbeth's last stand.

I remember my English teacher at school saying "Now boys and girls, I want you to imagine how frightened Macbeth is to see a wood moving towards his castle, not realising that Malcolm has told his troops to disguise themselves with branches." and I was like "Yeah, right! I can see how that would put the wind up anybody."

That's what's so interesting about history - it keeps repeating itself. I can just see the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, saying "Scratch the expensive Darth Vader kit, chaps. Just bung a stick in your helmet and the choggies won't know what's hit 'em and we'll all be in Lashgar-Gah before you can you can say "Wootton Bassett"".

(BTW - am I the only one who bursts out laughing EVERY TIME I hear the name Jock Stirrup? Especially considering his name is not actually Jock (or John) but - wait for it - Graham.)

Saturday, 13 February 2010


One of the most memorable scenes in the Elizabethan series of Blackadder is when Percy thinks he's produced gold by alchemy but when he shows the substance he's discovered to Edmund, the response is:-

Blackadder - "Percy, it's green"

Percy - "I know, my lord ..."
Blackadder - "Yes Percy, I don't want to be pedantic or anything, but the colour of gold is gold. That's why it's called gold. What you have discovered - if it has a name - is green."
Well "green" occurs naturally on Flores in the winter. So much so that green is the colour I associate with winter here even if that does sound like an odd thing to say from the perspective of more northerly climes where the colours associated with winter are white or brown.
I'm not sure what the scientific name for green is - it's vegetable (as opposed to animal or mineral) but it's too small to be moss and algae floats in stagnant ponds doesn't it? Hence why I just call it green. It's a product of our year round mild and humid climate but it doesn't like the sun, hence why it flourishes in winter. Green seems to have been particularly invasive this winter - I don't remember it so bad in previous winters. You would never know that these walls and surfaces had all been freshly painted last summer:-

As spring arrives and the days lengthen and sunlight gets back in to corners it hasn't penetrated since November, green withers and retreats but the walls will nevertheless need a good scrub and possibly re-painted as a result.

If you look cloesly at the last photograph, you'll see a different coloured stain on the wall as well. I'm convinced this is run off from the telhas (roof tiles) but I have heard it said that this is a different kind of moss/algae or whatever. So I call it green as well - even if that does invite the rejoinder:-

Yes Neil, I don't want to be pedantic or anything but the colour of green is green. That's why it's called green. What you have observed - if it has a name - is pink.

(BTW - as I don't know how you em-bed (if that's the right the word) YouTube videos in blog posts - and am not sure I would want to even if I did - here is a link to the full Blackadder "It's green" sequence for those not familiar or wanting to be reminded.) 

Friday, 12 February 2010


I bet you didn't know that tea is grown in the Azores.

Not on Flores, right enough, but on São Miguel where it grows in sort of tightly packed hedges which remind me a bit of massive green fish fingers:-

Picture Credit - Leslie Vella

The tea plants take advantage of the pristine environment of the Azores and the mild frost-free temperate climate. Which is obviously the problem because Azorean tea is rubbish.

We Brits are fussy about our tea. I'm not talking about the ceremony of "afternoon tea" accompanied by cucumber sandwiches and cakes which other nations imagine we all sit down to at the stroke of 4.00pm. This is now only found in Anglophiliac places abroad like British Columbia, Hong Kong and Madeira and even there it's more of a tourist attraction than anything else:-
That's a photo of the one and only time I've ever had afternoon tea - it was at Reid's in Madeira (one of the woodiest hotels in the world, founded by William Reid, a Scotsman, in 1891, now owned by the Orient Express Group and worth every single penny of its exorbitant prices).

No, I'm talking about a "cuppa" (the etymology is "cup of tea") consisting simply of a tea bag dropped into a mug of boiling water, left there for at least 10 minutes then with milk and sugar added to taste. This results in a brew you can stand a teaspoon upright in called "builders' tea" because it's the refreshment of preference on British construction sites. 

Let's face it, Euros just can't do cuppas properly, can they, what with their noncey-poncey little tea bags with bits of string attached to them (what's that all about?) producing a weak and insipid gruel? Though it grieves me to say so, Azorean tea is just the same - risk assessment analysts' tea.

No, you can't send boys out to do a man's job which is why industrial quantities of Tetley Teabags are high on our list of things to bring back from our annual visits to Britain.

Made out of old coal sacks, Tetley teabags do not have strings. They are packed with the finest sweepings off a Chinese factory floor processing tea grown on closed landfill sites downwind of 1960s nuclear power stations handpicked by children with congenital birth defects paid 5p a day (if they pick 200kg). They used to be advertised on British TV with the slogan "Tetley make teabags, make tea" (which bit of that don't you understand?) voiced by a professional wrestler. And, bah goom, do they make a good cup of tea.

Spot the difference:-

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Joy of Ironing

The English translation (using the expression in its loosest possible sense) of the instructions for an appliance recently bought at Freitas Braga & Braga gave rise to some fnarks in the Duncan/King household:-

Having identified the knob, cap, head, bottom and protecting sheath and decided on the degree of steam to be employed, one is then advised to:-

Not convinced vinegar is absolutely necessry but very important is:-

And as if all that wasn't enough, one is presented with the delphic enjoinder:-

Is it just me?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Serving suggestion

My friend Sarah over at A Taste of Savoie is by way of being very foody (how do you spell "foody" by the way? should it be "foodie"?) and takes some jolly good photos of her creations so I thought two could play at that game and I could showcase some of the culinary delights of the Azores. Specifically lulas recheadas:-

 Looking a bit like a Faroese fjord on whale hunt day, that's actually a tin of squid stuffed with a subtle blend (devised by Pitéu's award winning team of chefs) of onion, rice, tomato, spices and salt. It's floating in a liquid which looks as if it would be more at home in an automatic gearbox but which is described on the box as "American Sauce". And actually it's one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten - really. And I don't normally like squid (calamares) considering as I do stripped out silicone bathroom sealant to be more palatable.

  Eat yer heart out Taste of Savoie!

Another fave lunch is sardines but not just any old sardines, they must be petingas. These are much smaller than common or garden sardines (you get about 7 or 8 to a tin instead of the usual 2-3) and have a much more subtle flavour - or they probably would if they didn't come drizzled in a medley of anti-fouling and WD-40 called tomate picante

Whether it's lulas or petingas, though, they should be accompanied by crusty fresh bread to mop up the sump oil delicate sauce. (Do you remember when cans of soup used to carry the warning "Do not boil to avoid impairing the delicate flavour"?) My bread of choice is the humble papo seco which means dry - er, I don't actually know what papo means (in my dictionary it says it means "chat" but that can't be right - Marisa?)
Anyway, such are their delicate sauce absorption properties, I suggest that, next time there's an oil spill, they simply scatter the area with papos secos - about half a dozen ought to cope with a spill of Exxon Valdez proportions.

Environmental disaster threatens as an offshore American Sauce well suffers a catastrophic blow-out

And then, if you've got any bread left over, you could always have a spread of Pé de Torresmo. This surprisingly more-ish blend of polyfilla and red diesel is manufactured by an outfit called Sociedade Industriale de Carnes Lda. which translates as "Industrial Meat Company" - I wonder which marketing genius came up with that. It probably doesn't do to dwell too much on the factory conditions.

Shortbread to go with our afternoon tea today, though!