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Friday, October 15, 2010

The Rain In Spain Is Not Always On The Plain

One of the joys of traveling is experiencing the unexpected.  On the last leg of our journey, we traveled to Spain via London.  Our trip from Edinburgh took us to Gatwick airport.  This would be my first experience with this airport and easyjet.com, the airline we flew.  Easyjet is a low budget airline modeled after Southwest.  Well…a U.K. version of Southwest.  Whereas U.S. companies tend to feel a necessity to continually improve, U.K. firms feel a necessity to continue.

As it works out, continuing in the U.K. doesn’t require much.  In the case of easyjet, you don’t need to offer “ANYTHING” for free.  Want an extra carry on (be it a purse or camera bag)?  You must pay.  Two bags? Pay.  Bag of nuts? Pay.  See the pattern?  But, at least they let me bring my umbrella on the plane without charge.

Next morning, after a £12 ride to the airport (go figure), I had an interesting run-in with security.  Seems umbrellas are not allowed.  I called them on this, as I had carried it on every other flight during my journey.  The guards had a moment of indecision, so they called over “the governor.”  The Governor was a stern, matronly looking middle aged woman.  They held up the umbrella to her, to which she replied, “no!”  After she had disappeared, I asked if I could appeal my case directly to The Governor.  I was told she was very busy.  My choices were to abandon it or give it to a friend waiting in the terminal.  As I have no permanent friends at Gatwick, I really didn’t have much choice.  I was upset.

When I got through security, there was The Governor, sitting quietly behind her desk doing absolutely nothing.  I went to her to have a direct appeal.  She explained that I couldn’t take it because it didn’t fit in my bag.  I found myself wondering why umbrellas had to fit in something when other things didn’t have to fit into anything.  For example, a camera bag may not fit in a purse, but that’s okay.  I realized that logic was not going to work here, so I tried an emotional appeal.  I told her it was an expensive new umbrella that I had hauled across Europe and not actually had a chance to use it yet.  She said I could check it, but easyjet makes their money off of charging for things like this.  In the end, I decided to pay the price.  They let me through security.  There was no queue at the counter and easyjet checked it for…free!

On the way back through security, I had no bags and nothing in my pockets.  I tried to bypass the people unloading their possessions on the belt.  “No,” I was told.  I had to wait for them anyway.  Although I had successfully cleared security once with my shoes on, this time, they wanted them off.  I guess they felt if I had to wait with people using the belt, I should use it too.  Whereas Southwest eventually developed a more civil way of boarding, easyjet still uses the “pile on” method – big fun!

At last, we landed in Gibraltar and were met by our friends Mike and Angela (or Ang as Mike calls her).  We had not seen them in over 20 years, but it was just like yesterday.  We were overjoyed to see their smiling faces.  The treatment through customs could not have been more different in Gibraltar and Spain.  Whereas the British have very long queues followed by stern treatment, the Gibraltarians were quick and polite almost to the point of nonchalance.

Gibraltar has more square miles worth of tunnels in their famous rock than they do on the ground.  When you only have three square miles of land in your country, you apparently need to put a road across the only runway at your airport.  I’ve heard of train crossings, boat crossings, but never airplane crossings.  On the way to Mike and Ang’s house, it dawned on me I had neglected to ask a very important question.  As I am allergic to cats, I enquired, “do you have a cat?”

To which, Mike replied, “no, we have 16 cats.  But, don’t worry, only two of them are allowed in the house.”  You can imagine my relief.  On the way to the house, Mike wanted to show us the main reason why he loves Southern Spain so much.  We stopped on a hill near their house.  From there, we saw: the rock of Gibraltar, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, La Linea (where they live), the Atlantic ocean, the Mediterranean sea, the straits of Gibraltar and the north African coast of Morocco.  Not a bad view.  We got it.

Here I should provide a bit of background about our friend Mike.  He is an adventurer and risk taker.  He doesn’t go in for extreme sports or anything.  He drives fast is willing to throw himself into any human situation imaginable.  He has traveled the world and has been known to argue with foreign police and has had a gun brandished in his direction more than once.  He speaks several languages fluently and a few more badly and has thus far been able to talk his way out of all the scrapes he been in.  Mike is a businessman and a successful one.  He has marketed a variety products and enjoys an occasional real estate deal, but his real passion is in derivatives trading.  For his efforts, he has amassed considerable weath.

Mike does not value things that complicate his life.  He likes the comfort of knowing he has the financial backing to get out of whatever he gets into.  He prefers to owe nothing.  When he came to Spain, looking down from the very same hill on which we were standing, he pointed to a spot near the ocean and said, “I want to live there.”  He quickly learned that the Spanish are not very transient and the area to which his finger had gone is populated exclusively by Spaniards.  Undaunted, he started enquiring with the neighbors about possible vacancies.  None existed.  He persisted, until one day he heard that a local drug lord had been busted and was going to jail.  The local real estate agent discouraged Mike because the drug lord would want the house back when he was released.  Mike met the man and felt he was reasonable enough, so a deal was struck and Mike had his house.  Fortunately (depending on your point of view), the drug lord died in jail three years later.  Mike felt he would not have taken his home back anyway.  I would not want to negotiate against Mike, even if I was a drug lord.

When we arrived at Mike’s house, Ang jumped out to open the gate
I discovered that he was operating on what is essentially a dial-up Internet connection as he had recently fired his Internet provider for poor customer service.  This would explain the tardiness of this post.  It may also explain the length.  I will break it up for easy reading.

Upon arrival, Mike felt it necessary to go over the ground rules.  When he didn’t have an electric gate, I began to suspect there were going to be some technology issues.  The fullness of my prophetic insight was yet to be realized.  At the front porch, a chicken wire cat barrier had been erected.  The latch system is a simple hook and eye mechanism.  There are hooks running the length of the chicken wire “door,” but one need only catch one or two to secure it.  This device is designed to keep the inside cats in and the outside cats out.  One must remain vigilant when operating this barrier as one slip up usually results in excess inside cats.

Once in the house, we discovered a fully equipped kitchen.  We later learned the oven and dishwasher, though fully functional, are not used.  Dishes are hand washed and air dried and a small glass bowl convection oven is used when baking is required.  The one modern convenience that Mike affords himself is a microwave, of which he makes extensive use.  Susan, however, doesn’t like using the microwave.  There was a bit of a Spanish stand-off there, but Susan ultimately capitulated on several occasions.

There are two bathrooms in the house.  Both have showers with the showerhead on the end of a flexible tube.  This comes in very handy.  Apparently, living so close to the Sahara desert results in occasional light sandstorms.  When this happens, sand gets in the well and ultimately finds its way into the plumbing.  The sand causes the seals in the toilets to leak.  These leaky seals must be cleaned or the toilet leaks.  As a technologist, I immediately came up with a variety of solutions to this problem.  Mike is not a technologist.  As mentioned, he is a financial and people person.  His solution is a bucket.  I know what you’re thinking – where does he take the bucket when it’s full?  No, he doesn’t use it for that.  In order to flush the toilet, one fills the bucket with water using the showerhead.  Then, pours the water down the toilet.  Later, it dawned on me that Mike is probably the richest man in the world who flushes the toilet with a bucket.  One must go outside to the second building to use the better toilet if #2 is involved.  Mike says he may work on fixing the main toilet.  We’ll see.

There may be some heating mechanism in the house, but I suspect this involved extra layers of clothing and blankets.  Fortunately, the weather is very mild in southern Spain.  Mike’s philosophy is, if it’s broke, don’t fix it.  If it works, don’t use it (microwave excluded).

On the other hand, if you want to know how governments and societies work, there is nobody better.  Mike has a picture of him with George Bush Sr., I don’t know the nature of his work as he promised not to say anything about it for 150 years, but suffice to say his advice is valued by more than the neighbors, where he is considered somewhat of a godfather figure.
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