Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I feel as if I've entered a time-warp with all this Algarve stuff, especially since it's cold and wet outside and the sky is anything but blue. However, I must mention the 'self-educated hobo', as I think of him - a man who at first glance seems to be like any other 60 year old tourist strolling liesurely through the resort, hands clasped behind his back and nose raised to inhale the sea air appreciatively. He sidles up to me and stops a yard away, looking dreamily over my shoulder towards the beach. I'm standing in the shade of a tourist information kiosk, annoyed because I've forgotten to bring my wallet with me and I've only got a couple of coins in my pocket - probably not enough to buy the cool drink I badly need at that point. He senses that I'm observing him - medium height, grey hair combed back, beard and moustache neatly trimmed, a rather formal-looking checked shirt, beige slacks and brown leather slip-on shoes. It's only later that I notice the frayed cuffs on the shirt sleeves, the stains on one leg of the trousers, and the fact that one of his shoes is coming apart at the seams. He looks at me and says 'You are English?' in a peculiar lilting accent that I can't identify. No, I reply, 'Scottish, from Edinburgh'. His eyes open wide, 'Scottish!', he exclaims, then launches into an extraordinary - and lengthy - monologue, which went something like this:

'Scotland! What a wonderful country! At this very moment the Edinburgh Festival is taking place, the cafes and bars filled with artistes and festival-goers. They'll be strolling up and down the Royal Mile from the historic castle, built if I'm not mistaken on an extinct volcano, to the Palace of Holyrood, the Queen's own residence in Scotland. A wonderful city! The Athens of the North, they call it, and also 'Old Reekie', because of the smoke from ten thousand chimneys that used to hang over it. Scotland! A country of bagpipes and kilts, the home of Logie Baird, inventor of the television, and the great missionary Dr Livingston, the son of a poor farmer, who was almost eaten alive by a lion in Africa. and Mr Mackintosh, who gave the world the raincoat, not that you would need one here, and Mr Robert Burns, the great poet whose love was as red a red red rose, and many loves he had if his reputation is to be believed, and why should it not be? And then there's Sir Walter Scott, the great writer, who built himself a castle on the banks of the River Tweed which forms the border with your enemy the English. Your enemy of times long past, I mean. And Robert Louis Stevenson who sailed to the South Pacific and whose marvellous imagination conjured Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Scotsmen, all of them, from every part of the land. Dundee, a city famous for marmalade and jute, Glasgow, where they built the famous ocean-going liners, the Queen Mary among them, one of the great maritime ports of the British Empire, and Inverness, capital of the Highlands where they toss the caber and dance the sword dance at the Highland Games, and Aberdeen, a city built entirely from white granite. They call it the Silver City on account of that, don't they?..."

You've obviously been to Scotland', I say, interrupting the flow. 'Never', he replies. 'Never so much as set foot there, but I am a scholar of the world. I read books, I study history and geography, I keep up to date with what's going on.' 'Where are you from yourself?', I ask. 'From the Philippines originally', he replies, but I lived for many years in Melbourne. In fact I'm awaiting the arrival of a ship to Melbourne. I'll be leaving here as soon as I can, and I won't be sorry to leave either. Look around you. Everyone's the same. Here for their holidays, no interest in anything but the beach and the bars, and there's nothing much apart from that anyway.' He pauses, and I sense what's coming next. 'Forgive me, my Scottish friend, but could you spare a few euros so that I can take my clothes to the launderette and get them cleaned. I'm a bit down on my luck at the moment. The ship has been delayed and I don't know when it will arrive.'

Of course this is exactly what I don't want to hear, not because I begrudge him a few euros - in fact I think he's earned them - but because my wallet is back in the hotel, and I have barely enough to buy myself a drink. I tell him this, but naturally he doesn't believe me and looks both downcast and offended. 'Oh well', he says with a sigh, and turns on his heels and wanders off. I feel bad. His monologue had been a tour de force (longer and more bizarre than I can reproduce here) and I decide that if I see him again I'll make a point of giving him some money.

A couple of days later I'm sitting eating a sandwich at a table outside a restaurant on the promenade and there he is, about 25 yards away, holding forth to an Englishman in a Michael Owen Newcastle football shirt. He moves his arms expansively as he speaks, no doubt describing the seating capacity of Newcastle's football stadium, the date it was built, and the scorer of the winning goal the last time Newcastle won the cup. Or perhaps he's discussing the merits of the brown ale they drink there, or the number of bridges over the Tyne, and who built them. The man is listening attentively, nodding now and again. Then there is the gesture towards the trousers with their unfortunate stains. The man takes out his wallet and proffers a bill which is gratefully received. They go their separate ways, the educated hobo melting into the crowd and walking away from me. I think about pursuing him, but decide against it. I'll probably see him again over the next week I think, but I don't. Perhaps the ship had finally arrived. Or maybe he had moved onto another resort where he was impressing other tourists with his encyclopaedic knowledge of their homeland. 'Belgium, really? Home of the famous painter Magritte and renowned for its beer and unusually fine chocolate....'New Zealand? a land of hot springs and the mighty All Blacks, home of the kiwi, a flightless bird that excavates a burrow....'