Sixty-six degrees north

The word “express” used to mean that it was “quicker” than something that was “not express”.

In the world of travel it implied a more direct route with fewer stops, meaning a shorter journey time.

Unfortunately for fans of the word “express”, marketing people got hold of it and used it to try to put lipstick on “worse things” by making a virtue of the speed-advantage of having “less choice”. A Tesco Express is smaller than a normal Tesco, so you spend less time there, ergo it was an “express” experience, as was choosing a DVD in my local Blockbusters Express because there was hardly anything to choose from.

Iberia Express have taken this definition-drift one step further by retaining the concept of “worse” but losing the bit about “quicker”.

This means that the Express brand of the Spanish flag-carrier is the same as the normal Iberia, but worse. It is not quicker, it does not have fewer stops on its way to its destination, and nor is it smaller with less choice like a Tesco Express; it’s the same but with less legroom.

It is the “low cost” arm of the Iberia group, but like all “low cost” airlines, it isn’t necessarily “low price” for the passenger.

I was flying to Reykjavik, a fairly lengthy four-hour flight to a pricey destination that seems to jar with the “same-but-worse” Express brand. This wasn’t a highly competitive route where a low-cost alternative might garner some untapped market share, nor is it much of a tourist destination, at least not the sort for people looking for a bargain getaway, but there you go, that’s Iberia Express for you.

I limped off the plane, legs frozen from being shoved in the tiny gap between my seat and the one in front, happy to have avoided a thrombosis. I marched through the airport as quickly as I could, trying to get my circulation going; it was 2am, and I was desperate to get to my hotel. I am not a late-night person any more, those days have gone … I used to adore boozy nights in clubs or sitting around with friends chatting into the small hours, but not any more. I have stumbled through my midlife crisis and come out the other side, accepting the non-negotiable fact that I’m fifty … accepting it and embracing it because you don’t mess with people who are fifty, we’re too grizzled with experience, we’re too fucking hard. I no longer mourn my lost youth, there’s a lot I regret and things I would love to do over, but I’ve got better at living in the present and looking to the future and spend much less time redesigning my past. I don’t want to pretend my age isn’t true – it isn’t “just a number,” as so many people say – it’s a number that means I don’t want to stand in crowded bars at 3am drinking gin just to show I’ve still got what it takes. If that’s what it takes to show you’ve still got what it takes, then I haven’t got what it takes. If I’m not tucked up in bed by eleven with a good book I’m not happy … and so, marching through a chilly airport at 2am after a four-hour flight, I feel no sense of adventure at being in a new country, I just want to rush to a cosy hotel room and jump into bed.

A disadvantage of being middle-aged is failing to remember the age-perspective rule. This means that from the perspective of someone younger, age difference is magnified by a factor of ten. For example, to the very attractive and charming immigration officer who checked my passport and Covid documentation, I probably looked to be about a hundred years old. She was young enough to have never seen an iPhone 5 when I showed her my digital vaccination certificate – she called it “cool” – and yet from my perspective, the age difference is diminished by a factor of ten, and so although she was obviously younger, to my eyes we were all adults and roughly-speaking were all pretty much in or around the same age bracket.

I have learnt that the best assumption to make when women are friendly and nice, is that they are a spy hoping to lure me into some poor decision-making that will be used against me later. This may not always be true, but even if not, I have worked out that friendly-and-nice women are not being friendly and nice in the hope that the aged stranger in front of them will try to get off with them; better outcomes await the man who responds to friendliness and niceness with a respectful friendliness and niceness in return.

This is just as effective even if they are a spy.

I smiled, “Cool? Not sure about that! Just old!”

I hope she realised I was talking about the phone …

Continue reading “Sixty-six degrees north”

Emotional Intelligence

Leaving Madrid was emotional.

I don’t normally get emotional. I feel human emotions, and have read that book “Emotional Intelligence”, so I know my stuff, but I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by my emotions and so it comes as a shock when I lose control … but then it’s not every day you drag your daughter from the loving embrace of her friends and boyfriend and take her to University.

For the past 18 years I have sacrificed almost everything I’ve got in order to try to provide sufficient predictable income that I can give my two daughters a good education and a decent crack at life.

That’s 18 long years of having little cash and – more importantly – little time or energy. I don’t begrudge them any of it, what’s life about if not to leave a positive legacy, ideally in the form of happy well-balanced non-racist decent human beings who, if one is lucky, like decent music and support Leeds United.

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Everyone needs to calm down

There’s a patch of waste land off the car park next to Madrid’s Chamartín station.

It’s an unceremonious back door to this major rail terminal, widely used by people who need to cut the massive corner to get to and from the northern end of the Castellana main street. It’s a rutted bare patch of mud, often filled with deep puddles and parked cars, and, until recently, a tiny shanty town of makeshift sheds.

I walked through, carrying my small case, and noticed for the first time that the area had been cleared. I often thought it odd that such a settlement had been tolerated by authorities not always known for their deep sympathy to those who live on the margins of society.

A policeman friend of mine once described the role of the police as “to control the people” and I thought how this attitude clashed with my own (British?) understanding of their role. A policeman came to speak at my school when I was a kid and his description always stuck with me: the police, he said, were there to protect the people. He didn’t say control the people. This is an important distinction, and leads to an important change of mindset.

I once pulled over on to the hard-shoulder of a busy motorway because the back door of my car wasn’t properly closed – within seconds the police had pulled up (actually the Civil Guard, but it’s the same principle) and a young officer jumped out his car, already shouting at me “Why have you stopped?!”

“Because the door was open,” I said, completely calm, because I knew I had done the right thing.

He must have known I had done the right thing too, but he was too high on his own petty power, unable to calm down because he saw his role as there to control me, not protect me, and so he couldn’t back out without losing face: “Well, get moving. Now!” he hollered unnecessarily, ordering me about like I were a new recruit on the parade ground (we were only one step away from him screaming in my face: “only two things pull over on the hard-shoulder because their back door isn’t closed properly, steers or queers, which are you, boy?”).

That was years ago and it still annoys me that I meekly got back in my car and didn’t challenge him on why he thought it was OK to shout in my face.

Perhaps it was the better decision to swallow my pride and move on, but it rankles.

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Riding the Iron Poultry

After so long not travelling, and feeling nervous about failing a PCR test next week and not being able to fly, I edge out the house like a bear groggily emerging from hibernation.

I am under-dressed. How can I be leaving the house on a cross-country journey wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying nothing but a backpack? It just feels wrong.

I must have forgotten something nags the dark angel on my shoulder. I hate my anxiety, it does nothing other than make me check multiple times that I have got my tickets and packed my glasses, which I know I have, but there he goes, nagging away, and I just need to check again …

The first train is a commuter train, and so it’s uncomfortable, as commuter trains must be. As someone who grew up in Leeds, I am just grateful it’s a modern train and not a two-carriage converted diesel bus. At least here the trains are made out of trains.

It is surprisingly busy for a pandemic, but maybe everyday is like this and I just don’t know because I rarely use public transport these days, so different my life has become.

It doesn’t feel like the start of a journey. This may be the familiarity of the Cercanias trains that shuttle passengers in and out of the city, an experience now so mundane after doing it five times a week for a decade, that any glamour associated with train travel just doesn’t stick to these trains. Even a year-and-a-half of working from home doesn’t change that, it’s immediately familiar – and boring – as if I’d been there the day before.

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The romance of travel … (not a thing)

The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.

I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.

To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.

Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me …  so I got the bus.


I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.

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Airline personality disorder

Is it anthropomorphism when we relate to a branded organization as if it were human?

An airline is not an inanimate object or an animal, it’s a human construct, branded like crazy to spark our emotional brain – to make us feel loyalty and affection – so we are less rational when making purchasing decisions. So it is human, in a sense.

Some airlines do this brilliantly, notably Southwest (who I’ve never flown with), Virgin Atlantic, and Norwegian who are doing this brilliantly at the low-cost end of the market – and, although controversial, I think Iberia are getting much better that this.


The idea of making your brand mean something as a way to increase customer loyalty is not a groundbreaking game-changing disruptive idea. It is a trusty rock-solid foundation stone in the building of a service organization, yet so many airlines seem to aspire to have all the personality of the local bus service, thinking that having a plane and a bag of nuts is enough.

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Amtrak v Greyhound: an experiential study

We got on the train, right at the very back.

Everyone else travelling south from New York’s Penn Station seemed to know exactly which track the train was going to arrive on. By the time they announced it would be Track 14, the queues for the escalators were already long and wide; one heading south, the other north, the two meeting in a ragged mess in the middle of the station concourse.

We took advantage of the disorder to gently merge into the line, and ended up taking the north escalator down to the platform, hence ending up at the back of the south-bound train.

We lumbered our cases on board, and started looking for seats. Our tickets said we had reserved seats, but when I had questioned which seats they might be, I had been told it was a free-for-all.

This is a very loose way of using the word “reserved”.

The train had arrived about 30 minutes late from Boston, and by the time it jerked its way out of Penn Station, it was still 30 minutes late.


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The importance of knowing where the brakes are

I took a bike from my hotel in Stockholm ride to the office.

This was chiefly because I have an injured foot and the 20-minute walk wasn’t going to help it any, but also because I am envious of people who get to commute by bicycle, so I thought I’d pretend to be one of those people.

I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1997 when a friend bought a new bike and gave me his rusty old one. I rode it back to my flat, struggling along, the warped frame trapping the wheels so the stupid thing slowed to a halt even going down hills. I propped it up by the steps next to my house, and ran upstairs to get something: that was the last I saw of it.

The ride to work was uneventful. I didn’t feel comfortable going too fast, it was an old clanger of a contraption, and I was wearing a suit and was without a helmet, so I took it slow; I was not keen to arrive at work with torn clothing and visible bruising.


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If you’ve missed a flight recently, you’re not spending enough time in airports

In this post I tackle three big issues facing the frequent flyer.

A lot of the advice for the business traveller is based on three assumptions: speed is king, you need to keep working all the time, and you don’t need clean pyjamas.

I disagree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

We work incredibly hard most of the time, have lengthy commutes, and often return to a busy house with a long list of responsibilities. Travel is an opportunity to take care of ourselves, to have some peace and quiet, to meditate, to escape the hurly-burly senseless busy-ness of most of our working days.

So don’t feel the need to spend every waking second of travel on your laptop working at breakneck speed, use the peace and solitude to reflect and take a step back.

Early or late?

If you haven’t missed a flight recently, you’re spending too much time in airports

(Dr Jordan Ellenberg)

I don’t agree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

Ellenberg says that I could be doing something better with my time rather than idling it away in an airport terminal, that the “opportunity cost” of my arriving early is subtracting from all this productive stuff I would have been doing otherwise.

Well, Dr E, there are some mighty big assumptions in there.

If I waited until the last minute to get to the airport I wouldn’t be doing anything productive, I’d be standing around, glancing at my watch, and anxiously thinking about needing to get to the airport. At least if I’m already there I can relax and read and drink coffee, which is all I really want to do anyway.


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Travel broadens the waistline

It’s a fairly long way to Vilnius from Spain.

You have to go via Warsaw or Helsinki or even Moscow, but Moscow involves a transit visa, and it means flying over Vilnius in order to come right back again, several hours later. Such graceless inefficiency offends me.

And … if there is one cast-iron rule of travel it is this: never take a route that requires a visa unless you have absolutely no choice.

I could have gone via London or Amsterdam. These options were somewhere north of 27 hours each way. My computer presented them anyway, with a straight face, as if I might seriously consider them.

No sense of the ridiculous – one of the many problems with Windows 10.


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Heading to the beach … year two in Spain

I walked down Calle de la Magdalena in Oviedo, feeling stupid and alone. What was I doing back here on my own when all my friends had moved on?

I was trying to recreate something that had gone. The party was over, and I was the only one who hadn’t gone home.

I felt so lonely I wanted to cry.

At least I had a job this time. I’d come to Oviedo the previous December and just managed to survive on the meagre scraps of work I could scramble together here and there, but now I had the promise of a 25-hour-a-week job which would pay a decent monthly wage.

My new boss was Mr A. He was a slick type who insisted on the formal Usted rather than the more usual . I didn’t trust him one bit. He had the strut of someone whose most important objective was that other people saw him as important. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to communicate properly and so we never got to establish much of a relationship, and I think he never saw me as anything other than a potentially useful pushover.

He was right, I was a pushover.

The previous year the secretary had asked me how I was and I muttered a non-committal “meh” and she said “so so?” and I nodded, “yes, so so” and Mr A laughed, repeating the phrase “so so” as he threw his head back and guffawed … except he wasn’t really saying “so so”, he was laughing because they were calling me “soso” (insipid, boring) and I nodded along, unaware of the joke.

He was right about that too, I was soso.

Continue reading “Heading to the beach … year two in Spain”

Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo

Spain started in Oviedo.

Or, to be a bit more precise, the local Visigothic ruler, Don Pelayo (later King Pelayo), defeated the Moors at the battle of Covadonga around 718, establishing a Christian kingdom in Asturias, and so began the reconquest of Spain that wasn’t completed until 1492.

Like King Pelayo before me, I too started my Spanish life in Asturias.

Pelayo made Cangas de Onis his capital before shifting his court to Oviedo. I took a more direct approach and went straight to the Asturian capital, no messing about.

Day one

I took an early bus from Madrid* and had no real idea where I was going or just how big and empty Spain was. I stared at the endless flat plains of León as we drove on and on, nothing to see for miles. Hours later we climbed up into the Cantabrian mountains and eventually emerged into the driving rain of Asturias. I understood that Spain was not just hot and sunny beaches, but there was not a single time that I came out of that mountain pass and it wasn’t raining cats and dogs.

Oviedo didn’t look great from the bus. It looked drab and shoddy, but then very few cities look nice from the point of view of their bus stations. Oviedo’s bus station was surrounded by apartments that hung their washing out on spiderweb carousels overhanging the central courtyard where the buses parked. I wouldn’t like to dry my pants in full view of the city’s travellers, and would fear that they could easily become dislodged and fall, ending up on the roof of a bus, never to be seen again.

I walked out, suddenly realising that my happy-go-lucky lack of planning had a negative side. I had no idea where to go, what to do or how to speak the language. I felt lonely but not lost. It was an exciting and exhilarating – if a little daunting – feeling of freedom and opportunity; it was like I was actually living my life at last, and that anything could happen.

This feeling waned slightly as I checked into a hostel and was shown to my room.

It was small with an uncomfortable bed and a postage-stamp-sized window in the top corner of the far wall. Stig of the Dump would have felt at home in that room, although he may have complained about the lack of natural light. Desperate to recapture the feeling of youthful adventure, I went to enjoy a beer, a smoke and my Jack Kerouac book.

I didn’t particularly want a beer, or a smoke, or indeed to read the Kerouac book, but I thought it was best to try to live up to the idea of who I was supposed to be.

When I’d left University earlier that same year, I’d decided that it wasn’t cricket for an educated fellow to be monolingual. Having enjoyed a holiday in Spain the year before, travelling around the Basque Country and the Ebro valley, I’d seen a side of Spain that I really liked. It was both lively and easy-going, relaxing but energetic. And had great food, cheap booze and pretty girls. Even the language didn’t seem like such an impenetrable impossible mouthful as French or German, the two European languages I had tried (and failed) to wrestle with previously. Spanish seemed to flow better, it was difficult and often maddening, but at least it went with the grain, not against it.

That first day in Oviedo I realised that I didn’t know a thing. The few phrases of this bizarre foreign tongue† I’d picked up on previous trips were better than nothing, but only in the same way as a grain of salt is better than no salt in a scenario where you need loads of salt.

Continue reading “Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo”

Red rain and blue eyes

I slept well last night.

After 24 hours on buses, planes and taxis, and spending countless hours waiting around in airports, I got home and, despite the 7-hour timezone difference, managed to stay awake long enough to go to bed at the reasonably legal hour of 21:45

The next thing I knew it was morning, my trip to the Pearl River Delta already fading into the hazy distance.

It was a good trip. Fortunately my dry sarcastic wit was understood and appreciated by the people of Hong Kong. This was especially important to me as I hadn’t got anything else prepared.

In fact I don’t know how to operate in a world devoid of sarcasm, I simply don’t have the tools to survive in such a hostile environment.

I wonder if sarcasm is as human as laughter and other sorts of humour. Is it hard-wired into human DNA?

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First time on the rock

Last week I went to Gibraltar.

This was my first ever visit to the rock, and I was quite excited to see what it was like.

As a British resident of Spain I am often challenged as to when I might return Gibraltar to the Spanish crown. I usually patiently explain that that’s beyond the scope of my role, but also, quite aside from the legal status of the territory, I question why it is such a big deal anyway – there are anomalies all over the place for crying out loud: Ceuta and Melilla being two obvious ones.

Rock of Gibraltar

Having had these discussions (and plenty more) for many years, I was intrigued to see what the place was really like, and was interested to know if I was going to have to hide my Spain links and play up the Yorkshireman card just to get through the week unscathed!

I could not have been more wrong.

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The first time I’ve been tear-gassed … but worse than that, a smelly man with wayward elbows

I am flying high over north-left Turkey.

We took off about half-an-hour ago and we’re still over land, I’d expected to be over the sea by now. Countries are rarely the size you expect them to be, they’re almost always much bigger.

Istanbul was bigger than I’d expected too.

View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn
View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn

Hang on, the pilot has just spelt out the route: Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, France, then Spain.

No self-respecting crow would fly such a circuitous route, but then routes on flat maps always look absurdly circular until you map them to a globe.

This is why ships from Southampton to New York bump into icebergs. On the flat page of an atlas, you’d expect them to be much further south, but the great circle from northern Europe has ships (and now planes) approaching the Big Apple from the north – down the Newfoundland coast. I once flew into New York from behind, we flew down the Hudson with Manhattan on the left. I longed to see a map to understand how this could be, but I was stuck on a plane and not even I am so geeky as to travel with a globe.

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Obsessive compulsive annoyingly getting old disorder

I am getting ready to go to Istanbul.

I’m speaking at the eCommerce Expo there on Friday (I have the 9:30 to 10:15 slot).

In case you’re in the area, it’s at the Halic Congress Center Pera Building on Friday (31st May).

I’m starting to get nervous.

There’s a scene in The Godfather when Michael stands outside the hospital and lights the cigarette of a nervous henchman. The henchman’s hands are shaking, but Michael’s are rock solid. This is when the young Corleone realises that he can handle the pressure of being a big time gangster.

That’s what I used to be like before I’d step on stage to speak, hands steady with confidence … but now, as I get older, and as I get better, I find myself getting as nervous as hell.

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High speed fake luxury

I had tortellini with gorgonzola and walnut sauce last night.

As I get older I get more appreciative of good food and less appreciative of business travel. I never used to look forward to a meal with such naked relish as I do these days, yet never did my heart sink so low upon entering yet another hotel room as it has done lately.

I used to love travel, every little bit of it.

I used to love the buzz of it, the excitement you feel in airports and train stations.

My heart used to beat faster as I walked through Victoria Station and saw giggly backpackers preparing to cross the channel. I envied their freedom.

I used to love the journey, the space of travel, the discovery of arrival of a new place with its bizarre little differences – at first perplexing – even insurmountable – but soon thrillingly familiar, but still excitingly foreign. I was amused by the meagre luxury of hotels, the silly little chocolates placed on the pillow to fool you into thinking that this was the high life, the faux quality of the accessories, like we wouldn’t notice it was all barely skin deep, a veneer no thicker than the toilet paper folded unnecessarily into a posh and pointy triangle.

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It’s called having high standards

I have just torn a hot floury chapatti in two.

I am in London and I always try to eat Indian food when I’m back in the UK.

I have a thing about restaurants though, I don’t like places that are too crowded. Or too empty. Or grotty. Or too posh. Nothing dirty and cramped. I hate canteens and plastic furniture.

Yes, I am a little fussy when picking a place to eat, I like the clean and contemporary feel, classy but not silly, spacious but charming; the sort of place that cleans the table between customers.

I am fussy about hotels too.

As I age, I am less willing to sleep on a bench covered in sackcloth and urine.

Yesterday I insisted my pillow was changed to feather and down, rather than the gravel initially supplied. I can be quite demanding when pushed.

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Very expensive post

I am in Madrid now.  Tired.  Sitting at a hotel Internet point, watching the money ticking up on my credit card in the bar at the bottom of the screen.

It’s €5.25 now.

That’s a lot of Euros.

I could go to my room and watch Sky News or Spanish TV or read my book, but I need to remain more vertical than horizontal to ensure my dinner goes down.

The bed in my room is on casters on a wooden floor, so if I sit there propped up on pillows, I slowly edge the bed away from the headboard and skid across the room.  I go to sleep in one place, and awake with the bed lodged in the opposite corner.  It’s a nice room otherwise, it’s just they didn’t think it through.

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The streets of Oviedo

I walked out the bus station and up into the street, breathing this new air with excitement.

I had no idea where I was going, aware only that walking down a street of an unknown city with nothing but a rucksack on your back, open to whatever happens next, is exactly the feeling of freedom and possibility that I had been craving.

I walked down an anonymous street, then another. This corner of Oviedo was nothing special, just bland streets with unremarkable buildings. It was already late afternoon, and so I looked up at the buildings, looking for a hotel or Hostal sign so I could dump my bag, wash my face, and at least know I had a safe place to sleep for a couple of nights. I was all for adventure, but adventure with a bathroom and a comfortable bed!

A few more minutes walking and I saw a little Hostal sign, stuck to an apartment block, two floors up. It looked like the kind of place I’d stayed at in Madrid the previous two nights, just someone’s flat with a couple of spare rooms. I preferred the anonymity and infrastructure of a proper hotel where I’d have my own bathroom with free shampoo and would be invisible among the many comings and goings. These tiny hostels varied as much as the people who owned them, so you never knew what you were getting.
In my previous visit to Spain, backpacking with friends across the north coast, we had been met by a woman called Maria at San Sebastian station who had offered us a room for the night.

Cuatro mil” (4000) she had said, with sufficient clarity for my phrasebook-level Spanish to grasp it.

Naturally suspicious of the probable extra-legal nature of her business, I confirmed our understanding by laboriously pointing to each of us and saying: “cuatro mil” in turn, then “or mil, mil, mil, mil” – again pointing at each of us – as a way to check if it was a pricey 4000 pesetas each (about £20) or a very reasonable 4000 pesetas for the room.

She laughed, and pointing to us individually said “mil” and then circling us all said “cuatro mil

Continue reading “The streets of Oviedo”