Epifanía

Tempestad en Whitley Bay (Northumberland – UK) Foto de Thomas Heaton

Este relato forma parte de la serie “La isla coronada”, y lo presenté en su tiempo a uno de los concursos de relatos de Zenda libros. Como suele pasar, la idea del relato me vino escuchando una canción: Richard Hawley – The Ocean

Había poca gente para ser sábado y principio de la temporada alta. El tiempo no ayudaba: la lluvia de una borrasca, que parecía ser más de principios de invierno que de verano, golpeaba con saña los ventanales que daban a la escollera, y de vez en cuando las olas alcanzaban el sendero que asomaba al acantilado, salpicando a los últimos parroquianos que se apresuraban a entrar. 

El cantante dio un golpecito con el índice al micrófono. Al instante, un pitido de los altavoces se alzó por encima del rugir del viento y la tormenta. Alguien silbó en señal de protesta. El cantante pidió disculpas, pasándose la mano por el cabello engominado, imitando una pose pasada de moda que no desentonaba con el local. Cuando se entraba en ese pub se tenía siempre la sensación de encontrarse en un lugar indefinido a caballo de los años setenta u ochenta: la moqueta que un día lejano fue granate, o puede que roja, la bola de cristal de discoteca, la barra y los taburetes de escay, la música que sonaba de fondo…  Sólo los móviles que manejaban los chicos de una mesa, universitarios celebrando el fin de curso, recordaban la actualidad. En su rincón habitual, saboreando su pinta, concentrado en ella como si su vida dependiese de apurarla con precisión quirúrgica, estaba un pescador del pueblo. Repeinado y pulcro, como todos los sábados a la misma hora. Tras la muerte de sus padres no cambió su costumbre: seguía viniendo sólo el sábado, llegaba a las siete y se iba una vez terminado el concierto. La única diferencia era que ahora se le veía sonreír más a menudo que antes, y de vez en cuando le acompañaba una chica joven, su sobrina. Un par de bebedores metódicos, de los que no faltan un día, y dos parejas de mediana edad, completaban el público. 

Tras una señal del cantante, el guitarrista tocó los primeros acordes. Una balada lenta, melódica, para ir caldeando el ambiente. A pesar de encontrarse en un lugar algo apartado, el pub era una atracción, no sólo de la comarca. Había quien venía de Newcastle para disfrutar de la atmosfera. Treintañeros de barbas cuidadas y bigotes decimonónicos, de esos que llaman hipsters en las revistas de moda, y que se deshacían en elogios a propósito del fantástico ambiente vintage. El secreto que los diseñadores de interiores intentaban descifrar sin éxito era sencillo: la decoración no se había cambiado en cuarenta años. El propietario, ahora anciano, siempre había dejado la remodelación para el invierno siguiente, y dedicaba el mes de cierre para restaurar él mismo, con habilidad, eventuales daños. No había hecho más obras que las estrictamente necesarias, en la cocina y los inodoros, para no tener problemas con los inspectores municipales. Los cuales, como no tenían mucho que inspeccionar en la comarca, eran especialmente escrupulosos. Sin embargo, el dueño confiaba en que en los próximos años cambiaría su suerte. Estaba seguro de que los turistas que llenaban los vuelos charter que volaban sobre sus cabezas volverían en masa, cuando no les resultase más económico pasar del mar del Norte al Mediterráneo. A fin de cuentas, había votado “LEAVE” para algo ¿no? Quizás no volverían los tiempos de las cartulinas descoloridas en blanco y negro, con señoras elegantes protegidas por amplios sombreros y sombrillas de encaje, retratadas mientras observan el mar con “Recuerdos de Whitley Bay” escrito en el ángulo superior izquierdo de la postal, pero estaba seguro de que las cosas cambiarían.

El cantante se mecía, apoyado sobre el micrófono, moviendo el brazo saludando al escaso público con ademán seguro. Cerró los ojos para no ver a los jóvenes que, indiferentes a su arte, se hacían selfies y buscaban como rabdomantes el punto donde la conexión fuese los suficientemente buena como para subir las fotos a Instagram. Viajó con la imaginación, acunado por su propia voz aterciopelada, a un lugar al otro lado del océano: la ciudad llena de luces, espejismo en el desierto. Confundió en su mente el aullar lejano de las olas por la ovación de un público entregado. Céline estaba en la primera fila, aplaudiendo extasiada. Probablemente lo llamaría para su próximo disco de duetos. 

El final de la canción se fundió con los truenos y los relámpagos. De repente, un estruendo sacudió las vigas de madera, el pequeño edificio tembló hasta los cimientos. Había saltado la luz y se quedaron a oscuras. No gritó nadie, todos volvieron sus miradas hacia el mar. El cantante siguió tarareando las últimas palabras de la canción en voz baja: “el océano… el océano…“. Bajó del escenario, seguido por sus músicos. El propietario salió de detrás de la barra, los jóvenes dejaron los móviles sobre la mesa. El pescador, los bebedores metódicos y las parejas también se acercaron a los ventanales, y enmudecieron delante del espectáculo que tenían frente ellos. En el eterno atardecer del hemisferio norte en verano, el gris del cielo, del mar y la lluvia se mezclaban. Era uno de esos momentos que los pintores llevan generaciones intentando plasmar, y ninguno de los presentes quiso romper la magia, hasta que volvió la luz. 

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Nevius

When I was thinking about my next post about my Northumberland trip’s impressions, an image came from my mind. A praetorian sent by Hadrian shocked as I was by the absolute beauty of the Whin Sill. This is what that praetorian may have thought, or lived. The date: mid April AD 122, the year the wall was built. Thanks to my friend Tanja for making this intelligible. You can find the version in Spanish here 

NEVIUS

The wood of the stairs cracked under his boots. He reached the top of the turret; the soldier on guard faced him and, instinctively, moved his spear towards him, but he relaxed on recognising the praetorian. Although neither he nor any of his comrades have ever seen one before, they knew perfectly well how the emperor’s personal guard looked like. And, moreover, the one that arrived to the fort some days before should be also someone important, as he was granted unlimited access everywhere, even to the principia, where the banners and the garrison’s money was kept.

“Sir!” – said the soldier, standing at attention. “Soldier” – replied the praetorian, passing by the guard, recognising the look in his eyes despite the night being sable black with the only source of light coming from the torches inside the fort, several meters below them. Most of the auxiliary soldiers he had met during his visit to the north garrisons of Britannia envied his position; others despised him as they considered the praetorians a group of privileged, lazy and greed good-for-nothing, ready to sell themselves for the best price when some general wanted to buy the throne. But a few times, Nevius Varus, the praetorian, saw a different spark reflected in the eyes in front of him, the same he had almost eighteen years ago, meaning “I will be one of you”.

Nevius faced the North, filling his lungs with frozen air as he wrapped tightly the deep blue cloak around him. Spring seemed to be ignoring that land, although it was mid April. The fruit trees in Rome have probably started to bloom by now and they surely had in the small piece of land he possessed in Hispania. He paid for it with the prize money Hadrian conceded the praetorian guard on ascending to the throne; it had become an entrenched tradition, although many years had passed since the last time they were directly involved in the proclamation of the new emperor. This would be his last mission in Hadrian and Rome’s name, and then he would retire to his quiet villa in front of the Mediterranean sea, bathed in sunshine all year long. Maybe he would go alone, or maybe not. He had not cared much for women in his life, to be honest. Perhaps he will ask the gracious Gades’ dancer he slept with when he was in Rome. Albeit all his doubts he was sure what kind of woman he would not take with him, someone like the garrison commander’s wife, dull and stupid like a goose. During the last three dinners she devoured insatiably the latest city gossip, asked infinite questions about what was the fashion among the sophisticated ladies and was infinitely curious about the ways the empress combed her hair. As his knowledge on the matter was scarce, given that the women he had frequented in Rome were more likely to live in the Subura than in the Palatine, he depicted a portrait of elegance that would have scandalised Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife. Pretty as young Valeria was, she was not definitely the kind of woman he had in mind as an hypothetical companion for his retirement. He smirked and smiled remembering the girl with the red hair he met that afternoon as he was returning to the fort with his men.

A cart loaded with barrels was stuck in the mud, blocking the narrow street that lead from the outskirts of the civilian village to the South Gate. A fat old man sat in the vehicle, whipping a couple of white and bulky oxen that remained still and indifferent to the sound of the lash or the efforts of a young woman who in the meantime pulled the animals. “Will it take too long?” – asked Nevius. “It depends on what you’d like to drink with dinner. If you stay there like a stick in the mud without helping us you will drink water, but if you want wine you’d better come here and help me” – replied the woman panting without rising her head nor bothering to find out who was so anxious to enter the fort. The man in the cart turned and he became white on seeing the praetorian. “Excuse my daughter, sir!” – said the man, stammering while Nevius got down from his horse and approached them. When the centurion in command of the gate saw, in horror, how an emperor’s representative was about to pull a cart stuck in mud, he immediately called some men and in a few moments the wheels were unblocked, the oxen moved and they all entered the fort. “I hope the wine is good”  – he told the girl when the cart turned left to enter the garrison’s warehouse. She looked back and blushed embarrassed when she realised that the tall man in a blue uniform and a red-crested helmet walking beside his white horse was not definitely one of the cavalry soldiers she thought she had talked to before.

Reconstruction of a fort in timber, as Vindolanda was in AD 122. Click for source

Nevius awoke from his reveries. He was standing in a corner of the north turret, thinking about what he will have to do the following day and what he had left behind. Despite what some auxiliaries may think, his life in the praetorian guard has not been an easy one. He joined them the year before the definitive campaign against the Dacians, he entered the conquered capital, Sarmizegetusa, alongside the emperor. He served him loyally for thirteen years, he had fought enough in deep forests, in the burning sand, under the hot sun and in the cold rain to know that the most dangerous enemies always hid among the white columns of the forum. He was with Trajan when he died in Cilicia and his testament was read, adopting Hadrian as son and heir. Five years have passed since that day, and now he had to accomplish this mission, the last one. Hadrian wanted to build a wall in Britannia, dividing it from east to west, and he was collecting the necessary information and intelligence to make it happen. There were thousands of details which needed to be taken care of: three legions will be building the wall, almost twenty thousand men that had to be lodged, fed and supplied. It was necessary also to establish contacts with local tribes to ensure the emperor’s safety, and propose a definitive route for the wall.

All was quiet, the only noises arriving at his ears were the whisper of the water running down the small valley in the east and the rattling of the soldier’s teeth, standing in the opposite corner. He felt relieved; he was also freezing, but he came from the mild Valentia, in Hispania, whereas all the inhabitants of the fort were from Batavia, a land just on the other side of the narrow strait of water that divided Britannia from the continent. It was also very cold that morning when he rode with his men north to explore the terrain. The sun was rising above the misty wide valley, and he could not see the top of the hill they were climbing. He stirred his horse, that almost slipped due to the frozen ground; when he finally arrived to the top of the hill the view took his breath away. A chain of steep hills, from east to west,  were facing an endless, misty horizon. The mountains were like the prows of galleys breaking a milky sea. As the light of the sun gained strength, the mist dissolved, revealing vast fields of icy grass and a thick, deep green line of a boundless forest spreading for several miles behind them.

Mist around the Whin Sil and the wall. Click for source

 He laughed out loud, sending puffs of white smoke from his mouth. “Here. The wall will pass here” – he moved his arms embracing the cliffs that went up and down. “But it would be easier to build it down there” argued one of the men in the company pointing to the southern valley they just left behind. Nevius replied: “The emperor wants something more than a simple wall. Claudius” – he said, looking at him straight in the eyes, keenly, with a loud roaring voice – “imagine the effect it will have on those barbarians covered in sheep skin and painted in blue, living in huts made of straw and cow’s dung. The message we want to send is simple, ‘here we are. Come if you dare’.”

Yes, still so much work left to be done before summer, when the emperor arrives. He should go to bed, and try to sleep. He entered his room in the commander’s quarters. It had a small entrance with wooden shelves for the helmet and the arms; a brazier was lit beside the bed. He closed the door and heard an almost imperceptible sound, a breath. His hand grasped the hilt of his sword, but on hearing a weak tinkling and perceiving a faint fragrance of bergamot he released it, smiling while he was taking off his arms and the cloak. “What are you doing here, Valeria?” – he said, turning towards the bed. He saw a woman lying in it, naked, covered only with a bear’s skin, her wide green eyes examining his body from tip to toe, with a lascivious smile on her face. Yes, maybe she was not the wittiest woman he had ever met, but she was there, tempting. A gift from Venus, the goddess of love. Although not a religious man, he thought that refusing such a gift would be a sacrilege. To reject her would be something very rude indeed, he told himself as he approached the bed, smiling.

Notes: I have used the contemporary terms for objects as sword, spear, and so on in order not to result “indigest”. Geographical terms: Gades (Cádiz – Spain), Cilicia (a territory nowadays in Turkey), Batavia (corresponds to the dutch city of Nijmegen). The Subura in Rome was where the poor, criminals and prostitutes thrive whereas the Palatine was the hill where the Royal Palace stood.

The Wall and I – Part 1

Hadrian's wall - Housesteads crags
The iconic image of the wall – View from Housesteads crags

I didn’t know how to start talking about the wall-side of my Northumberland trip, but linnet has given me a clue: “my first impressions of seeing the wall”. Therefore here it is, “the wall and I”.

I’ve always longed to visit the wall. When I was less informed about it I thought that it was placed already in Scotland, not in England (yes, yes, I know… ignorance is something really annoying). Blame it on the movies and tv, I guess. By the way, once the wall is in the “seen dream destinations” list, Scotland, and specially the Highlands, heads now the top-three list “things to see before I die”. Being the other two Australia and the Polynesian Islands (to feel a little bit like Capt. Cook) chances are that Scotland will pass to the “done” column sooner than the other two. The problem is that there are still so many things I want to see near the wall…

As I wrote in the previous post about this trip, I already knew what I expected to see. The current remains of the wall are definitely less impressive of what it once was; this gif I have done mixing my above pic with an still of the film “The Eagle” illustrates the difference.

gif TheWall

Although the fort of Vindolanda was not placed besides the wall as Housesteads (Vercovicium), but a few miles away, archeologists have rebuilt two fragments of how the wall looked like, one in stone and the other in timber; the wall in the east and west was built mostly with wood, as the appropriate stone was more difficult to find.

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Me in majestical and perfectly military pose in Vindolanda’s timber replica of the wall
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Northumberland’s landscape from the point of view of a soldier in one of the vigilance turrets. Vindolanda.

Considering that the wall crossed Britain from Newcastle to Carlisle, even if part of it was made with timber, we are talking of a lot of “lost stones”. They have been used in the centuries to build castles and churches and, should not be for the work and devotion of devoted archeologists most of the wall should be lost now. In the museums of the forts I have visited there is a special section dedicated to this people, the Wall Faces.

During the crisis of the coal mines which left many of the inhabitants of Haltwhistle unemployed, a businessman proposed to create a company (the Roman Stone Ltd) that would quarry what remained of the wall, but fortunately such an action was stopped by the petition of antiquarians, academics and public figures such as Rudyard Kipling. Other Roman archeological treasures have not been so lucky, as the Meta Sudans here in Rome. Their remains stood until almost mid thirties, when they were demolished by order of Mussolini.

01
The round base of the Meta Sudans during archeological excavations. Click for source.

Should someone be interested to learn more about the wall I suggest you to read “The Wall – Rome’s Greatest Frontier” by Alistair Moffat edited by Birlinn books. I bought it in Vindolanda’s Museum; I realised on arriving to Rome that there was a mistake in the binding of the book and that the first block of pages was repeated and some missing. I wrote the publisher and this week I have receive a very kind e-mail informing me that they will send me a brand new book, a hardback edition (I bought the paperback). Another example of Northern-Scottish (Birlinn Books is in Edinburgh) kindness; I just asked them a pdf file with the missing pages, not the whole book!

As usual, I am rambling without writing what I wanted: my impressions of the wall. Even if I wanted to visit the wall badly, I travelled not as prepared as I thought. The first night in the B&B, while sipping my mug of Earl Grey (by the way… I saw in Newcastle the monument to the Earl Grey in person) and reading the tourist depliants we had in our room, I realised that if I visited only Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum in Carvoran I would miss the classical-iconical wall image, the view from Housesteads crags (first picture of this post).  Therefore we devoted the second whole day we had at disposal in the north to Housesteads.

Our “members” ticket

The site forms part of the English Heritage. As we are members of the Fondo Ambiente Italiano we can visit English Heritage sites for free; needless to say that I felt moved and proud. While arriving to destination with the bus (number AD122, the year Hadrian begun the construction of the wall) I felt already thrilled when recognising the shape of the hills, or the famous Sycamore Gap.

Hadrian's_Wall,_Sycamore_Gap_-_geograph.org.uk_-_907726
The Sycamore Gap – click for source

When climbing the hill leading to Housesteads I felt really happy, and I longed so badly to arrive to the top and see the landscape that I was about to run.

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Me in the path leading to the Vercovicium’s (Housesteads) fort. Needless to underline my expression of profound and deep suffering.

I entered through the south gate, pretended to pay attention to the remains of the commanders’ house on the left and hurried to the top, because I was anxious to arrive to the northern gate, where you can see this.

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View from Housesteads’ North Gate

I finally had it in front of me: the immensity of the North, the wild land of Brigantes and Picts and, on my right, the second most iconic image of the wall, the Knag Burn gateway.

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Knag Burn seen from the North Gate

More pictures, comments and impressions in another post. Stay tuned!

The best thing of all

Walltown
Walltown – Northumberland National Park

I knew already before this trip that Northumberland was an infinite succession of amazingly beautiful landscapes, but, what has striken me the most has been its people. My previous visits to UK were all limited to London; big metropolis are, in a certain way, all alike. A melting pot of different cultures and people, a place in which, for a Spanish living in Italy, you will never die of hunger because ninety percent of the waiters in the restaurants are Spanish or Italians. Therefore, this was my first trip to the “real” Great Britain; I would sleep in a small town in the middle of the island and I would arrive there with the train from Newcastle, hoping to have memorised well the road to walk from the train station to our bed & breakfast. I must confess also that I wasn’t able, before leaving, to forget completely one of those absurd commonplaces which, in the mind of an Spaniard, equal British people to a race not very amiable or kind. I know that it sounds something very absurd to read in a blog in which the vast majority of their posts is devoted to a certain English Gentleman. But as I told you, we are talking about an absurd idea printed in the dna of the average Spanish citizen after a childhood spent watching Erroll Flynn’s films with Claude Rains playing the naughty Spaniard and Erroll Flynn the corageous Englishman.

the sea hawk
Claude Rains as Don José Alvarez de Córdoba in “The Sea Hawk”. Click for source

Nevertheless, common places are made to be denied with reality, and so it was. Starting from the flight; we flew with an English low cost company, the only one with a twice a week direct flight between Rome and Newcastle. When we were about to land I was making with hubby the usual tourist-comments about what I was seeing, but I guess that one man sitting in the seat in front of me was not very happy at all to hear that I thought Durham was Newcastle and what I thought was Newcastle’s stadium was Sunderland’s. Therefore the gentleman informed me very kindly of what I was really watching from the window… panic. I did not understand him. After making him repeating thrice what he was saying, I gathered the meaning by the only words I understood (Newcastle – Durham – Sunderland) and by seeing from the window a definitely bigger city approaching. I thought that the communication problem was due to that annoying buzz you hear inside a plane, but when making the passports queue and, once more, not understanding the first time the question the lady organising the flow of people asked me (if I travelled alone or with someone else) I realised that I was not made to understand northern accent.

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Newcastle

In this trip we were very lucky, not only with the patient people we met who had to repeat frequently twice what they were telling me, but with the weather. As you see, sun shined between the clouds but the temperature, for us, was definitely brisky. I longed for cool weather after the furnace heat we left in Rome but I realized, watching the people in Newcastle or walking in Haltwhistle that afternoon in t-shirt and sandals, that non only our English, but also our thermostats were callibrated very differently.

The list of incredibly friendly and nice people continued with our landlady (who spoke an absolutely intelligible English), the girls in the pub, the couple of tourists from Lincoln who chatted with us while we were waiting for our food, the bus driver… The next day when we were making a stroll in town a very kind gentleman asked us if we were lost. As I was in a holiday mood I didn’t even think for a moment that it was a polite way of saying “what are you doing here?”, as would have thought the usual and cynical me, but I felt absolutely happy because I understood him without saying the usual “sorry?”

TheBlackBull
The Black Bull in Haltwhistle. Delicious food, and, according to hubby, better beer

I must write more posts about this trip. Unfortunately, inspiration has completely run dry now. I guess it’s because I’m hungry.

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The delicious meat pie I ate at The Black Bull

The perfect trip

the other side of the wall
The other side of the wall
Ashcroft Guest House - Haltwhistle
Ashcroft Guest House – Haltwhistle
Room with a view
The view from our room
Nymphs Temple Chesterholm Gardens
Nymphs Temple – Chesterholm Gardens – Vindolanda
Hadrian's wall - Housesteads crags
Hadrian’s wall from Housesteads crags
TheBlackBull
The Black Bull – Haltwhistle. I’m sure the girls will miss our generous tips.
Vindolanda
Rests of Vindolanda Roman Fort
Walltown
Walltown – Northumberland National Park
aveYoVindolanda
Me in frikism-extasis (camouflaged with the head of emperor Hadrian) in Vindolanda. The funny thing is that I’ve learnt later that several cohorts of the VIth legion were destined to Vindolanda for some time.
MileCastle37
Mile Castle 37 Hadrian’s Wall

Why I won’t see The Crucible (ouch, this post hurts)

I have always thought that things, in life, cannot be forced. If they should happen, they happen. I’m not a person of strong believes, I’m always skeptical and very ironic but I guess that I believe in fate. In something written, pre-established. I am also quite convinced that, should we have the opportunity to turn back time and live again a certain moment, trying to change what happens, it will never change. The result will be the same, maybe different but never the one we intended.

What has all that to do with the subject of the post? “The Crucible” production was announced a few days later I’ve booked a trip to London to visit my dearest friend M., in the weekend of May 2nd. Should I have waited a couple of weeks to prepare that trip I would have planned it differently. I would have organised it for end June and right now I would be one of the happy few (not so few) to have seen Richard’s extraordinary performance. I would have gone probably to a matinee in order not to bother my friend returning home after midnight, and even hubby would have liked to see the play although he would understand more or less 10% of what was said in it. He endured stoically an Othello’s production in English in Rome’s Teatro Valle without sleeping nor snoring and he didn’t even fall asleep on Turandot, and that was definitely a harder test for him.

That was the appropriate moment to see the play.

For my August holidays I had already planned to go to Northumberland to visit Vindolanda, the Roman Army Museum and the forts in Hadrian’s Wall. We had to make that trip last year, but we had to cancel it when we got everything already booked. Frankly speaking, I didn’t give a second thought to “The Crucible” when booking the Northumberland trip for the second year at the beginning of June. I really want to visit Hadrian’s Wall and I am as fond of Richard as I’m of history of the Roman Empire.

I’ve actually mixed objects of admiration in a fanfic – that’s what fanfics are for, aren’t they?
I’ve actually mixed objects of admiration in a fanfic – that’s what fanfics are for, aren’t they?

Of course, plane, guest house’s reservation in Haltwhistle, and hotel in our way back in Newcastle were made before being conscious of what I was missing. I was sure that “The Crucible” would have been great but not SO great. And here is where the big “ouch” goes; it hurts, it really hurts.

Therefore in a month, when I will be in Northumberland walking the moors, reading the famous Vindolanda letters, admiring the view of the garden in Ashcroft Guest House, eating a chicken and mushroom pie in a Haltwhistle pub, I will feel a small twang of regret, a tiny shadow of nostalgia thinking of the man giving himself to his audience several hundreds of miles south, in the same country, and me not being there watching him.

But, as it seems that Mr. A lives mostly in airports, it would be nice if he passes by Newcastle airport on Sunday August 24th around 3 pm. Just a glance from the distance would be fine for me, I respect too much someone who works as hard as he to disturb him in an airport.

PS. Nevertheless, I have the weird feeling that I won’t go to Northumberland neither this year. Maybe I’m wrong, I also thought this before travelling to Berlin two years ago.