Monday, December 31, 2012

Buses and Amsterdam, Day 1

I left for the bus station early-ish on Saturday morning, and noticed for the first time the canal and lock not two minutes walk from my hostel. It was a lock exactly like Amélie skips stoned over in Amélie, but there was no time to stop as I wanted to get to the bus station and have time left over for grocery shopping, because I wasn't sure if the Netherlands would be like many other European countries and have no shops open on Sundays. It took a while to find the bus station, though, and then two queues (one unnecessary) and some frustrated moments later it was time to get on the bus and no sign of a grocery store. They really need more signs - I could read the ones in French, and they still didn't help me much.

In any case, soon we were speeding along the French motorways and on into Belgium. We stopped for a bit in the shiny-building district of Brussels, which wasn't very inspiring apart from some very long curved park benches (I'm sure Brussels is very lovely in other parts), and then continued into the Netherlands and to Amsterdam. I managed to catch a tram to my hostel where the One Who Speaks Russian was waiting, and collapsed into bed. It's funny how travelling can make you tired.

This morning we had a few objectives: sleep in, get Dutch fries and go on the free walking tour of Amsterdam. The first objective obtained, we followed the tram tracks to the centre of town and found ourselves some frites at a Dutch fast food chain where most of the food comes out of pseudo-vending machines. There's a bank of them along one wall that keep getting refilled, and you put your money in, open the door and take your cheeseburger/sausage etc. etc. The frites didn't come in the vending machine boxes, unfortunately, but they were still good with the special Dutch mayonnaise that is much, much better than ordinary mayonnaise.

We found the tour guide and were finally accepted onto the tour (apparently tour guides get arrested if there are more than 40 people in their group, and they had way more people than expected), and started on our grand tour around Amsterdam. Old Amsterdam is very walkable, and cars are definitely not the main mode of transport. You're much, much more likely to get hit by a bike (they're everywhere, and going pretty fast) than anything else, and there were a few near misses.

The main square in Amsterdam has the Royal Palace along one side, though the palace is royal in name only and the royals were never allowed to live there (Amsterdammers are very independent people and wouldn't allow the royal family in). Amsterdam is one of the youngest cities in Europe, with people coming together to live here less than a thousand years ago, drawing their city out of the marshes and almost encircling it with canals over the centuries. There are lots of pretty views along the canals from the bridges, and I love the narrow houses with their pulley systems for hauling goods up into attics. The narrow houses come from placing a tax on house width, because if you have narrower houses you can fit more along the canals, and so have more merchants living in your city.

We walked through the red light district, where there are actual red lights along all its little alleys and workers in full-length windows. One wasn't paying that much attention to the people walking past - she was texting. In the middle of the red light district is the oldest church in Amsterdam, where sailors would come to say confession after their night's activities, or sometimes before if time was short (this cost more). Apparently it got so there was a price list at the confessional, and then the Reformation came down hard. For a while Catholicism was banned in the city, which meant that attic churches sprang up where Catholics could go to pray. This is where the Amsterdam 'looking through the fingers' policy came into play - people knew these churches were there but they were tolerated because they were quiet, weren't hurting anyone, and it was good for business to have more people (i.e. Catholics) in town.

We visited the headquarters of the Dutch East India Trading Company, where modern capitalism started, and saw the former Jewish quarter. Amsterdam's Jews were not lucky in escaping the Holocaust, and during the harsh winter of 1944 the main Jewish street was stripped of wood for fires (staircases, wooden foundations) because the rumours of concentration camps had filtered through and the Amsterdammerrs knew the former residents probably wouldn't come back. The street was rebuilt in the 1950's-60's, designed by architecture students, and is now known as the Lego street because of its colourful, blocky design. We also saw the highest point in Amsterdam: 1.3m above sea level.

We ended at the Anne Frank Huis and went for dinner at a nice restaurant where I had a traditional Dutch dish of mashed potato, onion and carrot with a meatball on top. Then. returned to the hostel for a quiet night in preparation for tomorrow: the last day of the year.


Saturday, December 29, 2012

La Tour Eiffel à Nôtre Dame et deloins, avec Haiku

I'm not sure of the French word for beyond, so I have used deloins, which I am not sure is an actual French word. Hopefully if it is it's not a rude one.

It was about this time last year that I presented you with Haiku of the French Riviera, and this post will be the sequel: Haiku of Paris. I'll start with one about the roads:

Cobblestones, Smart Cars,
No road markings to speak of.
Perpetual gridlock.

It's not actually as bad as that in most places, but it's true they have no lane markings. There are giant roundabouts where the road is wide enough for four, maybe five cars, and it's a free-for-all get-a-space-where-you-can. I'm glad I'm not driving in Paris.

I left at 9.40 this morning for le Mètro, ten minutes after I was planning to be at the Eiffel Tower. My late start was partly due to realising that I'd locked up my valuables with a non-refundable 2€ coin and forgotten to take out my umbrella or camera. These are important on a rainy day in Paris, and I had to sacrifice another 2€ to get them out and lock the remaining valuables up again. It didn't actually rain, but it would have done if I hadn't had an umbrella.

I got off le Mètro at École Militaire, which is very close to the Champs de Mars and gives you a good view of the Tower as you walk the length of the park. I began to take photos of the Eiffel Tower. This would become a habit throughout the day - me with the Eiffel Tower whenever it was visible.

Coming from the Champs de Mars is actually a good way to get to the Tower, because the queue on that side of the tower is shorter (at least when I was there). There are two types of queue: those that want to take the lift up, and those who want to walk and get a cheaper ticket (3€50 vs. 8€). I joined the walking queue and we shuffled slowly but surely towards the ticket office. I'm glad I got there earlyish, because the queues only grew while I was up in the tower, and had to have been at least an hour long by lunch time.

You can get to the first and second levels by stairs, but you have to pay extra for a lift to the very top, and the top was obscured by cloud today anyway. The second level is about 130m up, and I went as far as you could go. The views are amazing - much of Paris looks white from a distance, with splashes of gold here and there and the river winding through.

I'm quite glad I walked, because I got to see a lot more of the tower and savour the views on the way. You go up inside one of the legs/pylons, curling ever closer to the middle until you hit the first level. Here you get to see a piece of the original spiral stair linking levels one and two, which looks extremely scary and was too steep for public use. They're doing construction on this level, so some of it wasn't open, but I went around as far as you could and stared in the four directions over Paris. The second level has shops and a restaurant in the middle, and the lifts to the very top, and is probably where some people start to get vertigo. I admit I made sure my hands were completely free coming down from there - no camera - and tried not to look down too much.

Temporary tour.
Ha! One hundred and twenty-
Three years and counting.

See how I changed languages to get the syllables to fit? That's skill, that is.

I walked along the Seine, through a Christmas market and across the bridge to la Place de Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk and ferris wheel, then through the Tuileries gardens while eating a chocolate and banana crêpe. There are lots of statues in the gardens, and grass that you're not allowed to sit on, and at the end of the Tuileries is the Louvre, which I hadn't realised. I'd decided not to go the the Louvre or any museums this time around, because I would have been running at full speed round its eight miles of galleries, trying to get everything in before I had to move on to the next spot on my itinerary: the Shakespeare bookshop.

This is a little English language bookshop near Nôtre Dame that is as bookshops should be: books crammed right up to the ceiling, with nooks and crannies everywhere and barely enough space to pass people. I crossed the Seine by the Ponts des Arts, which is completely covered in padlocks signifying love: the idea is you write your names on it and throw the key into the river to show that your love will never be broken. There are quite a few combination locks on there too - I wonder if that still signifies the same thing? Because as long as you remember the code, you can go and unlock it any time you want.

After the bookshop I joined the snaking queue for Nôtre Dame. The cathedral will be 850 years old next year, and the statues and carvings and windows are incredible. The colours of the stained glass are beautifully vivid and the ceiling soars high above. I spent a while staring up and realised that the arches in the nave are not quite at right angles to the walls, and then wondered if this was on purpose or not. It seems incredible that they could build something like this so long ago.

Last on my itinerary was Montmartre. I got le Mètro there and climbed the hill to see the Sacré Cœur Cathedral and the panorama of Paris. There were a lot of people up here, and a Christmas market where I got some kind of chocolate covered marshmallow thing and took pictures. You weren't allowed to take pictures in the Sacré Cœur, but it's beautiful inside, with round arches and lots of mosaics.

I got back to the hostel just as it was getting dark, and decided to treat myself to dinner in a bar-brasserie on a cobblestoned corner that reminded me of a movie. I had filet mignon (pork, I think. I was expecting beef) with lovely sautéed potatoes and salad, and a red wine, this being Paris where wine is cheaper than soft drink, and sat in a wicker chair by the window watching people go by. There were two fluffy dogs in a car outside that were keeping close watch on the street and kept staring challengingly at me, which was extremely cute.

Now I'm looking forward to sleep... Time for one last haiku.

Wide white boulevards
Every building stately, calm.
The river flows through.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Farewell to the Emerald Isle and Paris in the Spring Time

Yes, it is spring. We are past the midwinter solstice, so I am classing late December as spring.

I had a lovely Christmas in Northern Ireland with lots of wee bairns running/crawling around (hmm. Bairns is Scottish, isn't it.) and wonderful traditional Christmas dinner. There were brussels sprouts (apparently these are essential), turkey with cranberry sauce, potatoes, roast carrots and parsnips, ham, soup, warm avocado-bacon-mushroom salad and Christmas pudding for dessert. Literally a feast.

But all things must come to an end and now I am in Paris! I have much planned for tomorrow, which will be my only full day before moving on to Amsterdam. Well, much planned meaning many ideas and not much thought as to how it might all work out. I shall report back, probably in a few days when I've had time to write it all down on my bus trip to Amsterdam.

French passport control was probably the quickest I've ever been through passport control - as I remember, it went 'bonjour', 'bonjour', 'merci'. I did not even get a stamp (where was my stamp?). Doormen have looked at my ID for longer. This incredibly quick customs was offset, however, by the interminable wait for the luggage to come through. Finally, all set with everything, I found a bus that might take me into the city and smugly paid my 5.70€, knowing it cost 17€ on the cushy buses.

This non-direct bus did take an awfully long time struggling through the choked streets of Paris, though, with honking horns and every intersection filled with stopped cars. It was like one of those puzzle games where you have to move the cars and trucks around until you can get off the board. We passed warehouses and what looked to be another airport, business parks, residential tower blocks, and then tall white buildings with French doors. Finally it stopped at Place de la Chapelle, and the driver said something that included 'Gare de l'Est' (our destination) and everyone got off. You could tell the non-French speaked by their looks of confusion. I managed to figure out what the bus driver was saying (he was going no further, and to get the 35) and followed everyone else onto the number 65, which turned out to be going much closer to my hostel anyway, which worked out well.

I'm settling in for the night and trying to figure out what time I can face getting up - 6.30 is probably pushing it, considering I'm still on Ireland time and it will be 5.30 for me. I'm already a bit tired - I've been telling people ’danke' instead of 'merci' so I should probably get an early night...

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Travelling to Ireland after the End of the World

We're still alive! Hooray!

And I'm on a train in the Lake District, coming into the same station as last time where I did not see any lakes. This time I've seen quite a lot of lakes, but they tend to be lakes in the middle of fields that aren't really supposed to be lakes (there's been a lot of rain and some train lines are down because of it. Fingers crossed, the trains I am taking today will not be affected).

I am somewhat worried, however, that my train will not make it into Glasgow in time for me to connect with my next train to Ayr, from where I will take a bus to Cairnryan and then a ferry to Belfast. By the time you read this post, all will have been revealed, and you shall see whether I needed to use my travel insurance...

I got to the train station in London in reasonable time and stood with the hordes of other people with suitcases, staring up at the boards where they tell you what platform your train is on, approximately eight minutes before it's due to leave (is this done for some reason other than stressing people out? Why can they organise platforms nicely in Germany and Austria and tell you weeks in advance, whereas in London we get eight minutes?). The train to Glasgow was late. Other trains kept leaving. It got to our departure time, and they still hadn't told us, though the announcements did advise that the train would be delayed.

Finally the platform came up. Number 3! It turned out that pretty much every person standing in the packed station hall was going to Glasgow, and there was a mad rush for Platform 3, suitcases sliding and banging behind. I must admit that, once on the platform, I ran - my ticket doesn't have reserved seats, which meant that if I didn't get in first I'd be obliged to stand.

I found a likely-looking carriage and got in, staring at all the reservation screens and trying to find one that was available. Unfortunately I was not in one of the two separate carriages set aside for the unreserved passengers (and they were being pretty unreserved, too, what with a five hour journey with no seat at stake).

I got out and ran for the right car, but by the time I got there there was barely standing room. One lady had to get off the train because of claustrophobia and I was one of the last to squeeze on. Then we stood for a while before a conductor asked if anyone would mind taking a later train, because they couldn't really have so many people on board (safety and that sort of thing. Not good when you can't move for suitcases and scrunched-up people).

I set myself up with my four bags (suitcase, backpack, food bag, other food bag), finding that there are actually far more places to stuff things when you're sitting in the aisle on your suitcase. I had one food bag to my left, my backpack to my right, and my other food bag above. Two and a bit hours later, enough people left the train that I got myself a seat, all to myself, and celebrated with lunch.

Awwwww! The driver just came on and told us they are organising ahead! I am doing a sail-rail ticket and I wasn't sure how officially connected-up it was, but it turns out that they have organised for us to take a later train (yes, I will miss the train I'm supposed to get) and then THE BUS WILL WAIT FOR US. Awww. Thanks Virgin Trains.

I have apple pie and mandarins for dinner. I'm looking forward to it, and trying to convince myself that 2.10 pm is in no way dinner time when you've just had lunch.

2.24: I have scored myself a window seat! Ha! And eaten most of my mange tout. We will get into Glasgow in a little over an hour, ten minutes before sunset.

3.07: Going past Scottish lowland mountains with black vegetation across their smooth, rounded sides and a spattering of snow in patches on top. Low clouds drift fingers along their ridges. I have the theme from Skyfall stuck in my head (if you've seen the movie, you should know why).

6.40: I am checked in at the ferry! All gone well so far, with train and bus and ferry matching up nicely.

7.28: leaving port! I like ferries. They're like huge coffee shops that move. Well, this one is. I have myself a high-backed chair with a view into the black out the port hole. About to start my apple pie :)


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Austria Take Two: Ice Skating and Flying Home

Friday was our last full day in Austria. I wanted to go and find the elusive ice rink, so we ventured out after lunch (when it had warmed up from minus sixteen) armed with a map. We'd almost found it our first day in St Johann, when we went to look at the chair lift, but we hadn't walked quite far enough around the bend in the road.

One solitary boy was skating around the rink holding onto a large plastic penguin for balance. There was a little cottage beside the ice rink, but it looked like a normal house and the hut where I thought you might get skates was all shut up. I tried to ask a man when the rink might open, but he was extremely busy with some kind of flashing-light panel, and refused to talk to me. Luckily a woman with two kids turned up a few minutes later, and when I asked about skates she said 'in der haus'. It turned out the cottage wasn't a private house after all, and when you opened the door you walked through the little foyer and into a changing room, complete with a man at a window ready to exchange skates for 5€. I got some grey skates the wrong size first of all, and had to say 'kleine' and get some bigger, much prettier ones in white and purple. If I ever get any of my own, I think they will look like these.

The rink is outside, with mountains all around. The sun was on the ice and very bright. I hadn't skated in a few years, and was a bit wobbly at first and glad there was only one other person on the ice. I managed to stay upright, though, and The One Who Speaks Russian took some good photos and sat in the sun with her book. It wasn't long before the after-school crowd came onto the ice, but by then I was reasonably confident and even skating backwards some of the time.

There were some very good skaters, and some beginners. There was one boy dressed all in orange who fell over, at speed, almost every time I saw him. I wondered if his parents had dressed him in orange as a warning to other skaters.

At indoor ice rinks I've been to, they have a large lumbering vehicle called a Zamboni that sweeps the ice and makes it smooth again. At this smaller outdoor rink, they had a live Zamboni instead, a boy who looked to be about eight and pushed a scraper broom thing around. I think the broom changed hands a few times, and the kids looked like they were having fun.

The sun began to sink behind the mountains so I surrendered my beautiful skates and walked back through the town to the hotel, passing through the little Christmas market on the way.

There was one goal I had not yet reached for the week: building a snowman. I found lots of good untouched snow in the park next to the hotel, so I storked to a good spot and started.

Only I didn't really want to build a traditional snowman. I didn't have a carrot, for one, and snowmen always look a bit gauche. So I made a snow maiden instead. Unfortunately snow upon snow doesn't tend to make a good picture, but here are my best photoshopped efforts anyway.

She didn't come out exactly as I'd imagined her (and when I had the bright idea of taking off my gloves to get more definition and intricacy and such things as hands, it didn't turn out to be such a bright idea. More a very cold idea) but I was still pleased with her.

We got up early the next morning and prepared for minus sixteen on our way to the train station, but it didn't actually turn out to be that cold. I drunk in the mountains for the last time on our way into Salzburg, found the trolley bus to the airport and were on our way home.

One thing I really liked about Salzburg airport was passport control. Salzburg airport has only 9 gates, and passport control consisted of a smiley man at a little window sitting right next to the woman taking our boarding passes at the gate before we walked out onto the runway (into the first rain we'd seen - it really was warming up). Passport control at the UK border was not nearly so nice, but then it's generally not the most enjoyable of experiences.

One more week of work, and then Christmas!

Where did the year go?


Friday, December 14, 2012

Austria Take Two: Salzburg

Today was our Salzburg day. Our town is about an hour from Salzburg on the train, so we dragged ourselves away from our books and down to the train station in the freezing air. The sky was an incredible blue, the sun touching the mountains as we caught a nice regional train and began to wend our way out of the mountains.

This is an impressive journey, and worth doing by train I think. The road weaves back and forth and goes through tunnels, but the train spends most of the time right by the river with mountains towering on both sides, white peaks with slashes of black cliff face and dark snow-dusted forests hugging the slopes. We went past a castle on an outcropping of rock, and lots of little villages with colourful wooden houses covered in snow. Everything looks so clean and bright and untouched, with white expanses that I guess are fields in summer.

Salzburg itself is still pretty much surrounded by mountains, though there's more valley space. We took a tour of the old town with a nice guide who showed us the squares and the statues and took us inside the Dom cathedral, through a graveyard with beautiful wrought iron grave markers and past a very old bakery that is still baking bread.

He explained that one side of town is known as the Old Town, and the other the New Town because it was only settled in 15 AD. That's not a typo. The Dom has five organs (Salzburg has a proud history of music, of course), but before there were organs, singers and instrumentalists performed from balconies near the ceiling. The sound would have floated down from above and all around, which would have been an amazing experience.

The buildings are tall and close together, because there isn't much room to build, the streets narrow, and wherever you are in the city you can look up to the castle on the rock with the town surrounding it. We ended at Mozart's birthplace, then decided it was time for lunch and made for NordSee, which you see everywhere in Austria and apparently Germany. I had a very nice meal of fish, potatoes and buttered vegetables and, suitably warmed, we ventured back out to inspect the chocolate shops and the Christmas market.

Mozart ducks. Obviously.
This was my first proper Christmas market this year - in Vienna there were too many people to really see much of it. I got a glüwein (I think that's how you spell it - mulled wine) and wandered around warming my hands and looking at the stalls of decorations and jewellery and food. The market spills over into multiple squares and around the boarded-up fountains (protected from frost) beside the Dom.

Many of the buildings are inspired by Italian architecture, because Salzburg was a main trading point for people from Italy and Germany, especially when the salt mine was still open (Salzburg = Salt Mountain).

By four o'clock we were getting tired and cold, so we caught a train back to St Johann im Pongau and curled up with our books.


St Johann im Pongau: Days 3 and 4

We've been having a nice relaxing week in our little Alpine town, the One Who Speaks Russian and I. The hotel has a spa and a swimming pool, and there is a supermarket across the road with a good supply of chocolate. We have books (lots of books) and a few movies, and a beautiful view of snowy mountains out the sliding door. Also, have I mentioned,


It's not a wet cold like you get in London. This is a crisp cold, hovering around minus ten Celsius and diving to minus eighteen at dawn, before the sun has had a chance to warm everything up again. On Tuesday we went out to find the McDonalds (wifi), and had a bit of an adventure trying to find a way across town and the river that was open to pedestrians. They only clear some of the footpaths of snow, and I'm sure in some places the roads are supposed to be higher speed so don't actually have footpaths, but eventually we saw the sign and slogged towards it through pristine white snow or grey mush, depending on whether we were following an actual path or not. The snow in some places is as deep as my knee.

Our internet at the hotel came with a five hour limit on it, so it was nice to be able to sit and check emails and things without worrying about the time. As we were walking back up the hill, a little old lady called us back and insisted on giving us lollies, which was very nice of her. When we got back to the hotel we sat in the spa for a while, and then retreated to our room for dinner.

Our little bar fridge doesn't have quite enough room for my sparkly red bowl of salad, but I've found a better solution: leave it just outside the sliding door in the day time, and it's perfectly crisp in the evening - not actually frozen. So I've been calling the balcony the fridge.

On Wednesday I spent most of the day determined to finish a book, and went out to see the local church just after the sun had dropped behind the mountains. The slopes were luminous, and the Christmas lights strung all around town were sparkling in the dusk. I didn't actually get in to see the church, but I had a nice walk anyway, taking pictures and watching the chairlift take people up the mountain. TOWSR and I had considered skiing, but neither of us has had much practice, and thought the expense and likelihood of broken bones probably wasn't worth it. Especially as my foot has only just healed. I'm keen to try skating on Friday, though, if the rink is open...


Monday, December 10, 2012

Austria Take 2 - Days 2 & 3: St Johann im Pongau

When we woke up on Sunday morning, the sky was a brilliant blue. I opened the curtains and caught my breath at the vista above and all around. St Johann im Pongau is in a valley between mountains, and from our window you can see across the valley to the white expanses of mountainside, the firs with their dusting of snow and the sloping roofed Austrian houses dotted across the mountain. It looks exactly like a postcard.

There was a bit of excitement when we realised we couldn't find the room key or my hat and gloves, but eventually they reappeared and we stopped with the conspiracy theories about people breaking into our room while we were sleeping. We weren't exactly sure how cold it was, but we ventured out into the crisp air with lots of layers and scarves and had a wander around the deserted town. It was Sunday, and nothing is open on Sunday, so we hardly met anyone on our exploration of the Hauptstrasse (High Street), a little snowy garden over a cliff edge, the bottom of the chair lift and around the Dom church.

When we got too cold we went back to the hotel and noticed the weather for the day had a temperature of -10. Which we'd just been walking around in.

A soak in the hot tub warmed us up, and then we went for dinner at one of the hotel restaurants where TOWSR got a special gluten free pizza and I got one with spinach, bacon and ewe's cheese (big enough for breakfast and lunch the next day). With sorbet, icecream and fruit with chocolate sauce to follow, we thought overall it was a pretty good dinner.

Monday morning we woke up to snow that TOWSR called semi-blizzard snow. We could not see the mountains. We could not see the buildings across the road. We could almost see the edge of our deck. So we spent the morning with books, and ventured out into the knee-deep snow around lunchtime to see how far we could get.

The snow ploughs had been around clearing the roads and footpaths, and we went down into the valley to see all the buildings with their blankets of snow, wandered around and retreated to the bookstore and supermarket. There really were a lot more people around than on Sunday, and it didn't feel so much like we were two of the last vestiges of humanity clinging to life in a dead world. The snow had stopped falling, and when we got back to our room I began to make a snowman on our deck, but stopped when I couldn't feel my hands anymore. A few hours later the snow began again, and we huddled happily inside as it rose higher and higher and covered up the sad beginnings of my snowman.


Austria Take Two - Day One: Snow (Action)

Hello all! I am once again jet-setting around Europe, and back in Austria, this time among the Alps. It was snowing when I arrived, and we had to walk across the runway to the terminal as snowflakes spun down and clung to our coats.

Thankfully I didn't have to leave the house this morning at a quarter to seven to get to the airport, as I originally thought - it turns out that Stansted Airport is much closer to my house than my brain was telling me, and I didn't have to go all the way into Victoria and back out again. There are 5/6 London airports, depending on who you talk to, and though I know Heathrow and City and where they are (City is, strangely, near the City) I always get confused about which other airports are which. I pulled up outside Stansted this morning and thought 'Oh! This one!', because I have actually been here multiple times. For future reference, Stansted is the one closest to Stratford, and is big and square and white and tent-like in construction.

I'll probably forget that.

Non-EU citizens have to get their passports checked at the bag drop (just because non-EU people can't be trusted. Well, I guess they check our visas?) so I did that, had some very early lunch and stood staring at the display boards until they put up my gate number. Then, I joined everyone else in a brisk walk towards our gate, none of us actually running, but everyone sliding looks at each other to make sure no one else was breaking into a trot. First person to the gate is first person on the plane, and the person who gets the pick of the seats.

I ended up about twentieth in the queue, and bagged myself a nice window seat behind the wing (I can never remember - which part of the plane is most likely to end in your fiery death in a crash?). There appeared to be no seat pockets in which to put my iPad and book, so I laid them on my lap and stuffed my coat, jacket and jersey under the seat in front, and we took off.

As we were flying over the Channel and coming in over the low countries, I saw a huge area that was sort of a hazy chalky colour. I was horrified. What kind of industrial waste was this? What had they done to their city?

It was a while before I saw others patches just like it, and realised it was snow.

As we flew eastwards, the snow patches got larger until they all joined together into a great white snow plain, and then the clouds came in and you couldn't see anything.

It was -4 Celsius and snowing when we landed in Salzburg. We had to walk across the runway to get to the terminal, so I bundled up in all my clothes and braved the snowy cold with my ugg boots. From there it was a matter of getting the trolley bus to the main station where I met The One Who Speaks Russian, and we caught a train that we really hoped would take us to the little Alpine village (look! Literally alpine!) where we would spend the next week.

The conductor didn't tell us we were on the wrong train when he checked our tickets, so we assumed we were on the right one, but we didn't know how long we had until we had to get off. At last the speaker informed us the next station was St Johann im Pongau, so we grabbed our bags and got off into the snow.

We didn't get too lost on the way to the hotel, though we did wander through a small Christmas market twice, and very soon we were in our nice hotel room with our snowy balcony and beautifully painted Austrian TV cabinet.

It was dark, so we couldn't see out the windows very well, but we had a nice evening of books and movies and cake for dinner.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Losing things on the Underground and general breaking of other things

Would you like to know what happens if you drop something down the gap between the train and the platform in an Underground station? I shall tell you.

Luckily it was not me who dropped something (though I almost did once), but I got onto the platform just as a train was leaving. I sighed and stopped hop-skipping (my foot, although castless, is still sore), then noticed as the train pulled away that there were more Transport for London (tfl) employees on the platform than normal. One of them was standing right on the platform edge, feet either side of the yellow line, and pointing a red torch down the tunnel.

We waited for the next train. As it came around the corner of the tunnel, it slowed down and stopped just where the tfl woman was standing with her red torch. The driver came out of his driver cabin to see what was happening. Another tfl employee with one of those long grabber things reached down into the trench beside the platform and retrieved a man's phone, and then the torch lady turned her torch to green, the driver went back to drive the train, and everything went back to normal.

Now I kind of want to drop something down there to see it all again. I won't though, I promise.

Speaking of dropping things, a very sad thing happened to my iPad last Wednesday. It slid off a table and I caught it on my feet, but then it slid off my feet and onto the floor. It only dropped about ten centimetres onto a hard surface (my feet are not that hard) and I thought it would be fine, but apparently Gorilla Glass is not as durable as one might think. A spider of cracks is all along one corner, which I stupidly poked at to brush the glass off and got a splinter in my finger.

I checked my bag to see if I had any sellotape to cover it with until I could get it to an Apple shop and see what could be done with it, but no luck. I was having dinner before a meetup, so thought I'd ask the cafe if they had some. They didn't. They did have a first-aid kit, however, so now I have a big sticking plaster across one corner. Very anthropomorphic.

Unfortunately they can't very easily replace screens on iPad 2s (something to do with the screen being attached with glue) so you have to get a replacement iPad which is rather a lot of money. So for the moment I'm keeping with my sticking plaster solution.

I thought about nail-polish, though most internet people say it's not a good idea, what with the primary liquid stage of nail-polish and the electronics etc. etc. Then I started thinking about exactly which colour might look the best, and whether it should be sparkly.

I may have to restrain myself...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vienna Day 4: Walking Tour, Wiener Schitzel and St Stephensdom

Today was my last day in Vienna, and I was determined to get the walking tour that sets off from an associated hostel every second morning. We set out and got to the meeting point five minutes too late, but a man at the desk told us we could probably catch them up. After a bit of confusion about how long they could be possibly taking through the market, the large group appeared and we tagged on to them.

Our guide was very good, explaining all about the buildings and history of the city. The first building we saw was the one I may have mentioned the other day with the gold dome - the Secession Building. It was built as a gallery for artists who wanted to move away from the traditional styles at the turn of the twentieth century, and was the first art gallery to have clean white walls and very little decoration, in order to show off the art.

Next was the Vienna Opera House where you can see an opera for 3€ if you stand, and then the beginning of the Vienna Palace, which is a collection of buildings that goes on and on and on. Some of it is now used as an art gallery, some as libraries, and some as state offices.

It seems strange that you can just walk among all these buildings, staring up at the windows from the small courtyards and alleyways between them, where once I guess these were heavily guarded areas of the city. We also went past the Sacher Hotel, which I'm not exactly sure how to spell, but it's why the famous Sacher Torte is named as it is, and is also where that famous picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed was taken.

We walked down some of the most expensive shopping streets, and past an incredible monument to the plague that stretches up in three levels and has far more gold than you'd think would be on a monument outside H&M. The first level has an angel driving the personification of the plague into the ground, the next has the emperor with his gold sword praying on his knees (the only public place in Europe you will see a monarch on their knees) and above him are more angels and God.

The guide left us with recommendations for lunch, so a few of us had a good meal in a wood-panelled restaurant off a little alleyway. I was a bit worried about the Wiener schnitzel because I don't much like pork, but it was actually very good and came with salad and everything. No tomato sauce was required.

Nearby is the cathedral of St Stephen's, which we took a wander around inside after our lunch. It was once the tallest building in the world, and is pretty impressive from the outside with its towering pillars, incredible stonework and gold-and-black tiled roof. It was bombed during WWII, but was restored and reopened in 1955. You can't really tell there was ever anything done to it.

It was almost time to get my bus to the airport, so we went back to our hostel to get my bag. Now I'm sitting in the airport ...

... that was me realising that the screens said my flight was already boarding, and me realising that the gate was actually a lot farther away than I thought, and deciding that, though nice and modern, this airport possibly isn't very well designed because it's never quite clear how many more barriers and travelators there are until you reach your destination.

Incidentally, the flight is not boarding. They lied. Ah well. At least I'm here now. And contemplating the fact that I am severely behind on my word count for NaNoWriMo. This is what happens when you miss a day...


Vienna Day 3: Schönbrunn, Christmas Markets and Viennese Apartments

On Sunday the One Who Speaks Russian and I rose for our all-you-can eat hostel breakfast, which included boiled eggs, salami, capsicum and cucumber as many European breakfasts seem to. We loaded up on emergency supplies of Nutella and set out to walk to Schönbrunn, the Palace of the Habsburgs outside old Vienna proper.

The mist had come in overnight and everything had a silvery white light to it, so much so that from a distance things seemed covered in a light dusting of snow. The Palace is incredibly large and stately, with mirrored staircases leading down from main doors between the two wings. You can imagine Cinderella leaving her glass slipper on these steps. They were still setting up a Christmas market in the courtyard in front of the place, but they had an enormous Christmas tree up and decorated with baubles.

We walked around the side of the palace and through the gardens with their little hedges and dozens of statues. Everything is set up along a symmetrical line leading from the centre of the palace to the Neptune Fountain, and then up the hill to the Gloriette, a beautiful airy classical building with arches. It wasn't quite symmetrical (some of the trees on one side of the gardens are taller) but pretty much everything else was. After the zigzag climb up the hill we sat in the Gloriette and drank tea and coffee, which comes with a glass of water in Austria, and marvelled at the misty view over the palace and city beyond.

Next was the tour of the palace itself. You had to buy tickets at the main gate, so The One Who Speaks Russian offered to get them while I sat on a bench and nursed my legs, which were a bit sore after all the walking. I think next time I come to Vienna, I won't break my foot in the weeks beforehand.

The Palace rooms are incredible. They're mostly done in Rococo style, with curling gold mouldings everywhere and incredible crystal chandeliers. There are paintings covering entire walls that took years to complete in one room, and then you go into the next room and there are more paintings that took years to complete, and in the next room too. You can see they had a lot of money.

Marie Antoinette was a Habsburg daughter, and there is a portrait of her as a young girl in one of the rooms. A bit further on is the room where Mozart played for the Empress when he was six years old. I had heard of this concert, and it was absolutely surreal to be in the actual room where it had occurred.

At last we went into the Great Hall, which I actually gasped on seeing. The ceiling is three incredible frescoes of the Imperial family and the Austrian Empire in general, and flickering candelabra line the walls (the flickering effect is achieved by having the electric candle bulbs in springs that bobble in the wind. Actually quite tasteful). The ceiling is high and the walls are covered in curling gold designs. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed in the palace.

We took the underground to the Christmas market outside the Rathaus, which is the most famous and the busiest. It was just on dusk, and though the crowds weren't as thick as those we saw later, it was still a mission to get through everyone and see the stalls you wanted. Most of them sold food, but there were also lots of Christmas decoration stalls and a lamp stall among other things. We decided to make for TOWSR's friend's hostel, which is actually an apartment that she has entirely to herself at the moment.

The apartment is on the first floor, and you open the main door into a cobbled entranceway, climb some marble stairs, go along a corridor with an ornate stone water basin on the wall (dating from the time of the very first piped water, I'm guessing) and into the apartment. We had a lovely evening with dinner and a movie in the warm apartment, then set off for our own hostel.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vienna Day 2: Naschtmarket, die lichter und das Cafe Central

This morning the One Who Speaks Russian and I got up early (read ten-thirty), made ourselves breakfast and ventured out into the cool, crisp air of Vienna. There was sun! I spent quite some time marvelling at this, and also at all the amazing stately buildings and modern shiny ones we were walking past on our way up the main shopping street to the Ringstrasse. Our plan was to walk around there and see all the main beautiful building sights, but then we saw a shiny golden dome away from the main areas and decided to go and see what that was.

It turned out to be a beautiful classical/Art Nouveau building with a lacy, leafy metal dome, and then that led us on to the Naschtmarkt. This is a long market bounded by two main streets that goes on and on, with fruit and vegetables and spices and meat and knickknacks and antiques and scarves and chocolate shops. We got chili hot chocolates and wandered, marvelling at the range of everything (there were fruits I'd never seen before, as well as durian/jackfruit wrapped in plastic so it didn't stink up the market). I got an entire kebab for three euros, which I thought was incredibly cheap, but by this time we'd done quite a bit of walking and my lower limbs were complaining.

We retreated to the hostel for a nap and a nanowrimo session, and I played with the lockers in our room and giggled (these lockers are amazing. They have inch-depth buttons that poke out, and if you push them in they just come out again and the locker doesn't lock. If you push the button with your key card between the button and your thumb, however, the RFID chip inside the key card does something and THE LOCKER LOCKS. These lockers have been sent back from THE FUTURE).

When it got dark we ventured out again, and saw a vintage tram trundling along that needed a picture taken of it. It looked like it belonged in a museum, but it was happily carrying people and advertisements on the main line alongside the modern ones. We took the U-Bahn Underground train to the centre of the Ringstrasse to meet The One Who Speaks Russian's friend, and walked past amazing buildings and fairy lights and three sets of horses and buggies, complete with old-fashioned lamps in the carriages and drivers with top hats. We then scrutinized the coffee houses and decided on one which was once frequented by Lenin, Trotsky and Freud - the Cafe Central.

It was an absolutely beautiful place to have coffee, with marble pillars curving up to meet each other at the ceiling, incredible cakes and a grand piano. i got a black coffee which was very smooth and not at all bitter, and some sort of hazelnut cream slice with a reproduction of Klimt's The Kiss on top of it. The One Who Speaks Russian was very impressed with her chocolate creme brulee torte thing, and we had a nice few hours sitting in this beautiful cafe, listening to the pianist (who played a song the Hopeful Gardener enjoys playing, and made me a bit homesick) and pretending to be sophisticated Viennese.

Back at the hostel, we listened to the live band in the hostel's bar and planned our day tomorrow. I should probably get some sleep so that I can make the most of it...


Vienna Day 1: the flight

I've opened up my blogging app on my ipad to see a note saying 'There are fairy lights on the bridges! There should ALWAYS be fairy lights on the bridges!' True. There should always be fairy lights on the bridges over the Thames. I'm pretty sure I made that note as I was taking the train home after work, through the autumn evening darkness. They haven't yet turned on the Christmas lights in the main streets, but they're all up, ready and waiting. This year the sponsor of the Oxford Street lights is Marmite, so there are Marmite-themed displays.

Right at this moment I'm sitting in the middle seat of an aeroplane row (I was seemingly the last one to choose my seats, because there were no window or aisle seats available whatsoever) on my way to Vienna. It'll be dark outside soon, anyway, so not much to see. My air cast has not exploded, as I thought it might (I realised this just as we were trundling along the runway in the half-hour traffic jam for one of Heathrow's two runways, when it was too late to get the deflator out of the overhead locker and deflate it). I was hoping to be able to walk around with a normal shoe, but I thought I'd take the air cast/moon boot just in case. I've got my normal shoe as well, which took me a good while to find, considering I haven't worn it in six weeks and it had given up and fallen down inside my wardrobe.

I hope to have many interesting things to report over the coming days... Right now I should be cracking on with NaNoWriMo, which I am now over halfway with! I'm still not entirely sure I know what's happening, but all should become clear. I've also fallen back into my normal writing pattern - write until I get bored and it's dragging, switch to a different part of the book, and then come back to the first part later. I think this is probably good, because I often don't actually need the bit I was stuck on.

The Vienna airport is very new and impressive, with futuristic arrivals board that are part of the walls. I caught a bus right into town and went past lots and lots of lights, but it's hard to figure out what buildings are when you only see the lights. Now I've found my way to the hostel after wandering for ages round the railway station, and I'm really looking forward to bed...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Spending Vast Sums of Money (2) and NaNoWriMo

I've just got my tickets to New Zealand. I spent about four hours staring at different websites, ringing different travel agents to get them to explain their terms and conditions and then telling them that, no, I didn't want to book over the phone (I'm paranoid they'll spell my name wrong and tick aisle seat instead of window seat, and then I'll have to change EVERYTHING and these things are costly to change) but at last I clicked the final button and took the plunge and poured lots of money into the mouth of the travel beast.

It is stressful clicking that last button. Double checking dates and times (what if I've booked for 2014? What THEN? Oh, you mean you can only book a year in advance? Okay, then. But what if it's SEPTEMBER not February?), card numbers, spelling of names (obviously I might have spelled my name wrong. Or given a different name. Or just put 'Name' instead of my actual name. I did that once), trusting that this is a reputable website and most of the reviews I've spent the last hour trawling are okay, or at least acceptable. And then screen-printing pages in two different ways to prove I've seen the confirmation and can brandish it in people's faces if anyone dares to suggest otherwise.

I'm not paranoid, am I?

Thirty-six hours each way. It doesn't matter when you leave or when you arrive, because time doesn't really have a meaning anymore. You're not on London time, and you're not yet on NZ time. It's a long grey limbo of the body-clock.

I suppose it does kind of matter when I arrive for people who want to meet me at the airport. They're nice arrivals times, don't worry.

My plan for today was to get all my NaNoWriMo done by midday, which of course didn't happen. I was a bit behind until yesterday, but I caught up and am back on track. I'm not using Scrivener, because I found out that, if your computer crashes, the Scrivener index file corrupts and you can't use it anymore. I decided that, with my usual inability to turn my laptop off for weeks, it wasn't worth the possibility that all my extra notes and pretty structure would become unusable if the computer crashed. So I'm back to MS Word, which is kind of strange after so long using Scrivener.

Writing so much and rationing my time is strange. Normally, I must read over what I've written quite often, because I'm not really doing that now and I feel like I'm writing blind. This is funny, considering that this time I have actually done a bit of planning and I know where the story is going, whereas last time I did NaNoWriMo I had absolutely no idea. I'm enjoying it though, and getting to know characters that I hadn't realised were so interesting. I think I may have built some rather large plot holes into my plot, however, so there's a bit of work needed to fill them in.

Have a good week!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The name's Bond.

I have a blow up boot thing that means I can walk! A bit! With crutches! I took advantage of this to spend the day at the movies, making the most of my free movies card and my sore crutch hands.

One of the films I saw was Skyfall, at the big screen where I saw Spiderman (well, one of the times I saw Spiderman). Like when I saw Spiderman, they had film problems. Last time it was the coordination of the 3D images. This time everything was pink for a while, which it turns out is very distracting. Everything was back to normal by the time the actual movie started (there were a very, very many ads, ninety percent of which were Bond themed) so I got to witness the Istanbul opening sequence in proper technicolor.

And I had been to many of the places! I recognised the exotic street corners and bits of mosque wall! I realised that the compositing if locations was done with quite a bit if artistic license, because there was no way some scenes could have happened in the real places, unless there was some time-space stretching going on. But what am I talking about? This is a Bond film. They laugh in the face of reality and probable-sequence-of-events.

Bond films can do this, I think. You can see the filmmakers gleefully rubbing the hands as they contemplate different action scenes. What do you mean, it's unlikely there'll be (highlight the spoilers if you want them) a digger and four VW Beatles on a Turkish passenger train? It's all right! It looks awesome! The audience will accept it! The bar of willing suspension of disbelief is higher for Bond. We want to see a fun movie. We don't really care about the little details, like the fact that Circle and District underground trains do not run in deep-level tunnels. We can forgive, if you give us villains using entire (strangely empty) Jubilee line trains as weapons at Embankment Station, where Jubilee trains do not run. Ha! That beats a puny little laser, Goldfinger.

It's a good movie and I really enjoyed it (though I was slightly concerned that the villain was portrayed as gay, considering various 'moral' debates at the moment. Yay for having gay characters on screen and having a more numerically-accurate representation of society, but not so great that it was portrayed negatively. There's already enough negativity around, and it just solidifies prejudices, doesn't it?).

I've been thinking about plotting lots this week, considering I'm doing Nanowrimo next week, and so I went into Skyfall with a particular eye. The movie follows the beats of a story well - problem, try to solve, doesn't work, try to solve, maybe we have, yes we have! Oh... no, screwed up. Badly. Try to solve... Fall back... Try to solve... Maybe... Yes! It was also interesting in that they address Bond's seeming invulnability - a character who has too much skill or power is too easy to get out of situations, so there's much less tension. I have been struggling with this in my Nanowrimo planning - how do you stop a character from becoming unbeatable, especially in fantasy? In Skyfall, you're no longer sure that Bond will be up to the challenges he faces. You're reasonably sure he won't die in the end, but there are lots of things that could happen that don't include him dying... Tension is higher because Bond isn't so perfect anymore.

And, I have to admit, I cried. This is the second time I have cried in a Bond film. The first time was when a car in one of the Pierce Brosnan movies got sliced in half by a helicopter-mounted circular saw. This time also involved the destruction of a car... No, I don't want to talk about it.

So I'm inspired, and back to the plotting! Must figure out how to heighten the tension and maybe think of a few scenes with explosions...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nanowrimo and the Broken Foot

The longer I'm on crutches, the grouchier I become. Latest in my tale of woe is the closing of my bus stop - apparently they feel the need to do road works, and this for some reason affects the ability of my bus to stop at the proper place. Ha! Why couldn't they wait until my foot was healed? And the buses do not stop elsewhere along the road, even when I'm late and there's no way I could ever run with crutches without taking a skidding tumble down the hill in a tangle of broken limbs. I'll have bones poking out of me soon.

I am also imagineering (can I borrow that word? I'm pretty sure it's copyrighted. Hmm. Thanks, Disney) a dumb-waiter that could ferry plates, groceries and cups of tea between the kitchen and my room. It would be nice if it could also ferry me. Or maybe some kind of Great Glass Elevator, which could also save on plane fares (thought: is the Great Glass Elevator pressurised? How fast does it travel? Would you have to go through customs, and if so you'd probably have to land near an airport, and if so do you have to worry about air traffic control?)

In other news, I've decided to do Nanowrimo this year. For those who don't know, this involves writing 50,000 words in 30 days, and this year over 300,000 people are doing it in the month of November. I did it three years ago and was amazed at how I could go from absolutely nothing (I had a last-minute change of idea, which meant that my pre-November planning consisted of about half an hour on the evening of October 31st) to an almost-complete first draft. Things just seem to click sometimes as you're writing and plotting, and a story comes through when a month before there was nothing.

This time, I'm going to try planning, and hopefully I won't have to change my idea at the last minute like last time. My commute takes an hour and a half each way at the moment, so I should have a reasonable amount of time to get my 1667 words done each day. I'm still not quite sure about my ending, but i'm confident it'll sort itself out. Eventually. I'm quite excited to get into the writing and see what will happen.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Two decades of Number One Singles. And a broken foot.

Update on the foot: I have a new shoe thingy that's supposed to take pressure off my toe but I don't think it does. My other foot and knee are feeling the pressure, as well as my hands. Two weeks on crutches is not advisable, for those of you who were thinking you might try it. Four weeks to go, I guess...

I mentioned last week that I'd worked my way through all the number one singles since the year I was born. It was an educational experience. In the first few years, I didn't recognise too many of the songs, and was somewhat horrified by a few (there was actually a number one that included rap and yodelling). I made rules: I was not allowed to skip any if they were terrible, but if I couldn't find a particular song I could listen to a different version or skip it. If a song came up twice, i only had to listen to it once (this was especially good with things like Crazy Frog).

It was interesting to slowly move through the years and come to a point at which I began to recognise a lot of the songs, or be able to link them to a certain event in my life - a dance concert, a school disco, playing cassettes in the car. Music is very good at capturing the feeling of a particular time, and listening was like taking a journey through my life.

I was surprised at how some songs hadn't dated at all, and how others were so clearly from a particular era (eighties/early nineties) that it made me cringe. I found one song that I really like except for one repeated line in the chorus, which marks it as a product of the early nineties. They should rerelease it, without that bit. Am I conditioned to dislike songs that came out before I was properly listening to music, or is the music just bad? I'm not sure.

Closer to the present day, I found myself astonished at how many years had passed since a particular song was number one. Time should not move so quickly. You could also see the rise of particular types of music, and I enjoyed things like listening to Cher's first artistic use of auto tune, and then hearing all the number one songs that have used it in the last ten years.

Some of the music was bad, as number ones sometimes seem to be. Some of it was pretty good. The whole thing took me about a week and a half, and I'm not sure I'd do it again, but it was a good experience. Maybe I'll go through all the number two singles that weren't number ones next, though that might be harder to figure out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Broken legs in London

I have done many interesting things in the past few weeks. I have catsit, I have listened to all the number one singles from my birth until the present day, I have put up some more photos of my trip to Turkey and also a few more, I have been to see Stomp, and I have broken my foot (I know, I misled you in the title. But the alliteration!!)

This last one happened about a week ago, and involved a moss-green wing armchair viciously kicking my foot. The altercation also involved my flatmate (who I was teasing) and an intended inside hook kick, but it was mostly the chair's fault.

I spent four hours in the A&E the next day, got an X-ray and confirmed that my foot was indeed broken. The doctor seemed quite excited and pronounced it a 'beautiful fracture' (hey, that could be the name of a song). I made my way home and collapsed on my bed for the next two days, moaning about my sore arm muscles (crutches take a lot out of you...) and bruised hands (crutches again. The foot was fine).

I'm back at work again this week, taking a different route on my commute that minimises the amount of walking. I go past large houses that I'm sure are terminator Transformers in disguise, with their Mohawk of chimney pots and chimney pot guns at either side, blank window eyes staring out over the heath. I plead with bus drivers to let me off fifty metres before the actual bus stop, crutch my way over cobble stones and onto the train platform. I work out the shortest distances to everywhere, and walk boldly through a pub to get to my bus stop. Before today, I hadn't used the Underground in more than a week.

People smile at you when you're on crutches, and talk to you and offer to carry things. You get to use the disabled seats on public transport without feeling guilty. I've been getting quite good at my crutches (my arms are stronger now) and I've figured out the fastest technique is to crutch forward, then hop, then crutch forward again. Even without the hop (which I only use on special occasions, like when my bus is almost at the bus stop) I'm already fast enough to get annoyed at the pace of tourists in central London. I dislike moving slowly.

I went on my first escalator today. I didn't realise how difficult it would be until I actually stood in front of it and stared at the steps sliding out, out, out, out and considered where I would put my crutches, when I would hop and how to keep my crutches and hold on to the handrail. It was like being a three year old again, and trying out your very, very first escalator. Getting off was much easier. Hopefully things will improve with practice, and I won't be on crutches too much longer... I will restrict my use of escalators, though.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Strange World of No Internet or Underground

It was a very weird weekend. About half the Underground lines were down (all right, all right, I exaggerate) and the entirety of SE7 had no Internet service, if they were with a certain provider. (Quick note on postcodes: in London if someone asks where you live, you may give them a tube station or a postcode region. People generally know London postcodes, and it's generally quite easy to guess N is north, SE southeast if you don't know). I woke up on Saturday morning to a different world. What was I to do with my weekend? I had big plans for internet research. I would have to go and find wifi. I would have to use the buses.

I hadn't expected the buses to be quite so horrific. I guess on a normal weekend it may not be so bad, but with everyone using their cars because there were no tubes, there were insane traffic jams. I got the impression that my destination, the library, was at least fifteen miles away, even crawling at a snail's pace through traffic. I could probably have reached France faster. But finally, I arrived!

And the library had no internet either.

Sunday was about the same, so I didn't manage to get much done that I had planned. I did, however, write three thousand words that I probably would not have written had the Internet been live, more than I've written in one day in months. The world feels different when there's no Internet - cut off, peaceful maybe. Your world is here, now. Immediate. Even if you're reading a book. And having no Underground makes everything much smaller - your choices for days out are limited, unless you commit to public transport combat strategies and at least two hours to get to your destination.

Despite everything, I think I kind of enjoyed the weekend. It was different, anyway.


Update: we had an entire WEEK of no Internet. I am going slightly crazy now I have it back. Shrieks of glee etc. etc.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

All hail the Paralympics! And Wicked!

Hello again! I trust you've all finished reading my holiday blog posts and are ready for some new ones? I continue to be slack after holidays - must be something about trying to write every little detail of a week and still actually holiday-make at the same time. Now I will attempt to write the details of two weeks into this post. Wish me luck.

Rundown of the post: Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Paralympic Swimming, Wickedness, Paralympic Athletics.

There looks to be a theme going on here.

The Paralympics opened on a clear Wednesday night in London, under a buttery gibbous moon. I hadn't realised that it clashed with my writing meeting on Wednesdays, but that only meant I was still in town at 8.30 for the start of the ceremony. I went down to Trafalgar Square with another writer, to sit in the crowd and watch the big screens. The square was filled with people sitting on the concrete, on the steps, and standing to the sides (you got shouted at if you stood in the middle and blocked the view from the stairs).

They started the count-down. Everyone yelled and cheered along with the screen. And then the Paralympics had officially started!

There was Ian McKellen reading from The Tempest, and many people, abled and disabled, who descended from the sky on wires and flew around the stadium. There were eyelash things that were like bendy poles with people tied on top and bouncing around, and dancing with umbrellas, and drums. Lots and lots of drums.

After the first part of the show, the athletes began to come out. I wished for the second time that New Zealand had officially changed its name to Aotearoa. It was getting late. I decided to stay until New Zealand appeared and then go and watch the rest at home, much closer to bed than Trafalgar Square and much warmer too.

I joined the Kiwi cheering, then ran for the Trafalgar Square Underground entrance (it was open! This is the first time I have seen it open! It's always been under refurbishment). I got home just as the speeches were finishing, and was able to watch the rest on the sofa with a blanket with my flatmates. Good thing, too, because it didn't finished until half past midnight.

I had tickets on Sunday night to the swimming finals, right in the Olympic Park. This was the first time I'd been to the Park, and I coasted along with the crowd from the tube station, past the giant mall and around to one of the main entrances. One of the games-makers was sitting on a high chair with a megaphone at the corner of the roadway, and made the observation that, if it were dark, it would be like the zombie apocalypse, with so many people shuffling towards him. Through the security (I forgot about that, and had worn lots of jewellery I had to take off) and into the Park.

I'd planned to do a quick walk around before my session, but a look at the signs told me that wasn't going to be possible. It was half an hour's walk to the other end of the park. That's how big it is. Instead I did a quick running-tour of the area between the stadium and the aquatic centre and joined the queue to get in.

My seat was up in one of the wings of the pool, so that I couldn't actually see the seats on the other side because the roof of the pool was in the way. It's a pretty good design, really - the two wings are temporary and will come down when there isn't a demand for a swimming pool with thousands upon thousands of spectator seats. I had a good view of the pool and the entrance for the athletes, though, which was great. It's very strange to see something so many times on a television screen and then to actually be there in person.

The evening was entirely finals, which was very exciting. The first four races all broke world records. I think the total for the night was eight world records and ten Paralympic records. The crowd was amazing, cheering and cheering and going crazy whenever a GB athlete appeared. For future reference, I think the best crowds are to be found in events with a finish line, because you can see in real time exactly what's happening. By the end of the night I was hoarse, but had seen a gold medal from Cameron Leslie and a silver from Mary Fisher. Awesome.

On Monday the One Who Speaks Russian arrived, tired but cheerful after a forty hour journey from New Zealand. I stocked her with supplies of chips and we started the two hour journey across London to my house (London is big).

On Tuesday we went to Wicked, which was absolutely incredible. It is a thought-provoking musical, with themes of prejudice and preconceptions and talking animals. I love the way it interweaves the story of The Wizard of Oz, so that you make connections every so often about characters' fates. The sets included giant cogged screens and a huge time dragon looming over the stage, the costumes reminded us of The Hunger Games (though of course Wicked came first) and the music and lyrics were great - especially the song entitled ’Loathing, Unadulterated Loathing'. I liked the ending too, more than I had in the book.

Thursday was our Paralympics day. We took supplies of chocolate cake, raspberries, popcorn and dinosaur jellies and sat in the stadium, another case of I-am-sitting-in-the-television-ness. The sun was blazing hot (The One Who Speaks Russian got amazing weather while she was here) and the crowds were huge. The most impressive event of the day was the T11 triple jump final for blind athletes. Imagine running at full tilt, then hop-skip-jumping as far as you can without being able to see. The crowd of eighty thousand had to be silent while the athletes completed their jumps, because they ran towards the sound of their coach clapping at the jumping line or the sandpit. The eventual silver-medallist had a show with velcro track pants, whipping them away like a matador as the crowd shouted OLĖ!

A few jumps went awry (an official by the track had to topple backwards twice to get out of the way) but mostly they were pretty spot on. There was also wheelchair racing, restricted sight racing, discus and shotput finals, and general running races. It was a great morning.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Back to London, More Trains and Staffordshire

I'm doing a lot of travelling.

I took the train down the East Coast from Edinburgh to London, and finished my Scottish trip by taking pictures of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and seeing Brave at the movies. A day back at work, and then back on the train to Staffordshire!

I had another adventure getting the train, after my Oyster card ran out of pay as you go money and I made a few bad decisions about timing and catching trains, and ended up running at full tilt through stations to catch my Staffordshire train on time. And I'd left early! Next time I think I will be picking up my tickets the day before I leave.

I had a lovely time on my Staffordshire weekend, cycling through forests and 'moorland' with purple heather (I don't think it was a moor, but that's what I'm calling it), walking beside canals, visiting an ancient half-timbered house with a MOAT, and walking through Lichfield Cathedral with its beautiful ornate carvings, stained glass and hoard of ancient gold. So many ancient things, and such skill involved in making them.

And now I'm just about to get back into Euston Station, hopefully to a nice week ahead.


Edinburgh Day 6: The Scottish National Museum, Greek Gods and Japanese Imperial Dance Music

I'll try to keep this short.


I started the day with a nice breakfast and a bit of writing at the Elephant House, then went to get a ticket to a Fringe show I'd been eyeing up. Unfortunately it was sold out (for future reference: gotta be in quick) but that meant I could get a ticket to another show it had clashed with: Unmythable.

I still had some time to spare, so I went in search of the Scottish National Museum. I started with the ancient peoples section, thinking that the museum really wasn't that big for a national museum, though very well-designed and modern. It had artwork interspersed with the exhibits, and everything was beautifully presented with enough space and interest so that it didn't all blur together. I finished with the ancient peoples section and went to look for other exhibits, and realised the building I had thought was the entire museum was actually just the smallest wing. The main parts of the museum were still to come, housed around an incredible Victorian atrium. I didn't have enough time left, so I decided to make a return visit.

Unmythable was very good, with three guys playing a multitude of parts and encouraging the audience to join in as Argonauts. I especially liked the scene where two of the actors were staging an argument between Zeus, Demeter, Hades and Persephone, with part-changing almost every sentence. There were songs and free olives.

After another stint at the museum, where I saw Dolly the cloned sheep and some incredible silver ships used to hold cutlery, I went to a book festival talk about writing YA and saw my last Edinburgh International Festival concert: imperial Japanese music and dance.

It was very interesting, with all the musicians still and poised as they played their instruments. Men in beautiful costumes stepped in slow patterns that reminded me of tai chi, and later wore masks and added swords, spears and shields to their costumes. At one point an instrument played a few notes that sounded almost exactly like the beginning of the theme tune to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I wondered if the Star Trek composers had borrowed the notes.

I went back to the book festival for a bit to hear some audio compositions, and finished my evening just as the fireworks were going off over the castle.


Edinburgh Day 5: Famous Cafés, the Castle, Ancient Civilisations, Translation Duel and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Wow I stuffed a lot into yesterday.

I started with breakfast (coffee and build-your-own banana and syrup pancakes) at the Elephant House, where JK Rowling did a lot of her writing for Harry Potter. I did some writing too. It's a nice place, with soft jazzy music and huge windows and wooden chairs and tables with a history. I'm actually there again now as I write the next day. What? I enjoyed my pancakes.

Next I met some people at the Castle, and we wandered through looking at the cannon and the dog cemetery (it has headstones for the dogs) and hearing about the different layers of the castle and the sieges over the ages. The castle isn't the kind of singular building that's implied by the name - it's many, many buildings, with barracks and military buildings and chapels and restaurants (former cart buildings) and war memorials and shops and museums and the main royal buildings including the Great Hall and the room in which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James I/VI of England/Scotland. We filed past the Scottish crown jewels, which were hidden in St David's Tower during the War, and saw a musketeering display in the Great Hall, where two costumed musketeers demonstrated how long it might take to prepare a musket (a lot longer than you might think, watching musketeer movies).

At one o'clock they let off a cannon from the castle ramparts, so we joined the crowd to watch. A female soldier marched out and stood incredibly still as everyone jostled for position with their tartan souvenir hats. We waited. And waited. I was watching the soldier to be prepared for the noise when she triggered the cannon, but she never moved! There was a huge bang and about half the crowd screamed. I don't think I was among them.

After inspecting the whisky boutique, I wandered through a few creepy rooms in St. David's tower and realised I had twenty minutes to get down to Charlotte Square for my Book Festival lecture about the anthropology of the New World and the Old World by Peter Watson. It was very interesting, looking at how the natural resources and atmospheric tendencies of each group of continents could have affected the development of civilisations. It made me think a lot about how you could set up the environment of a fictional world to affect the culture - for example, the New World only had three species of domesticable animal, none of which could be ridden for any length of time. Not every world has to have horses.

(One of the things I find difficult when writing about my own imaginary world is remembering that most forests in the world have animals other than birds and insects in them. I'm too used to the New Zealand bush. The lecture made me think: maybe I don't have to have large animals in my world. But then I guess I want horses, and if you have horses it's likely that you have a few related animals as well. Sigh.)

I had to charge my dead camera and find some internet, so I gave in and went back to the hostel. You would not believe how difficult it is to find wifi Internet in Edinburgh. Lots of places say they have it, but don't. In other places I'd get on and nothing would load (that may have been due to my iPad playing up, I'm not sure) and in other places, including my hostel, you had to pay. The book festival did have free wifi in its garden, but that was mostly a refuse-to-load situation.

So back to the story! I had another talk at the book festival that evening, a translation duel between two English translators from the French. They'd translated the same passage from the French and spent the hour discussing why they'd chosen which word, and all the things you have to take into consideration when translating: tone, voice, meaning, jokes which may or may not be translatable... The chair warned us that they'd spent ten minutes discussing the placement of a single comma in the Spanish duel the night before, and we should get out while we could. Translating is really a lot more complicated than it seems.

And then, the last event of the day: the Edinburgh Military Tattoo!

I joined the queue on the Royal Mile to have my bag searched (didn't have a bag, so straight through :D) and climbed the cobbles up to the Esplanade. Every year they construct huge temporary stands around the Esplanade that cantilever out into space (didn't really think about it too much...) just for the Tattoo. I walked in under the end stand and saw the castle lit with dancing flames in braziers around the walls. It wasn't yet dark, but the effect was still magical and got even more so as the dusk came on.

I found my seat and sat watching some of the performers get their photos taken in front of the castle. The announcer welcomed everybody from everywhere and got everyone to sing happy birthday to everyone whose birthday it was. At nine o'clock an airforce jet flew over and the Tattoo began.

Kilted men (and probably women) marched out of the castle, across the drawbridge and onto the Esplanade. They kept coming, and coming, blowing their bagpipes and drumming and marching all in step. I counted seventeen rows of thirteen and tried to remember my times-tables as they marched up and down, moving in and out of one another and making impressive patterns. I really like bagpipes, and there's nothing like a full 221 people with bagpipes and drums. And this group was only the kilted population of the Tattoo - there were many more unkilted performers to come later.

My favourite parts of the Tattoo were the first bit with all the bagpipes, the Swiss Top Secret band and the Swedish contingent. The Top Secret band only had drums, but they were absolutely mesmerising. Their specialty was mexican-wave style manoeuvres, where they would all stop drumming or turn or start drumming very quickly one after another.

The Swedish contingent, all of whom were doing their military service and had only been in the military for a year, were very good at marching around in patterns and hoisting their rifles in time to music. At one point one of the soldiers dropped his rifle and I felt quite sorry for him - it was just lying there on the ground and he was doing all the manoeuvres with an air rifle (like an air guitar. Not an actual air rifle). Then the rest of the soldiers all fired their guns, and I realised the gun on the ground was loaded! Not with an actual bullet, of course, but a blank might still do some damage if you stepped on the gun. After that I was extremely impressed with how the soldiers managed to march back and forth over the top of the gun without touching it.

The night ended with fireworks and Auld Lang Syne, and then it took twenty minutes to get out of the stands. It was past eleven p.m. by now, but the streets were as full of people as if it were daylight. This happens every night, pretty much, in August - the jet flyover, the fireworks, and the huge crowds. I wonder what the locals think...


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edinburgh Day 4: Walking Tour, Censorship, Beatboxing and Ghosts

(I am writing this in The Elephant House! You know, the JK Rowling cafe! And feeling slightly self-conscious, writing... Out the window you can see the castle on its cliffs and a graveyard and an old school. Hmmm...)

I never really understand what happens to the morning. I wander around, and then suddenly it's time to go to something and it's nearly the afternoon. Yesterday I went to look at the Half Price Hut, where you get Fringe tickets for half-price, got myself a thick magazine book with 375 pages that lists all the Fringe shows (there are that many), and went up to the Royal Mile for a walking tour at 11am.

The walking tour was pretty good, going around a few closes on the Mile and explaining such things as punishment for small crimes in the middle ages (nailing your ear to a post), gardyloo (watch out, there's nasty stuff a-coming out the window) and the national animal of Scotland (a unicorn. No one mentioned you were allowed mythical creatures!). Some of these stories I'd heard before, but it was much more real when you could look up at the windows and stare at the ear-post and think that's where they did that.

We also walked through Greyfriar's Graveyard with the memorial to Greyfriar's Bobby (little dog who never left his master's side) and heard about the names on gravestones that appear in Harry Potter. I went back later and found McGonnagal, Black and Thomas Riddell, but couldn't find Crookshanks.

At 3pm I had a talk about censorship at the Book Festival. It was incredibly interesting, with Chika Unigwe as the chair and Patrick Ness as the keynote speaker talking about how, today in a Western society, we more often self-censor than are externally censored. He put this down to fear of consequences and offending people, but also talked about freedom of speech and the courage to say something that might offend someone, but that needs to be said.

Then the floor was opened up to discussion from the audience, at least half of whom were authors at the Edinburgh Writer's Conference. People kept standing up and introducing themselves as China Miéville or Melvin Burgess (well, only those two did. No impersonators) and saying what they thought. It was a bit disjointed at times, with so many people wanting to air their views and not really reply to the previous question, but I think the general idea that came out of it was that people have the right not to be punished for saying stuff, but that everyone should always be arguing about what you should say. Another interesting point was that the backlash against political-correctness is often a way for prejudice and 'repugnant' views to sneak back in.

I hadn't realised that the event would last two hours, so by the time it was finished I had fifteen minutes to get right across town. Google told me it would take twenty-four minutes. I ran all the way, round the bottom of the castle cliffs and up along to my first Fringe show: the Vocal Orchestra.

I was a bit late, but they let me in anyway. The Vocal Orchestra are beatboxers and singers - beatboxing is where you make noises into a microphone that sound like music or drums (for those who've never come across it). If it's really good, it can sound almost exactly the same as the original music, but it's all done with voice.

The Vocal Orchestra are really good.

Among other things, they did Teardrop by Massive Attack, got stuck in a time machine and came out in 1723 (Vivaldi), had duels both musical and physical, and used the audience as an instrument (we had to sing notes according to our section). It was great.

I stopped back at the hostel to drop my bag off, and went to meet the ghost tour on the Royal Mile. We heard about the curse of the North Bridge, went up to Calton Hill where witches meet in front of the unfinished Parthenon, wandered through a graveyard with a very scary headstone (weathered to look like someone screaming) and took lots of photos to examine for supernatural apparitions. I got lots of 'orbs', but that was most likely dust caught by the flash. It's amazing how wandering around a graveyard in the dark can make you jump at everything.