Saturday, 20 October 2012
Anyway, it was a lovely walk. We took an early (for us) train down to Holmwood, which is just south of one of my favourite places - Dorking. From there we meandered through residential streets before setting off across fields and eventually up to the top of Leith Hill, which, at 900 and some feet, is apparently the highest place in South East England, outside of Vauxhall on a weekend night! (Ha ha!). It was murky and a bit foggy, so the stupendous views from the top were a bit, um, limited, but still, it being England, there were clusters of muddy mountain bikers and several families sitting around on logs drinking tea and hot cocoa, purchased from the kiosk in the fairly ancient looking Leith Tower. Apparently, the Danes got their asses whupped on Leith Hill back in 851, when there were probably fewer mountain bikers cluttering up the trails. There was quite a bit more walking through forest, and then, very importantly, a pub lunch. I have learned in the years I've lived here that an absolute prerequisite for a successful hike is the presence of a pub at some point. A pub-less hike is simply a forced march through mud infested undergrowth and is always best to be avoided. We kind of wussed out on the last 3 miles of the hike as it was getting late, we were very muddy, and we stumbled across a bus, whose imminent arrival only 30some minutes later surely saved us seconds or more on our total time.
It was a good day. The weather was properly autumnal (slightly crappy but not overly so), the mud was of sufficient British hiking quality, the pub allowed dirty clothes and no one slipped and fell in the goo.
Tomorrow I'm off to cycle to Brighton and, hopefully, to get a few job applications done in the evening. I made the possible mistake of getting a slightly narrower seat than I had before on my bike - I thought it was exactly the same, but apparently it's 1 size narrower. I do sincerely hope that I'm not muffin topping over the edges the whole way there, or its going to be a very uncomfortable ride...
Tuesday, 16 October 2012
So it's been back to work, and back to thinking, what the hell am I doing with my life and in this place. Two and a half weeks of complete and total (and, as it turns out very damn expensive) freedom kind of comes crashing down in a big pile of poo. I think I have been going about my job searching all wrong - I'm not quite sure how I've been doing it wrong, but as I've been entirely unsuccessful, that could be my first indication that something has been amiss. I'm trying to open up my mind to other types of jobs in other areas, to not try to stick to GIS, per se, as that search has been entirely fruitless. Trying to think about what skills, in a very general sort of way, do I have - what do I like to do. How can I get an interesting, well paying job without having to pay for more education, which just isn't going to happen. Speaking of education, I didn't get the fellowship. I don't know why - they still haven't responded to my request for feedback. That did kind of feel like my ticket out of my current rut though, and it didn't happen. And, honestly, I feel pretty deflated about it. Yeah, I meant everything I said in my bitchy sentence in my informal email. I meant all of it. I'm tired of pinheaded little people who will only do what is requested of them through the chain of command - the deadweight bureaucratic heirarchy of more than my job's worth did you fill in the proper form for this load of crap. I am in completely the wrong environment, drowning just a little bit more each day in forms and paperwork. I must get out, but I don't know how. It's sort of like a big, impersonal, aspiration eating plant, local government - it all seems so comfortable and stable, so predictable, and then you slip in, years pass, and your realise, oh my god, I don't have a clue how to get out. I could be come a lifer, stuck at the top of my puny little paygrade until the end of time, content in my little corner of Middle England. Yep, need to get out - but first need to figure out how...
Oh, speaking of poo, on a lighter note, one of my work colleagues has this large peace lily next to his desk, in a pot, in a white terracotta thingie. I noticed that the peace lily was suddenly turning yellow, so I thought, hmm, time to transplant. So, I went out at lunch today and bought a pot at the supercraptastic hardware store that never has anything other than paint and mops. I brought the pot back and decided to get started (as we have a bag of soil in the office from a previous plant adventure). First step - lift the pot out of the terracotta thingie. Well, it turns out that work colleague had been pretty religious about watering the plant. In fact, he had been so religious that the plant was actually sitting about 4 inches of what turned out to be extradordinarily foul smelling, rotting and very hot water, which somehow had been sealed off from the air (and from our noses) by the side of the pot. Quite a lot of this water gushed out onto the windowsill, the floor and work colleague's football shoes, and the smell, oh the smell. The entire floor of the office building smelled like, well, like a brontosaurus had simultaneously pooped and expired into a fetid swamp (pretty sure it was a brontosaurus). Work colleague wasn't entirely pleased about this little stinky turn of events, but, as I pointed out, it was actually his own damn fault for watering the plant every day and drowning it! Anyway, that did provide for 15 or so minutes of amusement at lunchtime (and probably helped with a number of people's diets as well). :-)
Yep, back to normal.
Sunday, 7 October 2012
So, back to my usual location of typing these things... I'm on the 0723 from Bern to Paris, which I caught with at least 90 secs to spare. Unlike British trains, on most of the long distance European ones you have to disassemble your bike and put it in a bag, then cram it in with all the other luggage. I have a special bag for this I bought in Switzerland (of course), but it still means it takes me 20 mins to take the whole thing apart, then out this great big unwieldy thing onto the train and find a space for it. Needless to say, when one arrives at the train station at 0657, one is pushing one's luck ever so slightly. No matter. I have a group of excessively boisterous for this hour German speaking Swiss blathering away behind me, who sound like they have a collective phlegm problem. I'm so tired I just want to curl up on the floor, but, unfortunately, as I am such a princess, the chance of me actually sleeping is zero. Sigh. Anyway, I had a lovely 2 days staying with Kathleen in Bern, a place so excessively cute I'm surprised it's legal. It was 87 miles from Zurich to Bern. I whined to Kathleen that it seemed to be uphill most of the way. She said that I must be mistaken, as I would have just followed the Safe, which would have been quite flat. Unfortunately, I took the more scenic route, which opened up onto a glorious vista of the last dying rays of sun on Bern, but also meant a lot of unnecessary climbing at the end of a long day in the dark. This was nearly made up for, however, by the chance encounter of the Lindt factory. Come to momma! Probably for the best, however, I was limited in what I could.by to what I wanted to schlep on my bike. That night, after Kathleen, hostess with the mostest, cooked me dinner, we went out for a drink with a very young, newly out as "bisexual" work colleague of hers, and I was just about able to string sentences together. Yesterday, I hung out with Kathleen in the morning, then biked off to Interlaken when she went to play volleyball. That was a route of truly Sound of Music amazing scenery, and I had to stop at least 987 times to take pictures. Interlaken itself is overrun with Chinese and Indian tourists. Kathleen says that, for the Indians at least, this is because it is the setting of many Bollywood mooves, as they can't film in Kashmir. Who knew? I chatted with another cyclist on the train back. He had just done 230km and 2 passes that day. Made me feel like a weenie. Of course, his bike was made of helium, but still... K and I went for Swiss food last night and I had veal sausage, which was delicious. I'm sure that baby cow can be happy knowing how yummy it was, as I bury my guilt. And now I'm back on the train, surrounded by annoying people. I do intend to come back to Switzerland to cycle though. Smooth rooads, polite drivers, no glass, scenery out the wazoo. What's not to love? Hmm, the train stops and sits for 15 minutes at some pissant nothing of a station in a god forsaken town in southeastern France. Here's a novel idea..., leave 15 minutes later? I'm sure the French have their strange, impenetrable reasons for this... ;-) Hmm, apparently the passport control on the train works like the 2nd border control north of San Diego. It's really more of a brown person check... And the delay was for a 2nd train to attach. My original suggestion still stands though... Oh, and old French woman who thinks dominoes a great game to play on the train, in the quiet car. Yeah baby, travelling 12th class is the way to go!
Thursday, 4 October 2012
So yeah. I just scarfed down most of one of those large Lindt chocolate bars, after eating the little tiramisu cup I bought as my dainty little dessert at the supermarket. If I lived here, were it not for.the fact that I would be compelled to hike and bike and zorb and hula hoop or whatever every 5 minutes I would likely be the size of the Matterhorn. Fortunately, I live in England, where it is much easier to find more average, non gluttony inspiring food. ;-) So speaking of food, I had dinner at I guess the equivalent of a greasy spoon diner, where the schinken something unpronounceable dinner turned out to be delicious pork, noodles, veggies and some sort of rye slimy stuff soup best not investigated too closely. It was tasty too. The wikitravel guide recommended this place in its cheap eats, but warned that it was in the red light district, meaning, of course, that I had to go. Usually, I manage to stumble into the cruising park in every city I visit. That's what I get for walking. Anyway, I'd missed it here, so figured this was my chance to see a less salubrious side of Switzerland. So, I walked there too. There were a few seedy cinemas, some vaguely sketchy looking bars, a number of middle aged men who seem to have gotten lost (individually lost), but no obvious hookers and I only got wolf whistled once! And to think I had even shaved. The restaurant, well, it was brown. So was the food. In fact, the decor had all the general charm of a bus station and the Indians running the place seemed a bit blase about the whole thing. There were a number of individual older men, mostly reading the paper. I ordered menu item 4 (it was called that, and then a bunch or crap in German) and it was delicious. Gambrinus, I think the place was called. So, after, I took the tram down to the train station to go to the big supermarket to get my lunch food for tomorrow. Past the Lindt pick and mix, stopping in the salami aisle. Yeah, there basically was an aisle. Salami is good cycle lunch meat bc you can leave it out all day and it doesn't get any more questionable. Same with cheese. And of course there's 987 different types of stinky cheese as well. Oh the food is so yummy here! Don't get me started on the bread. So, anyway, there was no biking today. I just wandered around Zurich. I was, unfortunately, a zombie much of the day. The cafe downstairs only closes at midnight, and the person in the apartment got up for work at 0617. Ugh. Hopefully tonight will be better. In my dazed state, I walked all over the city, which gets a bit uncomfortable on cycle shoes, even cycle shoes made for walking. It's a lovely city, Zurich. Everything seems to just function properly and the people are polite and nice. Even the wineos at the train station seemed content to have their own little private conversations. I went in the requisite number of pretty churches. I took pics in the Catholic one, hut none in the dour, but quite beautiful evangelical Protestant one, as their God gets pissy about photos. I walked in circles many times. I decided I was, as much as possible, going to do the day without the aid of a map. Fun when you aren't trying to get anywhere. And now I am back in the room, I've done my hand laundry (dried my only shorts this morning by wearing them) and just maybe exhaustion will drown out the various annoying noises in the building and I will sleep. Yeah right. Like that's ever happened...
Wednesday, 3 October 2012
So, tonight is from a pension in Zurich. Pension bc Zurich is outrageously expensive and this wasn't so bad. The only real issue is a shared bathroom and wc. You just never think about how annoying this is until actually presented with random stranger using the bathroom that you just laid a lot of money for! Argh. Anyway, I've done my laundry in the sink with my tube of travel detergent. Must find more of that. Great stuff. I kind of lost in the dinner department tonight. I managed to soak my only pair of non cycling.shorts, so had to wait for them to dry (wore them for extra drying speed), and then finally wandered out. I ended up with Burger King, which I mostly scarred down at the tram stop. Fail. Central Zurich seemed to be full of drunk people, which might be bc they set up an Octoberfest tent in the train station. Hmm. I thought they only did that in Germany. Thought they would have the Our Trains Run on Time and We're Rich fest or something like that here instead. The other minor nitpick about this pension is that it's over a sort of cool post-studenty type bar. Oh well. Maybe I should camp? Today started in Andermatt, a squishably cute ski town at the foot of.several passes I've not yet cycled over. I started my screaming descent past the something famous I've now forgotten the name of bridge where some battle happened that involved Russians, in 1799. I don't know, it was in funny German, and, of course, I can't possibly look it up in Wikipedia. Down and down and down, through many tunnels and switchbacks, and through a number of chocolate box cuteworthy towns. There was a lot of traffic, as there aren't so many roads, and the cycle facilities were sometimes a bit spotty. However, they were very well signed and drivers very respectful of bikes. Actually, the Italian drivers were as well, even though some of the roads were pretty appalling. It's just southern English drivers, especially London. Honestly, is it that difficult not to be a complete dick? Anyway, I finally left the mountains as I neared Zurich. Still pretty good cycling infrastructure and sensible drivers, though my god there are a lot of tram tracks! Tomorrow will be interesting, wandering around the city. Tonight, hopefully, I will sleep! Oh, one other thing I thought was interesting was how completely Gotthard Pass separates southern and northern Europe. Culture, climate, vegetation, everything. I'm in German Switzerland now, and even this morning, I was back to northern European, meaty breakfast. I wouldn't have thought it would have made such a large difference, especially within one country, but there you go!
Tuesday, 2 October 2012
So yeah, I'm in my little hotel room in Andermatt, listening to some crap interview with Larry Ellison, who really is just so seriously irritating he needs to be hit by an asteroid. The woman interviewing him is just lapping him up. Apparently he would like to buy the Lakers. Cretin. Anyway, I think I managed to completely and totally exhaust myself today. I mean totally. I cycled from Bellinzona to Andermatt, up over Gotthard Pass (6920 or so feet). I thought, hey, 55 miles. Piece of cake. Mountain pass? I'll have 2 please! Ha! The real killer about Gotthard Pass is you spend miles and miles heading up this lovely glaciated valley. Sort of like Yosemite but with farms and towns. There are some long grades and you think, hey, this isn't so bad. 40 miles of this. And then you reach the head of the valley, and 7 miles of pure agony. At least 3000 feet of climbing, several dozen hairpins, and... and... the road splits. There is the nice, smooth car road, and there is the old road, the bike road. It's cobbled. 7 miles of cobbles and absolutely endless uphill. The road climbs way up above timberline and the wind seems to blow in all directions at once. It took me almost 2 hours to climb to the top, trying to get there before sundown. I actually didn't think I was going to make it. I decided to just keep going because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to start again if I stopped. It was the first time in a long time I felt totally alone, I suppose, in part, because generally I was. I was so happy to reach the top, where I stopped briefly, had a few cookies for sugar, and put on every layer I had for the screaming, terrifying downhill on the north side, rolling into Andermatt as the last of the light failed. Would I do Gotthard again? Yeah. Would I take the cobbled road? Hell no! Anyway, Andermatt is the first German speaking town, and even though it's the same company, it feels totally different. The Italian part, well, it felt a bit like Disney Italy, to be honest. There was a noticeable, immediate difference crossing the border. Pays being a tax haven, I guess. Yesterday. Well, yesterday didn't go entirely to plan, but what does? I had to take the train the last 20 miles to Bellinzona, as I got to Lugano too late. I pretty seriously underestimated the shittiness of Italian roads. Oh well, live and learn. My morning was spent going to the supermarket, where I made the mortal sin of trying to buy an individual banana. Lots of Italian. Some gesticulating. Whatever. Stuff your banana. Tried to go to a bike store. Closed on Monday. Of course. Well, closed anyway. Closed on Monday? Who knows? There were no signs. Just shutters. I managed to get out of Milan, which was a lite hair raising, but not quite the carmegedon I feared. Flat plains with random development. Corn. Dinky, bumpy roads with loads of cars. Honestly, where do all these people go? The land started to roll slightly. Loads of oak forests. Not that unlike the Sacramento Valley. And then, all of a sudden, mountains! Not sort of parenthetical mountains, the sort of feeling you get when you start to drive into the Sierra, but more the holy crap of the Front Range of the Rockies. Not so surprising, given that the Alps and the Rockies are similar in their formation, I guess. I made it as far as Lugano, which is just dripping with money, then had to take the train, as I was afraid of ending up on the road in the dark. Got to my slightly depressing hotel room in Bellinzona, only to discover that Switzerland has silly electrical plugs! I asked at the front desk, and got that sort of blase, eh, you're fucked response that one comes to love and expect from staff at cheap hotels. Fortunately, the nice lady at the expensive hotel let me charge my phone and GPS there while I had dinner. Had to buy an adaptor this morning, which made today a bit late as well. Last thought, this ride is proving a completely different beast than the last one. Yeah, no duh, its in a different place, but really, it's much more stressful. The last one I just sort of fell into a comfortable routine. Coffee and cake at 3. Not this one. It's too unpredictable. Plus, I suppose, it's easy to just blend into and float through Germanic culture for me. Not so Italian. Much more work. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if that changes now that I'm in the German speaking part of Switzerland. Right. My thumbs are tired, as am I. Off to bed!
Sunday, 30 September 2012
So yeah, Milan, in my super whirlwind tour. Milan seems to be shaped like a spider's web, with pretty much everything radiating out from the centre. There is little of the feeling of organic city growth outside of the immediate centre, unlike somewhere like London. It actually makes it more confusing, I think, as there are these long boulevards of sometimes monolithic greyish buildings radiating out in all directions. Milan apparently got smushed in the war, so there is a lot of post war drek, but also some really gorgeous stuff in the centre, like the Duomo, which is like a big incense and Jesus filled wedding cake. No dour Reformation church that! If I were going to describe what I saw of a Sunday in Milan in one word, it would be languid. Not torpor or the land of manana, but rather, gliding through the day with grace and in style, which I guess kinda makes sense. The morning was extremely quiet, but as the day wore on, the streets grew more and more crowded, until by evening the streets were jammed with people going, well, pretty much nowhere, at least not by car, though there was surprisingly little honking. Walking through the public gardens, I was struck by how, in everywhere I've been in northern Europe, people in parks, while they are certainly aware of your presence, make a pointed effort to look like they are interested in something else. Not here. Everyone sat on benches or was strolling, and they watched, not pointedly, but with at least passive interest. No siesta though, very much unlike Sicily. I do definitely feel more at home in northern Europe. I seem to somehow lack the inherent coolness to really fit in a place like this. Plus I look ridiculous in large sunglasses. ;-) Saw Fabrizio for a bit and had an ice cream. I do wish he still lived in London. We do get on so well together, I think... Sigh. One more reason to visit again... Dinner tonight was at a pizza place (of course). I did seem to be the only non Italian there, which was good but also made for a slightly awkward experience. I had the joy of sitting next to a children's birthday party, which got a bit out of hand and was tolerated, I think to a much larger degree than it would have been in the UK. I also made the mistake of ordering a focaccia starter, which turned out to be basically pizza crust, so, in essence, I ate two pizzas. Ugh. Oh well, live and learn. Right. Time to get my laundry out of the sink and hang in strategic places around the room, and then, tomorrow, hit the road!
Saturday, 29 September 2012
Well, I made it, just. Today was both tedious and high stress. Tedious bc it took me almost 12 hours to get to Milan and high stress bc I had to get my disassembled bike into the luggage rack on two trains, schlep it across Paris on the Metro, and have an argument in two mutually unintelligible languages with some idiot who thought it was a good idea to put a large heavy case on top of my bike. Idiot. So, I got the Eurostar to Paris, then queued for 15 minutes for euros, queued another 15 for a Metro ticket while some Spanish girl just stood there and looked at the machine like that would make it do something. Crammed my bags and my luggage onto a crowded Metro train with the always polite Parisians, then got to take the TGV 7 hours to Milan. Turns out the gran vitesse part of the name only really applies in France. In Italy, well, manana, you know... ;-) Getting to Milan, I spent 40 minutes on the platform putting my bike back together, then set off, in the dark, in heavy rain, through road construction, and with helpful Italian drivers, towards the hotel, which was actually in another direction. Yeah. So, finally, exhausted and soaked, I find the hotel. It's through the courtyard of this apartment building and all on the same floor, extending down from the reception. The floor is tiled too, and one can hear everything. Great. My room is sort of dorm size, with a single bed, a tv on s small desk, tiny closet, and an exposed shower and sink. Toilet is down the hall, accessible by key. It was cheap. Possibly too cheap. Not sure about the toilet down the hall. I would certainly never pee in the sink though, as that's low class. :-D Hmm. Oh yeah, no English TV either. I mean really, TV only in their own language? Shocking indeed! Anyway, I should try to get some sleep, hopefully. Tomorrow is my day to explore Milan, and see friends. Then off towards the mountains!
So, I have assumed my usual position, travelling backwards on the train. This time it's Milan via Paris, bc I am just such a jet setter I can't possibly stay at home for more than a week at a time! It was kind of an odd week, sandwiched, as it was, between two bike adventures. I suppose I might not have put my full concentration and effort into work (not like anyone noticed! ;-) ). Anyway, I just barely barely made the 0731 Eurostar this morning, arriving at St Pancras only 15 minutes before the train, thanks to a missed train from home! Big flurry of activity whisking me and bagged bike through security and passport control, which saved me having to cancel the whole thing and hang my head in shame! So, now I'm on the quiet car, next to some irritating Frenchman who can't put down his phone and some bespectacled fatass who sounds like he probably has Ebola. Yeah, it's an auspicious beginning to the trip!
Sunday, 23 September 2012
Sigh. I am, admittedly, of somewhat mixed feelings today. As per usual, when I am tippety typing away on my phone, this time on a slightly geriatric German intercity train to Cologne, where I change to another train to Brussels, and yet another for London. I cycled the 4 miles to Berlin Hauptbahbhof in the clear, cool, autumnal light, crisscrossing the line of the wall several times on the way. Not much traffic out on a Sunday morning, pre 930. Getting on the train was slightly stressful. As it turns out, we each have an assigned cycle space. Everyone else had a separate ticket for their bicycle. I had to rip mine in half, as they were both on the same sheet of paper. Conductor didn't like that. Nothing like arguing with a conductor in two different languages. Fortunately, he relented and I found my seat in the slightly tired looking first class section. Hmm, they don't have at-seat food. No wonder it wasn't that expensive! Anyway, we're blowing westward along approximately the same route I cycled. It's a little disheartening to see several days worth of cycling gone in just a few hours! Anyway, last night Frank and I went for dinner at a "traditionally German" restaurant. I had schnitzel, which is, apparently, traditionally Austrian. Whatever, close enough, and it was yummy! ;-) Frank went out with a friend then and I went to bed, as I knew today was going to be a little rough anyway. The last two days I spent poodling around Berlin on my bike, which I enjoyed immensely. It's such a better cycling city than London, and bikes really are pretty well woven into the fabric of normal life. Actually, that was true the whole way since I left England. I still fail to comprehend why the British, who live in a land of shitty roads and expensive fuel, are so wedded to their cars. Also did a brief whistlestop tour of the German history museum (Dem Deutsche History no Comprendo or something like that ;-) ) and saw my friend Rogger. I can't overemphasise though how much I enjoyed riding around Berlin, as that finally started to give me an actual feel for where things are in geographically real life, as opposed to the weird, slightly directionless underworld of the U-Bahn. So yeah, feeling a little blah today. A whole day of sitting on the train, plus the aggregation of having to disassemble my bike and put it in a bag in Cologne, for the next train. Desperately not looking forward to the week at work, but I am very very much looking forward to my next bike adventure in a week. I think I have become an addict. :-D Actually, truthfully, Berlin feels like it was the practice run, even though it was longer, as I had no idea what I was doing and overdid it a bit (hence it feeling a bit like a blur in some places). Italy and Switzerland feel a bit more like the real thing. Less distance per day, more time spent in each place. Hopefully this will be the case!
Friday, 21 September 2012
Wow. I can't actually quite believe I made it in one piece. I'm achey and tired and do actually physically need some time off my bike, but there is a very big part of me that wants to keep going. I guess thats why I scheduled another trip so soon! I've learned that I really (really) like long bike trips. I've also learned that about 70 miles per day is optimal. 100 is too much, and 2 days of 100 just ridiculous. No time to stop. It kind of all just becomes a blur. My approximate miles, per day, were 22, 95, 90, 68, 48, 75, 75, 101, 95. Today was really a labour of love, especially as it was getting dark before I got to Berlin. Berlin, like London, is ringed by endless suburbs, but unlike London, I have no idea how to navigate through them, so when my intricately planned route suddenly said no bikes, I was left to try to find my way through winding suburban streets and bike trails as the light was fading. Just a little stressful. The last 5 miles or so, through Berlin, I was trying to cycle like a bat out of hell to get here before the batteries in my GPS scrapped out. I gave up trying to be legal and follow the bike lanes. Too bumpy and too dark. Anyway, today was mostly flat, and increasingly brown, I suppose in part bc they are having a drought here. Miles of forest, pine and locust. A funny combo. Quite a number of cute towns, and also some real ramshackle places. I'd not seen that before. Also more of the dreaded cobbles. Honestly, how anyone thought that was a good idea... At the moment though, I'm so tired I'm going to start to drool, so I think it's time for bed. Berlin stuff tomorrow, and just biking around town. What, you thought I was going to take the Metro? Hardly. I'm still have tempted to do the last 55 miles to Poland on Saturday morning... Will see. Zzzzzz.
Wednesday, 19 September 2012
I like borders that actually feel like borders. I suppose it appeals to the inner geography nerd in me, our obsession with imaginary lines. Anyway, this trip has not disappointed. Today I crossed the last border, into former East Germany, and I was not disappointed. There is still the line demarcated in the forest (or lack thereof), plus a helpful sign. The road also goes to crap. There is more debris on the ground, still more houses being fixed up, and, on the approach to Magdeburg, rows of shabby chic Soviet style apartment blocks. The other really dramatic thing that happens is the sudden dramatic increase in the number of wind turbines. I mean, there have been a lot the whole way across Germany, but omg, it's like they are trying to fly away with the ground! I have never seen so many wind turbines in my whole life! I suppose there are a lot fewer people. I noticed a sudden dropoff in the number of small towns, and the fields no longer seem to be connected to any particular house, but, rather, go on for miles. Anyway, today was 101 miles, from Hannover to Magdeburg, which ended up in the rain, in the dark, and on an unscheduled road, thanks to the dreaded cobbles. I can't actually believe that tomorrow is the end of this bike trip. It seems like months ago I started. I suppose it has started to blur together a bit into one, endless road. I can't imagine what it must be like to cycle around the world! Anyway, the previous two days were a bit more sensible in length. There was 68 miles from Dortmund to Bielefeld. This ride was predominantly flat and dominated by factories. I suppose the name Route Industrialekultur might have suggested that. Bielefeld reminds me of an old steel town, nestled in the hills. A bit rough, and just about nothing was open when I got there at 8pm. I had to resort to Subway from the train station (of course, tonight I had supermarket for dinner). Then it was 75 miles of hills to Hannover, or, rather, the southern suburbs of Hannover. I didn't actually get to see the city. I stayed with a family in a B and B. Very nice, even though it meant slightly awkward breakfast conversation this morning. I've really enjoyed all this cycling across the big open spaces of northern Germany, and I appreciate being in a place where cyclists are just accepted as a normal part of traffic, though I have to say the Germans get really pissy if you don't use the cycling provision, which can be a little hit and miss sometimes. I also wish I could play back all the road in my head like a tape, but I can't. There has just been too much. However, it has convinced me I love long cycle trips, and I actually do pretty well in my own company. I can never quite square that with always.feeling like I want someone around when I'm at home or being afraid to go out on my own sometimes. Hmm. Anyway, I must go to bed bc I'm totally exhausted and I still have a long way tomorrow!
Sunday, 16 September 2012
So. Today didn't go 100 pct according to plan. I'm eating gummi bears while watching Netanyahu on Meet the Press. What a serious tool! Anyway, I got a very late start today. Stayed the night with Shubph and Hannes in Bonn, which was lovely. I had a very nice breakfast and then went to the gym, so I didn't actually get started until lunchtime. I was supposed to go 78 miles to Dortmund. But neglected the fact that I had to go through suburban Cologne, which was pretty much endless traffic lights. And, it being Germany, I had to actually wait for all of them. Sigh. I finally gave up on trying to get that far, and basically just headed north up the Rhine valley. I ended up in Dusseldorf at sundown. Took a regional train to Dortmund. Omg, the bike car at the end of the train. It is also the pram car, so it was jammed full of cyclists and jammed full of screaming babies. What a fun 53 minutes that was! Anyway, I will set off tomorrow morning from Croydon, which is a place that does seem like it met the full dose of the allied redecorating committee! Oh, I forgot, yesterday, which already seems like a million years ago, it was 70 miles from Aachen to Bonn. The first section was through forested hills that reminded me quite a lot of western Pennsylvania. It opened up then as I headed east towards the Rhine, with great sweeping vistas of fields of corn, lettuce, cabbage and onions, then an endless number of apple orchards. Wind turbines everywhere as well. Honestly, why do the British get fussed about wind turbines? They don't seem to worry about pylons, and those are way the help uglier and more ubiquitous than turbines! Lots of little farm towns. They aren't as hyper neat as they were in the Netherlands, but they also don't have endless has stations and car dealerships strung out for miles like Belgium. I had an amazing mandarin cake at a little cafe in some random microdink town. I am so enjoying just popping along through all these places! I actually thought I would end up feeling extremely lonely, and while I'm very glad to be seeing people along the way, I am actually really enjoying just sort of floating along, me and the road. I suppose it's kinda like when I used to drive back and forth across the US. I loved that, and that was generally just me... Of course when when things go wrong, which they can... Anyway, hopefully they won't! Right, time to take my clothes out of the sink and go to bed!
Friday, 14 September 2012
Well, it heps if the countries are small, and you just go through corners, but I did go all the way across Belgium... My overriding impression? One giant ribbon development... Seriously, just about the whole way across the country is an endless parade of 1 deep houses, gas stations, lawn mower shops and Audi dealers. Who knew there was such a demand for Audis? The countryside is quite pretty, but it is kind of marred by this beauty strip of suburban nowhereness. Very odd. So, I started at De Panne, on the North Sea coast. Very middle class retirement kind of town. All old people. Big wall of buildings facing the sea, which reminded me little of Florida, except for cold and grey. The countryside around there, and for the next 50 miles inland, is flat flat flat. And then it's not. Just like that, there is a gentle incline, and the rest of the way across the country is rolling. If the west of the country remind me a bit of the Central Valley, but greener, heading east felt a bit like the Upper Midwest. Nearly all the larger roads have separate cycle lanes. Really puts the UK to shame, though that isn't hard on that front. I learned a few things about Belgian roads. The first is that people really do pull out from the right without looking, unless the road is marked. Also, unlike England, where the savvy cyclist takes the small roads, in Belgium, as often as not, these roads end up being cobbled (badly) or end suddenly in dirt. And in England, when they close a major road for construction, they put up lots of helpful sighs saying where to go. In Belgium, they just seem to close it. And then you're stuffed... Finally, while having bike lanes is lovely, it's not so great when you are require to use them, even when they are only on the wrong side of the road. I got pulled over by a cop for cycling illegally on a road when there was a 2 direction bike lane I hadn't noticed along the other bumpy shoulder. Cue stupid American mode... Anyway, I got to Brussels late yesterday evening, got lost about a million times, as the GPS wanted to send me down yet another cobbled road and I refused, and nearly got run over by a tram, as, apparently, they do not stop for traffic already in the roundabout! Stayed with Alex last night. We went to an Italian place, where I ate a small mountain. Then today... Today I set off in Brussels morning traffic, which was very exciting. I was v v happy for my super padded and super expensive shorts as well. Must get more... Most of the day was spent getting across the rest of Belgium. Then across the river into Maastricht, and suddenly everything is very leafy, and very very organised... I basically just cut across Maastricht, getting lost again bc of construction, but wow I've never seen so much cycling infrastructure! Smooth, seamless cycle highways connecting everywhere and everything. Total bike paradise. Actually, eve. In Belgium, outside of Brussels, which kind of sucked for bikes, loads of people were cycling, even in pissant towns. Seriously, how.shit is the cycling infrastructure of the UK? Just shameful! So, I head out of maastrict into the hilly (!) southern bit of the Netherlands. It reminded me very much of England, except neater (whereas the endless nothing development of Belgium reminded me of the USA).... As the sun was setting, I crossed into Germany. I'm staying in a very Spartan private room at the Aachen youth hostel, which is fine, except it seems to be full of, well, youth, who are extremely noisy. The rooms doors are heavy metal doors and the walls have about zero soundproofing. Reminds me why I don't normally stay in youth hostels anymore... Right, well it's time to get my stuff out of the dryer, go to the floor bathroom, and hopefully get some sleep!
Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Sunday, 29 July 2012
So, yeah, wow, I must be back on a train, tippety typing away on my phone, as that seems to be the only place I actually get around to writing. Though headachey and more than a bit of a space cadet today, I still had a very nice 70 mile ride up to Cambridge. The heavens did open at one point, but thanks to the wonder of goretex I managed to stay dry and comfy. What always gets me about this area of England is how much it reminds me of the Upper Midwest, with rolling fields of wheat interspersed by oak woodland. It is not an unpleasant place. I bought my tickets back from Berlin for September, which means I actually have to do that now. I hope that isn't a silly idea! Yeah, so, my birthday. David and I had a lovely afternoon at Kew, followed by dinner with Robin. We all rushed home then to catch the opening ceremony. I have to say, with the exception of wheeling out embarrassing old fossils (Ali and McCartney) I thought it was fantastic, and I loved that I have been in this silly little country long enough that I actually felt a part of the whole ironic "in-joke" aspect of the whole thing. I don't know, I may have actually felt proud to be British? Now that's something that's going to require a few years of therapy! ;-) Anyway, I loved it. Back to work tomorrow. Gotta start working on the fellowship. Maybe I will actually have a brain tomorrow? Dare to dream!
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
Sigh. Well, that certainly went quickly. Typing this on the 1430 back to London, just heading out of Edinburgh. It's always a funny thing, coming back here. It's one of the very few places I go from which I don't want to go back to London. I don't know what it is about this place. I've wondered before if maybe it was because it was where I studied abroad, or if it was because it was where I had my first kiss (I still know the guy, btw; he lives not far away from me now). I don't actually think that's it. I've changed and the city has changed. It was actually a little bit weird staying back in the dorms. It felt a bit incongruous, somehow. The city though still has a grasp on me though I can't shake. Last night, after a lovely dinner with Doug and James, I walked, through the rain, to the top of Calton Hill, from where the city spread out in all directions. I could see north, across the Fifth, to the distant Highlands, and the blue and pink late evening glow of the sun below the northern horizon (the rain was clearing by this point). I don't know, I hate to use words like "special" or "magical", because they are dorky and cliched and overused, but it kind of was, to be honest. Anyway, Jennifer and I spent the afternoon yesterday wandering in the pouring rain, her in a sensible long raincoat and me in my screamingly fluorescent waterproof bike jacket. We climbed Arthur's Seat, which is actually a little bit dangerous in cycle shoes with metal cleats, on wet rock. Still though, no one died, but it's quite possible that we got very very very wet. No matter. I still showed up to the nice little restaurant for dinner with Doug and James, looking like a drowned rat. I told them that Jennifer was going to a poetry reading, to which Doug said, "is she a lesbian?". No, just literary... So, not much sleep again last night. Princess and the pea could feel all the springs in the surely well loved dorm bed. I really am a delicate flower. Anyway, I got to have the minor thrill this morning of stealing food out of the dorm cafeteria. It wasn't as much fun though as when I was a student, when they actually had old women stationed at the exit to prevent such thieving. Now they just have signs. Cutbacks, I'm sure. ;-) So, yeah, it was a pretty cool time, and has convinced me that yeah, I want to cycle all the way to Berlin. Tomorrow though it's back to the splendour of Hackney and back to work. Yippydoo.
Monday, 23 July 2012
So, tonight I am tapping away in the Spartan splendour of Pollock Halls, a sprawling mass of University of Edinburgh dorms at the foot of Arthur's Seat. The last time I was in one of these dorm rooms was 19 years ago, as a student. It's quite weird actually being back in them. Partly it's a bit nostalgic, but it's definitely peculiar as well. For one, there is just about no one here, except for some Olympic athletes, who, unfortunately do not seem to be in this building, but more because I feel like I have tried to step back into a very different part of my life. The basic structures are still there, but the people and activities that completed it have moved on. However, Jennifer is also in town, which is the main reason I'm here. Jennifer is the reason I first came here as well, so, in this way, it actually feels complete. She and I both decided to go to Edinburgh, 20 years ago, after meeting two very sexy guys from here at this dive of a hostel in Vancouver. It was that experience of that trip that led me to the UK, yet, oddly, this is the first time we have been here together. Jennifer met Craig this evening as well, whom I'd not seen in years. Anyway, today was a 60 mile ride through the beautiful Scottish Borders. It was all hills and one proper pass, and I loved it. The only slight issue was the wind, which was relentless, yet, luckily, mostly at my back. I did think I was going to blow over though, at least once. Today has upped my courage level though for cycling to Berlin. I think I'm going to do it. I keep talking about it, yet I get scared away by distance. I'm definitely not ready for this ride to be over yet. I think it's time for a long one. And, it's also time for bed. Lots of wandering to do tomorrow...
Saturday, 21 July 2012
So I am, in the aptly named Spread Eagle Hotel in the bustling metropolis of Jedburgh, Scotland, not too far from the English border. I never seem to actually write anymore except when I'm out cycling, when I actually have to tap this out on my phone. I just never seem to get around to it. Work, gym, sleep, rinse, repeat. I guess I've been feeling a bit in a rut of late. There is one work related opportunity I'm going to try to follow, a fellowship through UCL for GIS work in a non academic establishment. Anyway, I can only try! (As I'm not too sure how to pay for another degree). Right, I digress. So, yeah, I'm spread eagle in the Spread Eagle Hotel, apparently Britain's longest continuously licensed hotel (I read the brochure). It's on the main drag of Jedburgh, a pleasant, and, at the moment, very quiet Border town. I spent the day cycling 71 miles up from Penrith, via mucho many hills. It was generally a fab day, marred only slightly by having to get up at the crap of dawn, and by my bottom bracket, which is creaking and clunking and generally being a pain in the ass. Hmm, an unintended pun. Anyway, I have to say I really am just about my happiest when slogging my way up a long grade. There is probably something wrong with me, but that's another story. ;-) It's good to be out of London for a bit. For one, it reminds me how much open space and how many really friendly people there are in the UK, but also bc there's a lot of the country that really is gorgeous. Can't wait to start my Europe riding next month! Anyway, I'm so exhausted I'm going to start to dribble (and I'm looking at what I've written and it's mostly drivel, but whatever, and bite me ;-) ). More tomorrow, I guess. Oh, btw, a really good way to blend right in to a small quiet town is to walk around in very noisy cycling shoes with cleats and wear a neon jacket. Apparently it's not always quiet though. During the festival they throw around some sort of a ball that's supposed to be an Englishman's head. Those wacky Scots... ;-)
Monday, 4 June 2012
Or so it seems. I think I may be the only one in this first class carriage. Definitely worth the extra £5! On the train from Birmingham back to London, typing on the phone again. Today was a rather different ride from yesterday. For one, it wasn't pissing down great buckets of rain, which made a nice change. Still grey and cold, but that doesn't bother me as long as I don't have to dump out my shoes! I started off in Hereford, after my obligatory full English (minus the tomatoes and mushrooms, of course).
I spent about an hour walking around Hereford, which is actually a really nice town. Think I want to go back there. Today's cycling, 61 miles, was through rolling farmland. Corn, wheat, rapeseed and hops mostly. Nearly all of it was on little pissant country roads. I love those roads. I have to say, the USA really lost something by insisting on sensible roads. They do emphasise though how terrific it is to have a GPS on one's bike, bc omg I would have been hopelessly lost otherwise! This country must have been truly impossible to navigate during the war, when they took all the signs down! Anyway, I ended up in Birmingham, which, even more than London, seems to have really shitty areas right up next to posh ones. Unlike London, however, when the city was obliterated during and after the war, it was redesigned for the car, which means enormous roads, one way systems and roundabouts, not to mention dreary brutalist architecture and no real defined centre. Fortunately, they are doing a lot to gentrify and rebuild the centre and, of course, the gays are moving in! I hung out with Matt for a bit in his new flat with a fantastic view of the city and all the new builds. So, a pretty good way to spend two days. I saw a new part of Tue country, I've gotten to eat huge amounts of carbs, and now I get to sit in my very own first class carriage being a stinky slob and not caring!
Sunday, 3 June 2012
Well, ok, so it wasn't exactly a traditional Jubilee activity. Part of me kind of wishes I'd been on the river today to watch all the ships go by. I'm not much of a royalist, but you gotta give Her Maj some credit for sticking with her job for 60 years! Anyway, I took the opportunity to do a 2 day bike ride, my first in over a year, from Cardiff to Birmingham. I'm typing this on my phone, which is extremely slow and tedious. My shoulder aches and is annoying, but I seemed to have made it through the first day ok, about 68 miles. The weather, initially, was ok until I headed north, away from the coastal plain. Not surprisingly, just a little bit of lift was all it took for mile after mile of rain, the last 15 or so torrential. I had purchased these waterproof shoe covers. They were great until those last 15 miles, when the water just ran down my legs (I was wearing shorts) and pooled up in my waterproof shoes. I don't mind riding in the rain as long as I stay dry, but the last 15 miles were just terrible. The scenery was beautiful, but all I could think of was a nice shower. Finally made it to this very nice little hotel in Hereford, absolutely full of Titanic photos. I'm not sure the woman who runs the place was very impressed by this drowned rat that showed up at her door! So I showered, had a yummy pub dinner, and decided I couldn't he bothered to walk around Hereford in the wet and the cold. Maybe tomorrow morning. Ah, I forgot, I was actually rather surprised how many Union Flags were flying in Wales. Maybe not as many as in England, but still a pretty good show for a bunch of grumpy nationalists who speak a silly language! Ok, tired of thumb typing. More tomorrow, as my thumbs allow.
Sunday, 22 April 2012
David and I had a nice day today - we spent the day walking from here to Dulwich for Sunday lunch. The weather held out right until the end, at which point it settled into a fairly heavy piddle (not quite pouring rain). We spent much of the time peering into different people's front gardens - hmm, how do they do their plants - how do they utilise their space? Ooh, isn't that a nice Japanese maple, and look at that fuchsia! God, I'm becoming middle aged and middle class. The walk was capped off by a trip to the garden centre (of course), where we picked up a new doormat and 8kg of pelletised chicken shit. It's good stuff, that chicken shit - both for fertilising the plants (and not requiring us to use our now outlawed hose to spread Miracle Grow), and for getting vans unstuck from ice. Also, nothing says romantic walk like 8kg of chicken shit. ;-)
Leonel popped by this evening - finally managed to get the stupid bike tyre back on my old bike - I certainly couldn't do it. Yeah, that was good for my manhood - can't even change a tyre. Sigh.
Anyway, time to get my lunch ready for tomorrow - another fun Monday morning. Yippydoo!
Saturday, 21 April 2012
Not a bad way to spend part of the day - especially if it doesn't piss it down with rain. We're having a drought, you see. A bad one. The worst in 100 years. At the moment, there are giant buckets of water pouring out of the sky. Ooh, now it's hailing. Anyway, it has actually been very dry for the past two years, so one shouldn't complain about all the rain over the past week or so (still, this being England and it being an opportunity to moan and bitch, people are taking full advantage!).
My shoulder is getting better. It's moved from triple decker ice cream suck down to just occasionally sucky. I still have trouble sleeping in my favourite position at night (on my front, sort of spreadeagle, like I was just dropped from a very high height) and my gym workout is pretty weenielicious. Still doing physiotherapy as well - will do that until the private insurance runs out! But - today was the first day back on my bike (I can't even begin to expound on how happy that made me), so there may actually be some hope, though I still need to be very careful. Having an MRI on Tuesday to have a good old nose around to see if I actually did any permanent damage (hopefully not!).
I still need to get the pics up from when Mom was here. That really was fun - I can't believe that she left over a week ago, or that she was here for nearly two weeks! Being a visit that involved me, there was very little time to sit around here and navel gaze. Last time she was here (2006!) we did the London touristy stuff, so this time we ventured further afield. Of course, we had to do some oldy-worldy stuff (Hampton Court Palace, for example), but we went down to Brighton for the afternoon, spent a few days in Scotland, as well as a few in Brussels.
David came with us up to Edinburgh. We took the train - first class - which was actually pretty swank, and not bad, save for getting stuck for 3 1/2 hours and finally shunted onto another train. Apparently, the massive weight of the half inch or so of snow that fell (the temperature dropped from about 75 to freezing about the time Mom god here - nice). Anyway, the massive weight of the nearly non-existent snow in the north of England knocked down the power lines onto the train ahead of us (still stuck in place, with people on it, when we passed, hours later). Well, Mom wanted a real British travel experience... Anyway, we stayed at a really nice B&B in Edinburgh, just at the food of Arthur's Seat, not far from where I lived when I was a student there. I have to admit, I still have a soft spot for Edinburgh and still think I could very happily live there - crappy weather and all... And the weather was awful. Rain and snow and hail and blowing wind. It did improve, towards the end... Didn't stop us from wandering all over the centre of the city, nor going on the (wet and windy!) castle tour. I even, much to my great surprise, got Mom to walk nearly all the way up to the top of Arthur's Seat (old volcanic plug - 823 feet tall), from where you can see the entire city.
We hired a car and drove up into the Highlands on one of the days - about a 200 mile loop. I'd not driven in the UK for 6 years (since the last time she was here), so it was a little awkward shifting with my left hand at first - only tried to open the door once and only killed the engine on a hill once though - not bad. (I also accidentally blurted out the F-word with Mom in the car when I killed the engine - I mean FUDGE!). Oh well.
Our other trip was on the Eurostar to Brussels. Fortunately, there were no train troubles this time, well, not with our train anyway. It being Brussels, the entire transport system was on strike for the entire week, which made getting around town slightly difficult. The weather was also just about as nice as it was in Edinburgh. Fortunately, Mom had a waterproof coat and was a good sport about it. We stayed right in the middle of town, at the Marriott (very swank) and walked and walked and walked. Ooh, I tried horse in Brussels - very yummy - sort of like a cross between bison and kangaroo (buffaloo?). Also tried haggis and black pudding in Scotland - not so yummy. Anyway, yeah, we walked around the centre of Brussels a lot. Went one day down to Waterloo to see the Napoleon monument. We walked several miles in the pouring rain there - Mom was pretty sure the locals were laughing at us.
Funny moment - I had completely forgotten that La Demence (big gay dance club) was happening that weekend in Brussels, nor did I have any idea where the hotel was where most of the guys were staying. So, of course, when we're walking down this street, I start noticing a very large number of gay men hanging around - most of them dressed to go out (ie., not for the weather). Even Mom noticed - that's how many there were. We walk by this hotel - the Royal Windsor Hotel - and it dawns on me - OMG, only I would manage to walk right by the absolute epicentre of trashy gay-ness with Mom in tow. Nothing says sexy like showing up in sensible and comfortable clothing, along with one's mother. Oh well. Anyway, I think both of us really enjoyed the time, and it was really difficult to send her off on the train to Heathrow. Need to start work now to ensure that it's not another six years.
Speaking of work - they have agreed that I should take a DBA course, which will end up being a very good CV builder - esp if I can move us onto PostGIS from Oracle! I have this recurring dream of trying to get to some far away, absurd place via public transportation, usually in the snow and usually barefoot. Over the several years I've had this dream, I've decided it has to do with me feeling stuck at work - feeling unprepared to get to whatever far away destination I had in mind. Will have to see if that dream changes (it's different every time, yet always the same). Right, I'm starting to blather, and it's time to get more junk food. I keep getting distracted by Star Trek, which David has on the televator. I really am like a deer in headlights. Moo.
Wednesday, 28 March 2012
So, my shoulder is actually recovering quite quickly - I can very nearly get my arm over my head again (not quite) and I'm doing lots of weenie weights at the gym with cables. I start physiotherapy (hopefully not many session) on Monday, and I'm taking full advantage of David's private medical insurance, as the NHS said it would take weeks or months. I'm going to attempt to run tomorrow morning - hopefully that won't be a disaster. God knows I've read a lot of horror stories about dislocated shoulder on the internet, but thus far (touch wood) mine hasn't been too bad. Still though, my arms seem to have shrunk already down to little Barbie arms - dougasaurus rex, and if I have to do another minute on the indoor stairmaster I think I'm going to cry. Still, it could be worse... I do still sleep with the sling on, propped up slightly, on my back or side, in the extra bedroom - I don't want to have the arm go over my head and fall off or something in the middle of the night - I imagine that being an icky way to wake up - even worse than turning over and ramming one's nose into the wall (yes, I've done that).
Funny, even with trial and tribulation, I look back on my time in Tromso, and, for that matter, Tromso itself, and think - wow, what a cool place.
Yesterday was my low point, I think - I was really in a terrible, awful mood. Cycling, I've come to realise, is my big stress reliever, and my way of being out and about in the world. I'm actually not that much of a big city person, not really, not truly, I've come to accept. Cycling has allowed me to ignore that fact, and when I'm not doing it, when I'm mashed up against some smelly, awful person on the Tube, that's when I really feel, what am I doing here? Still - it's been about 14 years now in NYC and London, which isn't too bad. I'm not sure either David nor I see ourselves living in London for the rest of our lives - it's just too big and annoying, though I do very much like it. Where would we go? Who knows. I always do this little mental exercise when I go to a new city - could I live here? There have been a few yesses in that list - mostly, it seems, in Germanic countries. I don't want to go back to the USA though - we've gone through too much to get here, I like living in Europe, and I don't ever want to go back to American work culture (2 weeks off??? Awful!). I'm very happy with my six weeks, thank you very much! Anyway though, plenty of time to think - nothing is going to happen in the immediate near future...
Thursday, 22 March 2012
David and I just got back from Tromso yesterday afternoon. Where the hell is Tromso, you ask? (Actually, there should be a little do-dah thing going diagonally across that last o, but I don't know how to do it and I'm too lazy to find out). Anyway, Tromso is right up at the tippy-top of Norway where it curves back towards Russia. It's on a small island surrounded by truly breathtaking mountains - imagine the sort of setting of Vancouver and put the treeline at about 500 feet. I'd wanted to go to Tromso since I was about 10 and read about it in a magazine (Geo, maybe?), and, I have to say, it did not disappoint. The home of such astounding things as the world's northernmost cathedral, university and Burger King (at nearly 70 degrees north - about that of Barrow), Tromso is actually a super-cool, laid-back, outdoorsy and very classy little city - not frontier at all.
We flew up there last Thursday via Oslo, nearly missing our connecting flight. Oslo is another place I want to go, btw. David, Avi and I went up there, and were met, a day later, by a friend of Avi's (also David), who lives in southern Norway, in Stavanger. The flight up to Tromso was rather bumpy, so Avi spent a good deal of time grabbing onto either the seat, David or me for dear life. Suppose the combination of mountains and high winds would make for a bumpy flight. We landed at the micro-dink Tromso airport, collected our bags and went to the rental car counter.
No, sorry, we don't have any record of your rental. Nope, none.
Fortunately, that was solved quickly through another (more expensive) rental car company, but we then spent the next hour on the phone with the rental car company (Alamo - they suck) and the bank trying to remove the charges from my credit card for the non-existent car. They are still there and I'm going to have the bank start an investigation. So, we got the rental car from Sixt. Sixt is one of the more bargain type car rental places, so we ended up with a small Hyundai with a huge sign across it advertising the local name of the rental car company - I'm talking covering the entire side of the car. Now that's high class. It was the first time in 6 years I'd driven a stick shift and the first time in 14 years I'd driven a stick shift with my right hand, so things were a little tricky at the beginning, though, amazingly, I actually didn't kill the engine. The car had studded tires, thankfully, as most of the roads were sheets of ice (that connects to the thump-ow bit).
We spent the first evening there just wandering around the town, and made the first of several trips to the small local supermarket to stock up on food (as we had rented a holiday apartment). Norway is so stupdendously expensive it just boggles the mind - most food items are at least twice what I would normally expect to pay. Apparently, wages are higher as well, but my God, how can these people afford to live?
Our sleep the first night was interrupted by what sounded like a herd of elephants running around on the floor above us. It turned out to be two Aussie women, who had returned from seeing the aurora at 345am. We couldn't quite figure out how they could possibly make so much noise, but every night it was the same routine - and it sounded like they were running back and forth from room to room - constantly.
The next day I drove back to the airport, with Avi, to pick up his friend. They have just installed a new gate system at the airport - to get into any parking lot, including the area in front of the terminal, where you pick people up, you have to put your credit card in. You then have to put the credit card in again when you leave, when it determines how much to charge you. Of course, none of this is written in English (how thoughtless!), so we spent some time at the entrance to the airport, trying to figure out how the hell to get past the gate. Fortunately, Norwegians seem to be patient folks.
We spent that day wandering all over Tromso, which, being quite small, is a very wanderable city. I ran across the bridge (huge views) and up into the hills as well. That night, we all went to dinner down by the waterfront, and spent an astronomical amount of money on a very nice dinner. I ate Rudolph. He was yummy. (My choice was down to Rudolph or Shamu, and I felt a bit guilty about Shamu).
Saturday, I ran in the morning on the ice-covered and hilly streets, and then we rented snowshoes and took the gondola up to the top of the mountain across the fjord. From there, we snowshoed off towards a nearby peak. It was pretty cold (maybe 20 or so) and very windy, and on the way down from the top we ended up in a whiteout. I've never been in a whiteout before - it's actually rather scary, as you totally and completely lose your sense of direction. Thankfully, we had a GPS, so we didn't die in the Arctic wilderness or anything silly like that - but it did illustrate how people can get in trouble very rapidly in such situations.
That night we drove about 100 miles inland (or, rather, I drove) - all of it on snow and ice-covered roads, and a good deal of it in blowing snow. The roads in that part of Norway are just barely wide enough for two cars. They seem to huge the water at the base of hugely steep mountains, and they are very windy (for example here and here). The Norwegians, used to driving on them, drive at a pretty good clip. Very scary in the winter, at night, in heavy snow (on top of packed ice). All I can say is thank God for studded tires! Our little Hyundai was a virtual snow-tank! Anyway, we drove way the hell and gone to the absolute and total middle of nowhere, just across the border into Finland, where it was clear and much drier. We had our first aurora sighting back inside Norway, when Avi looked out the window and wondered about this wispy cloud, which, in fact, turned out to be the Northern Lights. We stopped by the side of the road - cameras out, tripods up, and watched the river of white-green light flowing across the top of the valley until it faded away. We didn't actually go very far into Finland - less than a mile, b/c we didn't feel like dealing with the border station. I parked the car in an open area along the road and we sat around and waited, engine on, heat on, eating sandwiches. Amusingly, David and I bought these mats to lay on to look at aurora, but it was just too damn cold for that. So now we have some nice mats that we lugged back and forth to Norway.
The place we stopped, being exposed, had huge amounts of wind blowing across it, as well as whipped up snow, so the actual experience of standing outside and watching was a little on the nippy side (that and it was about 19F). The aurora was white-green again - nearly white to the naked eye, but green to the camera, and, being so far north, it covered most of the sky. We stood out there, in the elements, for quite a long time, just watching the slow waves of light wandering across the sky - the occasional arrow straight stabs of light, the fluttering curtains. I'd seen the aurora before, in Minnesota, but there was just something about standing out there, surrounded by miles and miles of nothing (and a car only about every 15 minutes) that was pretty damn amazing. Eventually, the lights faded away, and we pointed the car back towards Norway.
Someone, I'm not sure who, got the idea of trying the radio. We had three music choices. In Finland we had the Finnish language sort of oompa loompa music station, and back across the border in Norway we had either opera or Norwegian country. There is something very odd about driving across darkened, snow-covered Arctic landscape listening to country music sung in bork-bork.
Sunday, we slept in (as we got back around 130am) and then just did stuff in town again. I went for a long run up in the hills (surrounded by cross country skiers). Avi made a curry that night.
Monday, David, Avi and I set off for the Arctic Ocean. I told David that he could no longer say we'd not had a beach trip this year. Of course, we sat, huddled up, eating our sandwiches on a snow covered spit of land, just past some fisher's cottages, with snow covered mountains in the background. It might not have been beach weather, but it was, most definitely, a beach. From there, we drove out to, literally, the end of the road, where there was a cute little town, reached by a very narrow bridge. We were slightly delayed on the way back by a very large moving truck blocking the the entire highway. Apparently, it did not occur to them to put chains on before trying to drive up the steep, ice-covered driveway, so everyone had to sit around and wait for what seemed like an inordinate number of men to run around and finally fit oversized chains to the truck to get it out of the road. We sat for maybe 15 minutes - not sure, during which time no one honked. Not once.
And then, the thump ow bit. That evening, it being a beautiful, cold evening, I decided to run up the hill again. The sunset lasts for several hours at that latitude and the light is just amazing. They do, by the way, sell running shoes with spikes (I'm going to buy some, for future winters), but I just had normal shoes (but a lot of experience running on ice). Anyway, all was fine until I was on my way back down the hill. I turned a corner just as I hit a patch of glaze ice and my feet just went out from under me. I went flat over on my left side, right onto my shoulder. I did manage to pick myself up out of the road, but became aware of a growing amount of pain from my shoulder, and that I couldn't move my arm properly. That was the shoulder I broke, so, of course, that was my first fear, but it didn't feel broken. I sat down on the snowbank, then tried to walk. I couldn't walk, because of the pain. I did call David though, as I was starting to panic and didn't know what to do. I tried to explain where I was, but, having no idea the name of the street, I succeeded mostly in blubbering on the phone. To my immense relief, a slightly older couple walked by and asked if I was OK. No, I don't think I am. The guy said he would go get his car and drive me to the hospital. I waited a little while, during which time several other people stopped, and he finally showed up with his car. By this point I couldn't move my arm at all, nor could I sit still, because of the pain. I felt my shoulder, and could feel the top of it sticking out - great - I dislocated it. The guy stopped by the apartment to pick up David, and then drove us to the hospital. We thanked him profusely.
Perhaps it's because it was not in a big place, but the signage in the hospital was awful, so we did have some trouble figuring out where to go. David and I waited first in this sort of ante-room, for maybe half an hour, where we were registered. From there, we were told to take an elevator up to another floor (to do this we had to walk out through an unheated area, which was a little odd). At this point I had my first set of x-rays done. This was excruciating and I had a terrible time standing in front of the machine (though the women there were very nice). From there it was on to another waiting area, which a very random collection of people hanging about, mostly young, speaking English and Norwegian. David tried to leave this area to use the toilet, but, apparently, once you're in, you can't leave - the security guard shooed him back in. After another half hour or 45 minutes (which seemed like about 10 years - I was really having trouble keeping it together). I was asked to go into a private room, where I was seen by a doctor and a nurse (both female). I was stuck with what seemed like quite a few needles (my hand is now bruised, as is my elbow) and given a good whack of morphine, after which the doctor did some unspeakably horrible thing with my shoulder and popped it back into place. Fortunately, I was mostly in la la land at that point or I'm pretty sure I would have pooped myself. I sort of vaguely remember leaving in a taxi with David, but, honestly, the rest of that night is a bit blurry.
Poor David - he is so supportive, and I have to admit that it was a goddamn stupid thing to go running that night, when it suddenly got cold, and was so icy. I think the whole thing stressed him out more than it did me - I think I owe him one.
I slept that night, propped up with pillows, on my back, and have had my arm in a sling. We ended up having to stay one extra day, which cost a fortune (most of it we will get back through travel insurance, but still). We got the 645am flight out yesterday - just barely made it to the airport in time. It was very cold out again and the car (diesel) didn't want to start. I drove, which wasn't quite as bad as I had feared, as I had only just given David his first lesson in driving a stick shift.
Today - well, today I went to the doctor and got a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, who I will see tomorrow, after which I will start physiotherapy. Again. My shoulder seems incrementally better already, and I was told I probably didn't tear any ligaments or tendons, but I can't bike, I can't gym, I can't run, and I can't even sleep normally. I'm annoyed and pissed off and feel like an idiot - I debated not running that night - thought it wasn't a good idea, but thought, oh it will be fine. And it wasn't. But, there isn't much to do about that now except get better, and never go running on ice again without proper shoes. I think about living in Minnesota - that was defintely done without the proper equipment, but it was generally fine (well, fine until I wrecked my car on ice and buggered up my knee). I didn't know at that point that you could get spiked shoes, or spikes to put on your shoes (which I got for my hiking boots - they are great). I suppose you learn these things. Unfortunately, I have always opted for the learning by breaking route, and, often, the thing that gets broken is me.
I would still go back to Tromso though - I intend to go back to Tromso - with my bike. That's the funny thing about the place and this trip - I come back seriously damaged but still think - hey - that was a really good trip - I'm not sure I've ever felt this particular conflicting set of emotions. The next month or so is going to suck - a lot. But, I'm still really happy I went. Tromso did not disappoint. It's nice to have a childhood dream sometimes that actually comes true.
Sunday, 11 March 2012
I went for a 66 mile bike ride today with a friend (a friend with a proper racing bike). Wow, that pretty much kicked my behind - definitely time to shed a few unnecessary pounds, bikewise. Still though - it was a lovely ride and the weather was perfect.
We're off to Tromso on Thursday, hopefully to actually see some northern lights. I've been wanting to go there since I read about the place when I was about 10, so I really can't wait!
I just ordered a bunch of flower seeds for the back yard. Without giving it a whole lot of thought, I ordered two ounces of mixed dry-weather flower seeds. Two ounces is a lot. We will have a lot of flowers - hopefully without a lot of water! After today's ride, I spent the last hour before dark pruning things, cleaning up debris, etc. The life of a gardener, eh?
Oh, we had a funny minor disaster the other evening that would probably only happen in a gay household. I walked up the stairs and noticed this funny chemical smell - vaguelly sweet, definitely familiar. What is it? Where is it coming from? I traced the smell into Robin's room and finally into a corner where WHOAH there seems to be an exploded bottle of poppers and guess which dumbo just gave himself a massive dose of it? It was a funny experience - I was really torn between trying to open the room and ventilate the room and being, briefly, high as a kite. I suppose if one was going to have a mishap, there are worse possibilities. We aired the house out for a day, but it took several days before the house didn't stink. Ah, the hazards of a gay house.
Thursday, 1 March 2012
Thursday, 23 February 2012
17 Feb - So, first impression of flying into Palermo was something along the lines of flying into Beirut (or, at least, how I imagine Beirut) - lots of very square, tired looking, beige concrete buildings that look like they had seen better days. We were unloaded from the plane and onto an enormous bus - the only bus I have ever seen that opened also from the back. The bus drove us the 100 or so yards to the terminal, which was undergoing, um, extensive renovation. There we waited 20 or so minutes to file past the two border guards to the luggage carousel, on top of which was running a very amped up, drug sniffing German Shepherd. Mamma mia! Remind me not to smuggle drugs into Sicily... Then it was off to the large, aptly named "RentaCar" building, in which we got to wait again. The car, a (relatively) recent Peugeot 308 automatic (very hard to get an automatic!) had a number of scratches (which we dutifully noted), was dirty, misssing an antenna (which we swiped from the car parked next to it - figured, hey, when in, um, not Rome...) and cost more than it should have. Welcome to Sicily.
I was too tired to drive (in fact, I didn't drive this trip and only had to change my underpants a few hundred times with Robin at the wheel... ;-). So, Robin drove the 200 miles across the island. It actually looks very much like Southern California - sort of coastal Orange County, though it seems to have been mostly denuded of just about anything other than grass in many places. The drivers are a bit more southern than that though - think Tijuana. My God! Officially, there are 2 lanes each direction on the Autostrade. Unofficially, there seem to be three. There is the get the hell out of the way lane (which you can putter along in as long as you have your left turn signal on permanently). There is the slow lane, and, sort of halfway over into the shoulder, there is the old Fiat lane. Using one's left turn signal seems to be mandatory, and it is always left on when in the fast lane. I'm pretty sure the right turn signal is prohibited though, as we almost never saw them in use. Car horns and light flashing are absolutely required. There is also quite a lot of hedging one's bet, lane-wise - hmm, right lane, left lane, who can say - best to stay in the middle! One cool thing is that since everything was in km/h, we cruised along happily at 170kph. We did, however, at one point do the math and figure out that was over 100mph. But there are so many more number on the dial! (The speed limit is 130kph, btw). Signage was generally of the sort of "ha ha, you missed your exit" variety. All I can say is thank God for Jane (we named our GPS Jane).
We stopped on the way at a supermarket (a "hypermarket"). I love foreign supermarkets, especially the meat and cheese sections. The Italians are big meat and cheese eaters. There was a wheel of cheese as big as a tractor tire and meat with God knows what in it. (It was all very tasty except something I bought that slighty resembled a horse wang. It tasted OK, but had these big strings of fat that kept getting stuck in my teeth. Some of it went to a nice stray kitty and the rest of it in the trash. One can only eat so much horse wang, it turns out...). Oh, apparently "speck" is not Italian for "bacon". It's more like prosciutto, and, when cooked bacon-style ends up turning into sort of wafer-thin beef jerky with the general texture of shoe leather. Oh well, live and learn.
So, we're staying in a holiday apartment in the middle of Taormina, which is a sort of slightly faded glory coastal resort town that seems to be slowly reawakening to it's cuteness potential (based on the large amount of Prada that could be found on sale in the pedestrianised centre). The town perches on cliffs 600 feet straight up from the Ionian Sea, with and astounding view southwards along the coast to the steaming, snow covered hulk of Mt Etna (which erupted just last week, apparently). We met the owner of the apartment at a parking lot at the edge of town. He showed up on a Vespa (of course) and then led us, in the car, down increasingly narrow streets to the apartment. Once there, we unloaded the car as quickly as humanly possible, as we were blocking the street. Robin then followed the guy back to the parking lot to drop off the car, then rode back with the guy on the back of the scooter. I'm so glad that wasn't me - I would have likely wet myself.
Anyway, we walked around the nearly completely desolate town last night, but mostly hung around here eating breat and salami and wathing "The Core" in Italian because we were so exhausted.
The apartment itself is on four levels, with one main room on each level, and with a fantastic roof balcony, from which one could look up the street to the 400 foot cliff with a cross on top of it backing up the town. The guy who owns it seems to have an African fetish, as the decorating motif is quite African, with the occasional ceramic head thrown in just for fun (these are all over town - very odd - as well as for sale in the many schlock shops full of brightly coloured pottery and nativity scenes).
Today we slept in late, then I went for a morning run down the hairping road to the sea (and then back up). We spent the day walking and oohing and aahing at things. From the beach there is a gondola ("funivia") back up to the town. We had the enormous pleasure of watching Avi scream like a girl as the gondola lifted off into the air, climbing the 600 feet back up to the town. I think Robin is going to put the video on Facebook.
The coastline looks like California thinks it looks (minus the awful housing developments), but it really does feel of yesterday's glory - lots of grand old abandoned houses. The town itself does have a lot of money, and definitely caters for tourists, but we hit it on the low season, meaning about half the stores were closed. None of us knew that they rigorously adhere to the siesta. Everything closes at 130pm and then reopens at 430pm. It is damn near impossible to get anything to eat between those hours, save at a very few places.
21 Feb - On the plane back to London, feeling tired and a little bit fat. Didn't get much sleep last night. The next door neighbours were clomping around and moving chairs on hard floors (I think they had a party, it being the end of Carnival) until about 230 and we had to be up at 6. Ugh.
Anyway, we had a really great time, and only a few changes of underpants - not bad for Robin driving! Saturday, we drove down to Etna, which rises over 10000 feet from the coast and periodically trashes the surrounding towns and cities. We exited the Autostrade on a rather poorly maintained road that climbed through vineyards, forests and eventually snow covered lava fields to Sicily's only ski area (I think) - parked right smack dab under the smouldering crater and partially wiped out by lava in 2009. Gotta love the Italians. The place was thronging with chattering Italians in expensive ski wear and the ubiquitous large sunglasses (do Italians whisper? I don't think so). We definitely looked out of place, dressed for mildly chilly weather, in jeans with sensible shoes. The view - spectacular - and way down there, past the numerous cinder cones - Catania - the 2nd city of Sicily - last obliterated in 1693.
We had dinner back in Taormina. I ordered clam and mussel soup, thinking it would be like clam chowder. Wrong! What I got instead was a smallish bowl of large pile of clams and mussels on top - their tongues lolling out. I was very brave and managed not to look completely horrified, and Robin showed me how to eat a clam by using the shell for a scoop and a spoon (yeah, I know - somehow I grew up in a cave or something). Admittedly, it as tasty, but eek! The rest of hte dinner was some sort of unidentified meat (it was a "meat plate").
Sunday we drove down to Catania, a fairly sprawling coastal city of faded glory, sitting at the base of Etna. The suburbs were mostly of the sort of drab, stacked concrete apartment blocks you see people getting stuck in during an earthquake. Driving rules in the city seemed fairly optional and large intersections swarmed with squeegee men. It seemed people were even paying them not do do the windows. I would have just hosed them off with the windshield washers, but I suppsoe that might have meant bad news for the wipers. The centre of town consisted of mostly what would have once been grand, baroque buildings laid out in blocks, now in various stages of quiet decay. There definitely was once a lot of money there - wonder what happened? It being Carnivale, the world's entire supply of silly string and confetti seemed to have been strewn about the streets. Hmm - confetti sounds Italian (as does graffiti, which is)- wonder if there is a link? Most of the cathedral, were built of lava. When life gives you a volcano...
Yesterday (and today) it rained. We spent yesterday doing other things in Taormina - climbing the 9 million steps up to the cross on the hill (from where they play "Ave Maria" over the town every day at noon - nice!) and then wandering around the Greek (and later Roman) amphitheatre. I sat in one of the seats and tried to imagine a Greek play going on - slightly difficult with the annoying loud group of Spaniards. Seriously - whispering - try it sometime! And - last night, we had pasta in the apartment and sat around watching Fashion TV (surprisingly addictive, actually, those runway shows!).
Today - 300km back to Palermo, in the rain, an emergency run back out with the rantal car to get gas (as none at the airport!), a slightly chaotic process of loading the plane (Italy) and now we are starting our descent into London. Thank you for flying Queasyjet; don't let the door hit you on the way out!
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Oh, an interesting phenomenon in the local park was observed that did seem to correlate to the weather. Normally, this being a rather multi-ethnic area, the people out and about in the park reflect this mix. On Sunday, however, amidst quite a number of hastily crafted snow-people (I'm being 21st century politically correct, of course), one could play the game of "spot the ethnic minority". Very odd...
Saturday night I went out walking in the snow. David, Robin and Robin's friend, Mike decided to watch "Warrior", which seemed to have some amount of plot, but mostly a lot of beefy men beating the crap out of each other. Now, I'm all for beefy men, but I'm not so big on them beating each other up.
Some pics (most of them taken at night, hence the funny tone...)
Our poor little palm tree!
A beckoning door in the cold night... ;-)
Finsen Road, in the night-time snow.
A very cold monkey puzzle...
Almost Dickensian, except for those big lumpy buildings in the background...