Monday 27 April 2009

Tinkle tinkle little star...

Why do people insist on whistling in the toilet? I think that should be a capital crime! I mean, there I am, trying to do my business, and some numbnuts comes in whistling some obnoxious song, or, more likely, starts whistling the moment he whips out his schlong. Is he afraid of hearing the soft tinkle of, well, his tinkle? I just want to shout out, but that would probably be construed as weird.


On Friday, I, who never have any Friday evening activities, had not one, but three places I had to be. Like a bus – nothing for ages, then three come along. So, first I went to a works drink at London Fields, where I sat around for the designated time with by boss and his boss (since no one else bothered to show). Oh, forgot to mention I’d just found out I got the third flat tire in as many weeks. So I ran over to the bike store to purchase a new tire, tube and rim liner. Nothing says I’m a dork quite like walking into a crowded pub with a bike tire.

Second event – Chinese dinner near Elephant for Adrian’s bday. Very yummy food, but the only problem is that it was about 5 miles from Hackney, and my tire would only go about a mile before it needed to be reinflated. So, there I am, wearing the new tire like a necklace, furiously pumping up the old tire with my stupid little micro-pump. I get to dinner in not the best mood, but survive the trip.

Bike goes home after that on the train, b/c I’m not having any more of farting around with the tire on darkened streets. I take the train back into town for Ben’s drinks. Ben is absolutely blitzed. So blitzed, in fact, that he sticks belly button lint down the top of my shirt while I’m talking to someone else, then tries to stick my hand into said belly button. I still have the fingernail mark on the back of one of my knuckles when I resisted that nearly irresistible invitation. Nice.

Saturday was lots of errands, bike and otherwise, then a lovely dinner with David at this steak place at Borough Market.

Yesterday I headed out, supposedly to Cambridge on my bike. I got a bit sidetracked by the Marathon, then by hanging out with Michelle in Enfield, so my 65 mile ride to Cambridge turned into a 90 mile loop around north and west London. London is a very big city. My heinie hurts slightly today, but not so bad, all things considered. Perhaps I should try cracking a walnut with it. Perhaps not.

Oooh look, time to go!

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Morning bike ride grumble...

Message seen this morning on the Rectory Road Church (giggle) to the young, urban illiterate…

Msg from God: I [Heart] U.

Oy vey.

Had a most annoying bike ride this morning. The warm spring weather seems to have brought out the cycling dickheads in droves. There are several distinct types of cycling dickheads…

1. Fatass male on either folding bike or hybrid. Clothing can range anywhere from full-on lycra to some random combination of excessively tight cotton shorts and a sweaty t-shirt. Fatass male can be quite fast, but almost always has seat too low, toes pointed outwards like a duck, and pedals like he is trying to create a fire with the inside of his thighs. Fatass male has an amazing tendency to speed on by then suddenly slow when he discovers that it takes a lot of energy to haul said fat ass…

2. City-boy type on super-racing bike, clad head to toe in lycra. City boys never smile, nor do they usually acknowledge others on the road unless it is to give them a rude gesture, blow snot out their noses in their general direction or fly through a red light without even the slightest concern as to whether there may or may not be pedestrians trying to cross. City boys usually also wear dark sunglasses, so it is very difficult to make eye contact with them to try to ascertain their next move. City boys are usually very fast and on the most expensive bikes, and tend to inspire the greatest feelings of wanting to push them over.

3. The fixed-gear, messenger type. It used to be that it was actually messengers who road fixed gear bikes. They had a tendency to weave at very high speeds through city traffic and regarded lights as mere annoyances. True messengers, however, can, to at least some degree, be forgiven for being assholes on the road – it’s a dangerous job. Now, however, the fixed gear bike has taken on a sort of cult status (why, I don’t know), and increasingly seems to be ridden by the Shorditch type – young, usually male, peg-legged jeans, t-shirt or cardigan, Pete Daugherty type hat or sometimes even a BMX helmet. They have a tendency to stand on their pedals at traffic lights (when they notice them) and are rather unpredictable in their behaviour.

4. Clueless new person trying to look as cool as possible and creating a hazard on the road. This person has only recently come to cycling – perhaps finally realising that the Tube and the bus are annoying, smelly, slow and generally unpleasant. They have no idea how to behave in London traffic, are completely erratic, are considerably more dangerous to other cyclists than the car traffic, and are even on par with pedestrians when it comes to the general ass-headed ‘oh, I hadn’t noticed – it’s a road!’ department.

Of course, there are plenty of perfectly lovely people on there on bikes, but as the roads get more crowded, I do understand why the average Londoner seems to want as many cyclists to be run over by buses as possible. Sad.

Perhaps tomorrow morning I will change my route and see if I can discover a bit of peace again…

Monday 20 April 2009

Monday yarfiness

Blah. It must be Monday. I had a completely healthy and happy weekend – biked to Brighton on Saturday – the weather was perfect, the flowers all blooming – one of those days that makes one happy to be living in England in the springtime. Watched a high-budget/low-plot movie Saturday night with Avid, Robin and David– ‘Babylon AD’. It says a lot when the high point of the movie was a brief glimpse of Vin Diesel’s tits. We are a sad bunch we are. We just sort of puttered about London yesterday – biked out to Kew to be annoyed at horrible upper middle class families and their offspring – we had a lovely time sitting in the sunshine outside Starbucks (we couldn’t find our Kew cards, so that was as close as we got). And then today I wake up and feel like an elephant has farted on my head. Sore throat, general blah-i-ness, excessive amounts of whining. I should have just gone out and partied – probably would have felt better. Still though, I’ve drunk almost a litre of orange juice – must be something good in that!

Went to the world’s shittest Tesco at lunch, full of the usual splendour that is Hackney. All the random London weirdoes and ragamuffins portrayed in movies and TV – some of the stock Sherlock Holmes characters – they all seem to frequent the Hackney Tesco at lunchtime. Anyway, this supermarket seems to have quit stocking salad dressing entirely. When I asked about salad dressing, I was directed to the aisle with the spaghetti sauce. Yeah – almost the same thing. However, one can buy one’s very own Sauvignon Blanc grapevine. That’s right – where would today’s eco-conscious Hackney wino be without his very own mini-vineyard! I’m waiting for them to start selling hops, so I can grow my own Special Brew.

Not much else on really, and I suppose I should do some work. How dull.

Friday 17 April 2009

Auntie Dougie

Well, I'm a little behind on the times here I suppose. However, given that I only actually manage to write in here when I'm at work, pretending to look busy, I suppose it isn't too bad. I was made aware of the happy arrival of little Kylie Esperanto (they really shouldn't have given her a name that so lends itself to me butchering it...) by text message on the 15th, after I sent a helpful email to Lindsey that she was just being greedy still being pregnant - just wanted to have her own seat on the bus, that sort of thing. We had to do this stupid personality analysis at work, and mine said I shouldn't work with sensitive people. I told them to shove it... ;-) Anyway, I'm not sure I've entirely processed this information that I'm an uncle, and that my baby brother who I so loved to beat up (until he was bigger than me anyway) actually popped out a child (well, technically, I suppose Lindsey did that, but let's not get hung up on small details).

I can't wait to meet her, though, honestly, I'm a little anxious about the whole thing. I know about as much about babies as I do about Chinese grammar, and as far as I know, Chinese grammar doesn't poop. On the plus side, it means that my little scientific experiment 25 or so years ago involving the electric fence and Jonathan peeing on it hasn't caused any lasting ill effects.

Actually, I woke up from a dream I think about 1 hour before Chloe was born that was a bit odd (though I do seem to have very interesting and oddly relevant dreams quite often...) I dreamt that I was on top of this mountain, and I wanted to get to the bottom. The only way down was down this very narrow, spiral staircase that descended into the mountain. Jonathan and Lindsey were ahead of me, leading the way, and Jonathan had a flashlight. I was following behind, trying to keep up, wearing flipflops that kept falling off, and I was afraid of falling down the stairs. The staircase was unlit, save for the topmost bits, and as I descended, it kept getting darker and darker - I was really trying to keep up, but was having a terrible time doing so. Hmm.

Speaking of babies, someone brought in her new baby to work today (still had that new baby smell and everything!). The women generally took turns passing her around like a small pink party favour, while the guys did their best to look busy.

Anyway, oh look - it's time to leave... :-)

Trip Blog - Central European Train Trip


Sitting on a rather crappy and distinctly slow international train from Berlin to Prague with David. The décor is in various shades of dirty grey, the speed alternates between about 30mph and freeway speed and the other passengers are a mix of American students, European families of various sorts and sundry weird types. The child across from us has spent the whole time playing loudly with his action figures and then eating what sounded very much like small rocks. Yay – it’s the first day of our great European train journey!

We set off yesterday at the crap of dawn to Berlin – schlepped all the way to Heathrow for an hour delay, then spent yesterday afternoon/evening with Rogger and Frank. Actually, we mostly ate yesterday, it seems. Stayed at a hotel not from from where Paul and I stayed with a similar number of hookers working the street out front – I do know how to pick them! And not much sleep occurred, given that the room had no A/C and no air flow as we had to close the window to blot out the sirens. Sleep? Who needs sleep? Anyway, we are now streaking across the flat and rather boring east German landscape – the occasional tumbledown factory or large wind turbine adding the occasional bit of interest. It’s a bit like driving across Illinois. Think I need to go for a walk – this seat is killing my poor posterior. Ooh, and we seem to have reached the outskirts of Dresden, which looks like it might be improved by another visit by the British!


On the road again, or, rather, the 0930 from Prague to Breclav, which is somewhere in the Czech Republic (on the way to Vienna). Passing through rolling, vaguely Midwestern countryside with multi-story, very stout looking farmhouses and random towns consisting of the selfsame houses, Soviet blocks, half dead looking industry, and an inordinate amount of construction – all in one happy bunch. Prague was excellent – my third time there and David’s first. Came into Praha-Holesovice, which I found slightly amusing – a station yet to be blessed with EU funding that felt a bit like coming into Tijuana – complete with ruffian-looking police officers tearing out of a dusty police station in wind-up cars. We were outlaws and took the Metro without paying. The ticket machines took only coins. There was no change machine, no change given when I bought a bottle of Coke from a newsagent, a massive queue at McDonalds and a surly ‘no change!’ from the ticket booth person. Service with a smile. Oh well. We stayed at actually a rather grand hotel on the edge of the city centre – at the not so quiet intersection of a freeway and two train lines. David and I found it with the aid of not one, but two GPS devices. How nerdy. The room was a bazillion degrees – the A/C was not yet working, as the air flow was centrally controlled for our ‘comfort’.

We walked all over Prague, which is insanely beautiful and sponsored by Disney, except for the horrible office blocks popped in by the Commies before UNESCO told them they were being very naughty. I managed a happy run from our hotel up to the castle – the highest point I could find, of course. Prague was also the last stop where I knew anyone – Jiri. We hung out with him both nights. The first night we had drinks at his apartment – a really cool, large and airy place in a questionable looking building on a secluded street next to the old castle. H gave us the (rather longwinded) history of the place over wine (as well as gushing over Obama’s speech he had just come from), then we walked up to the grounds of the old castle where he waxed lyrical on the history (he guides tours as well as doing gynecology and acupuncture), and pointed out the various scenic outdoor spots he’d had sex. We had beer and sausages at this very sort of granola-type, pot-smoke-filled bar in the middle of essentially an empty lot on the old castle grounds, and sat outside and looked over the city. Then dinner at a ‘traditional’ restaurant in an old Cubist building (who knew?). That was my first, and hopefully last experience with the mixture of ham, horseradish and whipped cream.

Yesterday was a lot more walking, including through the very concrete suburb of Nove Butovice, where I stayed when I visited in 1996. Hung out with Jiri again last night – shared a joint while looking out over the city next to the castle and its rather beefy and heavily armed guards (would have been impolite to say no) – and learned more history. We had veggie dinner at the strangest restaurant I’ve ever seen – a very ‘hip’ establishment done up in pink and green velvet, lights of sundry shapes, and complete with a very international set of cool people, weirdos and possibly a drag queen (we weren’t sure). So, all in all a fantastic time – and now a brief sojourn back to the West before plunging into Poland.

Interestingly, when we crossed the rather insignificant body of water separating Czech from Austria, the Germanic fondness for organisation took over immediately – evident in the neatness of fields, tightness of brightly coloured yet pastel tile-roofed houses in towns (all of them with privacy screening) and smoothness of the railbed.


Seated in a six-person compartment in the rather dusty-looking Czech border town of Bohumin with two older Polish women who have been talking absolutely constantly since Vienna, a guy plugged into his MP3, and David, who is reading the Guardian. Very very tired – we went last night for ‘traditional’ Austrian food in a 14th C wine cellar. I have schnitzel and potato salad. David had some part of the ass end of a pig – ‘Carroway Roast’, and we had Austrian wine served up in glass coffee mugs, which of course meant I didn’t sleep worth a crap.

Vienna was very stately, and, I thought, totally impenetrable (perhaps b/c I didn’t know anyone there?). Tuesday afternoon we just walked – David taking about a million pics. We had dinner at a gay café type place – nice though a bit dull. No ham with whipped cream and horseradish this time! Yesterday we looked at official ‘pretty buildings’ and gardens, as well as gymming and running – was very nice to do something active.

The funny thing about Vienna is that, while a very nice city with some impressive architecture, good food and excellent bike lanes/trails, etc., it just failed to make a big impression – it was ‘nice’ (probably why it is supposed to have such a high quality of life!). I was quite impressed though by how large was the Danube, and the fact that Vienna sits at the edge of a large plain – I had no idea…

It was also interesting crossing back into the Czech Republic – the uber-neat towns and fields gave way instantly to a rather hodgepodge mix of factories (many no longer in use), houses of various sizes and states of repair and random collections of crap. And this train is perpetually late – we seem to keep waiting for other trains to connect… We need a little German hyper-efficiency.

Crossed into Poland and everything is neat, orderly and looks comfortingly familiar. Who would have guessed that the Czech Repub would be a low rent zone amongst its neighbours? The state of the tracks seems to have gone to hell in Poland though – train is bonka bonking along slowly.

So much for neat. We changed trains at Katowice – a large, decrepit and slightly chaotic station in need of some serious paint, to a more local ‘Express’ train that must be at least fifty years old and is struggling to keep up with the coal-laden freight train on the opposite track. The landscape is trash-strewn, picked over and littered with the carcasses of dead industry and (not dead) Soviet-era housing.


On the Krakow – Warsaw Express, whizzing northwards through Polish farmlands at a dizzying 75mph. Actually, given the state of the tracks, it is pretty dizzying. I fi can read my own writing I will be doing well. Lots of farmhouses with fields – long and narrow fields tilled straight up and down the hills for maximal erosional effect. I wondered if Poland might feel like a spiritual homecoming, but it most definitely has not. This is by far the most foreign-feeling place I’ve been, much more so than Prague. That is though, I suppose, one of the reasons we travel.

We stayed for three nights in Krakow, or, rather, in a shiny new box of a Best Western in a very Soviet northern suburb of Krakow, as someone biffed this particular hotel booking (not me, of course). I fired up my GPS at the station and was rather horrified to find the address listed as over two miles away. After a minor disagreement and being unable to make heads or toes of the tramway (which didn’t go there anyway), we decided on a taxi, and my heart sank as we pulled into a parking lot off a six lane road, surrounded by hulking Soviet apartment blocks. It was actually fine – only about 15 minutes on the city bus. The first night back, however, we discovered that the bus took a different route back out of town. WE had a slight panic, thinking we had missed the stop, but actually managed to get off at the right one.

The first two days we just walked around the city – taking in extreme cuteness. David got calluses on his finger, I think, from the number of pictures he took. I had a lovely morning run through Soviet greyness the second morning we were there, and after a full day of walking, eating, gym and hearty (and heavy) dinner we missed the last bus back and opted to walk. I set my GPS and we followed it about two miles out into the night, out through the concrete neighbourhoods, past streets I couldn’t hope to pronounce or remember. I don’t think the route it chose was the shortest, but it did get us there in the end. So – I think it has earned its keep. Ooh, we’ve hit 90mph and the track is smooth – hello EU money and (slightly) clearer handwriting!

Yesterday we took the bus to Zakopane, a ski town in the Tatras on the Slovakian border. They are building a highway out in that general direction, which replaces the narrow, bumpy, two lane road, crowded with buses, trucks, cars and the occasional tractor. The Tatras themselves are beautiful – Alplike grandeur and all that. Zakopane is, well, different. It’s a mix of steep-roofed, dark coloured, very uniquely Polish (I suppose) looking Alpine type buildings, befitting an old town in the mountains, as well as Soviet monstrosities, grand mountain hotels, an innumerable shacks with people selling bread, kitchy knickknacks, doilies (a lot of doilies – a veritable doily bonanza), and, I would imagine, gypsy children if you looked hard enough. The main street was crowded with après-ski shoppers and sported all the usual expensive brands. The only slight difference was the overexuberance of the signs and advertising. It looked, to me, like the street had thrown up. There is capitalism and there is tasteful capitalism. Zakopane seems to have fully embraced the former, but not yet quite grasped the latter.

The town had a park, of sorts, which was really more of a field with benches and a few drunks, including one who decided to add to our view of the Tatras by relieving himself on a lightpole. Charming.

We then took the funicular up for a view of the valley. The view was magnificent. The area around the top of the funicular, however, was not. Rather, it was a tatty mix of bars, a fun fair, trash (human and the type on the ground), what looked like a Flintstones-themed picnic area, mud, several rusty ski lifts, a few random houses and a radio tower complete with very large fence. We wandered away from the schlock into a spruce forest and discovered ourselves alone. Apparently, tat has a bigger draw than nature. Britain, or, I imagine, Germany, would be full of families hiking off into the woods, with the obligatory (in England anyway) tea-room at the start of the journey. Not, apparently, in Poland.

So, I’m back on the train, hurtling northwards through Poland towards Warsaw – the last stop on the trip. Tomorrow it’s back to London. I think I need a vacation now.

I forgot to mention Easter. Today is Easter, so everything is closed. Yesterday, people were bringing little baskets of food to be blessed at church, and the churches were packed last night.

Also forgot (how could I?)… the salt mine. We went on a tour of a salt mine south of Krakow. It was a guided tour through about 2km of tunnels (out of 300), down to about 400 feet I think. The tunnels were well lit and the various caves full of sculpted statues (of salt), several chapels with chandeliers (also of salt) and a few underground lakes, not to mention a restaurant, snack bar, banquet room (wifi enabled), all under several hundred feet of ground. It was definitely up there with the strangest places I have ever been.

One last thing I forgot… We took a bus to and from Zakopane (about 65 miles each way) because the train somehow took 3 ½ hours. The bus down was a fairly ordinary bus (sans toilet). The bus back, however… We’d waited around for our supposed bus, which arrived at the appointed time, parked, and then just sat with the doors closed. Two announcements in Polish eventually said something important, I’m sure. Then another bus pulled in. I can perhaps best describe this bus by making a reference to the bus on the Muppet Movie. It was decked out in red and white (Polish colours), complete with a sort of bulletin board inside with a Polish flag attached, as well a number of red flowers. It must have reached a top speed of 50mph, downhill, and stopped at just about every little pissant little rundown bus stop on the way. It was fabulous – took 2 ½ hours.


Ah yes – back to reality. Today was the first day back at work after our grand adventure. It’s been the perfect day back. I got out of the house late for my bike ride, had to piddle around with the brakes, decided to shorten the ride, got a flat tire (2nd time in just a few weeks), then discovered that my pump didn’t seem to work on the new inner-tube (seems to be a crap pump). So, I used the GPS to find the nearest gas station, wheeled the bike there with its new but very flat tube, then had the great pleasure of farting around with the gas station air pump while two motorcycle cops stood there and watched, finally offering helpful advice on how to use the hose. Did I feel like a complete numbnuts? Possibly.

First thing when I get to work – Ewa asks me if I can help edit one of her interminably boring essays (me being the only one, besides her, with any teaching experience, and her being El Jefe. Ewa is taking a Master’s course for Management and General Boringness. Her essays are on various local government subjects that would bore an accountant to tears. Her first language is not English. I’ve spent most of my day on this, even though I’m so tired I can barely tie my shoes without crying. Just sent back the 2nd version to her. Granted, her essays have improved the past few months, but it’s very difficult going through essays for one’s boss, though I did tell her that I was going to be a hardass and essentially grade them. The funny thing is that she gives all the same excuses for bad writing that my 18 year old students used to.

Anyway, we just got back from Warsaw last night. Warsaw is a strange place. Granted, the entire city was blown up by the Nazis, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place with less of a defined center – even LA. Yes, there is a rebuilt ‘Old City’ (‘lovingly rebuilt’ and recognized as fabulous by UNESCO, but still feeling a bit too Disney to me). Problem is that the Old City is surrounded on old side by Communist concrete scariness, with the occasional large new shiny skyscraper poking through, all of it crisscrossed by ginormous boulevards full of insane drivers in cars of various vintages and road safe-worthiness. We stayed at a very swank Radisson that turned out to be right in the middle of the old Jewish ghetto (which was completely and totally razed, and which is entirely comprised of concrete squareness), and walked as much of the city center as we could muster in a day. Lots of monuments. Granted, the Polish have had lots to make monuments about, but my God, one could go into monument overload (not to mention that by the time we got there, David and were well on our way to cuteness overload – ‘Oh look, it’s another gorgeous street full of quaint little buildings – how nice. Ooh look, a Starbucks!’). I had one minor misadventure. I went for a run, and, rounding a corner, happened upon a large group of teenage girls. Trouble, I thought. Sure enough, one of them jumped out and tried to trip me – managed to pretty seriously bruise my shin, but I didn’t fall. My initial instinct was to grab her hair and kick her in the ass as hard as I could, but not really wanting to go against 20 girls, and really not wanting to get the police involved, I settled on a string of obscenities. I’m sure she went home and cried, that naughty girl. Hmph. Then when David and I were walking up behind the uber-kitchy Palace of Science and Culture (something like Zzcuebczzcski wombasckovaorother in Polish), two very scary, military-esque policemen stopped us (not pretty, don’t even think…). They said something in Polish, to which we responded that in fact no, we didn’t speak any Polish. This perplexed them greatly and they finally just waved us off and walked away. Yay for being the ignorant American! I have to admit I had all sorts of scary thoughts run through my head about being taken to horrible Eastern European prisons for having impure thoughts or being a rampant homosexual. Fortunately, our innate charm and total inability to relate to the locals prevailed.

So, Poland was lots of fun and the food was unbelievably yummy, but I don’t think I’m going to be clambering to move there – just a little too foreign…