Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rebus & the Ta-too

This must be about my fifth or sixth day in Edinburgh by now & I am pleased to report that yesterday it didn't rain once! It's a little like Auckland in that it seems to try & rain at least once a day - not much & often only drizzle, but precipitation all the same. It's also decidedly cool - but I expected as much & have found it pleasant. Thomas' flat is about twenty-five minutes walk from the centre of the city, so I've been doing the return trip once or twice a day in a bid keep some semblance of fitness - at least that's the excuse I give for the big sleep-ins (doesn't make much sense as I write it).

The first day in town was a very domestic day, with a walk in to town to have a look around & get orientated - masses of people around of course for all the festivals & street performers tend to attract large crowds of course. The last few days have been a mixture of wandering around checking out this wonderful city, its architecture, windy cobbled streets & closes, street performers, a bit of stand-up & some Rebus walking tours. I have a new appreciation of just how hard stand-up can be after seeing four acts in one day - only one of them really made me laugh. And that was probably because I'm a geek - it was called "Control Alt Delete" & was pretty much about computers & being a computer nerd. Admittedly, I only learnt to write in one language (C in case anyone is interested) & not the eighteen that the comedian had learnt in his previous life - so can't really claim to be a computer nerd, but I'm still enough of a geek to have found the show funny.I love how Edinburgh Castle can suddenly come in to view when you are wandering around the city - you see it down a skinny alley way, over the top of a building & so on. This photo taken from the top of the National Museum of Scotland.

I then went to see a Kiwi comedian, just to hear the accent really - the title, "Life after Divorce", didn't do much for me; it was nice to hear the accent, but it was a real struggle for the guy. There were only six in the audience, he paced a lot over a small spot (I hate this) & was sweating when he couldn't get much out of us; I think it would have been better titled "How crap life was when I was married", as he talked a lot more about this than post-divorce. The best part of the whole act was a young guy in the audience spoke up in a broad Scottish accent - "is it always this bad?". That was pretty funny, we then got in to a discussion of why it wasn't working & how unfunny it was - very bizarre. Also popped along & saw Raybon Kan (because I had heard of him) - he had a better audience, with a fair smattering of Kiwis, in a small sauna of a room; he was much better, but like the previous guy seemed to like beating up on people. I've had a few days off comedy, but tonight off to one that should be better.

As I was half through the Rebus novel I picked up for three quid in Cornwall, yesterday I went & did a couple of Rebus walking tours (didn't have time to do them last year). As these novels sparked my love of Edinburgh & its history I was pleased to be able to be shown around some of many places described & pick up other snippets of history. I crammed two tours into the same day as it was a beautiful sunny day & I didn't know if this would happen again. After four hours of walking around, I was a little sick of it - but got home to cook a nice steak up & prepare for the tattoo (which really just meant put on as much Icebreaker & other warm clothes I'd bothered to bring up from London).

The Tattoo had sold out many months ago when I started thinking of coming to Edinburgh for the end of August. So I was particularly pleased, stoked in fact, to get a return ticket for the late Saturday night show (this one has fireworks too) in a good seat at the end. I went along thinking that this would be one thing to cross off the list (it's a figurative list) & not go again; I left thinking that I would love to come back & see it again another year - it was fantastic. The rain stayed away, the castle is a wonderful back drop (the light show & animation projected on to the castle ramparts was impressive, I thought) & music & choreography of all the different performers was incredible. The compère did a good job of getting the crowd warmed up (my NZ cheer was rather pathetic compared to all the Americans behind me) & he quaintly pronounced 'tattoo' as 'ta-too' (& on a trivial note, welcomed the guest of honour - General Petraeus of US Central Command). The show started off with ten different Highland bands strutting their stuff (one of the bands was from the Auckland Police) & it was great. The groups from Tonga & then China were obviously quite different, great. The two consecutive Swiss groups were one of the highlights of the night. The first was a band from the Swiss Army (conscription must really help the recruiting for band members) & they were well choreographed, had brass instruments as well & played a pretty cool part of "Hey Jude" that had everyone singing along. The second group for Switzerland was the Top Secret Drum Corps from Basel - a group of about twenty drummers & flag-bearers. Their drumming was like nothing I had seen before - the climax of it (coming after twelve or so had stood in a line beating each others' drums & swapping drumsticks by throwing them at each other, all the while keeping a magnificent beat going) was when the lights dimmed & the drummers some how ended up with flaming drumsticks - the visual side to this part of the performance was quite something to add to the audial experience; I was conscious that my mouth was wide open in wonder for much of their performance. As is so often the case, my words don't really do justice to the whole event. The show closed with all the performers on stage & pretty good fireworks display.

And I've forgotten to put the photos in the text, so here is a bunch from the last few days (yes, I could go & put them in the text, but I can't be bothered).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Right south & well north.

With a perfectly timed transfer from Southampton Central to the fast ferry terminal on a free bus, I got a ticket & boarded the fast ferry to Cowes with not a moment to spare. It worked out even better, as the ferry landed just as Ben was getting home from work & was able to walk down to the terminal & show me the short route to their house. The centre of Cowes is a cute little village with cobbled twisty streets, a fair percentage of sailing & boutique shops & their flat is only about fifty metres walk off the main street - fantastic location. I had however missed the chaos of Cowes Week a week or so before - when the place is one big sailing festival.

Gina had to work a little late, so we were charged with tea. Of course a scaled down version of one of the many Wellington St barbecues was in order. Scaled down because it was a very small charcoal burner & we were a little short of charcoal - with only three more weeks left in the country for Ben & Gina, there was little point of getting more. A short walk (1oo metres) to the supermarket topped us with essentials - Ben was particularly pleased at getting the small keg of Heineken that he had his eye on for a while. Eventually we were able to pour a glass of beer that wasn't all head! The rest of the night was spent eating & catching up & sharing travel stories - I was even more surprised to find a second group of people to sit through the best of my American photos in less than a week.

After a fitful night's sleep in the attic (no curtains & a pub just over the road & springs that felt they were coming out of the mattress to make the acquaintance of innards), I was happy to doze until much too late & got up well after Ben & Gina had gone off to work. What remained of my morning I strolled around Cowes & some surrounding areas & enjoyed the sunshine. After a bit for a late lunch I took the chain ferry across the river to East Cowes. One of five left in Britain it drags itself the hundred-odd metres back & forth the river all day on two rather large chains. Also called a floating bridge, it was free for pedestrians & after the very short voyage I was off walking up the hill to visit Osborne House. Osborne house was built by Victoria & Albert & was a favourite residence of theirs to spend time in with their family & away from the public eye. The tour of the house was extensive (no photos inside unfortunately) - as well as the state apartments & the family's living area, I found the table dresser's room in the basement interesting. This is where the elaborate table settings were designed & made. I had wondered why we never saw the kitchen - Gina told me later that Victoria did not like food being cooked in the house (to do with the smell I think), so it was all done in a building not far away from the house. The grounds & gardens were extensive & I enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon strolling around these & checking out the old ice store & the little fort that Albert had made for his children. I arrived home just after Ben & Gina had got home - it was soon off to a pub for dinner & then an early night as we were off to Cornwall early the next morning. We had a 4.30 sailing to Lymington, so the alarm was due to go off at 3.30 (it is a little drive through small IOW streets to Yarmouth).

So, up early & fed - it was off to catch an uneventful ferry (who wants eventful at half past four in the morning) to Lymington & Ben heroically drove us all the way to Cornwall & the Eden Project. I dozed a little in the back & was pleased when we got past all the caravans & arrived by nine o'clock. The Eden Project, with its two big Biomes (biological domes I assume) was quite interesting. The bigger of the biomes was plants & climate of rainforest from around the world - thankfully it wasn't too hot & only slightly humid. The smaller of the biomes was dedicated to plants from Mediterranean-like climates - the Mediterranean obviously, California & South Africa spring to mind. I'm not much of a horticulurist, but it was all pretty interesting - the stand out being the plant that curled its leaves up or drooped its stalks the instant you touched it, we spent quite awhile prodding it just to see it curl up in defence. Gina was quite disappointed that she could buy one to take home to NZ.
In another building they had some big contraptions (overly complicated machines) made from all sorts of used steel products that went through a very elaborate process to crush hazelnuts - a bit like a machine you would expect to find in Wallace & Gromit. Also in this building was a massive sculpture of a pine cone made out of a huge piece of Cornwall stone.We were pleased to have missed most of the crowds & left slightly after noon to try & find somewhere to stay the night. One of Ben's workmates had recommended Fowey as a nice little place. So we headed off there & parked well above the centre of town as we had to walk down a steep hill down some very narrow twisty streets (one way only & no parking). It turned out that a week long regatta was starting the next day & consequently, the town was packed. Somehow we managed to find beds for the night - so we climbed up the hill again & I think we passed a bit of the afternoon napping after the early start. Much of the rest of the day was spent walking around the town, sitting next to the harbour, eating & drinking - early night for all.

Sunday afforded us a nice sleep in - almost five hours on the previous day - & a large English breakfast to get us going (or slow us down). We were particularly impressed by all the local produce in the breakfast (all from less than ten miles away) - the mushrooms were easily the best I have had in a long time. We had to make our way back to Southampton by 7pm for Ben & Gina to catch a ferry back to IOW & me to train back up to London. I'm not sure how we settled on where to go for a walk, but we were keen to get out & stretch our legs (Ben & Gina need all the leg-stretching they can get - they are shortly off to Macchu Picchu) & headed off to Castle Drogo in Dartmoor National Park. Along the way we passed dozens & dozens of caravans & became proficient at identifying each make & model from a distance. The English also seem to like buying small cars & then realising they don't have enough space for fitting everything in, so buy poxy little box trailers that have wheels the size of dinner plates & tow them along - it looks ridiculous. Although, kudos to the slightly large ones with bikes on top.
Arriving at Castle Drogo, we decided not to fork out the entry fee as Ben & Gina had seen too many castles already, & it was only built in the early twentieth century & didn't look all that impressive. Instead we walked down Teign Gorge for a couple of miles admiring the view & getting to Fingle Bridge - a nice skinny bridge (we saw a Corolla find that it was much too skinny & leave a deposit of red paint on the walls of the bridge) & river & an inn & nothing much else apart from walkers & those out for Sunday lunch. Completing a loop of a extra mile or so, we walked along beside the river for a while & then climbed out of the valley & back to the car to head off to Southampton. Along the way Gina managed to tick Devonshire tea & scones off her list as we stopped at a small B&B serving such wonderful homemade delights. Yum.
Got back in time for a earlier ferry for Ben & Gina; I missed a train by about twenty seconds & had to wait another half an hour, but I was home in Sidcup before 8.30, so that was good. The rest of that night & the next morning was spent organising enough clean clothes & good clothes for a funeral & two or three weeks in Edinburgh.

More trains in to London, across London & up to Retford, I was met by Mum's only maternal cousin Tony & we were back to his house to prepare for his father's funeral. Although not the best occasion for it, it was great to catch up with family - somehow I think I became a Spurs supporter (family allegiance & all that). Thankfully, I'm not much of an expert on funerals, but I think it went OK. I was surprised to see the limo we rode in was a big stretched Aussie LTD sedan & the hearse was a flashed up Falcon with a lot of glass & higher ceiling.

Tuesday afternoon saw me on another train - now I'm in Edinburgh & it's nice to be back & especially during the festival - the weather is much as I remember it for summer, mostly cloudy & drizzling, with patches of sun. I haven't quite worked out why (unsure if it's just the festival time) but there is so much trash around on the street - I'm not sure I've seen anything like it outside of Asia. They seem to have small wheeled skips on the residential streets for depositing household trash & recycling in - only problem is they must get overfilled, as a lot of it is on the ground. I'm staying with a guy that Mum used to nanny a fair few years ago. Thomas has a flat about twenty minutes walk from the centre of everything, so it's really convenient. Haven't done too much, just getting settled & have seen a couple of street shows - & finally saw the Half-Blood Prince (where were you Elizabeth?), it was OK - mostly a lot of development, like the book really.

A curious anomaly in NZ English - we say 'route' as the English do, pronounced 'root'; yet we say 'router' (as in a networking device) as Americans do, pronounced 'rowt-er', but laugh at them for pronouncing 'route' as 'rowt'. I'm not sure if that makes sense or not, but I thought it amusing. While I'm on differences, it's pleasing to be in a country where there are lights installed in ceilings in living areas & you don't have to rely on lamps; also, I'm back in a country where switches (lights, power etc) are off at the top & on at the bottome - I never really worked out why the Americans would do this the opposite way around - units & driving I can understand, but this just seems so contary to every way I've ever know. It's also nice having pound coins & no dollar bills.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

London & off south

Another day, another train & a chance to catch up on the last week's happenings since arriving in London. Have just come in to Waterloo to catch a train down to Southampton – the National Rail trains sure are a lot more pleasant than the tube, & so they should be. I am going down to the Isle of Wight to catch up with Ben & Gina (former Pukekohe flatmates) before they head off back to NZ (after two years, I think, here) via South America. I think we be heading to Cornwall to check out the Eden Project.

A nice relaxing day at Andrew & Shelley's on Friday, where we traded a few media files (so now I have old Seinfeld to watch when desired), I put my bike together (hopefully the last time for a while), discovered my first bike-in-plane damage (cracked helmet, grrrr), went to Sainsbury's, repacked all my stuff & prepared for the cross-London trek on Saturday. My destination on Saturday was Mum's cousin's, Trish, house in Sidcup – down towards Kent. The Patricks kindly let me store the stuff I didn't need immediately in the attic & I was off to London Bridge on the tube with my bike & rather full Macpac. One small hitch was I couldn't take my bike down the escalator on to the Northern line, so had to bike a couple of stations (Moorgate to London Bridge). It took a little getting used to carrying a full pack on a softtail in traffic (they drive on the left hand side here, time to get reused to that), but it was easy to find my way & I really felt like I was in London (except the weather was nice) with the skinny streets, black cabs, double-decker buses, old stone buildings & so on. Even got to ride across London Bridge before getting to the station, hopping on a train, biking the mile or so to Trish's house & arriving at about the time I had guessed.

Great to catch up with family (Mum & I had visited last year) & later in the afternoon Trish's sister Jan called in after visiting their mother (my great-aunt, I think – I will have to get up to speed on genealogical titles with all the distant relatives in this country) close by. After a catch up, I was pleased to have a willing audience for the best of my photos from the States. Much of the rest of the weekend was spent unpacking & sorting & a few small walks. Managed to get a 500GB hard drive to back up my laptop & Sunday afternoon Trish took me to check out the nearby Biggin Hill – a famous Battle of Britain airfield – nice to see a NZ flag & some names of those Kiwis who had served there.

Monday I was itching to get on the bike – even if it was on tarmac & not singletrack. I rode northeast (got a new sim card for my rather aged, but still working, NZ Nokia) until I was about to ride in to the Thames & then I followed the cycle & footpath all the way to Greenwich. Most of the way it was light industrial stuff & pretty grotty as one would expect. There was a big civil & marine project going on – a power plant that will incinerate solid waste barged down from the city. Next door was a huge waste water treatment plant (that accordingly stunk – it was just like being on that Environmental Engineering field trip all over again, except I didn't eat as much) & another power plant where they burn the left over solid waste. Cycled past the Millenium Dome/O2 arena that looked pretty disgusting really, the grounds had really been let go – but I suppose people don't go there to look at the outside. When I eventually reached Greenwich, it was much I remembered – I had a little ride around but due to riding shoes & sweat, didn't feel like going in the Maritime Museum (missed it last year). Did however find the burger shop that Cabby & I went to last year – ordered a massive Kiwi Burger. If McDonald's sold Kiwiburgers like this in NZ, the country would be even fatter. It was gargantuan – a huge Scotch fillet & all the standard Kiwi fare on burgers: lettuce, tomato, beetroot, cheese, egg, onion & pineapple - & almost got the better of me. Unwisely, it was straight back on the bike for the (more) direct route back home; somewhere on the A205 I picked up the London Cycle Network & followed that home. It was very well signposted & took me off the main roads; nice to be home after twenty-eight miles of stretching the legs.

My first attempt at dealing with British bureaucracy was my appointment at Barclays on Tuesday to open a bank account. It didn't get off to a great start when I arrived at the Hammersmith branch well early & found that it was closed for the week for refurbishment. The much maligned British customer service looked to be well deserved as no one had bothered to tell me. Anywho, I went off to the branch at Shepherd's Bush (the only thing I knew of this place was that it featured in the Only Fools & Horses song) & was very well looked after & happy to be impressed by the guy who set it all up for me. With a bit of time to kill before my next appointment I had got a rather brutal, but good haircut, from a Hungarian girl whose own haircut looked like it fell out of the sixties & took over her head. A few more tube rides (got good value from my day travel card, sixteen stations & eight lines - & a bus ride) to get up north to meet a NZ friend for a bit of a tune up for my back (we met when he was completing chiro college). Great to catch up & share travel stories (Andrew is London for a short while between months in SE Asia & a year in South America). Popped in to Covent Garden to visit a coffee shop of one of his friends, which was so small we had to share a booth with a Asian couple) & then a cider with another Kiwi. We were all off to meet some more friends before they went on to salsa lessons & I went to pick up my remaining bag from the Patricks. Who should rock up but Hayden – a family friend who was a year ahead of me at school, who I think came to my first birthday & our parents go way back. Quite amusing, as I don't think I've seen Hayden for at least six years, maybe eight or nine. A late night home after dragging my bike bag across the city.

I seem to have got my sleep-ins back to nine o'clock (it's hard) & what was left of Wednesday morning was spent booking train tickets – this trip to Southampton, Monday's ride north to Mum's only maternal uncle's funeral & then Tuesday on to Edinburgh for the festival & hopefully tattoo. And also investigating a bit of a jaunt over to Paris mid to late-September. In the afternoon Trish & I took a bit of a trip out in to the Kentish countryside to Eyrsford for a stroll. There was a great old viaduct, the rain held off, quite a few horse that had covers over much of the head (which from a distance look like it blindfolded them – but didn't – can anyone tell me why?), & a big old manor house that tried to pass itself off as a castle (it had a big gatehouse, but that was about all). On the return to the car we went up a side road & climbed a decent hill to Eagle Heights, where we were just in time to see the bird of prey showing. They had all sorts there – eagles, vultures, falcons & the show was quite good with a lot of swooping just over head height of the audience. Their collection of other animals – cheetahs, camels, Siberian & normal huskies, storks (which are not at all good looking – why would one want a baby to come carried by these?) – was good, but I couldn't quite work out how they fitted in to the birds of prey theme. The owls & eagles on display were very impressive – the Bald American eagle made a lot of noise, but I suppose that could be expected. Not much more to say, perhaps I'll look at the countryside whizz by for the last twenty odd minutes of this trip – oh, nice email from Southern Cross Travel Insurance, they are going to pay out for my very expensive & next to useless hospital visit. Woohoo – I might be very boring & pay off the rest of my student loan.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Goodbye America, for now.

That great time for updating the blog has arrived – travelling. It's my last few hours in the USA & the international part of Philadelphia International Airport doesn't have as many flights & airlines as some of the bigger international airports – so I flew through check-in & then security with only a couple of minutes of waiting. Consequently, I now have two hours to pass before boarding for Frankfurt. The convenience of flying from Philly & sticking with Lufthansa for the airdollars means I have a couple of extra hours from that German dogleg on the way to Heathrow. On the upside, I've managed to get through my US trip without buying too much stuff to push me over the generous baggage limit (which I've been pretty close to the whole time) & my travel agent back in NZ must have pulled the right strings & got Lufthansa to waive their ridiculous $US200 fee for flying with a bike (even when it is undersize & underweight).

Since returning from DC, I've been pretty lazy overall & haven't really done all that much. Just generally hanging with the Lindes & amusing Katarina & pleasantly getting back in to reading a few books (some fiction, some non-fiction – the most interesting of which was about the surveying of the States beyond the Appalachians & also explained how the country is still stuck with archaic set of physical units that it uses). One morning last week, Doug & I rode out & around Lake Galena – mercifully, the humidity & temperature were not quite unbearable. As it was midweek the path around the lake wasn't too crowded & it was a pleasant ride; on the way back we detoured a little & Doug showed me a huge Polish Catholic church & associated facility. The place started in the sixties (I think) & apparently it is well patronised by Poles from New York & New Jersey.

Continuing with the theme of different religions – on Thursday we took a day trip out west to Lancaster County & dropped the kids with Jessica's parents on the way. Lancaster County was one of the first places in America that the Amish, Meddonites & Amish Meddonites (I forget all the differences, but the Amish are the most conservative) established themselves. As well as showing me the area & the people & part of their lives, Doug & Jessica were on the lookout for a couple large collapseable wooden drying racks – I think I marvelled at the Amish furniture making skills previously. So over the course of the day we stopped & browsed around numerous furniture stores & I was no less amazed at the quality & sturdiness of the craftmanship. We eventually got a couple of drying racks from the first store that we visited – in the amusingly named town of Intercourse.

We spent a couple of hours with Ada, an older Amish-Meddonite woman, sitting in the back of the CRV guiding us around the local area while she pointed out & explained different aspects of Amish life. It was all very interesting & quaint as one would expect – from the buggies, one room schools, horse drawn farm equipment, all sorts of implements running on compressed air (generated using diesel engine, instead of electricity) – I was intruiged by the ceiling fan with the air piston – the communal telephone in a little hut some distance walk from the houses, the plain but large houses & barns, scooters instead of bicycles, to the plain dress. We stopped at a few stores where the Amish have gone in to cottage industries as the land is becoming more & more scarce & therefore expensive. The quilts were all hand stitched & incredible and the soft pretzels were amazing; there was the huge variety of produce, preserves & so forth that we had seen at the markets in the Poconos. Back to have dinner & collect the kids, it was then back to Doylestown.

Friday I was planning on going in to Philly & riding the singletrack at Fairmount. Alas, the weather forecast discouraged me from that – over the next few days we would have a big storm some time in the afternoon. I quite liked seeing the rain & always like big thunder storms – Katarina had quite different ideas however. Sunday was a cracker of a downpour with some quite good flooding in the storm water overflow area across the road & also in the yard & a little in the basement.

The only other thing of real note from the remainder of my stay in Doylestown was being bitten by a dog (just a scratch really, but more of a surprise – considering I'd just walked the entire length of the section on the sidewalk past it) – I suppose that is a disadvantage of the unfenced sections. There doesn't seem to be Animal Control to call, so I got to talk to another of America's finest late on Saturday night. Thought I better get a medical opinion as I wasn't too thrilled by the very slim possibility that I might die of rabies in a few months. So the family clinic wouldn't see me, so it was down to the Emergency Room of the hospital for me. In the space of an hour I think I had my blood pressure & temperature taken, answer enough questions to fill in three or four forms, was told that it wasn't infected (duh) & rabies is not common in the area. When it came to explaining that billing me next week was not really going to work as I would be in Britain, things got a little complicated. When I was told that I should pay five hundred dollars, I laughed a lot – I couldn't help it. What a screwed up system. Yay for travel insurance.

My last few days in Doylestown consisted of too many little treats from various food shops in town (wonderfull organic thin crust pizza, water ice, gelati, ice custard & so forth), amusing Katarina, changing the brake pads & tyres on my bike (varying success on the brakes – one rubs a lot, one seems to have some air still in the system), packing, watching the Phillies (lose a lot) on TV (I think baseball is a lot like cricket – it can be really slow at times, exciting in other parts, but a lot of interest is in the details – of which I don't really understand for baseball).

So now I'm in London & it's great to see familiar faces & places again – Vittoria has grown & there is a new addition to the family, Amelie. My longing to hear a NZ accent was fulfilled earlier than I expected – shared the flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow with a couple from Invercargill. They had just finished four weeks of campervanning around central & west Europe with their kids. It was great to swap travel stories & even find an Oamaru connection (boarding school at St Kevin's). Sure was great to have some bread that wasn't full of sugar, but I'm sure there are some things that I'll miss from the States (wide streets spring to mind for some reason). A big thanks to the Lindes for having me to stay & taking me all sorts of places.