Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Schiphol Saga

Sorry, been a bit quiet of late due to trekking halfway across the continent.

I was working in Armenia the week before Christmas. The game plan was to take an Armarvia flight from Yerevan to Amsterdam, Schiphol, then a KLM flight from Schiphol to Bristol, and a train home to Gloucester where I'd collect my car and drive over to Mum's in Northamptonshire just in time for Christmas Day traditional trimmings. 

Looks simple, huh?

Didn't quite work out as planned. More sort of like this:

Armavia was an hour late taking off from Yerevan, which meant missing my Bristol connection. It turned out to be one of the last planes leaving for the UK.

Schiphol looked like a UNHCR camp - igloos built out of abandoned luggage, staff handing out bottles of water, queues the length and breadth of the airport: queues for new tickets, queues for hotels, queues for queues...

Instead of queueing for another ticket, I made a call to family, who booked me an Easyjet flight online to Doncaster. I checked my luggage in, then sat and watched as everything West-bound went down like snowflakes.

The world has been cancelled.

When they finally called 'cancelled' on my flight, I joined a queue and made the decisions to reclaim my baggage and head to a friend's house rather than risk booking another flight and finding out in a couple of hours that it, too, was cancelled - which would have meant spending the night in the airport.

Two trains later and I was in Haarlem, where my friend Thorsten put his steaming hot bath, TV, and take-away pizza delivery menu at my disposal. Truly magical.

I spent Monday just chillaxing. We went to a local café and had hot chocolate with an Everest of whipped cream on top - apple pie and brownies to compliment.

Had to wade through fairly thick snow to get there:

Feeling much better, I spent Tuesday trying to get to the ferry. Started with a train from Haarlem to Hoek, but the train got snowed down and I had to get off halfway. Work was really good about it, and offered to help cover the cost of getting back. So, with no other trains in sight, I forked out €110 on a taxi to the dock.

The ferry was superior to the airport in every way possible. Hardly any foot passengers - either people didn't know about it or they couldn't get there. The staff were really friendly and smiled a lot, unlike those at the airport who looked like they'd rather abort you than deal with your problem.

So, instead of being cramped up in an airport or herded onto a late flight, I lounged out on a sofa with a range of restaurants and bars to choose from - fully stocked duty free shop, free internet, and a plug for my laptop. Amazing. Lovely experience - so thank you Stena Line. Treated myself to a three-course meal: game pâté, hare with pear and white wine sauce, rounded up by crème brûlée. Nom nom nom...

The coast was covered in snow - it looked almost like white sand. Holland or the Seychelles? You decide.

We finally docked at Harwich, where I got a train to Liverpool Street. My friends Jo and Pierre picked me up and took me back to their place in Camberwell.

I took another day's R&R. We went for drinks and a meal under the London Eye with another friend. Just what the doctor ordered after that travel ordeal. But it wasn't quite over...

If all had gone according to the original plan, I was supposed to be in Gloucester by Sunday. Instead, by Thursday I was broaching the hell that is Victoria Coach station, sitting in the café upstairs with an all-day breakfast and a can of coke. It was like Schiphol in miniature. People waiting on a bus to France that had been delayed since ten in the morning. No heating, only eyes peeking out from beneath thick blankets. Children crying. Standing room only.

But at least the bus was warm. It took me from London to Northants via Milton Keynes. There was a one hour delay due to traffic, caused by weather conditions. I crawled out at the other end, through Northampton town to a cash machine, and into my final taxi of the trip - which took me the final twelve miles home.

Never been so glad to get there. But, having said that, it was one hell of a lesson in friendship. You never realise how wonderful friends are until you need them. So, heartfelt thanks to Thor, Jo and Pierre for helping me hopscotch my way home in comfort. Sure beat braving the airports.

Have to say though - hats off to Easyjet, their online refund system is extremely fast and efficient. Nice to see an airport getting it right for a change. Could teach KLM a thing or two - their customer service office won't even answer the phone to you unless you're a member of their exclusive 'Flying Blue' club, and their 'customer care' representatives at Schiphol look at you with unbridled contempt even when there isn't a weather crisis on. Seriously, KLM are right down there on my list next to stepping in dog turd and having my credit card stolen. Never had a pleasant experience with them. I know Easyjet have their moments too, but it's nice to see a budget airline outperforming Royal Dutch.

And the countryside is very pretty in the winter. Some lovely photos from Mum's place of a seasonal wonderland:

So all's well that ends well. Got a lift back to Gloucester yesterday. Eating and drinking myself to death before I tackle my new year's drive to Edinburgh. This time I may take an arctic tent and a husky sled - just to be on the safe side.

Hope everyone's having a festeringly festive season, and a safe and happy New Year.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Snow Penii

My friend Paul sent me a seasonally festive picture:

I realised he'd obviously never Googled 'snow penis':

Passing on the message that accompanied this stunning work of festive cheer:

...encourage folk to try and make a bigger one - somewhere..... On church greens, outside synagogues, other repressive religious buildings, outside town halls, and other public places that have an exaggerated idea of their own self-importance are bound to be most effective. Who can be the first to get their snow-penis in the newspapers!?

Nice to see the art of heathen phallus worship is still alive and well and living in Yorkshire.

Friday, 8 October 2010

It's Just a Piece of Metal

Oh no it isn't!

This post is dedicated to all the cars we've loved and lost.

It's been a bit of a bad year for cars. In May my Hyundai Accent (one of the earlier models with the nice round bum) was written-off when someone in a RAV4 went into the back of me at a pedestrian crossing. Whilst the house on wheels didn't even have a scratch on it, the dent in my boot cost £700 more than the car was worth!

For a dent. In the boot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was off to do some voluntary work oop north when I ended up sandwiched between a lorry and another car on the M6. It could have been a lot worse than it was, and thankfully we all walked away unhurt. But, sadly, my beautiful Ford Puma (in 'pacific green') is no more.

I remember when the garage came to collect the Hyundai, and the gentleman duly informed me: "It's just a piece of metal." To emphasise his point, he explained how a previous lady had cried 'like a baby' when he went to collect her car, because she was so attached to it. 

Yet his wife had died of cancer.

Yes, put like that, on the grand scale of disastrous outcomes, better to lose your car than your life.

But, personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with being attached to your car.

My first attachment belonged to a very special car indeed. Between 2003/04, a friend and I spent the year bumming around Australia. We started in Melbourne, went fruit picking in Nyah, near Swan Hill, saved some cash, went back down to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road, up through Canberra, spent New Year in Sydney, then drove all the way across the Nullarbor to Fremantle and Perth. We stayed in Freo for several months before heading up to Alice Springs, down through the centre to Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta, King's Canyon, Coober Pedy and Adelaide. It was quite a year.

We picked up our car, Grace, in Melbourne, and lived out of her for two weeks solid as we traversed the only southern road connecting East and West Australia. She carried our stuff, waited patiently whilst we introduced the concept of deep fried Mars bars to a small café in South Australia, even provided a modicum of excitement when her gear stick came out in my friend's hand whilst travelling downhill towards a major intersection.

What I'm saying is, there were memories. Memories that wouldn't have been without that car.

Grace in Nyah, Victoria

Most of my cars have been pass-me-downs. When my Nana died in 2006, she left me her car - a wee blue Citroën. One of my fondest memories was driving back down south, through the Lake District National Park. The most amazing sense of liberty...

I think that's why we get so attached to cars. They represent freedom. The freedom to come, to go, to arrive, to stay. Car - a word derived from the Celtic 'war chariot'. They give us a sense of possibility.

No, I might not drive to the South of France today. But the point is, I could.

As for Grace. Well, the Nullarbor took the last out of the old girl. She did us proud. My friend and I knew the fate of most old cars in the outback - they get beaten up in dirt races. We didn't want that to happen to her, so we went out of our way to find a mechanic who promised to use her for parts instead. So, somewhere out there is a little bit of her still driving along the open freeway.

We each kept one of her number plates, which I'm not sure you're supposed to do, but she really was quite special to us. We blubbed like big wusses as we turned and walked away.

This post is to all the cars we've loved and lost. Who'd want to drive a car without soul?

Wee Blue Citroën

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Viva España

Well, just got back from Spain.

Quite a strange week or so and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a Mr. D. Holmes and family who rescued me at a service station to the tune of twenty pounds.

I left Guilsborough in such a hurry to get to Gloucester, where I was meeting up with Dad, Marilyn and Aunty Jean (whose birthday we were off to Spain for) that I left my purse behind. I always keep my tank full but this was the one time I hadn't. I realised the error of my ways when I got to the forecourt.

I had the sense to realise I'd left it behind before filling up, but dad was driving Jean down from Carlisle so couldn't help, and mum was over an hour away. I went to ask the manager of the service station for help and apparently they don't accept cheques (understandable), and they don't accept payments over the phone (far less understandable) - her only suggestion was to call the AA out as a breakdown!

I was totally gutted so went back to my car to panic. I was getting very upset, when a man came over and knocked on the window.

"Hello," he said, "did my son hear right - you've run out of petrol?"

His son had overheard my conversation with the Manager and told his dad, who came to the rescue and gave me petrol money! I exchanged him for a cheque and off I went on my way again :)

So thank you so very much to Mr. D. Holmes, and to his son for taking the trouble, it was hugely appreciated and restored my faith in the kindness of strangers :)

So that was the fiasco of my getting-there journey.

The fiasco of my getting back journey was also fun. I left Gloucester to drive back to Guilsborough yesterday and got as far as the corner shop just down the road when I stopped at a pedestrian crossing. Just as the amber light was flashing and I was easing my foot up off the clutch - BANG!

An extremely large RAV 4x4 slams into the back of me :op

The poor guy! He'd just driven out of the car wash behind and didn't stop in time. I grazed my knee slightly and the boot has an impressive dent in it (not a scratch on the 4x4 of course...) - but all very good natured and I parted with the joke 'nice bumping into you' :op

By the time I'd driven home, he'd already phoned his insurance and admitted responsibility so they're sending someone out to give an estimate next week and it should all be very straight-forward. First time it's happened to me, so a learning experience. I was a little shaken (as was he) but both myself and the car were in a fit state to continue.

I just really, really hope it doesn't write-off the car as I'm extremely fond of it, but it's old and been round the clock... won't know until next week but fingers crossed it'll be okay.

Anyway, in between those two dramas, Alicante was interesting. A bit of a British colonial encampment, but some gorgeous castles. Especially outstanding was Guadalest, a stunning medieval settlement right up in the rock face overlooking a deep green lake.

The Castle of Santa Bárbara in Alicante is also extremely impressive. You take a lift up the mountain to reach it and the surrounding views are breathtaking.

The weather was mostly glorious with a minor panic in Santa Pola on the penultimate day. We went there to hang out on the sea front and enjoy the ice-cream parlour (delicious bubblegum flavour blue ice-cream and one that tasted like halva were my favourites :op) but just as we arrived the sky went black and rain came crashing down.

Within fifteen minutes the water was up to the door of the car, the drains had burst their caps and it looked like we weren't going to get out in time. Hailstones and rain were forming a river of the roads and we followed a convoy of worried drivers up to higher ground.

Quite an adventure.

Also had a row of English and Irish bars around the corner that served great Sangria and a stack of BBQ ribs as long as my forearm. We certainly ate well and cooked a lovely meal on the second night which we ate on the roof as the sun went down. It was so nice to feel warm weather again - even got my suntan back! :)

The day we flew back there was a second volcanic eruption in Iceland but thankfully it didn't affect us. Rather a good thing it wasn't as bad as last time otherwise several thousands people might miss voting today :o/

Heading up the village hall to vote this evening with mum and Merrick, then off to the pub to see what happens.

Off to London tomorrow for the day to attend a meeting run by the ORS (of which I'm a member) to discuss how Operational Research can be better used to help the Voluntary Sector - something I have a few opinions on :) Hopefully also a chance to network.

Also got some good news - I have a second interview for a consultancy contract I applied for. Doing it over Skype next week, so fingers crossed I may have landed my first biggie since turning self-employed. Would be a huge boost but mustn't jinx it :)

Oh, and a strange 'thank you' e-mail today. I used to help out on a script writing forum, helping people format screen plays and work out dialogue and technical issues. One guy that I helped just sent me a note of thanks for some suggestions I made yonks back as the script is now on the verge of production with figures in the millions being banded about. Flattering that he thought of me and extremely exciting for him. Doesn't happen to many but I wish him the best of success and hope he'll let me know when it comes to the big screen (though these things can take years).

For my part I'm now eight chapters, 25,000 words, from the end of my second novel. The publisher of the first did indeed turn out to be a vanity publisher so I took that no further, but I have a game plan. This one is rather good, even if I do say so myself - much better composition than the first (which needs serious editorial work - about as many words losing as I still have to write on this one). I've got a particular agent I'd like to try so I'm spending the next couple of weeks finishing writing it, then I'm going to see where I can get with it. This one is the very best I can do I believe, so if it doesn't drum up interest then I should probably call it quits. I'm quietly confident though.

So I've got my bounce back. The past month has been rather a holiday and it's time to kick on with some work - try and earn a living.