Archive for May, 2015

Listen Up

May 22, 2015

Since I was 18, I´ve averaged a move once a year. Some places were short term, but I was usually there long enough to soak up some of the atmosphere, which is not necessarily a plus. Some places were good, some came in at the other end of the scale, but this current abode is definitely up near the top of the list. Some of the features are obvious – you can´t really fault a view of the ocean from a third floor balcony, even if it is partially obscured. Others are more subtle. Living so far north, the sun is going down late and coming up early, which means the birds are currently booting up around 3.30am. This is sufficient to kick off the cats, who announce their intent by, apparently, falling off the sofa and then inspecting every nook and cranny in the flat. This is usually enough to take me through to somewhere around 4.30, when the first tram trundles by.

I´ve ridden plenty of trams around Europe, but this is the first time I´ve lived next to a tramline. Fortunately, the window faces out to the rear of the building, I suspect it may not sound so quaint when a metallic construction the size of a local passenger train rolls past 5m from your living room window.

Living by the ocean, we also get a rumbling farewell toot or two from the passenger ferries departing for Denmark and various destinations along the Norwegian coastline. The other morning, as I lay there, listening to the dawn chorus of bawling birds, trundling trams and cats crashing around it got me thinking about other sounds that I associated with places where I have lived.

My earliest years were in a small village and every morning and night a farmer would send his herd up and down the road for milking. Although, upon reflection, I´m not really sure where the farm was, so he might have just been taking them out for a larf, cause congestion in the village, or litter the lane with cowpats. In any event, I think it´s smell that primarily lingers.

In the US, I rented a place that was close to the railway line that ran between Dallas and Fort Worth. At the time, this was a poorly maintained line that was only used by freight. (Even now, when they have a public service that runs once an hour, there is still no stop in Arlington because it was voted down based on concerns it would bring crime to the city).  This meant that trains would run sporadically, presumably one would set out only when they had enough freight to build a 106 car chain (yes, I sometimes sat by the line on a summers evening and counted them). Track conditions meant trains never exceeded 40mph (unless, of course, the brakeman was passed out and the train was running out of control) and the limited safety concerns meant you could sit by the side of the track in a lawn chair as it trundled past.

But mostly, I was aware of it by the sound of the horn when I was tucked up in bed and could hear the train horn a tooting as it rolled through city centre where there wasn´t a platform.

In China, we had several short term leases, primarily because they either started construction work (1. namely one 30 story building in front, a flyover on the right hand side for the new ring road, and replacing the drains behind) or finished construction work (2. opening a major new road outside one flat, and 3. opening a new road across a lake and then filling it in). There was also another flat which backed on to one of the major railway lines in China which meant trains passed through every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day.

But the best audio backdrop was at the last place we lived in China in an old building on the campus of an art school. In the summer, we would leave the windows open because of the heat and sleep under mosquito nets. Often there would be storms. These were announced by the gentle rustling of leaves the trees, which became progressively more violent as the wind began to pick up and the temperature started to drop. Suddenly there would be lighting and torrential rain. Often the lightning would take out the power in the area so we would end up sitting in the bedroom in candlelight listening to the sound of the rain dripping off the leaves and floodwater cascading off the roofs and on to the metal window ledges below.

Magic

Visas and Visa Cards

May 17, 2015

Getting a visa to travel abroad used to be an adventure in itself, at least in the 1980s when I went to the US for study. There was none of this visa waiver nonsense, if you wanted to go to the US, you went to your nearest US embassy.

In my case that was London or Paris. Back then, they were both housed in rather elegant quarters and had limited opening hours for visa applications which gave the whole experience an air of exclusiveness. In those pre 9-11 days, security was limited to a couple of Marines with sidearms stationed at the door, and there was no bulletproof glass between you and the official. You dropped off your paperwork, and then had to sit around in a large hall while someone in a back office determined whether you were the sort of person they wanted in the US. It didn´t matter that there were no smartphones or flatscreen TVs mounted on every wall to provide distraction, because the entertainment came from catching snippets of conversation between applicant and official. The best ones were when they began to pick holes in a story. These typically went along the lines of something like

“you are applying to visit the US in order to see your wife sir?”

“yes, that is correct”

“so why are you in the UK?”

“I have been working here for my business these last few months”

“in the UK”

“yes”

“the whole time”

“yes”

“so why does your passport have an Exit Stamp from Uganda from two days ago?”

I had my own special moment when I came back to the UK get my visa renewed. They took my completed forms, I sat around for about half an hour, and then they called my name to go to Desk 4.

“So, you are applying for a renewal of your work visa?”

“that is correct”

“which visa have you been using to work in the US?”

“er, this one”

“do you realize you´ve been working illegally in the US for the last 3 months?”

“oh”

Surprisingly, they let me off, either because I was too valuable an asset, or more likely they decided I really was that incompetent.

These days, globalization has obviated the need for visas for many locations. But China remains one significant exception. When I first moved there they had a entry visa that was only valid for one month so, upon your arrival you had to start preparing all the paperwork for extending your stay. I finally moved from Beijing and over to a resident permit which was more straightforward because, back then, outside the major cities, no one really cared seemed to care too much about the details.

Once I moved on to Denmark, it only occurred to me three days before my flight that I would need to apply for short term visa to get back into China. Fortunately, the visa section in Copenhagen was, sizable, well staffed, open all morning to drop off paperwork, and had an express service to expedite last minute applications.

I was expecting something similar when I was planning a trip over there after I moved to Oslo. The city has a fairly impressive embassy district. Aside from the US, who decided to move to a concrete monstrosity that looks like a fortified car park constructed at the arse end of the 1960s, many other embassies still occupy victorian era mansions. The Chinese Embassy is no exception, except they are located in a different part of the city.

After my previous slipups, I did have the foresight to check details before I showed up on their doorstep. Which was just as well, since the visa section is housed in a different location. I was expecting office building, carrying some kind of status. I wasn´t expecting a tiny little office located on the second floor of a strip mall above a bookshop and a bathroom appliance store.

There were only two windows and the queue stretched out the door and down the stairs, which at least gave me time to window shop for the next book on my reading list. It turned out that things were held up by a Chinese couple applying for a Chinese passport for their Norwegian born sprog. Once they were sorted, things moved along a little faster. But not as fast as if they had been using both windows for submitting paperwork. As it was, the right window was for drop off, the left was for pickup. If there were no pickups, which was common since it was a much faster process, the woman at the window would stare off into space.

I finally got to the front of the queue, there was no expedite service, but it was cheaper for non-Norwegian citizens, unless you were a US citizen, in which case it was twice the price. They didn´t do rush applications and they only accepted payment by cash and some obscure card that was only available in Norway. The official scanned my paperwork. The official looking letter of invitation from reputable institution was fine, photos were good, form was filled out correctly, but the letter of employment from the hospital (required because I was working in Norway but not holding a Norwegian passport) was invalid because it was in Norwegian.

I rode back to the hospital, got a letter on hospital letterhead that contained a single sentence in English to state I was employed at the hospital (no one could have forged something like that) and returned the next day.

All was good, I dropped off the paperwork, confirmed the price and was told come back the following Thursday.

Except of course, it was a holiday and everything was closed.

They were open Friday. I showed up with my receipt. They handed me the passport and told me to check the visa. It was good. I handed over a 500kr note to pay.

“we don´t take cash”

“last week your colleague told me you did”

“we don´t”

“you can pay by card”

I handed them my card from Nordea (one of the largest banks in Scandinavia)

“we don´t take that card”

“which ones do you take?”

“this one” (She pointed to the obscure Norwegian logo – I tried looking it up on Google but I can´t find it) “or visa”

I handed her my Visa card

“no, we can´t take that card”

“but it´s a Visa card”

“we can´t take it”

“so how do I pay?”

“you have to use this type of Norwegian card”

I was starting to understand why she had been banished to an office located above a bathroom appliance shop on the outskirts of the city

Fortunately, a Norwegian gent who was holding up the applications line by dropping off 20 passports with 20 incorrectly completed forms offered to pay for me if I gave him the cash.  I didn´t have change, but I did know a conveniently located bookshop where I could buy something and break a 500kr note.

Hills and Thrills

May 9, 2015

Where I grew up there was plenty of hills and water, so it was a shock when I moved to Texas. It may boast a coastline on the gulf, but it’s not exactly convenient when you are living 250 miles away in Dallas, nor is it particularly pleasant to linger in mid August. A few years later I moved to Beijing. At the time, I was living on what was then the northwest edge of the city, close to the Fragrant Hills, where you weren’t allowed to ride your bike. I didn’t have a lot of time to explore what lay beyond before I moved south to Wuhan. When I first arrived, the city hadn´t been westernized, and boasted a generous selection of stagnant lakes, often with a topping of dead fish, and was punctuated with a few hills. These were located in parks and were out of bounds except for the early morning, but with the midday heat and traffic you wouldn’t really want to tackle them any other time, so that was alright. The view from the temple at the top on a summer morning, with the pollution trapped in the pockets of vegetation that hadn’t been sold to developers will remain one of my most vivid memories of the country.

And then there was Denmark. Lots of water but, in my opinion, rather too flat. The highest point is Møllehøj which, at 561ft, is some way shorter than the country´s tallest man-made structure. If you look up the place on Wikipedia, it points out that two other locations, Yding Skovhøj and Ejer Bavnehøj, were previously thought to be higher, but Møllehøj edged them by out 9cm and 51cm respectively. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good things about Denmark, but it says a lot about the topology of a country when you are bickering about the length of a pencil to determine the highest point.

So, one of the many things that attracted me to Norway was the sheer bumpiness of the place, someone was kind enough to compile a list of Norwegian mountains that are taller than 2000m, 300 of them in all, although the heights are only given to the nearest metre. Even in Oslo, which is flat in the centre, is surrounded by mountains. My ride to work is only 5km as the crow flies, but it´s uphill almost the whole way, which is a bit rough at 6.45 in the morning. When I come out the house, I drop down the 20% gradient on the driveway, turn left, coast down 50m, and then I turn right on to a cobblestone lane that disappears into the clouds. It´s going to be fun in the winter after it´s been snowing.

One of first things I did when I moved to Oslo and had assembled the mountain bikes was to head out the door, and down the drive to go out for a spin. The first attempt was aborted when I realized I’d forgotten to attach any pedals. The second attempt saw me halfway down the drive and into the hedge since I´d also forgotten to attach the brake cables. You might get away with that in Denmark, but not around here. The third effort however was an absolute ripsnorter.

Airs and Graces

May 7, 2015

So with the new job came a new Macbook, or rather a Macbook Air. I have to be honest that I´m a bit unclear about the difference. I did go into an Apple store and ask a member of staff but found his enthusiasm a bit too much and blocked him out after a while. He didn´t seem to notice, so I didn´t feel too bad about it.

I last used a Mac in the 1990s. They were rather shit back then. My most vivid memory was trying to program on one of them using a development package called CodeWarrior. At the time it was a rather fancy package that allowed you to do all kinds of thing with your code. They even had a debugger to step through a program line by line to help you narrow down an error. The only problem was the debugger itself contained an error so that you would sometimes get a situation where stepping into the problematic line would cause the computer to crash and reboot. To make things worse, a cutsy little cartoon of a sad looking Mac would come up and admonish me for failing to shutdown the computer properly.

The turning point came when I squeezed the mouse so hard during an unplanned reboot I cracked the casing. I decided I would rather have the Wanky Wizard that came with Windows ME, rather than endure one more incident with the Sad Bastard Mac Icon. At least Windows gave you a blue screen and some unintelligible information before locking up. And this meant it was up to you to choose when to kill the power. It was a bit like having one of those friends who drinks too much and keeps passing out drunk in your living room floor. And when they regain consciousness they have no memory of what happened. In the same way, Windows ME would have no idea about what happened before the power came on, and so would never complain if it had been shutdown incorrectly.

Obviously things have moved on in the Mac world. My Macbook was delivered by the IT dept after they had fucked around with it a little bit, since I´m not familiar with the OS, it´s hard to tell what they got up to. My first impression is that, while everything seems to have been stuffed into as small a space as possible, the box in which the Macbook Air arrived appears to be 70%, well, air. I can´t imagine its to protect the computer since air is not noted for its protective properties. You´d think they´d pack the space with snacks or something, but I suppose that wouldn´t be in keeping with the minimalist feel of the Apple Store, which is equally short of refreshment stands.

So, I shall keep an open mind with this new toy. When they order the network dongle so I can connect to the cable network (no wireless allowed in the office) they forgot to order, as well as a cable to connect me to the monitor, along with the external mouse and keyboard, I might be able to try it out in a more conventional environment, but for now it works just fine for Netflix