Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Going down South

October 13, 2017

How many Southern Railway employees does it take to change a light bulb? Seven. Four who were on the last two trains that were cancelled, one to drive the train, one to change the light bulb and one more to sit in the guard’s cabin and repeat their well rehearsed and tiresome attempt at humour at every station.

The contrast between the two ends of this journey that started in Oslo and ended in Portsmouth couldn’t be more pronounced. It was a nice day in Oslo, and so I walked down to the central station to get a train ticket to the airport.

I hurt my leg a couple of weeks back, so I had already got myself a one month, one zone travel pass to get me to and from work. I bought it using the app on my mobile phone. To get from the central station to the airport is four zones and I didn’t want to pay for the first zone again so I went to the help desk for Norwegian National Railways.

“just buy it on your phone, and it will take the existing ticket into account”

was their advice. So I did, and it did. The price of one zone was subtracted from the price and I saved myself 3 quid.

I also needed to buy myself a ticket at the other end to get from Gatwick Airport to Portsmouth. I checked on Google Play and sure enough there was a TrainLine app advertising the ability to plan journeys and buy tickets. It was only after I downloaded, installed and input my payment information that I realised that I could buy the ticket, but I would still have to go to a ticket machine to get the ticket – i.e., I couldn’t have the ticket on the phone. So I could save queuing by buying my ticket with the app … and then queue up with everyone else who was buying their ticket. The only possible benefit I could see is that I might be able to buy a ticket in advance at a lower price but, given the new pricing strategies, unless I want to travel at an odd hour my options are probably quite limited.

The real value of the app came to light after we landed at Gatwick and I was rushing along through the terminal to see if I could make the 20:40. It was going to be close, so I checked the app to see whether the train was running late and I might have a few more minutes to spare.

It wasn’t running late, it was cancelled, and the next train was now at 21:10. I slowed down, ambled through passport control and over to the ticket machine to get a ticket before I wandered back into the terminal for a coffee. Glancing up at the departure board I noticed an announcement for the 20:40 departing from Platform 3. The train wasn’t cancelled, just terminating at Bognor Regis. I had visions of the local tourist board lifting a petrol soaked sofa across the tracks to Chichester before retreating to a safe distance to hurl a lighter in the general direction to kick things off.

I went down to the platform at 21:05 to find it was delayed until 21:14. There was a pseudo cockney announcing departures with a forced jack the lad jollity. Occasionally, they would intersperse his jauntiness with a recorded announcement from an abrupt sounding lady in the CCTV office warning people to stand well back behind the yellow line when the train was approaching the platform. She sounded brusque, the sort of person who takes no nonsense. I expected a headmistress type to come out and start briskly marching down the platform with a metal ruler to start rap any offenders across the knuckles. Although, as I’ve never seen a train manage anything above a sickly crawl when making an entrance, so I’m not sure where the immediate danger lay.

At 21:15 the train trundled in and creaked to a rheumatic halt. I pressed the door button and after about 10s the doors reluctantly parted and I was greeted with a strong smell of stale beer and fast food. It seemed to be coming both from the carpet and the passengers and once I had settled in my seat I began to understand why. Instead of the usual monotone delivery from the train guard greeting new passengers and informing them of the next stop, we had a standup comedienne.

It might have been bearable if the last train hadn’t been cancelled and this one was running on time but when you are fucking around with the customers, cracking jokes is probably not the way to go, perhaps a more contrite tone would be appreciated. And judging from the stolid expressions from the other passengers I wasn’t alone in this line of thought. Maybe they were all going to Bognor Regis. Also, she had a very strong Scottish accent and I was having trouble understanding her.

“there are eight coaches on this wee train, the front four will go to Southampton, the last four will go to Bognor Regis”

“1, 2, 3, 4, you’re a load of dirty whores!”

“5, 6, 7, 8 hell will come to those who wait”

At Three Bridges I put on my noise cancelling headphones and turned on the music. Some of these people had been on the trains since London Victoria and only had a newspaper. Behind me I could hear two blokes talking animatedly after they had discovered (via the TrainLine app) that there was a coach service to Littlehampton. Maybe the guard had slipped that in between her one liners and no had one understood.

It occurred to me that there might be similar problems ahead for me, so I opened up the app one more time. It seemed I had a clear run, aside from the fact the train was appeared to be losing another minute at every station, and when I looked at my watch, they were already another five minutes behind their projected schedule.

At the bottom of the app display I noticed a banner that said “warning: standing room only in the front three carriages. I was at the front of carriage 1. I turned around to see i had three other passengers for company and they all had headphones. Everyone else probably got off at the previous stop for a bit of peace and quiet.

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Standing room only

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City Bikes

October 8, 2017

I’ve never used a Boris bike, but I did sit on one once while it was still locked into position at one of the stations. It looked like it might be fun to ride around the city, but I was in a bit of a hurry and wasn’t sufficiently confident of my navigational skills around Central London, nor the location of the docking station nearest to my destination, so I used the underground. I have similarly eyed up the city bikes in Oslo, but when you live there and already own five bikes it seems fairly redundant to sign up for access to any more. So, I was resigned to the fact that there probably wasn’t a city bike anywhere in my immediate future.

And then I went to Heidelberg for a meeting. Heidelberg has a bike program. What made the difference was I was staying in the city centre, while the meeting was being held at a research park some distance outside the city. There was a shuttle bus being laid on to take us to and from the city centre, but if there is one thing I hate, it is being treated like I was back at school. Also, if a session turns out to be intolerably dull, I want to have the option to escape and find something more exciting to pass the time.

So, the bike seemed the obvious option. I downloaded the app, I registered a form of payment and, no sooner had I checked into hotel and dropped off my bag, I was straight back out the door and in search of the nearest bike station. This wasn’t just the overenthusiastic child in me, but a consequence of me taking a later flight to avoid getting up too early and arriving at my hotel one hour before the meeting was due to kick off.

It wasn’t too far to the bike station, but it was on the other side of a large roundabout and at every crossing there was a light. And at every light there was a group of calm and unhurried Germans who patiently waited for the green man to be displayed. As these lights weren’t subject to any kind of coordination, it took me 10 minutes to get to the opposite side and I was down to 50 minutes.

I still wasn’t too concerned, it was only 5km, and even losing an additional 5 minutes trying to figure out how to use the app and work out which bike I had just released from the docking bay I still felt I had time.

But there were two things I hadn’t accounted for. The first was Google Maps. I don’t expect the app to be perfect – I’m still impressed that I can get something like that for free and I can live with getting sent up a dead end street once in a while. However, this time, within 500m, Google sent me into a graveyard. After circling the graves for several minutes I finally figured it was trying to send me up a flight of stairs and out through a gate that was held shut with a heavy duty chain and padlock. I found an alternative exit through another gate at the top of a narrow but shorter flight of stairs at the other side of the graveyard, carefully manoeuvred the bike through the gap and resumed my journey.

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Heidelberg Panzer Cycle

Stairs seemed a key feature of the chosen route. I carried the bike up another short flight that linked a footpath to a small side road, and there was third flight that disappeared out of sight around a distant corner to which I gave the “fuck that” treatment. Undeterred, Google directed me to the next left turn, which appeared to end in someone’s front garden. I finally chose option five which sent me the wrong way up a one way street.

And that was the other problem. It never occurred to me to check the terrain, after all, the centre of Heidelberg is quite flat. But if I’d taken the trouble to investigate, I would have realised that the river on which the city was built is at the bottom of a very steep valley. This really only dawned on me when one way street kicked off with a 10% incline, and it only got worse after that. Moreover, the proclivity of Google to take routes avoiding traffic at all costs meant that when it wasn’t trying to send me up flights of stairs, it was guiding me up footpaths that were even steeper that road that was winding it’s way up the side of the hill. At one point it reached 25% (I took a photo and worked out the incline later). I was passed by a gent on a mountain bike who was zigzagging from side to side to smooth out the incline. It was a valiant effort but he blew up before the top and I crawled back past him after he pulled over to the side of the road with head down on the handlebars.

But Google’s masterstroke was saved for the very end when I was back on the road and was boldly instructed to take a right up into the forest. I stopped to check the map, but there were no other routes in sight. I had two reasons to be suspicious, the first was the path looked more like the route of a river that had dried up over the summer months, the second was the sign saying “no bicycles”. As I pondered over this, the bloke on the 29er came back past albeit at a more reasonable pace and, gradually clicking down through the multitude of gears available slowly disappeared up the trail and around a bend. I decided to give it ago but, as I was already on the lowest of the seven available gears and riding a bike that was designed for city use, I didn’t hold out much hope of success. Sure enough, I managed to get 10m up the trail before spinning out on a large rock in the middle of the former riverbed and pushed the bike up the remaining km until I could see my final destination through a gap in the trees. And the only thing I had to do was to carry the bike up the flight of stairs at the end of the trail.

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Some stairs

 

A&E

September 25, 2017

So I took a bit of a tumble when I went running on Friday evening. The funny thing was I was undecided about going for a run or taking the bike out for a spin. I opted for the run as I thought it would take less time.

I go running in a local park. I run on the paths, rather than the tarmac as it’s easier on the knees. Trouble was, several of the lights were out so, being a sensible sort of chap, I ran on the tarmac when I couldn’t see too clearly, and went back on to the paths when there was a light to guide my way.

I can only imagine I was dazzled by the sudden transition from near darkness to glaring halogen and tripped over something at the top of the steepest descent. This meant that, rather than doing a simple tumble, I managed to career halfway down the hill, gradually increasing my speed while surrendering more control. I finally crashed and rolled and came to a halt next to a couple who were making their way up the hill and who witnessed my entire spectacular descent. On one hand I was unlucky to land knee first on a sharp rock protruding out of the earth and came up with a deep gash that went down to the bone. On the other hand, it was quite fortunate that one half of the couple was a volunteer ambulance man and he called the emergency number for me to arrange for an ambulance to take me to hospital.

Being a Friday night, the emergency line suggested it would be faster if I took a taxi there myself but, since I was only expected a thirty minute run in the park just up the road from the house, I didn’t have my wallet. A quick call to the missus, and she was on her way to meet me, armed with wallet and some basic first aid supplies. Of course, I had chosen to fall at the furthest and highest point from the house, so that took a while. And then it started to rain.

Mr Ambulance man was nice enough to help me move to the shelter of a tree, and then made a very professional job of dressing the wound. He saw us into a taxi that he ordered for us, we persuaded him to take some money for beer, he persuaded the driver I wasn’t going to bleed on the upholstery and we were on our way to the hospital.

My previous late night visits to public hospitals in the US and UK have been interesting, so I was expecting the worst. But this was more like waiting in the bank to see a clerk. It was clean, brightly lighted, and everyone was speaking in lowered voices. Admittedly it was still quite early for a Friday, but nevertheless, it was remarkably calm.

I didn’t even have to wait very long. After an initial check-in process where they asked for my Norwegian ID number (which I couldn’t remember) and a brief glimpse at my knee (where they admired the dressing), I was moved to a second waiting room further inside the building which was as silent as a reading room. Even then I didn’t have to wait very long before a nurse and led me to a room where she removed the bandages and took a first look at the injury.

My arrival was timed with a shift change, so another nurse showed up and we went around the loop again, but soon after a spot of prodding inside the wound I got my first ride on a gurney as they took me off for an X-ray. Then it was time for a spot of anaesthetic and a good going over exposed areas with a toothbrush – apparently this is the best way to clean a wound and also happens to be a good way to test how effective the anaesthetic is before they start on stitching things up. I needed a couple of top ups before they had finished with the toothbrush and so I barely felt I thing when they pulled out the needle and thread.

Once they were done, they handed me a pair of crutches and I was done. Although I still had to stop by the pharmacy for the inevitable painkillers and antibiotics. Unfortunately, the anaesthetic wore off on the way back from pharmacy to A&E where I planned to get a taxi and I ended up leaning against a wall, propped up by the crutches and trying to fight back the wave of nausea flowing over me. Fortunately it started raining again at that point – the feeling of cold rain on face is a wonderful tonic and provided long enough relief for someone to fetch a wheelchair for me to tumble into.

The taxi driver seemed unconcerned about the possibility of bodily fluids leaking onto the leather upholstery and was similarly dismissive of the sharp turns and numerous speed bumps we encountered between hospital and home. Although he slowed down for the road works, I think it was because he was worried about his suspension rather than any concern for his passenger.

And then I was home, four hours after I set out for my quick jog.

Next time I’m going for a bike ride.

 

 

Sleepers

September 24, 2017

On Tuesday I took the sleeper train from Oslo to Bergen. It wasn’t the first time I had taken the train to Bergen, and it wasn’t the first time I had taken a sleeper train.

The first time was from London to Scotland. It was a long time ago and I’m a bit vague about the details. I think it was from King’s Cross to Aberdeen, and was a trip taken with my new PhD supervisor to visit a lab up there. I’d always fancied doing the sleeper to Scotland ever since I had done the overnight train in the other direction from Aberdeen to King’s Cross. I was eighteen and spent the night dozing off in a deserted carriage, waking at three in the morning to stick my head out the window to see the train pulling into York station.

I’m not sure what I expected, but my primary memory was it reeked of cigarette smoke from my chain smoking supervisor, it was too dark to see anything and I had to get up in the night to use the toilet and was on the top bunk. In the morning, breakfast for my boss consisted of lighting up the first fag of the day and heading off down the platform and I almost passed out before we reached the exit, necessitating a stop off at the station buffet for a round of soggy toast and overbrewed tea. I did pass out later that afternoon, but that was from boredom brought on by the two lab leaders chain smoking and discussing things of which I had little understanding and realised I cared about even less.

When I moved to China I came to rely on sleeper trains for long distance travel in the days before the high speed rail network was constructed. Leave Wuhan at 8pm and the train would gentle crawl its way to Beijing or the border with Hong Kong for a civilized 7am arrival. There were two classes of sleeper, hard and soft, a throwback to the days when they really didn’t have mattresses on the cheaper beds. Nowadays, the primary difference between soft and hard sleeper is that the hard sleeper has 6 beds / compartment whereas the soft only has four, and there is a door to the compartment. I initially thought the opportunity to close the door was an advantage, but after a couple of trips, realised that the soft sleepers were used by overweight business, often on their way home after a business dinner involving heavy drinking. Thus, when lights went out, the door was closed and they immediately passed out on their bed, filling the compartment with snoring, belching and bodily gases.

The hard sleepers also had more of a communal atmosphere, entire families or groups of friends travelling together. The unspoken rule is that everyone sits on the lowest berths until its time to sleep, so there would be three on either side and snacks and conversation. However, a lack of familiarity with foreigners often meant things would start out with me on one side and five people crammed together opposite me, but fellow travellers could generally be persuaded to rearrange themselves

I thought my sleeper days were done until I was in Europe and ended up travelling between two northern countries. I forget where we boarded, but we stumbled into our compartment to find two people already sleeping. Around 3am we stopped somewhere else, and two more people piled in to occupy the remaining beds. There was a lot of snoring, so at 6am I removed myself to the buffet car for breakfast.

Based on my previous experience, I wasn’t expecting too much from this trip to Bergen and was well chuffed to find we had our own compartment with washbasin, complimentary bottled water, hand towels and a chocolate on the pillow. There was an array of buttons to allow different levels of mood lighting and the possibility of illuminating the compartment from every possible angle. And there was even a restaurant car that stayed open the whole night for the peckish but wealthy.

The journey to Bergen is particularly picturesque at this time of year, with the leaves in full colour, but I was happy to fall asleep as the train was pulling out of the station. I was jolted awake by a couple of sharp turns but was only vaguely aware of the train gliding to a stop at various stations through the night. I was woken by the guard warning us of our imminent arrival in Bergen, and we rolled off the train and into the nearest café for coffee and croissants.

And in the evening we were back at the station and did it all over again in the opposite direction.

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Snow

January 9, 2016

Been experiencing a spot of intemperate weather here. The sort of weather that would make everything grind to a halt in the UK and send journalists out into blizzards and clambering for shots of cars trapped on motorways and long distance shots of lone walkers walking along deserted and snowy lanes.

Here, it’s a bit different. Snow falls every winter as a matter of course and they have the equipment to take care of it, or at least push it off to the side of the roads so it isn’t in the way. Of course, there are lots of roads so they can’t do them all at once, but they start with the major thoroughfares and work their way down the ploughing order.

You could tell the first big dump of snow was coming because the day after Christmas, there were all sorts of vehicles out and about and scattering debris onto the roads and pavements. Monster tractors with big bouncy tyres for the big roads, and cute little Bob the Builder style munchkin tractors for the pavements and smaller roads. After the first really big dump of snow after Christmas, all the major passes to Bergen were closed and cars were tumbling off into ditches so that was the first priority. But at the same time, municipal workers were back outin the tractors and tractorlettes and ploughing or brushing the streets clean.

When we get a snow fall in the UK, its generally a few days of chaos, followed by thawing and flooding, then everything returns to normal, until the next storm. Here, we had a brief (unseasonal) respite after the first fall, when the temperatures crept up above freezing, it rained a lot and the snow was washed away. But it was a brief reprieve, a quick reboot and we were ready for some more. It snowed on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, the sun came out on Wednesday, and it’s been snowing on and off since.

As I left work yesterday evening on foot, negotiating the mounds of snow that divided pavement and road, it was cold and dark and I realized this was how it was going to be until April. In 2015, in the last week of April, we drove up to Oslo from Denmark in a high sided van packed with our belongings, and missed the last major storm by 24 hours. This was just as well since, coming from Denmark, the rental wasn’t fitted with winter tyres, so snow driving would have been a challenge.

Already, after a week of snow-covered streets, it feels like the norm. Now, even my bike is fitted with snow tyres, which add an extra three or four kilogrammes to an already overweight bicycle. There is none of the mystical magic alluded to in the intro to Raymond Briggs Snowman flick “ ..in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness..”

For one thing, it gets dark early this far north, and the sun doesn’t come up until I’ve been installed in my office for a couple of hours and on my second cup of coffee. So, unless you happen to working shift hours, the Norwegian version would be more along the lines of “..in the morning I woke in a room that was filled with darkness and silence, the heating was off and whole world was seemed to be held in an extremely cold stillness. I looked out of the window, fuck, it was snowing again

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deserted snowy lane, without solitary walker.

New Year Oslo

January 2, 2016

So, my first New Year’s Eve in Norway under the belt. Viewed from inside the flat, it initially seemed pretty much like any other New Year celebrations I’ve viewed from within the comfort of my home, although this time there were more boats. The difference in the nautical perspective is primarily due to having previously lived in places that are solidly landlocked. The exception would be Denmark, but if you are living outside Copenhagen, Zealand feels so sparsely populated it seems you’d be hard pushed to get enough people together to muster up a posse, let alone have a whip round for a box of fireworks.

But it turned out that Oslo was quite different. Even a brief excursion out on to the balcony at 11:59 into the subzero temperatures revealed the presence of more than a boxworth of revelers on the streets below, before they were drowned out by the coordinated firework displays. I say coordinated, but it seems there were two independent factions competing for the attentions of the shitfaced revelers gathered in the harbour area in the city. One display seemed to be coming directly from the harbour by the old fort, while the remaining fireworks appeared to be launched a little further away, probably from somewhere close to the opera house. On top of this, all the ferries starting firing off their foghorns, including the 12 deck Oslo-Kiev overnight ferry that is docked just down the road and which has the mother of all “parps”.

These days, New Years Eve firework displays are more of a marketing opportunity, with each city around the globe trying to outdo everyone else, planning complex and coordinated efforts that emphasize a particular international landmark (think Sydney Bloody Opera house or the Eiffel Tower) or geographical feature (synchronized firings along the banks of the Thames) accompanied by gushing commentaries from the media. It’s unlikely the whole affair did do much to attract the international business community, or boost winter tourism in Oslo. The city´s chaotic combination of assaults on the visual and auditory senses reminded more me of the back garden Bonfire Night displays of my youth. A firework pulled out of the box at random, a cursory glance by failing flashlight at the instructions on the side. Placing, lighting and relighting the touchpaper and realizing too late that you have nailed a rocket to the fence.

Premium

June 3, 2015

I´m 75% of the way through a night flight from Paris to Hong Kong. On this route it´s a no win situation. You can leave late at night, maybe get some sleep en route and arrive refreshed in Hong Kong in time for bed and ready for a full day ahead. Otherwise you can leave around noon, get no sleep, and arrive first thing in the morning, deprived of sleep ready for bed and a full day ahead of you.

This is a trip that is purely for work. There will be no time for gallivanting around on the Star Ferry, getting soused in Jockey Club (even if I could get in) or taking the tram up to the peak. The plan is to pick up the bag from the carousel, jump on a bus to Tsing Yi and spend the night at some oversized hotel on the outskirts of the town – since I´m not doing any sightseeing, there doesn´t seem to be a lot of point paying premium for a nice view. The next morning, I will head into Central, meet a former student who is now working at HKU and then we will head across the border to meet another guy who is planning to come and work for me in Norway. In the evening I will hop on the last high speed train to Wuhan which will get me there around 10.30, so I should be at my hotel before midnight.

To soften the blow, I´m flying Premium Economy. I shopped around the airlines and settled for Air France, primarily because they were the offering a cheapest premium, rather than any desire to negotiate terminal changes at Charles de Gaulle. If I´d looked a little closer on the itinerary, I might have caught the 8 hour stop over, but I still would have had that pleasure if I´d been flying regular economy.

Business class customers are a major source of income for the airlines and each time I fly long haul international it seems the cabin has expanded a little more. Sitting in Premium, I count five rows premium to about 20 for business. We may have less legroom back here, but we are more exclusive

I was sitting in my aisle seat before take off, watching the affluent business customers ahead of me struggling to load their oversize carry-ons into the overhead, quaffing their complimentary glasses of champagne and generally being made a fuss of by the cabin crew (who were walking around with iPads to help them identify the customers and greet them by name). I did have my moment when one of them glanced down at their screen, then looked down the aisle to us Premium boys and girls and crossed over to give me the personal greeting. It was only then I realized that I´ve never travelled back in standard economy on Air France and have generally spent my time between transfers sitting in their lounges and gorging myself on their snacks.

Once the flight attendants got the single ping to alert them to get off their arses and into the aisles, the curtains were closed off front and back to block off the respective riff raff and we were in our own little five row cocoon.

I spent the first few minutes trying to figure out what I was getting in return for splashing out those extra Euros. Premium Economy on Air France offers a little shelf for our complementary bottle of Evian, and a second shelf below which was so small it might have been there for storing a flip phone, not unreasonable since we were flying on an aging 777. We also had a slightly larger screen in the back of the seat and noise cancelling headphones. These were wired into the seat, presumably the fact we haven´t coughed up the extra cash for a proper bed is sufficient indication we are not be trusted completely.

For me, the premium advantage of premium economy is the bigger seats, more legroom and the seat in front doesn´t recline into your face. I even had the benefit of an empty seat on one side and the aisle on the other. Unlike regular economy, you can´t lift the armrest and curl up across both seats, but it is nice to have your bag within easy reach.

After take off they tried to make us feel special by handing out cosmetic bags and menu cards. Later, while everyone in the back of the plane was being served up some heated up slop on a tiny plastic tray, we were served up the same heated up slop on a larger plastic tray and drank wine out of real glasses. We were also offered unlimited bread rolls from a bread basket. I think they manage this by making them sufficiently inedible to ensure no one comes back for seconds. After dinner, we were presented with what looked like grenade size party poppers which, after a bomb squad style cursory inspection, turned out to be a selection of inedible sweets. Presumably this was to help us wash down the undrinkable coffee.

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.