Into The Blue Again

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This is my current view.

Yes, Mrs A and I are off again on one of our jaunts. This time there are no winter coats, no thermal underwear and no hiking boots*. This time the destination is not Europe.

This time we are heading to Morocco. My first time in Africa (although Mrs A had been to Tunisia in a previous life) and I am looking forward to the chaos of Marrakesh, and seeing the Atlas mountains.

But for now, I shall content myself with the bright-yellow-plastic-and-emergency-procedures view, listen to a spot more Ezra Furman (recommended), hope that the hen party occupying the row in front of us don’t get much more rowdy (they’re currently discussing the most effective method for descaling washing machines) and wait for touchdown.

NDC

* – there are hiking sandals. See Atlas mountains. I apologise to both fashion and dignity.

Ich aß eine Berliner*

This last adventure was a belter. A couple of firsts were ticked off – the first time in Berlin for either Mrs A or I (I’d travelled pretty extensively one Germany when on the payroll of The Man, but never this far east) and also our first time using AirBnB.

Let me tell you, I can thoroughly recommend both of these things.

Triggered by the recent tale of the student who found it cheaper to travel home from sheffield to Essex via Berlin on planes than to buy a train ticket direct, we ferreted out a couple of cheap flights (£20 each thankyou very much) and then set about finding accommodation. We came up with this:

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Mrs A wondered where the line was between minimalist modernist chic and crack den. I think the artwork pushes it over the line.

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It was on the 14th floor of the highest residential block in the city. Located in Mitte, it was reserved for the party faithful in the days of the DDR and had spectacular views

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We headed out to the Brandenburg Gate to pick up a walking tour of the city’s cultural and historical high points, which was led by an ex history teacher from London. It sometimes felt like we were tagging along with an A level history class, but he knew his stuff and we learnt a lot of interesting stuff outside of the obvious nazi/communist backdrop to the city. The Jewish memorial was moving, the site of Hitler’s bunker bizarre and the remains of the Berlin wall very resonant. We even got to see the balcony that Michael Jackson dangled his baby from. My favourite part was standing in the Gendarmenmarkt, whilst our tour guide explained the background to the square and its architects’ philosophy of equality and openness that made the effects of the nazi regime even more astonishing. We finished our tour in Bebelplatz, where the book burnings took place.

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After hiking around the city for so long we were starving, so we headed off to find food. We ate in a small independent burger joint called Revolver. The decor was industrial, the food was ace, the music was gangsta and the average age dropped by around 20 years when we left.

Exhausted, we grabbed a couple of drinks from a local corner shop and headed back to the apartment to plan the next day’s hike. We pre booked to see the roof terrace of the Reichstag building and collapsed into bed.

The following day we ate a leisurely breakfast in our room before receiving an email at around 10am telling us our visit was confirmed for 10:15. The Reichstag was around a 25 minute walk away, so we bolted down what was left of our leisurely breakfast and made our way across town at a pace that Mo Farrah would have complained about. We got there at around 20 past ten and threw ourselves on the mercy of a very nice chap on the door who found our names on the list and said “OK, we can get you in now, just go through and show your passports to the officers in security”.

Passports? You mean the passports in my bag? Which is in our apartment? 20 minutes (very fast) walk away? Bugger.

He kept calm and told us quite reasonably that unfortunately we wouldn’t be allowed in without valid ID. He then pointed out the booking office over the road where we could book another slot later in the day. We beetled over and booked a slot for half an hour later.

“Can I see your passports to confirm the booking please?” Asked the lady in cheerful tones. Bugger. Again.

After going and picking up the bloody passports we finally got a slot booked for the evening.

So the rest of the day was spent covering around 15 miles on foot around Berlin. We saw more of the Jewish memorial (this part underground), the topography of terror (detailing the rise and fall of the Nazis), the museum of the German resistance (housed in the very building where Von Stauffenberg organised the plot to blow up Hitler), and the Tranenplast (the museum based on the site of the major entrance and exit from East Berlin for civilians during the cold war). We walked through the beautiful Tiergarten park past the carillon and we saw the very moving monument to the Roma & Sinti. We even tried to visit the museum based in the old Stasi building, but someone had moved it and not told us. Typical bloody Stasi.

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After all that we ate a (frankly crap) meal before heading back across the city (with passports in hand) to catch our slot at the Reichstag. To say it was worth the aggravation is an understatement. It was beautiful. Even though we couldn’t get access to the dome, as it was being maintained, the views of the city and the building itself were stunning. After that we headed back to the Brandenburg Gate to see it at night before walking back to the apartment for the final time.

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We finally collapsed into bed again before our early morning flight back to dear old blighty the following day.

Berlin is an incredible city. Fascinating, vibrant and full of so much history and interest. Our two days barely scratched the surface, so without a doubt we will be back soon.

* – yes, I did eat a Berliner. The doughnut, not a citizen. It wasn’t that nice but sometimes you have to be a tourist, right?

Small Town

I love the town I live in, it’s a really nice little market town with a great mix of small independent shops sprinkled with enough supermarkets and the like to make living here very easy. There’s a fast train to London and good connections to pretty well everywhere in the country. We have access to at least
4 airports within an hour and a half’s drive, so our numerous microadventures to other parts of the planet are pretty cheap and easy.

The mix of people here is quite interesting too. Although the connections to London have meant that quite a few commuters live here, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find the rural community. It’s not at all unusual to see a kanckered old pickup with hay bales and a collie parked up in the town centre between the BMWs and there is a tractor showroom on the main road into the town just next to the ford dealership.

Old school and new school occasionally have differing priorities and have been fighting a battle over aesthetics recently as evidenced below:

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This door was, until yesterday, attached to one of the lovely little terraces that happens to be on a route I take when walking into the town. We’ve lived here for a couple of years now and it’s always been shabby (which I am a huge fan of. To quote mrs A: “If it looks old and knackered you’ll like it”), but over the last couple of weeks has become, shall we say, embellished?

I spoke to the guy who owns the house, who explained that he’d been getting anonymous letters put through the door about the shabby paintwork. He started by ignoring them but, as the letters kept coming, he painted the door as above. The thing that made me laugh the most was that he’d actually gone out and bought a notice board just so he’d have more space to write scathing commentary about the actions of his neighbours. He cackled as he was telling me the tale, whilst in the background fitters were installing a new front door in a very tasteful colour.

I couldn’t see any haybales or a collie, perhaps they were in the garden.

You should come and live here, I can thoroughly recommend it.

Domestic Extremist

Last Wednesday Mrs A and I were out and about again. We headed off from the sleepy shire into the sprawling urban metropolis that is Leicester, to see Mark Thomas’ new show Trespass.

After parking the car and before walking down to The Curve to catch the show we stopped off for a curry at Kayal on Granby street. We’ve eaten there a couple of times in the past and the food is always good (for which they won an award in 2008, as the gently ageing sign tells you). One of the many things I like about Kayal is that there is no chicken korma to be seen on the menu. I ordered something from the menu I’d never heard of before, the waiter looked vaguely alarmed and told me what to expect, which I took to mean it might not be quite what customers generally expect and he was heading off complaints before the food arrived. we pressed on anyway.

Mrs A ordered an aubergine dish and a paratha bread. The food arrived (mine was a chicken curry with rice dumplings in some kind of spicy coconut stew) they were both lovely. You should go, trust me. Just as good now as 2008.

After food and a couple of pints of Kingfisher to the good we made our way down to the theatre. Mark Thomas came on stage and headed off as he meant to continue by haranguing the venue for the exorbitant percentage that they wanted to take a commission on his merchandise. He told us that in order to stick it to The Man he was going to head out into the street at the interval and sell to anyone who wanted a “Domestic Extremist” teatowel they could get one then and the commission that would have gone to the venue would go into a hat for a charity helping refugees in Calais. Perfect.

So the show passed in a blur of right-on, expletive-strewn, thought-provoking laughs based around the awful move towards selling off public spaces to big business and its impact on Joe Public. One of my most favourite bits was the photo of him being wrestled to the ground by bank security guards whilst dressed as Sean The Sheep beamed onto an enormous screen behind him. He looked deadpan at the audience and said “it’s hard to tell who’s lost the most dignity here, isn’t it?”. I laughed like a drain.

Come the interval, and after the show too, he was indeed outside flogging teatowels and generally chatting to people like a regular human being. It was great, although a highly developed sense of social conscience and comedy timing clearly doesn’t translate to supply chain skills as he’d run out after about 5 minutes. We never did get one…

I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw The Mark Thomas Comedy Product back in the mid 90s and he’s just as funny today. Mrs A is now worried however, that she’ll get a call at some point asking her to collect her sheep-outfitted husband from some police station.

North & Deep South

So after the adventure of Riga, a jaunt across the town to take The Boy Wonder swimming and a single night in our own bed (oh, the joy of sleeping in a temperature of less than a kazillion degrees!), we were straight back in the car and driving North to Glasgow for a catch up with the in laws.

Time is recalling its dues on them.

Whilst we were there we stayed in a couple of hotels, one new and one old friend. The new one was a real find, called Goglasgow urban hotel. It was ferreted out by Mrs A for its location and turned out to be a refurbishment of an old hotel that was a bit down at heel. The staff were really nice, the décor was brilliant with an overall industrial/shipyard theme (really appropriate to its location) and the place had just the right kind of bonkers going on, with one of the dancing Tunnocks teacakes outfits from the commonwealth games opening ceremony on the wall in reception. If you don’t remember this quintessentially mental piece of history, here it is:

They even had teacakes on the coffee tray in the room (sadly only normal sized).

Best of all, we found out chatting to the guy on reception that the the hotel is owned by a small Scottish company and they donate a healthy percentage of their profits back into micro-local causes and charities. If you’re there I would recommend them entirely. Here’s a link to their site:

http://www.crerarhotels.com/goglasgow-urban-hotel

After a day visiting with the in laws and taking Eldest son and his girlfriend out for dinner we headed back for our last night in Glasgow at One Devonshire Gardens. We absolutely love this place for its memories and for the fact that it is such a beautiful place. If I had the money I’d just move in (and turn down the heating…..)

The following day we drove back down south, ate our tea and then headed straight back out to Stamford (possibly the only sleepier town than ours in a 50 mile radius) to see Rich Hall. It was the funniest hour and a half of standup I’ve seen in a long time and is definitely one of my favourite gigs. He was sharp and funny and had both Mrs A and I in stitches for the whole show (even the songs were funny). If you get chance to see him, go. And take his advice on online gambling.

Ceļot

We’ve been at large again.

This time our flight was heading for the most easterly point in Europe that I’ve been to so far. This particular trip was a Christmas present from the lovely Mrs A (she does good presents) to Riga.

The flight was a little delayed so we amused ourselves in the fun-factory that is Luton airport by putting on far too much perfume/aftershave whilst avoiding the ever watchful sales assistants (or anti-freebie Stazi as I like to think of them). In the absence of free whisky samples it’s the best we could find to fill the time.

Eventually our flight got sorted; a couples of hours and the smoothest landing I have ever experienced later, we found ourselves wandering out of the terminal building at Riga international in search of a bus. We picked one that looked about right, stumped up a couple of Euro and waited to see if we’d chosen the right one. Half an hour’s worth of traffic, bridges and communist era scenery later we walked into the reception of the Wellton hotel and spa. Located right by the old town, I can’t recommend them enough if you’re ever there. The staff were all nothing short of excellent, they even cheerfully put us into a different room after our first night just so we could have a better view:

Before:

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After:

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See? Lovely isn’t it?

Also this is an example of breakfast:

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Yes, that is indeed Champagne. At breakfast. Also, I apologise unreservedly for the placement of the comedy sausage. It didn’t even register until someone pointed it out with great glee on Facebook. Such is my circle of friends. The only complaint I have would be the Bahamian temperature in our room that made sleeping nigh on impossible, but I think there is some secret code for hoteliers that means the thermostat must NEVER be allowed to be set below something suitable for Old Nick’s sauna, so I’m resigned to it now.

Riga itself was (is) achingly beautiful, the old town particularly was glorious – the architecture, public art and parks were fantastic. The mix of incredibly intricate art nouveau buildings and brutally austere soviet monuments was fascinating.

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The history of the region was something that I wasn’t really too aware of until visiting a couple of the museums/tours dealing with Latvia’s rollercoaster past at the hands of several totalitarian regimes. To say the Latvian population suffered between the 40s and the 90s is a massive understatement. The tour of the Cheka (KGB) building is something that will stay with me for a long time. There was no gloss or polish put on anything. It was truly grim, even for a visit of a couple of hours.

The food there was great and relatively cheap. Mrs A played a blinder with her late entry in the ‘Adventurous Dinner’ award competition, for this burger:

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Yes, it really was that colour. It tasted ace too.

So now, after a short bus ride and another round of perfume/aftershave/questionable face goop at the airport, I’m writing this on the plane to sunny Luton. We will sleep in our own bed (at a mercifully sensible temperature) tonight before heading north tomorrow for a couple of days in Glasgow.

Happy Birthday

Today The Boy Wonder has turned 10. A lot has changed in the last year, for a start he’s been doing a ‘how to stay safe online’ study at school today, hence there is no picture of him and we now have a super-secret password just in case someone decides to hack my email account and tries to start an illicit conversation with him, so he can check it’s really me.

We had a birthday for him on Saturday with us, with cake and bowling with his mate and burgers and presents. It was lovely.

Happy birthday big fella, may the wind always be at your back.

Photographic Memories

Once upon a time I used to be a quite keen photographer. When I was in my early twenties I spotted an old Minolta X-300 35mm SLR  in a charity shop and got bitten by the bug. Over the space of a few years I began a learning process that took me from knowing very little about f-stops and  apertures, to being able to discern between specular and diffuse reflection and take a pretty good shot at setting up a multi-light arrangement for most occasions. The full manual setting on my SLR was my weapon of choice and I even managed to take a handful of decentish pictures.

I was, in short, a nerd.

Years later digital arrived and I gradually moved over, eventually assembling a pretty decent digital outfit including one of Canon’s legendary ‘L Series’ lenses (see nerd comment above) and I lived it all over again. There was a new learning curve to be had in post production which had previously been way outside my scope. It used to be that I’d think nothing of lugging around a couple of kilos of gear for hours in search of that one elusive, perfect image, a choice made a little more straightforward by the fact that compact cameras were pretty limited and phone cameras were laughable.

But times change and since I was really firing on all cylinders with this stuff, technology has moved on (along with airline luggage weight allowances). I picked up a pretty decent compact a couple of years ago to travel with me to Sri Lanka, I’ve found that it has more than enough manual control for me to be happy and to get 99% of the shots I could have got with the full fat setup plus others that I would have missed through being too slow with heavy gear. As a result the bulky old SLR has languished entirely in the back of the wardrobe along with flashes, light modifiers, stands, tripods and assorted other bits and pieces. It’s time had been and gone for me so its currently finding various new homes via eBay and charity shops.

And the proceeds of selling off my gear?

Well, please allow me to indulge myself in one of my favourite photographer quotes, attributed to Jim Richardson:

If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” 

Next stops Riga and Berlin, maybe more depending on how much people value L series glass these days…

Not So Dry February

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So here we are in February, the start of a new month and the first beer of the year for me.

Mrs A and I decided to pack in the booze for a month after a hectic Christmas and new year, a cheque written by my confidence that I wasn’t entirely sure my willpower could cash. I thought that the early part of the month would be tricky but it was surprisingly easy (I think because we were both on the same wagon) and I always knew that once I’d got past the midway point only a forcibly administered pint would spoil the challenge, such is my competitive  nature.

Mrs  A is talking about extending the dryness through February as well (I’m not sure if she has, as she’s away with work this evening), but that’s not for me. I’ve done my time thankyouverymuch.

The beer in the picture was a Christmas present from The Boy Wonder, suggested by our local wine/beer merchant and is a belter. Apparently the brewery in Belgium that produces this beauty only make one batch per year and that’s that. To do my best to mirror the time and care taken in production, it’s taken me all evening to drink it, as it’s 11% and should probably be categorised as ‘weaponised beer’.

Cheers!

Outside

Last week the mercury dipped below zero and we had our first covering of snow in a couple of years. Nothing on the scale of the ‘Snowzilla’ storm that hit the US this week, but enough for the local kids to at least make a snowman or two.

So what better time to decide on an overnight adventure camping out?

Without a tent?

To begin at the genesis of this particular harebrained plan; a few weeks ago in my rooting about for info on potential hikes for TBW and I in the spring I happened across a short video by guy called Alastair Humphreys. It was just about doing something interesting, something you enjoy, without it having to be a huge undertaking. I was enjoying the film all quite nicely, thank you very much, sitting on my sofa with my arse and cup of coffee and a biscuit. And then he uttered this line:

“This is it, now, this is your life. Tick tock, tick tock”.

Well that struck a chord with the hippy me.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to last Tuesday. With clear skies and the temperature at freezing point I found myself locking my front door behind me at 10pm, shouldering my pack and heading out of town.

I wandered through the sleepy housing estates, windows warmly lit as people watched the 10 o’clock news, my breath forming long vapour plumes behind me in the orange sodium street lights as I walked. Houses, dogwalkers and street lamps gradually dwindling to be replaced by farm buildings, unidentified rustling in fields and the cold clear glow of moonlight. Up a couple of country lanes devoid of traffic and through a last tiny village. Almost there.

I had a place in mind for my overnighter, I’d spotted it a couple of weeks before on a walk around the local paths (that time, more sensibly, in the daylight). It was at the top of a small hill (where I live is, at best, gently rolling countryside) overlooking the town. I’d hoped that in darkness the view would be good – I mean, who doesn’t like an elevated view of a town at night, right?

So I left the thin strip of tarmac behind and headed off along the footpath, grass and remnants of snow crunching under my boots. And then I was there, in my room for the night. Moonlit, cold, beautiful. The hill dropping down into a small wooded valley before rising to another smaller hill beyond. The warmth of the orange glow from the town in the distance. I thought about the people watching TV as I rolled out my bag and mat on a relatively flat piece of ground.

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I crawled into my bag and lay cocooned in warmth, watching the stars until I fell asleep.

I woke just before dawn. It had clouded over a little through the night but I was quite cheerful to be waking up outside. I packed my gear, wandered a little further down towards the valley and found a spot to have a coffee and porridge whilst watching the sun come up.

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I have a plan to find a stove top coffee pot for next time. Life is too short for sachets of nescafe.

And then it was time to head back home. With the benefit of daylight I was able to walk back via footpaths almost to my front door, nowhere near as cold as I’d expected to be and very happy with my lot. The miles passed in what felt like seconds.

Tick tock, tick tock.