Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A Message to my Readers

Hi de hi and ho de ho.

I've been looking at the Stats tab on this here Blog and I'm pleased to see that there are people out there who read these witterings now and then.  I can guess who some of you are.  I hope you enjoy what you see.

And there's the thing.  I enjoy writing these posts, it gives me something to exercise my Mind Muscle more than (most days) my real job does, so it's no bad thing for me, and it doesn't cost me anything, not even a luncheon voucher.  But I have no idea what you, Dear Reader, think of it all.  I have one listed follower (yo, Phil!) and I've received one comment (thanks, Aga).......which isn't a lot really.

So please.....give me some feedback.  Seriously, I'd like that.   Post a comment, even it's only fuck off or something.  Become a Follower, it doesn't cost you anything.  Criticise or praise, as you's a free country, Webland, with no real rules.  Interaction is great.....and I'd really like some of that.  Tell me what you like and dislike about the Blog.  I'm a man, I can take it!

And watch this space, there's plenty more where this lot came from.  You're always welcome.


Travellin Bob  

Out of this world

I saw a couple of interesting new items this week (at least I found them interesting....).

In the first, Virgin Galactic has had a little ceremony to dedicate the runway at the spaceport it's developing in Nevada, that is supposed to start taking fare paying passengers (at about $200,000 a trip) on sub-orbital flights from the end of next year.  Now there is no way I'm ever going to be able to afford one of those little jaunts, much as I would love to do so, but good luck to Richard Branson with the venture, I hope it's a roaring success, and good luck to everyone who takes a trip.....I envy you all!

The second item was a report from NASA that concerned the probe they crashed into the Moon some months ago.  A spectrographic analysis (or some such) of the pictures taken has shown that there is more ice trapped in the surface, and probably much more below, than they had anticipated, and probably more than enough to support colonies there.  That made me think of a book I read, several times, some years ago: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein.  It is an absolute classic, one of the best books I've ever read, and alongside "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "Time Enough for Love" one of the best he's ever written (and the bloke wrote a few before he died, back in the Golden Era of SF writing, in the 40s to 60s).   It's about the Colonists on the Moon and their struggle to found an independent state, led by a self-aware computer called Mike (for Mycroft, named after Sherlock Holmes' brother) and his maintenance engineer, a one-armed ex-ice miner called Manuel Garcia O'Connor.  When it was written back in the 50s it must have seemed possible, given the scientific advances that were happening everywhere, but somehow it all went wrong....

                                                          *          *          *

Of course, that's not the only book that has postulated humans conquering's been a staple of SF since the genre was started by Jules Verne 150 odd years ago.  Arthur C. Clark's "2001: A Space Odyssey" is on obvious and brilliant alternative, as is his "A Fall of Moondust".  Before that came Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles", Edgar Rice Burroughs ' "Barsoom" series, and many others.  Since then Kim Stanley Robinson has written a brilliant and utterly believable series of "Mars" books, that follow a future history of the Martian colony over many years, terraforming the planet into another Earth.  The list goes on and on, but (with the exception of "Barsoom" which I've never read) these are my personal favourites.

It seems a shame that somehow or other, mankind  - or at least its governments - seems to have lost the courage that sent us into space in the first place, despite the cost in lives and dollars, and prompted (or was prompted by) many of these books.    When "2001" was written, again back in the 60s, the Apollo program was running, and reaching the Moon a close and realistic prospect.  Since that happened not much more than 60 years after the first flight by the Wright brothers  - such incredible technological advances in such a short time! - the idea of space stations circling the Earth as a staging post to commercial Moon trips, a colonized satellite, and beyond, did not seem that far fetched.

But today, where are we?  Well, no-one has been on the Moon since the early 70s, and America remains the only nation to have landed there.   The Russians built their own space station, Mir, but that fell to Earth years ago.   It's been replaced by the International Space Station, but that has taken years to build and although functioning is still very much government only, cramped and primitive in comparison with the beautiful (and technically feasible) station envisioned by Clark and portrayed so well in Kubrick's film, and still unfinished.  The American space shuttle fleet has been retired after nearly 30 years service, and there is no replacement for the first - and so far only - re-usable vehicle yet produced.  Supplies and crew are now being ferried up to the ISS by the old Soyuz launch vehicle that the Russians have been using, virtually unchanged, since the early 70s.  The Chinese have managed to get a couple of astronauts up there, for short flights, and are planning for a Moon landing but not for many years.  The Indians are also working on their own projects.  And that's about it.

Of course there have been thousands of unmanned missions. There is an uncounted number of satellites orbiting our planet: some are communications machines (without which our mobile phones and the internet would not function); some watch and plot weather patterns; there is a network that runs GPS to everyone's benefit (personally I prefer a good road map), and a host of others whose purpose I'd probably rather not know.  There is the Hubble telescope that regularly produces the most stunning images of the sky, stars and galaxies thousands of light years away, that are helping astronomers and physicists figure out how the whole shooting match of a universe came together and holds together, and even identfiy planets forming star systems light years away.  There have been many unmanned probes to the planets - Venus and Mars primarily - and others that performed fly-by's of the outer gas giants and sent back fabulous and intriguing images of them and their moons before heading off into interstellar space.

But man holds steadfast to low Earth orbit.

                                                               *          *          *

Mostly that comes down to budgets, I guess.  The costs of launching anything, even into low Earth orbit, are enormous (and that's discounting the years of development that comes before the launch) and clearly far more than even the most visionary SF prophet ever imagined.  But governments of both the US and USSR (still the main space explorers, despite China's and India's efforts to catch up) happily spent trillions of dollars developing weapons systems, many featuring rocketry, that were ultimately thrown away without being used (thank God!).  Now neither party seems to be able to agree on the next adventure.  There has been much talk of a new series of missions to the Moon, but not for at least another 15 or 20 years (and consider the US went from its first satellite launch to landing Neil and Buzz there in less than 10 years).  The Americans haven't even agreed on a Shuttle replacement yet, even though the last flight is due next month: the favourite was abandoned by Obama on cost grounds last year.  Voyages to Mars have also been mentioned, but in maybe 50 years.....that seems to be largely down to health and safety issues: how are the astronauts going to survive a year or two in space, away from their friends and family, the poor lambs?  There's a multi-national group sealed up in a facility in Moscow right now, and for the next 12 months, trying to simulate a trip to Mars and back, aimed at giving some clues to that.

And yet, not much more than 150 years ago, sailors went off for years at a time, on flimsy sail boats, exploring the uncharted world we live in, and it was accepted that a lot of them would never come back.  It never stopped anyone going.  Man has always been inquisitive, an explorer species by nature - it's what sets us apart from our ape cousins.  And yet it seems the more powerful among us - the ones who hold the purse strings in government - seem to have lost that inquisitive nature, or at least buried it under a lust for power and personal gain.  Where are the visionaries like JFK, who started the Apollo program before he was killed?

So we live in a world that grows more crowded by the minute.  One that is using up its natural resources at an alarming rate.  One that grows more polluted with every new car or bus or motor bike that fires up its engine, and where global warming and climate change are a fact of life - albeit, in Al Gore's words, "An Inconvenient Truth".  Sooner or later this world will become too crowded and under-resourced to support the billions of poor, of every nationality (it's not a uniquely Third World situation to be skint).  What happens then?  Another popular SF staple is to imagine that kind of a future - the early 70s movie "Logan's Run" springs to mind, where everyone had to be subject to euthenasia at the age of 30, to avoid overcrowding and prolong the failing mineral and natural wealth.  Do we really want mankind to end like that - not with a bang but a whimper, as someone much brighter than me once put it?

For the last few thousand years, we've been engaged in a diaspora, leaving our homelands and spreading throughout our world to find more space, better lives, more wealth.  But we've really run out of space now, here on Earth.  Perhaps it's time to pluck up our courage, and start a new diaspora, but out into space, whatever the cost, financial or otherwise.  Before it's too late.

That way, Mr. Sulu.  Out there......

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Behind the Iron Curtain

When I were a lad at school, we had it drummed into us that anything east of France (except West Germany and that was mostly still occupied by British and American troops left over from the war) was really not very nice at all.  We all heard stories of Joe Stalin and his massacres over a period of 40-odd years, we had the warning of the Cuban Missile Crisis (the closest ever to World War 3, one which would have probably have been nuclear and thus very unpleasant indeed) and Kruschev's antics at the UN General Assembly....banging his shoe on the lectern, for goodness sake, how undiplomatic can you get!  Then growing up, through my 20s, left-wing activists of my acquaintance were all rampant Marxists, but talked a load of old bollocks really, heavy on sloganeering but a tad light on content, and not at all clear on why Communism was so much better and more preferable to Capitalism.  I read John leCarre's excellent spy books, and enjoyed very much the BBCs adaptations (Smiley's People and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and wondered just how accurate his depictions of eastern European cities and people really were.  Surely everything couldn't really be as grim and depressing as it seemed and looked on the odd bit of film that came out of the region (like the Prague Spring in 68, for instance). Could it?

Russian leaders came and went.....Kruschev, Brezhnev, Kosygin, Andropov....all apparently cut from the same cloth, all with the outward appearance of tired old men, and all seemingly with links in some form or other back to Uncle Joe and his numerous terrors.  They all seemed to have links to the KGB as well, so in my possibly simplistic mind they probably had blood on their hands too....but I think not: the more I read about Soviet history, the more I meet people from that region and talk to them and learn about "real life" there, the more sure I am that they were a bunch of murderous old bastards who are now (hopefully) rotting in Hell.

Gorbachev changed all that.  He was younger for a start, and looked and dressed more western somehow.  Thatcher famously said he was "someone we can do business with", and she was right.  Probably because of his age and better education (don't quote me as I'm writing from memory, and haven't read his biography) he seemed to have a better, more pragmatic grasp of the situation in both the Eastern Bloc and the West, and was able to see through 50-odd years of Communist Party bullshit and perceive that it wasn't as good as he officially was supposed to believe and promote.  He could understand that when you have a couple of groups, each armed with massive nuclear arsenals, if the shit did hit the fan there would not be a "limited engagement", but there would instead be annihilation, on both sides, and no-one in the world would escape the consequences.  So with a pragmatism not seen for God know's how many years in the Soviet government, he was prepared to talk to the West's leaders (Thatcher and her toy-boy, ageing Hollywood has-been turned Republican politician Ronald Reagan) and try and do something about it.  Various Treaties were signed that committed both sides to dismantle big chunks of those nuclear arsenals, and all of a sudden the world did not seem quite such a dangerous place.  At least until Islamic Fundamentalism reared its ugly head....but that's another story altogether.

It also gave the Soviet economy, bankrupt for years, some money - what had previously been spent on now obsolete and scrapped weaponry - that could be ploughed back into other things, like food and consumer goods, better clothes and housing and health care.  And along came a Polish Pope, to give things another push.  He made a point of visiting his homeland and elsewhere, and was quite vocal in his opposition to all things Red, as indeed he would be, after living much of his life under the excesses of successive Polish Communist governments (and that after a youth under the even more vile Nazi occupation)..  Then along came more Polish pioneers, this time in the form of a trade union, Solidarity, unheard of in a Communist country.  The cracks were beginning to show across the whole Eastern Bloc.  Solidarity led strikes in the huge Gdansk shipyard and elsewhere, and despite the best efforts of the Party, including the brutal imposition of martial law, the imprisonment of Solidarity's leaders and the murder of a sympathic Warsaw priest by the security services, the whole edifice crumbled and was swept from power in democratic, free elections.  It sparked copycat movements throughout the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and in one country after another, even the USSR itself, Communist governments of various descriptions were swept from office.   Even the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Iron Curtain itself, was torn down by citizens of both East and West Berlin in one extraordinary evening of manual labour and unbridled joy that was broadcast live on TV screens across the was quite extraordinary.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the map of Europe changed as new nations were born, some relatively painlessly, others through violent demonstrations and civil war.  East and West Germany joined together again, for the first time in 50 years, to become the Bundesrepublic Deutschland - Germany, to you and I.  Czechoslovakia, meanwhile, split into its two constituent states and became the relatively affluent Czech Republic and its poorer neighbour Slovakia, both changes relatively painless and democratic exercises.  The old Yugoslavia, meanwhile, split into half a dozen states amid a decade of bloodshed, civil war and ethnic cleansing, that needed US and British led NATO forces to intervene and saw new national leaders imprisoned and tried by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for crimes against humanity.  The scars and divisions caused by that series of conflicts are still not healed to this day, and UN forces are still there protecting the smallest of the new nations, Kosovo, a tiny state in a greater Serbia that refuses to let it go.   In Romania, the Communist dictator Ceauscescu and his wife refused to go quietly, and in a brief and bloody coup ended up being dragged out of their Presidential Palace and shot on Christmas morning.  A democracy was declared, elections were held, but the country, whilst ostensibly a democratic member of the EU, is still riddled with gang warfare and organised crime, as is neighbouring Bulgaria.

Even the Soviet Union crumbled and the original Communists swept from power....including Gorbachev himself, who had perhaps unwittingly set the ball rolling with his policies of glasnost and perestroika.  The Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia - broke away preacefully to form young and relatively prosperous nations quite quicky.  The "Stans" - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Krygisztan - also moved quite peacefully to nationhood, as did Azerbaijan.  But in the Caucasus, around the Black and Caspian Seas, there has been continuing unrest in Georgia, Chechnya and other tiny states desperate for indepenance at any costs that has from time to time prompted brutal intervention from Russia.  Nevertheless, the Soviet Bloc is clearly no more, and the Iron Curtain totally destroyed.

For me, eventually, all of these countries represented travel opportunities that I had never dreamed of having.

                                                           *          *          *

After Poland (a subject, as it's my home now, for another day), my first "new" nation to visit was Slovakia.  The bank I was working at in Warsaw was part of a bigger, international group that, being headquartered in Vienna, was particularly strong in Eastern Europe, especially the old Soviet Bloc countries.  Once the Curtain came down, it moved quickly to establish or extend its presence all across the region, and as Slovakia borders Austria it was a prime market to exploit.   So I was asked to go to Bratislava to do a workshop for a week.

The journey from Warsaw was actually quite difficult.  It's changed now, but at that time there were no direct flights, so I had to route via Vienna, leaving me with maybe 40 miles still to travel. across the border.  There were some Slovakian girls working in Vienna on the project, and they travelled between the cities by bus, but told me it was a very uncomfortable journey (Slovakian buses being thirty years old and not in the best repair).  Someone else suggested the train, and someone else proposed a taxi.  In the end I settled for the train, as there was a non-stop service from Vienna Ostbahnhoff. 

The flight to Vienna was uneventful, as was the taxi ride in from the airport.  Then the fun started.  The train was scheduled from platform 9, and I had time to pick up a pastry and coke for the journey.  I settled into the compartment to enjoy the ride.  Departure time came and went, and still we sat there.  For ten minutes: it was like commuting from Cannon Street to Tunbridge Wells again.  Then with a jerk that spilled my coke we were off.  The train lumbered through the eastern outskirts of Vienna for 5 minutes and stopped at a station - odd, as this was supposed to be a non-stop service.  We moved off again for another 10 minutes, then another stop.  By now I'm a bit concerned about whether I'm on the right train.  With no-one else in the compartment and no ticket collector anywhere I had no way of finding out, without wandering off along the train.  I decided to wait and see what happened.  After about three quarters of an hour and another half dozen stops, we pulled into a small rural station, in the middle of a wood somewhere.   Alongside was a long freight train loaded with logs.  The single station building was very picturesque, in a Germanic rural sort of way, but apparently deserted.  Everyone got off the train and left the station, leaving me leaning out the window wondering what was happening.  The guard saw me and yelled something in German, and started waving his arms - I assumed he wanted me off as well, so I lugged my suitcase and laptop out of the train and onto the platform.  I didn't even have time to close the door before the train pulled forward into a siding.  Then the driver got down, walked through the station building, got into a van with the guard and they drove off, leaving me alone.

There was no-one else on the station, and I could find no timetable to figure out where I was....there wasn't even a name on the station platform or building.  About a mile or so away, through the gathering evening gloom, I could see lights, and assumed it must be a town or village.  I considered walking there to find out at least where I was, but with a heavy suitcase and laptop bag I wasn't completely sold on the idea.  Then a couple of ladies appeared, walked through the waiting room, and clambered into a very battered diesel railcar parked beside the train I had recently left.  I hesitated, then a couple of men and another woman followed them.  I left my bags, walked across and half climbed into the car myself.

"Excuse me, " I said. "This train...Bratislava?"

The men looked at me shiftily but one of the women nodded. 

So I got my bags, lugged them aboard and settled down.  After another 15 minutes or so (by which time it was quite dark) a Ford Transit pulled up outside the station, and a couple of minutes later four armed police led onto the train about 8 prisoners, manacled together, and sat them down.  Two of the armed guys went off in the van, leaving their colleagues to mind the shop.  They did this by walking up and down the aisle in the carriage, rifles in hand, glaring at the prisoners and muttering threats.  One of the prisoners, across the aisle from me,  was staring at me, an idiotic grin on his face.  I did my best to ignore him, but it was disturbing to say the least.  One of the guards saw this, strolled casually across and as he passed the prisoner jammed the butt of his rifle into his face without saying a word.  The guy grunted, dropped his gaze and remained staring at the floor for the rest of the journey.  Shortly after, the Transit came back with another batch of manacled prisoners, they were pushed into seats and off we went.  By this time, I was beginning to wonder what the hell I had let myself in for by accepting the trip!

The ride was a short one.  We rattled noisily out of the station, through the woods, and after about a mile rumbled across an old iron bridge across the Danube and into another dimly lit station.  We had crossed the border into Slovakia.  Here, the armed guards bundled their charges off the train and into the back of a truck, and drove them off in the direction of a huge and brightly lit Skoda factory a couple of miles away.   Slave labour, it seems, was alive and well in the early years of the 21st century, at least in Eastern Europe.  After they had been removed, the border guards got on and checked our passports.  I had no problems, but the guy sitting opposite me did.  He was carrying a plastic bag that contained a newspaper, a torch and what looked like an old angle-poise lamp.  After checking my passport, the guard looked at this bloke's bag, and asked him a question.  The guy shook his head and mumbled something.  The guard called his partner over and they had a brief conversation in (I presumed) Slovakian, then the second guard asked the guy a question.  Again he shook his head, and mumbled a reply.  The guards looked at each other for a second, then grabbed him and dragged him protesting loudly, bag and all, off the train, and started a strip search on the platform.  Nobody else on the train took a blind bit of notice, and a few seconds later the train pulled out leaving the guy to the mercies of the border guards.  I often wonder what the hell it was all about and what happened to the poor sod.  The rest of the ride was uneventful and short - 10 minutes into central Bratislava, and I got a cab to my hotel: from memory, a Holiday Inn but comfortable enough on the edge of the Old Town Square.

That trip I was in town a week, but really saw very little of it.  Like most cities in Europe (particularly the east) there is some splendid 18th and 19th century architecture, much of it bunched in a single central area surrounding a cobbled market square.  Beyond that "Old Town" section, there are the usual grey concrete, poor quality, Soviet era housing blocks and shopping areas, linked by a tram system that while effective is badly in need of investment.  When I was there, all the trams I used were of a quality that in Amsterdam, say (another city with an extensive tramway), would have seen them condemned to the scrapheap 30 years ago.  Not one of them had upholstered seats, and only a handful moulded plastic seats - the norm was rough and uncomfortable slatted wooden benches.  Throw in a lack of adequate heating (as I found out when I returned the following winter) and it really is a system in need of serious attention.  Perhaps by now, nearly 10 years later, it's better....I hope so.

The Old Town was lovely.  In many ways it reminded me of the Old Town market squares I had seen in Warsaw and Krakow, only less developed - fewer bars and restaurants and souvenir shops.  But I did find one excellent Irish bar on the edge of the Old Town and had probably the most satisfyingly cheap and delicious meal of my life.  Country vegetable soup, served up in a hollowed-out (and fresh) cottage loaf, an exquisite cottage pie with a big portion of chips (again, freshly cut potatoes, not frozen) and three pints of Caffrey's beer.....all for the equivalent of a fiver.  Yep, five pounds.  Superb.  I ate there every night and was never disappointed.

My return journey was thankfully less fraught.  I managed to catch the right train, although I had a moment of concern when it pulled out of the station heading north east, in the general direction of Moscow, when Vienna is due west, but it merely looped all the way round the southern edge of the city on its way to the Austrian border, where there was again a delay for passport control.  I had another iffy moment there: the border guard insisted I open my suitcase.  On top was a carrier bag with some gifts for the kids, then another big bag of laundry.  Unfortunately the laundry bag had emptied itself, and right on top was a pair of old boxer shorts with a Bonking Bunnies motif....  He picked these up on the end of his truncheon, gave me a filthy look, muttered something (undoubtedly abusive) in Slovakian, dropped them on the floor and walked out of the compartment shaking his head angrily.  My three fellow passengers found it highly amusing.

When I returned some months later, I avoided the trains and instead arranged, through the bank, a taxi pick up at Vienna airport.  It was much better: a comfortable car (even though a Daewoo rather than a Merc or BMW as was the norm in Vienna) and a very friendly English speaking driver who took care of the border formalities on my behalf.  It's also a nice hours' drive from Vienna, part motorway and then through some beautiful countryside with rolling hills close to the banks of the Danube.  Again I saw little of Bratislava or Slovakia, this time as it was winter and bitterly cold.  But it seems a nice enough place, very cheap, with a good selection of bars, restaurants and reasonably priced hotels.  It's now quite a popular destination for stag weekends (there are some stunningly beautiful girls there, and plenty of clubs to meet them in), and now also direct flights on budget airlines.  I would certainly be happy to go back and have a proper look around the it borders Poland on the north not too diffcult to achieve.

                                                             *          *          *

Some four years, an engagement and a son later I made my next trip to an ex-Iron Curtain country, this time Latvia.

It was my first trip after Kuba was born, and was a good one to make....short and sweet, one week in Riga to deliver a presentation to a prospective client.  I was only away four nights, and the flights were kind, meaning a mid morning start on the Monday returning at lunchtime Friday, and the flight to Riga from Warsaw only takes about an hour.

The flight was uneventful, and at the airport there were plenty of cabs - mostly Mercs and BMWs, not a Lada in sight.  The ride into the city was down a dual carriageway road, past factories, warehouses, discount stores, high-end car dealerships and IKEA.  It could have been almost any other European city.  Clearly, Latvia was doing pretty well after declaring its independence from the USSR.  The hotel, in the city centre, was good, not one of the usual American or European chains like Holiday Inn or Sofitel, but a genuine local Latvian hotel, housed in an old and imposing building overlooking the Freedom Park and War Memorial (that now doubled up as a monument to commemorate independence).  Beyond the park, perhaps a 10 minute walk, was one of the main shopping and business centres, and there too was the bank.  The walk there on Tuesday morning was chilly - overnight the winter (it was November) had intensified, the temperature had dropped several degrees and there was snow on the ground and more threatened.  The bank was in a small squre, surrounded by competitors, department stores and fast food joints - a Pizza Hut, Burger King and McDonalds, all next to each other, opposite a Subway and a couple of local cuisine cafes.

Over the few days I was there, everyone I spoke to, from the bank, the hotel, the restaurants and market stalls (there was a great street market just along from the square), spoke fluent English and was very friendly and helpful.  And almost all of them were young: I was told Latvia had the youngest average age population in Europe, with something around 60% under 35.  The chairman of the bank was less than 40, and only one board member was over 50.  There was an ambition and energy and vibrancy about the whole place, with everyone incredibly optimistic about the future.  It made a pleasant change from the tired cynicism so common elsewhere.  Since then, Riga too has become a popular destination for stag and hen parties, and tourism generally is on the helps that it's on the Baltic coast (although while I was there I saw nothing  at all of the sea). 

Clearly the fall of Communism and gaining its independence has done Latvia the power of good, and its future, if the people I met have anything to do with it, can only be rosy.

                                                             *          *          *

After that, I shipped out to Kazakhstan for several months, another extraordinary ex-Communist location (see Go East, Old Man) and on my return, after a week or two doing not very much, was sent to Bucharest for a month.  Romania.  I seemed to be cornering the market for Iron Curtain locations in our company.

But again I was pleasantly surprised.  For a start, the commute was good.  There is only one flight a day from Warsaw, leaving at 11:30.  Bucharest is an hour ahead, and with just over an hour and half's flight time, the earliest I could get to the city was around 3:00 p.m.  The taxi ride into the city took about an hour (traffic was bad and there were roadworks all the way).  It all meant arriving at the bank no earlier than 4, and usually closer to half-past....just enough time to say hello, I'm here, then leave again (no-one ever worked after 5).  Similarly on Friday, the flight home was at 2:30, meaning we had to leave the office by about 11.  And the time difference meant getting home to the apartment in Warsaw by about half 3.  Excellent.

The hotel, again a local, was no more than average.  It was small and in the centre of a terrace that also contained a pretty good pizza restaurant, a cheap and nasty clothes shop and an off-licence.  Its advantage was being a 10 minute walk from the office, which was in a huge and crumbling ex-government building.  Mind you, it was a dangerous walk during rush hours: the traffic was heavy, driving quality questionable and traffic lights, even on pedestrian crossings, generally ignored....invariably I would have to run the gauntlet of car horns, accelerating taxis and buses, and Romanian abuse to get to work.  But after eight months in Kazakhstan I was used to that.  The food in the hotel (and I only had breakfast) was edible, but the bar not particularly well stocked.  And there was wildlife.  One morning I found a dead cockroach, maybe 2 inches long, on its back, legs in the air, on the bathroom floor.  I left it there for the cleaners, but it was still there when I checked out three days later.  I think the cleaners merely made the bed each day and hoovered the carpet, and never bothered with the bathroom.  Another week I had mice or something in the drawer of my bedside table, possibly dining on Gideon's Bible.  The scrabbling and squeaking kept me awake half the night, but as it was Thursday and I was flying home the next day I didn't report it.

I was there in a scorchingly hot August, so spent my evenings sitting outside an Irish bar, just round the corner from the hotel, enjoying the cheap beer and food, watching the world (and highly attractive local ladies) go by, and getting sunburned.  There seemed to be an underwear shortage....  It made a pleasant change from Almaty, where taking your shirt off in a public park was an arrestable offence.

Romania had gained its independence from Communism in one of the more violent uprisings, but by the time I got there the worst of the damage had been repaired and the city was undergoing a massive plan of work to modernise it.  The road in from the airport was being widened and improved, and that meant the traffic crawled along past a whole series of temporary traffic lights and labourers who, if they weren't driving a bulldozer or JCB, seemed to do nothing except lean on shovels smoking.  I suspect they're still there now.  As you come into the city proper, there is a big and attractive park, with a river running through it and a boating lake, and beside the park stands what seems to be scale model of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw.  It's an identical building but perhaps 60% of the size.  I assume it was another gift from Stalin.  The Presidential Palace, where Ceaucescu lived (and was shot) was close to the hotel, at the top of a hill.  It is a collosal building, ugly and ridiculous in its size and multiple architectural styles.  Apparently most of it still stands empty and little disturbed since its previous owner was popped off by the mob.  Externally it's kept clean and free from layers of pigeon shit, but it seems the government just don't know what to do with it.

There seemed to be a lot of poor people around, beggars on every street corner or department store doorway, mostly ignored by their more prosperous neighbours who had a tendency just to step over them.  Most of them looked like Roma gypsies, who seem to be victimised wherever they go (witness the recent forced deportations from France).  There were also people, who could possibly be loosely termed entrepreneurs, most of them elderly and desperately lined up along the side of the road trying sell anything they could get their hands on.  One guy was selling cigarettes, one by one; another half empty books of matches liberated from hotel bars.  An old fellow, who must have been 80, was armed with a set of cracked and probably inaccurate bathroom scales and let you weigh yourself for 10 forints (maybe 50p).  I never saw anyone take up his offer.  The welfare state is virtually non existant there, and organised crime rife, so people were forced to do whatever they could just to survive.  Usually I ignore beggars myself, as it's often impossible to guess how genuinely poor they actually are (nor what the money might go towards - beer?  Drugs?) but here I made an exception: the people were so obviously destitute.  I hope things improve.

Public transport was mainly taxis (yellow, and mostly God-awful Renault Logans) and buses, plus a metro that I never used - the entrance of the closest stop to the office stunk like a toilet and the air down there seemed hot and stuffy and unclean.  There were no trams.  I walked pretty much everywhere...but not far, basically hotel to office and back every day, the shopping mall next door for lunch, then from hotel to pub for dinner in the evening.  Most days it was too hot to do more.

Bucharest was on ok place, at least for a relatively short trip.  I probably saw it at its best, in summer sunshine, with no autumn rains or winter snows.  I'm not sure I'd like to return, though I'm glad I had the experience.  It has a long way to go to catch up with Warsaw or Krakow, Riga or even Bratislava. 

                                                             *          *          *

Which brings us to my last Iron Curtain trip.....Sofia.  I spent eight months there, over the winter and early summer, so I saw it pleasant and crappy.....mostly crappy.

Bulgaria is another poor country that is riddled with corruption and organized crime, and its infrastructure is crumbling and decrepit .  The roads are very poor quality, there is a lot of traffic, again with incredibly poor drivers (in cars that in the UK, Germany, France...most western countries in fact....would have been scrapped years ago) so the city centre is gridlocked most of the time.  On my first visit, it took me over 2 hours to get in from the airport, partly due to weight of traffic on roads that just can't cope, but also because the area around the parliament building was jammed with demonstrators.  They were teachers, striking for a living wage (so more than their $300 a month), supported by various other public sector workers and large numbers of unemployed and sympathetic students.  It was the first of a number of demonstrations I witnessed in the months to come.  They all seemed to pass off peacefully, without the violence associated with similar events in London and, particularly these days, France.....the police presence was very low key, no riot shields or tear gas in evidence at all: in fact, everyone seemed to have a jolly good time.

The drains usually couldn't cope, so if it rained heavily (not an infrequent occurrence), ot there was snow melt, then they backed up and flooded roads and footpaths alike in the city centre....God knows what the suburbs must have been like!  Drivers of course made no allowance for the lying water, so getting doused by spray was a daily risk on the short walk to the office.  Mind you, drivers generally made no allowance for anything: pedestrians, other vehicles, traffic lights - all considered in intereference to be ignored, mowed down or forced aside.  My mate and I counted once, at a particularly busy road junction by the office: when the lights changed, no less than 21 vehicles, including 2 buses and three heavy trucks, ignored them and went through red lights - a not uncommon statistic.  It made crossing the road, as a pedestrian, a lottery.

So Sofia, by and large, is a very shabby city in need of massive investment.  But it does have some nice areas, and interesting buildings.  There was a cathedral, Orthodox, quite close to the office, that stands in a quite attractive park, and has some quite stunning stained glass windows and decorated ceilings inside.  A beautiful place to worship.  The park also contained an open air market, that seemed to specialise in army memorabilia, particularly for some bizarre reason WW2 German.  There were stalls packed with Nazi helmets and uniforms, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains, medals and even weapons - Luger pistols, rifles, rusty bayonets, even a hand grenade on one.  Other stalls were piled high with books in a variety of languages, including English, and records - the old vinyl kind, mainly LPs and collectors items abounded.  I saw Beatles and Rolling Stones records, in their original sleeves, that appeared to be in mint condition.  Also Hendrix's "Electric Ladyland" in the original sleeve with about 40 naked women on it, lying around as at an orgy.  My mate and I spent a few hours there, in the spring, haggling with the stallholders but without buying anything.  It passed a lunch break or two.

I stayed in two hotels.  The first was quite small, and in a shopping sidestreet about 10 minutes walk from the office.  It was comfortable enough, the food was okay in the downstairs restaurant, and the bar was ok.  The staff were friendly enough, but we found out after a few months that it rented rooms by the hour.  We found this out when my mate was off sick one day, and the room next to his was rented out to a film company making a porno movie.   For about 4 hours he was lying in bed, suffering from flu, and listening to the action next door.  The thing that annoyed him most was that they didn't invite him in to watch.

So we moved after that week to another hotel, closer to the bank.  It was much bigger, about 14 floors I think, with a casino and a swimming pool that was pretty good.   But it had two problems.  One, it was a longer walk to the Irish bar we inevitably used in the evenings - not an issue when the weather was good, but if it was cold and wet then it was a pain (but one we accepted as the price to pay for good food and drink).  Two, we were placed on the 8th floor, with the rest of the project team.  Normally that would be fine, but out of a 22 person team 18 of them were Indians.  So, they were not happy about the food on offer in the bars and restaurants in Sofia and made their own cooking arrangements - which basically meant taking turns to cook something over a primus stove on the floor of each others hotel rooms.  Apart from the obvious fire hazard, the strong spicy Indian cooking odours filled the entire floor, plus two above and another two below.  The hotel management told them to stop, but were ignored.  My mate and I asked them to stop and we were also ignored.   So I sent an extremely strongly worded and sarcastic mail to their manager, that caused an absolute storm and I ended up having a blazing row with the program manager (English, of Indian descent) who couldn't understand the problem and accused me of deliberately undermining his authority and attacking the team's morale.  Wanker.  It made no difference, except that I left the project about a month later (when Ally was born).  The Indians were still cooking up a storm and ignoring everybody's pleas to stop.  I heard later the hotel management eventually had enough and kicked them out of the hotel on 48 hours notice (we re-housed them in apartment block somewhere on the edge of Sofia).

Most evenings we used an Irish bar in a little side street close to the hotel.  It was good: an excellent value menu of part Irish and part local cuisine, good local beer at sensible prices and good company.  We got to know all the bar staff, which guaranteed top quality service and some influence over what was on the TVs every night.  Basically there were three of us from the project, all English and all around the same age, so we had some cracking evenings sitting there reminiscing about the 60s, 70s and later, talking football, music, and generally complaining about anything post 1995....we were like the Grumpy Old Men on BBC1.  I haven't seen the other two guys since we all left the project a couple of years ago, but that is typical of this job.  We stay in touch by mail, on an infrequent basis, and no doubt we'll meet up again sometime, somewhere.

Final observation.  If the beggars were bad in Bucharest, they were worse in Sofia.  At least in Romania they attempted to retain some self respect by offering something in return for the cash - a cigarette, a match, a turn on the bathroom scales or whatever.  In Sofia they didn't bother with such niceties - they just demanded money, sometimes with menaces.  My mate had his pocket picked on the way back from the pub one evening, by a scrawny little girl about 16, who grabbed him by the balls and offered him full sex for 50 leva (about a pound), and while he was distracted dipped his coat pocket with her other hand and lifted a couple of hundred leva.  Fortunately he had left his wallet in the hotel safe, so it was no big deal.  She tried it on me about two weeks later, but forewarned is forearmed: as soon as she reached for me I gave her a slap around the head, not hard but enough to put her off.  It's the only time in my life I've raised a hand against a female.  She followed us back to the hotel, screaming abuse, and threatening us with "her brother", but nothing came of it.  To play safe, we went into a different hotel, had a beer and then left by a side entrance.  We never saw her again.  There was another guy, who we saw regularly by the bank, who was pitiful.  I guess he was around mid twenties, and his legs were useless, withered and twisted, as was his left arm.  He sat on a piece of wood, with pram wheels attached, and just held his right hand out for donations.  We often gave him a handful - the poor bastard.  One of the local guys from the bank told us that the guy had had his legs and arm broken deliberately when he was about 5, simply to make him a more efficient beggar, by his parents.  There were many others like him apparently.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Off the beaten track....

Self evidently, even the smallest, most insignificant countries need banks, and as my employer specialises in banking systems, we have a large and efficient sales force visiting all of them trying to peddle our wares and bring those banks, often kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.  It leads to some interesting travel possibilities.  And that is frankly one of the best things about the job.   Since we don't normally sell into regular tourist destinations (although in the last couple of years I've missed out on projects in Cyprus, Malta and Mauritius), it means trips to places that are not normally on any list of Must Go There destinations.

And often with surprising results.

                                                                *          *          *

Poland, for instance, was not really on the mass tourist trail when I was sent there to do a couple of weeks of workshops 10 years ago.  Now I call it home, it has changed dramatically (and for the better) and is now a regular tourist destination (though not in the package deal sense) that is becoming increasingly popular.  The same is true of Slovakia (where I spent time about 9 years ago): another ex-Soviet bloc emerging nation that was - and possibly still is - even less westernised than Poland.   The same could be said of Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria, all places I would have never dreamed of visiting under my own steam but all of which have unique charms that led to enjoyable stays, and all places to which I would happily return (if only to see the changes since my original visits).  Further afield, Kazakhstan (yet another Soviet cast-off) was a quite extraordinary place that I've already written about extensively here (see last month's post "Go East Old Man"). 

Kenya, although popular for safari vacations (and rightly so) has a capital city in Nairobi that in the two weeks I spent there never felt in the least bit safe to me, so I spent the entire time holed up in my hotel.  Mind you, it was a fine hotel  - the Sarova Stanley.  It doesn't have particularly good reviews on Trip Advisor, but I found it charming, all Victorian Colonial wood panelling and chandeliers, comfortable rooms, excellent restaurants and bars, one of which opens direct onto the pavement outside and features great live music every night.  It also has a really nice rooftop pool and sun terrace, with an adjoining bar and restaurant.  The food was good, the beer cold and strong, and there was wall-to-wall Premier League football on TV every weekend (and most evenings) courtesy of the South African SuperSports network.  Basically it was everything I need in a hotel when I'm on the road, and I have no hesitation recommending it to anyone.

Saudi Arabia was sosmething else again, a bizarre place that is basically a feudal dictatorship pretending to be a 21st century democracy.  I was only there a week but it was enough to put me off ever going there again.  I was in Dharam, an oil town on the coast of the Persian Gulf and not the main cities of Jeddah or Riyadh, so it was pretty quiet and not crowded at all.  I flew into Bahrain, which is perhaps an hours' drive away, and was picked up in an air conditioned Cadillac limo to be ferried across the causeway into Saudi and thence to the Sheraton Hotel (I think, but it could have been a Holiday Inn).  It was a comfortable enough hotel but of course dry - after a week I was sick of orange juice or water, not even coke to relieve the monotony.  The staff were friendly but 100% male, the same situation as at the client.  And the pool was Males Only.  I felt very uncomfortable, such an alien culture.  I had a limo pick me up every day to drive me to the client, about a mile away.  One morning, stopped at traffic lights, a king cobra three feet long slithered across the road in front us, past a handful of people standing at a bus stop (who ignored it completely) and into a bush.  Extraordinary.  The client was in a five storey office block, all marble, fountains and trees growing in the central atrium, and perhaps 50 people (all male of course) worked there.  I've never seen so much open space in an office before or since.  One evening the IT manager offered to drive me back to my hotel.  We went down to the air conditioned underground carpark, got into his air conditioned Cadillac, drove up the ramp onto the road, turned right, drove 20 yards and turned right again into a gated compound next door to the client.  We parked in his garage (yes, it was air conditioned) and went into his house.  As we entered, he called something in Arabic and I heard footsteps retreating upstairs - I assume he was telling his family to get of sight.  While he changed out of his suit into traditional Arab costume I looked at the gold ornaments and pictures everywhere and drank more bloody orange juice.  Then he drove me in silence to my hotel - he was not a great conversationalist, although his Engliah was impeccable.  I was very glad to leave for home the next day.

                                                          *          *          *

Probably the most unlikely place to offer comfort and enjoyment turned out to be Beirut.  I was offered a couple of weeks' problem solving there that turned into an 18 month project commitment.

I was not at all keen.  Lebanon has a history of civil warfare and open conflict with my old friends Israel, and occupying Syrian forces only left the country a couple of years ago.  The most popular political party in the country is the Iranian backed Islamic fundamentalist Hizbollah, and there are regular shootings and assassinations.  The Foreign Office's Locate website (an essential tool offering travel advice for every country in the world - I never leave home without reference to it) basically said to avoid it like the plague.  I had extensive conversations with the project manager and a couple of buddies with recent hands-on information (one of whom travels extensively in the middle east) and they all assured me it was nowhere near as bad as the press made it out to be, so as it was only for a couple of weeks leading up to Christmas (2 years ago) and I had nothing better to do, I accepted the gig.

Getting there from Warsaw was challenging.  I had a variety of different routes, via Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, and Istanbul, and over the 18 months tried them all.....and lost baggage on them all.  The actual flying times were ok.....via Istanbul probably the best, with just under 2 hours from Warsaw to Istanbul, then a further hour and a half to Beirut, but the connection times were horrendous: the outbound journey meant a four hour stopover and arrival around 2 a.m., and homeward even worse.....a 6 a.m. flight from Beirut, then 10 hours hanging around in a Terminal without lounge access in Istanbul.  I tended to use the Frankfurt route most frequently, even though the flight times were longer and departure/arrival times not good and invariably meant weekend travel (Sunday night outbound, Saturday morning homeward).  I tended to arrive in Beirut around 3:00 a.m. Monday morning local time, and leave again at midnight from the hotel on a Friday night for a 3:45 flight that got me home to Warsaw by Saturday lunchtime.    Going via Paris and Milan were just very unpleasant - neither airport is particularly efficient or friendly in the way transfer passengers are treated, and I missed a couple of connections homeward in Paris because of flight delays in-bound caused by French air traffic controllers working to rule.

Anyway, to Beirut.  The city still bears many scars from the 10 year civil war, and you really can't miss them.  The drive in from the airport takes you through very poor neighbourhoods where ramshackle breeze block homes are piled one on top of the other in the most flimsy and unfinished apartment blocks I've ever seen,  and virtually next door are more exclusive areas that look finished to a high standard and have 24 hour security patrols, satellite TV and so on.  All of them are always alive, with lights in windows, music playing in roadside bars and cafes, and people smoking and talking politics or whatever even at three in the morning.  It's a scruffy but vibrant place - New York may pride itself in being the City That Never Sleeps, but Beirut must run it a close second.   The roads into and through the city are wide, at least three lanes each way, but poorly finished, and at any junction or intersection massive concrete blocks are laid out to filter the traffic flow and separate the various routes.  It still looks like a war zone.  The traffic in the day time is terrible, and the quality of driving the worst I've ever seen.  The roads may be limited to three lanes, at least according to the somewhat erratic lane markings, but during rush hours there are never less than five lanes of actual traffic squeezed into them, crawling along most of the time at not much more than walking pace.  There seem to be only a handful of traffic lights in the city, and since they only flash amber (even though they appear to have red and green lights as well) everyone ignores them anyway.   No one signals, no one gives way, people on the inside lane will suddenly carve across to turn left, or from the outside lane decide to turn right, and door mirrors seem to be considered ornamental rather than useful safety devices.  And yet there seem to be relatively few accidents.  I only saw one, a mini bus that had overturned somewhere between the airport and city centre.  It was lying on its side and people were scrambling out of broken windows.  My taxi driver kept going, blowing his horn and shouting something (probably abusive) in Arabic as he passed....very friendly, I thought.

My hotel was out of the city centre in a northern suburb called Zalka, one of the main shopping districts apparently.  It was adequate, 17 floors, all rooms with a good balcony but no furniture on them unless you specifically asked for it, and once you got above the 11th floor a sea view (of sorts).  The room service menu was better then the restaurant, and it's the only hotel I've ever stayed in that lacks a bar in the reception area....though you could order a beer from the restaurant and drink it in comfort there.  But there was a good selection of reasonably priced places to eat and drink within walking distance so it was ok.  Over the months I was there I got know most of the reception and restaurant staff pretty well, and they were all very friendly and gave me an excellent service, so I have no real complaint.  Across the street was a Starbucks, so as the hotel breakfast was unfailingly terrible I got into the habit at weekends of getting up about 10, showering, then wandering across to breakfast on Grande Latte and blueberry muffins, listen to my miusic and read my book in a comfortable armchair inside for a couple of hours.  It was very pleasant.  The hotel provided a cable service that, like in Saudi, covered English football, again via SuperSport but also as an alternative a Dubai set up that was basically a SkySports clone, even down to the ex-Sky presenters, so weekends were actually quite enjoyable.

There was not a lot else to do in Zalka.  Although Beirut is on the Mediterranean coast, there are no public beaches and only a handul of private ones in the immediate area, all a good half hour by taxi from the hotel so I didn't bother.  Call me old fashioned, but the idea of spending half an hour in a cab to go to a beach where I have to pay $50 to get on it, plus a good ten bucks a beer (and more for food) doesn't seem to be an attractive option.  With the sea visible from my hotel though, I thought there might be somewhere I could go just to dip my toes, chill out and read, so I went for a walk one Saturday morning.  First problem was crossing the highway......dangerous enough to travel in a car, suicidal to cross as a pedestrian.  I had to walk maybe half a mile to the nearest footbridge.  Then followed another half mile walk (and another dodgy road crossing, this time without the aid of a bridge) to get close to the sea.  But it was a huge disappointment.  In both directions, for seemingly miles, between the road and the beach was block after block of cheap and nasty warehouses and garages, all of which seemed to use the space behind them (i.e. the beach) to dump all kinds of unpleasant looking crap and slurry.  I've never seen such a polluted beach, and the sea beyond, although it looked like the Med does anywhere - that is to say blue and inviting - it was probably equally polluted.  It's a shame, but in the whole 18 months I worked on the Mediterranean coast in Beirut I never got my toes wet.

                                                             *          *          *

Which is not too much of a surprise, really.  Beirut has been an important port on the eastern Med seaboard for thousands of years, and the wars of the last 20 or 30 years have failed to shut it down.  It's still an important container port, and as the city recovers and rebuilds itself into a tourist destination the cruise ships are returning too.   Which is good for the Lebanese people, who with very few exceptions I found to be really friendly.  Although it's an Arab country, it's also majority Christian with a big French influence from that country's colonial days.  The people speak both Arabic and French interchangeably, and most of the professional classes, and pretty much anyone under 30, speaks English too.  Listening to the locals argue, especially in the bank, (which as voluble Arabs was all the time) was really entertaining as they would be using all three languages, often within the same sentence.  As a typical linguistically lazy Englishman who has a few words of French, German, Spanish and Polish (even after 10 years in Warsaw) it was a shaming and embarrassing experience. 

It's also a democracy, despite Netanyahu's declaration that Israel (which shares Lebanon's southern border) is the only democracy in the middle usual the man is talking bollocks.  You could actually argue that Lebanon's democracy is stronger than Israel's, since it's written into its constitution that the President must come from one particular segment of the population, the Prime Minister from another, and proportional representation means that it's in a permanent state of coalition government, but it seems to work.   There was an election while I was there, and the build up to it meant wall-to-wall party political broadcasts on every TV station, and the patrons in every cafe and bar spent hours arguing politics over their hubble-bubble pipes and backgammon boards.  There were cars with mounted loudspeakers touring the streets and declaiming until all hours of the night, and every window and wall and door was plastered with candidates' posters.  Clearly, politics - and in particular democratic politics - is very important to the Lebanese.  Those of us who were foreigners on the project were sent home for the election weekend, just in case some of the more radical Hizbollah militia fanatics got upset by the result and tried to start something, but in the event the election went exactly as most people thought it would, and passed off peacefully.

                                                                 *          *          *

So I didn't stray too far from Zalka and the hotel.  A few times I went into the downtown area, now rebuilt after the war, and the centre of nightlife in Beirut.  It's an interesting place: all the major hotels are there, there's a huge and beautiful blue-domed mosque, and several pedestrianised streets full of designer clothes shops, bars and coffee houses, all quite reasonably priced.  Along the Corniche (the promenade, by the sea) there are more restaurants including a perticularly good Indian, and every night there are hundreds of people promenading in the warm Mediterranean air.  It's a place to see and be seen, and is increasingly popular as a venue for fashion shows, film festivals and book fairs.  Sitting on the terrace at the Moevenpick Resort hotel one evening in December, in a shirt and sweater, enjoying a beer and looking over the calm and moonlit sea, the recent troubles seemed like another age entirely.  The Merecedes, Porsche, Ferrarri, Lamborghini and other expensive and new SUVs in the car parks and on the roads testify to the country's continuing recovery and prosperity.

My one out of town excursion was to the ancient port of Byblos, about an hour north.  A group of us went one evening and had a pleasant time.  Byblos is a lovely place, especially the old port area (beyond that it's really just another Lebanese town with its tower blocks and traffic problems).  This is full of lovely old sandstone buildings, filled with gift shops, bars and restaurants, all linked together by a network of narrow and winding roads too narrow for anything but walking, and many of them covered over with multicoloured and arabic patterned canopies.  It's noisy and full of life and enjoyment, and when we were there hardly any tourists.  Beyond the port area there are some lovely old Roman amphitheatre ruins and a temple, and a little harbout where fishing boats go about their daily business.  It's well worth a visit, but I only spent one evening there.....I'd like to go back and spend a weekend there, to do it justice.

                                                         *          *          *

The project itself was awful, not one of the most enjoyable work periods, but the people I worked with made up for that.   We have an office in Beirut and the bulk of the team came from there.  There were a couple of Indian guys full time, and over the months I was there additional people came in (and left again) from London, Dubai, Frankfurt and Dublin, so it was a good mix.  I think everyone came in with the same expectations as I had......that is to say, war zone, dangerous, Arab nutters, mind your back.....and found the place to be totally different. 

I wandered around many times well after dark, returning from various bars and restaurants, and never once felt threatened or unsafe.

I can think of no stronger praise than that.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A walk in the Jungle

Last Sunday was very hot in Trinidad.  Our South African neighbour Caryn (she lives opposite us and has three kids about the same age as Kuba and Ally......they're all great friends) suggested a walk in Chaguaramas Forest.  We were happy to accept.....somewhere new for us to see, and something different to keep the kids amused.  So we all piled into the cars and followed Caryn.

We'd been to Chaguaramas before, a few weeks ago with Phil and Chris Morris, but only to a couple of bars at the Marina.  I say only: the bars were really nice, situated right on the bay, beautiful views, especially when the sun went down over the western tip of the island a couple of miles away, towards the unreachable (unless you have a boat) Scotland Bay, and the beer was excellent.  We'll certainly go there again.

Anyway, the forest is a different matter.  We turned off onto the road to Macqueripe Bay,and drove out past the Golf Course.  It's not a bad road, by Trini standards, straight and level, and with enough room for two vehicles to pass without scraping wing mirrors or worse.  Caryn took as all the way to the car park at the Bay, just to show us where it is (and recommended it - so we'll have to give it a try sometime), then doubled back about half a mile, before pulling in at a closed and padlocked gate.  We parked there, and walked along the road into the woods. 

It's part of the Chaguaramas National Park, so the road, at least here, is well maintained.  We walked for maybe a mile, and although the day was stonkingly hot, under the shade of the trees it was much cooler.  At one point, just before we turned back, there are huge bamboo tress on both sides of the road.  Some of the trunks (if you can call them that) were 30 or 40 metres high and as thick as my thigh, and arched right over the road like the eaves in a cathedral roof.  Every bunch of such trees had at least one (and often more) termite nest hanging from it, sometimes the size of a dustbin.  Quite extraordinary.  There were loads of different brighly coloured birds flying around, and the middle of the day (and I always thought they were nocturnal creatures!).

Kuba and the Bamboo Cathedral
We spent about an hour wandering around, and only saw about three other people, all cyclists.  Just beyond the Bamboo Cathedral, the road runs round to the left and steeply up a hill, at the top of which I'm told there are some old and ruined fortifications (the US Army leased this part of the island during WW2 for some reason), and spectacular views across the whole north western peninsula.....on one side Port of Spain, to the west the Scotland Bay area and its offshore islets, and to the north a good stretch of the coast road and Caribbean Sea it's a very popular hiking and cycling destination for locals and tourists alike.  We gave it a miss, because dragging 5 kids under the age of 6 up a steep hill on a hot Sunday morning just to look at an admittedly spectacular view didn't seem like a good idea.  I'd love to do it sometime, though.

After that, we returned to the cars and drove about a mile back towards Chaguaramas, and turned left onto a road through an old and abandoned mango plantation.  The road was in a much worse state, in most places not much more than a muddy trail, but we bumped and jolted our way perhaps a mile along it until we came to a barrier that marked the extent of the road, and parked there.  From here, we headed off into real jungle...hardly even a footpath, pushing our way through head high ferns and undergrowth.  There were a lot noises coming from the jungle on either side of us, but we didn't see anything.  Then, after perhaps two-thirds of a mile, we came to a place where the undergrowth opened up a bit into something more resembling a path, and took the left fork.  A couple of hundred yards brought us a small and crystal clear stream flowing down through a rocky gorge.  Shoes off and into the water....the kids had a great time, and all got soaked (as kids should under such circumstances).  At one point a beautiful butterfly with blue, orange tipped wings the size of my hands flew past us, and there were dragonflies and birds everywhere.  It was a lovely spot.
My Jungle Prince....
The gang....

And My Jungle Princess....

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Thought for the day....

Modern science is wonderful.

We can put a man on the moon and split the atom.  We can prolong life through wonderful medical procedures and even create life using IVF treatments.  We can stay in contact in real-time, 24 hours a day, wherever we are and access a world of information through the internet.  Plus an almost unending list of other minor miracles that grows by the day.

So with all this wonderstuff going on.....why has no-one yet come up with an envelope glue that does NOT taste like shit?


Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Not the Apple of my eye....

I've written elsewhere here about how important my music is to me and how my iPhone's iPod function keeps me sane when I'm on the road.

It's strange then that Apple, who have such excellent products, are so shit when it comes to support and customer service.

Let me explain....

                                                           *          *          *

I always used to keep my music on my laptop, so that I could listen to it at work sometimes (there's nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin or something to help pass the time when I'm editing a very long and dull technical document).  I ended up with a library of maybe 130-odd CDs, all ripped from my home collection.  So when I got my iPhone, I simply opened an iTunes account and copied it all (sync'd it, in JobsSpeak) to the phone.  Hey presto, my music truly on the move.  Subsequently I downloaded some additional stuff from the excellent 7-Digital website and of course that ended up on the iPhone when next I sync'd it.  All cool, and I ended up with a library of nearly 150 albums.

Then a couple of months ago, the hard drive on my laptop went kaput.  The machine is now a useless lump of metal and plastic gathering dust in a drawer in my Trini apartment, until such time as I get home to Poland at Christmas when maybe I can get it fixed.  My company replaced the laptop, but of course I've had to rebuild and re-load a lot of data, and unfortunately amongst the files I had saved elsewhere My Music was conspicuous by its absence.  But hey, no problem....I'll download a new iTunes, plug the phone in and sync it back.

But no. 

I downloaded iTunes on Saturday.  It took 10 minutes.  I then spent the rest of the day trying to copy my music files back from the phone to the laptop.  It seems you can't actually do that.  I had a whole bunch of permissions to set up, to log the iPhone and link it to the computer, then to authorise the computer.....and still it doesn't work.  The clever servers at Apple HQ picked up that another copy of iTunes existed for me but was on another computer, but does not offer the possibility to transfer it to the new machine.  After trawling through about a dozen Help pages on the very nice, very sales-oriented Apple Support website, I found a document that explained how to use your iPhone to transfer a library from one iTunes account to another (for instance when you get a new computer....).  The first step was to "copy your files from the old computer to a new file blah blah blah...".  At that point, since my old computer is gathering dust in a drawer and not functioning, I gave it up as a bad job.

Time to mail the Help Desk at Apple and find out how to simply sync a file of music from my iPhone back to a new computer.  Go to Contact Us.....and get a page full of links to other Apple Help pages for a whole range of Apple products, but not a phone number or e-mail address in sight.  I tried a few of them......and ended up back where I started.

At that point I gave up completely, and uninstalled all the iTunes software.  What's the point of keeping it?  Right now I can't do anything except listen to my existing library (which is fine by me) and with luck when I get back home some nice Polish techie I know will be able to fix my old machine and with luck recover the existing library and I can copy it to my new machine and be up and running again.

But I'm not holding my breath.

                                                             *          *          *

What makes me most angry about this is the way Apple are so proprietary about everything, and insist on a payment for everything.....and the prices can be quite outrageous.  The first piece of cable I had to connect the iPhone to the laptop for syncing and stuff frayed quite quickly and needed replacing.  The power connector itself was fine, I only needed the cable.  I went to my local iSpot store to buy one.....and had to buy the plug as well (even though I didn't need it) for a cost of something like PLN200 (that's nearly forty five quid for a piece of plastic covered wire a foot long and a plug I didn't want).  Ridiculous.

And why oh why is it not possible to send an e-mail to the buggers for advice?  I don't want to trawl through 150 odd web pages to find out whether or not I can sync back from the phone to a laptop.   And I certainly don't want to connect on-line to a technician somewhere, at premium rates of course, to talk me through the process (being a techie he's bound to speak Martian anyway so I won't understand what he's on about in all probability).  Why so secret, Steve?  Don't you want to hear bad stuff from your products' owners or something?

For a guy who's amassed an absolute fortune from inventing and very slickly marketting some of the best consumer electrical goods in the world, Steve Jobs and his merry men seem to have no idea about after sales support, customer relations and what have you.

All the man wants is your money.

To buy more crappy black jeans and turtle necks, no doubt

Friday, 1 October 2010

Let the train take the strain....

Maybe it's because I was a kid raised during the 50s and 60s, when steam trains were very common on Britain's railways and Dr.Beeching and subsequent Government spending cuts (from both Conservative and Labour) had not left the railways in the mess they now are, but I've always had a bit of a soft spot for train journeys.  Thomas the Tank Engine probably helped as well......and it amazes me that those stories seem to be more popular than ever!   My kids in the UK (all grown up now) were raised on them, mainly through the TV series' narrated initially by Ringo Starr and latterly by Michael youngest John had pretty much all the Ladybird series books, all the videos, very nearly a complete set of toys and was able to follow the stories at bedtime to such an extent that at 2 he was able to correct me if I tried to miss out a bit (even though he was still not talking).  Nowadays, Kuba and Ally are just as big fans, and watch it regularly on Polish TV (badly dubbed and with all the characters renamed to make more sense to Polish kids), and currently on Trinidadian TV where the dubbing is English but with mid-Western American accents (awful....the Fat Controller just doesn't sound right with a Chicago accent).  They also have a massive and wonderful battery powered Thomas train set that covers the entire bedroom floor.  And of course books and dvd's.

Anyway, my childhood was largely spent train spotting.  I lived in a road that at the end of it had the main London to Lewes line running past, and at the station was a big and busy coal-yard, so there was always plenty to see.  I spent hours in the fields watching the trains, both goods and passenger, passing by, scribbling down the locomotive numbers and names to cross off in my Ian Allan Trainspotters Book of Locomotives.  Thankfully it never became an obsession in standing in the rain on the end of platform 12 at Victoria Station in an anorak, writing down numbers, for me!....but it was exciting to the small boy.  I can remember tank engines not dissimilar to Thomas himself (only black not blue) working busily in the coal yard and hauling goods trains through the station on the way to Lewes or London (or points in between); passenger trains, not quite expresses but not far short, hauled by powerful Battle of Britain class locomotives (like Gordon and Henry) with evocative names like Spitfire and Hurricane and Wellington; then there were the City class locos, similar to the Battle of Britain class but with streamlining around the boilers and carrying names like City of Truro, City of York and so on.  We used to stand on a bridge over the railway, my friends and I, leaning over and watching the trains coming from miles away (obviously the plumes of steam were visible long before the train was), getting smothered in the smoke and steam as the trains passed under the bridge, to emerge coughing and spluttering and soot-marked.  Great fun.

Somehow the diesel units that replaced the steam locomotives, more efficient though they may have been, never carried the same allure, and the later three-carriage diesel trains (the engine built into one of the carriages) were even worse....soulless but efficient people carriers, no more.  The line was never electrified, and in fact traffic was drastically reduced and the coal-yard closed in the late 60s, so the electric trains, more efficient still and lacking anything in the way of a noisy engine that even the diesel trains had, never came to my home town.  When locomotives largely disappeared from my locality so did my interest in train spotting.....checking off numbers of carriages never seemed worthwhile somehow....they lacked the glamour of even the lowliest six wheeled diesel shunter, never mind a snorting and powerful City of Truro.

                                                               *          *          *

When I started work, way back in 1970, I of course commuted by train to London.  It was never a pleasure, crammed into a packed and uncomfortable train, full of tobacco smoke (all perfectly normal and acceptable then, and I added my own clouds to the fug) and filthy dirty.  And diesels of that time the cutbacks were taking hold, steam locomotives pretty much a thing of the past and services reducing in numbers, comfort and efficiency, as they did for many years.  It was a means to an end, no more no less, and one I endured on and off for the next 30 years, on a variety of routes and in a variety of services (but all from Kent).

The only common factor throughout was that passenger numbers seemed to be growing....inevitably given population growth....even as spending cuts reduced, and in some places completely eliminated, services.   Despite constantly rising fares and rising passenger numbers, British Rail was still losing money hand over fist.  It made (and to me continues to make) no sense at all.  I'm sure a lot of it was down to mis-management, by both BR employees and successive Transport Ministers and their Civil Servant armies who year-on-year seemed to reduce investment in the rail network in favour of building more and more roads, which in turn boosted traffic volumes, increased pollution and caused untold misery throughout Britain (and possibly contributed to the global warming we're all experiencing now).  Standing in a crowded train for a couple of hours a day to get to and from work was not unusual for millions of people, me included, and we paid increasingly ridiculous prices to do so.  Interest Free Season Ticket Loans became an increasingly common and valuable benefit on offer at any City firm when recruiting, and enabled you to save money by buying the cheapest annual ticket and defray the cost over a full year,with your employer's help.  The Government, of course, decided it was a taxable benefit but with tickets costing over two grand last time I bought one (the best part of 15 years ago now, I admit) it was still worthwhile.  I shudder to think how much they cost now.

So train travel was at the very least purgatory, if not Hell on Earth for most of us.  Of course, the Iron Lady had an answer to that, as she did for everything, back in the 80s.  She decided to break the British Rail monopoly by breaking up the company, setting up one company (Railtrack) to manage and maintain the track network and throw open the service provision to any company who wanted to bid for a chunk of it.   Apart from raising shit loads on money for the Government's coffers, and encourage more people to join the share owning democracy she was creating, much of it by privatising other former national, Government-owned industries (like the Post Office, British Telecom, and other utilities), the idea was that more competition would force companies to be more efficient and offer a better service and lower cost to the consumer.  It was all bollocks, of course.  It happened, as she had planned: but instead of improving services if anything things got worse, with a hotch-potch of train operators, many foreign owned and not competent to run a train set, never mind a train network, operating on a track network that was increasingly out of date and whose operator, Railtrack, was unable to maintain because they were basically skint on account of Government investment virtually disappearing.  There were many fatal crashes on badly maintained track in badly maintained and old fashioned rolling stock.  It was indeed sad to see a once leading industry, not only in the UK but globally, reduced to a laughing stock.

The trend has been reversed over recent years, private investment has been increased, Government subsidy increased, the whole untidy infrastructure somewhat streamlined (although there is still no single company like British Rail) and things are improving.  Rolling stock is much more modern and, generally, cleaner and more comfortable, the service levels seem to be improving although at an increasing cost, and it does seem to be safer......train build quality has improved with new technology, which has also led to improvements in signalling and traffic monitoring.  There is continual maintenance work on the track network; on any given weekend miles of lines are closed for repair or upgrade, with trains replaced by bus services making travel a bit of a nightmare.  Passenger numbers tailed off but seem to be recovering, but ticket costs continue to go stratospheric...although if you're prepared and able to book well in advance and on-line with credit card payment you can make big savings: turn up at the ticket office and expect to travel today (or in a few minutes) and you will pay through the nose.

But I can't see rail travel in the UK ever getting back to levels of the old BR glory years, pre-Beeching. 

                                                             *          *          *

I didn't hit continental railways until the mid 90s,  By then I was working for a German bank and spent a couple of weekends in Frankfurt.  One wet October weekend, to escape the unwanted attentions of a nymphomanic helga with a bad case on acne and halitosis I spent the Saturday cruising around the city and its suburbs on the S-bahn (the equivalent of the Tube).  I was staying in a really poor hotel in a town some 20km outside in the Taunus.....the Frankfurt book fair was on so there were no rooms available in the city itself....that had been booked by a colleague who lived nearby.  God, it was awful!  I had a room to myself, sleeping on a hard plywood bed.  There was no TV, my sole entertainment being a cheap and nasty clock-radio, and the only station worth listening to was the American Forces network (that actually played some really good music).  The toilet and shower were shared by everyone else on that floor, and as a result were vile and filthy.  My fellow guests were entirely Turkish itinerent workers, employed building extensions to the airport terminal and the office blocks that were springing up all over the city.  It was a dreadful two weeks spent there.

But on this Saturday, I caught several trains in and around the city, and all except one were clean and comfortable, but even that one ran to timetable.  The exception was a football special.  In a bar at lunchtime, eating sausage and potato salad and drinking a cold beer, I heard that the locals, Eintracht Frankfurt, were at home to St.Pauli from Hamburg, so I figured I'd take a look.  I boarded a train for the stadium, which is one of the more attractive grounds I've been to, being situated in the middle of a pine forest midway between the city and the airport (it's completely different now, having been totally rebuilt for the German World Cup in 2006).  We pulled into the Hauptbahnhof, and the train, already full (I was standing by a door) became packed, as several hundred mostly drunken St.Pauli fans piled in, accompanied by several armed police with hungry looking rottweilers and dobermans.  I was penned in by about a dozen fans and a cop whose dog spent the entire ride looking at me and dribbling.....I think he was hungry....while the St.Pauli fans bellowed "You'll Never Walk Alone" (the Liverpool club anthem) in thickly accented English.  At Sportfeld, the station for the ground, I managed to slip away as all the visiting fans were led into a holding pen, from where they were later escorted by the same cops and dogs to a single enclosure behind one of the goals.  The match was good, I got a seat in one of the stands for DM10 (not sure what that was in English but very cheap), and watched Frankfurt come back from two down at half time to earn a draw, thanks to a brace by the legendary and at that time unknown 18 year old Nigerian J.J.Okocha.....what a fabulous player!

I've travelled on German trains a few times since then, and they remain comfortable and on time.

                                                             *          *          *

A couple of years and a job change later I got my introduction to the then brand spanking new Eurostar services.  The tunnel had been open to freight and car transports for a while, but there were the inevitable delays in completing the London terminus at Waterloo and even longer delays building the high-speed line through south east London (one of the busiest and most congested areas for travel, by road or rail, in the entire country) and Kent to the tunnel entrance at Folkestone.  Partly this was down to a typical example of British bureaucracy and railways mis-management.  When the original route planning was going on, the senior Civil Servants, Transport Ministers and railway managers pored over a large scale map of Kent and basically drew a line to mark the shortest route, avoiding the larger towns like Ashford and Maidstone and Gravesend.  This was duly announced and construction work started.  Then there was much scratching of heads as they were inundated by complaints from people living in villages like New Barn and Istead Rise and New Ash Green......villages that weren't on the map they had used.  It turned out the map was 30 years old, and the villages were less than 20 years old.  It sounds incedible that there could be such incompetence, but I got the story from an impeccable source.....I was one of many who wrote complaint letters to our local MPs throughout Kent, and for some reason mine struck a chord and I was invited to the House of Commons to meet mine.  Over tea and biscuits in one of the cafeterias he related it to me, and assured me that he would do his best to ensure I wasn't affected (and he was good to his word: when the track was eventually finished it was 10 miles from home).

Anyway, my initial trip was from Waterloo to Paris, accompanying my company's CEO to a meeting.  We travelled Business Class (which was basically Standard Class with slightly bigger seats and more leg room), and we had one end of the carriage to ourselves.  I settled down to enjoy the ride, while William spread files and papers all across half the seats and started poring over them.  By the time we reached Elephant & Castle, ambling slowly along suburban lines totaly unsuited to high speed trains, he suddenly realised I wasn't doing anything except gaze out of the window.   He frowned. 

"Not working?" he said.

"Sure," I said.  "I'm preparing for the meeting.  Thinking."

"Fine," he said, and returned to his papers.  He never uttered another sound all the way to Paris.

I meanwhile enjoyed the ride.  It was tortuously slow, crawling through the Kentish countryside no faster than the normal commuter services (we were probably stuck behind them all the way to Folkestone), then as we dipped into the tunnel an increased whine from the power car next door was the only way of knowing we were accelerating.  Twenty minutes later we shot out into the sunny French countryside, close to Calais, going at maybe three times the pace, and continued thus all the way to Gare du Nord.  At one point, about 30 minutes later, the driver announced over the PA that we had reached "...our optimum operating speed of 300kph".  You wouldn't have known it.....the ride was smooth and comfortable and almost silent.

On the return journey (the meeting was successful but my preparation had been wasted, as beyond introducing myself I contributed not a word) that evening, the difference between the French side and the British side was even more pronounced....this time we roared into the Tunnel at well over 100 kph but by the time we came out at Folkestone we had slowed, again imperceptibly, to local commuter train pace....that is, very slow.  The ride into London, less mileage than between Calais and Paris, took nearly twice as long and we were 20 minutes late arriving at Waterloo (as opposed to our on-time arrival that morning in Paris).

Over the following 12 months or so, I made many return trips to Paris, as our first meeting resulted in a co-operative partnership agreement being signed, perhaps two or three days a week.  I took to driving 30 minutes to Ashford and catching the train there, as it was quicker (my wife was less than pleased as it meant she didn't have the car for those days).  Throughout those months the journey times didn't vary much: on time arrival in Paris, but late back to Ashford or Waterloo.  The high speed link between Paris and the Tunnel had been completed before the Tunnel itself opened, whereas on our side construction was held up for years in various public enquiries, Government committees and court cases.  Eventually construction started and years more passed before it was finished.  In fact it only opened for business fully last year, and I made my first trip on it in April this year.

But I'm getting ahead of myself....

                                                              *          *          *

My trips on Eurostar and the German railways showed me that one of the more attractive benefits of EU membership was easier access to the European rail network, so I tried to make use of it as and when I could.  A few months after my London-Paris co-operation started I had to do a trip to Brussels and Amsterdam to meet potential investors, and decided to use the trains to save costs.  So I caught the Eurostar from Ashford to Brussels one morning and found myself in the Belgian capital quicker than I would have been in London on a normal commute in the opposite direction.  I had a half hour wait in a comfortable and reasonably priced station cafe, then caught a connection to Amsterdam via Antwerp, Rotterdam and The Hague.  It was a typical European train: big solid carriages with comfortable seats, plenty of legroom and a restaurant car, hauled by an impressively sized diesel-electric locomotive.  We stopped for 15 minutes in Antwerp while the driver walked from the locomotive to the driver's cab at the other end of the train, before heading off again through the flat Belgian and Dutch countryside.  The trip took a little over three hours.  Halfway there William phoned and wanted to know where I was, and was not happy when I told him I was on a train.  He told me he was faxing a document to my hotel and expected me to read it and comment on it by tomorrow evening.  The document was 80 pages, so that was my evening touring the Red Light district out of the window.

But the train journeys themselves, despite William's best efforts, were very enjoyable, and the Belgian beer in the restaurant car on the return trip very good and very cheap.  All in all, a very civilized way to travel, I decided....must do it more often.

                                                                *          *          *

But I didn't, at least not for a couple of years.

By then, I had changed jobs, my marriage had broken up and I had moved to Poland to work on a project in Warsaw.  At that time I was only expecting to be there a couple of months but I've been there ever since.  In the first summer I was there, in 2001,  I decided to visit the Baltic coast as I'd been told it was worth doing.  I asked around for a few recommendations and decided to take the easiest option and head to Gdynia (home of the Solidarity movement that was instrumental in bringing down Communism in the early 80s, a revolution that spread like wildfire and ultimately brought down the entire Soviet Union and its eastern European empire).  One of the secretaries in the office (now my wife......although that was never in either of our minds then) helped me out by booking the train tickets and finding me a room in a cheap hotel in Gdynia.

I caught an Intercity Express one Friday afternoon from Warsaw Central station.  It's a massive station, a monument to Russian-era government, built mostly underground but with a massive grey concrete ticket hall above ground, right next to the Palace of Culture (which looks like the tower in the first Ghostbusters movie, a massive 40-odd storey monstrosity, all gabled corners and spires balanced on top of a network of concert halls, with a viewing platform at the top - a gift from Stalin apparently.  I've since seen smaller copies of it in Sofia and Bucharest....the bloke had no taste in architecture at all).  I'm told the station was built and paid for by Moscow, on condition it was finished in time for Brezhnev's presidential train to be the first arrival at the start of a planned visit the following year (in the early1970s).  Sure enough that's how it happened, although there was a strong smell of fresh paint on the platforms, and the painters who were putting the finishing touches to their work had to be hidden from Brezhnev's eyes, to be brought out to finish after he had left the station.

Anyway, I travelled First Class, and had a compartment to myself.  It was comfortable enough, the carriages were big and solid, very similar to those on my Brussels - Amsterdam ride, only much shabbier and in need of a good clean.  I took a walk along to the bar car for a beer, and passed through a couple of crowded, smoky and even shabbier second class carriages, and was glad I'd paid extra for my First Class ticket.  But the train ran to timetable, and the ride through the central Polish plains to the coast was very's a big and beautiful country.  The huge, red-brick 14th century Teutonic Knights castle at Malbork, perched on the river bank close to the station, was particularly impressive.  We got to Gdynia about 10 in the evening (it's a 6 hour ride) and the hostel I was staying in was just around the corner from the station and was comfortable and cheap.  The next day I explored the port area of Gdynia and spent an enjoyable couple of hours sitting at a beach bar, drinking cold Lech beer and watching a couple of beach volleyball games featuring stunningly attractive local girls not wearing very much, and getting a bit sunburned.

The next day I decided to to move on, and caught a local branch line train to Hel.  The Hel peninsula, to the north of Gdynia and to the far east of the country's seaboard, is a 30km long spit of sand jutting out into the Baltic.  In places it's only a couple of hundred yards across, at others maybe a mile, and along its length are half a dozen villages that used to be quiet fishing villages but are now increasingly popular holiday resorts, where kite surfing is very popular.  Down the centre of the peninsula, with pine forest to either side between these villages, runs the road and parallel to it the branch line to Hel.  You could walk from one end to the other and back in a day.  The local train I caught there was only three carriages, all second class, and hauled by a massive diesel locomotive (the branch to Hel, unlike the rest of the network, is not electrified).

I had a nice day.  I got off the train at a pretty little port called Wladyslawowo, and strolled alongside the track as far as Chalupy, the next village along (perhaps 3 miles).  Now and then I'd leave the track, at one side or the other, and the comforting shade of the trees, and head to the beach.   It was a hot July weekend with temperatures close to 30C so they were crowded with holiday makers and day trippers.  To the north, the Baltic side, the sea was quite rough and a strong cooling breeze was blowing from off-shore.  The sea was cold (but no more so than the English channel) but with temperatures at that level it was refreshing.  The inland side, facing the Bay of Gdynia, was more sheltered, from the sea-breeze by the woods and from the strong surf by the peninsula itself.  The beaches were generally much smaller, much less crowded (and in some places deserted) and less developed, sloping gently into a sea that was calm, shallow and several degrees warmer.  All the beaches, on both sides, were sandy.....since then I've been to many beaches as far west as the German border and never seen a pebble....and well maintained.  Every few hundred yards, on either side of the villages dotted along the coast, are little beach bars selling local and international beers, good Polish food and some of the best ice-cream I've eaten anywhere in the world.

I had to run for my train back to Gdynia, nearly missed it, and had I done so I would have had a problem as I would have missed my connection to the day's last train back to Warsaw.  But I made it ok, and got home to my apartment in Warsaw just before midnight, tired, a bit sore from the sun but very happy.

Over the years, I've used the Polish rail system many times: at least once a year on the coast run (not only to Gdynia but further afield, to Koszalin and Kolobrzeg, resorts to the centre and west of the country, and once on a good and comfortable sleeper service through Poznan to a resort called Miedzezdroje, a few miles from the German border at Swinojuscie, in turn a couple of miles from the old Nazi  rocket weapons station at Peenemunde), a few times down to the old capital city of Krakow,  as well as local services around Warsaw including a little narrow-gauge branch out to Milanowek, where my wife's family live.  The trains though old and tatty are comfortable enough and rarely late, and since the country was admitted to the EU there have been many improvements - a good portion of infrastructure funding has gone towards re-furbishing or replacing a lot of rolling stock, as well as track and signalling improvements.    Fares too, whilst increasing, still represent excellent value in comparison with the UK: a couple of years ago, working in Krakow for a couple of months, my weekly First Class return ticket, purchased over the counter the day before travel, cost me PLN120 (that's around GBP25)....for a two hour, 250-odd kilometre journey.  Would an equivalent trip in Britain, under the same purchase conditions (say London - Birmingham or Bristol) be as cheap?  No.

I have to say I'm quite a fan of Polish railways.

                                                             *          *          *

But my favourite network is without question Switzerland.

I've never used any of the scenic special routes through the more beautiful Alpine regions (though having seen pictures and read reviews I'd love to do so), my experiences being limited to the areas in and around Zurich and Geneva, where I've done quite a bit of work over the last few years.    But that has been enough to make me feel it's possibly the best railway network in Europe.

For a start, how can a railway that runs through some of the prettiest and most spectacular scenery in Europe not be good?  Wherever you are in Switzerland you're never far from a breathtakingly beautiful view of a mountain, or a crystal clear lake surrounded by chocolate-box villages, and often by both.  The country is so beautiful it can get boring at times.  Then, being Swiss, the network is unfailingly efficient.  Trains run strictly to timetable - as good as the Germans and Poles tend to be with their punctuality, Switzerland is the only place I've been to where the train starts to move as the countdown to departure on the platform clock (or the one in the carriage) clicks over to 0:00.  Never a platform change, either.....except once, when a derailment just outside Zurich Hauptbahnhof caused rush-hour chaos for half an hour or so.  As an Englishman used to late and probably unannounced platform changes (thus used to keeping an eye on departure boards) it was more normal than being on time from the usual platform, so it made no difference to me.  But watching Swiss bankers arriving at platform 15, reading their papers, or mails on their Blackberries or whatever, a couple of minutes before their normal departure time, only to find no train there, instead an announcement telling them to go to platform 1 was priceless.   Total panic, mystification and anger.....hilarious.

The trains are comfortable too.  Many of them are double-deckers, so a seat on the top deck makes an already spectacular view even better.  The seats are often recliners, with arm and footrests, and there is sufficient space between them to make use of the facility without pissing off the person behind or opposite.  Some carriages, instead of the usual pairs of seats facing each other as is normal everywhere, have seats at the ends of the compartment arranged like settees in a little semi-circle around a couple of small coffee tables.  All of the carriages have plenty of power points so that the more conscientious can plug in their laptops and work, whilst others are labelled QuietCars, where mobile phone and iPod use are banned - silence is golden, have a good kip.

And that is all true for both First and Second Class travel (basically, First Class differs in that the seats offer a little more leg room and padding for comfort).

So travel on Swiss Railways really is a pleasure.

                                                                *          *          *

For some time, I worked on a project in Zurich.  The office was actually in a suburb called Horgen, a 20 minute train ride along the western shore of the Zurichsee (the lake), so I did a reverse commute every day.  The trains were nearly empty, and the views, once you were out of the city itself, lovely.  The track runs alongside the lake, often literally on the banks so that you look down from the top deck window into crystal clear lake water instead of someone's back garden or bedroom.  Across on the opposite shore there are villages and towns scattered along, many of them very wealthy where people like David Bowie, Tina Turner and Phil Collins live.   Behind them rear the mountains - not the highest in Switzerland by any stretch, but impressive nonetheless.  On the other side of the train, as you pass through the west bank towns and villages, are equally impressive hills and mountains.  It was a lovely commute.  The line continues along the entire lake-shore to the southern end, and a place called Pfaeffikon SZ, maybe another half an hour's run after Horgen.  It's a typically pretty little Swiss small town, nestling at the base of a mountain, where you can take a walk up into them on warm sunny days, through steep Alpine meadows where cattle with big bells round their necks wander happily.  A nice place.

Here too a single track line crosses a bridge over the tip of the lake to the opposite shore and the equally pretty town of Rapperswill.  My wife came to visit me once and we took this train and had a very pleasant afternoon exploring the two towns.  Rapperswill is one of the prettiest places I've been to, although the cafes there were absurdly expensive.  On one of the upper levels (Rapperswill is built in terraces on the side of a quite steep lakeside hill) we to our surprise came across a Polish Military Museum.  It was closed, and we've never been back, so I have no idea what it's like or how a little Swiss town came to have it there.

                                                             *          *          *

A couple of years ago, I spent six months working in Geneva.  Because of the vagaries of airline timetables, it meant my Monday morning flight had to be to Zurich, from where I caught a train to Geneva - this got me to work an hour or so before the day's direct Warsaw - Geneva flight would otherwise have done.  My First Class ticket cost me CHF80 (about fifty quid) and was well worth it.

There are two routes from Zurich to Geneva.  Both take you out through a largely agricultural and hence less mountainous plain as far as Olten where the line splits.  One route, the more northerly, takes you through Solothurn, Biel-Bienne and along the shores of Lake Neuchatel, through the town to Yverdon-les-Bains at the lake's westerly tip, then down through Nyon and along the lakeshore there to Geneva.  It's a nice ride, especially the parts along the lake shores, and the trains are a very comfortable inter-city express, not dissimilar to the Eurostar stock.

I tended to take the slightly longer and slower southerly route, on my favourite double-deckers, through Berne, Friburg, and Lausanne, where the track merges with that through Neuchatel for the last miles through Nyon to Geneva.  It's a prettier ride, the country is more hilly rising beyond Berne to mountainous, and there is more to see.  My favourite point was between Romont and Lausanne: here you are climbing towards a quite high moutain spur, and into a tunnel.  It takes perhaps five minutes to go through, and you emerge suddenly above the western suburbs of Montreux.  If you're sitting on the left hand-side of the train (and of course on the upper deck) the view is quite stunning, especially on a sunny clear day.  Below you is virtually the whole of Lake Geneva stretched out before you, with the city just visible on your forward horizon (the only bit you can't see is the eastern end, where lies Montreux, which is now behind you).  From the high level track down to the lakeside is terrace upon terrace of grape vine, dotted with little stone cottages here and there.  The train goes along and down the hillside through these vineyards into the pretty lakeside town of Lausanne, and from there along the lakeshore itself through Nyon (and UEFA Headquarters with its network of floodlit football pitches) to Geneva.  On the opposite shore, all along the lakeside, are mountains, some of the higher areas starting at this part of the country, and close to Lausanne you can look across to Mont Blanc.  It is a beautiful half an hour or so's journey, and I always enjoyed it.   A few times, especially earlier in the year (I was there from January to July), the peaks across the lake were wreathed in clouds, and at others, in the spring when the weather was improving but still cold, the sun reflecting off the snow capped peaks dazzled my eyes.

So Switzerland is good too.

                                                             *          *          *

I wrote earlier that one of the best things to come out of the EU was the availability of rail tickets the length and breadth of the Continent, often with one ticket.  Nothing illustrates the point better than my last yarn.....nor about why Britian is still an also ran when it comes to rail transport (and will remain so unless and until there is a seismic shift in Government policy).

In April this year I set out to travel from Warsaw to Trinidad to start on a new project.  The proposed journey was a bit arduous (a 5.a.m. start to fly BA from Warsaw to Heathrow, a 3 hour wait then American Airlines to JFK, another 4 hours' connection time then Caribbean airlines to Port of travel time came to over 24 hours), but that turned out to be the easy part. 

We landed at Heathrow on a beautiful warm sunny spring Thursday morning, not a cloud in the sky.  I got out of the plane at Terminal 5, and headed off to get my bus across to T3 for my connection.  At the top of the stairs to the bus stop was a sign "All flights cancelled from 12:00....airport closed".  Three BA ground staff were having a chat nearby, so I asked what as going on.  It was now about half nine.  "Haven't you heard about the volcano?" they said.

That was the first news I had of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name.  My flight was scheduled for 12:30, so was already cancelled.  I went to T3 and the American Airlines desk, and after a half hour queueing spoke to a very helpful check-in girl who booked me on a flight the following morning for Miami, and a connection on AA to Port of Spain.  I headed for baggage reclaim to get my bag (assured it had been forwarded from T5 already) and while I was waiting called my travel people to get a room for the night.  They had problems but managed to find me one at an airport hotel, but I had a to wait another 4 hours, return to T5 and queue for another hour before getting my bag.  It was the start of a weird few days. 

The ash cloud drifitng down over the British Isles (and eventually most of north western Europe) caused the cancellation of my Miami flight and I found that out that evening in the hotel.  Another call got me a seat on a BA flight direct to Trinidad, departing on Saturday morning, but from Gatwick, so the next day I caught a coach to London's second airport.  I checked into my hotel there, the Sofitel in the South Terminal, and strolled across to the Departure Hall to see what was happening.  It was strange to see the massive and usually crowded terminal deserted.  At the BA desk I was told that my flight was "highly unlikely" to go, but I should check later.  Within a couple of hours that had changed to defnitely no flight, so while I sat in an otherwise empty bar having a beer and a sandwich I called the PM to tell him I wasn't going to make it.  We agreed to cancel the trip, so it then became a question of getting home.

My travel bureau in Athens were unhelpful.....they did not have access to Eurorail to book trains (odd, since it's a public website) so I told them not to worry.  I spent a couple of hours trying to get through to Eurorail to make my own booking, but couldn't get through, so called my company's London travel bureau.  They were closed but the emergency staff promised a call back tomorrow (Sunday).

Rather than spend another day at an empty airport, I caught the train to Brighton on the Sunday morning.  It was a lovely warm sunny day, and the day of the first ever Brighton Marathon, so I had a cracking day relaxing on the beach and getting an early start to my suntan.  While I was lying there the travel people called, and I explained the problem.....basically I don't care how you do it, but get me home to Warsaw.  Within an hour I had a call back, confirming they could get me on the 11:00 Eurostar to Brussels on Tuesday.  From there I could get a train to Cologne, and there connect to a sleeper service to Warsaw, arriving Wednesday mid morning.  I accepted the proposition, and in 10 minutes a further call confirmed my Eurostar booking.

But here's the part where Britain lags behind.  They were unable to book the entire trip on a single ticket.  They could get me to Brussels ok, but from there I was on my own.  I had no option but to accept, and hope I'd be able to sort something out once I was in Belgium.  The travel people sent me a mail with all the train details, so the next day, Monday, I caught a train to Gravesend, where I met up with a couple of my kids for a beer, and from there back up to London to meet my third son, who lives at Greenwich and was putting me up for the night to make sure I could get to St.Pancras for my Eurostar.

                                                                *          *          *

The trip was actually quite fun, the worst part being the Tube from Surrey Quays to St.Pancras.....the London Underground may be pretty good, but the station layouts, especially on intersection stations where different lines operate at different levels linked by steps or escalators (but rarely lifts) aren't exactly baggage friendly.

The new Eurostar terminal at St.Pancras was ok, the staff very helpful when it came to retrieving my pre-paid ticket from the automated ticket machine, but I was surprised at the amount of security.  When I had used the service before it was pretty much turn up at the station, go through the barrier with your ticket and get on the train, like any other station in Britian.  9/11 clearly changed all that: at St.Pancras you now go through a security barrier identical to those at airports the world over and then wait in a central waiting room until your train is called.  But the train itself was fine.  Although the best part of 10 years old now, the carriages were clean and comfortable, packed with people like me trying to get home or continue volcano interrupted journeys.  At least the train now went at its proper speed - the long awaited high speed line through Kent makes a huge difference.  We reached Folkestone and the Tunnel in 30 minutes (on my first trip it had taken that long to clear suburban London) and Brussels in about an hour and a half.

Buying my onward ticket proved easy enough, after an hour in the queue.  The ticket salesman spoke better English than a lot of English peeople I know, and was able to confirm my ticket for Cologne and reserve me a bunk on the sleeper to Warsaw.  The cost was around EUR200.....less than my Eurostar ticket, and there is another reason why Britain lags behind.  Shorn of Government subsidy the train operators have to keep their ticket prices high to avoid losing money so cannot compete with more heavily subsidized Continental networks.

I had no seat guarantee for my Thalys express service to Cologne, but was allocated Car 9.  When the train came in (it had originated in Paris) it was packed.  I wedged myself in with about 30 other people and our baggage and hoped for the best.  As we pulled out of Brussels and picked up speed (this was a TGV-style high speed train) I remember thinking that if there was an accident I would be dead.  The journey was about an hour and a half, via Aachen, and was reasonably painless.  The stop at Aachen, just over the German border, was a bit of a pain as a number of us had to get out, bags and all, to let out other passengers including one American guy with a bike.

At Cologne I had a couple of hours to wait before the sleeper arrived.  I found I had a centre bunk, but it was comfortable enough (even if I risked concussion getting in and out) and I actually slept pretty well.  And this train really illustrates the advantages on the Continental rail network, and the way so many different countries (except of course the UK) co-operate.  The train originated in Amstrerdam.  After Cologne, it went via Dortmund, Bremen and Hamburg across the Danish border to Copenhagen.   There it stopped for a while, probably to change locomotives and crew, before heading back to Germany through Hamburg and Rostock to its next stop in Berlin.  Then it crossed the border into Poland and went via Poznan to Warsaw, arriving about 11:00 a.m.  I missed most of  the journey because as a night train I slept, and it's a shame becuase I would have enjoyed that.  But that isn't the end of the journey.  At Warsaw the train splits in half.  One portion heads off south west, through Wroclaw to Prague in the Czech Republic, while the rest heads off easterly through Brest-Litovsk in Belorus and on all the way to Moscow.

It's not quite the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian but Amsterdam to Moscow via Germany and Denmark and Poland.....what an excellent trip that must be!

Addendum 19 October 2010: I see that Deutsche Bahn is planning to introduce new ICE services from London St.Pancras to Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt early in 2012.  Journey time to Amsterdam is projected to be 4 hours, and Frankfurt 5.  Can't wait to give that one a whirl.....I've been on ICE trains before, they are brilliant.  And it's great that at long last Britian seems to be joining the party.