Thursday, 27 January 2011

That was the year that was....

2010.  What happened then?

Well, I banged in a few airmiles - not as many as usual, because for half the year I was settled in Trinidad with the family and didn't need to - but didn't do too bad. A couple of trips to Beirut before I managed to extricate myself from a depressing and failing project (and with the current political unrest there I'm glad I did that......).  A couple of working visits to London that gave me a chance to meet up with some family (my kids) and old friends, drink some decent English beer and pig out on pork pies and pasties (uniquely English food I've never seen anywhere else), plus a really good weeks' holiday in May with Ania, Kuba, Ally and my mother-in-law.  More in a minute on that.   I also managed a couple of days in Luxembourg, a place I hadn't been to for a good 7 years that is as dull and boring now as it was then, except that the city has been modernized with a very nice (but a little isolated) business district....some cynical anti-banking working class heroes would no doubt say that was a good thing, putting all your rotten eggs in one basket.  Then there was my epic journey from Warsaw to Warsaw via Heathrow, Gatwick, Gravesend, Brussels and Cologne, using aeroplanes, buses and trains, courtesy of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano - that trip, in a funny kind of way, was the hightlight of the year, at least in travelling terms.  Comfortable and fast aeroplanes, airport chaos, decent hotels, a trip to the seaside, visiting with family, British Rail train journeys that were not subject to delay (an event in itself....), Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel, high speed international rail services on the Continent that were as crowded and uncomfortable as anything British Rail can provide, and to cap it all off a comfortable berth in a slow but timely international sleeper service.  And all squeezed into a period of less than a someone else's cost.  Brilliant.   Then came the move to Trinidad, and six months in the Tropics with my family.  It was an adventure, for sure....and I'll write about it separately.

The job was the same as it always is - rewarding and a pain in the arse by turns.  Clients are always right of course, except when they are wrong, or have been badly advised, and I've had my share of both this year.  My mates in Beirut had been driving me mad for over a year before I left, and were a classic case of people who wouldn't listen and thought they knew it all but didn't, and refused to accept that was not the case.  The London bank was sweet as a nut, accepted and acted on everything I (and others) told them and are now live and as happy as a pig in shit.  Same for the boring Luxembourgers.  And the people in Trinidad.....well, all the key decisions had been taken and acted upon before I got there, so there was not much I could do to change anything.  Mistakes were made and now they have to live with the consequences.  Not much more I can say or do about that.

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On the wider scale, it was a year of natural disasters. 

First and foremost, and the one that affected me most, was the volcano.  I don't remember any reports of casualties either at the time or since, although millions of people were affected by it.  It's in a fairly remote and under-populated part of Iceland, and it had been grumbling away for some time before it blew its top, so to speak, and there was ample time to ensure no-one was directly in harm's way.  But it caused absolute chaos, globally.  The gigantic ash cloud produced by the eruption, blown south east by prevailing winds, shut down airspace over most of western Europe for a couple of weeks.  Passengers were stranded, like myself, at airports everywhere.....and not just in Europe.  While we couldn't fly out, holidaymakers in the Far East, Africa or wherever, were stranded because they could not return home and fly in.  All fine and dandy if you're in Thailand or somewhere, with good weather, some credit left on your Visa account, and able to find a room ....extend your holiday (and hope your employer takes a sympathetic view and doesn't fire you for absenteeism....).    Even better if you're able to find alternative travel options through your employer or its agents, as I did.  But many people spent days sleeping on airport departure hall benches (never comfortable at the best of times), lacking information from airlines (who to be fair had not much information or comfort to give) or much in the way of food and drink (not all airports or airlines were generous) and short of money to do anything about it.  Airlines bore the brunt of the criticism initially because they weren't flying.  Then it became clear they were being prevented from doing so by air traffic restrictions that were the responsibility of individual countries and lacked any focused, co-ordinated guidance, so the blame shifted.  Airlines became more vociferous in their condemnation of these regulations, and gained brownie points from their stranded passengers, but the affected governments were, typically, tardy in their responses and tried to shift the blame.  Airlines eventually forced the issue by sending up exploratory flights to test the atmospheric dust accumulations, and map where was safe and where was still dangerous.  Eventually, after a couple of weeks of travel chaos, things slowly got back to normal, people completed their journeys or were re-patriated, and the airlines got down to counting the costs.....billions of pounds, all borne by the airlines and ultimately, the traveller in fare increases.  I may be wrong but I can't recall a single instance of an affected passenger claiming successfully against any government or government agency, and precious few claiming successfully against an airline - Act of God and all that.  Not even covered by insurers......

In January, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti.  Already a bankrupt and poor island, it has been crippled ever since.  Despite the efforts of governments, the UN, international aid agencies and an army of volunteers from all over the world, it remains devastated a year later.  Since the quake, the people, still living in tent cities that were supposed to be temporary but are still occupied now or shanties built from any usable materials that could be found in the rubble, have had to further suffer from the torrential rains of the Caribbean hurricane season and a cholera epidemic that took more lives.  It's heartbreaking......

There have been unusual weather patterns the world over.  Pakistan was hit by floods during the monsoon season that affected something like 60% of the country and left millions destitute.  More recently, Australia - the Lucky Country - has been hit by floods: in Queensland an area the size of France and Germany combined is under water, and that is just in one state.  New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have also been hit, but to a lesser degree.  In Europe we had a cold snap before Christmas that led to heavier than normal snowfalls that left much of northern Europe paralysed - even countries like Russia, Poland and Germany, no strangers to heavy winter snow, found it hard to cope.  And with the thaw there have inevitably been floods.  And deaths.  Even in Trinidad, I experienced something unusual - an extended wet season.  I was there roughly 182 days and it rained on probably 175 of them.  The wet season is usually over by the end of November but my boy's open air school concert the week before Christmas came close to being washed out by torrential rain.

I've said here before but it's true.  Climate change is not a theory.  It's a reality.  We have to find ways, globally, to combat it or get used to new ways of living.

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Every year we try to go to England for a week, usually in the spring (end of May) so that the kids can spend time with their English relations, and then later in the year go to Spain, Greece or somewhere for the main holiday - a different destination every year.  2010 was no different, but because of the Trinidad posting the main holiday (we were looking at a return to the Greek islands) wasn't needed.  There are plenty of places to go in Trini, and the weather (so at least we anticipated) would be brilliant anyway.  Trinidad will be the subject of a separate and more detailed this space!

But we did our English trip, and this time chose the first week in May - it fitted better with the Trini project.  There was a serious concern that the volcano might disrupt it but by the time we travelled the worst effects were over and we had no delays or problems at all.  We took my mother-in-law with us, as a birthday present as she had only once been to the UK (a week in London about 5 years ago) and was keen to see more.  As usual we had an ambitious itinerary - my family are scattered about all over England - and ended up driving well over a thousand miles on the trip.  But it was great.

I blew most of my BA Airmiles (due to expire early this year) on Business Class tickets and it made the trip most enjoyable from the off.  We were the only passengers in the front cabin on the WAW - LHR flight, which guaranteed us the best treatment by the cabin staff - the undivided attention of two stewardesses.  We also got hot meals instead of cheese and tomato rolls.  They made a fuss of the kids, gave them toys and colouring books to keep them occupied and gave us every comfort.  It was great.  During the year, BA cabin crew had a series of strikes over pay and conditions, and as a result it's fair to say that neither them nor the airline are universally popular.  But I have to say, having travelled on a lot of different airlines over the years, in my experience BA and its cabin crew are a cut above most others.  They may no longer be "The World's Favourite Airline" but personally I would choose them over the opposition any day.

We had hired a car from Avis and did pretty well when we picked it up a Heathrow - our Mondeo was upgraded, free of charge, to an Audi A6 estate.  Just as well.... the amount of baggage we had (mamcia does not recognise the phrase "travel light" and of course we had the push chair) probably would not have fitted into the Mondeo.  It was a cracking car too - despite the load it was carrying, we had ample space and elbow room (even with a child seat for Ally and a riser seat for Kuba), and it was a dream to drive, especially without the baggage on our trips out.

First stop: Bedfont, a couple of miles from the airport.  There we went to a supermarket and stocked up with food and drink for the journey to my sister in north Norfolk - crisps, pork pies (of course....), sweets and biscuits, and a selection of drinks.  Then we introduced mamcia to real English fish and chips, heavy on the salt and vinegar.  She loved it, and we had it pretty much everywhere we went after that.

From there we headed up to visit my sister in Norfolk.  She lives a few miles inland from the North Norfolk coast, between Hunstanton and Wells, and I've visited many times.  The beaches there are clean, sandy and stretch for miles, and are often relatively empty.  There is often a cold wind blowing in off the North Sea that keeps temperatures down on all but the hottest days, but it's a delightful part of the world.   Before leaving home, Ania and I prepared a folder with all the individual days' journeys, printed from the brilliant Google Maps - partly because some of them I'd never done before - and gave it to Mamcia so that she could follow where we were.  But this first drive was one I have made many times so the maps weren't needed.  We had a good time at my sisters, a brief one-night stay - she had met my mother-in-law before, on the trip to Warsaw for our wedding, but had never seen Angel, true to form, enchanted her and her husband from the outset.

The next day we headed off to the Lake District.  I have a second cousin who is a retired vicar living in Windermere, and we had been promising to visit him for years but never got around to it.  There is a Lake District in Poland - Mazury, in the north east of the country - and both Ania and her mum were keen to see the English Lakes to compare.  It was a long drive, in part across the Yorkshire Moors, then across Saddleworth Moor near Manchester (scene of the infamous Brady - Hindley Murders nearly 50 years ago, and it's a bleak, cheerless place still).   We took a wrong turn at one point and ended up going nearly 30 miles out of our way as we looped right around the southern skirts of Manchester, but from there it was a straight motorway run to the Kendal exit then 30 minutes cross country to Windermere.  We arrived safely in the early evening, and it was great to see Donald and his wife Heather.  They live in a lovely and spacious house on the side of a hill that had lovely views of the Lake until somebody built opposite, and we were very comfortable there.  The next day we spent exploring the area, wandering around Windermere (and sampling the local fish and chips on the Lake shore) and it's a lovely place.  I'd like to return and spend more time there one summer.  We also went for a long drive, up through the fells to Coniston Water (where Donald Campbell died attempting to break the water speed record in his jet boat Bluebird back in January 1967 - I can still remember vividly watching the black and white film of the boat somersaulting across the lake and falling to bits as it sank: his body was not found and recovered until 2001), then back across to the eastern shore of Lake Windermere, which followed all the way back to Don's.  It was a terrific drive, through narrow, undulating and winding hill roads, with fabulous views across valleys and past fog-shrouded hill crests, and the Audi was great.  Without baggage it was very nimble for such a big car, fast with precise steering and brakes that allowed me to throw it around almost like a sports car.  I really enjoyed the drive.

The next day, Tuesday, we took an excursion across the border to Edinburgh, on Scotland's East coast.  Surprisingly, the drive from Windermere (quite close to England's north west coast) only took a little over two hours, as it was motorway for a good two-thirds of the way, before an excellant dual carriageway took us from just south of Glasgow across to Scotland's capital.  We got a little lost entering the city, as on our only previous visit, 7 years ago, we came in from the other, eastern, side, but followed our noses to the Castle which dominates all views of the centre from its vantage point atop its granite hill, and found a car park in its shadow.  It was good day, a little chilly and overcast but not raining, and we spent it viewing the Castle - mamcia loved it - and then strolled down the Royal Mile for lunch at (yes....) a fish and chip shop.  We did some souvenir shopping, then headed back to the car and Windermere.  We got even more lost on the way out of Edinburgh, courtesy of badly sign-posted detours because of roadworks, but eventually found the right road and got home around 8 p.m.  On the way we passed Lockerbie, site of Britain's biggest terrorist atrocity back in December 1988 when a PanAm 747 en-route to New York, a few days before Christmas, was blown to bits by a bomb in the cargo hold that had been primed in Malta and travelled to Heathrow via Frankfurt before being loaded onto the flight.  There were no survivors from the flight and 11 fatalities in Lockerbie itself - 270 victims in all.  Again, I remember it vividly - a couple of days' later I flew from Heathrow to Dublin for a Christmas break, on a DC10 full of drunken Irishmen, with my brother-in-law.  I've never seen so many people sober up so quickly as they did when we took off.

Wednesday was another cross-country trip, this time to York.  Again the drive was enjoyable and quicker than I had anticipated and we enjoyed a good walk around the old City centre and of course York Minster.  It was a cold and damp day, probably the worst of the whole week, and Ally was in one her misrerable moods.  She's much better now but at that time car travel was not her favourite passtime, and a run of more than about 10 minutes tended to put her into a foul mood for the rest of the day.  But we had a good day apart from that.  It was General Election day, so back in Windermere Don and I watched the news programmes until very late.

It turned out to be a historic election and ended up, after some days' wrangling, with the first coalition government since World War 2 - this time between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  It was the second time within months I had been present when a reigning government had been soundly spanked at the poll booths and replaced by a coalition - the other had been the previous year in Lebanon.  And I followed it up weeks later when I flew in to Port of Spain a couple of days before the election there that not only brought in the country's first coalition govenrment, but also its first lady Prime Minister.

While all the wrangling went on, we made the longest drive of the trip, from Windermere in Cumbria all the way down to Tunbridge Wells in Kent, a good 200 odd miles or more.   Most of the run was on motorways, and despite roadworks close to Manchester we arrived at my sister's about tea time.  And Ally behaved herself......a surprise to us all.

The next day we headed off to Canterbury, cross country in the rain, as mamcia wanted to see the Cathedral.   It was a good trip despite the weather, the Cathedral as always was beautiful despite scaffolding over one of its towers covering major repair work, and we spent nearly two hours wandering around it (as much as anything to dry out and warm up!).  We were separated on the way back to the car, as Ania went to get fish and chips (mamcia and I went ahead with the kids) and she managed to get lost on the way to the carpark.  It took me half an hour to find her.

From Canterbury we went up the A2 to Gravesend and met John in a pub for a drink and some food.  He was delighted to see his little brother and sister after over a year, and we had a good eveniong while he taught Kuba to play the one-armed bandits.

So all in all it was a really enjoyable if tiring week.

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So 2010 was pretty good.  We were thankfully in good health all year, got more travelling than usual done, and managed to spend much more time together than we had done for many years.  For six months we were a normal family, eating meals together, playing and watching tv together, shopping, taking the kids to and from school, and wonder of wonders sleeping together every night.  I enjoyed every minute.

And 2011?  Still unclear.  As I write in mid January I've had a couple of weeks working in home office Warsaw, but have just started a new project in Geneva - so close enough to home to travel back every Friday.  Ally has started pre-school, but (love her!) picked up a virus on the second day and hasn't been back since.  But she'll be fine in a couple of days I'm sure.  Kuba had it too, but he's pretty much over it and going back to school tomorrow.

We're looking at doing some weekends away without the kids - Geneva next month for our wedding anniversary, Barcelona in the spring, maybe Rome and Paris later in the year.  A return to England may happen, we're going skiing in the Polish Beskidy mountains in a couple of weeks (my first time at 58 years young) and planning a couple of weeks at the Baltic Coast in July.  Maybe also Greece or somewhere in September/October......

So plenty of subjects to cover yet.

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So to one and all.....a bit late but never mind......a Happy New Year and every good wish for a wonderful 2011.