Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Gulf News Part 4: The End

So….to the Gulf again.

I wish I hadn’t bothered.  My first trip, in June and July, reported here, was quite enjoyable but a bit too long.  This one, so far at least, has been a nightmare.

The journey down was fine.  Both flights were half empty so there were no comfort issues to contend with – no sharp elbows in the ribs from the fat smelly guy in the next door seat, no seat back dropping into your face the moment the plane’s wheels leave the tarmac as the guy in front decides his comfort is more important than anyone else’s (and certainly more than that of the bloke in the seat behind).  As usual the in-flight entertainment was questionable – this year’s movie offerings somehow don’t seem to be as good as previous years, has anyone else noticed that? –but my trusty iPod has new stuff on it, I had a new book and football magazines to read, so I was fine.  Happy as larry, as my mate used to say (whatever that is supposed mean!).

It all changed on arrival.  Or, more correctly, on arrival at the hotel.  Previously, I had stayed at Le Meridien.  Comfortable, good selection of restaurants and bars, beach, pool.  This time I was booked in its annex, the Residence.  I had been warned about it before I came here in June, by colleagues who had stayed there – former staff quarters, I was told, small rooms, poorly decorated.  Make sure you stay in the hotel proper.  I challenged it with the site manager, but he insisted it was the Residence or the Sahara (that I had been told was worse, featuring the same complaints as the Residence, plus cockroaches).

So I rolled up, checked in, and collected my keys.  First issue: the room rate did not include breakfast or internet connection.  Nothing the hotel could do, so check it out with the project manager in the morning.  I was very tired by this time, after 17 hours travelling.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I was taken to my room: second issue.

Clearly, my colleagues had been generous in their descriptions.  The room wasn’t just small, it was more like a prison cell.  Perhaps four steps took me from door to window.  There was just about room for a double bed.  A rickety plywood desk and chair were jammed into a corner beside a cheap and nasty wardrobe, and an old tv balanced precariously on a shelf in the opposite corner.  The bathroom was minute, I could spread my arms wide and just about touch opposite walls.  There was a shower, with an ill-fitting plastic curtain that guaranteed a flood whenever used, a small sink for shaving in, and a toilet squeezed in a corner in such a way as to prevent you sitting on it properly – you have to sit sideways.  Oh, and the toilet seat was broken.

I took photos of it all, to back up a complaint to our Travel and HR people, and sms’d my line manager to let him know I was not happy and wanted a room change or a flight change – not prepared to stay in this place for more than a night.

      *              *          *

So into the office Sunday morning.  Things went downhill again.  I arrived about 8:45.  The place was deserted.  I sat in a chair by the lifts and waited patiently.  People began arriving about half an hour later.  I waited less patiently for another half an hour, then went into the work space and asked for the project manager.  I was told he usually arrived late.  I was given a seat in his room, connected up my laptop and sent a mail to the Travel people to change my room.  The PM finally arrived at 10:30.

I raised my room issue.  He insisted I would have to stay there or move to the Sahara.  I refused.  We talked it over, but without any real solution.  He then explained what he wanted me to do – basically agree a whole bunch of data mapping for migrating everything from the legacy system to ours.  But since the bank have not even seen my bit of the system, never mind been trained on it or tested it, this is clearly not possible.  I told him so.  He just shrugged his shoulders in that infuriatingly condescending Greek manner and told me to do what I could.

I moved to another room, met some more people from my company, who told me basically I was there for political reasons – everyone knew it was a waste of time but still….. Now I have no time for office politics in any way shape or form.  I was even more angry.

I had a meeting with a guy from the bank for a couple of hours, trying to be professional and make some progress, but didn’t achieve much.  He too felt we were approaching this particular subject way too early.  I then had a call from the Travel people, who had re-booked me into another room in the Residence, “a bigger and better one”, but it seemed the PM was complaining about the cost.  So I ended my meeting, and sent him a mail.  Basically, look I’m wasting my time here,  I’m not going to be able to achieve anything, I’ll change my flights and go home.

That went down like a pork chop in a synagogue!  For the rest of the day, we were swapping increasingly vitriolic mails on the subject and getting nowhere.  Eventually he agreed to the room change, with internet but insisted no breakfast, and we would have a meeting with the bank Monday to decide what to do.  I had little choice but to accept.

The new room is a marginal improvement, bigger and better appointed, although the tv cannot be watched from the armchair because a massive cupboard housing the kitchenette blocks the view.  In any case, there are only about 4 channels clear enough to watch and three of them broadcast in Arabic.  I complained (of course) and yesterday they replaced the set but there is still no improvement.
       *          *          *

Being here during Ramadan doesn’t help.  I don’t know a huge amount about Islam, but basically for the Holy Month of Ramadan followers must fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset.  This means, at least here, a shorter working day as people head off home early to make sure they’re at home for dinner, so to speak.  But it also means restrictions at the hotel.  None of the bars and restaurants serve food during the day, and when they open in the evening it is not permitted to eat or drink at the tables outside – all food and beverages must be consumed behind closed doors.    It spreads to the office too.  I was sitting at my desk yesterday, and took a pull from my bottle of water.  One of our guys rolled his chair across and admonished me for drinking in public and asked me not to do it: if I want a drink I must go to the pantry or toilet apparently.  I refrained from commenting that I wasn’t actually in a public place but a private office manned by mainly (on this floor at least) non-Muslims, and in any case the kitchen or bog were no more private than the office,  but said ok.  I still drink at my desk, but make sure this particular guy is not around.

But for me this raises questions about Islam as a faith and how despite protestations to the contrary it lacks tolerance.  I consider myself to be a very reasonable, and, yes, tolerant individual – with stress on that word individual.   I am not a follower of Islam, nor officially at least of any other organized religion (that is not to say I don’t believe in God or an Afterlife – I just haven’t formalized it).  I would never dream of forcing my beliefs or values on anyone else – except perhaps my kids, until such time as they are (were) old enough to form their own opinions – and therefore do not like someone trying to force their beliefs and values on me.  Now, I would not expect a Muslim visiting or living in my home town of Edenbridge, in the UK, or my current home in Warsaw, to follow local customs if those customs were not acceptable to them.  I would not expect them to go to Mass on Christmas morning, for instance.  Nor would I expect them to knock back copious amounts of beer and vodka at a summer barbecue.  And I would most certainly not cause a fuss if the Muslim guy at the next desk from me wanted to go off and pray somewhere private during office hours, if that is what his religion demands of him.   To me, this is simply showing respect for a person’s individuality.   Simple politeness.

But here, in an Islamic country, I am expected to accept without question their restrictions.  I have no real problem fasting during the day (when I’m travelling I don’t always eat breakfast, and frequently skip lunch too in an effort, vain unfortunately, to keep my weight under some sort of control) but I’m sorry, I need to take liquids on board – especially in this heat, where de-hydration is a very real concern.  I don’t expect to be told by someone that I’m not allowed a sip of water because it offends their religious sensibilities.  I’ll accept the restaurant closures, I’ll accept having to eat indoors (even though I don’t understand at all the reasoning for it) but I draw the line at dehydrating myself just to avoid offending the locals.

I went across to the Mall this evening, souvenir shopping.  The only shops open were being staffed by non-Arab people – places like Virgin Megastore, Promod, Esprit and the odd gift shop.  Even the mighty Starbucks was closed – and I was really looking forward to a grande latte.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, so headed back to the hotel.  The coffee shop there was closed too, but I was directed to the bar, now obscured by floor to ceiling curtains.  Inside, people were drinking tea, coffee, beer and water.  There were people there, obviously locals in their flowing white robes, with their own drinks.  I ordered and enjoyed my latte, and could not stop smiling at the hypocrisy.
                                                              *          *          *

Before I left work, we agreed that I can go home tomorrow night (Wednesday)…..I mailed Travel to change my flights before anyone changed their minds.  It means sitting around the hotel lobby for about 12 hours after check out, before I can head to the airport (night flights only to Europe it seems) but I can live with that, just to get away.  I might even stay in my room and claim the additional cost back somehow as the PM is refusing already to pay it….I’ll figure it out tomorrow.

So, in nutshell, what do I think of Abu Dhabi specifically, and the UAE in general?

Well, it’s been interesting, I’ll say that.  Such contrasts between the old and the modern, the incredible construction work going on everywhere, will (when it’s finished) make it an extraordinary place.  The weather too has been enjoyable, up to a point.  I said in an earlier post that I found it too hot – when I was here previously it was high 30s/low 40s, and a dry heat.  This week has been worse – at least middle 40s, and there is now high humidity too.  Step out of the door or the cab and my glasses steam up completely and instantly.  A walk of 200 metres to the taxi stand leaves me drenched in sweat, the anti-perspirant is useless here.

The people generally have been very friendly and helpful, although in fairness the majority of those I’ve met have been hotel workers or taxi drivers, none of whom are locals.  Those Arabs I’ve come across at the client sites have also been friendly and polite, and largely helpful. 

So all in all, there is a lot to commend it.  But I’m afraid the experiences this week have really put me off returning.  It’s not the hotel issue – that can happen anywhere and is solely the result of a company not really caring about the conditions its employees have to put up with when travelling.  The weather is certainly a factor – the temperatures and, this week, humidity have just been too much for my northern European sensibilities: I’ve never had so many headaches as I have in Abu Dhabi, both trips, nor have I ever felt so physically drained after relatively little activity as I do right now as I write.

But I’m afraid this Ramadan malarkey has really soured it for me.  I respect completely the right of anyone, anywhere, to join the Muslim faith and follow its customs, including the Holy Month Fasting.  Just don’t expect me to follow it.  And if that means that on other trips here, at the same time, I have to submit to something I do not find compatible with my own beliefs, then thank you very much but I’ll give it a miss.

No offence meant, but the Gulf is not for me.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

There's a riot goin' on......

There is something depressingly familiar about what is happening in the UK (or, more correctly, England) right now.  I remember similar disturbances back in the 1980s.

Same areas - London (Tottenham, Brixton, east London generally, Ealing).  Liverpool (Toxteth). Parts of Nottingham and Birmingham.  Bristol.  All so called "deprived areas".

Same Government  - Conservative, although this time aided and abbetted by the Liberal Democrats.

Same strident calls from the Daily Mail, and others, to "bring in the Army, give the Police water cannon and rubber bullets".

Same results - senseless violence.  Looting sprees. Cars and buildings torched.  Police bombarded with bricks, petrol bombs and any old missile that rioters can get their grubby little mitts on.  Hospitals overworked treating policeman and rioter side by side.

And the ordinary law abiding citizen left to count the cost in damaged property, looted business premises and destroyed lives.

As Michael Palin said, 40 years ago, in Monty Python: "I keep getting this feeling of deja vu...."

                                                                *          *          *

There are things I just don't understand.

Now I'm sure there are questions to be asked about the shooting by police that started all this last week, and I'm equally sure that in due course they will be asked and answered.  But why and how has an apparently peaceful demonstration against that action in one area of north London exploded into a nationwide outbreak of looting and destruction?  Why does burning down a discount warehouse in Liverpool equate to a protest against a police incident in Tottenham?

Apologists are stating that the rioters are from deprived areas and are protesting against police brutality and Government policies.  They are stating there are "racist issues".


The areas where this is going on are no more deprived than areas in cities like Cardiff and Swansea, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Derry and Belfast.  But, so far at least, the disturbances are limited to English cities.  Now why is that, I wonder?

Police brutality?  You can't make that claim until it's been proven that the initial incident involved "police brutality" and so far that has not happened.  The police may well have used batons against the rioters and cracked a few heads - well, good for them!  Faced with a mob of numpties lobbing home-made molotovs and bricks in my direction, I'd be sorely tempted to use a damned sight more than a plastic shield and baton to protect myself.  That is not "police brutality", it's self defence.

Government policy?  Which one?  That which provides everybody with a free education?  Health care?  Unemployment benefit?  Or the ones that are attempting to provide better housing rather than rat infested tower blocks?  Encouraging re-training to get more people back to work? 

Racist?  Hmmmm.......On the news reports I've seen so far, there seems to be an equal split between white and non-white rioters.  There is also a mix of white and non-white police facing them.  Doesn't look too racist to me.  Tottenham, like most of the other areas affected, has a high percentage of non-whites living there (I won't call them immigrants, because they're mostly second and third generation - so as English as me).  By and large, most of the time, the white and non-white populations seem to get along just fine, mixing more or less happily in the schools and pubs and clubs and football grounds: Britain is increasingly a multi cultural society where racism is on the wane everywhere.  It's only when something like this happens that people seem to scream "racism!"

                                                                    *          *          *

So for me, none of these excuses stand up. 

It is lawlessnes, pure and simple.  Opportunism of the worst kind, by a minority of young and malevolent toe-rags who should know better - and would if parents had not ignored their responsibilities and left it to schools to discipline their kids.

Schools that, actually, can't do that because successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have introduced legislation after legislation, limiting the punishments available to teachers to such an extent that their hands are completely tied when it comes to discipline.

When I was a kid, 12 years old, back in the 1960s, I had a little argument with a kid in the year below me - it was not much more than name calling, but I ended up giving him a little slap.  He went to the headmaster.  I was branded a bully (without being able to fully explain what had happened) and received four strokes of the cane across my arse.  This was the standard punishment for bullying in most schools and accepted by most parents.  I had detentions from time to time, for misdemeanours (like most school kids), and the detentions happened on the same day as you were in trouble.  It invariably meant I missed my bus home and had a wait of over an hour for the next one.  I lived nearly 20 miles from school.  Usually, I was further punished by my parents when I got home.  And that is precisely the point - my parents did not object to the school punishing me and typically punished me further for stepping out of line.  This is called discipline, a concept that seems to be unknown to most of today's youth.  I would never have dreamed of answering either of my parents back, nor a teacher or other adult, and especially not a copper.  The idea of firebombing a pizza parlour, setting fire to a police car or chucking petrol bombs around, just for fun, was (and still is) completely alien to me.

Fast forward less than 10 years.  I played football with a guy who was a teacher at the local comprehensive school.  On playground duty one morning, he moved to break up a little argument that was developing between a couple of 14 year olds.  One of them drew a knife and brandished it at him, swearing aggresively.  My mate reacted instinctively, slapped the brat around the ear, confiscated the knife and gave the kid a half-hour detention for that night......the maximum he could do without school governor's approval.  He intended to speak to the headmaster at lunch time to take the matter further - knives being no laughing matter.  Within a couple of hours, the headmaster called my mate to his office.  The brat was there, with his (unemployed) parents - after my mate had left him in the playground, he'd gone straight home and complained.  My mate was ordered to apologise for hitting the kid and told to return the confiscated (the brat called it "stolen") knife.  He refused point blank and resigned on the spot, never went back to the school.

Fast forward another 10 years or so, to when my own kids were at school.  Caning had already been ruled illegal, courtesy of various civil liberties and child cruelty groups and lily livered politicians.  Detentions were still used, but the school had to give advanced notice, in writing, and were only enforced if the parent agreed to it, in writing.  Where is the discipline in that?  The result of course is that kids (who by nature will always try and get away with as much as possible) began to have pretty much a free rein to do as they pleased with little fear of official sanction.  When caught, it was no more than a ticking off, from a police and justice system increasingly unwilling  - because of a weak justice system and overcrowded prisons and detention centres - to do anything more.

I'm convinced that in those 40 odd years, since my caning, there has just been such a breakdown in child discipline that kids nowadays believe they are above the law and can do whatever the hell they want.   If that involves the odd riot and a bit of looting and mugging, then fine.

                                                              *          *          *

But this whole "deprived area" stuff really really annoys me.    Now I'm not suggesting places like Toxteth and Brixton or St.Pauls in Bristol are a bundle of laughs, but in comparison to some places they're quite wonderful.

Mogadishu anyone?  Kabul or Helmand Province?  Whole swathes of land across India and China - two of the biggest and fastest growing economies in the world - where people live in the most abject poverty (that's if they're not sold into modern day slavery in childhood)?  Vast tracts of Africa where people and especially children are starving to death while the western "civilized" world stands by wringing its hands but doing comparatively little to help?

In my travels, I have seen some grim areas that make these riot torn street look like affluent neighbourhoods.  Parts of Beirut still resemble bomb sites after the conflicts with Israel and Syria within the last 15 years or so.  So do parts of Belgrade and Novy Sad in Serbia, where NATO was bombing as recently as the 1990s (and are now busily turning Benghazi and Tripoli in Libya into similar ruins - but that's all in a good cause, apparently).   My now home town of Warsaw has areas on the east bank of the Wisla, the Praga area and its neighbourhoods, that are only now becoming anything other than a mafia controlled no go area.  Even sunny Port of Spain, in tropical Trinidad, has its daily shooting and areas you just don't go through after dark (especially if you're the wrong skin tone)

So the idea of "deprived areas" being at the root of the current problems doesn't stand up, I'm afraid - else there would be riots in those places every night of every week, and there aren't - people get on with their lives in relative safety if not comfort, knowing full well that things could be a hell of a lot worse.

                                                                    *          *          *

In saying all this, I have no idea what the answer is.  English (as opposed to British) society seems so fucked up nowadays it's impossible to know where to start. 

Political parties calling each other names and demanding this and that law change is not the answer, but no more than a starting point - and it will only become that with recognition that they are equally to blame, since the situation has spiralled down into this parlous state on both their watches over the past 40 years or so.

The police certainly need more powers - and more particularly increased numbers - to patrol the streets and fight the crime that is clearly rife.  But that means more government money being spent and probably more taxes.  People don't like paying taxes.

There clearly needs to be some investment in these and other areas, aimed at providing better education, better housing and more job opportunities - again more investment and more taxes. 

Somehow discipline needs to find its way back into the home and the school room.  Repealing some of the legislation preventing decent punishment in schools might be a start, but it's not only schools.  PARENTS must start showing more responsibility for their kid's values and behaviour, not leave it up to others....because really, there are no others.  If some of them would today stand up and be counted, stop their littel angels from donning their hoodies and going out to join in the fun, it would be huge step in the right direction......

I have five kids.  I've had fun and games with the older ones in the past, but they're adults now and live their own lives.  I believe they have a decent set of values and I know are as disgusted as I am about what is going on now.  None of them have their own families yet, but I hope when they do they make sure they teach them right and wrong, and the true value of property and life itself, and don't let them run unchecked, as so many parents nowadays seem to have done with their kids.  For my younger ones, five and three, I genuinely fear for their future - they have, inevitably, glimpsed the shocking scenes on news programs - it's big news here in Poland, just as it is London - but thankfully are too young to grasp what is happening.  With climate change fears and the global economy shot to hell, I wonder what kind of a world they will grow up in.......

Friday, 5 August 2011

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside....

One of the more well kept secrets of Eastern Europe these days is its beaches, in particular those here in Poland.    There are fully fledged beach resorts in Bulgaria and Romania, on the Black Sea coast, that cater to the package trade and I'm told are very good.  Here, there are no package tours to the coast (at least that I'm aware of), and this is a good thing because it leaves the beaches less developed - though no less crowded.  Look at Polish tourist web-sites and they will be full off information about Warsaw, about Krakow, the Mazurian Lakes and the ski resorts in the Tatras.  But the coast is largely ignored, apart from the Big Three of Gdansk (formerly the historic Hanseatic port of Danzig and birthplace of Solidarity), its neighbour Sopot (the nearest thing here to a resort like Blackpool or Brighton, complete with pier) and Gdynia, the third city making up the TriCities complex (they all run into one amorphous mass).  Nice as they are, they are not the complete story of the seaside here.

The coast stretches for a couple of hundred miles, I guess, from the German border in the west to that of Russia (or at least its Kaliningrad enclave) in the east.  Over the years I've visited beaches from Miedzesdroje in the west, close to the German border and the Nazi Peenemunde research centre, right the way along to Hel at the tip of its eponymous peninsula sticking out 30km into the Bay of Gdansk, and they are unfailingly excellent.  Golden sand.  Clean, no dog turds to be seen.  Facilities including cafes and beer bars when the beach is close to a village or town.  Beach vendors selling everything from kielbaski (Polish sausages) to kites via beer and popcorn and much else besides.  Plenty of well maintained trash bins that are used by vistitors and keep the beaches pristine.  Sand dunes and forest backing onto them to provide privacy and shelter.  Good access and car parking.    The only down side is the Baltic Sea which can be bloody freezing (though not more than the English Channel or North Sea back in Blighty).

All along the coast there are small towns and smaller villages catering to the holiday trade.  They are all much of a muchness - plenty of bars, amusement parks both big and small, souvenir shops every few paces banging out the usual seaside tat (postcards, funny hats, cheap jewelery, decorated mugs, ornaments and so on) that you can find anywhere, all at very reasonable prices.  A host of restaurants selling good and filling Polish food and freshly caught local fish (as well as burgers, pizzas and kebabs of course).  Accomodation comes in all shapes and sizes from luxury hotels to campsites by the beach, again all sensibly priced.  We tend to rent cottages somewhere - easier with kids - and we've had some absolute bargains.

So all in all, I love it.

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The past couple of years we've had a place in a small village called Mieroszyno, a couple of kilometres in from the sea.  It's close to a small resort village called Jastrzenbia Gora, which is close to a larger town called Wladyslawowo that is situated at the place where the Hel Peninsula joins mainland Poland.  The cottage is a small wooden affair, two floors, maybe a third of an acre level garden (beautifully maintained), outside the main village itself.  The cottage is surrounded by similar places, most of them brick built, and dozens of empty (and for sale) building plots.  It has all mod cons - three toilets, showers, satellite tv - and is comfortably if cheaply furnished.  It is right next to an extensive forest with paths down to the sea that are a delight to walk or cycle through - the beach is probably three kilometres - and rich in wildlife: last year the folks saw loads of rabbits, this year we saw more rabbits and one night a small fox stalking a hare (the fox stopped to watch us pass in the car and the hare, smart thing, took advantage and escaped into the darkness).  I missed out last year, as I was in Trinidad, but have just enjoyed a couple of weeks there (Ania and the kids, and her mum, were there for a few days before I arrived).

The holiday starts with a bit of a trip.  By car it's perhaps 400km from Warsaw, and takes upwards of 7 hours depending on traffic.  That said, it's still the nearest piece of coast to home, which is why we tend to go to the area more than others.  It's well worth the journey.  The ladies and kids made the drive on the Saturday, while I was finishing up in Abu Dhabi, and I'm told it wasn't too bad a journey - now the kids are older it's less of a trial.  They were loaded with three bikes on the roof (the first time we've done that) and a car full of food and baggage - as usual, in the event, more than we needed.

I followed by train on the Wednesday.  It's a journey I've made a few times now, and it's ok.  I pay a bit extra for a first class seat (not that there is huge difference between first and second: with first there is a little more space as fewer people use it) and this year I struck it lucky: I had an eight seat compartment to myself for the entire 7 hour ride.  Armed with books, magazines, iPod, food and drink I was content thank you very much.  Which was just as well - the journey this year was tortuous.  It's always a bit slow, especially the first hour or so out from Warsaw, but this year it was Ilawa, probably half way, before we got out of second gear.  All along the line there was a succession of engineering works as bridges are being constructed to replace a huge number of unmanned level crossings, or existing bridges strengthened.  I assume it's all to improve the transport infrastructure before the country co-hosts the European football championship next year.  Normally it takes just under 7 hours to reach Gdynia: this year it was nearer seven and a half.  Ania (and of course Kuba and Ally) met me in Gdynia, an hour or so's drive from the cottage.  I could have travelled on to Wladyslawowo, but had just over an hour's connection time so it made more sense to meet in Gdynia.  It was great to see everybody, after nearly 5 weeks apart.

                                                                      *          *          *

I am not a fan of crowded beaches.  I find it very hard to relax on them.  There is no privacy to speak of, so conversations are easily overhead (as are arguments, temper tantrums, flatulence and everything else).   Kids of course like to play, and in doing so wander off and can easily get lost or worse, so I'm always on edge trying make sure they're safe.  I can't stand it!

But this year it was the norm.....every stretch of beach was packed solid, on both sides of Jastrzenbia. more so than I can remember in previous years.  I know it's the same everywhere, and the same for everyone, but it makes it no easier for me to enjoy.  But I made the best of it, played with the kids, tried to block out my ears and invoke the selective deafness any kids use automatically when they're told to do something they don't want, and did my best to relax.  But there were times when I was still too stressed to enjoy things and I was less than pleasant to everyone - for which I apologise!  The fact there is whole raft of crap going on at work at the moment didn't help, and try as I might I couldn't get rid of all that baggage, even temporarily. 

So despite the sunshine and beautiful surroundings, I didn't enjoy the break as much as I normally do.

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The weather was typically northern European - that is to say, unreliable.

In July it can be cold and wet or hot and sunny, and there is no way of predicting it.  Last year when Ania and everyone was there, it was sunny and 30C the entire two weeks - in fact hotter than I was having in Trinidad.  This year we had a mixture: days without a cloud in the sky with temperatures well into the high 20s where we hit the beach, and others where it was barely 20C, wet and windy.  And still others with a mix of both.

Personally, I blame myself.....I seem to be some kind of a Rain God or something.  It always seems to rain when I'm on holiday.  One year, back in the early 90s, there was a three month drought in England, not a cloud in the sky from mid May to mid August, water shortages and rationing, people hospitalised with sun-stroke, heat exhaustion and sun-burn.  I picked up my mid year bonus, bought my family bikes, loaded them and the tent (a five berth frame tent, with all the cooking gear) onto the car and we headed off to Cornwall.  The inevitable happened.  We arrived, pitched camp, had a good few days - then the drought broke.  We were deluged: 6 weeks' worth of rain fell in 48 hours.  The campsite was flooded out and so were we.  End of holiday.

It happened like that (although perhaps not quite so dramatically) every year, to the point where the kids refused to come on holiday with me as soon as they were old enough and responsible enough to stay at home instead.  Can't say I blame them.....

Even now, similar things happen.  A couple of years back, we went to Almeria, perhaps the driest part of Spain.  It has its own microclimate, courtesy of the mountains behind the coast that seals it off from the rest of mainland Spain and holds the prevailing Mediterannean winds on shore - it's fabulous there.  There are maybe a dozen wet days a year, and late September when we went is usually beautiful - high temperatures, sunshine 15 hours a day and no crowds (end of season....).  Yep: it rained.  Not every day, but several of them.  Just for an hour or two.  But enough to prompt complaints from the locals and the neighbours in the time-share complex we were staying at.  I kept quiet.

It rained, a bit, when we went to the Algarve.  And Crete.  And Tenerife.  All places that, on our travel dates, most years, are hot and dry and sunny.  About the only exception was when we went to Hurghada in Egypt - it never rains there full stop, and didn't when we visited for two weeks - although on a couple of days local people were stunned to see clouds in the sky.  Again, I said nothing.

It's depressing really.

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We camped a bit this year too.  Only a small tent, allegedly for three people but they would have to be midgets or children.   We pitched it in the garden, next to the house, and Kuba and I slept there a couple of times.  Ania and I also used it a few nights, for some peace and quiet from the kids.  It was good, but the weather turned early in the second week and we stopped.  But we'll do it again, no doubt, other years.

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Our excursions were good too. 

One day we drove into Sopot and had a stroll along the pier, then lunch at a really nice restaurant in the square at the foot of the pier, across from the Sheraton Hotel.  The weather was good and we sat at tables outside.  The food was excellent and there is a nice vibe to the area - it's improved tremendously since I first visited it in 2001, the area where the pier starts is now pedestrianised with street entertaimment, a great selection of bars and shops.  Cool place.  We also took a boat ride: from the end of the pier a ship done up like a pirate galley, complete with masts and rigging, fake cannons and the crew dressed up with eye patches and so on (but with a modern diesel engine), takes you out straight into Gdansk Bay for 20 minutes - which means you're about a third of the way across to Hel - then turns round and goes back to the pier.  It was great fun and the kids loved it.

Another time we drove along to Hel, perhaps 40 km from where we were staying, at the far end of the Peninsula.  It was a horrible wet and windy day, but we had a couple of hours wandering around the port area and even onto the beach.  Ally had a good sleep in the pushchair, despite the squally showers, and we bought some stuff in the shops along the waterfront.  As with most resorts, including where we were staying, there are a load of discounted clothes stores selling brand names at knock-down prices, and there are good bargains to be had.  Over the two weeks I picked up three pairs of shorts, about half a dozen good quality tee-shirts, a hoodie and a new baseball cap.  So despite the weather it was a good trip.

The final excursion was another boat ride from Hel, this time on a proper ferry across the bay to Gdynia.  It was a good day, warm and sunny (but not too hot) with a calm sea so the ride was enjoyable.  We were able to spend it on the upper deck, and the kids loved it.  The ride takes just under an hour, so there is time for beer and food in the bar if you want it.  In Gdynia we strolled along the harbour, past a beautiful fully rigged Tall Ship, used as a training vessel by the Polish Naval Cadets, and a World War 2 destroyer that is moored and kept as a museum.  Kuba was most impressed by both vessels, but perhaps less so by the history lesson his grandmother gave him!  We had a super lunch at a new restaurant/bar on the harbour, part of a new complex built over the last 5 years that has a 40 floor mixed residential/office block that is very impressive to look at.  When I worked in Gdynia 8 or 9 years ago, the area was very run down, and from memory where the tower now stands was an old tin and concrete fish warehouse.  Times have definitely changed for the better in the TriCities as well as the rest of Poland.

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So at the end of the holiday we headed home.  There was no room in the car so I had to get a train again, and it was epic.  We took a different route, very slow (as usual) from Wladyslawowo to Gdynia on a single track line, hauled by a huge diesel freight locomotive, then a change of hardware at Gdynia and onto the electrified mainline.  It's always slow through the TriCities, then speeds up after crossing the Wisla at Tczew.  Warsaw usually takes about 6 1/2 hours.  But this train, after Tczew, wound its way through central Poland to Bydgoszcz and Torun, both to the west of Warsaw, then back across to the capital.  It took 9 hours.  In the company of a hyperactive 6 year old called Oskar, who spent most of the trip jumping around and yelling (often landing on my toes) and swinging a rubber ball on a length of elastic around like a lunatic, while his grandmother tried in vain to quieten him down.  Not the best trip I've ever had.....

But if my journey was bad, Ania's was worse.  Approaching Gdansk on the dual carrriageway by-pass mamcia's bike worked loose from the roofrack and slid off onto the road behind, at maybe 100kph.  Chaos!  By a miracle no-one was hurt and there were no further collisions, even an articulated truck which came close to jack-knifing managed to stop.  Incredibly neither our car nor the bike was seriously damaged as the traffic managed to avoid running over it - some scratches but nothing more.  Extraordinary.  Another driver helped a very shaken Ania to re-load everything, after calming down understandably hysterical kids in both cars, so apart from my family not getting home until nearly 1:00 a.m. after a near 12 hour drive, everything worked out ok.....but I feel guilty still about being stuck on the train somewhere between Tczew and Bydgoszcz while all the carnage was going on!