Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Never the twains

…and then the wireless vanished, and we were left alone with nothing to do as night fell but sing to the sea and the sheep.

Unfortunately, we couldn't remember the words of many trad. songs about the sea, or sheep for that matter, so our choice of ditties was perhaps a little light. We stood with our trousers rolled up to our knees in the surf and ended up bellowing out a few choruses of Drunken Sailor and Yellow Submarine before we stubbed our gritty toes back up the beach. It was nice.

But the best bit was getting there.

Not sure if I've mentioned it before, but I love trains. Not overwhelmingly or obsessively, you understand, but I think they are about my favorite means of transport. Somehow, going on holiday by train feels right. Going off for a weekend at the seaside by train is even more right.

This weekend, after the hard-core commuter line from Euston, followed by the usual hideous bank holiday mess around the Midlands there was the utter glory of a local service that ambled through North Wales, lurching between scenic splendours and industrial car parks. Periodically, after a flurry of engine shunting and frantic racing by confused passengers to the front or back two cars (as appropriate), carriage segments would break off to escape along branch lines to the sea.

My own fun-filled journey went something like this:

Euston. Fellow traveller missed train. Angry commuter line in shiny, yet souless Pendolino service to Wolverhampton. Had seat. Meanwhile, fellow traveller gets on another train. Goes wrong way.

Hellish bank holiday confusion/cancellation/delays at Birmingham New St. information desk. No seat, much waving of small pieces of paper.

Depressed local commuter line from Birmingham to Liverpool Lime St., descending at Wolverhampton. Had seat. Pieces of paper jettisoned.

Sit on Wolverhampton platform, looking anxiously at delay updates for train from Birmingham New St. that might-or-might-not be cancelled. Check clock. Fellow traveller has turned around and arrived in Telford by mysterious means. Check clock. An hour passes.

Train for Aberystwyth. It's the only one going anywhere Welsh-wards. Everyone else in Wolverhampton agrees and gets on the train. No seat. No carriage. Stand in loo. DUE TO THE CANCELLATION OF THE 18:42 SERVICE FROM BIRMINGHAM NEW STREET, PASSENGERS FOR ALL STATION**FRSTZZ** TO LL**-DDY*-*AOWFRSPZZ**DR SHOULD NOT CHANGE AT DOVEY JUNCTION BUT REMAIN ON THE SAME TRAIN AND F**PSS*8RR**--**RSTZ UP THE PLATFORM.


Train pulls out of the station the same way it came in. Seat is now backwards and disconcerts me. Night falls. Man from Birmingham with tent and beer produces map of North Wales and attempts to chart the course of his journey. THERE IS A TROLLEY SERVICE ON THIS TRAIN UNTIL BZZZST** Pencil line drawn by man from Birmingham with tent and beer falls into the Irish sea.

PASSENGERS ARE NOT PERMITTED TO MOVE BETWEEN CARRIAGES WHILE THEY ARE BEING DETATCHED. Run up the platform to the front two carriages at Machynlleth. Curse book-buying spree. Crash into fellow commuter, who has lost phone. Train turns around.THE TROLLEY SERVICE HAS NOW ENDED.

Train carriage is now devoid of life apart from selves, sleeping man from Birmingham with tent and no beer, and a family all speaking in Welsh. They wear shirts saying, "I support Wales and everyone playing the English." I hide behind book and fellow traveller tries to look Australian.


Phone rings. Friend with car who is picking us up asks that we get off at another station, which is the second-stop-with-the-same-name-on-the-line. Tells us this three times. I advise conductor of our revised destination only once.

Once is enough. She sniffs. "You'll need to get off from the middle doors here." THERE IS NO TROLLEY SERV-- I am too afraid to confirm if she has decided to drop us at the first or second-station-with-the-same-name-on-the-line.

The platform is the size of a bus shelter, and we have to go through a cattle gate to leave the station. According to the rail timetable footnotes, at request stops marked with "x" , passengers desiring to join the train are advised to make themselves clearly visible to the train driver from the platform. Shades of "The Railway Children", methinks.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Noswaith dda

So here I am on the official edge of nowhere, very far in the remotest bit of North Wales, behind a mountain and two miles from the nearest village, Ll--y-aedw-ch--dd-w-w-ll-dd or something like that. And yet, inexplicably I have better and faster wireless internet than I did in the centre of freaking London all week.

Gotta love the wonders of the modern age...

Alas, I still have no time for anything in depth, but getting here I realised that the Welsh and the Czech languages both share an extreme antipathy for anything that looks like a vowel. And the "ch" noise too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Flash freeze

The Czech word for "ice cream" is "zmrzlina."

The Czech word for "ice cream cone" is "kornoutek."

The Czech word for "ice lolly" is "nanuk."

It's all good.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Plus ça change

The real trick here will be avoiding use of any of those words that attract the wrong kind of attention...

Now where was I? Oh yes, gyms. Well, one gym at a time - I'm not raving, after all - but more than one in total, if you see what I mean. So yes, gyms. Or more precisely, gym changing rooms and cultural differences thereof.

Because the people of that “island nation” that Coast was going on about? Well, they are rather on the shy side. So back in Londinium, every visit to the changing room was a complex exercise in advanced towel technique. Even the nature-loving, people-embracing, sandal-wearing patrons of the yoga place with open shower stalls would immediately wrap themselves in yards of cloth to cover the ten feet to the lockers once out of the magic circle of water. And unless they were examining the floor tiles, no one ever, ever looked below shoulder level.

So there were days when the sheer effort of managing to achieve the socially correct degree of coverage with the regulation two smallish terry rectangles while putting on a dry-clean only wool suit and insta-crease cotton shirt would all become too much. I would long to fling all coverings aside and prance about the place in my altogether, or at least not descend into hideous spasms of embarrassment if the bottom towel dropped at an awkward moment.

Of course, this means that I have turned into a prude. And here, in glorious Prahahaha, women (in keeping with my ingrained prudishness, my gym behaviour is strictly orthodox, so I know nothing about the habits of the other gender(s)) have a more, shall we say, “European” approach. Which is much more sensible, of course, but it is taking me time to get used to it. In my case it seems that personal prudishness, once acquired, is quite hard to drop, much like my bottom towel.

Unlike the hirsute, rather burly gentleman who checked in behind me the other day. When offered his allocated two towels, he loudly advised all and sundry that he only needed “the small one”.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Deep Cake Time

I've been sadly neglectful of the blog to date, for various reasons, most of them quite dull - even the one involving the cabbage. Actually, especially the one about the cabbage.To get some momentum, I hereby resolve to take a more splatter-gun approach to the the process. It means less planning, mainly, and probably more drivel. Oh well.

In the home-grown spirit that reflects the blog's latest direction, I wanted to mention a new-found reason to love Open University/BBC telly programmes. I've been watching the series, "Coast" (a tour around the coast of the UK in 12 episodes delivered by a mixed bag of academics). There's a bit in the one where one of the experts gives a basic explanation the creation of the Jurassic coast down Dorset & Devon way.

Picture the scene: the anthropologist (and I don't know why she's talking about geology, but as will soon become clear, this is more of an introductory session than an in-depth discussion that flings around words like "igneous" and "lithostratigraphic" with wild abandon) has hair dyed crayon-red and arranged in windblown plaits that clash with her maroon anorak. She is sitting on a flimsy aluminium table outside a seaside caff somewhere like Lyme Regis. It's windy, grey and looks like rain. A waiter brings her three slices of cake on a paper(edited to add) blue-edged, china plate. (Sorry, but I wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong impression, since apparently plates are quite important to geologists.)

Using the cake, the helpful academic piles up the Triassic (ginger) Jurassic (Victoria sponge) and Cretaceous (Madeira with extra peel) layers horizontally. Tilting the three-layer cake on its bottom corner to illustrate the way the strata sank to the east during the Cretaceous period, she then represented the coastal erosion that exposed all three layers with a plastic knife used to slice off the upper corner.

Cake, geology and probably a nice cup of tea at the end. Lovely.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Walks with sticks

Maybe I'm a bit odd but I've always felt pretty confident on the walking front. After all, I've been doing it for *koff*-ty-odd years. And it's not like I fall over or run into things a lot. People don't usually stare and point as I make my way around locations of interest. Nose in the direction of travel. Left foot, right foot, repeat. That about covers it. At least, that's what I thought until my perambulatory orbit collided (awkwardly) on holiday with The Walking Specialist. Woe for my ignorance.

Apparently I walk ALL WRONG. I'm a walking disaster. My hips lean at the wrong angle. My pelvis wobbles precariously over two thigh bones that twvIST. My big toes are not sufficiently grounded, while my knees drag. My ankles are like mush. My right arm swings erratically while my left arm swings not at all. My shoulders are poised as if to take flight while my head… oh dear… my head lies smashed in the chipped egg cup that is my neck.

Such was the verdict of the Nordic walking coach who examined my stride minutely and in slow motion (curse you modern, easy-to-use digital videography). In a clear example of my shallow wrong-headedness, I was more concerned about the unattractive wobbling of parts, particularly viewed from behind while walking up some stairs, but apparently this was the least of my worries.

After he had revealed my numerous ambulatory flaws, dwelling with enthusiasm upon my flailing calves as they cycled through a bizarre up-and-down motion that would likely leave me in traction after six months, the coach revealed that he had the solution to all my problems: Nordic walking. The walking of champions! (Well, off-season cross-country skiing champions.)

Nordic walking would re-educate my posture, lengthen my stride, burn fuel like a clapped-out, uninsulated boiler on "high" and give me good healthy lungs and moral fibre. I examined the coach closely and attempted to discern the level of health that might potentially lurk beneath his gently rounded belly. Was it possible his exemplary moral fibre was giving him bloat that morning?

Since the alternative was clearly to wheel away slowly in an invalid chair, covered in shame, I betook myself and my shambolic gait to a back field, clutching desperately at a pair of funny-looking sticks with pointy ends and sweaty leather wrist-straps. And there began the lesson.

"So the first thing you need to know about Nordic walking, right, is that it's not like ordinary walking, right?"
The class fiddled with their straps in expectant silence.

"The poles come here. At the sides, right? To start with just hold them loosely. Nothing to be afraid of, that's right. Just by your sides. Now walk."
We walked obediently, dragging our poles behind us.

"Now that noise, right? That noise is your friend. That noise tells you what your poles are doing, right?"
Scrape. Scrape.

"So what you have to do is grasp the pole and let your natural arm swing bring it forward. Then release. The noise, right? for the experts, it's a whisper."
Scrape. Scrape.
"Now go. Grasp. Release. Grasp. Swing. Release. Grasp. Like that."

I grasped, swung and released.

"No. Right, you need to keep the natural motion of walking. Opposite arm and leg."
I swung, grasped and released.
"Not quite. Right, try not to think about it."

I released, grasped and swung my pole between his specially-constructed lightweight Nordic walking shoes with greater forefoot flexibility.
"Oh. Shit. Sorry - I didn't mean for my stick to do that."
"It's not a stick."
"It's a pole, right? A co-wound carbon composite antishock Nordic walking pole that I have carefully matched to your height."
"Ah. Sorry."
"It's not a stick. It's an important fitness piece of fitness technology. It will change your walking, right? Your life will change."
"Pole. Got it."
"If you don't respect your pole, how can you respect your posture?"
"Absolutely. I absolutely respect my posture."

"It's just that the spike bit has caught on my jumper*."
"The pointy bit on the end of the stick, sorry, pole. It's caught in my jumper and you're standing on the sleeve."
"That shouldn't happen with the correct technique."
"Yes. Probably. But my physical coordination thing, you know... and it did."
"Nordic walking will improve your physical coordination. But you have to give your equipment the respect it deserves. Right?"
"Yes. Right. But right now, I mean, at the moment, my jumper?"
"And it's not pointy, right? It's an angled spike tip."
"Oh yes, I see. It's quite spiky."
"Right. A spike."

The off-season cross-country skiing champions do it on inline skates, apparently.

*also known as a sweater in other Englishes.

Monday, August 06, 2007

There are some horns.

Alas, and woe is me, for I am in a bit of a (garlic) pickle. On the one hand, I am doing (metaphorical – sorry, I never really got the hang of gymnastics) handsprings of potentially odorific delight. On the other hand, there is one of my nearest-and-dearest’s six month’s of collapsed-rail-tunnel commuting hell, and a presumed nefarious plot (not mine) to take over the world.

It’s all about supermarkets, kids.

Although Prague is lovely, and offers bountiful dumplings to the discerning palate, the food situation in this particular corner of the world is perhaps not as idyllic as other, more epicurean climes. Say the ones where vegetable sections are less focussed on novelty root vegetables.

In the interests of fairness, it’s not quite that bad (except maybe in the dead of winter). In fact, other places have been trickier. But my weekly shop occasionally involves some very energetic hunting and gathering over an entire weekend. And it’s not as if I’m compiling detailed lists from the ingredients sections of glossy food-pr0n-books. There are days when the thought of a decent ready-meal makes me weep with longing into my greasy takeaway pizza painted with barbecue sauce.

I admit I have been spoiled in the past, but in the face of uneven levels of freshness, it’s mainly the variety I miss. There are rumours about a mythical Thai vegetable store somewhere in darkest Vršovice that features untold herbivorous delights. And more rumours about a mysterious collective that arranges for deliveries of organic produce to an anonymous apartment block every third week after the full moon. But for me, it’s usually the local Albert. Because the other option is the supermarket that is eating the world. And I can't patronise this place without squirmy moral defeat and great risk to intra-familial relations.

So far, I have resisted the temptations of cheddar, proper tea and convenient late-night opening hours. Have suitcase, will import (*koffairmileskoff*). But now, weep for me. The mezinárodní nákupy* section of the Ebhil Giant has spread itself to the furthest corners of the mezinárod on a flying carpet of exotic sauces and stuffed vine leaves. And glorious, glorious garlic pickle

Yes, glorious, stinkalicious, pungent garlic pickle. The kind of bottled condiment I don't bring back because I am afraid of the ministrations of an overly enthusiastic baggage-mangler. The consequences of which would likely cause it to shatter in my luggage, leaving all of my belongings to marinate in garlic-scented deliciousness for however long it takes for easyjet to get off the runway plus flight time.


*international groceries