Saturday, 28 September 2013

The English and Their Rules

I love this place and the people here. You should probably read the previous sentence again after you've read what follows...

It started with the pre-enrollment online induction. We were sent a link by Keele University and asked to complete this as soon as possible, and preferably before we arrived. I open the Web page from my phone, signed into my Keele account, and pressed "begin pre-enrollment online induction". It sounded awfully important - how could I possibly enroll at Keele if I hadn't pre-enrolled, after all, and how could I be properly inducted if I hadn't been inducted online first?

Please complete the 24 stage process now.

24 stages? 24? I was travelling the world, seeing wonderful people and places. I didn't have time or inclination to complete 24 stages! It would have to wait. I closed the Keele page and promptly forgot all about it.

Until I arrived at Keele.

"Do you have your accommodation pass?" I was asked. It turned out that after completing online pre-enrollment you were given the option to print an accommodation pass. I had all my bags with me, and was exhausted after travelling all day - but I wasn't allowed a room until I'd completed my 24 stages... I grat my teeth, and began.

I was instantly relieved. Each stage was a page of information about safety, regulations, etc. I thought briefly of Jeremy Clarkson having a go at British Health and Safety, and then went into Installing New Software On Microsoft Windows auto-pilot mode. NextNextNextNextNextNextNextNext. Leaping through the stages at an incredible speed, reading nothing at all. I only hit a slight snag on stage 22, a 10 minute long video where the "next" button refused to appear until the video had been watched. Luckily the fast forward functionality hadn't been disabled, and I put it to good use.

Thank you for completing the final stage. Please answer the questions below to proceed.
1) What is the 2nd digit of the number you should contact in the event of a Fire?
2) What was the 5th adjective used in the 7th paragraph of the 8th stage.

There were 10 of these questions. And I was not allowed to visit specific previous pages. It was answer the questions, or start again.

Luckily it was all multiple choice, so I picked likely looking answers at random, and got all of them right, printed off my pass, and collected my key.

This is post one of at least three. Check back soon for the restrictions on Meal Vouchers and Buffets.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Sitting in Swansea

It's 4 AM and I'm sitting in the waiting room of the Swansea station. A train to Bristol has just pulled out of the station, gloating at me. I'm going to Bristol too, but only at 6.30 AM. My ticket to go to Bristol is for the 6.28 AM train, not the 03.50 one. Why? Because the 6.28 ticket was cheaper. It seemed logical at the time – a few hours of my life for a few pounds was a good exchange. But I didn't reckon with the fact that the train would gloat. Putting up with that gloating made me wish that I'd just forked out the couple of quid extra.

The waiting room is deserted. I find it strange that no one is sitting here. Is the waiting room of Swansea not the 'place to be' at 4 AM on a Wednesday morning? No? I wonder where people are, and what they're doing. I even had a look outside, and saw no-one. The shops and cafés were closed; the houses were dark; and there weren't even officials at the station. You'd think that everyone was sleeping, or something.

Luckily I have my luggage and technology to keep me company. And a power point (no, not that piece of Micro$oft software that allows one to create instruments of torture, now outlawed by the Geneva convention – I mean a plug socket). And a heater. But no WiFi – it's amazing how much of the warmth I'd sacrifice for WiFi: perhaps we really do need to reconstruct Maslow's hierarchy of needs, putting WiFi at the bottom, below food and shelter.

I wonder if anyone will ever notice that I came into UK territory without having my visa or even my passport checked. I thought Irish passport control was relaxed: the official on the way in asked me how long I was staying and when I was leaving, and then wrote that date plus a generous several days into my passport with a ballpoint pen. But the UK police desks at the ferry port were empty – one uniformed person showed us where to find our luggage, and then we simply walked through, onto the station, and into Wales. I almost feel cheated, considering how much time, effort, and money went into acquiring a UK visa.

Oh dear. They make long announcements here in Welsh. Now I know why everyone else is avoiding it. Does every word in Welsh begin with a strange “sSshhch” sound that brings Sid the Sloth from Ice Age to mind?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Europe! An overview.

Vienna, Hausach, Basel, Berlin, Paris, Nantes, Dublin. My travel route up to now. Almost all of them have been wonderful, but I don't think I'll be going back to France.

A week in Vienna was great, and at first confirmed my impressions of 2010 that it was the place I'd like to live. Preferably in Schönbrunn palace, but somewhere near to it as a respectable plan B if my billionaire ambitions don't pay off. The culture, public transport, food markets, and coffee shops, with the opportunities of cycling tours along the beautiful Danube and through the Austrian vineyards, stealing the occasional bunch of sweet black grapes made me wonder why so many people complained about the place. Could it be better? It didn't seem so last week, but let's keep an open mind and give the European capitals which I am still to see a chance. So far, one has already overtaken Vienna. Guess which one.

Hausach was fun and relaxed. It was good seeing the Auels again, and to properly practice my German. The Schwarzwald accent made it difficult to do things like find the post office, as the locals there don't understand "Post" (German for post office) unless it is pronounced "pOshhht". I thought it was my bad German until I related the story to the family I was staying with, and they said they had had exactly the same experience, also looking for the post office, when they first moved there! But I eventually found it and posted the post cards to those who said they would never speak to me again unless I sent them one.

The trip to Basel was great, though I was only there for half a day. The Swiss are definitely even more precise than the Germans. Of course stereotypes are all baseless damaging things, which should be done away with ASAP, though it was fun setting my watch by the time the train pulled into stations on the way home. 

At Berlin, after I had managed to get on board the correct bus, and worked out how to buy a ticket for it, I found my way to the Wertlens house, and I was greeted by the most elegant elevator I have ever seen. It was built pre-war, and with its surrounding safety cage and pressure censored floor, I almost expected a "lift man" to come an operate it for me. I was not disappointed, as the Wertlens sent their young son to come and organize it for me. It slowly chugged up to the fourth floor, and then I dragged my luggage up the last set of stairs, as the lift doesn't go all the way to the top. 

It took a few minutes for me to realise that Vienna had just conceded to Berlin. It briefly put up a fight and made me think of the Schönbrunn again, but then worked out that it was hopeless. Berlin had taken the top spot, and I had no idea why. It just felt good being there. After a week there, I now know why - for one, the German spoken is actually easy to understand. Although there is a "Berliner" dialect, it is much closer to Hoch Deutsch than Schwarzwald Deutsch or Viennese. And I'm not even going to mention Basel, as Germans get very offended if you consider what they speak there as related to German. 

But mainly the reason is that it is cheap. Very cheap. Even with the Rand dropping through the floor, everything was affordable. And this lets Berlin win for more than just practical reasons - the whole atmosphere is different, as there are all sorts of people drinking coffee in cafes, beer in pubs, and eating food in restaurants, instead of just people who have money to spare, as was the case in Vienna and definitely Basel. And then, practically, being able to buy 300g of Milka Chocolate for about R14 was a draw-card all on its own. Berlin 2015, here I come.

The overnight train from Berlin to Paris was slightly uncomfortable, as I booked a seat in a cabin for six people. Luckily only two other people were in the cabin, so there was slightly more room to try sleep. Both were French students, who had been visiting Germany, and it was great talking to them. The rest of the night is remembered only as a series of snap-shots as I woke up a couple of times every hour, and looked for a less uncomfortable way to sleep, and opened my eyes briefly enough to note the similarly failed attempts of the other two. 

I was glad to get off the train in Paris. Then **** * *** ** * * *** ** * *** Nantes * ** ** ***** ** *** * Roscoff ***** * * *** ** ****** ** and finally Ireland and on to Dublin. France is unfortunately censored, as I could complain about it for another three days, and then this will never get published.

I'm in Dublin now, where the Guinness is actually nice. I was expecting to be disappointed again after trying it in Grahamstown and at the Ferry Port in France and on the Irish Ferry, all of which were disappointing. Maybe it's my imagination, or placebo, or the fact that I had got through a bit of 12-year-old Jameson's before trying it in Dublin, but I highly recommend trying Guinness in Ireland. I am ready to defend it as the most enjoyable Beer I've had. Also, the city is beautiful, with a very large pedestrian zone, lots of free WiFi, and unbelievable broadband speeds. Unfortunately the cost of rent, food, and beer is closer to Basel than Berlin. Otherwise it may well have provided worthy competition for that top spot which Vienna held so surely only a couple of weeks ago.

And today I'll see the air-show (see which the whole city is talking about. Yes, that's right. They're going to fly an A-380 airbus 300 metres over Dublin. Look up!