Archived entries for Transport

View from the train

I get a commuter train in the morning, from where I live, Waterloo, to Brussels, the city where I work. It’s a very pleasant 20 minute train ride, and on these winter mornings there are some wonderful views across the fields and forests as the sun rises.

The above photo was taken on my way to the train station, but what I’d really love to do is get a snapshot of the view from the train itself. One of the problems with the commuter train is that you can’t open any of the windows, like you could on the older trains.

Fortunately, the train home is a less busy one and you can indeed open the windows, which allowed me to capture the evening sky as the sun goes down.

Winter sunset 12/12/12

Perhaps the windows on the morning trains are sealed shut for health and safety reasons, which reminds me of a leaflet we used to get given by the British Transport Police about railway safety, written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Roald Dahl's Guide to Railway Safety Image: quentinblake.com
[Image: www.quentinblake.com]

Pay as you go

So Zoe and I were on the way back from a lovely holiday spent in the French Alps and then to Perpignan for a friend’s wedding, and at the airport we discovered that because we didn’t check-in online, Ryanair charged us 40 euro each to do so in person. We didn’t use the online option because, surprise surprise given the nature of our work, both of us were keen to stay “offline” for the duration of the holiday. So it came as something of a shock to be told that we had to pay extra to get boarding passes for the aeroplane at the airport.

I mean, can you imagine if other situations were handled with a similar, “give us your money first” level of arrogance?

At the hairdressers: “Sorry, Madam, but the density of your hair is likely to wear down the sharpness of these scissors. There’ll be an extra twenty euro charge to cover the excessive utensil strain.”

At the beach: “Excuse me, young man,” said the lifeguard. “There’s a large amount of sand between your toes. That means there’s now less sand for the others to enjoy. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an on-the-spot fine of fifty euro under the Rules Governing Responsible Use of Sand-Based Recreational Areas. Time to pay up, I’m afraid.”

At the ferry terminal: “You forgot to validate your ferry ticket, madam, so I’m afraid there’s a two hundred euro fine attached. The validation machine is located in the engine room of the ferry. The fact that you need to board the vessel first in order to access said engine room isn’t my concern, madam. Cash will do nicely.”

It’s all a bit ridiculous, really.

Rain and reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to reach into the attic, among the big jumpers, mattres springs and those other objects you have absolutely no recollection of purchasing, and get down that dusty old box labelled “Things To Do This Winter”. Like the class bully on the first day of a new term, autumn came along this afternoon in the form of a fierce gale, broke my umbrella and told me just what it thought of my summery memories and long, lazy evenings on the terrace. Not to mention just where I could shove my new sunglasses.

So in the spirit of getting through Winter by taking on something new (always a good way to keep going through the dark days ahead), I’ve started attending a philosophy class, with the School of Philosophy, having studied something of the subject at university. It’s quite different, though, because whereas my studies involved looking at the original texts of Plato, Hegel and friends, this course has an emphasis on the more practical side of things. So it looks at, for example, how to take a philosophical statement such as “It is easier today to triumph over evil habits than it will be tomorrow” (Confucius) and discusses how and why this might be the case. Then the class is encouraged to put this into practice during the week, to look at, say, doing something that needs doing immediately rather than putting it off until another time, and so testing Confucius’ theory in an everyday setting. The idea is that you then at the next lesson discuss the results, and try to work out why a certain philosophical idea worked or didn’t work. To learn philosophy by living it.

It’s only been the second week so far, but it’s certainly been enjoyable. I like the idea of sitting around and giving feedback on how useful, or not, these ideas have been. For me, it’s taking philosophy back to its original purpose of questioning assumptions and trying to talk through the deeper meaning of what goes on in our lives on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the course might have on my usual winter mood of complaining bitterly about the cold and the rain. Why, I might ask, am I feeling angry at the icy rain that’s trickling down the inside of my shirt? Will I be able to see the bigger picture if I’m shivering wreck waiting for a tram that’s 20 minutes late? I can’t wait to find out.

Towards my thousand-yard-stare

Apologies for the lack of entries of late, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling, most of the visits for the first time. Some photos, if you’re interested, can be seen in the picture gallery.
Of course, in an ideal world I’d be sitting here with a full-length beard, several battle scars from my daring encounters with the darker side of human nature and a glass of strong whisky to take the edge off the flashbacks. Alas, we can’t all be Indy, which I suppose is why my “scars” comes from a Gillette razor and I’m sipping a cup of mint tea. I can see it now: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Ginger Nuts.

I went to Slovenia, to an awards ceremony (European inventor of the year) in Ljubljana, the capital, where I interviewed a man who invented what he called “telepresence” surgery. The is essentially a robotic machine guided by a surgeon, with the robot arms capable of performing incredibly precise operations and even, to my amazement, able to cancel out tremors in the surgeons hands. I also spent a good 15 minutes trying to explain what a flapjack was to a poor shopkeeper who clearly didn’t have any, had probably never heard of them in his life.
“OK, so you get oats, and…oats, you know, like the farmer grows in his field. Farmer…the one who has the fields and the sheep and drives a combine harveste…do you know what? A Mars bar will be fine.”

I went to Ireland, for a wedding, which was held in this gorgeous castle near Warrenpoint. I’d never been to Ireland or Northern Ireland, so it was an extra treat to spend a day in Dublin and then take a bus over the border. Gorgeous country. We had to sleep in Dublin airport, though, which wasn’t too much fun, but hey, we saw the sun come up. Well, Zoe just sort of watched it sleepily but of course I had to take some photos. OK, in hindsight perhaps I didn’t to take quite so many arty shots of, er, the luggage trolleys bathed in golden orange or, um, the nicely lit airport stairs. Yes, OK, we were a tiny bit late (“Look, there it is! Check in…check in for Brussels, yep…is now closed.”) but it’s part of the adventure really, running for the plane. I could even hear the Indy theme tune as we sprinted past gate 5, looking for gate 42.

Then to Bath, to visit my brother, a BBQ (someone had a BBQ, I mean; I didn’t go and visit one) a chat with his friends, and a chance to relive students days. Long summer nights lazily cooking sausages and talking about the girls on the psychology course. Piles and piles of notes, textbooks with carefully constructed but essentially pointless bookmarks, look at all the colour highlighters I’ve got! That night last week, what were we drinking, was it two for one on lighter fluid? D’you remember, we all go so wasted we all ended up sharing a bin outside the police station, waiting for Spar to open.

Also to Oxford, more student days, a visit to my sister who’s finished her first year. Watching the posh students celebrate graduation or, in some cases, trying to absorb the shock of that truth (universally known) that it’s possible to have too much of a good time:
“I mean, yars, OK, vomiting onto old Perkins during class wasn’t the most frightfully clever thing, but I mean, come orn, they’ve gorn and shown a jolly good sense of humour failure with this “you are forthwith suspended” nonsense. Tell them they can’t, Father!”

Last night I was in Germany, a quick trip over the border to watch the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain. It was great fun (despite Germany losing to Spain) trying to order things in rusty Anglo-German (“Now vee vould like der bill, bitte”) and struggling to lift, let alone drink, huge tankards of Kolsch beer. For my first visit to the country it was certainly a memorable experience, watching a football final accompanied by the surround sound of loud Germanic chanting and the constant presence of those red, yellow and black flags.

Four new countries, three months, catching up with two siblings and recalling it all in one blog entry. Less Indy, more “Mint Tea”, but it’s still been a fast-paced few months.

Breathe in the air

I’ve changed the theme on this blog and also, hopefully, begun the process of writing entries more regularly. A lot has happened since my last post, I’ve been to stranded in Strasbourg in the snow, I’ve watched the Belgians out in force to try and preserve the unity of their country, and I’ve found myself suddenly, marvelously in a relationship with a lovely girl, Zoe. Hence the reason for the slight diversion from documenting my goings-on here. Only to be expected, of course. One can easily imagine the outcome in the first couple of weeks if I’d have devoted more attention to online reportage than romance: “Could we leave that meal I was going to cook until maybe tomorrow? It’s just that I was planning on writing a blog entry tonight about a hilarious conversation I ha…hello? Are you still there?”

This last weekend was good. I went to meet Zoe for a short trip to Geneva, where she was attending a meeting of the Grain council in her capacity as an agriculture journalist for Agra Europe. The weather wasn’t too great on the Saturday, but it was great to be close to nature again, and it was dry and cold as we walked along Lac Leman and to the Jardin Botanique. Just to hear the sound of the lake and to actually see the horizon was a much-welcome break from the cluttered streets of Brussels. The real highlight though was Sunday morning, just before we caught the plane back, because it was fantastically clear and sunny, revealing the snow-topped Alps all around the city. Next time, we’re going to plan in advance to try and get out into those mountains. Obviously it’s always good to get away from work from time to time. As an EU journalist, perhaps there’s a deeper appreciation when it comes to escaping for some fresh air.

…and what do you do?

Union Pacific Railroad Big Boy #4012

I hope there’s not some universal rule that dictates that the people you tend to attract are a reflection of the sort of person you are yourself. Maybe, of course, somewhere deep inside me there’s an enthusiasm for those interests that are, to put it kindly, located at some distance away from typically popular culture. Why has this sudden suspicion arisen, you might ask? It’s because last night I was at a champagne reception and got caught in at least fifteen minutes of conversation (or, rather, my own one-to-one lecture) with a Dutch train guard who works on a voluntary railway, on the subject of narrow-gauge railways…in Romania.  

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

New horizons

The gang from 46 Ave Albert Jonnart

It’s been a busy few days since the weekend, beginning with a wonderful day out with my housmates to Ostende, a chance to get out of the city and also to spend a bit more time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be sharing a house for the next 5 months. For me it was a strange resort because right next to the beach, there is a very built up area consisting of tower blocks of hotels and appartments. Even when you look along the coast, further along through the haze you can make out the tall buildings rising up from the sea and sand nearby. A visit to a new place with new friends, I stuck to the theme of novelty and tried some new food. The “Warme Wullocks” (sea snails), which Marta had bought, were very hot and very chewy, but didn’t really taste of anything. It was quite satisfying in a sort of “Yeah, I’ve had snails” way, but also disappointing in that I had sort of perversely hoped I might faint with disgust.

This week the Parliament has a Plenary Session in Strasbourg, a monthly meeting in which MEPs give speeches, debate issues, vote on resolutions and adopt reports. I’ve been following the proceedings closely, with a little help from Felix, a stagiaire with the French press service, who has been very patient and explained how a lot of things work.
This morning I followed a very important debate on the Berlin Declaration, which is to be signed to mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and which will set out a rough agenda for the future of the EU. It was an interesting debate in which many colourful views were expressed, and I helped produce our subsequent press release which can be viewed here:


MEPs expect a Berlin Declaration worthy of today’s EU

It’s been more relaxed on the cooking front so far, because often when I come home Anglela and Marta will already be making something and will just ask me if I’d like some. Fear not, though, because I have agreed to cook for a certain girl I’ve got to know – somehow my intial offer of a restaurant didn’t register – so we’ll see how that goes. I shall place my trust in Delia once again and hopefully can look forward to a kitchen that features many flavours rather than many firemen…

Gifts of a different kind

sunrise-from-ysbyty-gwynedd.jpg

It’s been a good day today, a day of simple pleasures.

A short bike ride to the beach with my Dad, cruising along the track that runs parallel to the sand. The wind is cold but the sun is out, and the hills are a vivid green in the distance.
Enjoying a quick BLT sandwich in the cafe and catching up with some friends in the village.
I’m doing well, thanks. So where have you moved to now? Working in the power station, is he?
Then an afternoon in the pub with an old schoolfriend I haven’t seen for a whole twelve
months, lots to report from both sides. Leaping from April to October then back to July as
tales are told, characters are quoted and conclusions are drawn. In lowered voices we
exchange the most daring jokes we’ve heard since the last meeting, the ones which make you gasp but leave you grinning.

I’ll be writing to say thanks for the book vouchers, of course, but it’s moments like these
that I’m really grateful for.

A half single to showbiz success?

I couldn’t believe it as I started reading the poster on the bus the other day. As I strained to read the details, I wondered what other unexpected ideas this particular bus company was going to come up with, in what seemed to be a bizarre attempt at bringing a bit of, er, “X appeal” to the bus industry.

What I was looking at was a poster for, yes, “Bus Driver X Factor”.

Takes quite a bit of imagination, not to mention courage, don’t you think?

According to the press release, the aim of Bus Driver X Factor is to “find the best driver as nominated and voted for by Arriva customers”, based on criteria such as the driver’s tendency to be “smiling and friendly”, accompanied perhaps by such virtues as being “always prepared to help people getting on and off the bus”.
The regional finals (I’m not making this up, honest) promise to be exciting, as the drivers battle it out in the fight to be “crowned as the Bus Driver X Factor winner”, receiving a trophy and cash prize at the end of the competition.

I’m a bit concerned, though, that the drivers of the buses I use regularly might let the fiercely competitive atmosphere, which must surely be stirring up between themselves and fellow drivers, distract them from actually doing their job.
Suppose John (or Ian or Ken or whoever) is constantly dreaming of Bus Driver Glory, his head full of images of That Beautiful Moment when the Trohpy Is Finally Mine, that he speeds straight past the request stop, oblivious to the protests and frantic waving?
What of the pressure and inevitable media intrusion into drivers’ private lives (“Service 32 Exeter to Taunton’s Phil in Short Change Shocker”) that will no doubt accompany such an event?

We’re supposed to be on the look out for signs of consideration, but will the inter-driver rivalry render our bus drivers even more bad-tempered and snappy than before?



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