Archived entries for Train stations

6 years and counting

Yesterday was a special day for me because it marked 6 years since I first arrived in Belgium. I’d had a fantastic weekend with friends in London en route, and then I took the Eurostar, for the first time, to Brussels.

Upon arriving, I’d arranged to meet my landlady in advance of moving in so I could store my things in the house. Being completely new to the city, I showed a taxi driver the address, which he looked at and nodded in a confident manner before proceeding to drive off in completely the wrong direction.

“Can I just check…was it the Avenue Albert Jonnart in Ixelles you were after, mate? Or the other one? No, hang on, No…I was thinking you were wanting the other Avenue Albert, the big one – no worries, I’ll just turn around right here in the middle of this lane and put my foot down even harder, and we’ll be there in no time!”

Unfamiliar streets whizzed past and I found myself at the door of what was to be my new accomodatiom for the next 6 months. Dropping my stuff at the house was brief, because I only had with me what I could carry, and then it was just a me, a rucksack to take with me to the Youth Hostel – no, really – and the rain.

I sat in Pain Quotidian to dry out, ordered a coffee, and wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to sit there contemplating my next move for too long. Thanks to some contacts at BBC Wales where I’d recently done a work placement, I had found out about a Welsh reception held in Brussels every year to mark St David’s Day. So I went along, grateful to be somewhere that was a bit “home from home” on my first night in a new city abroad. I’ve been going to the Gwyl Dydd Dewi reception every year, a sort of annual marker of my time here. See below a photo from this year’s event.

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First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones opening the reception

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People enjoying the Welsh lamb, cheese and beer in the grand surroundings of the Bibliotheque Solvay

“The next tune to arrive on platform three….”

It’s been great to be back in the UK for a little while over Christmas, catching up with family and friends. A couple of memorable moments included:

Seren being too quick for us and falling down the stairs at my parents’ house. “I’m going downstai-” Thud thud thud crash. Luckily the stairs were carpeted and she was fully dressed with jeans on so she was fine.

From a young Dad and friend of ours, listening to an absolutely hilarious blow-by-blow account of childbirth, told at lightning speed, on the way home from the pub, with both my brothers looking horrified with every extra bit of detail they really didn’t want to hear.

Sharing recommendations about local ales in a tiny pub – I didn’t spend all my time drinking, honest – with a random chap at the bar. “It’s a very consistent ale, that one. You can go anywhere in the country and if they have that ale, it’ll always taste the same.”

Golden Pippin

[Image: http://www.copperdragon.uk.com]

Drinking whisky – honestly, I was sober for some of the time – while watching a fantastic adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless on the BBC.

Zoe and I watching a stunning sunset across a Hampshire field, while getting soaked with rain. Some very impressive dawn skies too.

Hampshire sunset

Hampshire sunrise

Hampshire sunrise

 

Listening to a stranger playing some pieces by Ludovico Einaudi on the free pianos that have been installed in St Pancras station in London. A lad was just walking by with his girlfriend, spotted the piano sitting there and started to play. A beautiful, spontaneous moment which had Seren and I enthralled for a good 20 minutes. Possibly the first and last time I will hear live, classical piano mixed with loudspeaker announcements about the next train.

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]

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

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.

Flapjack challenge

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So far it’s been a eventful start to the new year. Last week involved a press conference with Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley and an interview with Hungarian MEP Pàl Schmitt, who happens to be a keep a piano in his office, as you do. Schmitt also happens to be a former Olympic gold medallist, in fencing. Interesting chap. (Too flattering, perhaps? Hey, it’s not everyday you get given a bottle of Hungarian wine.)

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My second week back at work and I’m in Strasbourg once more. As usual on the journey down, we stopped off in Luxembourg for 10 minutes and I had my usual mini-deliberation as to whether or not I would have enough time to go and get a coffee and something to eat. This ritual, I should point out, happens every time I make this journey down here. It’s all about timing. You see, the train sometimes stops for five minutes, sometimes seven, sometimes a whole ten minutes, but you can never be totally sure whether or not you actually have time to go and buy something.
What made it worse, this time, was that I could see the station cafe just down the platform. However, every time I think about dashing off the train, wallet in hand, a little nightmare scenario begins to emerge in my imagination.    
What if you get there, and there’s a big long queue? You spend the rest of the journey without that nice cup of tea and flapjack, muttering bitterly to yourself that you bet you would actually have had time to wait in the queue, it wasn’t that long. The risk, of course, is that as you’re happily putting your change back in your pocket, eagerly anticipating the first sip of your paned, and first bite of flapjack – you’ve been up since half six – you walk out of the station cafe to see the train slowly making its way out of the station. Oh yes, and you thought, genius that you are, that it would save time on Mission Flapjack to leave your bags and laptop on the train so they’re now going to end up in Zurich. Nice one, Mr Bond.  
Of course, all the while as I’m sitting in dreamland, visualising frantic phone calls to lost property in Switzerland and just dreading the thought of having to call the office (“I’m sorry, Matt, I don’t quite…flapjack…laptop…oh god”), there are people cruising to the cafe and returning triumphantly with minutes to spare, three coffees and a small bakery of treats. Next time, I think to myself, I might just risk it.



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