Archive for the 'Global Gallivanting' Category

Crete: Gnarly

I’m never one to pass up the opportunity for a holiday, and holidays between jobs are the best kind: no dwelling on the things you should have done before you left the office, and no mushroom-cloud of emails will await your return.

K-man and I settled on somewhere with guaranteed heat, no long-haul flight, and at least some culture.  A quick scan of the available reasonably-priced destinations and we marked Crete with a big red cross.  Neither of us have been there before, which is another advantage.

 

OK, so it’s not South East Asia and it does come with accommodation called things like ‘Hotel Engerland‘, but it is certainly a step up from the worst holiday I’ve ever had.  Lanzarote, in case you were wondering.  Crete is special, even within Greece, since it was the place the ancient Minoan civilisation was based.  It has more culture than you can shake a stick at.

If we had wanted, we could have inspected the palace of Knossos.  We could have hiked Europe’s longest gorge.  But these things were hours of driving away, and we only had a week.  It’s important to prioritise, and my priorities mainly consisted of this:

This is the legendary Elafonisi beach, an hour and a half away from where we were staying.  The drive to get there wound through tiny villages where it seemed time had literally stood still.

Don’t get me wrong, we did more than go from the beach to our hilltop villa, and from our bedroom to the pool.  I will never miss an opportunity to photograph a carved door.  Carved doors are like dry stone walls for me – endlessly fascinating and dismally underappreciated.

We located some suitably proximate ruins and walked around them too:

What this photograph doesn’t tell you is that it was 38C outside, and we lasted one hour before descending into the shade of surrounding narrow streets for a lengthy beverage-based sit-down under a fan.

This is Hania.  Not far from here is what is believed to be the oldest olive tree in the world, weighing in at approximately 4,000 years old.  Older than the Minoan civilisation by quite some margin.

The tree, sadly, is too big to hug.  It’s also the gnarliest thing I’ve ever seen; like something out of Fangorn Forest.  Shit like this really blow my mind, and quite frankly I will take an ancient tree over some old ruins any day of the week.

But you can read all about this stuff in the guidebooks.  What you can’t read about in the guidebooks is this:

He has no name, but he does have the largest set of testicles I’ve ever seen on a cat, and that includes the Top Tom Cat in the roughest parts of London.  You may or may not know that feral cats are a huge problem across much of Europe, and that they can be assertive to the point of outright aggression if they are hungry.  You should not feed them.

The neighbouring villa’s inhabitants appeared not to mind his fleas as long as he kept them outside.  He also didn’t get too close to them on account of the two giant dogs whose patch he would be invading if he tried.  This was amusing, until the neighbours left for a few days.

After two days of their absence, we were subjected to a barrage of whining and pawing and general pestering that would make even the most resilient parent crack and buy the iPad.  It was impossible to recline without being jumped on.  The poor cat was so hungry that it simply would not be ignored.  K-man cracked first and chopped up some salami we had been saving for our lunch.  Paroxysms of joy were observed, and we were left alone for ten minutes.

K-man pretends to have a heart of stone when it comes to animals (and especially cats). Inside though, he is a big softie made of expensive cat-food.  Let’s just say that the cat ate WELL for the duration of our stay.  It showed its appreciation by staying underneath the sun-lounger in the shade and not trying to jump on our heads.

Things were going quite well following the regular doling out of food, and the time came for our last evening.

At about 7pm, we were strongly considering returning inside from the pool when an almighty great crash issued forth from the villa.  If you’re from London, almighty great crashes mean a drooling intruder has smashed through your window clutching the end of your days and a blunt implement.

You’d better go and see what that was, K-man said.  He is not from London, so almighty great crashes mean perfectly innocent things, such as a picture falling off the wall.  I remonstrated, but he was actually in the pool and I was merely pool-side.

I opened the door to the kitchen and fended off the furball that tried to charge through it, before peeking hesitantly around the corner with my buttocks clenched.

A huge pile of plaster was on the floor.

 

I looked up, and this sight greeted me:

Daggers of plaster dangled menacingly.  After I backed out slowly and explained to K-man that his contribution to resolving the almighty crash would be to get on the phone and find someone to make this safe, he spoke to the Holiday Representative who called the villa owners.  Something would be done, we were assured.

A few minutes later, word reached us via four satellites that Dimitri would be attending in a few minutes.

There I stood, wrapped in a towel, with an incoming handyman.  Between me and the bathroom was the risk of a serious head injury.  There was nothing for it: the baking sheet from inside the oven was deployed like a shield and I pegged it upstairs for a quick shower.

If you had scripted a stereotypical Greek Entrance, you could not have described Dmitri’s arrival better.  I opened the door when it rang, to see a man leaning his substantial gut against the frame and smoking a roll-up.

Kalispera, he said, and wandered in.  He stared at the situation before laughing and saying sorry, eh?  I tried to communicate that we don’t really care about appearances and if he could just make it safe so we could get back to the plan of going out for dinner, that would be appreciated.  Dmitri’s answer was to bring down the parts of the ceiling still clinging on for dear life, and declare that he would return tomorrow. ‘A woman’ would clear up the mess while we were out having dinner.

Fine.

The next morning at 7.15am we were sleeping when my finely tuned London Intruder-Ear Klaxon woke me with ALERT ALERT THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE IN THE BUILDING!  K-man slept on, so I had to nudge him awake and point out that the voices he could hear were not mine.

K-man went to investigate, because he never believes anything bad will happen.  The villa owner had seen fit to let herself and Dmitri in to the house we were renting, with the aim of ‘measuring up’ for replacement plaster so they could start fixing it up as soon as we were out the door headed for the airport.

I’m not going to mention that no matter how seasoned a traveler you are, apparently when it is too hot to think and you’ve been woken at 7.15am, you will still fall for the lunch-waiter’s how about I ask chef to make you special platter, not on menu? Lovely bit of traditional seafood trick.

But then it wouldn’t be travelling.

The Show Must Go On

Six weeks into this year, my interim assessment is that it sucks.  Minor trauma plus minor trauma equals astonishing sense of unfairness.  On the bonus side, I got my annual bout of illness over with during the first week of January.

First, allow me to expound on the self-made miseries.  Well, what the hell, I’m going to be true about it: K-man made these miseries.  It was nothing to do with me when he put our car on autotrader.com because he’d identified a new car he swore he needed.  Something about the size of his testicles, I don’t know what.  We use our car once a week at most, but for reasons to do with stones I don’t possess it behoves us to spend £6,000 on a piece of metal that spends 98% of its time on the driveway.  Don’t ask me; I just live here.

He made a hat-tip at ‘consultation’ and put Vern on the market, selling and arranging collection within a 24 hour period, for a price that was borderline insulting to Vern’s dignity.  The pre-car research on the proposed new car was only completed after he sold our old car. Things were discovered, worrying things, about the proposed new car having a fake service history.  What now, fool, when we need a car?  Oh yes, now we’re pressured buyers: a great big unavoidable horror.  Car salesmen can SMELL pressure. 

Yes, I’ve been skating close to the thin mental line lately.

Next up is the Bedroom Furniture Debacle.  The bedroom was next on the list of things in the home to participate in the destruction of my surroundings, a project that’s going really well.  Remember the bannister?  Months later, this is what it looks like now:

My best guess is that the white stuff in the middle is nuclear-bunker-grade heat-protective coating. It will not budge.  If President Obama needs protection from Iran’s unhinged, he should come to my house and crouch behind my bannister.

We moved out of our bedroom three weeks ago and it’s in a state of disarray that will be brought to you in another post.  Our furniture is too big for the room so was put up for sale.  The enormous triple-wardrobe was the priority, but ultimately we needed to rid ourselves of the rustic solid oak bed and bedside tables we got in New Zealand too.  We discussed and agreed a sale price that would prevent me feeling aggrieved (I like this furniture and we paid a wadge for it).

K-man operated the eBay and somehow fucked up the equation that exists between ‘buy now’ and ‘minimum bid’.  Our solid oak king-size bed and two bedside tables that we lavished cash and care on were sold for a price so low I had to fight back tears.

Next up, the trauma visited upon us from outside our control.

Finding that one’s bicycle has been stolen is never pleasant.  I can attest that it’s particularly unpleasant when one is returning home at 1am on a freezing cold night having had too much to drink.  I searched the bike park in vain for my bike, clinging to the hope that I had, like all the other times, simply forgotten where I’d left it.  I saw a cut cable lock and with a sinking feeling put my combination in.  It sprang open, and so did  my tear-ducts.

To a cyclist, no bike you’ve had for any length of time is just a bike.  We’ve seen penguins, fallen off curbs, been blown into oncoming traffic, got back up, and travelled on together.  I loved my bike.  I reported the theft of my buddy to the police.

Describe the bike, blah blah, where did you leave it, blah, was there CCTV, blah blah investigate I’m not really listening anymore but then and how would you describe your ethnicity?

What?

Are you black, white, asian? 

The police person on the phone does not know me, and does not know that questions like that coming out of nowhere, even when I’m drunk, especially when I’m drunk, and already upset are not something I’m going to let fly.  Way to make a bad situation worse, Flow Chart voice.

Is that relevant?  I shot out before I could stop myself.  Would you NOT investigate the crime I’ve just been a victim of because I fit, or did not fit, a certain racial profile?  

Nomadamnotatallyoudon’thavetoanswergovernmentstatisticsblah.

Because, that’s certainly the implication OFFICER.

Doyouwishnottoanswer?

Would you like my gender, age, or other profile information for the government statistics? 

Uh, no.

In that case you can put me down as human.

I’m really pleasant when I’ve had too much to drink and been the victim of a crime.

Next up: the following week, K-man was riding home on his un-stolen bike and got hit by a car.  The bike ended up under the wheels of the car, and he bounced off the bonnet.  He’s fine; cuts and bruises only (though the bike was a write-off).  Mostly, he was shaking and fragile with shock.  Thank lard it was a small car that hit him, and that it was not going faster.  He made eye contact with the driver before the collision (she definitely saw him), he had right of way, and she should have stopped and she knew it.  Her foot ‘slipped off the brake’ apparently, so she simply drove into him at a roundabout.  A witness helped pick K-man up and escorted him home to make sure he was OK.

Then, back from a weekend in the country during a cold-snap and snow, our heating broke.  It’s always a bad sign when you can see your breath in the hallway, and in sub-zero temperatures frozen pipes mean you have to eat your Ha! Boiler insurance! What a con! words and call the Fuck My Wallet line.  £500 later, I’m seriously considering becoming a heating engineer.

Everything you ever wanted to know about my frame of mind by this point is represented by this picture of Jesus, our formerly vibrant house plant:

What’s a girl to do when the first six weeks of a year have removed her colour and rendered her incapable of even a glimmer of sparkle?  Why, run off to Paris, of course!  My friend JR might not be a doctor, but he knew, it turns out, that I was in parlous trouble in the doldrums department without me even having to mention it.  And, because he is somehow psychic and knew without me ever having breathed to anyone how much I wanted to go there, he surprised me with tickets to this place:

It's the Star Ship Enterprise, in chandelier form!

In one weekend, I regained my sense of being alive.  My vibrancy came back, I smoked some cigarettes, ate a bucket of french lard, glammed around Paris, and remembered all the good shit I’ve seen and done, all the people I loved, love, and almost lost, and who I am privileged to know.

Holiday-makers to France Do Get Fat

I’ve been in rural France for a week, soaking up some relaxation which was sorely needed after a long visit from my in-laws.  Eight people, one bathroom, one old man who saved up his morning shit until he had left the hotel to come to the house where eight people were trying to use the one bathroom.

After five minutes of soul-searching I decided not to write at length about the visit.  Let me sum it up thus: it was so bad at times that I hid.  I hid, in my own house.  It was so bad that K-man snapped in central London – I won’t go into how we ended up on Waterloo Bridge en masse on the hottest day of the year arguing about parking spaces, but in summary it was because a six year old child said he wanted to go.  Having just spent a week in France with five young children (belonging to our friends), it’s clear that no I wasn’t imaging it, and that yes my niece and nephew lack anything approaching appropriate levels of discipline.  There are reasons for that, and maybe I’ll go into it another time.  It was a bubbling cauldron of horror and I am glad they are gone.  I feel like a shit person about that, because it is not the kids’ fault, but it is hard to spend time with them.

So, France.  We went here:

We drove, which involved going on the Channel Tunnel train.  I’m not especially faint-hearted, but being in my car, on a train, under the sea is something that causes various flutterings in my brain.

The six hour drive only became fractious at one point, where we passed by Le Mans during a cumbersome battle with French toll roads and their national prohibition of clear signposting.  For context, add K-man’s proclivity to embark upon a journey with no map, some vaguely written guidelines, and an optimism that his sense of direction alone will carry us to our destination.  I never remember to buy a proper road-map.

K-man kept wanting to veer into central Le Mans so that he could become a famous racing driver by osmosis.  I kept alerting him to the fact that the directions say not to go into Le Mans and then mysteriously I would find that the car had done exactly what I said not to do.   K-man would raise his voice to tell me that we certainly did not want to go in the other direction towards Paris because we don’t want to go anywhere near Paris.  It turns out – hold the front page! – we did need to temporarily head around Le Mans in the direction of Paris.

But we arrived eventually.

The holiday was blissful.  Not as blissful as it could have been, since we did a fair bit of child-entertaining, but we still found time to read, relax, swim, tan, and most of all to eat.  I apparently didn’t find time to take any photos apart from of one of the children.

After three days in a row of red meat, heavy drinking, and a ton of cheese and bread, I was read to eat vegetables.  Vegetables are not a staple component of French cuisine, and so there was little point in trying to achieve a vitamin intake.  I gave up, and sat on my behind as it inflated.  I began to feel like crap.  Happy, lazy, crap.

We ventured out several times, enabling me to observe the curious French rural old-man gut.  This is a phenomenal sight.  Otherwise swarthy-looking men who have clearly done hard work in the fields their whole lives and from whose rear view you would not identify as overweight, turn sideways and display their protuberant guts.  It looks like they swallowed a beach-ball.  In many cases they would be leaning back slightly, I can only assume to try to readjust their centre of gravity.

I guess that answers the question of where all that duck-fat goes.   But why does it all go to such a defined area?  These are the things that keep me awake at night.

I got back home and immediately commenced the patented Eat Less Move Around More diet.  It has not been easy, and I must wonder when in my life it happened that I had only to indulge for a week and I would pack noticeable poundage on.  But after a week of resumed running and vegetable eating, I am feeling more normal and ready to tackle some writing again.

Define: Undignified

I’ve been sweating blood over a piece of research, and a couple of weeks ago finally arrived at the firm deadline where deep thoughts had to be thrown into some kind of arena.  The Chief Brain’s strategy for getting the team to actually finish, rather than academically procrastinate in ever-increasing circles, was to set up an event where luminaries would come to hear us talk about our research.

Which meant we had to have something to say.  Something which wouldn’t cause heads to nod slowly forward in slumber.  The dreaded PowerPoint would be required.

To my great surprise I managed to get through my share of the public-facing activity without turning puce.  And although there were multiple last-minute logistical panics, if you’d been in the audience you wouldn’t have noticed them.

As an added bonus, it was in the small European city of Strasbourg, which is home to one of the most delicate lumps of a building I’ve ever seen.

The morning after the day before, I woke up with a gleeful feeling.  I’d done it!  There’d been more than enough wine and canapes to satisfy even the hungriest bureaucrat, nobody was refused security clearance into the venue, and nobody became narcoleptic while I was talking to them.  I sashayed happily into the hotel bathroom for my morning ablutions cradling the feeling of a job well done.

I was paying only moderately committed attention to what I was doing as I climbed into the bath, which is why it came as something of a shock to find myself, nanoseconds later, having involuntarily adopted the curiously painful position of a fish out of water.

My left leg was in agony.  What could have happened?  Whatever it was, it was enough to almost (almost, for I am tough) make me cry.  Only two weeks ago I stubbed my little toe on a piece of misplaced garden stone hard enough for it to turn purple and double in size (it still hurts, a bit).  Surely, the court of life could not hand down two injuries in as many weeks?  I am spatially unaware, ridiculously uncoordinated, and I often walk into walls, but oh come on, I thought as my vision returned.

My best guess is that my right foot slipped sort of backwards and to the right in the hyper-clean bath just as I was transferring my weight across.  Whatever – as I completed a tendon-busting set of the splits, the tender inside of my left leg felt my gravitationally-assisted bulk weigh down on it as it scraped down the outer tiled corner of the tub on my way to the fish-flailing position.

Aye, it hurt.

This is after ten days of liberal application of arnica cream.  The skin has grown back, and the outer edge of the bruise is turning healing-green-and-yellow.  It’s a good thing I’m not a skirt-wearer.  I really must try to be more careful.


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