Heading to New York

Cheryl and I are on a plane about half way between Chicago and Detroit right now.

In just over an hour we’ll be landing in New York City.

We’re going to be there over New Year, which should be exciting. We’ve been advised not to bother going to Times Square at midnight, however. You have to stand around for several hours, unable to leave, unable to find a restroom, food, drinks, etc.

Cheryl already has a few meals booked, and we have a list as long as our arm for sights we’d like to see.

Looking forward to landing!

Furthest I’ve ever been from home

When I went to California it was the furthest I’d ever been from where I called home (~5000 miles). Since then I haven’t been anywhere near that far away again, and I got back 7 years ago.

Well, tomorrow I’m going to go further. Singapore is just over a thousand miles further from home than California was. In 2 weeks I’ll go even further and visit Australia, a clear 10000 miles from home.

I’ve never been further south than California or further east than Latvia. I’m going to be going a significant distance further in each of those directions. 🙂 I will be in the southern hemisphere for the first time in my life. I wonder what it will be like to look up at the stars and not recognise them.

I think it’s going to be awesome. 🙂

Krakow, Poland

Last weekend I went away to Krakow in Poland from Friday night until Sunday with lots of people I used to work with at West Nottinghamshire College. Just about everyone who went away to Romania made it to this gathering too, plus some others that didn’t make it last time, so it was great!

We stayed in a hotel called Hotel Campanile which was on Ulica Tomasza. We arrived at the hotel at about 3:30 in the morning and a few of us decided to go straight out into the town rather than go to sleep. We went down the street to a little place called Cafe Philo which is a lovely little bar. While we were in there we had a few drinks and discovered the joys of Okocim. Lovely Polish beer, which we later learned is pretty damn strong.

Krakow - Cafe Philo

After a little while a guy from behind the bar came over to speak to us. He brought some incense sticks with him and passed them out to a few of us. Then he had a change of heart and took them all off us to give them all to Phil Beard. Phil was naturally quite grateful for this honour. 😀

We had a few more drinks and then I spotted a Polish book with my name in the title. I couldn’t read it, so I put it back on the bookcase and went to get more Okocim from the bar. While I was at the bar the guy who’d spoken to us earlier gave me a small square of bubble wrap. I didn’t really know what for, so I thanked him and took it back with the drinks. There I found that he’d given everyone some. I think the fact that we’d all been deprived of sleep and provided with so much alcohol we decided it’d be a great idea to pull stupid faces with the bubble wrap and have our pictures taken.

Krakow - Bubblewrap

We originally planned to stay in the bar until it got light, but by the time 6:30 arrived we abandoned that plan and just walked back to the hotel to get some sleep.

10:20 arrived very quickly and we had to get up to look around Krakow. Some people had already wandered off in little groups because they had things to do in mind. A few of us hung back to have a bit more of a relaxing day. The main square we hung out in was really nice. There was a Christmas market selling the usual bits and bobs. Nothing you really need, but novelties that you buy anyway. We discovered the joys of “bread bangles” at the little vendors on the square, and then wandered off to the castle.

From the castle you can see quite a lot of Krakow. It was nice to look down at the river flowing by with the swans landing on it. We stood there for quite a few minutes just taking it all in before we moved on.

Krakow - River

After the castle we headed into the Jewish quarter in search of some more nice architecture, and something good to eat. After Lizz got distracted in a little trinket shop (there was a cat on the sign so she couldn’t resist) we found Starka Restaurant and decided it looked nice. We took our seats and ordered some drinks. I decided a nice hot coffee would work wonders, so I ordered a Polish coffee. This was advertised as containing vodka and Kahlua, so I couldn’t resist. I was in for a bit of a surprise. When my drink finally arrived (10 minutes after everyone else’s) it was freezing cold, in a Martini glass, with a straw in it. I don’t think I could have looked any more gay if I’d been wearing a vest and leather trousers.

Once the drinks had arrived we all ordered food. I decided that the pork knuckle and pork neck weren’t particularly appetising, so I decided to have rabbit for the first time. Once the food arrived my silly drink was completely forgotten. Rabbit wrapped in bacon with honey glazed carrots, and other tasty vegetables is one of the most outstanding meals I have ever eaten.

We headed back to the main part of town after a brief visit to a pharmacy for Lizz to get some painkillers. We met back up with Gordon in Cafe Philo after witnessing a little protest complete with music march through the city centre. A few of us hung out there and others nipped back to the hotel to sort things out. Claire asked the hotel to book us in for a meal at a nice Polish/Italian restaurant in the evening.

When we went there they showed us to our very own little room with a huge table in it. It seemed really cool, but a couple of people weren’t particularly bothered, so after a bit of discussing we all left the restaurant. A couple of people decided to get food from the Christmas market instead, so while they were doing that Gordon, Sarah, and I decided we fancied grabbing a kebab from a place Gordon had discovered earlier in the day. I’m glad I went with it, as it was really nice. It was very spicy though, and I don’t normally eat particularly spicy foods.

Krakow - Restaurant

After the kebab we went looking for a bar to hang out in. We went into a little bar and decided to have Desperado’s (beer flavoured with tequila) based on being reliably informed that they’re nice. They are nice. 😀

We moved on to this fairly big Irish bar and had a few more beers in there. I decided to sing along to Pearl Jam – Alive, much to the amusement of Gordon and Sarah. 🙂 I also stole a flower from the vase in front of me and wore it behind my ear for the next couple of hours. We also got in a conversation with a man in a kilt after I applauded him for wearing it when he walked in. 🙂

As it got later we decided we should head back to Cafe Philo for the rest of the night. When we got there basically everyone else on the trip was there. We all hung out having many drinks and laughs until the early hours of the morning. By the time the last of us left it was down to Jo, Claire (#2 in my book), Vlad, and me. It was somewhere around 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning, but I don’t really remember which any more.

We all got up pretty early on Sunday morning to get some breakfast and get ready to check out of the hotel. The plan for the day consisted of a walk to the train station so we could spend 2 hours on the train so we could visit Auschwitz. After a fairly lengthy walk from the train station we arrived at the main entrance to Auschwitz and checked our bags in so we didn’t have to drag them around the concentration camp.

Auschwitz - Gate

Somehow I ended up by myself, so I just wandered around looking at the buildings for a little while. After looking at a couple of the displays in the buildings I decided I’d rather soak up the atmosphere from outside. It’s a very weird thing to be somewhere like that. Trying to imagine the things that had happened right where I was standing was difficult. It’s just so hard to comprehend such a huge event. Then to consider you’re standing right there, in the very spot. Most unusual.

I decided to grab some food and wait for everyone else to come back to the main entrance. When a few of us were back it was suggested that we should just get a taxi to the airport and save a lot of messing around with buses and trains. It was agreed, so we left for the airport straight from Auschwitz. Some people decided to wait a bit longer, so they arrived in dribs and drabs at the airport. While we were eating some food we spotted that our flight was listed as delayed. I’d never had a flight delayed before, so I wasn’t too pleased that I was about to experience it.

After checking in and going through security we sat down in the departures lounge waiting to find out more information. At first they said it would be an hour late, but it ended up being 2 hours late. I really regretted arriving so early by the end of that wait.

The flight home didn’t take too long, and on landing back in the UK I couldn’t believe that the whole thing was over with so quickly.

Romania Trip

This blog entry is best viewed on my site because Facebook and other places that might import it may not display it correctly.

This blog entry is the entire happenings of Romania as recorded in a little book I kept with me for the duration of the visit. I didn’t do a very good job of describing who was where. I just use the word “we” to refer to Lizz, Claire, Matt, Gordon, Sarah, Vlad, Jo, Howard, and me. 🙂

Sunday 24th of May 2009

It was a fairly short flight from Luton to Cluj with W!zz Air. We caught a taxi to the hotel after getting our bags together. It’s called Hotel Pedro (Pensiunea Pedro). Lizz and I were staying in room 12.

The view from our room

The view from our room

While we were still collecting our bags the handle on a case belonging to a lady snapped. I laughed a bit. Then when I went to pick up Lizz’s case the handle wouldn’t move up at all. Karma…

A little kid with aspergers was behind and then beside us on the plane. He was really loud and annoying. He spent half of the flight running around with no top on.

Our room at the hotel was pretty small, but has all we needed for the night. 🙂

After getting our things ready in our rooms we all met up to go for some food at a restaurant that Vlad knew from being a student in Cluj. We walked through the city to get there so we got to see a lot of cool things. There are quite a few big statues and cathedral-style buildings in the centre of Cluj.

The restaurant was at the top of a pretty steep hill and it was quite a walk up there, but well worth it. We went to the terrace at the back of the restaurant and it was lovely. This was the first place we encountered Ursus. The first of many!

After we’d had our pizzas in the restaurant we went back through part of the city to a bar that tune out to be closed. We went over the road to an Irish-style instead. There was quite a lot of Irish music being played in there from a computer with Winamp running on it. There were lots of photos of famous people on the walls. It was a pretty cool bar. Someone who worked in there must have spotted Vlad’s Gogol Bordello shirt and put a Gogol Bordello track on. The only drink I had in there was a really nice and creamy White Russian, after Vlad went to the man behind the bar and explained what it was for me.

The group in the Irish Bar.

The group in the Irish Bar.

We moved on to another bar where Vlad and Jo first met. It was called Musik Bar. We stayed there for the rest of the night and had LOTS of drinks. The bill came to 377 lei. We split it at about 40 lei each, which works out at about £10 each. The bill included 54 beers, some wine, some vodka, and some pancakes that Lizz had. That’s a pretty good bill!

Once we had got back to the hotel Matt, Vlad, Howard, and I went for a walk around the block looking for another bar that was open.

We didn’t find anything that was still open, but we did manage to stumble upon (nearly literally) a dying cat in the street. Vlad warned me about it when I was walking along because I nearly stood on it. We thought it was dead at first, but it turned out to be alive. It was really horrible just seeing it there. After walking around the block I decided the humane thing to do would be to put it out of its misery. I left the others behind and went to get it done, but I couldn’t just do it when I got there. Everyone caught up and we had a little discussion about it before Vlad and Matt convinced me it was probably a bad idea to kill it because I’d feel bad afterwards. We walked back to the hotel and I have no idea what happened to the cat after that.

Monday 26th of May 2009 11:00 – Pensuinea Pedro Room 12

I woke up with a headache. It was possibly the first proper hangover I’ve ever had, or it could just have been a headache caused by the incredibly hot room.

A few people went out for a walk, but I had a quick shower instead. Everyone was back pretty quickly, so we all went downstairs and paid the 93 lei for our rooms. It works out at around £25 per night, which is pretty good. 🙂

We went to a place called Steaua for breakfast. It was very similar to a German breakfast in that it consisted mostly of bread. It was really nice and made my head feel quite a lot better.

After breakfast we went for a walk around the centre of Cluj to see some of the sights in a bit more detail than the day before. The weather was absolutely perfect and it was very hot for the entire time we were out. It was lovely.

A statue of someone I don't remember

A statue of someone I don't remember

Romanian Flags with the fountain, statue, and cathedral in the background

Romanian Flags with the fountain, statue, and cathedral in the background

We all took a bunch of pictures of everything, and some of us spent a bit of time inside the cathedral before we met up with our yellow VW minibus. We went back to Hotel Pedro to collect our things and then set off for Vlad and Jo’s house in Târgu Jiu, around 200 miles south through the Carpathian mountains.

Just outside Cluj we stopped at a petrol station to buy lots of drinks and snacks. Claire and I were both very pleased to find Mountain dew on sale. I bought a 2.5 litre bottle of the stuff.

People in Romania are absolutely crazy in their cars. They overtake on blind corners, hills, or in tiny little gaps between oncoming traffic. At one point we were being overtaken by a lorry and there was no room for it to get by us, so it just forced us off the road onto the verge at the side. It was scary for a few seconds, but I guess the driver was used to that sort of thing.

On the journey we learned about Matt’s love of bridges. He is now known to us all as Matt Bridgill (instead of Matt Ridgill in case you don’t know him). 🙂

We stopped at a huge castle on the way only to find that it closed early on a Monday. We took some pictures anyway and then got on with the journey.

The castle we stopped at with Lizz posing before it

The castle we stopped at with Lizz posing before it

Us hanging out on the bridge to the castle

Us hanging out on the bridge to the castle

A large part of the journey consisted of going through a steep valley on a winding road. It was nice to look at, but was a bit scary when you consider the driving habits of the other people on the road.

The Carpathian Mountains

The Carpathian Mountains

Almost as soon as we got out of the valley there were no more mountains at all. The land flattened out to a huge expanse of fields.

After a little bit more driving we reached Târgu Jiu, and Vlad and Jo’s house was only a couple of minutes into town.

We met Vlad’s parents Vali, Marietta, and Luci, as well as the dogs: Crow, Foxy and Dink (not sure of the spellings). Vlad’s parents live in a house built entirely in the back garden of Vlad and Jo’s house. There was still lots of garden available for growing vines, vegetables, and plenty of space for the dogs to run around on. The whole place is absolutely wonderful.

Vlad’s mum prepared food for our arrival, and Vlad’s dad made sure there was plenty to drink. We had some brandy that Vlad’s dad had made himself. I believe Gordon described it as being like rocket fuel, and he was right. It was still very nice though. One of the things we had to eat was stew. Everyone found it hilarious that I should be eating something with the same name as me. Vlad made sure that the joke was not lost on his parents, and for a little while I was known as Tocană (Romanian for stew). Lizz also became known as Dumplings (stew and dumplings). 🙂

Vlad and Jo started leading us to town to a bar. On the way we walked up an alley that basically consisted of coffin and headstone shops separated by gambling places and the occasional shop. It was a very strange alley that we affectionately dubbed Coffin Alley.

After a drink in the bar we went back to Vlad and Jo’s house for several more drinks. It was during these drinks that Matt let us know that he was conceived under a willow tree. Willow was added as a nickname for him, but Matt Bridgill still stuck around.

Lizz, Jo, Gordon, and Sarah were the first ones to bed, followed quickly by Matt and Claire. Vlad, Howard, and I stayed up a bit longer, and then we went to bed too. It had been a very long day.

Tuesday 27th of May 2009

I woke up early and went out onto the balcony. I noticed Sarah was awake after a couple of minutes, so I went downstairs to see her. Vlad and his mum were already up and Howard and Jo joined us a few minutes later. After a bit of breakfast Gordon joined us all.

Vlad and Howard went into the house and brought a stereo outside so we could listen to music. We listened to a station called Radio 21 “Your fun station” for a while before Vlad and Jo went to the supermarket, and Gordon and Sarah went for a walk. Shortly after Vlad and Jo got back everyone else got up and out of bed.

We all went for a walk into Târgu Jiu. We walked through the park that contains The Endless Column. We walked from there to the church where Vlad and Jo got married. From there we went to another park containing The Kissing Gate. All three places are in a straight line. Further into the park there’s a big stone table with some seats to sit on. It’s there to represent the average Romanian family before the first world war.

The Endless Column

The Endless Column

Lizz and I under The Kissing Gate

Lizz and I under The Kissing Gate

Everyone around the table

Everyone around the table

After a quick walk along the water we stoped at a cafe-bar for some drinks. We ended up having quite a few sitting under some umbrellas listening to Ace of Base on repeat. It was really relaxing and enjoyable.

From the park we went to a restaurant. Gordon and I decided to have pig brain between us. It was kind of like soft fish, and I definitely won’t be having it again!

We caught taxis back to Vlad’s house for a little while and then headed back to town for some more drinks. We struggled to get enough tables and chairs close enough for us all to hang out. By the time Vlad’s friends had arrived we’d worked it all out.

We went to the bar from the day before for one more drink and then we woke up some taxi drivers to take us back to Vlad’s house again.

We sat outside and listened to a Manu Chao album while we were outside. After that we all went to bed to get some much deserved sleep.

Wednesday 28th of May 2009

I woke up a bit after most other people and had a really quick shower. Vlad’s sister Luci came over and we went into the mountains in 2 cars.

After a fairly long journey we arrived at the cave of the women. At first I thought it’d just be us, but then we were joined by 20-30 school children on a school trip. It certainly made it a bit different. 🙂

Vlad spent a lot of the time translating what the cave tour guide was saying, making sure to spare us from the customary terrible tour guide jokes. It was really cold in the caves compared to outside them. That’s to be expected though. The caves were pretty impressive. Vlad told us how the caves got their name. The Turkish people were invading the surrounding area, so all the women, children, and old people were sent to the caves to hide while the men fought the battle. Unfortunately the men lost the battle and the Turkish military people found the cave and blocked all the people in there. When the caves were opened up they just found lots of skeletons. 🙁

Once we got out at the other side of the cave a few people went for a walk back to the cars while Lizz, Claire, Matt, and I hung out there. I walked along the river nearby looking for somewhere I could jump across safely. After finding that there was no such place I looked for the most likely place to avoid falling into the river. I plucked up my courage and jumped from rock to rock into the middle of the river, and then Lizz came along and was very unhappy with me. I jumped the last bit and we went back to wait for everyone else to turn up.

From the caves we went to visit a nearby monastery. When we got there Gordon and I had a race up the the hill to the entrance. I started out in the lead and managed to keep it right until the very end when Gordon caught up with me and we crossed the imagined finish line together. We settled for a draw. We didn’t stay at the monastery for very long, but we quite a few of us took a few pictures of thing you’re not supposed to photograph, and other people explored the building itself.

After the monastery we went to a roadside cafe for some lunch. Lizz and I shared a pizza and some chips, and I had another bottle of Mountain Dew. Yum.

A short drive from the cafe there were lots of people selling pottery at the side of the road. We stopped there and I bought my mum a vase, and Lizz bought some things for her mum, grandma, and Katy next-door-but-two.

On the rest of the way back everyone but Luci fell asleep, which is good because she was driving. It was really hot and the fact that we’d just eaten and been up late made it very difficult to keep our eyes open. On the very last bit of the journey Luci overtook Vlad and we had a little race through town to Vlad’s house. Vlad took a different route and ended up getting there ahead of us, much to his enjoyment.

I tried to call my mum when I was back, but there was no answer, so I called my sister instead. We had a short chat and then I thought I should go because it might be costing me a lot of money.

Gordon, Sarah, Howard, and I walked into town to buy some vodka and some cola. It was quite a struggle because the people there didn’t speak English and we hardly spoke Romanian. It turns out that instead of the small coinage they try to give you chewing gum instead. This would normally be fine by me, even though I don’t normally chew gum, but we didn’t get what she was doing, so we were all kind of perplexed. Eventually we got the correct change and headed back to Vlad’s house.

Back at Vlad’s everyone was getting ready for the Manchester United vs. Barcelona match. Vlad’s friends started to turn up and Vlad’s mum started to bring out the food. One of the dishes was called piftie. It was basically just leftover meat in congealed meat juice. It looked an awful lot like dog or cat food. The texture was more than I could get over when I was eating it, especially because it was cold. I think I was one of the very few people to actually try it though, so I’m pleased with that.

A few of us stayed up until it was getting light outside. I was pleased to be the last of the UK guests to be up. Jo also managed it, but I don’t count her as a guest there. At some point Vlad and I went into where Gordon was asleep and put toothpaste on his face. He muttered “that’s either Cove or a Romanian gypsy!”

It was an exhausting day, but lots of fun.

Thursday 29th of May 2009

I was quite late getting up and out of bed. I was pretty damn tired from the long night before.

After a bit of breakfast Lizz, Matt, Vlad, Jo, and I headed out in Vlad’s car and the others followed in Vlad’s friend’s car. We went to a place that had collected examples of old Romanian houses from around the county we were in. The sculptor of The Endless Column lived in one of the houses.

On the way around I spotted a horse rolling around on its back and then a huge bunch of red beetles hanging out on some rocks. They made a weird rustling sound when they were disturbed. It was probably just so many of them moving on dead leaves or something.

The house Vlad grew up in

The house Vlad grew up in

After the tour we went to another monastery in the hills. There was a bit of a storm in the mountains, but we only got a little bit of rain. The man who was responsible for the building of the monastery lived in a nearby cave during the construction process. We went up as close as we could to the cave, and then headed back out of there.

When we were back down at the cars we saw 3 dogs trying to scare a couple of small horses. The horses weren’t very intimidated and just rubbed themselves against cars like cats sometimes do on tables or chair legs.

We drove back to Târgu Jiu and met up at a hotel restaurant for lunch. Most of us had Pizza Dracula and plenty of Ursus to go with it. The glasses for the Ursus were really nice. So nice in fact, that I borrowed one, permanently. Although I’ve since given it to Gordon.

Vlad, Howard, and I went back in the car. First Vlad, then Howard went for a bit of a sleep. After 5 or 10 minutes of lying down outside I decided I should have a nap too.

When everyone else got back we hung out at the house. Vlad and Matt went to get some beer from a shop. They brought back 2 cans of 5 different Romanian beer. We set up a taste test to see which one people preferred without them knowing what was what. Ursus came out on top, of course.

Lizz set up a game of higher or lower. We played that for a long time. Lizz introduced some new rules to the game. You were allowed to guess that the next card would be a pair, although you’d have to be pretty lucky to get that right. If you didn’t guess at a pair and a pair came up then you could shout “PAIR!” as quickly as possible. If you shouted it before the dealer then you could continue.

The Last Night

The Last Night

It was a good evening, but there was a sense of impending disappointment because we knew we were getting on the coach to Cluj at 11 or so.

Everyone was sad to reach the end of the holiday, but we all made plans to meet up and hang out again soon.

When we got on the minibus there was a girl on there already, in addition to the driver. She spent the whole journey up at the front though, so I guess she was just keeping the driver company.

We stopped at a petrol station and bought lots of drinks and snacks. I also bought a Romanian copy of Playboy. Unfortunately I discovered that it appeared to be a pregnant women special or something. I didn’t know this until Gordon, who looked at it first, pointed it out to me.

Most of the journey back to Cluj was spent trying to sleep, but mostly failing. It wasn’t very comfortable at all.

Friday 30th of May 2009

We queued up in the airport for a while and then went through to the departures lounge. This consisted of one shop. Lizz bought me my final bottle of Mountain Dew and then noticed that there was free Wi-Fi available. It certainly helped to pass the time.

At some point an English man asked me to watch his bag for him while he went to the shop. When he got back he decided to latch onto Lizz and I for the remainder of the time in departures. Everyone else walked off and left us with him. We managed to catch up with them when we lost him during boarding and we all sat together on two rows.

It was an uncomfortable flight spent trying to get some sleep, much like the drive of a few hours previous.

When we finally made it back to Luton a gypsy lady and her family of 600 people decided that the queue didn’t really apply to them at all. They walked all the way to the front of the queue with the fat gypsy woman saying “ups” (I assume she meant “oops”). It was extremely annoying, but as usual neither I nor anyone else actually said anything to her, and so she’s only learned that it works and will do it again next time.

We all got our bags and went outside into an absolutely boiling hot English morning. I don’t know how it was so warm so early in the morning, but it was quite amazing.

Gordon and Sarah left us at Nero Express and we caught the bus back to the long-stay car park. We were right underneath the L25 signpost which was very pleasing for Matt and I who had insisted that’s where we were parked. Lizz and Claire had both somehow decided we were at L26. Silly people.

Matt drove us home while we listened to Chris Moyles and his golden hour. There were so many songs from 1990, and then he decided to continue with that and played a bunch of other songs from the decade.

All in all it was a really great holiday. I really hope I get to go back to Romania again some day so I can see some of the other places. I’m extremely thankful to Vlad, Jo, and Vlad’s whole family for making it such an enjoyable experience for everyone.