Friday, August 22, 2014

Darren. F.

I appear to be in a hotel room in Hong Kong, 72 hours on from being in Jersey. It's 5pm on Friday evening but concepts like am and pm, days of the week and evenings are starting to feel alien. I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an Englishman who just left New York.

I say "just left", but that's a bit of a stretch. It was a while ago I was there.

When I woke, earlier than either of my "wake the fuck up" alarms, I naturally lazed around until the first one went off. My flight was at 1000 and on time, and the journey from JFK to the hotel had been so smooth I was pretty confident about the return. A bill for my 3 Guinesses had appeared on the floor by my door and I asked at reception if I needed to sign or pay or something and the bloke didn't seem to understand my question, so I just gave him my key and left.

Having angrily enjoyed NYC on my day on terra firma, I obviously followed that up by not getting remotely lost or confused by any part of the trip to the airport. Well, Penn Station was a bit horrible at half six and it was slightly difficult to find the right platform but I jumped on the 0636 Jamaica train with 10 seconds to spare and trundled. Missed my connection by literally half a second so sat and played Threes for a bit, before staring at the "we stop at all terminals" thing noticing JFK doesn't like threes - "all" is 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8. Hmm. The journey was quite nice as the sun rose and we went past a lot of beautiful 747s, and as I had to hold on til T7 an ensuing fight through the crowd was unpleasant.

T7 is BA's not-quite-private terminal. They do have a lot of flights there, but Cathay Pacific also use it as well as the BA lounges. They have their own premium checkin area though, which was well enough signposted. I could have used it regardless of what my flight was doing as I have a Cathay gold card courtesy of a no-longer-available benefit on a charge card I don't have. But this time I could use it straight off the back of my booking...because I was flying in F. F is for First.

There's one checkin desk for F. A family was there, seemingly being awkward. I waltzed up to a business class desk and was checked in super quickly, being referred to by name the whole time and my gold card kept getting mentioned too. He asked if I was familiar with the lounges - well, in 2007 I spent 9 hours in the business class lounge... also, would I like an invitation to the arrivals lounge at Hong Kong? Why yes, yes I would, thank you.

He then left the desk to escort me as far as he could, all the while explaining the terminal layout, the two lounges I could go in and their different atmospheres and so on. He said the First lounge would be quiet, a place to work or relax, and the business lounge a bit more fun and maybe the place to go if I wanted some booze. I said to him, with a straight face, "it's a bit early for that!". "Oh, you'd be surprised, Mr Foreman"

No. I wouldn't.

He left me at fast track security, which was indeed fast. The lounge entrances are right next door, up a tiny escalator, lo and behold I reached the first class lounge at 0747. Such a pleasing time of day.

I had it to myself. Wow. It isn't huge, but it is a nice relaxing place. I filled a plate with cold meats and cheeses and grabbed a diet coke. Then a large fruit salad with yoghurt. And then a champagne. Nom.

Wrote yesterday's blog post in total peace and quiet. Loved it. The staff appeared here and then, and after an hour or so a few more people arrived. There only seemed to be the Cathay flight leaving, no BA scheduled until after midday. Boarding pass had said gate 6 by 0935, but at 0930 a very loud THE FLIGHT IS NOT BOARDING YET announcement came over the tannoy. A few minutes later, another one, the woman sounding exasperated as if people kept going to the desk asking what was going on.

I just stayed in my seat until boarding was finally announced. Apparently the crew had got stuck in a traffic jam.

So, to gate 6, boarding pass for seat 1A in my sky rocket. A huge queue for priority boarding slimmed down very quickly as group after group of 4+ people reached the front only to be directed to the regular queue. I strolled through and was greeted at the door, directed left, and saw my seat.

Oh. My. God. That's not an aeroplane seat, that's a fucking sofa.

About Cathay Pacific first class. On their longest haul planes, they have what is widely regarded as one of the best first class cabins and experiences in the world, not including the mad fully-enclosed-suite things you can get on some middle eastern airlines. The JFK to Hong Kong flight is one of the longest non-stop flights in the world by both distance and time, and therefore one of the longest first class trips possible. What's more, this route is an anomaly in the BA spend-your-Avios chart. By rights it should cost way more than the 105,000 it does given the distance. Finally, the taxes, fees and surcharges component is on,y about £75. There are only 6 first class seats on the plane, not all available for miles. It's cheap, exclusive and astonishing.

So, the sofa. I'm not joking. There's enough space for two people to sit side by side, or for me to sit in a variety of positions with my feet not on the floor. I can't reach the footrest, and my bag isn't stored under it because Fiona has put it in my personal wardrobe.

Oh, hello Fiona. Nice to meet you. She was pretty much my personal member of cabin crew for this flight, setting me up with a pre-flight amuse bouche of lobster and a glass of Krug champagne. I might try another one of those. She also handed me my sleeper suit in a bag, as the captain told us about the flight. Apparently a flight time of 15h20m, to a Hong Kong with "unusually good visibility" and 30°c. We'd fly north then south, crossing the North Pole to our right. Over the top like a bad Stallone movie.

We took off a bit behind schedule and the crew changed into their airborne uniforms, different from their land-based ones. I played with the staggeringly good entertainment system, more responsive than any other I've ever used (or my smart TV for that matter) and I added 2 films and 5 TV shows to my playlist. For TV shows they have full seasons, not just a few episodes. Having seen a single episode of Brooklyn  Nine Nine on the AA flight I quite fancied a few more. Andy Samberg FTW.

"You had me at 'no paperwork'"
"That was the very end of the sentence"

Some nuts arrived, and more champagne. And then some bread, caviar, egg, pancakes, and creme fraiche. I suppose I have some space for that. After the caviar, a gorgeous Caesar salad. After the salad, a bowl of clam chowder and then my chosen main course: lobster. Was I ok with chopsticks? Of course I was ok with chopsticks.

Christ, everything was so bloody nice. The champagne didn't stop coming, even the table water was particularly lovely. After my main was cleared away I opted for a cheese plate - having been shown a slate full of cheeses from which to choose. I chose all of them. It came with grapes and crackers and quince and the most astonishingly nice port I've ever tasted.

Not a bad start to the journey, this. By now I'm about 4 episodes of Brooklyn Nine Nine in and we're somewhere over some really extreme points of Canada. There's an outdoor camera which was quite interesting, though not as interesting as the window views. We were about 2.5 hours in now. so only 13 to go.

With the food service over - I actually turned down dessert - the champagne still kept coming, and I watched the film Railway Man. As usual, in the air I am more emotional than on the ground and so at the end of it I was in floods of tears. Loved the film. Romance, revenge and redemption all in one.

Next, I tried to watch an interesting looking Chinese film but kept nodding off, so I went to the loo to get changed into my sleeper suit while Fiona made my bed. On Cathay it isn't just a seat that turns into a end and you are given a blanket - they also fit a mattress with special holes for the seat belt to go through. I returned and climbed into it, getting comfortable and... couldn't really drop off. The noise cancelling headphones are too cumbersome to wear lying down and I don't get on with ear plugs. So, I just kinda laid there, doing a few mindfulness techniques which didn't work... so I rearranged the seat into a recliner, pulled the TV back out, and put on Labor Day.

Odd film. Some really heartening bits during which I of course welled up, but then a really terrible few segments and awful plot twist. And then the awfulness is kinda glossed over and a regular ending takes place. Quite unsatisfactory. Browsed the movies some more but opted just to go back to Brooklyn Nine Nine. There are 22 episodes after all.

A couple of hours later, with still 7 or so to go of the flight, I hit the service button. Almost before I'd lifted my finger, Fiona appeared. Could I get a burger, please? And a glass of champagne? Of course, Mr Foreman. It took a while to arrive since they had to cook the bastard, and when it did she asked me to let her know if the fizz was flat; if so, she'd open a new bottle for me. Which she had to anyway as I wanted refill. And another one.

Back to movies! Anchorman, and finally I slept a bit, Dozed and slept well, but off and on, through Anchorman and The Informant! after which I woke up feeling quite ropey, like super dehydrated as if the air quality had rather suddenly changed. But that went away when I got changed, used loads of posh toiletries to moisturise and cleaned me teeth and swigged mouthwash. Turned my bed back into a very comfortable seat and we are just over an hour from landing.

Would I like some breakfast? Oh, go on then. Something to drink? Is champagne OK? Of course. So here's a bowl of fruit, then some sea bass with rice and vegetables. And yet more Brooklyn Nine Nine. I think I watched 15 episodes I total. This whole flight was about bingeing in one way or another.

The views of the seas and islands around Hong Kong were spectacular. When I was here in 2007 for 4 days I barely saw the sun, but now we were circling HK in light cloud and it looked amazing. The outdoor camera came into its own during landing and, oh, hello. I'm in Hong Kong. It was a 16 hour flight to literally go half way round the world, as NYC and HK are exactly 12 hours apart in time. Did I have a very long Thursday, or very short? I don't really know or care, I only know it was very awesome.

(Final champagne tally: 11 or 12 glasses; 2 on the ground and the rest on the plane)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's all about the game, and how you play it

Holy shit I have the entire BA first class lounge at JFK T7 to myself. Surely someone else will show up in the next 90 minutes? Kinda hope they don't as it goes.

So I woke up really early on Wednesday, having fallen asleep dead at about 10pm Tuesday. I didn't really care about jet lag - it's not like I'm staying in NYC long enough to bother acclimatising anyway. But 6am really was too early to get out and do stuff, so I did what I always do: blog, and watch TV.

TV was shit. The most noteworthy thing was an advert for paid sick leave, and Jason Statham playing his zero trick pony act. Oh, and BBC America appears to only show Doctor Who. Come 9am and I thought about getting up and doing stuff, though the thought of just staying in my room did appeal. I hate New York.

But, no. Stuff to do. Since I wasn't flying today, my first port of call was the Intrepid Museum. This is a museum actually on an aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid. It's an aviation museum and has a space shuttle and Concorde. Because planes.

To get there I had to walk a mile through Hell's Kitchen. Just past the police station next to my hotel I saw Mane Advocates which, sadly, is some kind of Better Call Saul lawyer rather than a wig shop. And that was the best thing about the walk. The route was largely nondescript and through a very non touristy party of town, except for 42nd Street which is famous or something. I did source a Diet Dr Pepper, the ready availability of which is one of my favourite things about the USA, and joined the hot queue for tickets at the museum.

After being in the queue for half an hour they were shouting that it was cash only. I hadn't been to an ATM, but thankfully the $80 I had leftover from Indonesia(!) was more than enough. Another half hour behind Mr Nike (Nike shoes, shorts, t-shirt, and watch; fanboy to the max) I got to the desk and asked for a ticket for Intrepid, the Space Shuttle, and Concorde. She said something and I couldn't make a word out. Turns out their mics were off. And their tills. And printers. The whole building had no power, which also meant she couldn't sell me a Concorde tour anyway because they didn't know if it was full. I could pay when I got there though.

Walked through, up to the flight deck, and ... wow. Shitloads of fighter planes and helicopters and it was fantastic. I didn't bother with an audio tour, just wandered around taking photos and looking surly enough that parents were making their kids move out of my way.

The A12 jet can fly at 85,000ft and go three times the speed of sound. Awesome piece of kit. But somewhat overshadowed by the space shuttle which is just incredible. It's actually not one which went into space, Enterprise being a prototype (and honestly named after Star Trek)  from which NASA learnt enough to warrant a redesign which would be too costly to retrofit. But it is a real thing and I did wander all around it and soak up all the exhibits surrounding it about the space shuttle programme. Got actual goosebumps thinking about the incredible feats of engineering that meant we had, for 30 years, essentially planes which go into space. So fucking awesome, literally.

Also in the shuttle pavilion was a Soyuz capsule, a cramped piece of shit which went up in 2005 and is on loan from a private individual who was one of the first civilian space tourists. I don't know if I'm jealous or not. It looks terrifyingly claustrophobic. As I circled it, a kid asked their dad if it had aircon.

There was a video narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and it was rubbish. I liked the reference on one info board to a "surplus 747". Space shuttles travelled at 20x the speed of sound. Wow.

Back out to the flight deck and into the quarters and decks. First, the admiral's deck, where the guide explained about the hundred phones and horns and stuff. Then the captain's deck, quarters, navigation rooms, etc. All fascinating. Some actual Vietnam vets were there and shaking hands with some actual USS intrepid vets. Aww.

Down, out, down, and in to the hangar deck. More like a traditional museum, albeit one in an aircraft carrier hangar and mess hall, lots of guns and turrets and helicopters and propellers and oh, a multi screen presentation recreation of the day 2 kamikaze pilots flew right into where we were standing, in November 1944, complete with smoke upon impact. That was quite bleak.

The Concorde tours are on the hour, and it was now 1301. I wandered over just to get a bit goosebumpy anyway, took some photos, and chilled on the seats under its wings for a while. One day I'll actually go inside one, but today was failing as much as my visit to Brooklands had.

So enough Intrepid. Bought some food and left, intending to now hit the High Line. This is a disused railway track above Manhattan that has, since my last visit, been reopened as a public garden and walkway above the city, just over a mile long. I really wanted to see it, but as I walked I started to fry - all the cloud had burnt away and the sun was beating down directly overhead. I bailed early and went to the hotel to escape the weather.  My phone turned red hot as 20 duplicate texts from Chris arrived.

In my room, I got online and chatted for a bit but mostly watched wrestling. Then I fell asleep for 10 minutes, which was worrying as I had to be at Stout by 5pm to meet Anil, an ex colleague who now lives in NYC. Set an alarm in case it happened again, and then stayed awake fine.

Stout is great. The beer and the pub. Normally when I go on holiday I, as anyone who has ever met me knows, seek Guinness and gauge my opinion of the entire country and all its citizens on how nice it is. Well, not New York. Here there are more Irish pubs than subway stations and indeed Stout is sandwiched between two and opposite another. More Guinness vendors than Temple Bar, so y'know what, fuck Guinness. Stout has 35 kinds of stout on the menu!

Anil was at the door as I arrived and we caught up. Actually we spoke a million mph about all kinds of things, including how hard to play the air miles game. He earns through work, me through credit cards, and we each play pretty hard and win. I explained my itinerary to him, which took some doing. We chatted about work and life - both of us enjoying both much more than for years - and then he had to go and meet his real friends. He wanted me to go with but, meh, it was 7pm and I had an early start. Plus I was in a bar with 35 kinds of stout on sale for fucks sake. And I didn't have the emotional energy to meet strangers. So, he left, and I ... also left. Stout wasn't really setup for people drinking alone. I couldn't hog a table to myself, but there was no space to sit at the bar. Never mind. Probably for the best that I call it a night drinks wise anyway.

Walked back toward the hotel and cursed my foolishness at missing out on the High Line. Checked it's website on my phone to confirm my memory of it shutting at 7pm and, no! It's open until 11pm! Huzzah! Bought a celebratory Diet Dr Pepper and headed straight to 10th and 30th. On the way I passed an Epoch Times vendor and hoped every byline was dated January 1st 1970.

The High Line is great. There's not much more to say about it than the description of what it is, and that I enjoyed it. I started off being quite annoyed there wasn't much evidence of the old railway tracks, but that went away when I realised I was surrounded by masses of old railway tracks and sleepers and had just been blind for the first 2 minutes.

I walked the entire length of it, stopping to sit and write a couple of times and helping out with some photos plus taking a few of my own. I thought it would be a marvellous location for a parkrun. And then I realised... I really liked New York today. I enjoyed everything. I didn't get lost. Nothing annoyed me except the beautiful weather. God fucking damn it, I'm meant to hate New York!

Back to the hotel, annoyed with my good mood. Sat at the bar and had a Guinness. It were ok. So were the second and third. I tried a sip of the "made with genuine Atlantic sea salt" ale and it was fucking horrible. They kept offering me food and I kept declining. Some Germans ordered wine and it wasn't clear whether they said "dry white wine" or "drei white wine". I watched CNN which had turned into The Ferguson, Missouri and Beheaded Journalist channel, and was amazed by the eloquence of a newscaster saying "as if this saga wasn't replete with metaphors enough".

And after everything, I realised I was extraordinarily excited about my next flight, which was by now less than 12 hours away, and so should go to bed. Checked the seat plan and it looked like there might only be me in the cabin. Checked the train times to get to JFK. Thursday was going to be ... long? Short? I'm really not sure.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Start spreading the booze

I just woke up in the city that never sleeps. Feel like I should watch an episode of King of the Hill, but I can't find much of interest on the TV to be honest so I've got a muted BBC America. I quite fancy some egg based breakfast actually. But first, this.

I fucked off from the AA lounge at about 1615. They'd said they were going to announce boarding about then, and that time was also written on my boarding pass. What's more, page four of the T3 PDF says gate 36 is 20 minutes walk at least, and I knew there'd be awkward secondary security and all that "are your electronics actually bombs?" stuff. So 45 minutes felt about right.

I was in my seat on the plane by 1624. 20 minutes to walk seems remarkably conservative. I know you have to get people to the gates on time so as to minimise delays and chaos but, I mean, really? I wasn't just at the gate in 9 minutes, I was on the fucking plane! Granted I did, in fact, not have secondary or any kind of security to deal with, and priority boarding was working well. Plus my seat was quite near the door, what with being in row 3.

Wow. What a seat. I'd booked this flight specifically to experience AA's new business class cabin, a supposedly giant leap forward taking them up to being one of the best in the sky. I was very impressed with it at first sight. The legroom was ridiculous, possibly even more than Qantas first class. The seat was not as wide or private, but there was loads of storage space and a fancy entertainment system. A blanket and pillows were on the footrest - too far for me to reach with my feet, mind. I sat and got comfy while being blasted by the loudest aircon I've ever heard.

It took 20 minutes for me to see a member of staff. Every business class I've been on, the staff come to ask to hang your coat, give you a drink or newspaper, ask if you need anything. I know it was still a long time to take off but to see no-one felt a bit... meh. I was in the front row of business, row 3, with a half decent view of First class which really didn't look like much of a step up.

Champagne arrived in a plastic cup. Plastic? Really? But, y'know, champagne... I also got handed my Bose noise cancelling headphones. Which I then spent about half an hour trying and failing to plug in. Their jack is actually 3 jacks in a triangle, and just above the USB socket was a triangle of sockets, but I just could not plug the fucker in. I also tried my own headphones in each of the three, and failed. For fucks sake. Wondered if I was going to have to move seat, if this was broken, so when a hot towel arrived I asked if there was a knack - and got told that the design is stupid, no one gets this right...and that the real headphone jack is inside one of the storage bits. The visible one is for component cables for video, wtf! Should I have bought my Wii?

They handed me a menu but correctly remembered that I'd pre-ordered chicken. We took off a bit late because some people weren't cleared to fly, I think. Not sure what time we left, I was too busy playing Threes... stupid fucking game.

Up in the air, champagne and nuts arrived and I slapped on Anchorman 2. Also bought wifi and got online, just for the sake of it. Meal service started really early, and it was announced that the flight time would only be 6:24 having been scheduled for 8:00, arrival time 2000.

The starters were absolutely delicious. Presentation was decent but these little cheap greasy spoon plastic salt and pepper shakers were oddly out of place. This is meant to be "premium", and it wouldn't cost fuck all to get some less flimsy pieces of crap to go with everything else. Weird. And such an insubstantive thing to complain about. The main course of chicken was nice too, and I turned down dessert in lieu of a cheese plate...which was tiny. Nice, but not enough for this fat bastard.

Loved Anchorman 2. Laughed out loud a lot. More champagne arrived and I set to writing the previous blog post while trying to watch Through The Wormhole With Morgan Freeman, which really pissed me off. The episode I had on was "Do we have free will?" and, grargh, I just wanted to shout OH FUCK OFF at half the segments. Especially the video vignette that seemed to say war and apartheid are like hurdling. I'm not making that up.

All throughout, the champagne came in a tumbler rather than a flute or wine glass. The quantity was vast.

It took me ages to write the blog post. Not entirely sure why. I fell into the trap of just "being online", so checking a guestbook here or there, looking at Facebook, etc. It felt bad. I couldn't concentrate, and missed the normal experience of just being free from everything by being in the air. I did very much like being able to keep tabs on Southend vs AFC Wimbledon though. Come on you Dons!

Gave up on the Wormhole and scanned through the vast film library. Loads of good stuff but I wanted something I'd not seen before and picked Oculus, which sounded OK. I learnt during the intro credits that it's from WWE studios.

After a while I'd realised skipping dessert wasn't ideal cos I fancied summat sweet. I also remembered there was a self service bar/snack area, and obviously wanted to give that a go. A member of cabin crew told me to just help myself and then disappeared, without actually telling me where the beer was. A different guy appeared though, and told me which of the mini desserts I should have. Put 3 on a plate and asked where the beer was - he said he'd bring me one, which sure enough he did along with a chipped glass. C'mon American, where's the flawlessness?

Turned off wifi and gave up on Oculus, deciding instead to opt for 12 Years A Slave. Dozed for half hour, and got woken up by cabin crew prodding me to ask if I wanted a light meal before landing. Well, yes, of course I do: turkey sliders and a diet coke. "Sliders" appear to be mini burgers which aren't very nice.

A "how to arrive in the USA" video got played, and I checked in online for my next flight (on Thursday). The remaining time was spent looking at sunset over NE America, bemoaning how bad the TV choice was given the excellent movie choice. We landed at 1925 and fuck me did they slam on the brakes or what. Turned my phone on to get a variety of texts and Facebook messages, all complimentary it seems. Thanks :)

So I'm not sure what to make of that flight. I had privacy (especially as there was no one in the seats near me) and the seat was spacious, the screen great, the movie selection fantastic...but I didn't make the most of it because I just dicked around on my ipad like I would at home. I didn't make it special. I did neck a lot of free booze and have good food too. Some of the small things felt big because they were out of place, and I didn't really enjoy the service. Hard to really describe why, but just generally felt a bit rigid, timetabled, there was no real personalised touch. I guess I just didn't find them friendly. But maybe it's me that isn't? Meh.

Anyway, hello JFK T7.  Everyone knows that US immigration is awful, slow, etc. And upon entering the arrivals hall I thought, uh oh. There was only one staffed desk - out of 15 - for the visitors queue, which rapidly grew to over 100 people. I was tenth or so from the front and the first person took 6 minutes to clear. Glance at the watch. 1939. Could be here a while.

Or not. They started sending people to queue up at the residents' booths.  I got very few questions from the official and walked right past the baggage carousels because I fucking win. Straight into the terminal landside and followed the signs to AirTrain. I knew the deal here: you buy your ticket at the end, not the start. By 2000 I was on my way to Jamaica station.

Very easy vending machines to use, card bought, and out into the main station. Followed the signs to the Long Island Railroad, bought a return to Penn station, got on the train imminently leaving, the 2021. Sat by the door opposite the sleeping beach goers and chatted to Chris by text. Reached Penn within 20 odd minutes, followed the signs to 8th avenue exit and GOD FUCKING DAMN IT I HATE NEW YORK.

I don't understand the roads. I knew I wanted W 35th Street and just needed to go along 8th Avenue to find it.  So I emerge from the 8th Avenue exit outside Madison Square Garden and follow the blue dot on google maps by walking straight ahead. First street: 32nd. How do I know if I'm going the right way? I just guess, and follow the dot. Next block: 31st. For fucks sake! Turn round walk back 4 blocks, bemoan how easy I find NYC's numbering system to get lost in every fucking time I'm here.

My hotel is down a side street, past the backstage area of some venue - Hammerstein Ballroom I think? And appears to be next to a police station. I check in and am told the bar shuts in 2 hours. In my room and online by 2100 - which, for a scheduled 2000 landing at JFK is pretty fucking good.

Tired. Chris was awake so I chatted to him. Turned the TV on hoping to find WWE Main Event but failed. Thought about going for a nightcap but, y'know what? I've been awake 21 hours, taken 3 flights 2 monorails 1 train 1 coach and travelled over 3700 miles. I've had 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 1 dinner and lots of snacks. And I've had a bunch of champagne and beer and...maybe I should just go to bed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Let TATL commence

I am currently midway through the largest glass of champagne I've ever seen. I'd always intended to blog from 35,000 ft but this is a bit earlier than intended because I fear I'll be too pissed later in the flight.

God, I'm so predictable.

Anyway. I'm at 35,000ft. Not just typing this, but actually online. American Airlines sell inflight wifi on their transatlantic flights for $19 and while one of the things I love about flying is the isolation, I figured I had to try it out once. Thankfully none of my other flights have wifi.

But, talk of other flights can wait. Let me get back to today. So, it was 0630 when I left off. I didn't partake of alcohol, instead grabbing another diet coke and getting distressed at overly polite children and the way the lounge was filling up; I packed up and headed off.

My flight to Jersey was at 0720 from one of the bizarrely labelled gates in Gatwick north. I also thought "Wetherspoons Express" was odd. Only jäger bombs?

Anyway. 55D(!). 55 seems to be some composite gate of domestic departures. At the time I thought all the suited folk stank of money and would be on the Jimmy Carr express to Jersey with me, but when boarding was announced and no one moved I learnt I was very wrong. I guess they were all just commuting somewhere. Ho hum.

I was in seat 2A by 0657. Sweet. BA's short haul business class is not a luxury seat, basically a bit more legroom than down the back and the middle seat is blocked and has a tray table on it for drinks and crap. But you're at the front. I'd paid something like £39 for this flight and the upgraded it to business for, I dunno. £49? Something like that. I wanted the avios and tier points in BA's frequent flyer scheme. Everything is a down payment...

Some other passengers were somewhat worse for wear, having changed onto this plane from a red eye from a big time in Lanzarote. Ouch. Also there was an unhappy and crying child. Oh dear. Though actually he was good as gold in the air, just didn't seem to much like the ground.

The aircon was fucking freezing. If someone had asked me "aren't you cold?", y'know what? I'd have said yes.

We left the gate exactly on time, 0720. Took off at 0742. They said flight time would be 35 minutes, so cue lightning speed service - by 0800 I'd had a small fry up, plate of cheese, croissant, and a cup of tea, and we'd started our descent. Go team! The weather had been largely clear and I'd been treated to great views of the south, the Isle of Wight, Alderney, and Jersey on the approach.

When I boarded that plane a huge wave of relaxation came over me. Let me explain why I was going to Jersey. Actually, I'll do this via a footnote as it's really tedious. It's at the bottom. Marked FOOTNOTE. But the relaxation part is because I knew I couldn't now miss my 0955 flight back. As it happens I would have been safer booking an earlier flight, which is counter-intuitive but I know for next time eh.

The 0955 from Jersey to Gatwick is the first leg of a two leg flight, to New York. I'm sure tens of thousands of people go from Jersey to New York every day, right? Though maybe not this Jersey... anyway I had, like, 90 minutes to kill. In theory I should have followed the crowd, signs, and staff's pointing fingers to the exit but instead, as soon as I was in the terminal I went about 3 feet to my right and straight into the BA lounge. Hello! Sure enough, before 9am the urge to get on the sauce took over. To be fair to myself, I had been up and active for almost 4 hours by now. No one would begrudge a lunchtime gin after getting out of bed at 9am right?

Anyway, it was local produce. I might not have strayed further than 10 yards from the BA plane stand for the whole time I was in Jersey, but this counted as tourism: Jersey Royal Gin. It was pretty nice. Artisanal. The lounge was empty as most people had got on the plane I'd just deplaned, after all. I spent most of my time chatting to Chris and Ian and Wooj about flying and wrestling. Not at the same time. Also being narcissistic on Facebook, as usual when I fly.

The flight was delayed by 20 minutes. I almost had more lounge booze, but resisted. Champers on the plane though - another majestic service, two choices of meal plus booze and softies and hot towels and bread all served in half an hour. More great views of the south, including a cracking look at the IOW and Solent. Seatbelt sign was on at 1050 though I got asked if I wanted another drink, heh.  By now I'd had 3 breakfasts. *bloat*

As we came in I realised one of the things I really dislike about Gatwick is that you don't fly over London. What's the point in a "London" airport if you don't see the place? Flying to Heathrow over the city is so much better.

Seatbelt signs were off at 1109. Less than 10 minutes later I'd bought my bag back, and walked down to get a national express coach to Heathrow. They average 5 coaches an hour but far from evenly spaced. I'd read from an official source that you can pay the driver, so I withdrew some cash and ... got pretty much told to fuck off by the driver of the 1135. Went to the counter, bought ticket, next coach: 1215. You fuckers.

Still, this gave me enough time to right Monday's wrong and get a Gatwick Guinness. The landside pub in North terminal is called The Globe. Its Guinness is fucking shit.

The coach was on time departing and early arriving at Heathrow. Neat. The driver asked that men sit down if they go for a piss, because it gets messy and sometimes the door flies open and it goes places piss shouldn't go. Very graphic request. Thanks for that.

I hadn't checked in for my next flight, though not for want of trying. The BA app had just said "nope" and directed me to ba.com, which directed me to AA.com, which said "nope". The AA app said "nope" and directed me to the the BA app which... so, at T3, I walked into the AA premium checkin shack. Though not before getting really frustrated with Heathrow signage. I've never seen such a combination of great signage and lost people, as if all the useful arrows, icons and text do more harm than good. What the fuck?

I got the third Spanish Inquisition degree at the AA desks. Where am I going? Easy. How long for? Um... And then where? What for? Um... but he let me through. At the desk I was checking my bag in because I knew it was too big, and mentioned that fact. She said, no, you can take that if you want, sure you can. I kinda half argued, stupidly, but in the end took it with me. This is a great move, as I really want to avoid queuing for bags at JFK.

Fast track security was excellent. The bloke in front of me virtually got shouted at: "the trays are here, pick them up yourself, we don't do it for you!". Marvellously British and surly.

To the lounge! Actually, multiple lounges. My flight is AA but there are 3 lounges operated by airlines in the same alliance. oneworld, in Heathrow terminal 3. Naturally I wanted to try them all.

First. the AA lounge. Here's where they'd be making boarding announcements after all. They had a brief panic that I wasn't actually cleared to travel to the USA but, well, I am. I put my holdall in the non-locker and found a perch. Grabbed a London pride and some biscuits - my apologies. cookies - and sat down.

The AA lounge was drab, boring, the cookies were rank and the people annoyed me. I understand, I really do, and they really had (and should have) no cause to care about me, but I was very put out by the loud American folk slagging off London and England so much. I know you're in the American Airlines lounge, flying American Airlines, to America, so you feel like you're at home already like I do in a BA lounge in $Foreign... but, meh. I love London. And as for moaning about "voluntary donations" at museums, from the land of the per-beer tip... ack I love most of the USA that I've visited, and like most Americans I know. This was just a bad couple I think. But it annoyed me.

At the desk to the BA lounge the lass commented that I was flying AA. "You prefer us to American?" "I don't know yet" "Oh I think you will". It was like every other BA lounge (I mean all of them, not every second one) which gave it a nice familiar feel, and the food was great. I had chilli and rice with singapore chicken. And a banana. And a London pride.

rice vermicelliThe Cathay Pacific lounge at Heathrow is where everything started. In 2006 yahoo sent me to Taiwan in business class and this was the first lounge I ever went in. Well, not this lounge - I didn't recognise it at all. But I did have a London pride and some noodles to order, which was by far the spiciest free scran I've ever had. Yowser.

Back to the AA lounge because I'd left my bag there. No more sauce, but a diet coke and some twiglets and some admiration of the shiny Pakistan International Airlines plane on the apron.

On reflection: the AA lounge was quietest/emptiest, and had the best loos. BA had the best booze selection, though my pride was warm. Cathay had the best food. Isn't that interesting?

Boarding was going to be announced but I couldn't stand the AA lounge any more, not only because it was drab but because this time I was being annoyed by a VERY LOUD MAN ON A MOBILE. He was a good 30ft away but kept shouting "HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME?" to a person who obviously fucking couldn't.

Y'know, I'm far touchier now I'm writing about it than I was at the time. Because at the time, I just upped and left, making my way to gate 36 for AA107. More of which anon; I have a new huge glass of champagne to attack...

FOOTNOTE (told you)

So, Jersey is this place that's UK but not UK, Europe but not Europe. I am making my way to New York, spending BA Avios to get there, and maths comes into play. To fly business class across the Atlantic from London costs 40k avios and an amount of taxes, fees, and surcharges. These monies are part of cash tickets too. One such tax is called airline passenger duty, which is levied according to distance and class. So long haul business class is top whack.

BA charge per flight, rather than per continent or "zone" - but you are allowed a free domestic connection in case you don't live in London. So! Combine the two and Jersey comes up: Jersey-Gatwick/Heathrow London costs the same number of avios, because it's UK, but avoids APD, because it's a tax haven. The amount I saved by "starting" from Jersey is, in the end, about the same as I spent on a hotel night, train, coach, and flight to Jersey - but I enjoyed those things and earnt miles from the flight. So in the end I saved no money, but I had more fun for the same price.

Also, I was an Amazon employee when I booked this. Dodging tax felt right.

Bloc Party

It's 0555 on a Tuesday. I'm in an airport lounge. I am yet to taste any alcohol and, in fact, am seriously considering not having any until at least 0720 and maybe not until gone 0900. I know, right? Today is going to be a long ol' day.

Yesterday was my last day at work until September. I had a 4.5hr meeting, which is probably more time than all other meetings I've ever had since joining Zoopla a couple of days after coming back from Australia in March. It felt at times like I was kinda being taken apart, though that's just my Low Self Opinion coming through. In reality it was a productive session with three tooth combs that generated a 20+ point list of actions for my two teammates and fuck all for me. Straight after the meeting I got roundly beaten at table tennis, turned my mac off, and walked to London Bridge, officially on holiday.

Naturally, that's when things started to go wrong.

I used to really like going through London Bridge station. Not sure why - it isn't architecturally nice and the trains don't really go anywhere interesting. I'm definitely over it now anyway. First I bought a single to Gatwick, and the machine didn't present me with an option to buy a ticket valid on every service - I had to pick between Southern and First Capital Connect. But of course the departure boards don't tell you the train operator for the next one or two services. As if I was an inexperienced rider of trains I went ahead and bought the Southern-only ticket, saving myself 80p and adding an extra 40 minutes to my journey. Dick.

Crammed myself into a seat with my bags, about which I had been suffering from anxiety all day because I'm sure I've packed way too much. Accompanied by a soundtrack of Danzig, Hank Rollins and Johnny Cash, I needlessly worried about taking up too much space as the train never got remotely busy as it trundled through South London and Surrey, stopping everyfuckingwhere, until finally arriving at Gatwick. I was moody and flustered and desperately in need of a Guinness.

my entire room at Bloc

First, though, my hotel. Months ago I'd booked to stay in a Travelodge behind the north terminal but last week I cancelled that and changed to the Bloc Hotel inside the south terminal. It was about £15 more but at least half an hour closer in time, and no faffing around with shuttle buses and the like. Plus it looked like much better quality. It's signposted well but I missed the first two and wandered past a giant checkin queue for some holiday charter before finding reception and getting my swipe card. Up to the 7th and into my 12sq.ft room, I was very impressed. Compact, no windows, the whole thing including bathroom was probably smaller than my bedroom at home but obviously way tidier, cleaner, etc. Smart TV and embedded tablet to control lights and aircon, plus free bottled water.

Left immediately to go drop a bag off. This morning I'm flying from Gatwick to Jersey, from where I'm catching a flight to Gatwick, and I didn't fancy checking my bag in for that. £9 for up to 24hrs storage seemed like a better bet (the hotel don't let you leave it at reception). This was over in the north terminal, which meant I got to do a monorail ride. We all know how much I love monorail rides.

Gatwick is open 24hrs. I saw signs talking about checkin time of 0255 for some Easyjet or Monarch flights to various sunny islands and shuddered at the thought. Went to WH Smith to buy a pad as I hate travelling without paper to write on, the failed to have a pen so kept jotting crap on my phone as I sat in Wetherspoons nursing a Guinness.

I say Guinness. I mean Erdinger. For fucks sake, first drink of the holiday and the pub is out of Guinness. Damn it! Still, the fish and chips were nice (even if they were delivered to my table suspiciously quickly - about 2 minutes after I ordered) and while there I found a stream of WWE SummerSlam to watch. I'd caught the first 3 bouts that morning before work and was gutted about the idea I'd have to wait until next bloody week to see the rest. Also I was jealous of Ian, who was texting me about it but trying not to spoil. He needn't have worried since I promptly stumbled across a spoiler online anyway, like a fool. Went back to my room without further booze as I didn't fancy the generic M&S lager buyable only in 4 packs and watched wrestling, while briefly fighting the TV - I managed to turn it on with the remote, which promptly stopped working for 10 minutes so I couldn't turn the fucker off. Eventually it worked by pressing the button REALLY hard while swearing. Not sure which was the more important factor.

I set two alarms. Uncharacteristically, and somewhat depressingly, I'd been fretting and nervous about today for the last week or so. I booked some of the flights I'm about to take back in September of last year and have been looking forward to this trip a lot, but it occurred to me that a single fuck-up - getting up too late, bad weather, a plane going tech - and all my plans plus a lot of money could go up in smoke. So I set my phone to wake me at 0500 and 0530, each labelled GET THE FUCK UP, and dozed off just after midnight.

Planes!The 5am alarm startled me into immediate alertness, which was nice. Within 20 minutes I was up, showered, packed, had checked out, and was on my way back to the monorail. Gatwick is properly busy and I wandered straight to the departure area since I'm no bags and have a boarding pass on my phone. It says "fast track" on it but I couldn't see a fast track area, so joined the throng and was through in 4 minutes anyway. No one was dicking around like last time I went through Heathrow, and I was particularly well prepared even for me. Airside here is a lot nicer than I remember it being - but, I think it was 2007 last I was here (flying to and from Jersey, no less).

I'm still kinda nervous. My flight is a single to Jersey, landing at 0820 so that I can fly back on the 0955. I'll explain why later, but for now I'll say that this was an attempt to be clever and mitigate risk that could, in fact, easily backfire and be my downfall. I'm sure it won't be, but, it nags, it nags...

Now then. 0630 as I finish my breakfast and this post. Gin?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

You Vaticannot be Serious

Other potential titles for this post: Rome and Away, Whererever I May Rome, Romeward Bound, ... hat tip to Nige for all of those.

Er, yeah. I'm in Rome. Sat on BA557 FCO-LHR. This has not been an average Sunday.

BA recently have been pimping a lot of cheap day returns to lots of cities in Europe, for like £69-99 return with a good few hours at the destination. For no real reason I'd woken on Saturday of a mind to get one, but only halfhearted. The idea really took hold when I realised I could mop up a passport stamp that had been left out of GCERC - Vatican City - on my only previous visit to Rome when I disliked almost everything about it. Rome priced up at £88 return, dropping to £68 if I part paid with some of my Avios stash. For almost 2,000 miles of flying and a new passport stamp? Very tempting, I kept checking availability all day and it wasn't disappearing, but... nah. Stupid idea. And besides, I'd quite like a day at home, some quality time with my Xbox, a run, and to go out Saturday night and create a hangover that wasn't going to get in the way of anything.

So, I didn't buy the flights...until 11pm, while drunk, in the pub. Given the background it doesn't qualify as a pissed impulse purchase, but the nagging feeling joined forces with some chiding, goading, and a bit of "do it, it's awesome and I'll be jealous" from my drinking partners and I pulled the trigger. With much ranting about how shit BA's app and mobile websites are. Grr.

There are early flights, but those are stupid. Given the 11pm-ness of the hour and state of my head, I at least had the wherewithal to not book either the 7am or 9am flight. No, that would be silly. Instead I got onto the 1020, returning on the last cheap flight at 1850. This gave me 4.5 hours which sounded like plenty of time to find St Peter's Square and get back. Four and a half hours! You can do loads in four and a half hours. Hey, I might even be able to find a Roman Guinness, or go back to the place where I lost my trilby last year and see if they had it in their lost property. This just couldn't fail.

My alarm was set for 0530. Went to bed about 0100. The alarm did wake me, and I will swear until my dying day that I hit snooze, not OK, but next thing I knew I was waking naturally at 0711 and shouting SHIT! to myself quite loudly. I like to get to airports in plenty of time, not still be at home 3hrs before departure.

Jumped out of bed. Very quick shower, cleaned me teeth, put some washing in the machine, packed a spare shirt and my USB brick and ipad, grabbed me passport and away. Out the door by 0722 or so. Sore head. Ouch. Starting to think the previous night's "why not?" actually had a valid answer.

Got a bus to Kingston, swore at myself for forgetting sunglasses and pen/paper. Swore at my headphones for pausing my iPhone's music every 3 seconds or so and gave up on them. Swore at the buses because there wasn't an express one waiting for me, and got the 285 instead. Which I then got off, at Teddington, where I bought a diet coke, took a photo of Mo Farah's gold postbox, and caught the express bus after all. Less than 15 minutes from there to Hatton Cross, it took longer to subsequently get the tube 2 stops to Terminal Samsung Galaxy S5. Somehow I was there by 0840.

Queued at security and watched the bloke in front of me create unnecessary delays by clumsily removing his shoes. No one else was taking their shoes off, no one was being asked to, his were not boots or metal or anything special. He also waited right until getting to the front to ask if his laptop had to come out. Everyone else was taking laptops out, being asked to, and there are signs. Thanks, Opposite Man.

In the BA lounge by 9am. Breakfast: a bacon roll, a cheese and omelette muffin, and a can of London Pride. I WAS AIRSIDE. The lounge was heaving full but I got a good seat at the counter by the window, with a cracking view of planes landing every 90 seconds to the backdrop of a pristine cloudless blue sky. I was a bit annoyed at having picked an aisle seat for the flight. Chatted to Chris online about what the fuck I was doing.

Wandered fairly early to the gate, which weren't far anyway. Got there about 2 minutes before they announced boarding, with proper fast track so waving my Cathay Pacific card got me on nice and early. Fear the snob. Turns out I'd picked a window seat after all, excellent. The plane was rammed, every seat taken and lots of announcements about stashing luggage and they'd let you check stuff if you wanted. I was a bit nervous about taking off late but we just about pushed back on time.

Flight was largely uneventful. Some turbulence. Some screaming children. Lovely views of countryside and the alps. A half decent chicken flatbread thing and a can of Heineken. Dozed off while reading Terry Funk's autobiography. We arrived a bit early. Hurrah!

So, er, about that 4.5 hours on the ground thing. Turns out Fiumicino airport is a fair distance outside of Rome, with an express train every half hour that takes half an hour itself. So worst case scenario therefore was 59 minutes from platform to Temini station, on top of however long it took to get to the trains from the plane. That's a big chunk of time! And of course I had to get back and be airside before, I dunno, an hour or so before the flight? This is getting tight...

That Internet had said the trains were at xx05 and xx35. It lies, they're xx08 and xx38. We landed at 1418. Could I make the 1438?

Could I balls. Though it was a bit closer than it might have been. The first delay was that being in a window seat back in row 18 did not make it easy to get out quickly. And then, everyone in front of me walked down the jetway crazily slowly. Some confusion as a group of people had just stopped, mid-corridor. I'd never been to this airport before but am pretty good at following signs to exits. Apparently this is not a skill widely taught.

Secondly, I went for the world's longest piss and had to change my shirt. I don't mean those to sound related, they aren't. I just needed to change, and had a piss while in the cubicle, and I was somewhat less dehydrated than expected. Ahem.

A monorail! Hurrah! But this betrays the fact that it's a bit of a trek to immigration, which I half expected to be a cause of delay number three - turning into full expectation after I turned the corner into the hall to be presented with a giant snaking queue like those regularly experienced in Sydney or Heathrow. But it was in the all passports line, while the EU line ... didn't exist. There was a lane, and a man manning a desk, but no one using it. I strode up and straight through.

The eventual third delay came about because apparently people don't understand Trenitalia ticket machines even when they're in the customer's native language. Lots of faffing in front of me; I missed my train by 2 minutes. Fucking hell. 1508 it is.

I'd found a €5 note at home on Saturday and that was all the cash I had, apart from some shrapnel in my rucksack. Broke the note on a tall thin can of coke light and cunningly bought my Roma Termini to Fiumicino ticket, since I had so much time to kill. This also told me the timetable: I picked the 1720, arriving 1752, aka 58 minutes before departure. That'd be fine, right? So now I'm looking at arriving at Termini at 1540, leaving it at 1720.

Fuck. That is tight. It's especially tight when you consider that the Vatican isn't by that station, but requires a 6 stop metro ride which itself requires a separate ticket purchase. And it's apparently almost a kilometre to St Peter's Square from that metro station, And I had it in my head that 1540-1720 was 80 minutes.

Fuck. That is tight.

So by the time I'm trundling through the Rome outskirts, I'm in panic mode. Is this a colossal fail? Should I even attempt it? As far as I knew, there were no later BA flights (or I'd have booked one). And while Heathrow requires you to be past security 35 minutes before the flight, is Rome stricter? I decided, like any right thinking man, to check that internet thing again, Happily, all I could find were scare stories about how much of a nightmare FCO is, how you should arrive a MINIMUM of 2 hours before your flight, how the UK flights being non-Schengen require more time, ... oh dear.

Still, in for a penny, in for a pound. I'd come all this way and what's more, I realised 1540-1720 is 100 minutes. Surely I can go 12 tube stops and a quick wander at street level inside 100 minutes. In fact...could I do it in 70? And get the 1650 train, getting me back to the airport a positively leisurely 90 minutes before departure. After all, I'm already checked in - and the last time I trusted airport horror stories was in Bali, which was unrecognisably easy to get through.

Let's. Do. This?

I fucking hated Roma Termini station in July 2013 and I still hate it in May 2014. Full of thousands of people wandering at random directions and speeds like a Brownian motion simulation. Or something. No one seemed to realise I was in a VERY IMPORTANT HURRY, no one got out of my way. There are building works making the route from the airport express to Metro line A a pain in the arse. And the ticket machine didn't accept my credit card. GOD DAMN IT. Thank fuck for a handy €2 coin.

The metro itself was so insanely overcrowded. Comparable to post-event tubes from Wembley. And no aircon. But despite all the annoyances and stuff, I find myself on a train just 10 minutes after getting off the express. 60 (or 90) to go...

The first 4 stops took a total of 4 minutes. I liked that. The next two were a bit spread out, but not terribly so, not like the difference outside of Stalin's stain. So I'm at Ottaviano at about 4pm. 50 (or 80) minutes to go...

No idea which exit to take. People ambling and meandering. I'M IN A HURRY HERE, PEOPLE. Decided to follow a nun as it seemed likely she might be going to the Vatican.

In the end, she went up a staircase I didn't fancy and the following stopped. Emerged next to loads of shops and street hawkers (er, not magical crime fighting motorbikes, just people selling stuff). Tried to get my phone to tell me which way to go as there were no signs, but couldn't waste time waiting for it to answer and just set off in a guessed direction. Basically it was a straight road, which seemed apt for Rome. Phone eventually answered me and said I was going the right way. Score!

Got to a big crossing, oh look, some walls! That has to be the Vatican, right? Yes! Kept walking past the suspiciously high number of trilby salesmen, keeping an eye out for mine but none of them were comedy giant head size. Got to the big gate. Walked through. YES.

The Vatican (47) ☑

Wait. x-ray machines? But all closed off? Can I actually get into the...aha! Yes, the square is open. St Peter's, I am at you. Quick, some photos. Look, a post office. Christ it's hot. Christ I'm hot. Christ I should stop saying Christ while at the Pope's place. Huge queue to see him. Lots of people. Took a selfie, because fuck yeah Vatican selfie.

Brain a million miles an hour. I have, apparently, gone from England to Italy to the Vatican and it's just gone 3pm on a Sunday afternoon back home and, whoa, no time to lose. It's 1615 or so local and I want that bloody 1650 train. I got here in 35, surely I can get back in 35? Quick stop for a Swiss Guard photo, then pegged it back down Ottaviano GET OUT OF MY WAY ARGH into the station USE THE MACHINES QUICKER ARGH to the platform DON'T JUST CONGREGATE AT THE ESCALATOR BOTTOM ARGH caught the desperately unpleasantly hot and sardine tin packed tube. Took about 4 minutes just for everyone to spill out back at termini which somehow managed to be an even more horrible experience than the previous 3. I AM STILL IN A HURRY.

I hate Rome's public transport.

But. Relax. I made it for the 1650. With 1 minute to spare. Like a coldcut mixtape, that was 70 minutes of madness. I'm a sweaty horrible mess, too late to get a proper seat and have to park in the vestibule, but that's OK. The preposterous absurdity of the whole day is making me grin daftly at myself and I'm successfully attention seeking like a bad-ass on Facebook. But not quite relaxed, let's see if the airport horror stories are accurate...

Of course they're fucking not. Internet, you suck. I got off my train at 1720 and was in the lounge by 1735. Security, a breeze. Immigration, same as on the way in - hundreds of folk in the all passports line, just one in the EU line. BA lounge very easy to find. Marvellous.

The lounge had no beer. What the fuck. There's not even an obvious place where they'd put beer if they did have any. Poured a vodka and swapped puns with Nige, chatted with Chris, had a plate full of random savoury snacks, once some plates appeared. The woman at the desk had insisted I needed to change my card on the booking to be my Cathay card if I wanted to enter the lounge, so I said fine and then promptly changed it back myself on finnair's website once inside. I want my Avios, you! Also had a bit of a discussion on a secret, Masonic-lodge-esque guestbook of powerful shadowy figures from the world of football about what constitutes a legitimate visit to a country. I say: you have to be on land, beyond immigration, and not in a vehicle. So I've been to Slovakia because I got off a train for 20 minutes. I wouldn't have counted it if I'd just gone through, and I won't count airports where I haven't gone landside - which means I haven't been to Ethiopia despite getting drunk, twice, in Addis Ababa airport.

And now, I've been to the Vatican City. For about 6 minutes. Hah. Time to go home!

Didn't wait for boarding to be called, instead headed to the G gates a bit early. Another monorail trip, huzzah! There was a pigeon flying around inside the terminal. And then a scrum of fail at the fast track boarding, as pretty much everyone claimed they were eligible. They were not. Got "hello again" as I boarded, took my seat in 30A and again the plane has filled to bursting, every seat taken. Spent the whole flight writing this, apart from when I was having a reprise of my morning meal (chicken flatbread, Heineken). Literally as I type this, they are playing the "how to arrive at Heathrow" video and I can see London out of the window.

Kinda wondering how the "how was your weekend?" conversation will go at work tomorrow. I'm only 2.5 months in, they don't know me very well yet. Huh.

ADDENDUM from the 285 to Kingston: I was amused by the Americans attempting to teach some Brits on queuing etiquette as we deplaned. And Moves.app reckons I ran for 3 minutes by the Vatican. I SAID I WAS IN A HURRY.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Park ton

This post is ONLY ABOUT RUNNING. No flights, no booze. You have been warned!

Bushy parkrun start area
Bushy parkrun start area

I ran my 100th parkrun this morning! Bit pleased with that. For them that don't know, parkrun is a free, weekly, timed 5km run at 9am every Saturday with the occasional Christmas or bonus bank holiday. There's loads of the bastards, all over the country and world; my local event happens to be the one which started it all - Bushy Park, Teddington, aka the cradle of parkrun - and it now regularly tops 1,000 participants. I've done 86 of my runs at Bushy, with the other 14 split between 11 events around London, England, and the world - my overseas exploits in Russia in Australia have already been written up. Already plotting how to reach one down in New Zealand.

When I first started, doing a 9am Saturday run had dual benefits: the run itself was a good way to lose weight and get fit, and the time put me off getting drunk on Fridays because I didn't want to miss them. But after a year or so I thought, hang on, I already don't particularly enjoy running itself - how much worse can it be with a hangover? Turns out, not much at all. And since then I've never pulled out of a run because of a hangover. Laziness, depression, holiday, work, sure, but never a hangover. Steve actually called me "champion hungover runner" once.

Proper parkrun weather.

Weather rarely puts me off either. In fact I prefer running in the cold, with a bit of rain. I've run in -6ºc, in deep snow,in cross-country style mud, through deep puddles. Heat is much worse. I'm glad parkrun in Australia is at 7am instead of 9am.

Aaaanyway. Making it to a hundred means I get a new (free!) shirt and jacket (maybe), emblazoned with the parkrun logo and a big fat 100 on the back. I never need to wear my 50 shirt again, I guess. But it also feels like a good time to do a bunch of pointless analysis and generate some stats porn. Hurrah for stats! My parkrun profile page has some but really not enough to satisfy me.

First, stuff I can't easily graph. Reaching 50 took 110 weeks, a milestone I hit on October 27th 2012. I immediately started to look toward when I might hit 100 and discovered that my 40th birthday falls on a Saturday, 87 weeks on from then. Obviously it became my target to reach the century on or by then - and making it today means that from 50 to 100 took 81 weeks. Achievement unlocked! And also obviously this means I've taken 191 weeks in total, so on average I get out just a bit more often than every other week. 191 weeks is roughly 3 years and 8 months.

The only day of a month I've not done a parkrun on is the 28th. My birthday is on a 28th. Huh.

Clearly, I've run 500km. For people who prefer other units of measurement, that's 310.86 miles, 59651.63 double decker buses or 4754.84 football pitches (thanks to this calculator).Practically, this means I could run to anywhere in Belgium, most of the Netherlands or Luxembourg, easily reach Paris and just about get to Hellfest outside of Nantes. I could almost get some kölsch in Cologne, but no haggis in Glasgow.

500km from my flat

Now, graphs! I'm no statistician but I like the number of things you can tease out of 100 pieces of data with only 3 variables: location, date it occurred, and time it took. And google's graphing library sure makes them look prettier than I could ever do by myself (though some of the automatically chosen colours are a bit ropey).

Actually, not graphs quite yet. What a fucking tease, eh? Anyway, I can't easily embed them in this page so I've had to put them elsewhere - so first, some headlines before I send you on your way.

  • Best time: 26:14; worst: 39:57; average: 29:46 (very happy to be below 30:00!)
  • October is my favourite month, July and August my least favourite
  • I managed a 5-Saturday month in March 2014
  • There have been 5 months since my first run where I've not managed a parkrun at all. Lazy depressed Darren is lazy and depressed.
  • My 30s are ending on a high

OK, so, now, graphs.

Huh. £68 for a day trip to Rome sounds like a decent way to tick off the Holy See...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Endorphin Russia

(This is a running heavy post; lots to skip if you want to get to the bits about alcohol and luxury travel. Look out for "THAT'S IT ABOUT RUNNING")

Obviously I woke up way before my alarm. I like that. When I'm in decent mental shape and generally enjoying life, I can get away without an alarm and setting one annoys me because it's a little bit of weakness. I like to trust my body to sleep the length of time it needs to and wake me up naturally, and I've previously went for 2+ years straight without setting one even when I was travelling, had early flights, work, parkrun, etc.

Stayed in bed 'til it went off though, playing Threes. Fuck me that's an enthralling and addictive game. I was up early because I was heading out to do my one and only solo venture during the trip: it's Saturday, so it's parkrun.

I found out a few weeks ago that not only was Parkrun Russia an actual thing that exists, but one of the runs was in a park near the metro station just one stop away from the one next to our hotel. And because the park in question is actually the one we'd visited on Friday afternoon - Kolomenskoe - I already had a pretty decent idea how to get there, though the run itself goes along the river bank and we'd not made it down to the water.

Unfortunately I'd packed my only pair of shorts with no pocket, and hadn't brought my armband thing. Somehow I needed to head there with my tube ticket, phone, barcode, hotel key and, in theory, passport - I think I read somewhere that foreign types (or maybe everyone?) are meant to have photo ID on them at all times. After briefly testing out the preposterous idea of literally keeping my passport under my beanie, I decided I'd play super-ignorant on the last count if challenged and left it in the room. Everything else I shoved in my wallet which I wrapped in the hat. Took a screenshot of the directions from the Metro and set out, wearing my parkrun 50 shirt and feeling pretty intreipd and intimidated.

Kolomenskoe is, park aside, a residential suburb so I had to make my way past the buskers, beggars, tramps, and short headscarfed women carrying huge bags. All of life evident at 0840. As I got to the park's entrance another runner was entering and I assumed he must have been going to parkrun, so followed him. Good choice. The weather was perfect - sunny, no breeze, fairly cold. About 15 people or so were hanging around and I loitered some distance away, watching everyone assiduously go through warm ups and stretches.

With about 5 minutes to go a guy came up to speak to me, asked where I was from, etc. Viktor, nice bloke. Another lad also briefly spoke. Both wished me good luck. Then things started happening. There were about 60 or so people, I thought (and the results page says 59). Firstly a proper warmup session was being led by a girl, getting us to do lots of shoulder rotations and waving our arms and jumping 'n that. Then we all had to line up single file facing the river while, er, some stuff got said and lots of photos were taken. Then we had to form a crowd for yet more photos, then change direction and we're off!

SPEED OF LIGHT
The route is a perfectly flat - apart from one tiny bridge over a stream - 2.5km out, 2.5km back along the riverside path. And it is perfect. The views are spectacular, the weather spot on, the path very wide, the touristy cathedrals and stuff are on the way, and you can pretty much see the turning point / finish the whole way, as the route hugs a large bend in the river.

I wasn't expecting much, nor wanting much. I just wanted to do my 97th parkrun, and yeah, thought it was quite cool to do a parkrun in my 3rd country - 3rd country in just 8 weeks, as it happens, after Australia in March and all the Bushys since. The 1.5km I'd run to get to the start was, I thought, surprisingly fast at 5:35/km, despite how knackered I felt after 4 hard days of tourism and drinking. Midway through the first km I looked my watch and it said I was running at 5:01/km pace, which would be a ridiculous personal best if I kept it up, but I didn't think much of it because I have a history of setting off way too fast.

My best ever parkrun is 26:34, just under 5:19 pace. And my best ever 5km is in the same region, though "moving time" was 26:08 but I don't think I can claim that. At about 1.8km in Kolomenskoe I was still at around 5:12 or 26:00 for 5km. After the turn it dropped, and kept dropping - but only by one second at a time, and in fact I was still at PB pace come 3.75km. And 4km. Dropped to 5:17. Gave a push, got it down to 5:16 again. Kept staring at my watch and it registered 5km covered in 26:20, holy fucking shit! And the full run came in at 26:42, pretty much confirmed by the official result from parkrun HQ giving me 26:44. So not a PB, and given the course it's far far more likely that the GPS was just wonky than I actually ran an extra 70 metres by not taking the racing line, but details details: that's comfortably my fastest 5k for 2.5 years, only the second time I've ever had an age grade of over 50%, and I did it in the best setting I'd ever done a parkrun. Plus I'm only 3 shy of the ton.

Not a bad morning, that. Got my barcode scanned, spoke to Viktor again - who also had done a personal best, and who caught up to run with me a bit as I headed back to the Metro too - and made my way back to the hotel utterly fucking full of endorphins.

Fucks sake. The new flickr app is being absolutely shit at uploading photos.

Anyway. Gave Ian a knock and then did a bit of facebookery, retroactively marking my attendance at the Kolomenskoe parkrun event and posting a photo 'n that. Posted a message on their page to say thanks, hoping that what Google Translate had given me would actually make sense. I think it did. I got a friend request from Viktor, a shitload of likes, and later in the day a whole fuckton of photos got posted by the Kolomenskoe guys to Facebook and I was already tagged in some of them. Neat!

THAT'S IT ABOUT RUNNING

Packed, filled out my remaining mini-bar thing, and we checked out. I don't think I got charged for internet even though on at least one of the days I'd picked the non-free faster version. I'll miss having to login via a site where you have to click on the Russian flag / Cyrillic word 'русский' in order to get the English version of the page. Left our bags in their baggage room and headed out once again to Red Square.

It was the nicest, hottest day yet. And there were bloody loads of tourists. Because it didn't seem to be cordoned off we started to wander up towards St Basil's to get some good weather close-up pics but en route it seemed that Lenin's Tomb was not doing a roaring trade, so maybe we should try and tick that one off quickly? The queue looked small but we had to skirt round the back of the huge museum to get there, and once we did we saw... another, bigger, slower queue. And the Tomb was shutting in 40 minutes anyway. Scrapped the idea and walked back to GUM, the huge shopping mall, via the lookalike photo opportunities.

Masha had told us that history will judge Stalin neutrally, 'cos he did some bad things, some good. I appreciate I know very little detail about his reign but, well, that's not exactly how my western perspective of him is. So it was a bit of a surprise to see a Joe Stalin lookalike being a popular attraction. I can't imagine anyone donning a Hitler get up in Berlin or Mussolini in Rome. Or do they?

The main reason we were back in the city centre was GUM. We had rubles to spend and each wanted to get some Russian sweets and drinks to take home with us. After another epic wander through the store we both bought some Kremlin vodka - I did briefly consider buying some of the seemingly bizarre "Jews are awesome" vodka - and a bunch of chocolates and sweets.

Back to the hotel via a food kiosk for Ian, got our bags, and made our way to the airport. Pavletsky station was well signposted and we grabbed seats on the crazily hot - even with aircon - airport express train. 45 minutes passed without much conversation really, I was flagging and already in "just get to the plane" mode, plus horribly antisocially addicted to playing Threes some more.

I barely remember passing through Domodedovo on the way in 'cos I was so fucked up on champagne. I'm not proud, but now I think it might have been a sensible move because having been sober as a judge on the way back I can say that I fucking hated the place.

Check-in was easy enough, straight up to the first class desk. But they said Ian had to take his bag to the oversize baggage desk because it's a rucksack with straps. What? At that desk he had to hand over his boarding pass then wait for a lift to come, and place the bag in the lift. And then leave the lift. What? Very bizarre.

Next, we tried to find how to actually get airside. We were departing from gate 13 and there were two "areas" which said they led to gates 1-22, but the monitors over "area B" didn't mention our flight. So we went to "area A", where the monitors did. First was outbound customs, with green and red channels, then passport control then security. At passport control we were expertly hindered by a woman walking slower than anyone I've ever seen before, and we twice joined the wrong queue until spotting the sign which said "this queue for foreigners".

At the desks, everyone was taking fucking ages to get through. I couldn't catch what the officials were saying to the passengers so waited to hear it first hand, which I never did because when I got to the desk she just found my visa, stamped it, kept the departure card, and waved me through. Huh.

At security we thankfully didn't have to remove shoes, which is good because I was sockless and my feet are pretty horrible things. There were loads and loads of trays specially for shoes though. Electronics didn't have to come out of bags so we just queued up, shoved everything in trays, and got thoroughly confused by the guy between Ian and me who wanted to take his metal rollaboard suitcase through the x-ray machine. How can anyone be so fucking oblivious to what every single other person is doing, even if you've never travelled or been to an airport before? EVERYONE is putting their bags on the machines, their metal stuff and coats in trays, and collecting the other side. Utterly bizarre.

Went straight in the nearest duty free shop and bought another bottle of vodka, and Ian checked a few shops for some very specific gifts which nowhere had. By now it's about 90 minutes 'til the flight and I'm in the mood for the lounge. BA's lounge at DME is called the Navigator Club lounge. It seemed to be the only lounge which wasn't signposted anywhere. We walked the length of the terminal and descended, as it happens next to the gate we'd fly from. The whole place was fucking heaving and people demonstrated the same ignorance and lack of spatial awareness as they do in crowded places the world over. I was getting really quite fucking grumpy, almost certainly because I was starving: I'd had zero calories so far despite having been awake for 9 hours, and expended loads. My blood sugar was probably really low, and I was on a fucking short fuse.

Eventually we saw signs to the BA lounge, which was at the opposite end of the terminal and back up the escalator. It's not a very impressive lounge, and did not really have the benefit of being a calm place away from the horrors of regular departure areas - not because it was crowded, but because the entire place seemed to be operating as a creche for 5 or 6 kids to run around and make loads of noise. Jesus christ. I nabbed a slice of cake and a can of lager, and then a plate full of cold food, and then a plate full of hot food. My mood started to improve almost immediately.

The BA app said our flight was delayed by 10 minutes, but before I'd even finished my sole can of beer boarding was announced. The gate was pretty slow going, not least because one couple seemed to be trying to get on the wrong flight and didn't understand that fact. But, down the airbridge we went and escorted to our seats in the nose of a 747.

When I'd managed to grab us seat 1A and 1K a couple of days previously the seat map made it look like there was no-one else in First. And so it turned out. We had the whole cabin (of only 14 seats) to ourselves, which also meant the entire staff for only us. Ace. He was a nice bloke who treated us very well indeed. There's kinda two ways the pointy end staff can treat customers: either some full-on "you are in First, and everything is posh here" formality or a more personalised "I'm going to give you the full First service, but interact with you in the way suits you". This guy was definitely the latter. Chatty, laughing, but no kowtowing or sense of ceremony.

Caviar and vodka? Oh, go on then.
So, two glasses of champagne before take off, a new washbag and pyjama set, and a safety demonstration during which I said "I'm pretty sure we can figure out the nearest exit when we're in row one". Take off itself was a bit mental - looking out the window there were planes everywhere, at random angles, seemingly no taxi ways or anything like that. Even some pedestrians, wtf. We thought one turning plane might actually graze our nose. I've never seen so many planes just littering an airfield.

Once in the air, chatted with our cabin guy a bit about how we wished it was a longer flight. The fizzy drink kept flowing and the meal service started: Belgian oscietra caviar washed down with a Russian vodka, then some duck to start followed by a main of seared scallops and for dessert, a big cheese plate. And a large bourbon.

I watched the last 20 minutes of Wolf of Wall Street, which was disappointing, and then two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm which I laughed very hard at. We'd actually taken off early and had a short flight time so there wasn't time to see masses of stuff. I just about managed to fit in "David Blaine - Real Or Magic", a show where he does all kinds of tricks to celebrities and the tricks are amazing. I'm a sucker for magic anyway and Blaine's tricks are out of this world. He does this one on Harrison Ford, in his Kitchen. Indy says very little throughout the trick, just nods of the head, and at the big reveal he looks shocked as anything then turns to Blaine and says "get the fuck out of my house". Fantastic. I properly loved that show.

"One for the road"? Well, don't mind if I do. Do like champagne. Do like flying.

There's no chauffeur service with BA, so the luxury experience ended when we got off the plane. There's only a fast track at immigration for non-British passports, with natives like us just ushered to the electronic gates. Our bags came out fairly quickly and we made our way to the Piccadilly Line via a stop to get some queen's heads in exchange for our remaining roubles. Went to Hatton Cross and got off to get a bus, feeling a bit drunk, very knackered, and sad that it was over. Also a bit confused by how cosmopolitan everything seemed, but glad all the Rs and Ns were the right way round.

Moscow was awesome. And that's 27,030 miles flown in 2014 so far. Next up: 22,855 miles in 8 days (and another new passport stamp) in August. My first trip of my 40s.