I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Three months, 27 minutes and 51 seconds in the life of darrenf

I finally got my sense of achievement.

Warning: in what follows I lay on the misery and emo melodrama thicker than an Ed's Diner milkshake. But this isn't a negative post: I feel amazed, proud, impressed, happy; also, humbled and indebted. All because I did a 5km fun run for charity the other day, on October 24th, in 27 minutes 51 seconds.

We'd only been going out a month or so when Ellie told me of her theory -- no, her belief -- that pretty much anyone can run 5km, and she can teach them how. I say "pretty much" because we obviously discount people with proper physical barriers to doing so, but your common-or-garden fat fuck like me was a definite candidate. In 3 or 4 lessons she'd have me running 5k in one go.

I scoffed. Not like scoffing a pie (though, actually, I may well have been doing that at the time), but like pshaw, tish, pish, balderdash and piffle my dear. Not everyone can run 5k, I said. I can't run 5k, I said. See I've got dodgy lungs, have had forever, dad smoked 60 a day when I were a nipper and I've got bronchitis. Hospital one Christmas time when I was young, inhalers, steroids for me lungs. Broken. So, no, you won't get me running 5k, I said.

Bollocks, she said. Listen here, she said (I'm going to stop with this "I/she said" crap soon). Anyone can run 5k. The fact that I can walk 13 miles fucking proves it. All I needed to do was learn technique, to take her up on her offer of lessons. Thus the mutual challenge was laid, both of us wanting to be right... though, of course, I didn't really want to be right. I wanted to be fit enough to go running (I could write quite a lot about sibling jealousy/inspiration here, but I won't), but I honestly and genuinely believed it would, or could, never happen.

It's not my place to comment on Ellie's motivation for taking me on as a pupil. I think and hope she recognised that I wanted to do it, and didn't think I was doing it just to (try and) impress her. Though I certainly wasn't wanting to fail, I did expect to... (Ooh, lots of italics)

July 25th 2010. My first lesson. For the first time since those fucking horrible road runs at middle school in which I always came dead last, I went running.

We're not actually sure how far we ran because the GPS in use (my Sony Ericsson Elm) was, we later discovered, a load of horse shit in terms of accuracy in tracking. But it does seem that, er, we ran 5k. On my first attempt. And it didn't kill me.

She's good, is Ellie (she's great, in fact). We walked briskly to a local park; we did warm-up stretches; she got me running slower than walking speed. It's about technique, see. Running is a gait, not (necessarily) a speedier version of or progression from walking. It's just different. That's it, that's lesson one: this is how to run, slowly, on flat ground.

One lap in, my lungs were sounding like shit. I thought maybe I was going to be right. So did she. I was wheezin' and rattlin' and making all kinds of noises. Thing is, I sounded like it on the second lap too. And the third. Because, as it turns out, my lungs just sound(ed) like shit. That's all. They work. They're not awesome, but they work well enough, and fuck me if I hadn't just run 5km. I was amazed and happy and high and proud and all that stuff. We went out and celebrated with awesome Mexican food and then beer; I won at pool, and Born To Run came on the jukebox.

The high lasted all day.

And then, back at work, I came down. Hard.

See, it all came too easy. I did it first time. I thought I was embarking on some kind of project, lasting few weeks at least, a journey from zero to 5k. But I did it straight away. Running wasn't easy in itself, but what I mean is, it just took one attempt. Now this isn't Guitar Hero, where I love playing through entire games just once and never putting the disc in again, 5*ing every song as I go. I was expecting, and (despite what I may have claimed at the time) wanting, it to be a challenge. I wanted to work for it. I wanted that feeling of doing something repeatedly and improving, improving, improving, striving for and attaining a goal. The fact I just turned up and did it started to piss me off.

What's more, I felt daft and a bit miserable and regretful about the past. I'm a fat unfit fuck. I never believed I could be otherwise, and I never felt like anyone else had thought I could either. That was me. Occasionally I'd gone through periods of weight loss, and of doing a lot of walking, but it never really made me feel fit. I used to play a lot of table tennis too, but that was, well, just me playing games. Suddenly I kind of felt like I'd wasted a lot of time being unhealthy without properly knowing it didn't have to be like that. I'm not a stupid bloke, but I felt bloody stupid. It should have been a "wow, OK, I can get fit!" high but I looked backwards instead of forwards.

There's a standard anecdote I wheel out on occasion about my family: mum couldn't swim, didn't have great skin, and was great with money, whereas dad was an ex-RAF physical training instructor plus inveterate drinker and gambler. My brother and I are very much the products of our parents: he got the fitness and fiscal prudence, I got the bad skin, drinking, and gambling. "Who got the better deal?"

Anyway, lesson 2 had hills. None of Ellie's prior pupils had ever managed the hill twice in their first attempt, but I did. Again, I ran 5k. Again, the surprised happiness and pride was shortlived, replaced by another bout of, oh, so it's actually easy, even for me. Why the fuck did no-one tell me this before? The bigger sense of discovery was about the wasted time, not that I had this ability which I should take advantage of.

I can't half be a miserable fuck sometimes.

A couple of weeks later, I went out for my first solo run (my first one fueled by negative emotion too, for that matter). I hated it. But I ran again not long after. And again. And again. Sometime in August I went for 6 runs in 9 days (I also dropped in a 13.1 mile walk home from work). And toward the end of the month, I decided I needed a target. I entered a charity race, for 2 months later, deciding that by then I would run under 30 minutes.

I should say here that I'm under no illusions that I'm a decent runner or ever will be. I know 30 minutes is a very modest time. But considering I was running 34-36 minutes I thought it was realistic. I like realistic targets.

Then, still in August, I ran 31:08 and 31:20. In early September, while coming down with a cold, I ran 30:59. Huh! 30 minutes by late October was going to be a breeze, I thought...

Pride comes before a fall. I couldn't get close to those times again. People and The Internet led me to believe I would be enjoying running soon enough, but I was convinced I wasn't. Nor was I losing weight. My times weren't improving. I took part in some organised races having discovered parkrun, yet I ran slower, despite being given the impression that race situations would improve my speed. I was kind of fucked off by all this. I wasn't enjoying it, so I needed motivation, and the only one I could think of was times. I play games, I like scores, and I want to score better. My role models told me to ignore times, but they themselves care about them, so, y'know...

For a while I tried to just treat running like a chore which had to be done, like washing up -- "if I want to be less fat I have to do this", and hoped I would then at least enjoy the feeling of having got that day's run out of the way. It didn't work. No, I needed scores, and I had a plan to improve them. I was going to Australia on holiday, taking my kicks, and would run sub-30 before I got back god-motherfucking-dammit. I knew I'd have loads of spare time and that Sydney and Melbourne are full of good running. 29:xx would be mine upon my return, a full 10 days before the race.

It wasn't. On my first run, I was so slow to 5km that I thought, OK, I'm not that knackered so I'll just keep running, see what a 45 minute run feels like... and actually carried on for an hour. 8.26km. Slow. Again came the temporary high of having done something beyond what I'd done before, again came the longer low of, oh, so running for an hour also comes easy.

I ran 5k. It was slow. I did a lot of walking, including hills, and got some moderate sense of being fitter than (ever) before, which was positive. Then I went to Melbourne and stood in the MCG surrounded by tens of thousands of runners, 10ks and half-marathons and marathons, feeling pretty shitty about myself. Everyone looked so pleased (except my bro, who was fucked off at only running a marathon in 3 hours and 7 minutes for fucks sake), yet muggins here who'd never run in his life 2 months previously was fucked off because he couldn't knock a minute off his PB.

The following morning I went for another anger run. 3 weeks until the charity run and I had still only broken 31 minutes once. I had never run a single kilometre under 6 minutes, yet somehow I had to run 5 of them back to back. So I set off around the park running as fast as I could, desperate to get a sub-6 minute kilometre under my belt and see how I felt after that. But I didn't even manage one. I ran 30:54, a personal best for sure, but only the tiniest slither had come off and it was still nothing close to my target. 3 days of my holiday left and 2 weeks 'til Kempton.

Next day I ran 10k. You know how this works. First attempt, first success. Except... there was a glimmer. The downer didn't really happen. I kind of hurt after the run. My legs knew they'd done some work. Sure, during the run I'd been miserable as fuck -- in particular I remember an almost physical sensation of being punched in the stomach when I first looked at my phone to see how far I'd gone, convinced it was about 4.5km only to discover it was 3.3km. I felt like crap and dreaded the fact I had so far to go.

But at the turn, I felt OK. I thought, fine, I'm just doing the same as I've already done. There was a 200 metre stretch or so where I had the wind blowing hard directly at me, which was unpleasant, but towards the end of the run I was even speeding up. I finished on a high. I, uh, might have enjoyed it. The pride and the happiness stayed. The reaction from my bro, no, the repeated reactions from him, because he takes so many attempts to take information in (yes, I ran 10k. yes, in one go. yes, in 1:06:11. yes, me. yes, 10k. yes, 1:06:11...) delighted me. I like making my bro proud. I like making Ellie proud. I felt pretty good. And I came back to the UK.

On the Saturday, I did another parkrun. I was better than before, felt better, was even hard for Ellie to catch up at a couple of points, but still not close to sub-30. And then, and then...

Sunday. Another anger run. Angrier than before, almost than ever before. Not just anger related to running. I was in a desperately low and hateful mood. And I ran 29:23. So, er, 90 seconds off my personal best. What the fuck? Where did that come from? I'd actually set out to run 10km and had no intention of pegging it; I guess the adrenaline just fuelled me. But fuck me my mood was so low that the high was shorter than ever. I did it. Great. So what? I was on my own, miserable, bored on a Sunday afternoon, going back to work the next day after 2.5 weeks off. I texted Ellie and posted my result to the internet, but got no reactions from anywhere until quite a while later, which in my parlous state was too late to make me feel any good about myself. I convinced myself it was a one-off. Fine, my body has it in me, but is it repeatable, will I do it when it matters, at Kempton? Will I fuck as like. After finally running sub-30 with a week to go, somehow my confidence was at its lowest yet. Miserable twat.

I didn't run (and hardly slept or ate, but that's a different matter) for the next week. Skipped parkrun the day before. Went to Kempton. Ran 27:51.

What. The. Fuck.

I didn't realise how fast I set off. If anything the kms seemed to be arriving slowly. I didn't check my watch and Ellie was carrying my phone. I was struggling hard at the end, the last km was pretty tortuous. Yet even that would have been a personal best for a single km prior to that day. I ran the first 2 both under 5:20. How the hell did that happen? But I don't think it was a fluke. Sure I need to run another sub-30 to say that "that's my time", but my body can do it, has done it.

Like a score on my xbox 360, I only need to do it once to get the (sense of) achievement. And doing it by such a margin, on deadline day, when it really mattered to me, I finally got it. I get to say "go me!" and mean it. Go me!

My bro and everyone else who listened to me bitch and whine and moan about how my running was going when manifestly it was going well. Would I listen to them? Would I fuck. Sorry about that.

But I owe the most to Ellie, who has (figuratively) added a string to my bow, and given me a way to get and keep fitter and healthier. That's awesomes (yeah, you heard me, plural). She also had to put up with a boyfriend and pupil full of all the complaints and shit that I've detailed up there, having no clue about my largely involuntary beat-myself-up technique for self-motivation. Like I said: awesomes.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

a week in Sydney

I'm going to give a somewhat digested account of my time here in Sydney. Anything fuller would involve a lot of recounting episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad. Yes, I watched a lot of TV...when it worked.

On arrival day I managed to stay awake until about 4pm. Walking the dogs was basically the final straw. I slept in 3 sessions, about 3 or 4 hours each I guess, interspersed with films and sport on TV (the Ryder Cup was on, the only exciting golf event there is). The hotel was OK-ish. I mean, the room was nice enough and the TV was a big moderately fancy flat screen thing mounted on the wall. But it was mounted badly, with a huge inset way bigger than the set and all the wires and stuff protruding. And it hadn't been painted. Also throughout the week it kept breaking -- hotels don't tend to provide normal TVs, but ones which are permanently "tuned" to something provided by a computer, with promotional clips of the city and access to pay-per-view porn and stuff. Well, the Diamant's computer was fucked a lot of the time. They gave free internet access to everyone in lieu (I already qualified for it). For the first few days the connection was about as reliable as the one in Istanbul airport had been.

The hotel had no bar, nor kitchen; room service was only provided from 6pm-10pm each day, with pasta/pizza or Indian food provided at a premium from a couple of local restaurants. I had pizza and cheesecake twice during the week and they were bloody nice. The minibar was an auto-charging don't-touch-what-you-can't-afford thing, yet when I checked out earlier today I had only been charged for 2 beers instead of the 5 or 6 I had throughout the week. Go figure.

The bathroom was nice enough. No bath, just a walk-in shower. The view was of a tower block and 24hr convenience store. There was a Holiday Inn about 20 yards away that I'd have stayed in if I'd known about it (translation: I didn't do my research well enough). Mind you, if I had done my research I'd not have stayed in the Cross at all: lots of hobos, mutton, seedy strip joints, and backpacker places. I wish I'd stayed in the Rocks.

Australia loves pies. I love pies. Harry's Cafe de Wheels does ace pies; I had tiger pie and mash and peas. Mmm.

Sydney is a gloriously picturesque and beautiful city. I went for a couple of runs along the harbour front around the Domain and the Botanical Gardens and the Opera House and through Circular Quay to the Rocks. Beautiful. I managed to run for an hour non-stop, by going slow, then stupidly convinced myself that this meant I was getting better in general -- so when I dismally failed to get anything close to a personal best for a 5km 3 days later, I got really pissed off. Seems all I proved was that if I do it slower, I can do it for longer. Well, dur. I could say the same about any other chore, like washing up or whatever. Ho hum.

On the Sunday, it rained. A lot. But only while I was outside; while we were having breakfast at Bondi Beach, and later on inside watching the NRL Grand Final (supporting St George, of course) it was dry. On Monday it was a nice morning until I left the hotel to meet me bro and niece for breakfast, at which point the heavens properly opened and we got soaked. Exploration of the Cross cut short we went for breakfast next to where his "car" was parked, got undercover, and the rain stopped. And, to be fair, it mostly stopped for the rest of the week at that point.

Monday afternoon I did some tourism. We went to the Middle Head fortifications, and then to HMAS Sydney at Bradley's Point. We walked along the foreshore about 2/3rds of the way to the Taronga Zoo wharf, stopping roughly at a point where there was a sign to it. At that point, quite literally, we were asked for directions to it by a couple of tourists. We told them it was that way, they said "well, you agree with the signs, so that's 2 opinions", but the fella still seemed strangely reluctant to believe it was correct. Very odd.

On Tuesday I went to Cronulla. Not for long, initially; I had planned (and told people) that I would be getting the ferry to Bundeena, and then going bushwalking in the Royal National Park. But instead of that, I opted to do the coastal walk to Kernell and Botany Bay Park, Cook's landing spot and the birthplace of modern Australia. Online I'd seen a really vague guide to doing this in reverse and figured it couldn't be that hard. Actually I originally tried to do it as the page had described, but the first instruction was "get the 987 bus from Cronulla" and I couldn't find a stop for it.

So, I walked along the path next to Cronulla beach until it started to kind of head vaguely inland and pavements disappeared on the edge of town, at which point I went onto the beach itself. Walking on soft deep sand is hard. I only managed it for a couple hundred yards before fighting my way up a dune towards a path and a nature reserve. The path was grassy and rocky for a bit before I was soon clambering over dunes again. My legs were really getting a workout.

The ocean was never far away on my right and this felt correct, from what I'd read; all I had to do was hug the coast and I'd end up at Kernell. After a while I was in full on scrubland, and followed a couple of random paths towards the beach until hitting dead-ends and beating a retreat. Parallel to a barbed-wire fence, erected while they do dune stabilisation work, I carried on until hitting what I later learnt was Boat Harbour beach, one of the most polluted in New South Wales. At the time I was a bit freaked out; having turned a corner, I was presented with a view of various shacks, trailers, caravans, like a stereotypical redneck US desert community. Each had an Australian flag hoisted. I got as close as I dared while feeling that I wasn't about to end up getting shot, having discerned no route off the beach and back into park on the other side. So I followed the sand/road out, round the back, and... ended up on a road. With no pavement. Right seemed to be the direction I wanted, so that's where I headed, past a desalination plant and lube dock and all kinds of other industrial units. Bleh. When some form of civilisation loomed ahead, I'd convinced myself it was going to be nowhere near where I actually wanted to be, and just wanted there to be a bus stop so I could get back somewhere sensible.

It was Kernell. Huzzah! Followed a few roads all named after Cook or something about him, and ended up at the park. I'd been there before, in fact earlier this year, on my last full day in Sydney. And like that time, I went to the kiosk and bought a Golden Gaytime. Heh. Snigger. Got the fabled 987 back to Cronulla and at one point passed one of those signs you get outside churches and schools, where they change the message all the time. Like the one outside the church in the Simpsons. This was outside a school, and it said "Congratulations to all year 13 students on completing 12 years of education". Now, I'm no expert in schools, and I know how confusing they are in the UK where even neighbouring London boroughs can't agree on structure and naming of years etc, but really, year 13 means 12 years? What kind of off-by-one nonsense is that? Meh.

Back in Cronulla I went for beer at Northies, the "safest in the Shire" back in 2008. Nothing special, but after walking 13km beer was definitely required. My legs and thighs did hurt.

My bro had most of Wednesday off and I'd decided it would be a rest day so far as exercise was concerned. Which kinda meant the 11km walk including loads of hills (but crossing the Harbour Bridge, yay!) most of the way towards his house was a bit daft. However, it did mean I accidentally ended up at a great place for lunch, for fish, chips and beer. Walked the dogs, did family stuff, got the bus back into central Sydney then failed dismally to walk back to the hotel and ended up buying a train ticket to go one stop.

Thursday, my 6th day in Sydney, I finally got a boat. The Manly Ferry is the best waterborne public transport I know. 30 minute ride through the harbour and ends up at a beach on the Pacific Ocean (pretty much) and a Bavarian Bier Cafe where the beer is, fucking hell, £7.95 a pint. Ouch. I walked the length of the beach and back, had just one drink, and formulated a plan for the afternoon. Inspired by a suggestion from Ellie in the morning, I resolved to buy a book (Nothing To Envy, about lives in North Korea) and then go sit in the Marble Bar at the Hilton for a couple of hours, nursing a beer or two and having a read.

The book, which I later ordered for £4.99 including delivery from Amazon UK, was priced 35 Aussie dollars. That's about £22. Screw that. And the Marble Bar was shut for a function until 8.30pm. Oh. So my plan was in tatters and I just wandered around the city, up to Town Hall, around to Darling Harbour, along the back streets to The Rocks, got to the Fortune Of War but just didn't feel like a drink by now, and went to get a bus back to the hotel. Gave up waiting after about half an hour and got a train instead. Was kind of annoyed that everything got scuppered. And even on this genuine rest day from exercise I'd managed to walk ~10km.

I'm kind of bored of Sydney. Visiting my family is great, but meh, this is my 5th visit and on my own, with stuff to miss at home, stuck in a hotel in an area I didn't like, in no mood to drown any sorrows (or drink alone in the evenings for any other reason, tbh), I was often bored when the days finished. Which was at about 6 or 7pm. So I watched a lot of TV.

I've had 3 nightmares in the last 8 or 9 days. The one on the plane, when I woke up at the point of being scimitared through the eyes by BMX-riding muggers/thugs somewhere in South London; one where I was some kind of investigative journalist in North Korea who stumbled across these terrifying graves of people whose flesh had been melted off their bones, and their bodies dismembered, and we got caught by the authorities while trying to escape; and the one this morning, where, um, let's see... I had volunteered to help out with the website of some sports club (I can't actually remember what sport it was), then left early to go for a drink with someone from that club. We were in Waddon, they led me to Croydon and then just fucked off, leaving me to find my way back. I was familiar with the area but couldn't find my way, wandering around the back streets of having encounter after encounter with chav thug scrotes and just about escaping them until finally getting shit beat out of me (and then waking up). I don't like these dreams. It's kind of rare for me to remember dreams at all, let alone 3 in a week and certainly not 3 nightmares. Oh well.

Palm Beach, the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, and the Newport Arms are glorious places. Basically the northernmost part of what could be considered Greater Sydney (it's 40km north of the CBD), there was a peninsula with beaches both on the ocean and inland, a nice steep climb to the lookouts, a mediocre pint of Guinness and a magnificent burger. Such was Friday, my brother's response to my "I'm kind of bored of Sydney" statement on Thursday, his successful attempt to show me stuff I'd not seen before and was unlikely to ever get to on public transport. Followed swiftly by his admission that that's now me lot, I've basically done everything he can recommend for me. Hopefully next time I visit I won't be on my own, and/or I'll make it two 2/3 day visits with a side-trip to New Zealand or summat in the middle.

I'm in the Qantas domestic terminal at Sydney airport as I write this, waiting for QF435 to Melbourne. Never been there. May have more interesting stuff to report, who knows.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Sydney, finally

Actually I had no idea how to transit at Istanbul airport either. At Helsinki they gave me boarding passes to Bangkok and checked my bags all the way to Sydney. They also gave me a fast-track exit card for Istanbul, which initially made me worry there was no such thing as transit, and I'd have to pay for a visa to go landside and then go back through. With that in mind, I was initially heartened to see a big "transit passengers this way" sign, pointing at some doors through which was an escalator.

The doors were locked. A Turkish bloke shouted at me, realised I didn't understand, and shouted English at me. I had to walk on down the corridor and then turn right. But of course!

At Bangkok it was a bit easier, though this time around I was wondering how to go about getting my boarding pass for the next flight. First, I went up an escalator and through some security, all without showing any proof that I was actually meant to be in transit. Then I wandered up to a Thai airways desk and handed over my passport. She gave me a boarding pass marked TRANSFER PASSENGER and told me to get to the lounge by going upstairs, to where all the shops were; she also said I'd need to "check-in again later at the lounge".

Upstairs was indeed where all the shops were, but the first sign to the lounge said to go straight back downstairs. I kind of walked in a sphere for a few minutes, up and down between levels while retracing my dazed steps over old ground as I failed dismally to actually find the entrance to any of the 5 or so lounges Thai airways have. Eventually I came to one close to -- and on the same bloody level as -- the transit desk, and sat down with some orange juice. Got my laptop out and couldn't get either to twitter.com nor www.facebook.com, but the mobile URLs both worked. I assumed it was some ham-fisted attempt at censorship. This lounge was tiny, not the one I'd been in before next to the free massages, and with much of the internet I wanted to use being out of action I gave up and went hunting.

As I walked around the airport in a bit of a stupor, I realised one of the reasons I was having so much difficulty compared to last time I was there (when, indeed, I went straight to the lounge I was looking for) was because that time I'd been sober as fuck. This time I was shattered and probably a bit pissed, or at least hungover. Ah well. I did eventually find the right lounge, and after a bit of food and some caffeine, and some electricity for my laptop and phone, I asked if there were showers I could use. No, there weren't, but there were some at the other lounge(s)...including the one I'd been in first. Fucking fail. I buggered off to a different one, showered, and had beer and sausage and pie. Mmm, beer. Then I went and had a "head and neck" massage which actually catered for the entire upper body, preceded by some odd cold green tea that was disgusting, and a huge argument between the reception staff and a group of women which at one point had the former threatening to call airport security on them. Ace.

Post-massage, I went to the main lounge and asked if I had to be issued a new boarding pass, based on what the transit desk woman had said. They said no, my pass was fine, and that I had about half an hour to spare before I should go to the gate since it was quite a way away. So I had a few solids and another beer, then set off.

The gate was at the end of a different concourse, but still really not that far. I was there very early, again, but at least this gave me the opportunity to witness some real reality TV-style chaos. A family trying to go through the secondary security were being told they had too much alcohol in their bags to be allowed through. They were properly kicking off, having a huge shouting match and bringing out the "where's your supervisor? I want to talk to your supervisor!" guns despite being calmly and clearly and repeatedly told that they'd simply gone over their limit. The family's main defence was some small print written on, er, the generic sealed carrier bags the booze was in, and nothing to do with the rules at either end of the journey. At one point the woman was screaming about it having cost over 200 (Aussie) dollars and volunteering to pour half of it away. Nyers.

Immediately after the boarding pass check there was an Australian official asking questions of everyone. "What's your reason for travelling to Sydney today?" "I'm visiting my brother" "OK, does he live in Sydney? Whereabouts?" etc. I was a bit flummoxed and flustered and gave a host of rambling answers that, miraculously, appeared to satisfy him.

The gate was populated by a lot of Australian families heading home. When they announced boarding, they said it was for people travelling with children, plus business and first class passengers and Star Alliance gold card holders. That basically meant everyone. I had a bit of a scramble to get through some of the few people who couldn't yet board, but then general boarding was announced before I'd reached the gate. Basically it was pretty chaotic. Thank fuck I was sitting in the first row of business class seats so got to duck out sharpish.

The flight itself was kind of nondescript. I had a bit of a chinwag with the oilrig worker sat next to me, the food was pretty good, etc. Thai's business seats are good but not as good as Turkish Airlines, especially as they go flat but not at a 180 degree angle (so at full recline you slip forwards). I watched The A-Team movie, slept for a bit, woke up and watched some crap Jennifer Aniston/Gerard Butler film -- oh christ, Butler's American accent was poor -- and then Get Smart. Oh, the meal service finished with Kahlua, which was nice. But in all honesty, films aside, the flight didn't leave much of an impression. It was a shitload better than my last Thai flight, but I was by this point a bit of a frazzled mess.

Sydney's arrivals didn't help. There are a raft of arrivals in the early mornings, most of the flights from Europe and a few from Asia and the USA are all scheduled to get in in the first 2 hours the airport opens. I arrived at 0715 (because my originally picked flight got removed from Thai's schedule, boo!). Thai passengers are not handed fast track immigration stickers, unlike, say, Qantas, BA, or Air New Zealand passengers. Then someone official said the computer systems were down so immigration was being processed "the old fashioned way", which meant big queues.

Baggage reclaim was carnage. My bag was something like 3rd off, but the queues for customs and quarantine were fucking massive, snaking all around the carousels and full of tired, fractious people. One guy was having a huge rant at some security staff, saying how he'd been there since 6am and the queues needed managing because people were just all out for themselves and stuff. I quietly joined the back of a queue.

After moving not very far, I texted my bro telling him what was going on (he was waiting for me landside), and said that despite the fact I was going to be a while, could he get me a diet coke. Just after this, an official appeared about 5 people in front of me and started to do preliminary checks of our queue's declaration forms. If you had zero food, wood, and all that other bad stuff, then he was stamping the card and sending you to a fast track queue at the other end of the hall. That meant me! And hey presto, I was out.

The whole family were there, Kevin, his wife Sal and my niece AJ. Littl'un got her present sharpish, a reindeer I'd bought at Helsinki Airport. Went down a treat. Plus she'd said my name when I appeared. Huzzah!

The weather was fucking shit. We wandered through the car park to their vehicle of heft, a Mitsubishi something or other which you have to climb to get into and which beeps when in reverse. It's basically a bus. It's preposterous. It's awesome. We drove in the pissing rain to their flat. Travelling done, holiday started.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Wide and long

Yeah. Wide and long. I'm talking about the plane from Istanbul to Bangkok (widebody, long-haul). But first, Istanbul airport.

Like most business class lounges the CIP lounge has separate bits for sitting down to eat, chilling on armchairs, PCs and printers for "working", a creche/kids room, a quiet bit, etc. Unlike most lounges, though, in Istanbul all the different sections are of different designs to one another. I didn't find it particularly jarring, but some do. I couldn't get a space in the comfy chair bit so I was in the more kitchen-barry sit-and-eat/drink part. Which was fine, because much like all my waking hours en route to Sydney, I was eating and drinking. A couple of Efes beers, a lot of frustration with the internet connection, a bunch of pastry goods, and I packed up to go explore the terminal. I was a bit drunk and very angry, pointlessly so, and the wander around outside chilled me out as I forced myself to be less of a cock.

Then I went back to the lounge and got more free alcohol. A mint liqueur, to be precise. Mmmmm.

One of the reasons I took such a circuitous route to Sydney was because I wanted to sample a new airline and a couple of new aircraft. What can I say? I like trying out new bits of comfort, and from what I'd read the Turkish Airlines 77w planes (borrowed from Air India) were supposed to be awesome. They are new, have very fancy seats, great service, but only fly the Bangkok route a few times a week -- and even then they sometimes swap to older planes at a moment's notice. So I crossed my fingers and took solace in the fact that at no point was my seat number shifted (a surefire sign that the plane type has changed) whenever my boarding pass was checked.

Got on the plane and had hit paydirt. The 77W with the awesome seats. With the huge screens and the amazing remote controls and the super-comfort and the just general fucking aceness and win. Christ, I had a thirst on me. The daft cocklike mood from the lounge lifted, replaced briefly with a feeling of remorse for having ever been in it, then that went and I was just back in childlike "this is ace!" and humble "how the fuck do I keep managing to travel like this?" bipolarity.

A bloke who looked like a stereotypical Nepalese Everest sherpar, and who spoke no English, showed me his boarding pass. It had the same seat number as mine on it. He was looking very confused. A flight attendant came along and pointed out to him (eventually) that he was showing a boarding pass from a Helsinki-Istanbul flight (spooky coincidence), not this Istanbul-Bangkok one. He was shunted off, and I relaxed back into my seat.

A chef appeared, and he gave me a Godiva chocolate. Then I got some champagne. Then I played with the controls a bit, noticing the reading light was this crazy little orb/probe thing like something out of a sci-fi/horror movie; I scrawled BUY PHANTASM/II on my pad.

People on planes always associate beeps with the seatbelt signs. After take-off, the first beep always seems to cause lots of people to unbelt and stand-up; the same happens after landing. But those beeps are different, they're the single beeps which always -- through observation -- seem to always mean "crew, do your stuff". And they don't coincide with the seatbelt lights going off, an event which does coincide with a different kind of beep. Why doesn't anyone else notice this? Christ, I can be so anal at times.

A flight attendant gave me some slippers and offered me a paper. Also some toiletries and a choice of magazines. I declined the reading material, and started watching a Korean movie called Blades of Blood. I wrote THIS IS AWESOME in my bad, followed closely by CHEESE AND COGNAC. Think I was in quite a good mood at this point. I also wrote "you crazy bloke", because I thought it was quite a funny line from the subtitles in the film, and then "Stop writing" because, er, the film was subtitled and I was missing too much through writing all these notes.

The first offer of drinks was a choice between orange juice or a cocktail, but both looked the same and I picked the OJ. The attendant gave me a real, er, are you sure? look. Guess I seemed to be the kind of person who likes his alcohol. Not sure how I ever give that impression. No siree.

Fuck, the food service was awesome. A menu with my name written on it was presented; I had to order breakfast in advance, like in a hotel room where you tick boxes and shove it on the door handle outside. I had salmon then soup then ravioli then dessert chosen from a trolley wheeled through the cabin by a chef, who prepared and served the dish on my table. I remembered not being as impressed, mind, as I was with the short-haul meal a few hours previous, but as I write this my memory of the long-haul meal is fonder. Perhaps it was the presentation; definitely as an overall experience it was shit-hot. Especially because it finished off with the aforementioned cheese and cognac.

Watched some Simpsons episodes, then fell asleep for 3 hours or so. I woke up from a nightmare, which was slightly influenced by the swordfighting movie I'd watched before, but mostly it was a normal chase nightmare and it was fucking horrible. I was convinced it was a recurring dream, but that feeling went away within a few minutes of waking up -- like I dreamt that emotion. Fucking odd. Perhaps all this travel and alcohol and exhaustion was getting to me.

Breakfast was OK. The Simpsons episodes were new (2010 vintage) and unseen by me. An episode of National Geographic's World's Toughest Fixes was entertaining. I think this was the first time I'd ever been on a long-haul flight and only watched one film. I broke the screen by stowing it at the end, and had no idea how to be a transit passenger at Bangkok airport.

Friday, October 01, 2010

HEL ain't a bad place to be

I didn't eat reindeer. I ate a bowl of peanuts and a chicken+bacon+bbq sauce sandwich (which was, actually, gorgeous). I also didn't have vodka, being too scared to ask how much it was after reading the beer menu.

I know as much about Helsinki and Finland as I do about Seoul and Korea. Which is to say I know what it's like to stay overnight in an airport near the hotel, doing nothing but free shuttle bus / hotel bar / sleep / free shuttle bus. Occasionally I think to myself, Foreman, what the fuck are you playing at? Go and see these places you twat. But then I think, meh, I kinda like doing the in-and-out passport stamp box-tick incursion. Because those are the only reasons I've been to either place, really; that and the expedience (by which I mean cost saving) of flying through each city rather than a more direct route.

So. The Holiday Inn Helsinki-Vantaa. My room was basic, small. The shower is just a slightly dipped part of the floor with a hole and a curtain. It was also massively powerful, and I kind of maybe sort of broke the switch which turns it from normal shower to power painful jet of doom. Perhaps. The TV had more channels on crap quality analog than half-decent digital, and BBC World rolls its news every 30 minutes or so these days. Bah. BBC Entertainment wasn't very entertaining. I fell asleep catching up on videos from vbs.tv (there's a 3rd series of Thumbs Up, in China! Yay!) before going to the hotel bar.

It was €7 for my first beer, 400ml of a Finnish brew whose name I can't recall. Not Lapin Kulta though; that's what some of the Swedes who pitched up to buy beer for their sauna visit got. €7 is about 6 quid; 400ml is 70% of a pint. The Guinness was €8,20 for a 440ml can. The Budvar Dark was the same price for a 500ml bottle. Finland is not a cheap place for the sauce.

Slept for 8 hours or so, which is unlike me. Skipped breakfast, preferring instead to just loiter in my room listening to music until check-out at midday. Before leaving the UK I had thought I would make use of the hotel gym on both Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Meh. Bothered. I think that was the first hotel room I've ever stayed in which didn't have a clock, either a bedside thing or summat built into the TV.

Back at the airport courtesy of another almost-empty trip on FREE BUS, I checked in immediately for my flight. This despite worrying I'd be stuck landside a while because the website led me to believe check-in might not open 'til 90 minutes before departure. They sent my bags all the way through to Sydney, but I could only get boarding passes to Bangkok. Last leg wasn't yet open for check-in. Directions were given to the lounge, including the warning that it was at the opposite end of the terminal and in the Schengen area, but the flight was leaving from a satellite gate in the non-Schengen bit requiring a bus ride out to the plane.

Had beer. And some kind of salad stuff which claimed to have shrimp in it but didn't. Free wireless worked fine. It always does in airports, right? Oh, no, of course not.

Heeding the check-in girl's warning I set off moderately early to the gate. There was a long queue at passport control between Schengen and non-Schengen, but I realised after a minute or so that it was for the "all passports" line; the EU/EEA line was empty. So I scooted through unhindered. Was at the gate way too early. Bah.

They announced boarding, and said business class and star alliance gold passengers could board at their leisure, in the separate line. But they didn't open up this separate line for 10 minutes or so, and when they did I was the only person to use it. As promised we were bussed to the plane, which was parked out on a stand, nearest the gate the lounge was next to. Bah. Thought for a while I'd be the only person in business, but eventually there were 2 of us. Or 6. I got confused by row 6.

Take-off was delayed by 30 minutes. I had champagne. Food service started pretty promptly once airborne and I can say without hesitation that Turkish Airlines do the best short-haul business class food I've ever had. Not that I've masses of experience with short-haul business class flights (hmm, BA, Qantas, AA, think that's the lot) but really, this spread rivalled some of the long-haul meals I've had. I've got photos which I'll put up soon. Though photos of plane food really is a niche interest...

I realised onboard that Helsinki is the furthest north I've ever been, and on the way home I'm transitting Auckland, the furthest south I've ever been. That and a circumnavigation; I am really putting in a shift on this trip.

With the post-meal beer in hand, I tried to recline my seat. It went with a jolt and I only narrowly escaped full-scale spillage disaster. Twat.

Put my mp3 player on. I'm trying to be good, and not fast forward tracks I don't like in a knee jerk fashion. Open my mind a bit. So far this plan is doing nothing but make me hate wedding dress music even more than before. Ebony Ark and Epica are just dreadful, dreadful bands. Fell asleep with music on; woke up to a Righteous Pigs song about dying in a plane crash. Awesomes. Why am I sleeping so much?

I made a note on my mp3 player that I need to make more notes on my pad, so I can write more that I remember. But now I'm looking at this 'ere post and thinking, shit, if this is how much I write without proper notes, how bored are people going to get reading the rest? Fucking hell.

I took lots of photos of clouds, and experimented with the fake HDR and "commercial" settings. I also have an HDR photo of my face, which may or may not be made public. The Black Sea looked nice, as did the Bosphorus.

Istanbul airport was way more impressive, modern, airy, and large than I remember it being from the last time I was there. I found the CIP lounge and got angry at the wifi. Many many people had iPads, more than I've seen on commutes in London. I guess Angry Birds is a worldwide phenomenon.

Right. I need a shower and a massage and to buy something for t'missus and then to get back on the sauce. Oh, one last thing: you can fly from Helsinki to Tallinn. Yes, there's water in the way, but there's a regular ferry service. A 63 mile flight just seems ridiculous.