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

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...