Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Sorry this took so long to post, I didn't get back until Sunday evening. Then on Monday evening I put my bike together. Tues evening was it's shakedown ride (and repairs to get it back to 100%) and tonight (Weds eve) was the first REAL ride (Woo-HOO!). Keep in mind that I have left all the pictures small in the post so that it doesn't go on for 12 feet or can click on them to see a larger version.

Anyway, this post is about my weekend up in Scotland. And by the way, I just went back and peeked at the entire post....hope you're comfy! This got rather LONG! It should have been at least 2 posts....but you know me.

And AWAY we go. We left to drive up Thurs after work, and got up into Edinburgh around 10pm. We were staying about 7 miles from the city center (cheaper hotel!). Turns out that 7 mile drive takes about 20 minutes. The traffic as you get into the city gets pretty horrendous, and lots of one way streets/etc.

Friday morning we took off for Loch Ness. That was the focus of the entire day. The drive up thru Iverness and down to the lake (doing a CCW loop) took almost 4 hours, but was pretty scenic as we entered the Highlands along the way. There was still snow up on the peaks and it was rather chilly as we got near the lake.
 Here I am, standing on the edge of probably the most famous lake in the world! I WIN!

 Another view showing how far this lake goes (and goes, and goes).

Our destination along the west side of the loch was the Loch Ness Center, which is pretty much all there is other than a HUGE lake. The center is nice as it gives you the details on the lake, along with the full (and honest) scoop on the hunt for Nessie, and whether she (it) could possibly exist. To say that a WHOLE Lot of money and time has been devoted to the search is an understatement. And considering that Loch Ness is the largest body of water in all of Great Brittan, well...there is a LOT of water to search.
Everything you wanted to know about Loch Ness and it's history is contained in this building!

It was a beautiful drive down along the lake, and south of the Center was the famous Urquhart Castle.
This is our first view of the uber-famous castle. It's probably one of the most photographed castle ruins in all of Scotland.
And this is the view from just above. Unfortunately, we got there too 
late to take the tour into the grounds. Rats.

Americans are so rude (and apparently can't read). I had more than a few stares from the locals, considering that this wall is only about 3 feet high (my friend had to hold the camera almost on the ground to take this shot). I really crack myself up sometimes!

After we left the castle it was all lake as we drove, and drove, and drove.

 One final view of the lake, looking north.

 Finally rounding the southern edge we headed east slowly working our way to a road that was hopefully larger than a 1 lane bi-directional road. As it as getting dark we realized how low our gas tank was. We also realized that we were in no-mans land and the only towns we were seeing were TINY. As the onboard computer told us we had less than 30 miles to empty (and by empty I mean EMPTY), we were getting rather worried. We set the GPS to get us to the nearest "petrol" station. Off the main road in another 1 horse town, and closed. Next station, another 1 horse town, this one hasn't been open in 20 years. Another few tiny towns and closed stations and the display showed we were under 10 miles before empty. We're REALLY worried now. We have no choice but to go where the  GPS tells us as we know nothing about the area. One final chance, into another town. This one appears to be a TWO horse town...and as we descend from the main road into town we realize that we'll most likely never even make it back up to the main road if this one is also a bust. But THIS one was still open, HOORAY!

The finest petrol station on the planet!

We now have a full tank (about 44 liters, roughly 10 gallons) and are good to go! SAVED by BP! We made it back to our hotel around 10pm, and that was our day. Up next is Edinburgh! We got up and out kind of late, and arrived downtown around 11:30am and found a place to park.
Here's the view of Edinburgh Castle from our parking lot. Turns out the parking is rather EXPENSIVE here in town (it cost about 20 pounds for 6 hours).

Some pretty impressive architecture around here. This is the Scott Monument, completed in 1846 (so it's somewhat new).

Looking east from the North Bridge at another hilltop, containing (L to R) the City Observatory, Nelsons Monument, and the National Monument. From this view it looks like another castle but it's actually separate buildings atop the park like hill.

And we are finally on High Street, or more famously called "The Royal Mile".

Looking back at the North Bridge (where I took the picture before High Street). They just don't build bridges like this back home. It's about 6 lanes wide, and goes over the top of the railroad (Waverly Station). LONG ago this valley was flooded, and was intentionally drained and now is an integral part of the city.

This is on the east end of The Royal Mile. It's called "Salisbury Crag". There are three walking trails: one on the very top, and another on the bottom, and another that goes on the middle ridge. We of course took the HIGH road.

The view from the top looking back over Edinburgh, with the Castle prominently in the middle of the city. NICE VIEW! (it was a bit chilly though, and this is me stylishly showing off my "rescue me, I'm the ONLY PERSON IN THE UK WITH A YELLOW JACKET" jacket. I'm serious here...not ONE other yellow jacket seen all weekend. Except for highway crews I mean. But those are more like safety vests than jackets.

Looking back at the high point of the Crag. A pretty impressive piece of rock if I do say so myself. After leaving the Crag we walked the "Mile" heading to Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle seen from High Street. Who knew it closes at 4:30pm on a Saturday? That would explain the lack of people though. Rats.

Well, after NOT touring the castle we wandered around some, and accidentally found our NEXT scenic spot: "The Real Mary Kings Close". From the brochure:
"Buried deep beneath Edinburgh's Royal Mile lies the city's deepest secret: a warren of hidden streets that has remained frozen in time since the 17th century. For hundreds of years the true story of the Close has remained untold - until now! In the company of an expert guide, you can explore this unique site and experience what it was really like for the people who lived, worked and died here".

My first question was "what is a Close?" Turns out, that's where the poor people lived WAY back then. The city was surrounded by a large wall to keep invaders out. But it also kept the city from expanding. so they went UP. But the poor can't afford to go 'up', so they go down. The buildings were so CLOSE together that there was barely a few feet between them. These gaps between buildings were the Closes. At the very bottom there are rooms built into the sides, and this is where the lowest class citizens lived. 

From my book: "By modern standards, 17th century towns were horribly dirty and smelly. there was no sanitation. Waste was just thrown onto the street, where it built up...and ran down. So, on this crowded spine of land where the buildings grew upwards - often by as many as eight story's - society was organized vertically, the wealthy close to the top above all the filth and the poor at the bottom in the midst of it".

Edinburgh is built on a good slope though, and the walking surface of the close is quite steep. Our guide said that each single dwelling (typically a single room housing around 7 people) in the close had only a single fish-oil lamp for light, and a wooden bucket for their 'toilet'. At 7am and 10pm each day it was time to empty the toilet, which was the job of the youngest member of that household. It was dragged to the doorway and poured into the close. Keep in mind that ALL of the people above you were pouring theirs out their windows, so it was literally raining sewage. Kind of makes my skin crawl trying to imagine how horrid that must have been. City life hundreds of years thanks!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, there was no photography allowed in the Close. You know, those 1000 year old rock walls are very delicate and can't sustain the repeated assault from photons apparently. Or possibly, being as it's dark, they wouldn't appreciate flashes going off every 7 seconds blinding everybody. I'll go with them being delicate.

I could go on and on about the history of the city (I found this tour the MOST fascinating thing during my entire visit) but you'd be sleeping soon (if you're not already). After our tour of the Close we made our way down High Street and found a pub for dinner.'s a chain of very nice pubs all over the UK (we have one right here in Harrogate). They offer decent reasonably priced food and drinks. Turns out we weren't the only ones who found the place that night.

Saturday night at Witherspoons, Edinburgh. We had to share a STANDING ROOM ONLY table it was so crowded. Many have no table and just stand around drinking and socializing.

I had a tasty Steak and Ale pie along with an unknown dark Cask Ale for my selection, all for around 10 pounds (about $16). That's about as good as it gets. And a bonus: NO SMOKING inside public places all over the UK!  5 years ago they didn't have that law, and you could barely see the people and your clothes had to be burned when you got home. This was a good law!

Sunday was our travel home day, but being as we missed the castle tour on Sat we came back Sunday morning. A little bonus we accidentally found out: FREE PARKING on the streets on Sunday! I can't believe it! A GIFT! Anyway, we toured, and toured, and toured. Hours. Taking dozens of pictures. I won't bore you with them here, you've seen the castle from the distance. However I will include these shots of the most remarkable place in the castle walls: St Margaret's Chapel. In 1317 (after the Battle of Stirling made famous by the movie Braveheart, which actually took place around 1297 I think), Edinburgh Castle was occupied by the English. Robert the Bruce and his army took it back, at which time they destroyed the castle as they didn't have enough troops to leave behind to guard it, and didn't want it used against them again. But they left the chapel, which is now the oldest part of the castle. All other parts were built after that. 

Sadly, it was under restoration so we couldn't go inside. But imagine that this building is coming up on 1000 years old. THAT is impressive. Even more impressive that as you walk around the castle grounds looking at the rest of the buildings, they all look petty much the same (as in construction methods and appearance).

I think the most notable difference was the size of the windows. The chapel has only 2 TINY stain glass windows on this long side, NONE on the opposite side (previous picture) and only one on the end wall (right side). I'm taking a wild guess here, but I think it was rather DARK inside.

I won't bore you with the dozens (MANY dozens actually) of pictures I have of the castle and grounds, but suffice to say it was a fun tour and a fun weekend. Also it reminds me that there's NO PLACE LIKE HOME (even a home away from home rented apartment).

I'm going to be riding my bike whenever it's reasonable out. However the long range forecast has it raining from Friday all thru NEXT Thursday. Hopefully they are wrong. I won't be able to ride Saturday anyway, as I'm helping a new friend (local guy I work with) move that day. Possibly on Sunday too if necessary.

Have a great week everybody and stay warm (and dry)!


Thursday, February 16, 2012

The good, the bad (and the ugly?)

No, the topic of today's post ISN'T a Clint Eastwood movie (though it COULD be!). In this post I'll discuss my thoughts on the differences I see that make a lot of sense, and those that don't. There's one constant I've found from all my travels, and it's that NOBODY has everything figured out. The problem is that NOBODY ( I mean countries) seems to look around and see what works and what doesn't, and then adopt those that are good.

I'll start with the cars. Over her, they have in general tiny little cars that get phenomenal mileage, and also have some get-up and go (overall...some are real dogs).

 Take a look at this little beauty. It's parked on my street. It's a FORD! Looks something like a cross between a VW Bug and a Porsche Carrera, or maybe the Audi TT. VERY COOL little car! (and it's a stick shift, as are almost ALL cars here).  I bet it's a blast to drive! I see all kinds of car models in other countries that we don't have available in the US.
Though I MUCH prefer this little number. It's an Audi R8 (never heard of it before). The engine is under the back window, much like a Ferrari. I would have taken MANY more pictures, but I didn't want to seem TOO envious. I bet this costs a LOT (tho I bet this baby doesn't get very good mileage...but if you can afford to buy it, AND insure it, the gas is a drop in the bucket).

There are many reasons for all the small cars here. For one, they have tiny narrow roads that were laid down ages ago by the Romans... horses and wagons/chariots. Rock walls (hedgerows) were built on the sides, and now you have private land on the other side of those walls. To MOVE the walls and make wider roads would be a national disaster. Also, gas is crazy expensive here (around $8 per gallon tho they sell it by the litre...and yes, that's how liter is spelled here). Along with all the tiny cars, they have pretty much wide open roads. And by that, I DO NOT mean space and such. means there is a MINIMUM of required stops. VERY few stoplights, and almost NO stopsigns. Roundabouts are everywhere, and they are OH SO MUCH BETTER than stoplights or stopsigns in almost all conditions. Almost all places that WOULD have a stopsign in the states has no sign at all, meaning it's simply a yield. You come upto it and take a look (still moving if you can see oncoming traffic), and if it's clear you GO! At the roundabouts, you come in with some speed looking to your right, and if it's clear (or if there's a spot big enough to get into w/out causing the oncoming driver to slam on their brakes), you GO! There are obstacles EVERYWHERE you go on the road. Two lanes temporarily into one, cars parking seemingly everywhere, causing cars on that side to veer WAY over into the oncoming lane, busses or cars stopping anywhere to load/unload... stuff like that. Quite honestly, the drivers over here are LEAPS and BOUNDS better than in the US. They HAVE to be! There is very little cruising around not paying attention here, I can assure you! I heard they totally frown on driving with a drink in your car (coffee, soda,etc). The lady I work for here was astounded when I told her my little Nissan has a cup holder...she says most of the cars do not, and that's on purpose. I can't FATHOM driving around back home w/out my coffee or a soda, or a water.

Currency. I've found in my travels that we in the US are addicted to certain things, like the 1$ bill. However that luxury of the 1$ bill costs a TON of money every year! The lifespan of a 1$ bill is mere months. Most other countries have a coin in it's place. We USED to have a 1$ coin in the US, long ago...the Silver dollar. And it LOOKED and FELT like it was actually worth something. In recent years they have tried to replace it with the Susan B Anthony. LOSER! A 1$ coin that is almost the exact size as our Quarter? WON'T WORK, EVER! We pretty much unanimously HATE IT! Here in the UK they have the quid...the pound. A small coin but it's FAT. In a pile of change you can easily spot the pounds. And they have a 2 pound coin also...which LOOK and FEELS like it's easily worth 2 pounds! Japan has the 100 Yen coin (roughly a dollar), and it's the main coin. They also have a 500 yen coin. They have gotten rid of the 1 and 5 dollar bill! But we in the states are spoiled, and when we discuss this it's pretty unanimous that we'd hate to walk around with all that change. I don't think we will ever give up the $1 bill. But we are entitled, you see, WE are the US of A, and we get what we want, not what we need (that's certainly how other countries see us).

Beer. Oh KNEW I'd come around to beer sooner or later. THEY (and by THEY, I mean pretty much ALL of Europe) have beer done right. In the US, well...we're working on it. Japan, not so much. I won't go on and on (but OH YES you know I could if I wanted to) ...but suffice to say that IF I were a beer, I'd want to be one over HERE!

Walking around. Oh yes. They walk EVERYWHERE here. A large part of that is due to the very fact that they CAN walk around most everywhere. Things are CLOSE. In the US we are so spread out that unless you are very lucky (or in a BIG city such as NYC), you pretty much walk nowhere, except to and from your car. The grocery store is MILES away, as are most all the other stores you need. Here it's ALL w/in walking distance of the VAST majority of the people in town. At night, they walk to the pubs. And they walk home. Not a whole lot of DUI going on over here...(they take that VERY seriously btw, and they should! These roads are DANGEROUS even when stone cold sober!)

Instant hot water heaters vice the hot water tank. In Japan they had these LONG ago. They also have them here. They are WAY more efficient than a hot water heater. It heats only the water you need heated. And while I'm on the topic of hot water, in the bathroom (I think I mentioned this before but bears mentioning again): the hot water/steam radiator sitting right under the towel bar, so my shower towel is TOASTY WARM every time I pull it off the rack. THAT is an honest to goodness wonderful thing! And I'm sure the towel bar isn't there by accident. And oh, being as I just finished doing my dishes for the last few days, I MUST mention this. I think I said something about how HOT the HOT water is. Well, I'm not kidding. Out of the kitchen faucet the COLD water comes out with the pressure of a geyser. A VERY COLD geyser.  Rinsing my coffee pot out I have to be careful NOT to pull the lever too high, or the blast of water will blow right out of the pot all over the place. However, when you move the lever over to the HOT side, the copious flow becomes a mere trickle. And it takes a bit, but very soon I'm convinced I have hot water coming right from the molten core of the earth. Water so freaking hot that there are steam geysers all over the world with heat-envy of my faucet.

OK..enough on the 'good/bad/ugly for now. I need to include a few pics from last Sunday. I went to White Scar Cave (about a 45 minute drive). It's the largest cave system in Britain, and is inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I've been to a few caverns back in the US (among them Carlsbad), and this can't compare to that. But it was still pretty fun, and like all caverns, you just can't believe it's right there below the surface of what is rather unassuming terrain.

It was discovered in 1923 by a guy looking for a way in where a stream comes out of the hill (assuming there was a cave system made from the stream). He finally found a small opening and the guy crawled in, wearing shorts, a shirt, and a hat with a few candles stuck on the brim for light. He crawled in almost a quarter mile that first day, until he got to a lake. He came back the next day and made it back to the lake, then swam across the lake (about 100 yards or so and around 6- 10' deep), where he came to a huge boulder blocking any further progress.

And when I say he crawled in, I mean he was lying on his belly literally crawling the entire way. Can you can imagine doing this in a cave you don't know, with only candles for light? And the swimming part? The water was ice cold. This guy was a MADMAN!

 This is the top..doesn't look like much I have to admit. The opening is left of the top of the stairs.

In 1927 the miners came in and followed the original crawling route but opening it up to a stand-up height. A large part of the route is right over the original stream, and we are walking on grating looking at the flowing water. 

Here is a 'low' section, and you can see the grating we are walking on. To the right you can see part of the original crack where the guy crawled.

This is the waterfall, and it's where the route starts going up and away from the stream.

In 1991 the miners came back and made a new route up to the main cavern (that was discovered by people who swam to the boulder, then using ropes and such climbed up on top, then slowly dug a hole in the rubble on top of the boulder into the main chamber.

This is a no-flash view of the 'straws' hanging from the ceiling of the main chamber. They are called 'straws' as they are actually hollow..and the dripping water goes down the middle. On average they grow an average of 1 cm every 200 years. They don't allow flash photography as they claim it hurts the stalactites (straws).  Actually, they don't allow any photography at all once you go into the main chamber (because dumb people THINK they have their flash turned off but don't, and thus have ruined it for everybody). Well...almost everybody! Yes, I'm a bad boy. A bootleg photo of the main chamber. It'll make me RICH beyond my wildest dreams! National Geographic will be calling any second now!

Sorry, but you'll have to amuse yourself while I wait by the phone.

Rats. No call. Guess I'll have to keep my day job.

OK. Another week has come and nearly gone. I've been here OVER 3 weeks now! How is that possible? Haven't done much as the weather has been rather nasty. HOWEVER, I'll be going to Edinburgh next weekend (24th thru 26th). Never been there before, so I'm eagerly anticipating that trip! Not sure what to do this weekend, but I'm thinking of heading over to York for a day. I've been there before but it's just a cool place to visit. Besides, the Railroad museum is there, and they have the Hogwarts Express train (from the Harry Potter movies). Who doesn't want to see THAT??

Happy Friday, and have a GREAT weekend!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Right or Wrong?

Today's post is dedicated to the fun of driving around on the WRONG side of the road!

There are many things that come to mind when I get into my little car. The very FIRST thing I notice is that I'm sitting in the passenger seat for some strange reason. I've only done that a few times, and it's quite embarrassing I must admit. So the rest of this post is assuming I've now gotten in the OTHER side of the car, where the steering wheel is. Also, I STILL find myself reaching to the right to unfasten my seat-belt every time I park...but of course it's not there. It's over on the left, by the emergency brake. Looking up and to the left for my rear-view mirror also still befuddles me. The view is somehow odd and all honesty the overall view is probably identical....can't really explain it, but even though I'm now fairly versed in being on the other side of the road, in my mind something is still wrong when I look back thru the mirror. However, I've noticed as of this morning that I'm not freaked out even a tiny bit anymore about which side of the road I'm driving on. I can actually let go of the wheel momentarily to hit a button on the Nav system (which CONSTANTLY gets "Traffic Updates" which require you to hit a spot on the screen to put the volume back to 'normal' rather than LOUD). It seems no road (that I've been on yet) is straight for more than a few hundred yards. And even if straight, there's holes and such, along with a curb (or a rock wall) a mere foot or two from the left side of the car. And even tho I've now adapted to which side of the road I'm on, it still feels very odd making a left turn but me sitting on the right I have no idea where my left wheels are (and I constantly hit curbs..thankfully I'm not the only one, there are tire marks all over all the curbs).

Also of note (I thought of this when out walking around just a little bit ago)...seems every street I come to cross, I'm looking the wrong way for the dangerous zippy-cars. It's just hardwired into my brain I guess...come to a street, look left. But here, looking left is for the cars on the OTHER side of the's the right that will kill you. Looking to the left as you aren't even thinking about it and stepping out...DANGER Will Robinson, DANGER! I've had a few rather close calls (probably scaring the drivers too I'd imagine). The cars coming from your RIGHT are just feet to inches away, and sometimes moving quite quickly....and they are surely NOT expecting me to step out.

 OH..what I said back there.....I meant looking to the left will get you killed you everywhere EXCEPT HERE! This is the road coming into the bus station, and I guess they labeled it because it's NOT normal to have to look left. what's wrong with this picture? Look close.

Another thing I've noticed as I wander around town: I'm the ONLY person wearing a coat of any real color. Not sure what's up with this some strange town where color is forbidden? Seems that EVERYBODY (but me) is wearing drab colors...blacks, grays, a VERY FEW blues, and some browns. I stick out like a sore thumb every time I go out in my YELLOW coat...if there was ever a hit man looking for me in his sniper scope, I'd instantly be toast. And it's not like my coat is anything crazy's just your basic off-yellow Columbia shell w/ a zip in liner for temperature adjust-ability...(it's my snowboard jacket). The OTHER jacket that I brought to wear when it's a tiny  bit warmer is my cycling wind/rain shell (that I got just for this trip): it's BRIGHT red. I wear that over my green Edie Bauer hoodie and I'm good down into the 40's, high 30's...and let me tell you...the red stands out even MORE brilliantly than the yellow. Who knew I dress like a stoplight? As I walk around I notice people looking now and then...and I feel like I'm an outlaw or something.

And having nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of this post, I've been watching Rugby now. There is the Six Nations thing going on, and every weekend there are a few games. Last Saturday night at the pub I watched England vs Scotland, and on Sunday I watched Ireland vs Wales. I've got a so-so concept now on the rules and objectives, tho some things are still a bit iffy. Seems the sport isn't immune to the "bad call" either. The Ireland/Wales game was changed at the very end on a bad referee call (well, the announcers thought so, and in my GINORMOUS Rugby experience I had to agree). And Irish tackle'r somewhat lifted his opponent off the ground, but only by one leg, and the dude he was tackling had his arms on the ground...yet the ref called it a 'dangerous tackle' and gave Wales a free kick. He nailed it, and being a penalty kick they got 3 points for it (typically the kick is only worth 2). About 10 minutes before this one of the Wales guys picked up one if the Irish guys and slammed him on his HEAD much like in the crazy cage matches that are the rage lately. He got a 10 minute penalty and was sent to the "Sin Bin" (penalty box like in Hockey...and his team is now down to 14 players vice the usual 15) Anyway...THAT was a dangerous tackle! He could have KILLED the guy, and was only given a 10 minute rest for his transgression (the announcers couldn't believe he wasn't ejected from the game). Anyway, it was a 1 point lead for Ireland until the Wales penalty kick, and about 30 seconds after that the game was over. BOOO! HISSSSS! BAD CALL REF!!! Rugby is a MANS GAME! That wasn't a dangerous tackle...oooh...did he get his hair ruffled (like some of the NFL QB's)??? Of course, the prob w/ any penatly is that it;'s the Ref's decision, based on his view. Part of the game. One of the guys I'm working with here is a local (he's from Bath) and he was explaining the Rugby stuff to methe other day. Things such as the player positions (they're actually numbered 1 thru 15), why the diff in their sizes, where/how they line up in the scrum, what a ruckus is, line-outs, and all the other stuff I didn't understand). I need to write down any questions from this weekends games so I can elevate my Rugby-Q! I'm actually really liking the game! And the Six Nations guys are pretty much the best on the planet I gather.

OK...what else. Oh...this morning driving in. Cold. Rained just above freezing last night. Then froze. Black ice EVERYWHERE! I took it very cautions going on....thought I had it licked....turned off the main road as I'm close to flashing "Police" sighs at the turnoff...(meaning take it slow on the side road). It was VERY icy. Up over a tiny hill, still going slow...about 30 maybe. Slight downhill to the left turn, another flashing blue sign this time says "Icy".  Slowing, slowing, gently tapped the brakes, and suddenly I'm sliding. I shot straight across the intersection and slid another 50 feet or so....thankfully there were no other cars coming from any direction as I had NO control. NOW I understand why the rock walls on all the sides of this intersection are all battered and broken. It's quite the dangerous intersection. And I was even warned about it. I learned to drive in snow tires (ever)...however, snow and black ice are two totally different animals. Snow is no problem..and front wheel drive cars are equivalent to a tank. Black ice is bad ju-ju. Only studded snow tires would help on that..and I don't think they use them here. Many years ago when I was up in Norway in the winter, the rentals come standard w/ 4 studded tires. Suddenly the front wheel drive car is a TRUE tank on the road! It was even hard to make a emergency brake-180 like I learned to do back in Montana! Those studs really grab the road, however they really tear it up when there's no snow. And I take it they don't get THAT much snow here. was a  long neck is very sore from the work I've been doing (fiber optic fusion splicing...many hundreds of them, with many many hundreds left to go...pretty much it's all 'bench work', so I'm looking down the entire time). And it was also a frustrating week. To update you on my bike situation: it's being held for ransom by the UK government. Or more specifically, Her Royal Majesty's something or other (starts with a C).  I think I mentioned I got a letter last Saturday from the mail service here, saying that I owe a total of 424 pounds for my bike to be delivered (I already paid the postage). Most of that is VAT (Value Added Tax), and the rest is Customs Duty. I had called the number provided, and the lady there quickly referred me to the HRMC website. From there I FINALLY found a place where I could send in an email query, which I did. I explained my situation: that I'm here on US Gov orders (for the Dept of the Air Force), and explained that I'm only here for 3 months, and that the package contains MY bike, which is over 3 years old and has many thousands of miles on it. I shipped it only because the airlines constantly damage my belongings, and never dreamed it would become a huge tax burden for me. Well, on Thursday I got a reply (took less than a week amazingly enough!) and the person expressed sympathy for the misunderstanding (taxing my personal property) but said that I should go ahead and pay the fee and try to get it back later (admitting that I might never recover my money). If it were a reasonable amount, I'd consider. But the 424 pounds comes out to around $640, which is quite a bit. NOT GONNA HAPPEN! the email reply the HRMC rep said that it wasn't THEM that is responsible for the was the UK Border Customs Agency who is the devil. SO, I found the online form I needed (to mail in my request for review of the levy), and FINALLY found someone to print it for me (I have no print capability here). Got off work at 11am again (Friday...hooray!), spend a hour talking to various people on base (making sure it's ok for me to mail in a copy of my orders with the form). Seems I'm good to go, only it seems I'm on my own. I was hoping somebody at work would step up as my champion and have some sort of secret weapon (such as a friend in high places)...but alas no. So I filled out my form, explaining that the bike is my personal property, and I'm only here temporarily on Gov Orders, and that I leave (hopefully with all my property) on 20 April. Included a copy of my orders, then found a post office, and viola....48 pence later it's in the mail. No idea how long this will take, but after 21 days the postal agency says (in the original letter) that they will return it to the "Sender" (ie: ME!) if the fee is not paid. So we will see what happens.

The maddening part of all of this? One of the guys I traveled with is here on his FOURTH trip. He knows about the APO. For those who have never been in the military, APO stands for "Armed forces Post Office". As in: a US POST OFFICE right on base! Had he MENTIONED they had an APO (he has used it each time he's been here to mail home all his extra stuff), I could have averted this entire mess AND had my bike waiting for me when I arrived. But no. And HE was the one who gave me the address of the apartments, as he mails HIS stuff right to the apartments each time he comes. I guess HE has never been slammed w/ a customs bill before. And the APO would probably be at least half the postage. But hey...that's sour milk talking. I'm just upset cuz my beloved Ritchey Breakaway is sitting in jail, a mere 30 miles or so away (in York). And quite honestly I don't know how this will turn out. I don't believe taxing me on my pre-owned personal possession seems wrong...but that doesn't mean it will be changed. In which case I'll have them go ahead and return it, and depending on what MONTH it is when it gets back to Calif, I MIGHT have Jeannie re-mail it to the APO. Maybe by then the weather will be worth riding in. I'd be WAY more upset if it were great riding weather right now. As it is, I've got time. And I'm quite stubborn. There are mules out there going "don't mess w/ THAT guy...HE'S STUBBORN!"

And so. Another week has passed. For the first time in a LONG time, I'm smack in the middle of an actual winter. But my flat is warm, and my car is good. I just miss Jeannie and the babies. And my bike (s). But I'm such a whiney-baby.

Oh..speaking of toasty warm, I HAVE to tell this story! Last weekend in my wandering I found a kitchen stuff store. Woo-HOO! I bought me an oven thermomenter! I am THE KING! And BONUS: It has both Centigrade AND Fahrenheit scales on it! So NOW I can cook pizzas and chicken pot pies, and french fries, and tater tots, and my Gortons Fish Filets at the CORRECT TEMPERATURE! What a THOUGHT! So...Sun night I tried it out w/ a Marie Calendar Chicken Pot Pie. MMMMMM! Had the oven warming up, watching the dial. Gets up to about 300F and I can't get it any hotter. A few minutes later I put in my pie....still sitting at 300F (which is 150C). I keep inching the oven dial up, not getting any hotter. Figure it's my tiny oven, maybe it won't go any hotter than 300. I was wrong. Seems I bought a faulty unit. After an hour I check my pie. The crust is BLACK, CRISPY, CHARCOAL. Rats. Stupid thermometer. Peel off the top and the rest is edible. Later after the oven cools off, my stupid thermometer STILL says 300! So I took it back today and got a new one (still had my receipt). I only THOUGHT I was the king...but I wasn't. Until NOW I mean! Yes...I can NOW cook my frozen dinners at the RIGHT TEMP! I am SUCH a stallion! There's just NO STOPPING ME! (unless you charge me VAT I mean).

OK. Off to the weekend. Here's hoping you can cook your fries n stuff at JUST the right temp!


Thursday, February 2, 2012

What's the difference?

This post is dedicated to me explaining how utterly different so many things are over here as compared to back home. I thought I'd best do this while I'm still a newbie here...before too long things will seem totally normal and I won't be thinking about it any more.

I'll start just by taking you on a virtual tour of my flat. First thing I noticed when I walked in last week: the light switches. At home, we have switches right by every door. Easy peasy...convenient. Not here. ONE switch in most rooms. In the living room there is a switch by the front door, and another going out into the little middle room (not sure what I'm supposed to call a foyer in the middle of the flat or something). But that's the ONLY room. The light switch to the bathroom is a pull-handle. The kitchen: one switch near where you come in from the foyer-thing. However, being as I park outside the back door (which is out the kitchen into the alley), in the morning when I leave I have to open the door, which swings WIDE OPEN btw, like the house isn't level or something (which is actually needed cuz my small refrigerator would be totally blocking my exit if it weren't wide open)...and then I have to go back across the kitchen to hit the light switch and work my way around the refrigerator in complete darkness...oh...and the door opens the wrong way, so I can smack it good with my face/head/ it opens INTO the kitchen instead of towards the wall. Also, being so cold (right at freezing every night), if I start the car up to warm it up before I jump in and drive, when the door swings wide open, the exhaust pipe of the car is about 18" away from the wide open doorway now...and the exhaust is just blowing right inside.

Bathroom: the shower is the tub. Free-standing thing. No curtain, privacy whatsoever. It does have a little half-glass piece-swing-away thing that separates where you stand under the water from the toilet. When I first saw it I thought "no way on earth that small glass piece is keeping the shower water in the tub and not all over the floor". I was quite wrong. You see, for that to happen, there'd have to be water spewing out of the shower head with some sort of shower is a very gentle affair, and I swear I can spit harder than the water coming out. It's also an "instant heater" unit, vice a hot water heater. So I hit a button and the water starts to gently fall out of my shower head. However, it IS the perfect temperature, day after day with no adjustment needed (there is a knob that you rotate...more blue colder, more red warmer). So that one's a toss-up.

More bathroom. OK. The sink. It's a sink. Nothing else. No cabinet, anything. Nowhere to put stuff except around the faucet handles (and I mean TWO faucet handles). I'm not sure what century the hot/cold water coming out of the same spout was invented, but that hasn't gotten here yet apparently. I have either REALLY FREAKING COLD, or REALLY FREAKING HOT water, each coming out of their own spout....separated by about 10 inches of air. Wash your hands in that. And I'm not kidding either about how HOT and COLD they are. Amazing they can be that far apart in temp. The good part is the icy cold water feels somewhat good on your scalded hands. Next: the back of the toilet. Back home: flat (so I can put stuff on it, such as a spare roll of TP and some air freshener, you know...stuff like that). Here, it's they are afraid you might try to actually put stuff on it. Must be some kind of forbidden zone. Thank goodness I have like 5 things to store. They are all herded together in the tiny real-estate available on the sink.

Next up: power outlets. OK....sure, these ARE 230 volts AC...but do they need to be so BIG?? Great googly moogly! I plug any of my 110v plugs into one of the adapter plugs, and it looks like a VW sticking out of a dump truck or something (in size comparison). That is one HUGE plug! And while we are talking about plugs, how about a few more please? On my kitchen counter, I have ONE plug plate with 2 outlets...however ONE of them is taken up FULL TIME becasue the TINY FREAKING GAS STOVE needs an acutal wall plug! Thus, I have ONE plug left to share between the microwave, coffee pot and toaster (and anything ELSE I might use). Gotta have more plugs folks! Same for the walls...not EVEN one outlet per wall..some have NONE! Like the outlets (and light switches) were made of gold or something. Oh, and speaking of the TINY FREAKING GAS STOVE, I cooked some tater tots last week. There is a conversion chart I need to use. There's NO temperature's on the oven. Just a tiny character of a big-flame, three dash marks, and a character of a small-flame. THAT's IT! I'm supposed to figure out what temp to cook a pizza, or a chicken pot pie with THAT? PLEASE!!!!! I'll be lucky if my pot pie and pizza's aren't burned to a crisp (no timer either).

Heating. Wall mounted hot water radiators. There is a wall mounted thermostat (in Centigrade) in my little middle-room thing, but I can't even figure out what that is controlling, being as there's no furnace. EACH radiator has it's OWN temperature control knob...and those are adjusted to either I, II, III or IV  (or off, though it doesn't say that...I just figured that part out if you turn it slightly below the I setting). Maybe the thermostat controls the temp of the hot water, and the individual controls set how much each room gets?? That's my best guess.

Fireplace. Not even a real fireplace. Not even a real gas fireplace. Just a little contraption with some fake logs on it, and you have a few choices when you turn on the main switch: Light only (which lights below the fake logs, giving a nice fake impression of actual fake logs lying on a fake fireplace), and heat. Or should I say heat, HEat, or HEAT...depending on how many of the switches you turn ON. It does actually give out a nice little blow of heat (electric)....being as it's 230V, electric heaters are MUCH more effective than back in the US. Being as I setup my laptop on a little table right next to the fake fireplace, it's actually a nice little space heater...tho the fan is a bit noisy. But still, FAR better than nothing. This way I can leave the house slightly chilly, and turn on the 'fireplace' for a bit when I get home to toasty-things up some.

The TV. Or more accuratly, the guide...when you hit guide, whatever you were watching goes away. Back home it stays on in the corner of the screen, audio still there. Not you search (in vain usually) for ANYTHING to watch, you have total silence. And then when yo DO select a channel, you have to push yet ANOTHER an "are you sure" button. VERY annoying. I already PICKED that channel! Geez...the troubles I go thru...hitting the same button TWICE to watch a show! Will these trials and tribulations NEVER END?? ( I spoiled or WHAT!)

Storage space. I guess some of the flats have actual closets or such. Not this one. My Samsonite suitcase is sitting against the wall in my little middle-room, cuz I have nowhere else to put it. when my bike gets here, it will be joined by the hard-shell S&S case. The bike itself will most likely hang out in the kitchen. For one, that's about the only place with a piece of wall long enough to put it (that isn't already occupied by something else), and two: it will be going in/out of the back door anyway. And three...the kitchen has lovely linoleum floor, impervious to any wetness and such...whereas the rest of the flat is carpeted (except for the bathroom).

The refrigerator. It's pretty freaking tiny. If Jeannie were here, we'd be way-packed in there...thankfully with just me (and my BACHELOR foods), it's not too shabby. However, there's NO SHELF tall enough to put bottles of beer. HERE! In the BEER CAPITAL of the world!! What's up with THAT????????? I have a small drawer that can hold THREE pints, lying down. The rest have to sit on TOP of the refrigerator, as I have NO OTHER PLACE to put them. Speaking of no other place, NO PANTRY! I have my dry-good foods up in one of the dish cupboards, and re-arranged the other one to hold all the stuff I needed to move so I could have SOME space for my canned/dry goods.

Beer. Oh, did I mention that before? Hmmm...I MIGHT have.....tonights selection of the nectar of the Gods is a bottle of Bellhaven Wee Heavy. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!

On the label it says "Brewed by Scotlands oldest surviving regional brewers. Bellhaven Wee Heavy has a rich deep flavour (yes, flavor is spelled with the "u") that derives from the greater proportion of malted barley to hops which characterised Scottish Ales of the 19th century. A beer to be sipped and fully respected. (note: it's 6.5% alcohol). On the whole, VERY NICE! I'll be buying more of these I can assure you! It has a slight sweet hint to the malty taste. Nice color too...a good copper ale if there ever was one.  OK...that was my beer review for today. Get some! (note: Bellhaven brewery doesn't even know I exist and there is nothing in this for me, except for the right to buy MORE beer!)

Well gee...that about covers everything INSIDE...I'll do a post on the driving it will easily be it's own post. Hope everybody is having a nice week....we are supposed to get winter now...a storm is predicted with temps at -7C (that's about 19F). There could very well be snow...there's snow still on the ground less than 30 miles away up at Grassington...(where I will be riding my bike thru when I ride around in the Yorkshire Dales....WHEN it warms up just a tad I mean). I hope this post didnt' come over as me being a whiney-baby American...(not saying I'm NOT, just that I didn't mean for it to SOUND that way)'s just amazing the simple things we take for granted on a daily basis that are so different.

OK...time to finish my TASTY BEER and get some shut-eye. I only work a half day tomorrow (Friday) as I worked 9 hour days Mon thru real plans for this weekend...might go driving around some...that's always fun!

Have a GREAT weekend!