Saturday, December 29, 2007

Thoughts On Oil

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope everyone had a merry and relaxing Christmas, spent with friends and loved ones. Although I had a lot of pent up Christmas spirit in me, this being my first one in 4 years to be spent with my family, I have found that it has lost some of the magic for me. Whether this is due to my trip having put things into a different perspective, or whether it's just a case of getting older and increasing my humbug quotient I'm not sure, but some things, like putting up the tree and going Christmas shopping have become more of a chore for me. That said, there are still things that I appreciate: the laziness of being able to stay in and do nothing, seeing friends and gorging on mince pies and mulled wine (the latter being the true embodiment of the festivities for me).

Before the revelries began I had my first week at work. To be honest it was rather slow; partly due to the various administrative tasks that took a fair bit of toing and froing with the head office which is inconveniently located in the States, and also partly because it is a completely new position, both for me and the company, so I have to feel my way into what is required and do a lot of learning on the job, not least about the oil and gas industry. At least it has been very educational so far, as it has helped dispel some of the commonly held myths that circulate about oil.

Despite the price of a barrel of crude being at record highs and people everywhere complaining about how expensive it is, the black stuff is in fact pretty cheap. A litre of unrefined crude costs about 30p, about the same as the price of a Kit-Kat. Even at the pump, after having been refined, transported and taxed it costs about the same as bottled water. It is therefore ridiculous for people to complain about the price of petrol when they're prepared to pay the same amount for water which, and it is important to remember this, is available for free and contains no nutritional content (apart from a few trace elements). If one were to think logically petrol ought to be a good deal more expensive if one were to properly consider what you get for your money (not a popular point of view perhaps, but probably necessary for the future).

Similarly it is generally accepted that we are soon going to run out of oil. Now the veracity of that statement depends on your interpretation of the word soon, but there is certainly a good deal more of it than some scaremongers would have us believe. 20 years ago there were 875 billion barrels of obtainable oil reserves and today there are over 1200. That doesn't mean that they have miraculously appeared out of thin air, but that, due to improvements in technology, people have been able to find more sources of oil and extract greater percentages of it once they have found it. In a way it's unfortunate because, as far as the people who make the decisions are concerned, there's plenty of the black stuff about and so there's no urgency in doing anything to address the eventual demise of oil.

Another point of attack, especially for the anti-globalisation crowd, are the big oil companies. They are demonised for being incredibly rich and powerful and using their power and dominant position to ride roughshod over the interests of local people and even governments of developing countries. Now there is a certain ruth to this, and like all companies they are out to make a profit and stay ahead of their competitors, but one must also look at the facts of the business. The five biggest oil companies (known as IOCs, or International Oil Companies) have, together, less than 25% of world production and 15% of the world's oil reserves. Compare this then to NOCs (National Oil Companies, which are owned by state governments, such as NIOC in Iran, Aramco in Saudi Arabia and PdVSA in Venezuela) who produce more than 60% of the world's oil and own 80% of its reserves. When one thinks that these NOCs are often run by suspect governments that are accountable to no-one and endemically corrupt, the IOCs begin to look like paragons of justice with their shareholders and regulatory bodies keeping them in check and economic necessity ensuring that they aren't wasteful. And with regards to their wealth it is true that of the five richest companies in the world are IOCs, but that's not surprising when one realises that just to develop a single oilfield often requires investments in excess of a billion dollars. Small companies just don't have the capital, and very often the IOCs have to work together on the same field out of financial necessity. This isn't to say that they are without sin, far from it, but the alternatives are probably worse.

Anyway, that's enough about the macroeconomics of oil; since I haven't posted a picture in quite some time I thought I'd give you one that I took on my morning cycle to work as the sun was rising on Richmond Park.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Global Warming And Expanding Waistlines

I remember, as a child, the optimism and enthusiasm that even made its way to my juvenile consciousness during the first Earth Summit in Rio 15 years ago. The Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen and all the nations would go forward together, hand in hand, towards a brighter future. Even back then there was a consensus amongst scientists that global warming was being influenced by human activity and that if nothing was done soon then it would have catastrophic consequences on the global climate. Fast forward to the present day and things have advanced painfully slowly since then, with the present Bali summit producing a watered down agreement, which, as it stands, is far too little far too late to be able to stem the climate change flood. It's particularly galling to me that the stumbling block should be the United States. here's a country that calls itself, with some pride, the Leader of the Free World. Every year its government trumpets reports of human rights abuses throughout the world and bemoans the lack of democracy, going so far as to wage a war for the spread of it (amongst many other reasons, depending on the time of day they are talking). Yet when the moment arrives for true leadership, for difficult, painful choices being made, for sacrifice the bravado turns to selfishness, intransigence and sheer bloody-mindedness.

It had become ever harder to deny either the scientific or the democratic arguments (the latter being the fact that the majority of countries of the world wanted and were willing to make sacrifices to fight climate change) and so the barrel was well and truly scraped to find less and less convincing arguments. The economic: we won't be able to have things as cheaply as before and some people might lose a few jobs. True as it might be, the costs of allowing climate change to go on unchecked would be far greater still, and most likely in ways that we cannot foresee. Also, if America's direct competitors (other developed countries) were to sign up to the same commitments then the trade playing field would still be level. But, counter the Americans, what about China and India and other devloping countries who are also polluting. Those sneeky Chinese are now polluting as much as we are! Blithely ignoring the fact that there are four times as many Chinese and that they haven't been polluting nearly as much much nearly as long as them. Apparently the aspiration of having a better quality of life and all the comforts of modern living is only for the West and developing countries are only to have a role as factories for our cheap goods.

Luckily even their bare-faced conceit couldn't stop a final agreement being reached, however toothless it may be. It's a shame that it has turned out like this as this was a golden opportunity for the Americans to restore their damaged international reputation and regain the moral high ground. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, I am very pessimistic about our long-term ability to maintain the planet as it is. That's not to say that all life will die, because Mother Nature has a boundless ability to adapt to new circumstances, but we will lose the beauty and diversity that is there now. Forever.

What, however, is perhaps more worrying for the world, is that I have now unearthed a good number of my old clothes and I am finding that I no longer fit into my old trousers. For years I had a constant 30" waist and weighed around 62kg, and now I've suddenly realised that I've eaten my way up to a 32" paunch and I tip the scales at the wrong end of 68kg. I'm afraid of not only becoming a sedentary slob like my brother (a good way of testing to see whether he's actually reading this), but that I might also have to buy new clothes - an idea which fills me with dread, not just because it's another expense, but because I seriously dislike the whole shopping experience (clothes in particular) and am suddenly realising that I still need to get my Christmas shopping done. Aaarrggghhh!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Last Taste Of Freedom

This weekend I celebrated my birthday in Britain once again. After spending three birthdays and Christmases on the road their importance has paled for me and I don't see them as being any different from other days. In fact I was going out with some friends from the south America days of my trip on my birthday and didn't realise that it was my birthday until halfway through the evening. Personally I think the best present one can have is to spend time with friends (copious quantities of mulled wine, beer and cocktails just make it that bit better). Apropos of friends I got to see an old friend from school in France last week. Marina and Guillaume were flying off to New Zealand for a belated honeymoon and had a three hour stopover at Heathrow. Seeing as I hadn't seen them since 2002 I took some time off to go and snatch a few hours with them for some quick reminiscences and updates before they jetted off to to escape the European Winter for a few weeks.

I am trying to take advantage of my final week of freedom before my job starts next week to sort out my life a bit while I still have some free time. My main task (and it's one I won't be finishing for some time) is to get my pictures sorted. I've managed to get my photos that I developed from film annotated and put into albums (six of them). That covers my first year of travelling before I switched to digital. I've gone through all my other pictures on my computer and touched them up where it has been necessary and now I'm sifting through them to pick out which ones to actually develop. I took my first six months' worth in to be processed today and gave the girl behind the counter a bit of a fright when she saw I was developing 1162 photos (that's all that would fit on my memory stick). I thought it would be funny to get them done in 1 hour, but then decided against it to give the poor girl some time.

My other main task is to try and get on top of my finances (or lack thereof). I have come to realise that I now have 4 current accounts, 3 savings accounts, 2 debit cards and 3 credit cards. Maybe I ought to keep my cards apart in my wallet to keep them from reproducing! I mean just trying to keep track of all the different PIN codes and online passwords is a major effort in itself, not to mention trying to understand all the various accounts, taxes, pensions contributions, national insurance and other financial oddities. What strikes me as particularly shameful is that as students at school (both here in Britain and in France, and probably many other countries as well) we are not taught even the most rudimentary aspects of finance and so people are left blindly feeling their way alone through the financial maze.

Monday, December 03, 2007

No Longer Looking

Since I went to school in France I have many French friends, and as they graduated from university I would tell them to come over to Britain where employment opportunities are greater than over there (young people find it notoriously difficult to find jobs in France, which is one of the reasons for the numerous riots and strikes that paralyse the country with increasing frequency). Today I have proved how true that is. Without actively seeking it out I have been offered a research analyst position at the consultancy I'm temping at. It might not have been what I was aiming for (although I'm not exactly sure what I was aiming for) but after talking to the various partners, managers and consultants it sounds like quite an exciting job with plenty of scope to learn new skills and broaden my knowledge about the energy industry, not to mention the fact that the pay is very reasonable and well in excess of the positions I was looking at. I will let you know more about the details of the job once I actually start as the job description is rather vague and leaves a lot of room for improvisation. The one drawback of this stroke of good luck may be that it reinforces my rather laissez faire attitude towards life in general as things in general really have seemed to work out fortuitously for me with very little input on my behalf. But then again I am quite easily pleased so it doesn't take much to make me content.

Other news has been my recent return to the roads behind the wheel of a car. Despite having got my driving licence at the age of 18, 5 years of urban living followed by 3 years of travelling have meant that I hadn't driven in over 5 years and my total number of hours driving ever barely exceeds a dozen. It was no wonder therefore that I viewed a return to clutches, gearsticks, indicators and windscreen wipers with more than a little trepidation. To say that I don't hold much confidence in my driving skills would be a sizeable understatement. As it turns out I have driven the 8 or so miles to and from my brother's flat on three occasions now and not only am I still alive but I have neither crashed nor even damaged the paintwork. Nevertheless I still feel more at ease on my bike (despite the idiot drivers who haven't the slightest inkling what a cycle lane is) where I feel more in control.

Christmas fever has also reached it apogee some 4 weeks before the actual event with high streets jam-packed on weekends and television adverts extolling Christmas offers for the past month already. Some people even have their decorations up already. Not that I particularly mind though, what with the short days and the grim weather I am finding it hard not to just stay in and veg, which is of course what Christmas is all about (some misguided people think it may be about the giving of gifts, or even to celebrate the birth of some guy a long time ago, but in fact it is a celebration of weather-induced laziness and indolence).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Life In The Bus Lane

So I have been temping a couple of weeks now and the life of an office manager is actually quite interesting, although in this office midweek is rather slow as most of the consultants are away on assignment and so I was often alone stalking the corridors and talking to myself (so at least no change there then). I won't bore you with the details of the job, instead it has been the getting to and from work which will be the topic of my discussion. It seems that getting from A to B plays a far greater role in our daily lives than I had previously supposed, and isn't solely the preserve of travellers.

As I mentioned before I had decided to go green and use the bike, although my reasons for switching were more prosaic and centred around money and an increase in sleep time. There are, of course, other advantages to cycling. Personally I derive great pleasure in speeding past single-occupancy motorists who are stuck in jams and inching along nose to tail at a walking pace - it gives me a great amount of satisfaction and makes me feel not a little smug, especially as I weave in between the gridlock maze. I am lucky in that my route takes me through Richmond Park, London's largest urban park, complete with its own herd of royal deer. You don't really see them in the morning when the park is also open to traffic, but as the road gates are closed at dusk the park becomes a surreal cycling experience. As you enter, the lights that are omnipresent in the city abruptly stop and you enter into a surprisingly heavy darkness. And although you don't have to worry about getting run over by a car, you have to be extra vigilant for the deer that wander across the road and seemingly jump out at you in the darkness. And off in the distance lies London with a red haze from the city lights hanging above it as if it were on fire, obscuring the stars which are replaced by the planes coming in to land at Heathrow. The darkness is so deep that on my first foray homewards through the park I mistakenly took a wrong turning and ended up in Roehampton, thereby adding some 10km to my trip (suffice to say that it is not a mistake I am likely to make in the future!).

There are drawbacks too, of course, as there are to everything, the most notable being the delayed action saddle soreness (which I am feeling as I'm typing these very words) and stressed muscles that are unused to the exertion. The weather is also getting noticeably colder, which I feel particularly keenly as I set off in the morning when my body still isn't warmed up. The cold wind in my face also causes my nose to run so that I am always cycling with a permanent drop of watery phlegm dangling like some liquid bungee jumper, on the tip of my nose. Still, a small price to pay for trying to be carbon neutral.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fire Works

I'm particularly fond of Autumn in the UK. Although it's not particularly warm (there's frost on the pavements in the morning already) I love the blue skies, the crisp morning air, the changing colours of the leaves and the eerie morning mist (though I'm rarely ever up to catch that) that adds a touch of magic to otherwise humdrum surroundings. It's also the season for explosions and fireworks, what with Guy Fawkes' night on the 5th closely followed by Diwali there was a steadily increasing nightly cacophony of bangs, whizzes and explosions culminating with Bonfire Night itself, when walking home in the darkness due to a local power cut I felt like I was in the Blitz.

The past couple of weeks have been rather busy for me. The most important thing to have happened to me has been my recent change of work status - I am now employed. Before we get out the champagne though it is only a temporary job to tide me over whilst I look for something more substantial. Just as it is the world over, it's not what you know but who you know, managing to get a job standing in for the office manager at my brother's office. It's not the most glamourous of jobs and neither am I earning big bucks, but it's better than nothing and the work itself is rather varied and so I'm not getting bored. The worst part of the job is the commute. Although I don't live that far, due to rush hour traffic it takes over 90mins for a journey that ordinarily takes less than 30mins by car. The trains aren't much quicker either as I have to go half way into London before getting a connecting train. So instead I have decided to requisition my brother's bike and cycle into work, thereby saving money, getting some much-needed exercise and allowing me to sleep for 30mins more in the morning (priceless!).

So that has been taking up all of this week, but the week before I got a surprise message from one of my ex-pupils who was going out not far from me and so we met up for a few beers. Although Rishi was by no means a star pupil and annoyed me occasionally with his sometime slack attitude to his studies he was always a genuinely likeable and cheery guy. So it was with great curiosity that I arranged to meet up with him to see how much three years of university had changed him, if at all. I was glad to find that he had lost none of his fun-loving charm but that he had gained in maturity and responsibility. It was particularly heartwarming for me when Rishi reminded me of advice I had given him back then, which he promptly disregarded, and that he has now come to see as pertinent and useful.

Also, following on from my Persian rap experience a few weeks back I went to see the animated film Persepolis, about young girl's memories of the Iranian Revolution and her time growing up under the Islamic regime, at the London film festival. Now it seems to me that animated features are viewed with a certain condescension in the English-speaking world, which is a shame as it can be an unbelievably rich and evocative medium with as much emotion and pathos as films with live actors (the works of Hayao Miyazaki and the animated sequences of Alan Parker's The Wall spring immediately to mind) and also allows a film to exceed the physical limits of reality. Be that as it may I can only recommend the film which not only gives a short, yet insightful, view of the political situation that led up to the Revolution but also the absurdity of the current regime, all the while maintaining a personal perspective and allowing odd moments of humour to pop in.

Monday, October 29, 2007

London Is My Marmite

I have a love hate relationship with London. Having spent my university years here I greatly appreciate all that it has to offer: entertainment, culture, whatever - if you want something you are sure to be able to find it here. But it'll cost you. A lot. London life certainly isn't cheap, even if you live in the forgotten depths of zone 4 south of the river, and especially when you aren't earning any money (my unemployment benefit still hasn't come through yet and I'm just grateful that I'm staying with my mum and getting fed and horribly spoilt). And so even when you don't want to money, and how to get it, keep it and not lose it too quickly, never seems to be far away from your thoughts. Getting away from this cycle isn't easy either, as once you are in London it has a huge gravitational pull in terms of employment: looking for a job outside of the capital isn't easy, although conversely, you can always find a job here no matter where you are in the country (or at least an advert for a job - getting it is another matter completely). So once you are here it's hard to leave. Then there's the sheer size of the city. No matter where you want to go it'll take you an hour to get there, regardless of the actual, physical distance. So I just try and stick to my local area which has pretty much all I need anyway. In the three weeks I have been back this weekend was the first time I had ventured into the world of debauchery and hedonism that is zone 1 - to see a concert of contemporary Persian rap with my mum (a bit more on that later).

But even without going into the centre of town and staying in the suburbs I continually encounter what I love most about the place. Whether I happen to be strolling through Sutton High Street, or just sitting on the 213 to Kingston, I can always hear people talking, and as often as not it won't be in English. Chinese, Polish, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Hindi, Spanish and many more that I can't even begin to recognise. London is a true melting pot, in the best form of the term. People come from all over the world to London to make a (better) life for themselves, and so they are all in the same boat and seem to get along well together, accepting each other with no difficulty. That's not to say that there are no race problems, there always are, especially with the British resenting the large number of Poles that have come over with the expansion of the EU (the vast majority of waiting staff in the capital are eastern European). Part of this multiculturalism is found in the diverse number of cultural events to cater for every taste and ethnicity. And so there I was, at the plush Southbank centre watching a concert of Persian rap to celebrate the 800th anniversary of one of Persia's greatest poets Rumi (not much publicised within Iran itself as he was more of a Sufi mystic, and Sufism, despite being a Muslim sect, is very much disapproved of under the current regime). The acts themselves ranged for cringeworthy to very good, with rap switching between between Farsi (which is a surprisingly good language for the medium) and English with frequent criticism of the regime. Though there were a few jabs at the British government aswell due to the fact that several acts were not allowed to attend the concert due to draconian visa resttrictions (despite the fact that they were allowed into other European countries).

Generally travelling has been greatly enriching for me, but there has been one aspect of my life here that has taken a turn for the worse as a direct result of it: I am taking far less pleasure in eating out. Not only can I no longer get a meal for half a dollar, but I find foreign cuisine less tasty than I used to. This is because I know what it tastes like abroad, and the stuff here just doesn't cut it anymore. Plus things taste much better when you eat them from a grubby little street stall on the dusty streets of a third-world backwater.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Showers And Dictators

So I'm trying to get back into things over here. I've started getting onto the whole job-search malarkey, though I suspect it may be a while before my efforts start paying off in interviews and offers.. Otherwise it has been somewhat hard to slip back into polite society, for several reasons I suppose. Renewing contacts with friends isn't always that easy because whilst I've been away they have carried on with their lives (which is self-evident) and so have their routines and it is difficult to slip seamlessly into their already well-arranged lives. Plus what do you talk about? I don't want to sound like a broken record talking about my trip all the time, but then it was the last three years of my life, so what else have I to talk about? Then there's the physical sorting of my belongings and accumulated junk. Unfortunately our house here in London is rather small and I share my room with a lot of my brother's stuff and so am unable to properly spread out and organise my flotsam and jetsam, much of which is squirreled away either in our attic or garage in piles of boxes. I therefore feel as if I'm still living out of my backpack somewhat. And finally over the course of my trip personal hygiene wasn't really much of a priority when camping and staying in tatty hostels (although people who know me would probably say that hygiene has never been a priority for me), but I'm having to make the effort to remember to shower more than twice a week. To help me somewhat I've gone ahead and shaved my hair very short, which makes it more manageable and easier to maintain (I hadn't cut my hair in over a year and it was beginning to show).

On a completely separate note, and somewhat belatedly, I was thinking about Burma/Myanmar the other day. It seems as if there are no problems there anymore judging by the number of column inches the newspapers and airtime the TV news channels are devoting to the situation there nowadays. I was mulling over the political situation there and how it compares to Iraq under Saddam, and honestly I can't for the life of me find any great difference. The repression of ordinary Burmese, their general quality of life (or lack thereof), the extrajudicial killings are quite possibly worse under Than Shwe and his clique of generals than what the Iraqis experienced with Saddam. So what justifies the very different ways in which the two regimes are handled by the international community. Could it possibly have something to do with the huge reserves of oil in Iraq? Well, that would be a far too cynical world-view, wouldn't it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Taste Of Cwm

Although my travels are ostensibly over I still managed to start my exploration of my own country last weekend when I went to visit a friend in north Wales. I met Liam on the south American leg of my trip and we became good friends keeping in touch throughout the intervening years. He is about to emigrate to New Zealand in a month (to try and reverse the trend and steal one of their jobs!) and so I took advantage of his presence to carry out my first visit to Wales. It's shocking I know, having travelled around the entire world and yet I haven't yet seen all of the Home Nations.

Liam's family lives in the village of Cwm in northern Wales, set amidst rolling hills, the stereotypical fields of sheep and forests filled with pheasants who strut blithely along the country lanes awaiting their turn to be shot by rich, upper-class people with shotguns. The village makes up for its unfortunate name with spectacular views across the Clwyd valley to the rugged peaks of Snowdonia (when the cloud isn't playing silly buggers that is). Liam took Rob (another fellow traveller) and myself on a ride through a labyrinth of lanes that criss-cross the Welsh countryside through the Snowdonia national park, along gushing streams bordered by trees turning golden in their Autumn splendour. The place was also filled with weekend ramblers in their colourful anoraks and raincoats fleeing the grim northwestern cities for a bit of natural refreshment before the coming Winter makes hiking an unwelcome proposal. We weren't really equipped for walking so instead we visited several of the castles, built by the English 700 years ago when they conquered Wales, that form a defensive ring around the country and were used to quell the numerous nationalistic rebellions. In that sense Wales has the dubious distinction of being the first country to fall to the imperialistic ambitions of the English, a conquering habit that carried on until they dominated a quarter of the globe.

Saturday night was spent out on the town in Wrexham, north Wales's only urban centre of any note. It started off with a couple of hours in a pub watching England take on France in the rugby world cup (much like the Scots the Welsh will support anybody who is competing against the English). From there it was off to sample the Welsh nightlife. My first impression was that there was a cloth shortage in the area, as none of the ladies out that night seemed to have enough material to make even the miniest of skirts. I suppose it must be a cultural thing...

All in all it was lovely to catch up again after all this time and renew old ties and the short introduction has certainly whetted my appetite to discover more of Wales, preferably with a backpack and tent (and a bit of sunshine wouldn't go amiss either). On a completely different note I have made the unexpected observation that friendships made whilst travelling seem somehow more intense, and can often be stronger than everyday friendships, despite the contact being of a short duration. I wonder why that is?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Dazed And Confused

When you're travelling there is a certain certainty in your life - you are on the road and therefore your worries only relate to the immediate future: where will I sleep, what will I see, how will I get there and what will I eat. Life on the road, although ever-changing and full of surprises, has direction (onwards). Now that I am back at home I have the luxury to be able to sit at home in comfort with all the conveniences I could wish for. This is all very difficult for me as I easily get distracted - and seeing as I have three years worth of distractions to catch up with they are legion - but I also have a lot of work to do, sorting through accumulated correspondence, files and folders of officialdom. I have to get my eyes checked (done), sign up to a doctor and get my teeth checked as well. I have a mountain of photographs to sort through (which is proving irritating as I cannot find the first thirty-odd rolls) and I need to get my act together and properly look for a job, because unfortunately living costs money, and nowhere more so than here in London.

It is this final quest that I am more than a little apprehensive about. In today's world there are just so many good options open to you that sometimes I feel like a bunny staring into the headlights of an oncoming car - blinded by the sheer immensity of possibility; the dilemma of choice. I would dearly like to try out as many different and exciting occupations as possible but that just isn't viable. I must choose one and stick with it (for a certain amount of time at least). Then there is my experience, or lack of it. I have a general degree from a very good university and I know that I am more than capable of doing almost any job given half a chance, but I have very few concrete skills or experience particular to a profession so I am fretting somewhat about not being able to get my foot in the door due to my lack of them. On the other hand, however, I am grateful that the job market is relatively flexible here in Britain as opposed to the Continent where your career is almost always dictated by your degree. But that is a problem I intend to defer, until after this weekend at least, as I'm off to see a friend from my travels.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Epilogue

[Warning, this is a rather long post, so feel free to take breaks in between paragraphs, go for a cuppa, have some biccies, have a nap, or even go on a weekend break to Stockholm.]

So here I am, back home and starting to reintegrate myself into everyday life. There's a stack of letters I need to sift through, I have to get a phone (because in today's society you can't exist without a mobile), I've contacted the job centre, I need to have a look at my finances (or what's left of them) and I had an eye check up yesterday. There's a whole mesh of networks that surround and cosset everyday life that you don't don't notice until you leave and try and reconnect to them. But I suppose that's an adventure in itself, and one that I will perhaps return to in later posts (if people still keep reading). Today's post, however, is to look back at the trip and see what lessons, if any, I have learnt, whether it was worthwhile, or whether I was just wasting my time and money on an expensive and time-consuming prank.

Well, from a purely pragmatic and prosaic point of view I have learnt a good deal of Spanish, a smattering of Russian and Arabic. I have learnt what I am capable of physically; I have tried many different activities that few people get the chance to experience; I have eaten a multitude of exotic foods (I particularly liked the spiders in Cambodia but don't need to try scorpions again) that would be anathema for most Westerners; I can manage to passably feed myself with chopsticks; I have seen some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world; I have learnt that Djibouti is a country to be avoided, if at all possible; and I have acquired the, not unuseful, ability to find a camping spot in urban areas. No bad for three years, and possibly more than I learnt during my three years at university! But that's just being facetious. In fact I would say that my three main subjects for this course have been sociology, geography and psychology.

First sociology. During the trip I've seen how people in different countries and cultures live, tried to understand how and what they think (not always possible I must admit), and get an idea of their circumstances and their past. I think that that is truly important in today's world where communities are interconnected and events on one side of the world affect people on the other. Before leaving I thought I was a well-informed and clever individual who was quite au fait with what was going on in the world, the issues, the grievances, the debates. And in a way I was - I was interested in current affairs and tried to inform myself, and I certainly knew more than most. However, as I travelled I quickly realised that the information that you get second or third hand from the medias gives a heavily skewed, parochial view of the world and its problems. In the same way that every cabbie knows how the country really should be run, it is easy to sit in ones armchair and expound upon the problems afflicting other countries and what should be done about them. But things are always far more complex and nuanced than they seem from a distance with every situation having a long and convoluted history hanging like an albatross around it and pulling it down into a boggy mess. Actually I think that's our biggest mistake when we look at various goings-on in the world we don't see it in the context of a historical continuum (not surprising for us Brits when we can drop history at school at the age of 14). Things are not made any better when you have people, who we ought to trust and really should know better, making black and white pronouncements such as "you're either with us or against us". Indeed, so many problems in the world seem to stem from an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to see the common humanity in all of us. A stubborn holding on of the us-against-them mentality that refuses to see that there is no them. I've certainly become more circumspect when it comes to passing judgement on other points of view, other people and other ways of doing things.

As a slight aside, it is interesting to note that many of the more long-term travellers out there have a hippy, romanticised, Noble Savage view of cultures in developing countries, idealising them and rejecting everything Western. Although I believe that there is a lot to learn from other cultures, especially with regards to how we treat others as individuals, there are things we have got right in my opinion, especially with regards to the respect of the rule of law and treatment of women. Actually that's one thing that has marked me quite deeply on this trip - I have become somewhat ashamed of my gender. In many places that I visited women would do the lion's share of the menial, back-breaking work, in the fields, in shops, in the home and even on construction sites, whereas men generally seemed employed with less demanding tasks like moto/taxi/tuk-tuk drivers or touts, but more often than not would sit in cafes smoking sheeshas (in the Middle East) or cigarettes (the Chinese), drinking tea, coffee or beer and possibly reading a paper or two (in the Subcontinent), taking care not to get lumbago. That is certainly one of the greatest blights of the developing world as they are depriving themselves of half their talent (probably more actually) and different ways of looking at things only because men are afraid of losing their iron grip on power. I think this also explains the huge taboo surrounding sex in many disparate cultures that share little except the lowly situation in which the women find themselves - sex is the one area of social life where women hold all (most of) the cards, and so men are beholden to them. Unwilling to accept such a state of affairs men have stigmatised sex so that they can maintain the upper hand. It is therefore not surprising that the countries in which sex ellicits the greatest public revulsion and antipathy one also finds the greatest proportion of prostitution because young men have so little opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. Though of course, sexual activity and promiscuity is almost impossible to detect amongst men and so you get schizophrenic attitudes of men who one day pay for sex and the next denigrate the very prostitutes that they visit (and I met several people like that, in different countries with different religions).

And geography? well you can't help learning where places are on the map when you need to sort out trains, buses and connections, or when you need to navigate mountain passes with poorly marked trails. Though that's not really what I mean when I talk of geography, but more the world around us - the natural world, landscapes and ecosystems. It has been my experience that the most beautiful thing in the world is nature. No matter whether it be mountains, desert, forest, coast or plains nothing we create can come close to the majesty of nature. As soon as we change it by building or digging it becomes less, perverted, defiled. The problem we face today is that not only are areas of true, pristine nature shrinking at an alarming rate, but people are also further removed from them because they lead urban lives. They have no contact with the beauty of the world (which reminds me of a girl I knew in London who was 18 before she saw her first cow), they only see dirty streets, open sewers masquerading as rivers and possibly a few lonely, bedraggled trees in a grey urban park, and so they have no love or respect for it. This leads to the disdain with which the environment is treated by many people (in the developed as well as the developing world), as a great big litter bin, where someone else will clear up the mess, especially if you're just passing through. On the one hand it's a perfectly natural response, the problem is that as a species our actions have a far greater impact than nature devised, and so we must strive to rise above our instinctive behaviour and make sacrifices for benefits that we will never see. It's all a question of education, integrity and will, and to be perfectly honest, from what I have seen I hold out next to no hope for us precisely because we are generally selfish and unable to see beyond our immediate surroundings and future. I fervently hope, however, that humanity will prove me wrong.

And as for myself, well this didn't really start off as a voyage of self-discovery, because I'm far too cynical for that. I just wanted to sate my curiosity of the world and my wanderlust, to see what there is out there, to taste and experience before it's gone (and as I mentioned above, I unfortunately think it will be). But I suppose that along the way I changed, and started to look at things differently. I opened up more than just my eyes, and started to look closer, ask deeper questions and take more of an interest into the why's. The long periods of time alone also gave me plenty of opportunity to just think, to go over problems and ideas and try to figure out my personal answers to my own burning questions (although the answer to the big one may be 42, there are still plenty of other smaller questions that still need answering). Walking through a high street in a German town looking at the shops brought it to the fore for me when I saw the following sign in the window of a shop that specialised in bespoke staircases, it said: "helping you get the stairs you've always dreamt of." I stopped and looked at it for a while. The stairs you've always dreamt of. Personally I have never dreamt of stairs (as an entity in themselves that is, I'm sure I have had dreams in which stairs performed an ascending/descending function, but nothing more) and it made me somewhat depressed. What sort of a society do we live in where people dream of stairs? surely there must be more worthwhile things to dream about and occupy our hopes and aspirations with. There must be something greater we can strive towards than hand-carved, solid pine ballustrades.

When trying to decide upon a set of values and standards I think being an atheist helps because for many people in developing countries it is such an unfathomable concept that you have to explain and justify your beliefs (or lack of them). Although it's not just developing countries where being an infidel raises eyebrows as I found out when I got picked up by a priest whilst I was hitching in France who interrogated me, in a friendly way, getting me to justify my convictions. So what miraculous conclusions have I arrived at? Religion is there to give people a meaning, a sense to their lives, what meaning does my life have without religion my priestly companion asked me. Well, I've come to the conclusion that life has whatever meaning you choose to give it. It is up to every individual to decide what is meaningful for them, whether it be the pursuit of happiness, money, contentment, knowledge or fame. People are not all the same and therefore what is needed to make their lives worthwhile (for themselves) varies as well. There is not one size that fits all of us, and seeking the answers from others is, in my view, a pusillanimous shirking of the challenge of life. Personally, I get my kicks trying to see, learn and understand this fascinating world of ours. Of course, learning is just half the story; knowledge which isn't used or shared is pretty damn useless, gathering cobwebs in the attic of your mind. Part of that sharing is writing this blog (thank you my faithful readers if you've made it this far by the way) and trying to incorporate what I have learn into my everyday life (without getting too preachy). Among the concrete conclusions that I've come to are that a lot of what we consider as important or necessary for happiness is superfluous, shackles us and weighs us down seeming only to serve to make us unhappy when we don't have it. Similarly I believe we in the West are far too engrossed in our own lives and don't engage enough with those around us. Now that doesn't mean that we're all callous bastards, but we just don't want to get involved, perhaps through fear, through selfishness or apathy. But not doing bad is not the same as doing good, and we certainly don't do enough of the latter. We shouldn't just not drop litter, but we ought to pick it up as well; we shouldn't wait until people come up to us to ask for help, but we ought to offer our assistance straight away. And then again it's easy for me to say that, sitting here in front of my computer and pontificating into cyberspace, but will I be able to practice what I preach. Well, I certainly hope so, but I've decided to make a conscious effort to do so.

I would be the first to admit that my revelations certainly aren't particularly new or original, I'm sure you could go into any bookshop and find a dozen self-help titles that would tell you exactly the same thing, although possibly with more psychobabble jargon. So what was the point of the whole exercise? it would have been considerably cheaper to have just bought the books, along with a few travel tomes. True, perhaps, but these same self-help books keep getting published and there seems to be an insatiable demand for them. Surely if they really worked then you would only need to buy one. The fact is that some things have to be experienced to be learnt, for them to be truly taken in, understood and internalised there is no other way than just going out there and getting your hands dirty. So my advice, in general, to anyone, would be don;t be too dependent on other peoples' advice (I wouldn't have much of a career writing self-help books me). Go out, see the world (and that doesn't necessarily mean touring round the globe, but going about with your eyes open and a spirit of curiosity), make decisions, make mistakes, and then make your own mind up.

P.S. That's the end of the trip, but I will be carrying on the blog where you can follow my (mis)adventures as I try and find a job and a niche in the 'normal world'. Those of you who would like to unsubscribe from the email posts just send me an e-mail.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Back For Tea

From Cornwall I hitched eastwards to Somerset where I have an old friend (Sarah used to be my boss at the lab I worked at part-time whilst I was at uni) who lives in the country close to Bristol. The hitching experience was quite odd in that when I tried to ask people for lifts at petrol stations (generally a good place to catch rides as it allows you to directly get in contact with people and show them that you are a normal person, it's less dangerous as you don't have to worry about traffic, and it affords shelter when it rains) many wouldn't even stop when I started talking to them, always with an "excuse me" or "I beg your pardon" and would just walk on by trying their hardest to ignore me. Twice I was even thrown off the forecourt for 'harassment' despite being as polite and humble as I could possibly be (you're never going to get a ride by being rude to people). And yet on the other hand my average wait was very short compared to other countries. It seems that while many people just really don't want anything to do with anybody else there are a good number of people who will go out of their way to help.

My last ride that day was particularly funny as I had reached to within 7km of Sarah's house but it was getting dark and I didn't want to walk along the dangerous country lanes where there is no room for pedestrians. Then it started to rain and I began feeling rather miserable (particularly as my shoes have holes in the soles and let in water) when suddenly a young man pulled up in a BMW (a rarity in itself because, as a general rule, the nicer the car the less likely a person is to stop and pick up a hitcher) and offered me a ride. I could tell straight away that he was foreign and I guessed Turkish. "No," he said, "I am from a small country called Georgia, have you heard of it?" "Had I heard of it?" I said, "I absolutely love it," I gushed, and proceeded to regale David (for that was his name) of my love of khachapuri, khinkali and Kakheti wine. I also impressed him by reciting my two phrases of Georgian that managed to hang on in the jumbled attic of my mind. Which just goes to show that learning a bit of local lingo can come in handy in the most unexpected circumstances.

Whilst staying with Sarah I took the opportunity to explore the surrounding area: the town of Bath, the classic spa town (actually the only one in Britain, which is rather poorly supplied with hot springs) with its harmonious, Palladian architecture that accommodated the rich and famous of Georgian Britain. Other attractions in the surrounds are Wells and Cheddar with its eponymous gorge, which, though the largest in the British Isles, is rather wee on the world stage. I have also discovered that being a tourist in Britain certainly doesn't come cheap with many museums and attractions costing about double what I was paying for similar places in Germany or France. Plus the public transport seems to have taken the worst from both countries with a paucity of service rivalling the French and prices on par with the Germans. I was not impressed I can assure you.

But that's enough of my grumbling. Somerset was to be my last stop on this trip and yesterday I said goodbye to Sarah and plodded down to the main road for the final hitch into London. I planned to surprise her by arriving unannounced but was myself surprised when it turned out that she had gone into town to catch a show with some friends and wasn't coming back until late that evening. Luckily we have friendly neighbours who let me in until she returned. A bit of a muddle perhaps, but one thing I've learned on the trip is that muddles can sometimes be quite fun. Anyway, today is my first day back and I'm using it to relax a bit before heading down to the job centre so that I can sign myself up for the dole as my bank account is looking rather anaemic and I need a new pair of shoes after these past 3 years (the photo below shows my long-suffering shoes and sandals that I've had with me right the way through the trip and which are on their last legs).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Coasting In Cornwall

So I've made it back to Britain at long last, though, to my mum's consternation, my trip isn't over just yet. I arrived in Plymouth, and seeing as I was down in a corner of the country that I had never seen before I decided to have a quick look and see what my own country has to offer. Cornwall is a rural idyll with a dramatic coastline, quaint, little villages, esoteric bric-a-brac shops and cream tea. Honestly, seeing the number of signs advertising cream tea, for some people (old ladies with knitted bonnets?) it must be the sole reason for visiting the place. Many people dream of Cornwall as an escape from the urban rat-race, a place where the community spirit still lives and thrives. And then there are others for whom the main reason is the waves - the Cornish coast is the surfing mecca of Britain. Before I had thought that it was only a small, hardcore group of individuals who would brave the blustery elements of the English seas, but even on weekdays many beaches were crawling with people carrying their boards and trying to look as cool as if they were in Hawaii or California. Though you certainly need a great deal of dedication (as well as a very thick wetsuit) to endure the cold water, drizzle and unpredictable waves.

I took the opportunity to explore the western tip of Cornwall, from the charming town of Saint Ives all the way past Lands End. Saint Ives is a strange place as, although it used to be a fishing village, supports itself exclusively from tourism and art. Every shop in town is either a souvenir shop or an art gallery. The latter are in such abundance that the town has almost become a pastiche of the Bohemian artists colony that it once was (and still is, although with a far greater commercial aspect). And although it is regarded as an exceedingly pretty town my attention was far more captivated by the mythic South West Coastal Path that skirts the entire Cornish coastline along precipitous cliff edges that plunge sharply into the sea, making it undoubtedly the most beautiful walking trail in England. Although the weather wasn't particularly favourable I still really enjoyed myself traipsing along the empty, windswept paths as the waves boomed into the rocks below. Every now and again I would come across old, abandoned tin mines that once formed the bedrock of the Cornish economy, but now left to decay because they are no longer profitable.

Unfortunately not all is as it seems in this rural paradise as the area is one of the most deprived in the country: no jobs, small salaries, high cost of living and little for youths to do all lead to social problems simmering below the surface. And so, after having travelled the world for 3 years and visited so many so-called 'dangerous' countries without feeling the least malice or danger from the locals, I came back home only to be threatened by some yobs whilst out at a club with friends. Rest assured that nothing happened to me, but it is sad that in this country, my home, renowned for its good manners and etiquette, that I should have such a run-in during my otherwise blemish-free (more or less) trip. Perhaps it serves to illustrate that it is easy to find faults in others when in fact we should try and look inwards first.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Winds Of Fate

It looks like I'm not having much luck with the sea on my trip. Although I had found someone with boat willing to take me across to England from Brest when I arrived at the marina this afternoon I was greeted with some unwelcome news: the winds are northerly and are likely to stay so for the next few days. Crossing the channel with such a headwind just isn't feasible and so the owner is waiting it out to see if his luck will change. I, however, with the end in sight am not so patient and will have to bite the bullet and take the ferry across tomorrow. It's a pity as it would have been quite an adventure, but I suppose you have to be phlegmatic about these things when they don't work out.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Little Britain

It's only a small hop, skip and jump from Amiens to Calais and the English channel where scores of ferries cross the busy straights every day ... so how come I'm still in France? Well, I've never been one to take the most obvious route and have taken a little detour to visit Brittany. Though not originally part of my plans I decided to come here as I was in the area (well, at least in the same country) and had never been before, and because the first people who I met on this trip, almost three years ago in Creel) and with whom I am still in touch live here and they invited me to visit. Jean-Luc and Nadine live in Brest at the western tip of the French mainland. The city itself is rather ho-hum with little to interest the casual visitor unless they are big fans of military hardware as Brest is the main base for the French navy and especially its nuclear submarines. But one doesn't visit Brittany for the cities, but for the coastal landscapes and villages imbibed with the distinct Breton culture. Earlier the region used to be called Lesser Britain (to differentiate it from Great Britain), and for good reason, as the similarities are many.

Traditionally the Bretons speak a Celtic language descended from Cornish and their music and folklore heritage, of which they are inordinately proud, has also more in common with the British Celts. Bagpipes, whistles and fiddles inhabit their music accompanied by repetitive chants. But it is also in the terrain and countryside that I am seeing similarities with my childhood memories of Scotland. The Breton peninsula is full of small rolling hills covered by heather and bracken and bisected by narrow, winding roads hemmed in by tall bramble hedges. Small villages and farmsteads dot the landscape, built low and sturdy out of the local granite and topped with grey, slate roofs, to withstand the howling winds that come in off the Atlantic. Cows can be found in every field, providing the butter that forms the basis of the cholesterol-laden Breton cuisine. I had been hoping to hitch a ride on a boat back to England and spent several afternoons to this end, going down to the marina and asking random boat owners whether they were heading north. Personally, following my experience in Djibouti I wasn't holding out that much hope, but then today I came across an older English couple who accepted so readily that it left me somewhat bewildered. If all goes well we sail on Monday night with the tide.

This left me with a bit of time to spend discovering Brest and its surroundings. Nadine and Jean-Luc were kind enough to show me some of the more out-of-the-way corners of this pretty region, especially along the northern coast where large groups of boulders reach dangerously out into the sea and small coves hide beautiful little beaches with perfect white sand (not that, apart from quick ritual dip of my hands, I was going anywhere near the cold waters of the channel). I also popped over to the island of Ouessant (Ushant in English), the westernmost part of France (in the photo below I am at the westernmost tip of the island). I spent the day wandering along the coastal paths that gave views over the unending expanse of the Atlantic, which was behaving itself and very calm that day. And now I'm looking forward, not without a little trepidation, to the last leg of my journey and how things will turn out once I return home.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

La Rue De La Coronation

Travelling through northern France one is immediately struck by the utter monotony of the countryside - large, bare, flat fields stretching to the horizon under a low, grey sky laden with drizzle. This is trench territory where some of the bloodiest, most pointless, battles of human history were fought. Ypres, Verdun, la Somme. At the latter some 300,000 soldiers lost their lives to advance about 3km, a gain of about 1cm per life lost. The countryside is understandably littered with memorials and vast graveyards, monuments t the diplomatic folly that achieved nothing but misery. The region really had a tough time of it during the first half of the 20th century as it got battered a second time in WWII as the Germans came streaming across the Ardennes in 1940. It was also here, in Reims, hat the war officially ended in Europe with the German surrender in early May 1945.

The city of Reims holds a special place in French history and culture being, as it is, the home of two symbols of Frenchness. The first Frankish king, Clovis, was both baptised and crowned in Reims cathedral in 496 AD a tradition which remained unbroken until the abolition of the monarchy during the French revolution some 1300 years later. And although royalty is no longer the order of the day there is another type of nobility that lies much closer to the average French heat (literally only a few centimetres) and that is the nobility of wine. It is no secret that the French are more than slightly choosy when it comes to wine and there is little doubt among them that Champagne is head and shoulders above the rest. As the commercial capital of the Champagne region it is difficult to walk around Reims without stumbling across at least one grande maison. The first one I cam across was Pommery (apparently a big fish in the Champagne business but heretofore unknown to me) and so I decided to take a peek inside. The tour was quite informative and I learned about all the extra steps required to make a wine sparkling, all rather unnecessary if yo ask me as I personally don't particularly like the stuff (luckily for me I'm no gourmand and have simple tastes as some of the bottles of he vintage stuff were on sale for upward of 500 euros).

From Reims it was further north and west to the town of Amiens. Its main attraction is its huge Gothic cathedral replete with buttresses aflying, innumerable statues and gargoyles and all sorts of decorative spiky bits. By the way, wen I say huge that is no understatement, the entire Notre Dame de Paris cathedral could fit inside it two times over. But otherwise the town is rather nondescript (to give you an impression of how bland it is the second major tourist attraction is a part of the city full of allotments). What did strike me, however, about the town is the difference, architecturally, from other French towns I know, where houses are often detached, with high ceilings, wooden shutters and panted beige, whereas here I was reminded more of a northern English town. Entire streets are made up of long blocks of small, terraced brick houses, the sort that used to house workers and their families in Lancashire industrial owns - certainly far more Coronation Street than Champs Elysees. I did also try and get out to the museum and memorials at the Somme battlefield just 30km away but was thwarted in my attempt when I arrived at the train station in the morning (around 8:30am) and asked when the next train to the town was due. The lady informed me that it would be leaving at 4:12pm. I indicated to her that she must be joking, to which she replied that she was a fonctionnaire (civil servant) and therefore didn't have a sense of humour.


And that leads me to today's musings about France and Germany. Now I'm not one to overly stereotype nationalities in broad brush strokes and plus I've already mentioned how I thought that we as Europeans have much more in common than we have differences but I do believe there is a big difference between countries, not in their people and the way they think, but in how things get done (or not, as the case may be). The train situation (or that of public transport in general) is a case in point. The French are able to build the fastest trains in the world, but when it comes to getting people from A to B over small distances they are pretty useless and so people are forced to drive everywhere. In Germany, on the other hand, the local connections are impeccable and frequent which means that many Germans get by with only a bicycle (for which there are dense networks of cycle lanes throughout the country). Another possible reason for the French dependence on the car might be that they need more time to eat. Even the most humble meals in France seem to consist of an aperitif, an entree, the main course followed by cheese and dessert. Despite being familiar with the idea I still have trouble with it as I stuff myself with entree and am ten unable to give proper credit to the main meal, let alone the dessert. It seems that despite the last two centuries of mutual wars and invasions ad lately political raprochement the two European giants still seem poles apart when it comes to many things.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Life Of Lux-ury

West of Cologne and the Rhine the countryside begins to undulate more and more eventually forming the Eifel and Ardennes ranges. At this westernmost part of Germany lies the city of Trier which prides itself on being the oldest city in Germany with an impressive pedigree dating back to the Romans when it was one of the capitals during the Tetrarchy (like Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia). It was also during this time that Trier's most famous son, Constantine the Great, was making a name for himself. As the one who moved the Roman empire eastwards to Constantinople, reunified the fractured empire and made Christianity the official religion he certainly achieved a lot and is particularly revered in the eastern church as the founder of the Byzantine empire. Needless to say Trier is proud of its illustrious antique past and makes sure that you don't forget it as you enter through the massive Porta Nigra, walk past the solid cathedral (one of the oldest churches in the world) and try not to notice the three museums each with extensive exhibitions devoted to old Constantine.

Follow the Moselle river another 15km upstream and, although you may not notice it, you cross a border into Luxembourg. This region is at the heart of the EU: it was here that the first treaty on steel production co-operation (so that no country could start an arms race) was drawn up; most people speak at least two or three languages fluently; and hundreds of thousands cross the border every day to work in another country (the population of Luxembourg increases by 25% during working days). Luxembourg itself is off many people's radars because of its utter blandness and lack of presence (how many famous Luxembourgers do you know?), and that is how the Luxembourgers like it. As a country of bankers (and not just in the rhyming slang sense) they have a reputation of being rather bland and unexciting and probably too busy counting money, as there is certainly a lot of it about - Luxembourg is the richest country in the world per capita with a GDP of $88,000 a year ($15,000 ahead of number two Norway and double that of the USA). Perhaps the reason they don't advertise themselves so much is that other people might easily get jealous. I don't know if I'd be jealous of their money, but I do envy their rolling hills covered with forests and studded with castles as well as their pretty little villages, a veritable heaven for hiking. The eponymous capital city is also one of the most beautiful (if not most exciting) in the world, built as it is on a plateau above a winding river, so that it is possible to get away from the bustle of the city just by descending to the valley with its village-like feel and be among the trees and little gardens. Another interesting aspect of Luxembourg city is its fortifications. 150 years ago the city was one huge fortress (with the epithet Gibraltar of the North) and much desired by the French, the Austrians, the Spanish and the Prussians, all of whom ruled the unfortunate duchy at some point. Only the extensive underground casemates remain in anything resembling their original condition as most of the above-ground defences were dismantled to stop other countries fighting over its strategic importance.

I don't generally write much about the day to day details and practicalities of travelling - finding food and accommodation, getting lost, getting information, getting from A to B, last minute changes in plans, etc, etc. - since I'm sure it would make pretty dull reading (and I really can't be bothered writing all that crap). Plus it would seem to me an indulgent exercise in fishing for sympathy by trying to draw attention to the difficulties and hardships of the trip (and there have been a few) when it is something that I have decided to do and can easily stop at any moment and hop on a plane home. No, the positives far outweigh the negatives and I have no regrets. However it is certainly not a holiday as every day has to be planned, there are always new things to be learned and experienced and you have to keep moving. Falling ill is therefore particularly annoying as, on the one hand, you are not at home and therefore you don't have all your little comforts that may help you recover quicker (such as being able to make yourself a cuppa as and when you feel like it), and on the other hand you can't just sit around hoping to get better and so you have to just grin and bear it and hope the illness goes away by itself. So for the past few days I've been carrying a cough/cold around with me and feeling somewhat under the weather. Things got a bit unpleasant today as my sweatshirt sleeve risked becoming saturated with my phlegm (I'm not really a hanky person) but I feel I have finally got over the worst of it and should be as right as rain in a few days.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Slapping On Some Cologne

My favourite city in Germany is undoubtedly Cologne, and I try, whenever travelling through the country, to make a stop. The frequent stops are mostly to do with the fact that my uncle and cousins live there, but visiting them is made much easier by them living in the most cosmopolitan, comfortable and laid back city in the country, full to the brim with students and a vibrant cultural scene. By coincidence, Yann, one of my best friends from school now lives and works here as well as Sabine who I met in China, so I've been doing a fair bit of catching up along with the usual investigative travelling.

Throughout the world the name Cologne has been made famous by its eponymous water invented almost 300 years ago. It's lucky that the French, under Napoleon, took over Cologne a while later otherwise we would be anointing ourselves with Kölnisch Wasser instead of Eau de Cologne (which, I'm sure you'll agree, sounds far more fancy). Within Germany itself the city is more famous for its Karneval celebrations which are the biggest party in the country, much more so than the notorious Oktoberfest which is just an overpriced booze-up for foreigners. For Kölners themselves, however, it is the Dom (cathedral) which is the true symbol of the city. The gigantic building, with its twin, Gothic spires dominates the skyline and is often the first thing visitors notice when approaching the city. Started in 1248 it has been continually under construction ever since (local legend says that the completion of the cathedral will bring about Judgement Day) and for a brief period following the erection of the spires in 1880 it was the tallest building in the world. Its size and overbearing Gothicness are enough to make the cathedral unique, but it is also the most important pilgrimage site in Germany housing as it does the reliquary of the 3 Kings (supposedly containing the remains of the three Magi of the Nativity). There are of course your usual baroque palaces full of extravagant rococo interiors, frescoes and stucco cherubs covering every free inch of wall space; and despite the fact that I'm a big fan of baroque opulence, it is getting a bit samey now.


For those interested in European history the nearby city of Aachen is of great symbolic significance. It was from here that Charlemagne ruled his Frankish empire which covered pretty much all of modern-day France, Germany, Benelux as well as large portions of northern Italy and Switzerland and parts of northern Spain. For many he goes as the father of western Europe and the EU and his reign heralded the rise of the Holy Roman empire which went on to dominate central Europe for the next millennium. I have realised whilst looking into Charlemagne and his contemporaries that, at least in Britain, our history lessons in school jump from the fall of Rome to around 1066AD, and somehow manage to skip the intervening 600 years with a disdainful "those were the Dark Ages" and possibly the odd mention of Vikings. In fact I have come to find out that they were actually rather exciting times when entire peoples were on the move, sweeping across Europe from east to west: Visigoths, Huns, Alans, Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, Saxons, Lombards and of course the Franks. Strange, exotic names that may mean little to us but form the basis of us Europeans today. It's a real pity as the battles, intrigues and alliances are prime soap opera material.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Travelling Without A Hitch

From Franconia my path headed northwestwards along two of Germany's great rivers: the Main and the Rhine until I finally reached Cologne smelling in need of some of its water. It's no secret that Germany is a rather pricey country and the trains are particularly dear, so I've been trying my hardest to get around by hitchhiking, with mixed results. At the start, in Franconia, it was deceptively easy and my average waiting time was less than half an hour. On one occasion, trying to get between Bayreuth and Bamberg I was standing at a junction and a lady stopped to say that unfortunately she wasn't going in my direction … but would I like some bread, and proceeded to hand me a loaf of organic wholewheat bread (which was indeed very welcome). Then I was picked up by a couple with two little kids and ended up being offered to spend the night with them. Such events help me keep my faith in humanity because hitching can be emotionally draining when you stand by the side of the road and are continually ignored by innumerable drivers, oblivious in their vehicle cocoons, not wanting to know, not wanting to care, afraid of the unknown. It seems to me, having talked to older people who hitched in their youth that the number of hitchers, and certainly those that are willing to pick them up, has decreased dramatically over the past generation. The world has lost some of its innocence and people are scared of dangers that have become hyped and are grotesquely misformed urban myths. Everyone, of course, has heard of gruesome hitching stories, but I have yet to meet someone who knows of an actual case, somebody they know, or a real story in the news, and not just vague Chinese whispers. For me every experience has been fun and I have got to meet some very interesting people. In fact I find the whole fear of hitchers rather ridiculous, I mean you would have to be a pretty stupid psychopath to stand out on a road for hours on end, sometimes in quite unpleasant weather conditions, until a random person decided to pick you up (if anyone were to pick you up at all). You would be much better off stalking someone, at least that way you would be able to choose your quarry and would have more say over your hours. And so it was, the further north and west I got the harder it became to get a ride, and on a couple of occasions I was even forced to abandon my principles and catch the train.

Whilst on the subject of travelling cheaply and faith in humainty I feel I ought to mention something that has been a highlight of my travelling of the past few months, and that is namely CouchSurfing. Many of you will probably be scratching your heads and so I shall briefly explain. It is a website where you sign up and enter in some personal details along with your address. Then if people happen to be travelling to your town they can do a search on the website, find you out and then write you an e-mail requesting to stay with you for a day or more (some people who cannot offer accomodation offer a tour of the area or even a quick coffee). You are then free to accept or decline. And when you are then on the road you can also find people and ask to stay with them. Now for many people it might sound crazy to let a complete stranger to stay in your house and that the system is wide open to abuse and misuse. But I have only had amazing experiences and met wonderful people who have opened their houses to me (several times even giving me their house keys) and hope to stay in touch with many of them. It just goes to show that there are many generous and amazing people out there who help others in many little ways that are generally unseen and unheard. So a big thank you to all those Couchsurfers who have hosted me; and now back to the trip.

My voyage through central Germany has taken me through the historic cities of Würzburg and Mainz, both seats of powerful bishoprics (historically, in the Catholic church, the archbishop of Mainz was second only to the Pope) and with large, imposing cathedrals to match their stature. (As an aside, I've always been fascinated by all the various saintly relics that are kept and venerated by the church, and often wonder about collecting them all together and creating, along the lines of Frankenstein, a super-holy undead monster.) Mainz also has some interesting Roman remains (though of course they pale in comparison to the ruins that can be found in the Middle East) from its days as an outpost of the frontier with, bizarrely enough, the remains of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The town's biggest claim to fame, however, is as the home of the last millenium's most important invention (according to Time magazine at least): printing using movable type. This was the home of Johannes Gensfleisch (aka Gutenberg) when, some 550 years ago, he inadvertantly started a cultural revolution that was to spread throughout the world. For an avowedly bookish person like myself a visit to the Gutenberg museum was a must, and although the exhibition itself was somewhat disappointing there was a pretty cool live demonstration of the whole printing process.

Then following the Rhine one comes to the famous section somewhat confusing known as the Upper Middle Rhine valley. Although these days Germany isn't immediately thought of as a holiday destination (or even a particularly romantic one at that) in the 19th century this was the premier destination for wealthy Victorians travelling to get a taste of Europe, and it's easy to see why. The steep slopes are home to some of the best vineyards in the world and at the same time prevent the development of anything but the most picturesque of towns, add a generous dusting of ruined castles (such as the Pfalzgrafenstein below built on the most improbable little island in the middle of the river) and to top it off you have the mighty river flowing majestically through the middle as it has done so since the dawn of history.


Friday, August 10, 2007

To Be Frank

Having lived for a while in northern Germany before I would say I know a bit about the country, its history and its culture. In my eyes the southern state of Bavaria was one homogeneous whole populated by Bavarians. I was pretty quickly taught the error of my ways. The northern half of the state is called Franken (in English Franconia) and is populated by Franks who, up until Napoleon came barging through, had their own, independent kingdom and language of which they are extremely proud. And so Franks will politely, but firmly, point out your ignorance if you happen to refer to them as Bavarians, not least because Bavarians aren't particularly popular in Germany and so it's better for the Franks not to be associated with them (as a Scot I understand completely).

The unofficial capital of Franconia is Nuremberg. In the middle ages the city had a special status as the first imperial city of the Holy Roman Emperors, a reputation which was employed centuries later by Hitler to provide symbolic legitimacy to his Nazi party by making it the focal point of his Nazi cult. It was here that the monumental Reichsparteitag rallies (also known as the Nuremberg rallies), made famous by the films of Leni Riefenstahl where upwards of a million people would parade for the Nazi propaganda machine, were held. The gargantuan parade grounds were never really finished but have been preserved as a memorial to the dangers of hateful megalomania. And the Germans must certainly be commended on the care and effort they devote to ensuring that the horrors of Nazism are remembered so that they may never be repeated. Due to its strong Nazi ties the city, and especially the medieval old city centre, was systematically destroyed by Allied bombing. In one hour, in one day in 1945 90% of the city was reduced to rubble in a largely symbolic act (and one which I, personally, feel was somewhat excessive). During the reconstruction after the war the old centre was rebuilt along the original lines, but in a more modern, simple style, giving the centre a strange old-yet-new feel.


There are plenty of other things to see in Franconia, from sweet little towns to fairytale castles. Standard fare for central Europe I suppose. What is very particular to southern Germany, however, is the tradition of beerfests. The most famous of these is of course the Oktoberfest in Munich which, from what I have heard, has become a bit too commercial and touristified, however many towns in the region hold their own local beerfests (the area has the highest concentration of breweries in the world). And so a few days ago I hooked up with an unlikely band (two Germans, an American, a Mexican and a Latvian) to sample the joys of this most south German of festivals. And indeed many of the classic cliches, such as lederhosen, big barmaids carrying a half-dozen litre glasses of beer, sausages and bad music were all present. But it had a magical atmosphere, with seemingly the whole town packed under a huge tent lined wall to wall with benches and tables, and by the end of the evening the whole place was standing on the benches and merrily swaying (one could hardly call it dancing) to the music, which had, in the intervening hours and beers, become Grammy-winning material. The only downside was the monstrous hangover the next day when I spent a good deal of time getting better acquainted with the finer details of the toilet bowl.

Monday, August 06, 2007

What's In A Name?

To the disinterested observer a name is just a word we use to distinguish one thing (or person or place) from other things. As Shakespeare said: "That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet." But, as Juliet was to brutally find out, names are more than just mere words and far too often are accorded a disproportionate importance that far outweighs all reason. Names take on a life of their own and become symbols for much greater things that can arouse unbelievable acts of passion and violence. And so, with sudden or brutal changes of regime, amongst the first things to be changed are the names of streets, buildings, entire towns or even mountains. Such name changes are generally a way of trying to rewrite the past to control the present or to gain cheap, populist sympathies. One example that I've already mentioned on my travels is the recent, obsessive trend, in India, of renaming anything that might have colonial connotations.

Here in western Bohemia there used to a large German minority (in many places they were even the majority) who had lived side by side with the Czechs since the 13th century. Often they were very successful and dominated public life - when reading about the history of the region Czech names are few and far between, and many things that are deemed quintessentially Czech were actually invented by Germans, most notably the two national drinks: the foul herbal liqueur Becherovka, which is regarded by many Czechs as medicine and prescribed for any ailment, real or imagined, and Pilsner Urquell, the original pilsner beer. Therefore almost every town here also has a second, German name (e.g. the German name for the town of Cheb is Eger and they call Loket Ellenbogen, etc.). But that's not the main topic of today's post.

In the pretty border town of Cheb I was hosted by a friendly local girl called Aneta Daika. Now, any Czech seeing that name would immediately find it strange and demand to know what had happened to her ová. That's not because the nation has some strange gynaecological obsession but because every woman's surname in Czech has to end in -ová (or in some rare cases just -á). Therefore my mother's name isn't Jelinek like mine but ought to be Jelinková instead. The same goes for foreign females. Here in the press they talk about Angelina Jollieová and Segolene Royalová. The language just cannot deal with male and female surnames being the same. And so as soon as they are born Czech girls, unless they belong to a minority like the Roma or Magyars, are branded with an ová whether they like it or not. Most women are ambivalent towards their ová but some, like Aneta, think it stupid, archaic, sexist and might make things difficult for them outside of their country. But if every Czech woman must have an ová how do you get rid of it? The answer lies in a bizarre ceremony that Aneta will do today whereby she must go to the town of her birth and renounce her Czech nationality (though not her citizenship mind you) and take up a minority nationality. Therefore Aneta has decided to join the ranks of the small British minority, living in the Czech Republic, despite having no connections to Britain (except being fond of the comedy series Little Britain). Ridiculous as it may sound this is the only way for a Czech woman to get rid of her ová without an operation.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Czeching Out

I've spent a bit longer here in Prague than I had at first planned (so nothing new there) but I finally leave tomorrow morning after having said my goodbyes to all my friends here, invariably involving the intake of several pints of beer (it would be safe to say that I have drunk more of the amber nectar whilst here than during the whole of the rest of my travels put together). It has certainly been good to see my Czech friends again as it gives me an important connection with the country. It has also been interesting to see how their lives have advanced and changed since I last saw them: new girlfriends, marriage, careers, mortgages, pets and (for some at least) a few extra kilos. All these things have been put on hold whilst I have been travelling, being in a sort of "real-life stasis". After seeing how far they have advanced with their lives I've been wondering how employable I'm going to be when I get back. (Prospective job interview: "So Mr Jelinek, what skills have you learnt in your past three years that would help you in our sales department?", "Well, I can ask for food and accommodation in halting Arabic, I can set up a tent in 5 minutes and I can comment on recent political developments in Georgia within a historical context ... I'll just show myself out then.") The closer I get to my return the more I'm getting preoccupied by what it will be like.

I did manage to visit some sights here and there that I hadn't seen before. I keep being amazed by how many towns seem to be lifted straight out of the Middle Ages, with fairytale castles and imaculately preserved Renaissance and Baroque buildings around achingly picturesque town squares: Domažlice, Telč, Český Krumlov, Holašovice and many more. In Prague I also paid a visit to one of my favourite museums: the Czech national museum. It's a bit of a pick 'n mix museum with archaeological, historical and mineralogical exhibits, but what I enjoy most is the zoological section with its innumerable cabinets and cases of stuffed and mounted birds, mammals, fish, insects each more weird and exotic than the next. So much more magical than the latest penchant for making everything multimedia and interactive. I was also rewarded by an extra special exhibit that was on display for the first time in decades - the so-called Venus of Věstonice. At only 10cm the rather unassuming little statuette doesn't look like much, but at 30,000 years old it is the oldest piece of pottery in the world and shows how stone-age man liked his women (certainly not supermodel-skinny!).



I also managed to get some important bureaucratic paperwork done as well, namely getting my new Czech passport which should come in handy, though perhaps not on this trip. Actually I think I might use it exclusively from now on seeing as it cost a fifth of the price of my British one and has plenty of space for further visas and stamps. There is one drawback and that is that it has biometric details and a chip in it, which I am personally against on the principle that it's just another step towards an Orwellian Big Brother society and has details that can be accessed without my knowledge. It's all part of this so-called War on Terror that is, in my eyes, just an excuse to reduce civil liberties and personal freedoms. If there was a real war on terror then we wouldn't have news such as we had earlier this week when the US announced it would be selling 20 billion dollars more arms to the Persian Gulf countries. The one sure fire of not making the world a safer place is by flooding it with arms. But I digress; it is late and I plan to leave early tomorrow morning ... and, as per usual, I amn't in the least ready or packed. With me everything has be done in a rush at the last minute.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Snob

Despite trying my hardest to the contrary I must admit that I have become something of which I am not particularly proud: a travel snob. As opposed to your common or garden snob, who looks down his or her nose at people with limited means, the travel snob is an anti-snob who disdains those with too much. Actually no, that's a bit too simplistic. It would be truer to say that they scorn those who are too lazy to make the effort to discover the places they visit, to learn or adapt to their culture, mores and history and generally remain detached from their surroundings by staying in four star hotels, taking tours in air-conditioned coaches that deposit them at various attractions and whisk them back to their resorts when they're finished. They only respect people who are willing to get down and dirty and discover things for themselves. Some extreme travel snobs take it a step further and turn their noses up at anyone who visits popular on-the-beaten-track sights/countries and doesn't sleep in cockroach infested dumps. If you haven't lived with the remote tribes of Burkina Faso or trekked the peaks of Kyrgystan you just don't cut the mustard with them.

Luckily I haven't become quite like that (yet), and realise that most people can't afford to leave their home commitments for long stretches of time, and can only take one or two two-week holidays a year. That's perfectly understandable and reasonable, but doesn't necessarily preclude an attempt at understanding the places one visits. The one thing I do get particularly angry about though is people who visit national parks and areas of natural beauty and then just horse around, throw litter and make enough noise to scare all the wildlife in a 50 mile radius, completely oblivious to the damage they cause. But when visiting someplace I am determined to get the most out of it and so idly dawdling in front of shop windows and taking a couple of hours to get ready in the morning are certain ways to make me tetchy. I'm certainly not the best person to travel with because after such a long time on my own and doing as I please I've become a bit peculiar - I'm not very accommodating and am unwilling to compromise with people over how things should be done. Hopefully I'll be able to reintegrate with polite society upon my return home. Travelling has, in certain respects become a job for me (though one I love doing), and I've become determined to do it properly - getting rid of extraneous luxuries, such as sleeping in a bed and having a shower every day, or eating well (in Europe my diet on the road revolves around bread, either with cheap chocolate spread or cheap pate and tomatoes), to concentrate on the essentials of walking the streets and back alleys of towns, visiting museums, trying to talk to the locals and generally trying to soak up as much info and as many sights and sounds and tastes as possible.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Family

Over the past week various family members, more or less distantly related (family is a big deal in Persian culture and so I was even hanging out with my cousin's wife's sister), were converging on our place either in family groups or individually from all over the world: Iran, USA, Mexico, Canada and Germany. Some people hadn't seen each other in over 25 years (and others never at all). Welcome to the Iranian diaspora (due almost exclusively to the '79 revolution, there are some 10 million Iranians living abroad). Getting together wasn't particularly easy as obtaining visas to European countries for Iranian citizens is rather tricky and is entirely at the whim of consular staff (I know I've complained in the past about visas, but I have it very easy with my British passport compared to many people). However, despite such large separation, both over time and distance, there was no feeling of awkwardness between us and in no time there was plenty of good-natured laughing, banter and reminiscing about the past. I'm pretty impressed by the lack of animosity or arguments in such a big family, though possibly it has something to do with the fact that we see each other so little and for such a short time that there's no opportunity for disputes to develop. Whatever the case there was plenty of hugging, dancing, eating and singing (not by me, thank god!). My job was to show people around Prague and point out the various sights and I think that if I don't manage to find a job back in Britain at least I can come back and be a tour guide here.

For the big night of celebrations we went to rather chic local golf club-cum-restaurant (a sign of the increasing affluence of the country as some 5 years ago I don't think any such place existed) and took it over for the evening. What I found particularly amusing was that, this being the Czech Republic, a lot of the menu was made up of pork and beer and the family is (supposedly) Muslim! The evening climaxed with strange Middle Eastern music and arms-in-the-air dancing that had the waitresses scratching their heads. And then the next morning, everyone slightly worse for wear and some nursing hangovers, people started trickling off to the airport to fly back home with promises to try and see more of each other, something I hope will happen because family, when it works, is a truly fantastic thing because they are people you can fall back on and trust no matter what and without question.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rediscovering Prague

So I've finally made it to Prague where I have hung up my backpack for a couple of weeks and take advantage of the free food and ablution facilities - it feels great to be able to have more than one shower a week, although I still can't bring myself to be decadent enough to have one every day. I know Prague pretty well because since the age of four I've visited the place at least once a year either to visit my grandmother or my father who, now that he's retired, has now permanently moved back to our house in his hometown just on the outskirts of the city. So, despite Prague being such a romantic and beautiful city it had long ago lost its charm for and become a city like many others. And, like most inhabitants of Prague, in Summer I would avoid the historical, touristic centre like the plague, unwilling to have to push my way through hordes of tourists and pay through the nose for overpriced beer. Now, however, I am having to dive back in and play the tour guide as my far-flung family is converging here to celebrate my uncle's 50th wedding anniversary next week. It hasn't been anything like a chore though, partly because it has been a long time since I was last here and so I'm enjoying rediscovering the wee nooks and crannies in the old town, but also because I am now better able to put what I see in context (historically, artistically, etc.) and so can appreciate it more and truly treasure the amazing city. And because this has also been the longest that I have been away from Prague the small, almost indiscernible, daily changes have piled up and upon arriving along the motorway driving past the suburbs I was immediately struck by the flashy new office buildings and the huge amount of construction work, especially of infrastructure, going on. Things are certainly changing in Prague despite the constancy of Charles' bridge and the imposing silhouette of the castle lording over the city from the far bank of the Vltava. Part of me is somewhat sad though, wanting to halt the economic progress, remembering with fondness the years just before and after the fall of Communism when it seemed to my young eyes that the city belonged to us alone and ice-creams cost a pittance (I wasn't old enough to have focused my taste buds on the finer rewards of the local beer). Now there are more tourists than locals in the centre and Prague is no longer an exotic destination, instead it has become the stag party capital of Europe. Even our little town hasn't been able to escape the tsunami of change. Apartment blocks are springing up in this mostly rural location and people don't seem to know each other as much - it used to be that you would always bump into someone you knew on the train to and from Prague but now not a single face is familiar. Luckily I still have a few friends here and there who I will be winkling out during my stay and having a few beers with.