08 January 2020

New Year, New Decade

Well, we're already one week into The Roaring Twenties. The Christmas decorations have been taken down, dusted and wrapped back in their boxes in the cellar. The house looks very bare. The excesses of the festive season have managed to pile three pounds on to my waistline, so that I must work extra hard to lose them, and there is talk of a war with Iran. Gosh, what a difference a few weeks can make.

Kay and I had a lovely Christmas - just the two of us - relaxing too much, eating too much and, yes, even drinking slightly too much. Kay's boyfriend's mother had bought Kay a delightfully addictive plum and cinnamon gin as a present and it came with a recipe label for mixing it with Prosecco, which we dutifully did on Christmas Day. And Boxing Day. And the day after that! We just happened to have some frozen black cherries in the freezer to complete the taste. Kay had a bad cold and said the cocktail worked miracles to calm that down. I didn't have a cold, but the cocktail worked miracles anyway!





Between Christmas and New Year we went up to Lincolnshire to visit Greg's sister and her family, swapping presents with them and having more Christmas food and even more drinks. On New Year's Eve, I waddled down to Brighton to spend New Year with my two best friends and ate and drank even more. Unfortunately, another guest from Switzerland brought the entire national product of chocolate from Switzerland. My friend doesn't like chocolate much, so we were sent home with supplies.  I am a self-confessed chocoholic. If it's in the house, it has to be eaten. What with what I received as presents too, I am surprised I have only put on three pounds. I don't drink much during the rest of the year (probably the odd glass of wine once every two months) but I make up for it in late December, it would seem. So now a fast from chocolate and anything fatty is on the cards, plus an exercise regime to get those pounds off. Of course, the drinking is no problem, as my next glass will probably be months away.


I have said before that normally I feel all discombobulated at the beginning of a new year. I compare the passing of a year to climbing a mountain.  In January, we start at the foothills  and slowly make the ascent into February, March, April and so on. By December, after a lot of hard effort, we finally get to the snowy peak and regard the world from on high. But come New Year's Eve, we fall off the cliff edge, falling falling falling..........until we reach the ground, there at the foothills once more to start the arduous climb into January. I don't know why it feels like that to me. I have spoken to others about it and they look at me as thought they should fetch the men in white coats. May be the long nights and gloomy days have something to do with it and the anti-climax after celebrations at Christmas and New Year. It is not helped by Trump's gun-swaggering at the start of a new decade and I do wonder what the coming weeks and months will bring. Iran is already retaliating, as I write

On that note, peace, happiness, hard work at the gym and a happy new year to you all. Not necessarily in that order.

20 December 2019

Tidings of great joy - well, almost

I was waiting to send you an uplifting ending to my holiday in Prague, but, sadly, the uplifting has turned into anticipated despair.

I hinted in my last post that the return flight from Prague was a problem. Too darn right. It didn't exist. When I had originally booked the flights for my daughter and me in September, I had booked online through Opodo. I had chosen return flights from Gatwick to Prague, flying out on EasyJet and coming back with Smartwings. I received an email from Opodo on the same day confirming my flights were booked and instructions on how to check-in nearer the time. I continued to receive more emails from them about taxi transfers from Prague and Gatwick airports , as well as prompts to book hotels (although I had booked my hotel through booking.com so didn't need them).

A month before departure from Gatwick to Prague, I checked-in online with Easyjet and printed boarding passes, but could not check-in for the return flight with Smartwings, as that is only possible a week before departure. So a week before departure from Prague, I checked-in to the Smartwings flight, only to discover the flight did not exist. After some digging around on the Smartwings website, I discovered Smartwings don't appear to operate any flights at all to or from Prague during the winter period of end October to end March. I had been sold a non-existent flight. Not only that but Opodo had failed to see their error and not told me. Yet, they'd been quick enough to cash my money for both flights.

In panic, I rang Opodo and told them. The telephone operator was far from sympathetic and said she would get me on an alternative Smartwings flight. Good luck with that, I thought! After a few minutes, she came back on the phone and said there was no alternative (surprise, surprise),  so she would refund me the £119 return leg of the flight. The refund would take 30-90 days to reach me and I would have to supply my High Street bank account details as she could not refund the money to the Paypal or associated Barclay credit card account I paid with. I was more than suspicious so asked to speak to her manager to which I was told there wasn't one. She kept repeating she had initiated the refund and I would just have to be patient. In reality the refund came through within two days and NOT to my bank count but the Barclaycard credit account so I am more than perplexed as to why she needed my bank details. So far so good.

Of course, that did not solve my problem of how we would get back from Prague. With only a week to go before I needed it, I set about looking up flights from Prague to Gatwick, but to my horror the prices had escalated since September and the £119 non-existent return flight was now going to cost me nearly £500 if I flew in to Gatwick or £322 if I flew to Luton at 10pm, which might as well be on the other side of the moon from where I live and certainly at that time of night, when public transport is less frequent. With little choice, I paid the £322 to Luton and organised train tickets for the last train to get me home from Luton.  All in all, because of Opodo's error in mis-selling me a non-existent flight and secondly failing to alert me to this until I was about to check-in, I paid over £230 extra to get us home.  Not to mention the nail-biting  about whether we would miss that last train home from Luton, if the flight was delayed. I have applied to Opodo for compensation as the error is theirs not mine, but, several weeks later, I am still whistling for a reply, although I shall pursue it - probably into my old age. My advice is not to use Opodo ever again. I certainly shan't.

Not glad tidings at all, bah humbug to Opodo. Nevertheless, the season of goodwill is upon us and I want to wish everyone else, who doesn't work for Opodo, a lovely Christmas and a happy, healthy start to the New year. I leave you with my Christmas Tree and Rudolph gracing our stairs.....




05 December 2019

Prague

Kay and I have come back from a wonderful extended weekend break  last week in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It excelled all my expectations, although I almost didn't get home again (that is another story for another post to appear soon).


I knew a little about Prague......that it had been under Nazi occupation during the Second World War; that it had been under the Communist thumb for over 40 years after the war; and that it had been enjoying its freedom for the last 30 years. We arrived very late last Thursday evening to very cold temperatures and checked into our wonderful hotel near the famous Charles Bridge. I woke up the next morning on my birthday to explore the delights the city had to offer. We started with an excellent 4-hour walking tour learning all about the history and seeing the main sights. 

We retraced some of our steps in the afternoon, seeing the Jewish quarter first. The poor old Jews seem to be persecuted wherever they go and Prague was no exception. Over the centuries they were confined to one small area of Prague and not allowed to be buried anywhere else except in one tiny cemetery. Over the centuries, the plots were used up, so they put another layer of coffins over that, and another, until to date there are approximately 16 layers housing 200,000 graves. The gravestones are in disrepair and falling over one another like jagged teeth. It was amazing yet sad to see. 
A few of the 200,000 gravestones in one tiny plot of the Jewish cemetery

 We also vised the oldest synagogue in Europe -the Old-New Synagogue
The Old-New Synagogue - the oldest in Europe


The Charles Bridge near our hotel was an experience in itself. Pedestrianised, it links the main old town on one side with the castle and cathedral of St Vitus on the other.
Charles Bridge


Jazz group on Charles bridge

Statues of saints line the bridge and it is also littered with jewellery stalls, artists and musicians. A walk over the bridge to the other side of the river brought us to the castle where we saw the changing of the guard and the stunning St Vitus Cathedral with its brightly coloured stained glass windows.









Over on that far bank is also the Lennon Wall (not to be confused with Lenin) presumably as part of the Czech's hope for peace and love, after the austerity of communism, as well as to recoup their lost generation of 1960s music banned by communism.



The old town was a delight. The architecture was amazing - not a single building looked run-down, but all were brightly painted and decorated.  There were far too many to photograph but here are but a few...






The mechanical clock in Old Town Square was a delight to watch on the hour, having been putting on shows since 1490.



The best bit for me was the Church of Our Lady before Tyn  in the centre of town which was used as a model for the Wicked Witch's castle in The Sleeping Beauty. It was floodlit at night, which made it look very magical, and to my eyes was really beautiful, although, as it is Gothic, it is not to everyone's taste. 



On our second day, the Christmas market was officially opened which drew in large crowds ad the tempting smells of sausages, waffles, mulled wine and much more.








We visited the Communist Museum on our last day and it was two hours well spent experiencing what it was like to live daily under Communism, the heroes who defied it and the fate and torture they met, if they rebelled.

All in all, it was a wonderful break in a beautiful city and got me in the mood for Christmas, but our return flight was to be something else. More of that later......




26 November 2019

Blogland (reblogged)

Cartoon from socialmediatoday.com
Cartoon from socialmediatoday.com

Blogland is a funny old place. The country doesn't really exist, of course, but its people certainly do. They are the people you meet through the comment they leave on your blog and the comments you leave on theirs.  I suppose they are the modern equivalent of penpals. 

I remember at the age of 12 getting a French penpal through my school.   Our French teacher had insisted on us all writing our first rather faltering letter in French which was to be forwarded on to a school on the outskirts of Paris. Our London borough was twinned with theirs.  A few weeks later I got a letter back from what was to be my penpal. Her name was Annick. At first, like with most friendships or penpals, the letters were simple, almost awkward. My name is....., my hobbies are....., I live in a...... , my mother is called...., my father works in..... etc. The letter would probably have half a dozen sentences and finish with "avec mes amities" or "best wishes". Gradually, Annick would send me a cutting from a French comic or a French coin or I would send her something with a little English on.  After a year or so of awkward letters to-ing and fro-ing between us, she sent me a music disc of her favourite singer, Johnny Hallyday. I was into the Beatles at that time and I knew then that out tastes were not remotely the same. The relationhip went downhill rapidly from there really.  I think she was angling to visit Britain, so invited me to come and  stay with her in Paris first. I'd already decided in advance it would be dire, so made my excuses and I never heard from her again. My love of German and Germany (and particularly Karl-Heinz, whom I met on a school trip to the Rhineland)  took over at the age of 14 and ever since I've never had a great desire to go anywhere near France. I do genuinely think about Annick once in a blue moon and wonder what she's doing with her life now, but that's as far as it goes.  However, I digress.



In a way, blogging can be compared to a much more civilised form of penpalship. You chose the people who interest you (rather than haphazardy having an address foisted on you by a teacher). You choose their blogs for their style of writing, their philosophies, their type of lifestyle, their topics. You tend to have something in common - they have kids your age or live in your part of the world or may be they live in a place which fascinates you or share your hobbies. What may start as a single comment on their blog, escalates over time into an acquaintance with them, until you feel you have got to know that person quite well. You almost feel like a fly on their wall or a far-flung relative. With the addition of photos you almost know what wallpaper they have in their bedroom and what they've had for supper.

When some bloggers suddenly stop blogging, you become anxious. Are they all right? Simply tired of blogging?  Fallen under a bus? Been kidnapped and held hostage? Sometimes you feel compelled to ask on their now abandoned blog, just in case they were just waiting for someone to appreciate their absence or dial 999. I know of several bloggers I used to read who have over the years disappeared into the night. It's a very strange and rather worrying feeling that they have not surfaced again since. One was a lady with a slimming blog. I wonder whether she overdid things and starved herself.  Or maybe fell down a drain? It can play on your mind.

Of the rest, I have occasionally been tempted to meet up with them, as some bloggers often do at conventions, but have often thought that the mystery was better than the reality. A bit like my husband's penpalship as a teenager. He wrote to a girl in the USA and she was absolutely stunning in the photo she sent him. He was quite besotted and they wrote back and forth avidly until he was able to meet her in person by arranging a holiday to the USA before he went to university. As he stepped off the plane and through the arrival channels, she was there waiting to meet him. It was then that he realised the one and only treasured photo of her was only from the neck up.  Head and shoulders. Passport-size. There she stood before him in reality. Five feet tall and five feet wide. The bubble was well and truly burst. I'm not saying Greg was shallow and that only beauty mattered to him (that was certainly not the case), but sometimes,with the best will in the world, reality does not match with what you imagined or what the penfriend would have you imagine. 

I am sure my elderly mother (who had absolutely no interest in learning how to use a computer) thought I was completely bonkers spending a fair bit of time on the computer writing to what she imagined were complete strangers, but it is surely no worse than writing a letter and sending it through the post to a penfriend. After all, some people even knowingly write to axe-murderers on death row. Now I am quite sure you are all not THAT bad. But it got me thinking: "Why do we blog or comment on them?"

Twenty years ago, the Internet started to take off on a grand scale. Who could have envisaged then that the world would be as it is now, where you can sit in the comfort of your home and within seconds: 
  • click on a map of somewhere on the other side of the world and travel along its streets;
  •  get a recipe for Chocolate Cheesecake at the click of a mouse;  
  • translate a sentence into Japanese; 
  • send a message to someone else in an instant rather than post it in an envelope;
  • look at images of Justin Bieber until you find the right one to print for your bedroom wall; 
  • look up all the Presidents of the United States; 
  • watch a programme you've missed on TV;
  • talk on Skype to your uncle in Outer Mongolia; 
  • or read a blog written by a total stranger. 




All of these things are now possible and no longer weird.  They have become the window to a much wider world where facts, thoughts and ideas can be exchanged instantly and promote our own further education.  Contact with other people through their blogs is just as much part of that education.  I'm off to look up Annick on Facebook. I wonder if she's there and whether she still likes Johnny Hallyday?

17 November 2019

The Berlin Wall

I am a little tardy in writing about the thirty years since the Berlin wall came down. The date was 9 November 1989, of course, and I watched with interest the news coverage of the 30-year celebrations last week, but didn't have a chance to post about it. It was only when I was dusting the lounge yesterday that the penny dropped that I should write a post. Why when dusting the lounge? You will find out later.....

Many will know the history that led to that to this event, but, for those that don't, here is a very potted version.

Following the end of World War II in 1945, Germany was divided up between its four allied captors - the US, the UK, France and Russia.  The capital, Berlin, was in the Russian zone. However Berlin itself was also divided up into four zones.

 Occupied-germany


West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany as it became known, was looked after by the UK, US and France whereas the Russian zone in East Germany became the German Democratic Republic. The capital of West Germany became Bonn in the Rhineland, whereas the GDR boasted that Berlin was still their capital. Life post-war was very different between the two areas. West Germany began to prosper again under the Allies, whereas the GDR suffered under the Russian Communist regime with little spending on the infrastructure or to repair war damage. Many East Germans voted with their feet and moved to the west. In Berlin alone, 3.6 million fled to the West. To stop this, on 13 August 1961 the Communist government of East Germany built a wall effectively overnight separating East and West Berlin and cutting the Allied part of Berlin off from West Germany.  The thick wall was manned with armed guards, tanks and minefields. The Allied area of Berlin became an island in the middle of the GDR reached  from West Germany only by air or a patrolled autobahn corridor. Families in East Berlin were trapped and were suddenly cut-off from their relatives or jobs in West Berlin. Any attempt by East Germans to escape met with their being shot or imprisoned. Up to 200 were killed trying to cross the wall into West Berlin and an additional 800 trying to escape from the GDR into West Germany.

Greg and I visited Berlin in 1977. We drove from our home in Cologne to the border between East and West Germany and then through the 2-hour autobahn corridor between West Germany and Berlin. As Greg worked in the media, we were convinced our every move was watched and we literally had the brush-off in a park in a suburb of East Berlin, when two men in uniform deliberately brushed past our shoulders as a warning, while we were taking photos. Entry and exit to both the GDR and to East Berlin itself was closely monitored and papers checked and double-checked with snarly German shepherd dogs in attendance at every turn. It became a way of life! I still have cine footage of East German guards patrolling the Berlin border wall on motorbikes. A live piece of history

In the late 1980s under Gorbachov, things began to mellow a bit with the Soviet block and the introduction of glasnost meant that there was more communication between East and West. The Cold War was slowly melting.  Several countries in the Communist block began to change the way they governed their people. Hungary opened its border and people from East Germany began moving to the west through Hungary. In October 1989 mass demonstrations against the government in East Germany began. In November, 1989, the Central Committee of East Germany decided to make it easier for East Germans to pass through the wall. A mistake by the press officer meant the border was opened several hours before it should have been. As a result millions of East German citizens stormed through an opening in the wall. Many collected souvenirs of the wall with chisels and some television stations filmed the now famous footage of people hitting the wall with sledge hammers. The government began demolishing the wall the next day. The fall of the wall destroyed the ruling party of the GDR and caused many of its officials to resign. The GDR ceased to exist and East Germany was reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990 (Unity Day or Tag der deutschen Einheit). Berlin became the official capital of the united Germany once again and western civil servants, diplomats and media organisations began moving back to Berlin from Bonn.

By then, Greg and I were living back in the UK in London and Greg was working for the BBC. On Unity Day, Greg was sent over to Berlin with a group of foreign journalists to comment on the official ceremonies. As part of the official information pack given to him, he brought back a paperweight containing a piece of the Berlin wall. We still have it on our coffee table. Set in some sort of synthetic resin, it has deteriorated over the last 30 years but I still keep it on our coffee table. We also have pieces of the wall Greg scrounged on his walks round Berlin afterwards. It was these I was dusting yesterday.....


The (now disintegrating) paperweight with a small piece of the wall set in the resin

The paperweight from the back

Piece of Berlin wall taken from the Western side which was highly painted with graffiti

Piece of Berlin wall taken from the Eastern side which was plain all the way along - you would never have got that close to put grafitti on it without being shot!

Section of the wall from the Eastern side showing its components of concrete and stones


11 November 2019

An unusual walk in the park

Early every Monday morning I go for a walk in the local park. I used to go every morning when I had our dog Freddie. As a result I got to know a lot of the other dog walkers and one lady in particular, Shirley, whose dog was rather nervous, not to mention grumpy, and would only tolerate my dog as a companion. Over time, Shirley and I became firm friends, so much so, that when Freddie died, I would still go to the park to walk with Shirley and her dog every morning. A few years ago, Shirley in her 80s broke her hip. Twice. So with a hip replacement and then a replacement's replacement, she now walks with a stick and cannot drive any more. For the last few years, I collect Shirley in my car very early morning on a Monday and drive her and her dog to the park, so she can still exercise a bit and meet up with the dog-walking crowd. On other days she employs a dog-walker.

This morning was a Monday morning like any other. Our walk almost didn't happen, as Shirley and her dog both hate the rain and will cancel in that case, but half an house before I left the house, the skies turned blue and the sun shone, so we set off as usual. 

We were halfway into our walk around the park and were just approaching a curve in the lake, when a familiar face came into view. A portly man of about 70 with grey hair sporting a blue Conservative rosette on his lapel. It was our local MP. He made a beeline for us and greeted us with "Good Morning, Ladies". For 20 minutes, we stood and talked, barely a word about politics. A bit about his dogs, his wife, his hip operation and his time serving in the army in Bosnia. It didn't seem appropriate to discuss politics or the antics in Parliament. It was just three people chatting in the park about this and that, as dog-walkers do. 

At the end of our long chat, he asked me if I would mind taking a photo of him on his phone with the lake in the background, so he could use it on his blog. I obliged, but his face was in shadow, so his face was not clear. I suggested he move a few yards to the right, where there was a sunny patch and retook the photo. He seemed happy with it, we said our goodbyes and parted in opposite directions. Well that encounter certainly took me by surprise and was never in a month of Sundays what I envisaged when I got up this morning. 

08 November 2019

The Continuing Saga


Image result for freezer cartoon pictures
courtesy of 123rf.com
The continuing saga of the freezer, that is.....

After my experience last week and having made an appointment for an AEG engineer to call back today, I was a little nervous that all would not go smoothly. I was reassured somewhat last night, when I received a  mobile text message to say the engineer would call between 1200 and 1500 today. As I had not been sleeping brilliantly this week, I was pleased that it gave me the chance to have a much needed lie-in this morning. As it was, I woke several times in the night and again at 7am, but turned over and went back to sleep.

I was woken rudely at 7.45am by someone hammering on the front door and ringing the doorbell at the same time. I jumped out of bed half zombie-like and got to the front door to discover an elderly AEG man, toolbag in hand, all ready for the repair. 

"I wasn't expecting you until at least 12 noon", I said bleary-eyed, showing him the text message on my phone.

He proceeded to mumble a very long monologue to the effect that AEG always give him a terrible schedule which basically covers the whole of London, Kent and Surrey. He can be in Twickenham one minute, Ashford, Kent the next call, then North London for the next call and so on. He spends his life travelling one long distance to another with little thought by those who arrange the schedule for how much time is needed, plus of course trying to deal with problem appliances inbetween. He had therefore decided, as his previous call-out was close to mine, he would put the two together and come earlier. He said he was planning to quit before Christmas and find work locally. He was no spring chicken, so I wondered what work he would find. He also  confirmed that the AEG telephone system was bad and even he had trouble getting through to talk to his managers.

He set out about dismantling my freezer to solve the problem - a blocked evaporator drain hole apparently. He also had to rearrange the hosing at the back to allow the water to flow freely from the freezer to the evaporator plate to allow self-defrosting (which my freezer was clearly not doing!) He worked fast, was a little gung-ho, ramming drawers back into the runners and I had to point out that he was about to sever the electrical cable, when pushing the freezer back into position. He was gone in less than an hour, on to his next long drive. I couldn't help feeling sorry for him.

The freezer is now plugged in and I am waiting for it to reach its -18C before I do a big shop to stock it up again. I'm not holding my breath. I'll wait a week or two before I really fill it up. I'm not that confident the problem is solved.......