Escape In New York City

Throwback Thursday is an Instagram/Facebook gimmick. But it’s also a great exercise in scheduled nostalgia. An excuse to look back on photos taken years before and revisit what almost seems like a former life. This week, I went right back in my digital photo archive. Almost to the beginning. Sometime in August 2003, on the New York Continue reading “Escape In New York City”

To Search For A Myth

To go to Inverness and not search for the most famous aquatic monster on earth would be lunacy. To expect to find it would be equally mad. But one can enjoy the boat ride up Loch Ness, peer into the deep black water just in case, but otherwise enjoy the fresh air and the scenery. April in the Scottish Highlands is bright and bearable, but expect stiff winds and sudden chills. On a boat, expect those to be amplified. Wrap up warm. We did. Continue reading “To Search For A Myth”

Spit and Sawdust

If you are hoping for a tale of drinking and debauchery in a traditional olde worlde pub, then I am going to disappoint you. Wrong type of spit and sawdust establishment. Instead, let me introduce you to a world that is altogether crazier that anything the depraved mind of the village alcoholic could ever dream up. The spit is Mudeford. The sawdust represents the wooden huts that have been stacked up along the sandy stretch of beach. The madness is the price that some people are prepared to fork out for one of these ramshackle buildings, which are only ever one big storm away from turning in a new British Atlantis.

When working out what sort of value for money these huts represent, I had a look at what you’d need to pay out for a property in the most expensive cities on plant earth.  Just to give these huts a little perspective. At about £16,000 per square metre for a piece of Mudeford real estate, only Monaco appears to be more expensive. Given that they have no running water, nor any electricity (unless the owner has fitted some solar panels) they are even worse value when you consider that you wouldn’t use them all year round.

Great American Railway Journeys

I’ve been on a few scenic railway journeys in my life. I have done one of the greatest train journeys of them all in fact. Back in 2003 I boarded El Chepe at Los Mochis. The very name Los Mochis sounds like some sort of sizzling hell hole from a Star Wars movie, inhabited by bandits and home to all sorts of illegal trades and generally skullduggery. And, quite frankly, it is as bad it sounds, or at least my experience of it was. The train ride to Creel, though, was magnificent. I’ve written about this before, more than once.

In a couple of months I have another  great railway journey lined up. It’s a very special trip on a special train that will travel along tracks through countryside that has been made famous in all sorts of movies. It’s often voted as the greatest railway journey in the world. I’ll have to wait and see if there is any truth to that. Hopefully there will be more fabulous railway trips over the coming years. One of the big benefits of my job are the travel benefits afforded not only to myself, but Mrs P too. We get free use on the network I work for, and a 75% discount on the rest of the national network. In August, once I’ve completed a full year of service, those benefits will extend across Europe.

I’ve always liked rail journeys. Even other people’s rail journeys. There’s a programme I watch regularly that reminds me of life in Mexico City. Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys. He used his early 20th century Bradshaws guide to tour the UK on the train. I spent many hours on the metro or in cafes watching his television series. And now I can recreate them for myself. He’s also done a series on European travel. But now he is back with yet another series. If you haven’t yet guessed where, then you didn’t read the title of this post very carefully. Perhaps you’d like to join him on his trip? Someone has kindly, and probably rather illegally, uploaded the series onto YouTube. Enjoy it while it lasts. 


The Commute

The mass commute must be a relatively modern creation. I suspect that few people will refer to its invention in the same breath as sliced bread or the wheel. By all accounts, most people seem to loathe their daily commute. But not me. I love my commute. I always have done, whether I was living in London or Mexico Ciy or here in Bournemouth. It’s a bit of me time.

These days I have a fairly varied commute. One of the joys of being a relief clerk, is that my place of work can change on a daily basis. The times change too. Sometimes I need to drive to work, setting out from home at 5am. The streets are all mine, other than the occasional fox slinking from driveway to driveway in urban areas.

Once I hit the countryside, I am more likely to see deer or rabbits grazing at the roadside. Some of them get closer to the roadside than is wise, and they become road rugs, until they are eventually squished into oblivion over a period of days or weeks. This is the only form I’ve seen a badger. Which is a shame.

Most of the time, though, I take the train to work. I might turn east out of my home station and travel into the heart of the New Forest. More usually I turn west, into deepest, darkest Dorset. Let’s take that journey today. Through picturesque woodlands, well groomed farmlands, past one of the worlds largest natural harbours, across flooded plains and the rivers responsible for all that excess water.

From my little office on the train, from where I write this very post, I can gaze out at the scenery. It changes every day. Today the sun is up and the sky is blue, but the grass and hedgerows are still glistening white from last nights heavy frost. The smooth undisturbed waters of the bay have a surreal glow in the early morning sun.  Trees and pylons cast long, monstrous shadows across wild, untended heathland.

The train stops nine times along the way. But today I am on board for the full duration. My final destination , an hour after I set out, will be in a seaside town which gained temporary fame as the home of sailing in the 2012 Olympics. Locally, the place has become more famous, infamous even, for crime.

If the prowling chavs don’t manage to slip your lunch money out of your back pocket for their heroin fix, then a seagull will rob you of your lunch. British seagulls are big ballsy birds and will have your fish n chips away from your grasp in an instant.

P Marks The Spot

Normally when travelling by myself, I land at the airport with nothing more than a Lonely Planet guidebook and a completely open agenda. I had just two full days in Berlin though, so I planned more carefully. I didn’t have a day or so to orientate myself to my surroundings. I planned an itinerary and booked the required tickets. First up was a walking tour, booked through Viator with Discover Berlin. A four hour march past all the key sites in Berlin’s history. The first part focused on pre 20th century Berlin. The latter part on the World War and Cold War. The guide was enthusiastic and interesting, which helps.

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I returned to one of the locations the next day. A very nondescript car park, just a few hundred metres from the Reichstag. It’s a car park because its difficult to build on this spot. Underneath lies the Fuhrerbunker, where Hitler made his last stand. There is a sign explaining the location and describing the layout of the bunker, 8 metres below the surface. This only went up in 2006, in time for the World Cup.You can’t access the bunker today. Over the years there have been efforts to destroy it and/or fill it in with concrete. There’s a fascinating collection of photographs by Rober Conrad, who disguised himself as a construction worker in 1987 and went down into the bunker to document what remained.

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It’s a place worthy of sitting for a while. To picture the scene, seventy years ago. The Nazi regime was in its death throes, but Adolf Hitler still strolled this patch of ground from time to time. Have you seen the film Downfall? It’s a masterpiece, well worth a couple of hours of your time. It’s based entirely on the last days and hours of the regime, covering the moment that Hitler finally did the right thing and put a bullet through his brain.

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Historians have placed the pit where the bodies of Mr and Mrs Hitler were partially burned to be by the first parking sign in this photo. The irony of this being a wheelchair accessible parking space is not lost on me. The only way to make it a more appropriate parking space would be if it were reserved for black, gay, Jewish wheel chair users. Dr Goebbels has it worse. They built the Monument to Murdered Jews over his bunker. Karma.

Everything possible has been done by the authorities to make this site uninteresting and devoid of stand out features. To remove the blemish of the Third Reich from the streets of the city. To say that they have attempted to whitewash history or pretend it didn’t happen is going too far and is unfair. This is a complicated and touchy subject.

Berlin

The German language is a pretty blunt instrument of communication. The vocabulary is direct and to the point. So I hope the natives won’t object that I utilize that straightforward approach in my opening description of Berlin – the Ugly City. If Paris is the city of light, then Berlin  is the city of darkness. A largely brutalist expression of architecture in both the east and west parts of the city. Although, for obvious reasons, more so in the east. But Berlin is about function rather than finery or frivolity. So that’s okay. And whilst giants of literature and science have plied their trade here, most visitors come for the history, not the culture. That is certainly why I visited this week.

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It’s a history dominated by a single man, and the evidence of his existence is etched into every square metre of the city centre. Although you’ll see only a few sign posts acknowledging that fact. The architecture is the first giveaway. The modern concrete blocks, laid down in the 50s, 60s and 70s to fill the holes made by tens of thousands of tons of British and US high explosives, dropped from the skies, day and night, for several years. With the additional destruction of the Soviet attack, the Battle of Berlin, thrown in for good measure. The end result was something of a modern version of Carthage.

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Here and there, an older building survives. Or rather, was restored. But they still bear the scars of war. Magnificent columns riddled with bullet holes. Monuments so blackened from the soot of fires that cleaning them is not possible. Then there is the Reichstag, the crowning glory of German reunification, risen from the ashes of 1945, but with constant reminders of the buildings violent history. Photograph displays throughout the interior show the story of the Reichstag. Russian graffiti has been preserved. Then there is that magnificent dome on top, the contrast between the old and the new.

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The history that visitors come to see doesn’t end in 1945, of course. In the eastern half of the city, the swastika was simply replaced with the hammer and sickle, the war changed from world to cold, and an oppressive and brutal leadership  carried on the work of their predecessors. Most of the key sites in Berlin lie in the eastern half. What was until 25 odd years ago, the capital of East Germany. Architecturally, an even bigger mess than the western side. I think it is fair to say that the city is yet to fully recover from either the World War or Cold War, both physically and mentally.

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Berlin can also claim to be the birthplace of modern political correctness. The art of conversation without offence. Given the very delicate nature of the city’s history, it is not surprising that this is so. How to discuss the finer points of the Gestapo and Stasi without upsetting anyone? There are laws outlawing holocaust denial and use of Nazi symbols. Like a  recovering alcoholic, there is the fear that just one sip from the forbidden cup will see Berlin swathed in fascist emblems once more.

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I pre-booked a tour of the Reichstag. We were guided round by a grandfatherly figure with as monotone a voice as you will ever hear, and a habit of finishing ever sentence with ‘ya’. He was informative. But he did something that I didn’t hear from any other German during my short stay. When talking about the war, he used we and us, rather than they and them. Germans instead of Nazis. I noticed it, but whether anyone else did I cannot say. But he left his feelings open to interpretation by doing so. When reading signs or listening to Germans on the subject of the war, there seems to be a deliberate effort at disassociation. And I can’t say that I blame them.

Click here to see my Berlin album on Flickr.

 

Photo Istanbul

In Islamic culture, it is common for a sultan to keep a number of wives tucked away in a harem. Well, they do say, when in Rome do as the Romans do. Istanbul, or rather Constantinople was once capital of the Roman Empire. Alas, my plans to become Sultan Gary I turned out to be bull, rather than Istanbul.

I have uploaded all of my photos to Flickr. You can see the first set by clicking here. And the set featuring me, Mrs P and friends by clicking here.

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Istanbulian Observations

Rat Free Zone

Wherever you are, you are never more than a few metres from a rat. So the saying goes. It is not true in Istanbul. There are no rats. Probably. However, in Istanbul, you are never more than a couple of metres from a cat. In all likelihood, you are never more than a few metres from a dozen cats. With intact testicles. Egypt has locusts. Europe has immigrants. Turkey has cats. Everywhere has to have a plague of something.

Stick it to ’em

I expected to be hustled and bustled by shopkeepers and market stall holders selling their wares. It goes with the tourist territory. Spices, cheese, trinkets, rugs, prints and other assorted pieces of tat, thrust in your face, shoved under your nose or tucked under your arm. The vendors of Istanbul are not, as it turned out, so terribly pushy. Except for the selfie stick sellers. They are everywhere. If it isn’t a Japanese tourist blocking your view of a fine looking palace with his or her latest cell phone, extended four feet in the air on a stick, then it’s a selfie stick seller thrusting his wares in your face. There are more selfie stick sellers in Istanbul than there are cats.

The City That Never Sleeps

The call to prayer is an exotic, entrancing sound. It’s a constant reminder that you are far from home, in foreign lands. Except at 5am, when it’s blared through your window from a mosque across the street. At that time in the morning, the call to prayer can f**k right off. But this is assuming you’ve actually gotten back to sleep from the last disturbance. It was Ramadan, so a kindly local strolls the streets at 2 to 3am, banging a drum loudly. Non stop. To remind you to have something to eat before sunrise.

At the end of the month, he’ll go door to door collecting a fee for his services from grateful Muslim neighbours. And a punch on the nose from anyone of any other religious persuasion. Boy, he must get an adrenaline rush every time he knocks on a door. Still, if the call to prayer and drummer boy haven’t done your sleep in for the night, there’s always the incessant sound of cats mating and fighting. Sometimes doing both at the same time, I’m guessing. Then there’s the seagulls, squawking non stop. I did not know seagulls were at least partly nocturnal. There are more seagulls in Istanbul than selfie stick sellers. Three plagues? This is one unlucky city.

That Dizzy Feeling

Perhaps it’s the ferries that carry you across the river. Perhaps it the outward sloping balconies around tall towers that seem to want to send you slipping to your doom. Perhaps it’s staring upwards at the interiors of the enormous domes of mosques you’re visiting. Perhaps it is the strong Turkish coffee. Perhaps it is the climbing of a thousand steep hills that the city is built on. Perhaps it is a combination of all of them. But if you ever, even just for a moment, stand still in Istanbul, you’re never quite sure which way is up.

Don’t Lose Your Head

Turkey is an Islamic country. Which means, of course, that it contains a population made up entirely of terrorists. I have to say, having now been there, I can’t help but feel that terrorists have been given a bad name somewhat unfairly. They were ever so friendly, and much to my surprise not once did any one try to behead me with a rusty spoon. However, I was the victim of constant biological weapons attack, chiefly on the metro. Deodorant is clearly optional for men in Istanbul. An option which most seem to decline.

iPhoneography

I’m still processing a humungus multitude of raw photos from my Fuji. My iPhone photography processing is much quicker. They auto upload to Flickr, and then I just select which ones to publish. My Istanbul by iPhone album was uploaded ages ago – click here to see it. Or have a look over a small selection of them that I have embedded below. And NO I did NOT buy a selfie stick. I already had one with me, bought in the UK.

St George’s Day

It’s that least memorable of special dates in the English calendar once again. When we celebrate, or forget to celebrate, our patron saint. The Scots have Burns Day and the Irish have St Patrick, and they get celebrated with gusto. St George? Meh. What’s to get excited about? With the noticeable lack of dragons roaming the countryside lately, there doesn’t seem to be a need for the chap. St George was a foreigner anyway. Not even an Englander. Immigrants aren’t the flavour of the month here. Ironic then that the rather right wing UKIP party, who want to bring us out of the EU and send the immigrants back, are pretty much the only people trying to promote St George. I’m sure the irony is lost on them.

I’ve decided to celebrate St George’s Day this year in the most appropriate way. I’ve booked a ticket to Istanbul, to go see St George’s roots. He was Turkish, after all. I’ve always wanted to go. It’s exotic, but just a four hour flight away. It’s rich in history and culture but cheap as chips to get to. And, of course, I’ll get to see what it was that convinced St George to abandon the UK after all his dragon slaughtering exploits to return home to Turkey. But I think I might know the answer already…Turkish Delight. Of sorts…