Saturday, July 29, 2006

Commuting round the Med - Part 1

Apologies for lack of posts over the past couple of weeks, but I've been cruising the Med aboard the legendary QE2 and internet access was pricey. Well, not exactly extortionate, but we were on a budget, and needed the extra funds for wine. As compensation for a fortnight of silence, it is my great pleasure to provide a comprehensive account of my trip, taking in some of Europe's most famous sights (and sites), some cracking coktails, and of course the obligatory holiday karaoke sessions. With so much to ta\lk about, I'm actually going to mae it a 2-parter. Join me, if you will, on a bright, warm July day, as our magnificent Skoda pulls into the terminal at the appointed time . . .

Embarkation at Southampton was a pleasingly uncomplicated affair, spoiled only slightly by an overly-officious Cunard woman who seemed to think that everyone was queue-jumping. This was only my second cruise, the first one being on board the Stars-and-Stripes-draped Carnival Triumph last year in the Carribean. Now let the record state that it was never my intention to go on another cruise this year (I don't want to turn into one of those perma-tanned shaken-but-not-stirred perennial cruisers who never stay more than 3 hours in any one port of call and then go around boasting about how they've experienced all the culture the world has to offer), but it was a good deal, and it was the QE2. It was also calling at lots of places I'd always wanted to see, and intend to return to for a proper visit: Rome, Naples, Barcelona, Cannes.

Two days at sea were sufficient to acquaint us with pretty much everything the ship had to offer - great food, nice pool and jacuzzi, some very impressive singers and dancers - but it was the ports of call I was there for, so the excitement really started when we hit Naples on day 3. Having signed up for one of the official tours, The Wife and I trooped off the ship with our fellow passengers and boarded our "air-conidtioned motor-coach" (why do people have to overcomplicate these things?), heading off for a brief tour of the city's points of interest (3 castles, one of which was used for a G7 summit back in '92, and a shopping centre with a nice ceiling) before heading on to that marevellous trove of ancient treasure, Pompeii. Oh, before I continue, by the way, on behalf of our endearingly camp tour guide, Massimo, I should point out that in no way are the stories about pickpockets in Naples true. It's just like in any other city, you just have to be careful in certain areas, etc, etc.

So anyway, Pompeii, eh? Isn't it breathtaking? Really. I had actually been there once before, on a school-tip when I was 17, but I have to confess I was rather more concerned with my lonely heart at the time, and so possibly did not give the place my full attention. No such distractions this time around, after 4 years of blissful marriage, so instead I threw myself into studying the magnificent mounment, hanging on Massimo's every word, as we explored the temple of Jupiter, the fish market, the brothels, the temple of Apollo, and rounded it off with a look at the current excavations at the Temple of Venus - it was a bit like being at Disneyland and glimpsing a forthcoming attraction. Further excitement awaited on the coach as we mislaid 2 passengers and had to drive around the car park a few times looking for them, and then back to the boat for lunch and an afternoon nap.

The following morning we rose early and breakfasted in a state of heightened anticipation, before boarding a coach bound for the Eternal City, Rome. Luana, the tour guide, incongruously less effeminate than Massimo despite being a girl, gave us a few hints and tips on surviving the trip (including more advice on pickpockets - is Italy such a den of iniquity?). When our coach finally ground to a halt across the road from the Collisseum, we were met by our "local" tour guide, the wonderfully eccentric Francesca. Armed with a frankly preposterous orange umbrella to enable us to pick her out in a crowd, she led us into through the security checks and into the bowels of the ancient ampitheatre, with Luana bringing up the rear to ensure that none of our convoy got lost along the way. Francesca, miked up to communicate with us via headphones, took us through the history of the place in vivid detail. The highlight of this section of the tour, however, was when she inadvertently referenced The Naked Gun, leaving her mike on in the toilet, and we were all treated to the soothing sound of trickling water on porcelain as we awaited her return in the sweltering heat. Next stop was the Pantheon, followed by lunch in the Piazza Navona, a trip to the Trevi Fountain to toss in the obligatory coins, a quick march to the Spanish Steps and then on the People's Square, through some impressive city gates and on to the coach and back to the boat in time for dinner. You can't ask for much better than that.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Toilet Humour

Toilets, then. I've been promising to write about this for, ooh, at least a fortnight, and by happy (or should that be Happy?) coincidence I have had occasion to observe them quite closely during recent journeys. Not because I'm a bit wierd, but because I've been out a few times after work recently what with colleagues leaving, friends returning from abroad and other notable events, and found myself sitting on the train with my legs crossed, wondering whether or not to brave the toilets for fear the previous user (to put it indelicately) might have left a bit of a smell.

The thing that's really struck me during these procrastinations has been just how busy the loos have been. We're talking about a level of footfall most retailers would be chuffed with. It may have something to do with the fact that at that time of night, most of the passengers have, like myself, been to the pub (or recreational venue of their choosing) and are therefore more in need of such relief than would normally be the case on such a homeward journey. Or maybe it's always that way, and it's just that I have been noticing more because of the fact that invariably it's just when I've made the decision that I AM going to take the plunge (if you'll pardon the somewhat opaque pun) that someone else bounds along the carriage and hurls himself into the toilet with the urgency of desperation. It's always a "himself" by the way, definitive proof that women are more intelligent than men.

The fun part when you're sitting in that part of the train is to try to guess which of your fellow passengers are waiting for the toilet and which are just looking uncomfortable as a matter of commuting course. I'm becoming quite adept at spotting those who fall into the former category. They project an exxaggerated sense of calm: you half expect them to start whistling like in cartoons when chracters are trying to pretend they've not just seen or done something. As soon as the door to the toilet slides open, they stare directly ahead of them, glance furtively from side to side and then, very slowly, rise and amble towards the toilet before suddenly leaping into action with the aformentioned desperation and closing the door behind them.

I usually wait unitl four chaps have been and gone before making my own casual way to the cucicle (by which time, of course, my bladder is screaming at me to be anything but casual). In fact, as with most aspects of commuting, there is pretty much a set pattern to the characters that precede me. Generally the first one will be about my age, tall and muscular and invariably blonde, with a supremely confident manner only dented by his slightly awkward walk, which to the experienced (ie male) eye, is a dead giveaway. Next comes the middle aged guy in expensive trainers (you just know he's one of those Dads that tries to be down with the kids). He makes no effort to hide his intentions, which is why it's sometimes fun to rise from your seat at the last minute and duck in ahead of him. Then there is always a doddery old fella who walks without bending his knees, so that he looks a bit like a Thunderbirds character without the sex appeal: not meaning to sound uncharitable but I never fancy going in after he comes out, because he always emerges looking shamefaced, as if he's just perpetrated the sin of impurity. Fortunately, I can always count on number four, who is always the guy on the seat right outside the cubicle who up to this point, like myself, has shown no interest whatsoever in the toilet - now he'll look up, do the furtive side-to-side glance, and then bolt from his seat into the empty cubicle as if his life depends on it. When he emerges, I rise casually and stroll in through the open door (he always leaves it open - everyone else shuts it behind them) and flush (because, again uniquely, he never does) before shutting the door and administering to my own needs.

Of course nobody ever does make a smell, because no one ever risks a sit down number 2 on a train: after all the seat is always covered in other men's wee. This is another reason why girls don't use these facilities. I do sometimes find myself wondering what happens to the stuff when yuo flsuh the toilet, having heard all the stories about aeroplanes and "blue ice". And then I see the trains in Kings Cross pouring somekind of liquid out on to the tracks, and decide it's wiser not to speculate.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Escape from Stevenage

Phew! What a week that was. It's not always easy being a Happy Commuter when delays strike. First there was the Kings Cross fire on Monday which prevented me from getting home, and then come Friday morning I was marooned in Stevenage for nearly an hour (this may not sound like much, but if you've ever been to Stevenage, you'll understand) because my train to Leeds was stuck behind another train which had broken down as soon as it left Kings Cross. See? Even when I'm not travelling through Kings Cross it catches up with me. It might be karma. But it's probably more to do with the fact thst they're on the same line.

As a result, I was late for a rare meeting with The Chairman at Coporate HQ. I briefly considered trying to turn the situation to my advantage by getting off the train at Peterborough, heading back into London and making a show of settling for a videoconference (I hate videoconferences) to save The Chairman's time, but my father counselled me that this would not, in practice, achieve anything, and I was better off being there in person. That's what fathers are for.

As it turned out, the train crew did a sterling job of making up the time and we beat our revised ETA by a full 15 minutes. Now what normally happens when I visit Corporate HQ is that I take the local train from Leeds to Guiseley and walk to the office, thereby saving both company money and time (there is always a block on the Leeds-Guiseley road - if you've ever been there you'll know what I'm talking about). On this occasion, however, I had missed my connection by all of 3 minutes and had to fork out 15 quid (speedily reimbursed by our lovely and talented Accounts department) on a taxi. On the plus side, I spent the 20-minute journey engaged in a very enlightening discussion on the origins of Sikhism with the driver: that doesn't often happen in London.

The adventure did not end there, though, because my afternoon meeting with The Managing Director was cancelled, and so I took unchracteristically decisive action and resolved to return to London early and catch up with my capital-based colleagues who were having farewell drinks with DM (see previous post) which I had reluctantly agreed to forego. Arriving at Leeds by train this time, I hastened to the departure screen to find out the time of the next London service only to discover that - shock and horror - it didn't stop at Stevenage. An understandable and wise scheduling move, you might think, except for the fact that on my ticket in very large print were the instuctions "Stevenage - NOT LONDON". My plan, you see, had been to get to Stevenage and then travel the rest of the way on my normal daily pass. I was a litte concerned that I was outside the law, having endured the wrath of the GNER ticket inspectors over this sort of thing before. But the Jonny Vegas impersonator who checked my ticket was actually very nice about it and despite the train "running at a reduced seped" because of a broken window (that's what you get for going through Doncaster, I suppose) we arrived at Kings Cross exactly 15 minutes (spooky!) behind schedule.

I got to Soho in good time to join my esteemed co-workers at the Marquis of Something Or Other (what is it about Marquisses that they all seem to have pubs named after them?) on Charlotte Street for the valedictory drinks, and was exceedingly glad to have done so. Even better, my dear, sweet wife waited (and waited) until I eventually got home at about 9:30 to have dinner, and I was able to tuck into a large portion of gorgeous homemade chilli con carne before retiring, tired but happy, for an excellent and comfortable night's sleep.

The moral of this particular tale? I suppose it must be that it's always good to be Happy, because Things tend to turn out better if you are.