Monthly Archives: December 2012

Lucky Man

Got a little treat for you today. I found an old post from the Japan days that was never published because I could never quite figure out how to finish it. All done now though! Enjoy…

It’s 23°C outside today. Normally anyone would consider this to be a nice, comfortable temperature but in Japan this is only the case before June. Today the humidity is at 82%. Interestingly, I used to think that humidity was the actual amount of water in the air. I thought this up until about two years ago when the weather report said that humidity levels were at 100% and, inexplicably, it wasn’t raining outside. How the hell is this possible? I thought to myself, and then ran to to my computer to find out. It turns out that humidity is the saturation level; the amount of water vapour the atmosphere contains. The higher the saturation, the less water it can take on, i.e. the less that can evaporate into it. This is why your clothes don’t dry in high humidity, and why your sweat pools in your hair and then drips embarrassingly on your students’ worksheets when you’re trying to help them with something. You sweat the same amount but it just doesn’t evaporate.

You probably already knew this and, despite nobody having done it since the 90’s, will say “well duh” at your computer screens. If there is 1 person that didn’t know however, then writing that paragraph was well worth the effort since you will no doubt be feeling as if you have just discovered one of the great secrets of the universe, as did I. Personally, I blame my geography teachers. You should too. I learnt everything there is to learn about U-shaped valleys and glaciers but they couldn’t tell me about a percentage we see on the TV every day?

Anyway, this weekend I went to Hamamatsu for a speech contest. One of my students from the after-school International Club wrote a piece about the importance of English on the international stage, and how she wanted Japan to introduce gap years so she could travel, see the world and grow as a person. She, a low-level English student from a technical high-school, was up against a whole bunch of English prodigies from various high-level schools with dedicated English courses, exchange programs and Matrix-style machines that you plug directly into your brain in order to upload the entire works of Shakespeare in a pinch. Probably. Considering the competition, she did spectacularly well. She memorised the whole thing, stumbling at only one point and recovering well. She worked hard on her pronunciation, and spent hours perfecting speech patterns and incorporating a few gestures, and she delivered the whole thing with ne’er a hint of nervousness. Indeed, I think I may have been more nervous than her.

The competition as a whole was outstanding. I’d heard that the entrants were going to be good but many of them spoke better, and with more passion than many native speakers from the UK or America. They looked incredibly natural – often as if English was their native language – and spoke about issues that were dear to their hearts. Attending this competition meant that I could not only offer my support to my school’s own budding prime minister, but that I also had a chance to spend a good few hours with some of my students outside of school. A couple of them never have any problems chatting to me in school but most of them are pretty shy, so this was a fantastic opportunity to draw them out of their shells a little bit; swapping music tips, speaking in Japanese as well as English, poking fun at each other, etc. It made for a really nice day out where usually I would have spent the entire time in the house on my computer as seems to be the pathetic norm these days (pathetic to everyone else; divine, self-imposed isolation to me). If you’re lucky, a great day out will also incorporate a train journey…

If you have never listened to Bon Iver – Skinny Love before please do so before/while you continue reading so you know what the hell I’m talking about. You’ll be seriously glad you did. You can find it here (make sure you choose the original and not one of the dodgy remixes). Is it playing? Good. Now, with this being such an incredible, emotive song it has a tendency to make you feel the same way; as if everything matters a little bit more. It’s the kind of song that you’d put on the soundtrack to a film after a girl just broke up with the main character in the rain outside a cafe in Portabello Road; this being the final straw in a long list of collapses that involved losing his job, his mum, his dad and everything else that is important to him in a short space of time. He walks through puddles crying, without direction or purpose, sparks up a cigarette for the first time in years and retires to his lush Notting Hill apartment to brood. Don’t worry though, in this story I just made up he bounces back and becomes a world-class fashion designer with meaningful relationships and a bunch of kids with whom he spends all his free time. He also has a sex change because he’s always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body and this is the only way he can feel true to himself. His kids understand. His wife doesn’t but she’ll get over it.

I digress. Coupling this song with a journey on the train while you’re staring out the window makes you more pensive than Einstein after five Ritalin and a weekend break in a Buddhist monastery. This feeling only gets better when it’s raining outside. Why do I mention all this now? Well, apart from the love of just going off on a ridiculous tangent I genuinely felt that this was a special, life-affirming day – definitely one of the better ones since I’ve been here – and it was topped off by one of my favourite things in the world; a train journey in Japan with the rain beating on the roof and great music in my ears. I stared out the window at nothing in particular and smiled.

Advertisements

Warsaw, Poland

IMG_4443 (Medium)Since my company changed its overtime policy earlier this year I seem to have ended up with rather a lot time off in lieu. At the beginning of August (after I’d just taken a week off to sit in Finsbury Park and read) my team lead took me to one side and said:

“Now look here; it’s August and you still have 25 days left. You need to start taking some.”

IMG_4446 (Medium)It’s not every day your team lead tells you to take holiday. So I did. One week every month for the rest of the year in fact. I was very happy about this. Thing is though, while I should be taking flights to here there and everywhere, there are only so many holidays a man can afford so for the most part I just sat around at home playing computer games and video-conferencing friends in far flung parts of the globe. I couldn’t face doing this again in December (no offence to my Skype friends intended) so I jumped onto the FlightChecker on MoneySavingExpert.com and searched for the cheapest flights to anywhere in Europe for a 3 night stay. First up… Warsaw, Poland. Three things instantly popped into my mind upon reading this:

  1. Joy Division (who wrote a song called “Warsaw” about Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the first half of the war)
  2. The Second World War
  3. COLD

The only images I could conjure up were of an emaciated Adrian Brody, walking across piles of rubble searching for scraps of food in The Pianist. I knew absolutely nothing of post-war Warsaw, or even Poland for that matter, besides the fact that there were apparently legions of hot raven-haired women and cheap beer. Both those things appealed to me greatly of course, but I am also deeply fascinated by WWII so I figured, why not? How cold can it really be anyway? Adrian Brody didn’t have thermal underwear and he still made it; and he was getting shot at by bloody Nazis.

the_pianist

IMG_4477 (Medium)

My next dilemma was where to stay. When I went to Rome in June I picked the hostel with the best reputation for partying. This was fine on the first night because I just went down to the bar on the Saturday evening, made loads of friends and went clubbing but the second night I had been out walking all day and couldn’t wait to just read a book and pass out. In my 8 bed dorm at the front of the building with the noisiest fan in the world, no air conditioning and an all-night party outside. Hmm.

IMG_4478 (Medium)

I figured that evening, lying in bed staring at the ceiling while willing the snorer in the bunk below to choke to death on his own tongue, that I don’t actually need to do this any more. I’m not a penniless traveller trying to save money in every city I go to; I’m a working professional on holiday. The only reason I actually stay in hostels is so I can hang out with cool people while I’m away and in most places you can go to the hostel bar without actually needing to stay there anyway. So this time I booked a 4 star hotel, the Radisson Blu Sobieski, not far from the city centre. I had not one bed, but two, my own bathroom, room service, clothes hangers, a safe and a mini bar. Not to mention my own old man’s chair where I could sit, fingers on chin, and contemplate the day.

IMG_4457 (Medium)

The flight was delayed by 6 hours. That is a loooong time to be sat in Luton airport, believe me. I solved logic problems and tweeted to Wizz Air. They laughed. Only because I was trying to be funny though; I’m pretty sure they don’t usually laugh at their customers. Actually the only thing I could complain about were the people I was flying with and there wasn’t a great deal the airline could do about that; the all-important Screaming Child : Silent Adult ratio was skewed quite obscenely in the wrong direction. I discovered a helpful little trick on the way back, however… They all go in the front. Pick a seat near the back entrance and the journey is blissfully quiet. There’s one for your little book of holiday tips!

IMG_4456 (Medium)

Once we touched down in Poland I walked off the plane into a snow-drenched airport and a blast of cold air that enveloped me like a bath of liquid nitrogen. It was then a half hour wait for a bus, an hour ride on said bus (while the driver attempted to compensate for the nitrogen bath by melting our faces off with the on-board heating), and a short 10 minute walk and I was greeted at the hotel by Carsten, a friend of mine who popped up from Berlin for the night. It was midnight, so naturally we stepped out to find a club and ended up in “The Opera House,” a catacomb-y type place with red brick tunnels, red lighting, cheesy house music, a live violinist and beers for £2.50. It was free to get in and free to use the cloakroom. It was also warm. Oh so warm. Two Żywiecs and a Jägerbomb later and we were on the dance floor busting out moves that would make James Brown weep. With joy obviously.

IMG_4471 (Medium)Apart from this little escapade much of my time was spent chilling out, eating, drinking coffee and poking around the various districts of Warsaw. I also tried out my theory for infiltrating hostel bars, which worked a treat, and spent an evening playing card games with some new Polish, Dutch and Italian friends. Thoughts of the war prevailed thanks to the overwhelming number of communist buildings everywhere and the general look and feel of the place. Everything you look at seems to conjure up an image from one holocaust film or another, but then you walk around a corner and there’s a mass of steel and glass skyscrapers reminding you that democracy and capitalism did finally arrive after all (in 1989 for those of you that are wondering). I bought a book on the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 to try and fill in some blanks, which was lucky because I managed to get flu on Monday and ended up spending the rest of the holiday in the hotel room.

IMG_4454 (Medium)A bit of a mixed bag then, this holiday. A good break from London but I’m left thinking that maybe I should just save up and go somewhere warm for my winter holidays. If for no other reason than to avoid catching a cold and having to spend another plane journey with head that feels like it’s going to explode every time I cough! I’ll save the European trips for the summer (ski holidays excluded obviously).

Ramble On

It’s been a while, I know. You could put it down to laziness, maybe writers block or even a lack of material but the end result is the same. I’ve neglected you, and I’m sorry. Way back when I started blogging in 2006 I used it as a way to keep in contact with friends and family while I was travelling around the world. Rather than just writing online letters with a few pictures thrown in I started to experiment with reviews and anecdotes for all the places I’d been. When you’re travelling to places many readers have never been, it’s easy to find things to write about that people will find interesting. Every day is an adventure, or a potential disaster, and both make great reading material (with the latter actually always offering more laughs). Likewise when I was living in Japan, there was simply no end to the amount of material available, I mean, seriously! Train men that randomly point at things for no apparent reason? Builders that dance together in the morning and then wave mini-lightsabers at passing cars? Old ladies on bikes? Raw eggs? Chicken testicles on sticks?! That place is a blogger’s treasure trove!

England though. I love the place, really I do, but it’s totally and utterly normal. All two of my readers live here already according to my little map statistics (alright, maybe one or two in America as well) and the discovery of cultural insights that people don’t already know about is tough and, well, basically the domain of professional stand-up comedians, and I certainly don’t purport to be as witty or clever as the likes of Ross Noble.

What does one write about then? Politics? Dry. TV? Never watch it (unless you count the 72,000 episodes of the latest series of Masterchef: The Professionals or the continual onslaught of Grand Designs and Man V. Food repeats). TV is just something you have on the background while you’re eating so you can avoid having one of those “conversation” thingies and besides, Charlie Brooker’s got that locked down already.

At the beginning of this year I played with the idea of doing a different challenge every month and actually, January 2012 was probably the most productive month of my whole life; I learned 500 kanji, a couple of hundred Japanese words, drank so much green tea that I anti-oxidised the air around me wherever I walked and got back into weight training after my broken hand had finally healed. As with so many New Year’s Resolutions though, the idea was dead by February. You don’t realise how difficult it is to do the same thing every day until you do it, and then you feel like it’s the only thing you ever do, even if it’s only an hour or two every day. It also serves to show how much time we waste sitting idly around watching TV or surfing the Internet.

That pretty much takes me right back to where I started – travel – and with my fateful trip to Italy earlier this year, a recent trip to Poland and a bout of flu preventing me from doing much besides lying in bed reading, heating up some Heinz Cream of Chicken soup or staring at a computer screen, you can probably expect another entry or two in the next couple of days.