Catching up

Not a lot to report for today. I slept in as I’d spent a lot of hours the night before gassing with first Liam and then his roomie. I managed to get hold of Theresa who I’d worked with in Chamonix last winter and arranged to meet her for a drink and a wander round.

She was over in Putney so I navigated the public transport system and met up with her. Always nice to catch up with people I’ve met elsewhere and Theresa was always one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at the airport on transfer days.

We wandered and I treated myself to a Greggs for lunch before we found a dinky little pub and had a couple of drinks. Well, I did – Theresa doesn’t drink so we sipped on blueberry juice while I enoyed a cider and some strawberry beer.

As evening closed in, I hopped on the train across to Sydenham to catch up with Sami and her mad bunch of housemates. I had picked up my dinner on the way over – a cheap tin of beans from Sainsbury‘s. I’d not had beans on toast in ages, so I thought I’d treat myself!

It was a nice night in. Just some computer games, chat and gaming in the dining room. Check out “Kill the Hippies”, a pretty entertaining card game. I won the first round. Beginner’s luck.

I’d forgotten that when I packed up and got rid of all my stuff all those months and months ago that Sami had inherited my old bed. I slept in it that night! Same mattress and everything. I recognised the occasional *sprongongong* noise it made.

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Clockwork

That’s how the German train system runs. Actually, it’s how most continental train services run, unlike the disorganised overpriced garbage with out-of-date rolling stock we’re stuck with in the UK.

I booked my ticket the day before I travelled online through www.bahn.de. Simple to use, in English and German and providing timetables, crossovers onto buses, and so on. The prices offered generally come in two flavours: very early bookers (I’ve never been able to get one of these) and usual price. On some trains there’s a first class option as well. The thing is, the regular price is always available even if you book thirty minutes before travelling.

None of this “£20 two weeks before and £120 on the day” nonsense as we have in the UK. Experience tells me this results in a carriage full of reserved seats with three people occupying any of them when the train pulls out of London. Offices just pre-book all the cheap seats in case any of their staff need them. It’s cheaper than booking when they’re required.

So armed with all my details and a credit card, I forked out €32.90 for a 3-train/1-bus 3 1/2 hour journey from Bielefeld to Weeze Airport, the budget version of Dusseldorf. Compared to an early-booking UK train, this is marginally expensive but what you have to take into account is the reliability and swiftness of the journey. The only issue I had was that the ticket must be printed out, but as long as you’re prepared for this it’s fine. The printout even includes your detailed schedule right down to the platform numbers you arrive at and depart from.

Can you imagine booking three trains over a three-hour journey with as little as ten minutes to connect at each station in the UK? You’d be lucky to get from the first to the second without missing one. Here, no problem. The busier routes are serviced by double-decker carriages so there’s more chance of a seat, and they’re clean, tidy and much quieter than almost any train I’ve been on back home.

As you approach each station a tannoy announcement and an LED screen tells you where you’re about to arrive. No more leaning against the glass trying to read the platform sign that’s 20m away and at a slight angle.

The bus I caught from Melanie’s was dot on time. It dropped me in town exactly as scheduled so I had a chance to get lunch before I reached the station. The first train was bang on time and I settled down with Nelson De Mille’s Cathedral to read. Around 90 minutes later I hopped off to make my first connection. Referring to my printout meant I didn’t have to search departure boards for the platform number, just walking around. There I got chatting to an English squaddie off to visit some friends. He’s been stationed in Germany for quite some time and is thinking of settling in the south once he leaves the army. Good luck to him.

Of course, the train was on time though a little crowded. Twenty minutes later I arrived at stop two, changed to the (on-time) third train and shortly after hopped off at Weeze station. A 100m walk got me to the airport shuttle – price included in my ticket – and exactly as scheduled on the piece of paper I had in my hand, arrived at the airport.

Good grief.

We’ve had private and public rail services. We’ve had bidding wars. We’ve fined companies for being crap and thrown money at repairs and upgrades. Yet all we have to do is look a few hundred miles away and virtually every country in Europe puts us to shame. Even the Romanian trains were more reliable than ours, including the so-called “Gypsy” service.

Anyway, I’m safely ensconced at Weeze Airport awaiting my flight to London. I’m about to spend virtually every cent I have on a sausage roll and an orange juice so that I don’t have to withdraw any more cash. As far as dinky airports go, it’s nice enough. Plain, but shiny and clean. Nothing to do, no free wi-fi (not a surprise), and one overpriced bar/cafe but I’m only here for an hour before my flight is called.

Three hours from now I’ll be cursing the immigration staff at Stansted again…

Later…

I wasn’t. Breezed through due to the flight landing early so we didn’t clash with the larger flight that followed on behind us. Even the luggage dropped off the carousel in record time. I got to the bus stop for my easybus half an hour early and was allowed onto the bus before the one I had booked. Nobody checked my ticket (bah – £7.50 wasted) and the driver shot down the M11 and through London like a bat out of Hell.

The ninety minute scheduled journey took a shade over an hour and I tumbled onto first the Victoria and then the Northern Line down to Liam’s place in darkest Croydon. I was met by my host at the Underground station and we headed for the most important building in the area – Liam’s local real ale pub. We sank a couple of pints and a devoured two bags of salt and vinegar crisps. The things you miss when you’re away from home.

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Leaving London

Again, not a whole lot to report. But I always say that then waffle on, so here we go.

We got up early enough to thank Andy for his hospitality and have a quick chat with Heledd who was also staying with him. I’d met her once before in Cardiff and I still think she could make a fortune working as a reader of audio books. Or on certain types of phone line. She has possibly the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard!

We packed, checked, double-checked then walked down the road to the tube station. Next to Goldhawk Road tube is a little café. If memory serves, it’s called “Sylvia’s” and is run by a woman – surprise – called Sylvia. And it’s great. The full breakfast I had was superb, Sylvia herself was a wonderful lady and the price was very reasonable indeed. Full, we made our way onto the tube (eventually, as my Oyster Card didn’t have enough credit which I find hard to believe – I think I got screwed) and, via Hammersmith, tunnelled our way to Heathrow. I managed to brain someone with my sleeping bag on the crowded carriage, but every time I turned round to apologise I hit him again. So on the off-chance, if that was you – sorry!

We arrived in good time, and a lot better off financially than if we’d taken the ridiculously expensive Heathrow Express train – and chilled in the departure lounge after going through the usual battery of security questions, scans, footwear removal, further scans… It’s getting so tedious to go through a European airport these days. Finally, boarding time arrived and we filed onto our jet which was to carry us for around 13 hours.

Disappointing from Thai Royal Airlines – no personal TVs and old seats. All I can assume is that this was a “loaner” while one of their decent aircraft was in for a refurb as it really wasn’t suitable for a long-haul flight. Compared to the EVA craft I had on my first voyage, this was a cargo plane. Not impressed. At least this was an overnight flight, so I spent a fair bit of it snoozing, but I’d still have liked the chance to watch a film or learn some Thai. The staff and food were good, though. A brandy after dinner helped me drift off quite satisfactorily.

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Rock God Hits London

Just a short post. I sorted out a cheap bus ticket down to London – see the related tip post on how to get these – and decided to walk into Cambridge from Colin’s to catch it. I’m glad I left in good time as I only just made it 10 minutes before departure! On the way I passed some kids being walked to school, probably just after lunch. I was expecting to either be ignored or get a load of cheek. Instead I got “Why are you carrying so much?”

So I answered that I was travelling and I carried everything I needed. Using a backpack is easier than a suitcase. Then they asked me where I was going. And why. And what makes it so different. So I told them. And we had a good natter for ten minutes until they reached the school gates.

Sometimes – just sometimes – I have a little faith in the youth of the UK. Today was one of those days.

The bus journey was fairly uneventful, and I hopped out ahead of my end point at Stratford. Picking up an Oyster card with a fiver on it (works out much cheaper than paying single tickets) I hopped onto a Central Line train down to Liverpool Street where I waited to meet Sarah. The last time I saw her, I’d been showing her around York and it’s always nice to catch up with a familar face, especially one belonging to a Kiwi who’s so much fun!

As we’d done the second time I met her, we walked over to Brick Lane (me laden with backpacks) for a curry. We got a “free bottle of wine” with the meal, then discovered why when we tried to order a second – they have no alcohol license so have to give it away! If we wanted more, we were told just to pop round the corner, buy a bottle and bring it in.

Instead, we shambled over to a bar and sank two or three more bottles in a nice, quiet boozer and nattered until Sarah was in danger of missing her last train. I walked her to London Bridge then made my way to Andy’s. Nice guy had stayed up waiting for me to make sure I got in OK. Star! Another night on a comfy bed. Joy.

The following day I chilled out, caught up with blog posts (not well enough given that I’m posting this one on July 24th…), read feeds, answered emails and became addicted to Guitar Hero. Damn you, Andy, for leaving all the kit lying around. In between bouts I managed to squeeze in a quick lunch after walking into Hammersmith, where I also picked up a couple of Sherlock Holmes books for a few quid.

Later that afternoon, Leah arrived at King’s Cross and I was there to meet her and ferry her things back to Andy’s. Another use of the Oyster Card and I’m sure on this or the next trip it screwed me. Hard to prove, though, especially when we were somewhat rushed with our flight to Bangkok being the next day!

We waited for Andy to finish work before meeting him for dinner in a local Irish bar. We were late and it was my fault as I just had to have “just one more go” on Guitar Hero. Mind, I did manage to get a perfect run on Kiss’ Rock And Roll All Night. Not bad for a beginner. On “easy”.

After dinner, it was really just a matter of Leah and I making sure we were all packed with no last-minute panics for the next day. Bookings were checked, toothbrushes inspected and ponderings made over milk cancellations. Then we realised that neither of us had milk delivered. Which was good and allowed us to sleep soundly.

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