Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.
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Maison de Stuff
- Recent Entries:
- Driving down to Santa Cruz
San Francisco Again
The Cake of Guilt
Everyone and His Dog is in California
New Company Remorse
Only 2000000 Air Miles...
Second Day at the US Office
First Day at the US Office
Another Day Off
London to San Francisco
Last Day of the First Week
Finally Some Beer
A Solitary Outing
Second Day, Same as the First
First Day in the New Job
Leaving the Dordogne
Market and Mist
Les Immeubles Francaises
Tuesday in the Dordogne
Down to the Dordogne
New Year's Eve
Friday in Abergavenny
Back to South Wales
- Driving down to Santa Cruz
- [Sunday 28th January]
Today found me and two fellow employees at something of a loose end, so the three of us decided to go for a daytrip together. Somehow the plan was hatched to drive down to Santa Cruz, and as it turned out I was the only one with a car, so I was to be the driver for the day.
[Click here to read more...]
- San Francisco Again
- [Saturday 27th January]
Went back to San Francisco again, this time with Simon, and did much the same things as on my previous visit - went down to see the Golden Gate bridge, rode around on the trams, walked about a bit, and had a couple of nice meals. Not much else to say really - go look at the pictures!
- The Cake of Guilt
- [Friday 26th January]
The company I work for has a social event at the end of the working day on Friday. At the California office this seems to comprise something different every week - this week there was a rock band in the large hall on campus, along with the usual beer and party food. Having brought my car in I had initially decided not to drink, but alas I got chatting to some fellow employees and inevitably a beer or two ensued. So in the end I decided to just leave my car at the office, and the evening's entertainment continued on from there.
A group of us - me, a couple of Italian guys, a Canadian and a Polish guy - went into the town centre for a spot of dinner and a few more drinks. This is only really the third night out I've had in the town centre here, and already I think I've exhausted all the places there are to go to, several times over. So in a similar vein to the previous night, the venues were pretty uninteresting, but the company was quite fun.
One of the Italian guys brought along a "Happy Birthday!" balloon. I initially assumed it was his birthday, but it turns out this was in fact just a tactic to see if we could get any free stuff. Sure enough, just as we were leaving the place where we had dinner, the waiter stopped us and said "Hey - I didn't know it was your birthday - go sit back down!", and shortly afterwards a cake emerged. I personally was wracked with guilt just by association, but I guess it was rather funny nonetheless.
We just went to one more bar after that, which wasn't all that much fun, before deciding to call it a night. Still, that aside it was quite a positive note to end an otherwise quite dreary week on - it's always cool to have the opportunity to meet people from other countries!
- Everyone and His Dog is in California
- [Thursday 25th January]
Another unremarkable day at work was contrasted with a very nice evening out. Yes, the title may amount to somewhat of an exageration, but it is pretty cool that not just one but two of my friends had independently been in California at the same time I was.
Simon was just in California for a week - and in fact not just in California, but was even working in the same town as me. So tonight was our first opportunity to meet up and go for dinner plus a few beers. The venues were nothing much to write home about, but for the whole evening I couldn't get over how great it was that me and an old friend were sitting and having a couple of beers together on what for us is the other side of the world, having got there for completely unrelated reasons.
- New Company Remorse
- [Wednesday 24th January]
I suffered a particular motivational crisis this morning, and found it very difficult to summon the enthusiasm to get out of bed. Tom explained (via the message board) that what I'm in fact suffering is "New Company Remorse" - I suppose a bit like buyer's remorse. It is apparently natural at this point to realise the company doesn't quite live up to the hype they gave you when you were being recruited, and to start to wonder if maybe you made a mistake, perhaps the last place wasn't really all that bad, and you should have given it a bit longer... Well it is still very early days yet - just half way into week three. People generally seem to like working here, so I'm sure things will improve once I start to get a bit settled.
Lunch was a slight improvement - I've had a lot of rather disappointing meals (the food was one of the main things that was hyped) but today I tried out the Asian themed cafe and managed to find some very passable vegetarian sushi. I ate this outside (yes, in California even January is a candidate for al fresco meals) whilst browsing the web on my Mac using the super pervasive wireless networking that seems to be available everywhere around the office. Well, I suppose the new job isn't all that bad...
The evening was occupied with crossing off a few things on my TODO list of odd little jobs. I filled the car up with petrol (doesn't sound like much of an achievement, but I was quite proud of myself), did some washing, tidies up my room a little bit, wrote out postcards, and got my blog up to date. Didn't bother going out for dinner, opting instead to bravely reheat the leftover curry from the previous evening.
- Only 2000000 Air Miles...
- [Tuesday 23rd January]
Today was generally pretty boring at work. The middle of the day was however brightened somewhat by the opportunity to attend a presentation by Virgin Galactic. For those of you not in the know, this is the company planning to offer the world's first commercial space flights - a snip at $200,000 a ticket. Having looked around on the web, I found out that some guy had been able to trade in 2,000,000 Virgin Atlantic Air Miles for a ticket. I calculated that I would only need to make 160 round trips from London to San Francisco for that - apparently I may have to come here about four times a year (groan), so if I stick at this job for 40 years...
Having said that, given how nervous I get at the prospect of getting onboard a regular plane, I probably won't be one of the people queuing up for the first few tickets.
Still, it did make me think - what a fabulously adventurous business proposition. You've got to take your hat off to Sir Richard Branson (who as I've probably said many times before, I have in fact met). The guy who gave the talk - Steve Attenborough - was apparently an investment banker at some point, and just decided he wanted to change his job for something more exciting. He was kind enough to tell us what a cool company he thought ours was, but lets face it, we're all basically pissing about moving little bits of information from one computer to another. He, on the other hand, is going to be taking people into space!
In the evening I tried again to go to the Indian restaurant near my hotel, and again found it was closed. Quite frustrating for the second time in a row. I did at least this time notice the notice (!) on the window saying they were undergoing construction work. I initially just went back to the hotel defeated, but eventually my stomach took over, and got me to get the car out and go for a bit of a drive. I managed to find another Indian restaurant in downtown (that's the town centre to us British folk).
The food was OK I suppose, not great though, and the fact I had driven there meant No Beer For Me. As Oscar Wilde once said (more or less) - a curry without lager is like a day without sunshine.
- Fake Duck
- [Monday 22nd January]
So I was in to my second week in California, and my third week in the new job. Not really a lot to report though.
In the evening I fancied a curry, so went for a walk to an Indian restaurant near my hotel which I'd spotted on a previous foray. To my disappointment it was closed though, so I reverted to plan B - a vegetarian Chinese restaurant I had noticed the previous day en route to the Italian place.
I'm sorry to say it, but it was really bad. I started off with a kind of Chinese gyoza (dumpling type thing) which were stodgy and tastless. For the main course I was intrigued by the vegetarian duck on the menu. It was apparently made with yuba (the outer skin of tofu) and shiitake. The texture wasn't too bad, but the taste was really bland, and the sauce it was in did nothing for it. It was accompanied by some dull vegetables and dried out brown rice. A real disappointment. I shudder to think of all the meat eaters who agree to go along with a vegetarian friend to a place like this, and have a meal like that as their only experience of vegetarian food.
I trudged back to the hotel afterwards feeling dissatisfied and a bit miserable.
- Italian American
- [Sunday 21st January]
The title only has a vague connection with today's events - just based on the restaurant I went to for lunch. I found myself craving a roast meal actually, and did spend a short time in the morning in a vain search for any nearby British pubs etc that might offer this sort of fare. Clearly that was not to be though, so a big hearty Italian meal came in second place.
I'm not sure I would agree with one reviewer for this restaurant who called it authentic Italian. This to me means the sort of Italian food you actually get in Italy - perhaps the term authentic is interpreted differently here though! Still, culinary elitism aside it was a very satisfying meal. I had tomato and mushroom penne, followed by a black olive and artichoke pizza. The pizza was definitely American style to me - a big thick crust - but even Lorenzo has said he quite likes these on occasion, as long as they are considered as a separate entity to real Italian pizza. Oh and I also had a couple of glasses of Chianti (Nozzole, Nozzoli, something like that) which put me in a very jolly temperament for the rest of the afternoon.
I had grand plans to do some work on the computer for the rest of the day - perhaps make a crack at a Photo Studio replacement to run on the Mac. Instead though I found myself somewhat lethargic (possibly the wine and all those carbohydrates) and just slobbed in front of the television instead. I did just about muster enough energy to make a concerted effort at getting my pictures from San Francisco on the web - a particular feat in the absence of Photo Studio!
- San Francisco
- [Saturday 20th January]
By an amazing coincidence it turned out that our friend Junchan was also going to be in Northern California for a few days while I was there. Today we both had the day completely free, so it seemed only right that we should make use of the opportunity and meet up.
[Click here to read more...]
- Not Much
- [Friday 19th January]
Pretty uneventful day at work, spent a bit of time in the afternoon talking to a few people about what I'd be working on to start with. It doesn't look all that interesting to be honest, but apparently people change projects relatively frequently here, so it shouldn't be too bad.
Didn't really do much in the evening, just the usual - wiling away the time on the Internet.
- An Improvement
- [Thursday 18th January]
Had a real hard time getting parked at the office today. Whilst this occurence will be somewhat unremarkable to the average car driver, to me it was quite a new experience and a very frustrating one at that! I'm still not really enjoying the driving - it makes me quite nervous - so when I get to my destination I just want to get out of the car as soon as possible. I think I spent something rediculous like half an hour trying to find a space, until I eventually worked out how to use the valet parking system. That was great - in the end I just left my car pretty much wherever, handed some guy the keys and walked off.
That aside though, things improved a bit today in the up-until-now quite dull week of training. I started work on my own project. This is one of the big perks of working for this company - a percentage of your time is given over to working on whatever you want to work on. Messing around with actual code again seemed to do a very good job of restoring my sense of purpose.
The evening was also a marked improvement - a colleague from another team at the London office had gathered together a few people for a night out - the first proper one since I'd been here. So the five of us went to a succession of bars, most of which seemed to be Irish pubs, and knocked back a few beers whilst talking about work, politics, and the eternal problem of finding a place to live in London.
One of our group was an "old timer" who had been at the company a good few years and was clearly senselessly rich. I think it is the first time I've been out drinking with a millionaire. Still, I wasn't particularly envious, having assumed he was a bit more advanced in his career than I was (a polite way to say older) I initially just put it down to thinking I still had a bit more work to do.
Then towards the end of the evening I asked him how old he was - and it turns out he's younger than me (albeit by just a couple of months).
Oh well, it's all about being in the right place at the right time I suppose!
- Second Day at the US Office
- [Wednesday 17th January]
Another day of induction type stuff. Today we moved on to more technical topics, so some of this was at least quite interesting. The food was a bit of a disapointment again though - I'm not even sure what I had for lunch, some weird kind of fusion health food crap, which was pretty dissatisfying. I fear the majority of vegetarians here may be vegetarian for health reasons, so it seems to be all mung beans and sawdust type food, not really my cup of tea.
On the plus side though, I have been able to have a couple of decent espressos.
I motored back to the hotel a little earlier than the previous day, partly to try and get back in daylight and avoid the "run the gauntlet" style journey of the previous evening.
The evening then passed very uneventfully - I'd considered going out for dinner, but lost enthusiasm so finally settled on "cooking" some of the things I'd bought the other day in Trader Joe's. So it basically came down to burgels (that's bagels with burgers in, for the uninitiated).
Today marked seven years since I the very first time Chie and I met. It was the first time we'd not spent this anniversary together, so that was a bit of a bummer. In fact given the time difference, and me being at work, plus her being out for part of the day, we didn't even get to speak properly.
Bloody business trips!
- First Day at the US Office
- [Tuesday 16th January]
So following yesterday's holiday, today my induction course for the new job began in earnest. Actually quite a lot of what we did today seemed to be a repeat of the HR type stuff I'd been through last Monday back in London. Not all that interesting really, but I suppose this kind of thing is necessary.
Later on in the day I met some of the team I'm going to be working with in the US, and then went for dinner (some of the cafes there open for dinner as well). So far I have to admit to not being all that bowled over by the food, but maybe I've just chosen badly.
The drive back to the hotel at the end of the day was a bit of a challenge - it was dark and raining, so visibility was pretty poor. I was probably a danger to other road users - a couple of times I passed through traffic lights without really noticing they were there (although luckily they were on green - maybe if they had been on red I would have noticed).
The evening was pretty uneventful really. The problem with having eaten at the office is that you're then robbed of anything to do in the evening! Certainly the TV here seems to be utter, utter crap, with the one saving grace being the occasional episode of The Simpsons.
I'd bought a bottle of Caol Ila on my way through Heathrow, having learnt from previous experience of the dreariness of being stuck in a hotel room all by yourself. I had a couple of very modestly sized glasses, but it seems I wasn't really in the mood for it. As I may have waffled on about in the past, the situation in which you drink whisky makes a big difference to the experience (much like wine, where they refer to "tasting the terroir"). I recall one whisky writer saying that nothing can beat sipping Laphroaig whilst sitting on the pier of the distillery itself, looking out to sea. Presumably though the reverse of this is also true, and a dreary setting can kill a perfectly good whisky.
It just so happens that I'm staying in the same chain of hotels that I'd stayed in on two long business trips to the US with the previous company. The Residence in by Marriott seem to excel at dreariness - the rooms are like mini-apartments, which I suppose means they think people will be very self contained there. So crucially they don't have a hotel bar, usually the one source of comfort for the lonely business traveller.
When I'd started last week, one of the HR people had actually said - "You're going to California next week? Lucky you!" - this is presumably the words of someone who has never been on a business trip, and therefore doesn't understand the indelible link with utter dreariness that they have.
- Another Day Off
- [Monday 15th January]
Well I'd originally expected today to be the first day of my training in the US, but it turned out it was a sort of national holiday (Martin Luther King Day) and nobody would be at the office.
So I just spent most of the day resting at my hotel, trying to get over the jetlag. I did make a couple of brief excursions, but nothing very exciting - towards the end of the morning I drove to the office, just to get familiarised with the route. When I got back to the hotel, I decided to leave the car behind and go for a walk out to the shops. I managed to find a Trader Joe's nearby - I'd often heard of this store in my previous job via the company's vegetarian mailing list. It's mainly a sort of organic food shop, but they also do a lot of vegetarian food as well, and most of their cheeses are clearly labelled for the type of rennet they use - the sort of thing which makes me very happy. So I bought myself a few bits and pieces, and when back at the hotel assembled a very nice sandwich with marinated mozarella and some salad.
I spent the rest of the day mainly on the Internet, managed to chat to Chie on Skype with webcams and everything, which was great.
- London to San Francisco
- [Sunday 14th January]
Swap Tokyo for London and Seattle for California, and the first month in the new job bears a striking resemblance to the previous one - after the first week in the office where I'm based, I'm required to go off to USHQ for three weeks of training, meetings, etc. So this morning I got up bright and early, got my things together and left my temporary flat, and trudged over to Heathrow.
The flight left at 11AM, it's about a 10 hour flight, and given the time difference it meant I landed in San Francisco at 2 in the afternoon.
The flight was OK I suppose (I have a feeling I always end up saying that!). I started off a little annoyed with myself, as I'd asked specially for a seat next to the emergency exits (much more legroom!) but then it turned out some guy had been seated separately from his wife/girlfriend/whatever and asked me if I wouldn't mind swapping. Albeit somewhat reluctantly I had to say yes - the alternative was to spend 10 hours sat next to a woman who would have me marked as a selfish git, with her husband/boyfriend/whatever coming over every so often to glour at me.
So then obviously I ended up sat behind the guy who put his seat right back as far as it would go about one minute after take-off, and left it there for the whole flight (even when he was eating). Git. Particularly annoying as the angle it was at, plus my height, meant I couldn't actually see the screen in the back of the seat properly - what a stupid design. Still, I suppose it could have been worse - at least I was in "Premium Economy" so comparatively I wasn't all that uncomortable, and being on Virgin meant the overall ambience was much better than other airlines I'd experienced. The food wasn't bad either.
I passed the time with the usual mixture of inflight movies and my iPod. One thing which particularly stood out was a Japanese film called Always san-chôme no yûhi, which I found utterly endearing, and made me realise yet again perhaps I had been a little too harsh on Japan during my time there. I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan.
Anyway, the flight landed at 2PM, customs/immigration/etc all passed without a hitch, and I was on to my big challenge for the day - driving.
On business trips to the US with the previous company I'd always copped out of driving. I usually went at the same time as other colleagues, and got lifts everywhere with them, or filled in the gaps with taxis and buses. This time though I had no colleagues to fall back on, and all accounts sugggested the provision of public transport was just as bad here in CA as it was up North in WA. So I had decided it was just time to bite the bullet, and hire a car.
Of course to most people this wouldn't be such a big deal, but I only passed my test a couple of years ago (see here), and have spent a large part of the intervening time in Japan where we didn't have a car. In fact even when we were in the UK I hardly ever drove, just the occasional weekend outing or trip to the supermarket. Plus I have almost never driven by myself.
So add into all of that the challenges of driving in a foreign country and you can hopefully imagine I was quite nervous about it!
Still, all of that aside I think I did fairly well on my first day back behind the wheel - despite getting horribly lost en route (I eventually realised I was trying to follow completely the wrong directions owing to the confusing way roads are named in the US) I did eventually get to my hotel.
After checking in and having a quick burst on the Internet (it seems I have a fairly respectable connection at the hotel), I heade out for dinner - leaving the car in the hotel parking lot. Luckily I didn't have to walk all that far to find a nice Mexican restaurant, where I enjoyed a very good Burrito and a couple of beers.
Not long after returning to the hotel the jetlag started to creep up on me, and I was asleep by 9.
- Day Off
- [Saturday 13th January]
So today I had a day off, inbetween my first week at the London office, and my flight out to California. I didn't really do a great deal - basically just confined myself to my temporary apartment, caught up on my backlog of washing, and wiled away the time with the Internet again.
This week, as also documented by Nigel (see here and here, the 'Maison regulars have been investigating all manner of online chat mecahnisms. Today I used the video/audio conferencing in Skype for the first time, had a nice chat with Nigel and the family, and I have to say I was very impressed - even with the less-than-perfect Internet connection I had in my temporary flat place. I also later on attempted a more unconventional form of online interaction - Second Life - which enabled Kev and I to go for a virtual beer together. This was very odd, but strangely rather enjoyable.
Isn't the Internet marvellous?
There's a Marks and Spencers "Simply Food" nearby the place I was staying in (just round the corner from St. Paul's cathedral), and so for dinner I decided I would gorge myself on ready meals. It was really good actually - a potato gratin, some garlic mushrooms and a halloumi and bean cassoulet. Yum!
- Last Day of the First Week
- [Friday 12th January]
So today was the last day of the first week in my new job. If I'm honest I'd have to say that it has actually been a tad underwhelming on the whole - but then I guess that's always the way with new jobs - until you've got a clear idea of what you're doing it is hard to feel settled and comfortable with it. Still, early days!
One nice thing about the office is that they have a sort of wrap up meeting for the week, at the end of the working day, every Friday. Everybody in the office goes along, and there's free beer and pizza. One feature of this weekly event is to announce all the new starters that have come onboard that week, and each one of them (myself included) is required to go up and make a little speech in front of several hundred people. This was a bit nerve wracking as you might imagine, but I managed to get by with some quip about how I was really pleased about returning to the UK from Japan because of the great food, weather, and affordable accomodation. This seemed to afford me a round of polite laughter.
The other nice thing about this end-of-the-week thing is that it really does mark the end-of-the-week - not a lot of people go back to work after it is finished, it seems. I hung on for a while after the main end-of-week meeting - went and "mingled" and played a couple of rounds of pool.
I think I headed home around 7:30, and there finished off some leftover pizza, and wiled away the evening with the help of the Internet and the lovely MacBook Pro the company gave me.
- Finally Some Beer
- [Thursday 11th January]
I wonder what sorts of things sociologists study. I'm not all that sure, but I feel one interesting area of research could be the means by which people establish drinking buddies when joining a previously unknown group of people (i.e. when starting a new job). Whilst it seems the immediate colleagues on my team are not really into their beer - and fair play to them - no office would be complete without a few designated drinkers. By day four of my new job, at least two of them had come out of the woodwork and made themselves known to me, and so to my great delight today I was finally asked out for a beer.
We went to a couple of pubs in the viccinity of the office. The first was nice but a little overcrowded for my increasingly old-manish tendencies, and the second was also very passable.
It seems I have acclimatised to the Japanese custom of always having something to nibble when going for a few drinks, and throughout the evening was thinking "when are we going to get something to eat?". It never really materialised, so instead when I got back to my temporary flat I decided to order pizza via the web. I was very impressed with the service - within about 20 minutes of clicking submit the delivery guy was at the door, and the pizza was actually pretty good too. My hat off to Domino's!
- A Solitary Outing
- [Wednesday 10th January]
On my way into work today I made up my mind to get myself an Oyster card - and then the rediculous £4 single fare I had paid the previous day came down to a somewhat more sensible £1.50.
The working day itself was pretty uneventful really, but I did have an errand to run which broke up the afternoon a bit - given my impending trip to the US I needed to renew my passport. Conveniently the passport office was just round the corner, and so this was no great hardship. So I'm now the possessor of a shiny new biometric passport, complete with the pictures of birds on each page (not really sure what that is supposed to symbolise).
Having had a couple of quiet and frankly quite boring evenings, I decided tonight I really must make an effort to go and enjoy London. My new colleagues were still failing in what I assume to be their duty to invite me out for a round of welcome drinks, so I was left with no option but to just go it alone.
So I headed over to my favourite bit of London - around Chancery Lane - and indulged myself in all my old favourites. I started off at the Cittie of Yorke, then from there headed on to Ye Old Mitre. Being in the Mitre in particular was bordering on being quite emotional - it is a tear jerkingly beautiful pub, and I find myself counting my blessings every time I go there.
Of course, the natural follow on to these two fine venues is the whisky society, superbly just around the corner. Therein I sampled some fine malts and got talking to some of the regulars which was jolly nice. There were even a few Japanese guys in, which was splendid, giving me an excellent opportunity for a bit of language practice.
- Second Day, Same as the First
- [Tuesday 9th January]
Second day in the new job, and largely more of the same really. Again I walked to work in the morning. On the way back I was feeling lazy and decided to catch the tube. Having been away from the UK for the past couple of years, I'm not really all that au fait with all this Oyster card business, and so made the stupid error of buying a single on the tube in cash - the 10 minute journey cost me a senseless £4. I think Transport for London is trying to dissuade tourists from coming to the capital or something.
The evening was pretty uneventful really - I just sat in my apartment, ate a West Cornwall Pasty Co. Pasty, and availed myself of the internet connection.
- First Day in the New Job
- [Monday 8th January]
As these things often seem to go, it had been a long time getting to this point - I think I'd actually applied for this job back in June of 2006, over six months ago. Anyway today I finally had my first day at the new company, who, in a similar vein to the last place of employment, shall remain nameless (however I think all of the regulars know by now).
I'd been put up by the company in a nice temporary apartment very close to Blackfriars. The office itself was near Victoria, and so I'd decided it would be nice to walk in the first day. Having arrived in London the previous evening in the dark (and in the rain) today I was seeing my new surrounds for the first time in daylight. The walk to the office took me along the banks of the Thames, past the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. Still I'm really impressed every time I walk past Big Ben (OK technically, the clock tower containing Big Ben) - I get a little twinge of pride when I think to myself "this is my country".
The morning passed with the usual waffly corporate induction stuff, and I'm glad to report it was only confined to the morning - by the afternoon I was sitting at my desk and starting to work out how I go about writing software at this place.
As a slight disappointment, nobody suggested going for a beer at the end of my first day, so I just wandered off by myself when the metaphorical whistle blew.
I took a very roundabout route to getting back to my apartment - as the place came with wireless broadband I was keen to find somewhere I could by a WLAN adapter, and actually ended up walking all the way to Tottenham Court Road as everywhere else seemed to be shut. I get a nifty little Netgear USB adapter for the not-too-offensive price of twenty quid. Also on the way back I went by way of a Subway, and picked myself up a very unimaginative dinner, which I consumed on my return whilst basking in the pleasing glow of a decent internet connection.
- Leaving the Dordogne
- [Sunday 7th January]
So today I was getting the train back to the UK, but Mum did have one last gem of a place to show me en route to the station - a medieval hilltop village called Turenne, which was really quite spectacular, even in the somewhat misty conditions in which we saw it. As with all the rest of these places we'd visited this week, it is a real testament to the local people that they've done such an excellent job of preserving these places - there can't be many areas on the planet so rich in so many delightful old buildings. A great send off.
So after a farewell drink with Mum and Keith in a café near the station, I got on the train from Brive-la-Gaillarde around midday. It was about a four hour run from there to Paris, and it was one of those trains with the seats arranged into those old fashioned compartments, which meant I was rather cozily situated with nine other passengers. Somehow the French seem less offensive at close quarters than the English sometimes do, and even the two restless and noisy children had a certain charm about them.
Anyway, I changed at Paris and got on the Eurostar, and then finally some time after 8 I was in London.
My new company had arranged a temporary apartment for me near Blackfriars, much appreciated after a long journey (although I did initially have considerably difficulty actually getting into the place).
The flat turned out to be rather fancy - two bedrooms (one en suite) and a massive lounge and dining room (with six chairs!). A bit over the top for little old me really!
- [Saturday 6th January]
The main event of the day was a trip out in the morning to a town called Beaulieu, yet another of the seemingly endless stream of charming towns and villages in the Dordogne. Not much else to say really - go and look at the pictures if you want to see what it was like!
- Day Off
- [Friday 5th January]
As the weather was again pretty grotty, and Keith wasn't feeling all that well (apparently he had caught "my" cold) we didn't really go out at all today. So nothing to report!
- Market and Mist
- [Thursday 4th January]
The weather wasn't all that wonderful today. In the morning Mum and I ventured out into the drizzle to take a walk round Vayrac market, and visit Mum's favourite vegetable lady. It was very nice to see the cheery rapport between Mum and the lady purveying assorted legumes.
After the usual really nice salad for lunch, we had a fairly relaxed sort of an afternoon, just venturing out for a while around 4ish to take a walk on a nearby hill. We couldn't see a great deal what with the mist and everything, but it was certainly very atmospheric up on the Puy d'Issolud, which was apparently the site of an ancient battle between Romans and Gauls.
- Les Immeubles Francaises
- [Wednesday 3rd January]
Spent the day out travelling around assorted villages and chateaux. What I've been struck with most about this part of France is the very eye catching architecture. I'm not very learned in this field, so I'm not going to try and wax lyrical about the melange of venacular and non-venacular styles, instead I would direct you to the pictures for today and recommend you see for yourself. The pictures are pretty much all of buildings, and very nice they all were too.
- Tuesday in the Dordogne
- [Tuesday 2nd January]
Today was my first full day in the Dordogne, and also the first time to see any of it in daylight. I was reminded slightly of the way Lorenzo would always underplay restaurants in Italy, and then they'd turn out to be excellent. Mum had told me the actual village she was staying in - a place called Vayrac - wasn't much to look at - but I found it to be really quite picturesque. Maybe I'd just been architecturally starved as a result of spending a year-and-a-bit in Tokyo.
We went for a bit of an outing in the morning, and visited the nearby village of Bretenoux, which was quite charming - especially the main square. After this we visited a supermarché (good old E. Leclerc) and went back to the house for a very nice salady sort of lunch. The afternoon was very relaxed, just a wander round Vayrac. For dinner I knocked up a simple ratatouille with excellent local produce, served with potatoes Dauphinois.
It's a shame Chie is back in Japan, I have a feeling she'd really like it here. Still, now we're back in Europe again we ought to have plenty of oppprtunities to visit these kinds of places.
- Down to the Dordogne
- [Monday 1st January]
In the last couple of years my Mother has developed somewhat migratory instincts, spending her winters down in the Dordogne. I'd only had the chance to see her very briefly in Guildford when we'd first arrived back in the UK a couple of weeks prior, so I'd determined before starting the new job I ought to make time for a proper visit and go down to France to see her.
As regular readers of this blog may well be aware, I really hate flying, so had instead made plans to travel across a fairly sizeable chunk of the biggest country in Europe by train. Whilst some may consider this as a little daft, I saw it as an adventure.
So I left Simon's house just before 9, and got on a train to London Waterloo. I was there by about 10:30 - much earlier than I needed to be - but I didn't really have a great deal of trust in the UK rail network on the morning after New Year's Eve, so wanted to leave plenty of time for any potential mishaps (i.e. drivers not turning up for work on account of terrible hangovers, or perhaps worse still drivers actually turning up for work with terrible hangovers).
I passed the time in Waterloo with a jolly nice cheese and mushroom pasty. Surprisingly this was not from my favourite West Cornwall Pasty Co, but some other company whose name escapes me. I also finally managed to spend the last of those bloody WH Smiths vouchers I'd been given as a leaving present from the company-before-last, getting on for two years ago. I'd spent most of the intervening time in Japan where funnily enough they don't have WH Smiths.
Anyway, I got on the Eurostar around midday, and from then on started to make serious progress on my journey. The leg from London to Paris passed fairly uneventfully, I was entertained as usual by my iPod, and also less usually I had a magazine to read - something about Macs which actually turned out to be a bit naff. Despite being really into the whole Mac thing recently, I find publications which use every almost other page to bang on and on about how much better Macs are (than Windows machines) a bit tiresome.
By 4PM French time I was in Paris, and after scratching my head for a considerable amount of time at the hideous Paris Metro map I finally worked out which line I needed for my transfer to Gare D'Austerlitz, and off I went. For reference, from Gare Du Nord you need the orange coloured line (in the direction of Place D'Italie, I think).
Pleasingly it was just one more train from there to Brive-la-Gaillarde, the biggest station nearby where Mum is staying. It was a nice modern TGV type train, with very pleasant seating and hardly anyone on board. Very cheap too - so France is now yet another country which makes me think of my own country's rail network with embarassment. This train left Paris at 5:30, and amazingly only stopped at one other station (Limoges), and so I was at my destination by 9:30, where Mum and Keith were waiting to pick me up.
From there it was about a 35 minute drive to the village where they were staying. I was naturally quite tired after the long journey, so after a quick snack it was bedtime for me.
- New Year's Eve
- [Sunday 31st December]
Me and Chie woke in our pleasant (yet over priced) hotel room around 8:30, and after a passable (yet over priced) breakfast we checked out and got on the very convenient (yet over priced) Heathrow Express. The airport wasn't really all that busy - I guess not that many people fly on New Year's Eve.
Chie and I have known each other for almost seven years now, and given that we hail from different sides of the planet we've naturally been through this ritual of waving one or the other off at the airport (or sometimes the station) many times. Still, it was a bit of a downer, given that I'll be off to California for three weeks soon after starting the new job, it means we probably won't see each other for about five weeks. Especially having just got married and everything this seems a bit crap, but I suppose it's just one of those things. Hopefully after that initial trip there won't be too much traveling in the new job, and so from February onwards we might actually have a chance to get a bit settled.
So anyway, after waving Chie off I got on a coach to Reading, of all places, as I was going to be spending New Year's Eve with my friend Simon (the one I used to work with, not the other one). We went back to his nice new house somewhere on the outskirts, and spent most of the afternoon having a good old chinwag, and generally catching up on everything.
We did the standard British thing of dashing out to the supermarket just before it closed at 4 (well actually we got there about an hour before, but anyway...) and bought booze and things for dinner. I'd decided to cook a vegetarian chili. As a bit of a disappointment Sainsbury's had run out of Veuve Cliquot, so we had to slum it with Bollinger instead, which I didn't really like at all.
Anyway, the evening then passed quietly but very pleasantly. We had dinner and then a steady stream of beers, chatted and listened to music, and then towards midnight watched Jools Holland on the telly, as well as the big fireworks display thing in London.
Chie landed sometime around 1AM UK time which worked out rather well - given that it was New Year's Eve she could guarantee I'd still be up at that time, and so we were able at least to wish each other a happy new year over the phone. It must have been strange for Chie flying over the new year. Apparently on the plane they announced when it was new year in Japan, and then later on announced new year in the UK (and all the passengers got free champagne which sounds quite nice). Technically though (and you'll have to forgive my time zone geekiness here) the transition between 2006 and 2007 would have happened for Chie somewhere over Siberia, in terms of the local time zone at that point, although given that the progression through different time zones is not all that linear it's hard to work out exactly where this would have occurred.
Or maybe time is like air - when they close the cabin doors before take off, they trap a load of UK time in the plane, which is carried with them the whole way, and it isn't until they open them again at the other end that the passengers become immersed in Japanese time.
I bet no-one else but me cares do they!?
Anyway, Happy New Year everybody, wherever you are!
- [Saturday 30th December]
Given that Chie was flying back to Japan tomorrow, we decided as usual it would be best for us to stay the last night somewhere near the airport. So around lunchtime we said our goodbyes, left Abergavenny, and got on a train for London.
There had been some indecision over where we should stay exactly. As always I pulled towards the convenient but expensive options, and Chie was championing the cheap but potentially quite awkward alternatives. To my surprise I eventually won the debate (very generous of Chie to let me get my own way!) and so we chose to stay at the Hilton in London Paddington. The hotel is stupidly over priced for what it is, but it meant as soon as we arrived in London we could drop off our bags and have a nice relaxing evening in London, then just get on the Heathrow Express (again, over priced for what it is) the next morning which would have us in Heathrow in 15 minutes.
So we arrived at Paddington around 3:30, and were checked in and liberated of our cumbersome baggage within minutes. We decided to have a very late lunch in our room, so popped out to the Marks and Spencer in Paddington station to buy an assortment of goodies and a bottle of red wine. We passed the remainder of the afternoon lounging around in the hotel and it was very nice.
We'd arranged to meet up with Chie's friend Akino-san in the evening, so headed into the centre around 8ish, and met up with them at Covent Garden, to visit an old favourite of mine - Cafe Pacifico, a Mexican restaurant. The atmosphere in there was really buzzing, and following the "reverse culture shock" experience we'd had in London the previous week, I started to think I was actually looking forward to living in the Big Smoke again.
- Friday in Abergavenny
- [Friday 29th December]
The daytime was spent quite lazily, as the weather wasn't all that great we just stayed indoors at Vera's house in Abergavenny.
Daytime TV did provide fairly well for us though - we watched My Fair Lady which I have to admit to rather enjoying. I hadn't realised so many famous songs had originated from this musical. To my additional surprise and delight, it also turns out that Jeremy Brett (of Sherlock Holmes fame) is in it, albeit in a fairly minor role. Strange to see him playing a part which was such the complete opposite of the stern and involved performance he gave as the famous detective.
In the evening me, Chie, Vera and Robin all went out for dinner. We went to a restaurant outside of Abergavenny that they'd taken me to once before, and it was all very nice indeed.
- [Thursday 28th December]
So we were back in South Wales today, staying at Vera and Robin's down in Abergavenny again. Chie had decided she would quite like to go and visit Cardiff, particularly the bay area, which she hadn't yet seen since all the redevelopment around there. So we got a lift down to Newport with Robin on his way in to work, and from there got the train to the Welsh capital.
We spent the first bit of the day in the centre, with a quick visit to the market, then a tour of the Castle. Around midday we headed over to the bay, and as we were both quite peckish we made lunch our first port of call on arrival. We chose Bosphorus, a Turkish restaurant, and it was very good. After lunch we took a bit more of a wander round the bay, including a quick ice cream from Cadwallader's, before heading back into the centre. We didn't do a lot else really, just a bit of shopping in the afternoon, and then headed back to Newport around 4.
We met Robin at the museum where he works, and he took us on a bit of a tour. One of the highlights for me were some engineer's diagrams of the famous (?) Newport Transporter Bridge - I may have alluded several times before that I'm a bit of a closet bridge geek. This is based on the premise of wondering what I would do for a job if I'd been born one hundred years earlier (i.e. before computers) - and probably the equivalent technical challenges of the day were things like bridge building.
On the way back to Abergavenny Robin took us by way of the transporter bridge, which is rather superbly lit up by night. Marvellous. Apparently Robin is quite closely involved with the bridge from a museum point of view, and I found out he had designed the plaque which sits by it. I felt rather proud by association to have a member of my family somehow involved, as this is a very unique type of bridge, there are less than ten in the world.
- Back to South Wales
- [Wednesday 27th December]
So the time had come to leave North Wales and head back down to South Wales. It was some time after midday by the time we left, and the journey wasn't quite as great as it had been on the way up - the weather was really rather dismal, and visibility was pretty poor.
Still, that over and done with, we were back down in South Wales by early evening. For dinner we headed over to my aunt Louise's house, where we were treated to a quite delicious meal (all of Vera's children seem to be excellent cooks). It was really nice again to be surrounded by family, and even though it was the day after boxing day, the evening felt very Christmassy indeed.
- Boxing Day
- [Tuesday 26th December]
Spent some of the morning on the computer, sorting through the official wedding pictures and getting them in shape to put on the web.
Click here to see these!
Went out for a bit of a walk in the afternoon. The weather had been a bit naff for most of the time we'd been in North Wales, so we hadn't had many chances to get out for walks. Today was still pretty cold and windy, but anyway a few of us ventured bravely outwards, and had a short walk along the coast near Aberdaron, in an area we often visit because it gives great views of Bardsey Island.
This was our last evening in North Wales for this trip. In the evening we had the usual big feast prepared by Dad, great as ever. I also had a quick sample of the famous Fortnum and Mason Port Ellen, which is stored for safe keeping at my Dad's house - and it was every bit as great as I remember it. Fabulous.