Another Zaal Trip Coming to a Close

We’ve only got another couple of days left in our summer vacation; time to return back to Canada where ‘real’ life prevails.

Back to work, at a job I’m not sure will fulfill my requirements for the future. Back to a shitty little apartment, that doesn’t fulfill anyone’s requirements. Back to a boring town that shuts down around 2200 unless you like going to the bars to drink your face off and deal with the Cro-Magnons which seem to live in those locations.  Don’t even get me started on the dearth of cultural opportunities we don’t have in Calgary. Wait… is that  a double negative?

To say that I don’t belong in Calgary sounds… disingenuous at best but it’s hard to argue that it makes for a decent ‘base’ of operations for travel. Not as good as, say, Toronto but that city has its own issues that I’m not sure I’d be happy with. It’s a central city with an International Airport with Oil and Gas money flowing through the streets. Good place to work but a great place to get away from.

As I get older, I realize that I am truly nomadic in temperament, always thinking forward to the next time I can be on the road, doing something new and interesting, seeing how different cultures deal with things so very differently that we do.

Here’s an example: this morning at breakfast, Sly pointed to the jam sitting on the plate of one other diner the next table over. It was in a small, glass container with a metal lid holding an individual portion. It was, actually, a very small jar of jam. Back in Canada, you would have received the same condiment in a plastic cup with a tear-away lid. I can only imagine someone from the UK showing up in Calgary, maybe Cora’s or Phil’s, and having these shitty little packages sitting on their table. How quaint, they would say, when in reality it’s probably bloody shocking to them.

I know I’m probably nit-picking, but I appreciate the ‘old’ societies. They have different worries than we do and they concern themselves with the small societal problems a whole hell of a lot less than we do. Want to put some boobs in your movie? PG! Want to show someone getting their head blown off? 18+! Seems sensible to me.

Their cities are more refined with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years to make themselves better. Transit systems work the way they are planned to. London Transport services the city with its population of eight million and they do it well. Calgary Transit can’t seem to service one million.

And here’s the rub: I KNOW it sounds like some silly traveler on a trip enamored with a city he’s only been in for a couple of weeks. Fuck that, I used to live here and know about this city, warts and all, and would still choose to emigrate here if I got the opportunity.

Right on schedule, I’m getting maudlin just before my return to Canada. This always happens so I am prepared. I want the rest of my trip to rock and make it home in one piece.

So I can do it all again next year. 😉

Dunkeld Falls @ Old Military Road
Dunkeld Falls @ Old Military Road

Canadian Mobile Environment Sucks

So I’m in Europe at the moment with an Google Nexus 4 and my wife carrying a 5. Of course they are both unlocked from a service provider, as all phones purchased from Google are,  and  GSM pentaband so we can go with every mobile provider in Europe.

When we first arrived in France, things were pretty hectic: we were all tired and ready to get into Paris, proper. All of the SIM card options I had researched weren’t available at the Relay store we visited so, with the help of Sly, I opted for a “Tourist sim” which offered a flat two hours of international calling, 1 gig of data and 2000 text messages, all of which would expire after a month. This cost me an exhorbitant 39.95 Euro. But it was definitely convenient and got me what I needed, and more.

Fast forward a week and we’re on the Chunnel train to London. I’m leafing through the train’s monthly magazine and find an offer from Lebara for a free SIM card; I would just have to pick it up on arrival in London St. Pancras Station. Thinking this would be just another way to fleece travelers, I pocketed the voucher I would need to trade for a SIM with a shrug and thought little more of it.

Arriving at St. Pancras, I happened upon the location mentioned on the voucher so I walked up, pulled out my wallet for the inevitable ask and pushed the voucher under the window. The location was a currency exchange outlet, one of the more notorious businesses that savvy travelers tend to avoid. The cashier smiled, looked at the voucher and handed me a package containing a SIM card and instructions on how to top up the account. I tossed the package in a pocket and forgot about it until we found our hotel.

After settling-in, I jumped on the Wi-Fi and setup an account, purchased a data plan (only no need for minutes) and then put 5 quid into the prepay section so I could make the occasional call and text my wife (as she was using the SIM from France). And that’s it. In under 10 minutes I was up and running with a phone that could be used anywhere in the UK for only 10 quid.

No hassle, no walking into a store, no setting up a post paid account. Using only an internet connection I was up and running within 10 minutes with very little monetary investment.

I don’t even want to compare the process for someone that needs to do it in Canada as that whole fucking process just sucks.

This is what happens when a dozen or so competitors (yes, real competition) are vying for your money.

I’ll be using Lebara again if ever I find myself in the UK again simply due to the ease of use.

London: Visit One

Having lived here for almost a year previously, people are usually surprised to hear I didn’t do an awful lot of “tourist” type stuff while I was here; just didn’t have the money. Living expenses were high for someone working in a sandwich shop.

Yesterday Sly and I jumped on the Underground and headed to the Tower of London, a location I’ve only ever passed under. The cost was an astounding 22 quid each but, arguably, worth it.

Visiting with a hoard of other tourists, of which I must include myself, is quite eye opening. The biggest thing I’ve found is the ettiquette, or better phrased the lack of, surrounding the way that people move through crowds.

Being North American, I find solace in movement on the right side of the walkway/trail/road as I wander from place to place. We’ve adapted by attempting to walk on the left in order stay in the flow. I’m not sure if other tourists are attempting the same or if, culturally, they just sort of wander in all sorts of different directions wherever they are going everywhere or just while on vacation.

And it’s frustrating as fuck. I dislike crowds to start with but dealing with this random movement has driven me batty on several occasions. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to  it.

Beyond that, London is just like any other large cities with a few major exceptions:

  • Transit system throughout the country, let alone London, is amazing. Trains run on time, cost slightly more than a bus coach and are crazy fast in getting you where you want to go.
  • Money is strange. In the touristy areas you’ll find all sorts of ways to be parted with your currency in outrageous fashion. Walk a half- to a click away and suddenly you’re able to feed two with a pint each for under 12 quid.
  • Culture is taken seriously here. I’m not sure if it’s just because we live in a backwater that’s just barely reached a century in age or if we’re just a shitty city. It’s been interesting to talk with people who know of Calgary simply because of the Stamped. Interesting and embarrassing. I wouldn’t mind being able to take advantage of real, quality theater or even have access to different forms of art within the confines of our city. Perhaps it already exists and I haven’t seen it but until I’m told otherwise, Calgary is shit.

I’m glad we’re coming back to do another week here before leaving; always feels as though I’ve missed something important when I go.

Leaving the City of Light

I’m typing this out on the Eurostar train headed from Paris to London but having some trouble with tethering to my phone’s hotspot so it’s going into Notepad++ with a transfer to the weblog at some point tonight (I have a whole other diatribe I’d like to post on the shit mobile environment we have going on in Canada compared to here but that will be for another time). Little plug for Notepad++: if you’re a software developer and don’t have it installed on the mobile devices you’re using, you’re doing it wrong. And by ‘it’ I mean life.

Paris has always been an enigma for me. I don’t know how to categorize it in my mind. So much history in so concentrated a location with so little time to get a real handle on it. This visit has been far too short.

I’d like to come back here again and spend a week visiting some of the locations I’ve never managed to visit. One being the Palace at Versailles which holds so much history, is so close to Paris but has never been part of any itinerary I’ve put together. Perhaps it was my youth that caused me to ignore this before, or on the last trip here for our honeymoon, just a lack of funds and a wish to leave the “expensive” countries. This time we just sort of lost track of time and got stuck spending two of our days at Disney.

As I get older the requirements for a “fun” vacation have definitely changed. Now I want to get shit-faced on expensive French wine instead of the cheap shit, enjoy a fancy meal instead of eating “street meat” from a hole in the wall, stay at hotels and not hostels. It’s not much to ask and can add so much to a trip and how you enjoy it. Sleeping in a dorm room with fourteen other people isn’t always conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Some of those changes revolve around the fact that I have the means, now, that these things are not out of reach. I’ve worked hard to change my economic status in life so that I may enjoy these experiences as I get the opportunity.  We’ve just passed the boundary into middle class which, I guess, is a step in the right direction.

My first recreational trip to Europe in 95 was very different as I didn’t have the means to enjoy the trip and I was stuck in the Eastern bloc countries which were cheaper than western countries. Hostels, doner kebaps, and shitty beer were all part of the trip with no other options available. Shit, I remember losing my wallet on Mykonos with $1000 CDN in it. That was a hard fucking day. That money was ear-marked to keep me alive for a month. (Yes, Virginia, you could do (cheap) Europe on 30$ per day back in the 90’s). Now it’s easy to blow the same amount of money on hotel rooms over a few weeks.

All told, Paris is a wonderful city that I’ll be returning to sooner rather than later.

Some Notes on Paris

We’ve been here for a few days and I had the opportunity to experience a few things and wanted to jot them down here. This is an itemized list of the activities that have occurred since our arrival on Thursday. By no means is this a complete list but it is still lengthy and may only be interesting to you if you read it in John Cleese’s voice. Just try it, you’ll see what I mean.

  • Long ass plane ride to France; no sleep for the duration
  • Arrive dumb, hot and tired
  • Didn’t get the SIM card I wanted but did manage to get one that most tourists would use. Fitting, I guess.
  • Had trouble getting tickets for RER train from CDG Airport to Paris proper. Eventually rectified.
  • Thirty minute ride into the city quite enjoyable.
  • Arrival at Gare du Nord for transfer to metro for rest of journey to hotel.
  • Misread ticket entrance gate and needed to buy a carnet of tickets (book of 10) to get on the metro.
  • Left baggage with travel partners and ventured to find a ticket dispenser with Sly.
  • Eventually found machine and realized they don’t take bills. Goddamnit.
  • Visited ticket counter with a human being and purchased tickets
  • Returned back to the entrance gate and AGAIN misread response from gate. One wasted ticket and embarrassed Zaal. Used another ticket to finally make it through.
  • 5 stations later we’re in our neighborhood.
  • Walk 1/2 click to our hotel. 2 stars and looks like it.
  • One room is ready, the other is not. Drop all bags in room. Dave an I head out to find a grocery or convenience store.
  • 15 minutes in one direction we find a grocery store, buy some water and fruit. Back to hotel.
  • It’s now hot in the room and we realize there is no AC. Two fucking stars indeed. Open windows and realize we’re in party central. During the World cup. With the matches mostly being played in late evening/early morning. Sleep is difficult in the heat and keeping the windows open is too noisy. My life just, you know, sucks.
  • Wake up at 3 AM to Parisians celebrating football. Loudly.
  • Up at 0830 for the included “continental” breakfast. Baguette, croissants, café au lait, yogurt. Not horrible.
  • Out of the hotel by 9, we’re in the metro and headed to Concorde station for the first day of our walkabout. First encounter with a young street urchin asking if I spoke English.
  • Wandered up the Champs Elyse checking out things that I probably couldn’t afford, like, ever.
  • Arc de Triomphe. Cool. Gendarmes show up and send the urchins fleeing to the four winds. Been a while since I’ve seen people scatter so quickly in fear.
  • Walk to the Eiffel Tour while attempting to find a public toilet. Eventually decided it might just be easier to get a picnic lunch and then use their facilities instead.
  • Get to the Eiffel Tour and get a few more urchins and French Africans touting their “5 for a Euro” tower replicas. Can only imagine them being filled with lead and mercury for such amazing prices.
  • Picnic lunch under the tower. Wonderful way to spend some time
  • Wander through the park on the way to the Rodin Museum.
  • Saw “The Thinker”. Art appreciation +5.
  • Train back to our hotel. Sardine conditions with people pressed up against me from all directions. Wish I’d dieted more before I left.
  • Discovered Flunch. Never knew that IKEA would lose it’s status in my mind as the top of the department store cafeteria category. When the people at IKEA finally get off their asses and start serving wine in glass decanters, I’ll consider changing that decision.
  • Some nameless Parisian man: “Football! Football! Football! Football! Football!”. All. Fucking. Night.
  • Middle of the night text conversation with my bro, Homer Sapient
  • Another great breakfast. Loving Cafe au Lait. Need to be making this shit at home.
  • Out the door and headed to the Sacre Coeur.
  • Stopped at some coffee shop for an extra jolt via a very large cappuccino.
  • Make it to the church on time. Wander up the 200+ steps. Had to shoo away several “friendship bracelet” hawkers. Reinforcement through volume is my chosen tactic. Embarrasses Sly but I have yet to need to do anything else to get them to make like a tree and fuck off.
  • Took many pictures.
  • Entered the church. Managed to stow my prejudices long enough to admire the stained glass and the main dome. Really beautiful. Even purchased a postcard from the gift shop. Hope funds won’t be used to relocate a priest accused of child abuse. Damnit, there’s that prejudice again.
  • Back outside and the short walk to the hotel.
  • It’s not time for lunch; it’s time for flunch!
  • Nap. Sweet, sweet nap.
  • Movie with my baby. “One Million Ways to Die in the West” is known in France as “Albert à l’Ouest”, which loosely translated means “Albert from the West”. I think.
  • Another wander around and then back for some note taking

Tomorrow is the Louvre. Going to visit with Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Monday and Tuesday will be Disney Paris. Wednesday we leave for London.

Pre-Trip Musings

How do you start 4 weeks off work? Apparently with 10 hour of unadulterated sleep. I wonder, sometimes, if I relieve work related stress via sleep rather than anything else.

This is the first of a bunch of days in front of me that are going to be work free. Sly and I are going to spend the day grabbing odds and ends that we still haven’t acquired from our ‘stuff to bring’ list, starting with the expected visit to MEC for some stuff that seemed to escape our attention last week.

I know it sounds silly but the thought of having this much time off is a bit mind boggling. It’s good that we have a trip planned already or I’m not sure that activities, other than learning some Node.js or working on a couple of personal software projects, would come to mind.

Leaving work, forced as it was (picture the boss walking through the lab, herding us out like cattle just after 1600 🙂 ), left me feeling a bit anxious. I’ve still got a few things that are going to require my attention but due to the wonders of technology, Team Viewer and leaving my work computer powered on I’ll be able to clear it up before the end of the weekend. The ultimatum has been handed down to me: I have until the end of the weekend to clear it up, then I am to give Sly 100% of my attention. I’m going to do my best because she deserves that.

In the mean time, I’m headed out with my lovely wife for a bite to eat. Then we’ll see where the wind blows…..