Friday, 3 March 2017

New Wheels

In 2005, I bought myself a brand new Renault Clio with only 8 miles on the clock, in which I drove almost 100,000 miles until things started to go wrong with it.  So in 2014, I decided to get a new car.

After wandering round various garages I made my way to the Volkswagen dealership in Tunbridge Wells.  I wanted to have a test drive a VW Up!  I had seen this car on Top Gear when Jeremy Clarkson had driven it across Ukraine and through Chernobyl.

It wasn’t that I had a desire to drive through a potentially highly irradiated area of an Eastern European country, but it was that fact that the Up! was a small, economical car but that the 6ft 5in Clarkson had no difficulty and looked comfortable in the car.

We arrived at the dealership and a test drive was arranged straight away, me driving, the salesman in the passenger seat and Emma in the back.  I was impressed with the car and Emma was surprised at how spacious it was in the back.  Once back at the dealership, I signed all the paperwork and then had to wait until my shiny new car arrived from Germany.

So for the past three years I have been driving around in an up, and it has been a fabulous car, very economical, very reliable, but there was just one downside.  The boot.  Although it was designed as a two-tier boot it was still extremely small and I was very limited with what I could get into it.  Other than that, I loved the car.

The deal was that I paid for the car over three years and at the end of that time I could give the car back to VW, part exchange the car for a new one or pay off the outstanding amount and keep the car.  So, because of the small boot I decided that I would upgrade to a larger car and I decided that I would go for a VW Golf.  The reason for this was that during the first time that the Up! had gone in for a service, I had been given a Golf as a courtesy car and had been impressed.  Also, over the course of the last three years, the military have provided me with various pool cars and hire cars when I have been visiting other Units and teaching on the life support courses and the Golf was still the one that impressed most.

Therefore, a couple of weeks ago, I headed into the dealership and signed all the paperwork for a brand new “66 plate” Black Volkswagen Golf, which I collected on Monday, saying adios to my Up!, which had hit the 30,000 mile mark last Tuesday.

Unfortunately, there was a slight problem when I went to pick the car up in that, on the day that I’d signed all the paperwork, I had also chosen the registration for the car.  And armed with this, I arranged the insurance.  However, there had been an admin cock-up at the dealership and the car was allocated a different registration number that was one letter different for the one I’d chosen.  But VW provided me with free insurance so that I could drive the car away on Monday, which I needed to do.

Having picked the car up on Monday, I then had the opportunity to do bit of driving as I was in Aldershot on Tuesday.  The car is really comfortable, a pleasure to drive and the gadgets are all pretty cool as well.  I even had a play with the cruise control on my way back from Aldershot.

The only thing that I had discovered is that when I pressed the voice control button, a message came up on the screen informing me that I would need an activation code from my dealership.  So I called and was really surprised to be informed that this was not standard, but an extra and the cost of the activation code would be £250!

The voice control is for use with not just phones, but also the navigation system, radio etc, but £250 did seem rather steep!  However, I’m glad that I didn’t pay for it, as when I googled VW voice control, the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t particularly good at voice recognition.


However, I’m happy with the car and just hope that it’s as reliable as my Up! was.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The End

And what an end it was!

In about October of last year, I had a call from Tony, an old school friend, and the guy who had organised the tickets for us to go and see AC/DC in 2015.  He simple question was would I interested in going to see Black Sabbath on their last ever tour, The End Tour, in January.  No brainer, really.  So I immediately said yes, asking for two tickets, the second of which was Drew’s Christmas present.

So after all the exertions of the Saturday night, I made my way home, collected Drew and we made our way up to the O2 Arena in Greenwich.

It turned out that we weren’t the only ones going who had been at the party on Saturday night as two other people were also going, an old school friend called Martin, whose son had got him tickets for his birthday, and Dave, a friend who lives locally.  And, as Dave was driving, he offered to give Drew and I a lift back home.

After grabbing something to eat, Drew and I met up with everyone and we made our way into the arena.  We were in the golden circle, a kind of posh mosh pit, which meant that we were quite close to the stage.



First on stage was the support act, a band called Rival Sons from California.  They were loud and they were good, even if the lead singer did seem to think that he was Jim Morrison with his mannerisms, movement etc, and the keyboard player had a ZZ Top beard.




After a twenty minute break whilst the roadies set up, Sabbath appeared, launching straight into Black Sabbath.

The band had three of the four original members playing, Geezer Butler on bass, Tony Iommi on guitar and Ozzy Osbourne singing.  Sadly, due to contract disputes and falling out between him and Ozzy, the original drummer, Bill Ward, was absent, although his replacement, Tommy Clufetos, did an amazing job, including a fifteen minute drum solo.


  


The band was on stage for almost two hours, and although all of them, bar Clufetos, are nearly seventy, they still know how to perform.  Even Ozzy was all over the place, though not as much as in his younger days.  I think that the drink and drugs in his younger days have taken their toll, and at times his movements were almost Parkinsonian.

The gig ended with Children of the Grave, whilst giant balloons floated about and cannon fired out “Black Sabbath” confetti, the band briefly leaving the stage before returning to encore with Paranoid, which had everyone rocking.

Soon after this, Drew and I were outside, buzzing from the gig and partly deaf, where we met Dave and his friend Sean and we were home by midnight, although I confess to being absolutely knackered at work the following day.


If this really is the end, I’m certainly glad that I got to see one of the world’s best rock bands live before they disappear into history.



Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Underhand, Conniving, Sneaky & Devious!

No, not the name of a firm of lawyers wanting to provide help if you were ‘involved in accident that wasn’t your fault’, although if it was headed by my girlfriend had my three children as employees, it would be the perfect name.

This last weekend, I was going to a gig in London (next blog) and the guy who had arranged to get the tickets called a couple of weeks ago to say that he was going to come down the night before, and did I want to meet for a couple of quiet beers.  I agreed and even arranged for Tony to stay at Emma’s.  Emma told me that she was going to meet up with the girls for a few drinks at the same time we were out.

Saturday arrived and I was staying at Emma’s.  Nothing exciting happened, it was just another day. 

Idiot Alert #1!  Alec was out, although when I saw him leaving, he looked like he had a big white box, like a cake box.  However, when he got home, he told me that Emma’s neighbour had seen him leaving and asked him if he could drop a parcel off at the Post Office for her.

Tony arrived at about 5pm and we got ready to go out.  We were at school together, so I have known him for almost forty years!  Alec dropped the pair of us into Tunbridge Wells, suggesting that we should meet up later when he met with his friend, Angus.

We made our way into the town and Tony decided that we would stop at the Opera House for a couple of drinks, which we did, before heading out to find another watering hole.  I had suggested the local beer café, but Tony suggested not.  I then suggested another pub close to the shopping centre, but when we got there, the access gate was closed.  I had suggested that we access it via the main road, but Tony then suggested that we head to another pub that he knew from his days when he’d lived in Tunbridge Wells, called Caesar’s.

I’d never heard of the place, but we headed up the road.  However, Cesar’s appeared to be long-gone and had been replaced by another bar called Townhouse.  It looked ok, so we went in, but it did seem somewhat packed.  Tony made his way through the crowd’s to some stairs at the back and started to go up them.  When I questioned him, he told me that there was a bar upstairs that was much quieter.

Idiot Alert #2!  It never occurred to me that Tony, who had earlier told me that he hadn’t been out in Tunbridge Wells for about 20 years, knew that there was a quieter bar upstairs in a bar that hadn’t existed the last time that he had been out in the town!

We made our way upstairs although Tony did loiter a little on the landing.

Idiot Alert #3!  As we were going up to the “quieter bar” I noticed that there were two large helium balloons, one in the shape of a 5, the other in the shape of a 0, and I then became concerned that we were about to gate-crash somebody’s fiftieth birthday party.

Idiot Alert #4!  As I walked into the upstairs bar, I saw a group of people to my left, one of whom I recognised from the hospital.  I was just thinking that it was a coincidence that she should be at this unknown person’s birthday party, when the room erupted with a very loud “SURPRISE!”  It was at this point that I realised that Emma had organised a surprise fiftieth birthday party for me!

I will not repeat what I called Tony, but it was short, and began with C.  There were quite a number of people at the party, old school friends, work colleagues, people whom I’d worked with and old friends, all of whom had been conniving with Emma.

I then found out that the white box that I’d seen Alec with was in fact a cake box containing my birthday cake, which had been made by one of Emma’s previous work colleagues.  I also found out that the reason that Tony had been loitering on the stairs was because he was covering a “Private Party” sign.

It was a fabulous evening, with good food and plenty to drink, as well as my receiving a lot of very generous presents, with Emma, Tony, Alec and I being the last to leave when the bar closed.  And whilst Emma, who was ‘vey vey drunk’, headed off to be, the three “boys” had a Becherovka as a nightcap before heading to bed at about 2.30am.

We were up bright an early, at least I was, in time to see Tony head off back to London.  Emma was feeling somewhat delicate so got up a little later.  At about lunchtime, I headed back to mine to meet up with Drew and head up to London for the gig, the tickets for which were Drew’s Christmas present.

I still can’t fully believe that Emma managed to arrange a party with all these people and that I had no idea whatsoever.  I was completely stitched up, although it was a very pleasant evening.

I also know why Emma had had so much to drink (she was worse the wear by the time I arrived at the party).  It was due to nerves, I think.  Nerves because the previous weekend, when we were in Prague, Emma had asked me how I felt about the fact that I was away for my birthday.  My response had been that I was perfectly happy, and that at least she hadn’t organised a surprise party for me, because I couldn’t think of anything worse!

Saturday, 28 January 2017

What a weekend!

Last weekend was my birthday, not just any birthday, but the big 5-0.  And Emma had told me that because it was a big birthday she was planning to take me away for the weekend, but wouldn’t tell me where.

Bright and early on Friday morning, we were up, having packed the day before for somewhere cold, and loaded the cases into the car.  Emma had told me the weekend before that where we were going had been -11°, so I was suspecting Scandinavia, not helped by the kids all hinting that it may be Norway.  Also, the fact that Emma had bought travel money and I knew that it wasn’t Euros also led to me thinking that it was going to be Norway/Sweden/Finland.

However, I was very wrong.  Once we were in the car and on our way to Gatwick, Emma let me see photos that she had downloaded (don’t worry, we were stationary and parked at the time) of where we were going.  And whilst I vaguely recognised the location, I still had no clue, so Emma had to put me out of my misery.

So, ladies and gents, I have just returned from a fabulous birthday weekend in Prague in the Czech Republic.  I was gobsmacked!

Once we had arrived at Gatwick, checked in and had lunch, we made our way to the gate and boarded our SmartWings flight to Václav Havel Airport, taking off only thirty minutes late.

We landed in a very snowy and cold Prague at 1830, and with the luggage already on the belt by the time we got to baggage reclaim, we were out, met by our transfer driver and heading to the hotel, arriving at about 1930.

Having checked in and unpacked, we then decided to have a bit of a wander and find somewhere to eat.  However, I was certainly glad that I’d packed both scarf and gloves as the temperature was -6°!  We had a wander around and then made our way up toward the very historic Wenceslas Square.  There was snow, it was crisp and even.  Thankfully, it wasn’t deep!  We also had to have the inevitable photograph with at the Wenceslas Memorial


It's just a pity that the National Museum was obviously having some building work done and was surrounded by hoardings, hiding the magnificent architecture from view.

We took a gentle stroll back to the hotel and on the way decided to have dinner at a restaurant called Como.  However, despite the temperature being -6°, Emma had been speaking to people about the restaurants and bars supplying blankets and having heaters, so rather than go inside, we ate on the terrace, Emma making use of the blanket whereas I stuck with the mulled wine to keep me warm.

  

After a good night's sleep we were up bright and early and, after a good breakfast, stepped out into the -9° city and made our way to the Old Town Square, located in which is the Old Town Hall.  This building had been almost completely destroyed in May 1945 during the Prague uprising when the population of the Czech capital rose up against the German occupiers at the end of the Second World War.  It has since rebuilt, including the Astronomical Clock, the world’s oldest, having first been installed in 1410.

Having made our way to the top of the tower and taken some fabulous pictures of the whole of Prague from the top, we then started making our way towards the Charles Bridge.  But there was one slight detour, as we made our way to Tiffany’s, so Emma now has pictures of her stood outside Tiffany’s in Paris, London, Rome and Prague!

We then made our way along the very icy and snowy path next to the Vltava River and, after a coffee to warm ourselves up, made our way across the Charles Bridge and to the top of the Lesser Town Bridge Tower, where we took some more pictures.  And as if proof were needed about the crazy Brits, we also saw a group of English lads, clearly on a stag do, also making their way across the bridge, but wearing far less than we were in the freezing temperatures.






We then went on a little bit of a trek as I had seen lots of people wearing Ushankas and although there were lots of cheap and nasty ones for sale in the numerous souvenir shops, I wanted to try and find an authentic one.  Having googled where to find one, I saw that there was a shop in the Andĕl area of Prague.  However, having walked all the way there we couldn’t find the shop, so gave up and had lunch instead.  It was only as we were walking back to the New Town that we found the shop, an army surplus store, and it was closed, so I never did get my hat.

Once we got back to the hotel, we chilled for a while and then got a taxi to U Emy Destinnové, the restaurant that Emma had booked for my birthday dinner. And what a birthday dinner it was!  Fois Gras, followed by Filet Mignon (made with bison as they did not have beef fillet), a delicious dessert, complete with candle, all washed down with some nice red wine and topped off with an Irish coffee.


The portions had seemed quite small and we had concerned that we may leave hungry, but were proved wrong and left the restaurant to get the taxi feeling very full.  Then it was back to the hotel for a nightcap before bed.

Earlier in the day, I’d googled local Czech spirits and the result that I got was for one called Becherovka.  So once back at the hotel I asked if they had any and was pleased that they had.  Strong but nice, although Emma wasn’t keen.

The following day was my actual birthday and I was awake bright and early.  Emma had arranged for a champagne breakfast to be delivered to the room, and sure enough it arrived.  However, the way in which we knew it had arrived was not the gentle tapping on the door, but the loud crash!  When Emma opened the door, she found one of the hotel staff staring at the mess of breakfast that was spread across the carpet of the landing outside our room.  It appeared that a wheel had fallen off the trolley that she had used to transport the food, hence the mess.  But it didn’t take them long to replace the food, although I think that they thought that we were expecting more people, judging by the amount of food.  However, we made a pretty big dent in it!


Once we had eaten, we then needed to ensure that we walked it off, which we did by making our way to Prague Castle.  It was a pleasant walk through the snowy Prague, although the temperature was at -7° and there was a biting wind, and when we crossed the Vltava we saw that there were large parts of the river that were frozen.  I was quite envious of the Castle Guard, who looked quite warm stood in their Ushankas and fur-lined greatcoats, although how long they would stay warm when stood completely stationary in those temperatures, I’m not sure.  But we did witness a “changing of the Guard”, so I suspect that they are only stood there for about an hour.



The castle was fascinating, with lots to see, but it was still bloody freezing, so we had to stop a couple of times on our tour to top up with hot drinks.  I think that Emma particularly enjoyed Golden Lane and I discovered that at one point, Franz Kafka had lived here.

The tour ended at St Vitus Cathedral, which was absolutely enormous.  In fact, we had been looking forward to visiting this as we thought that it would be warm inside.  Wrong!  If anything, I actually think that it was colder in the Cathedral than it was outside!



After the castle we had a gentle walk back to the hotel for a quick power nap before we went to dinner at a restaurant that was right next to the hotel.

This restaurant was a real surprise and hidden gem.  From the outside, it was simply an archway with one or two guys handing out what looked like takeaway menus.  However, an old school friend of mine had messaged us to say that we should visit his favourite restaurant in Prague, UModré růže, which was the one right next to the hotel.

We were led through the arch, through a nondescript door, down two flights of stairs and through two sets of curtains into a fabulous 15th Century cellar, decorated with armour, shields and swords.  The food was basic Czech fare, but both filling and delicious and I, for one, appreciated the complimentary slivovitz at the end of the meal.

On our last day in Prague, we were up early for breakfast, packed and then walked to Ss Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in the New Town.  In 1942, when Czechoslovakia was under Nazi occupation, the de facto Governor was a man named Reinhard Heydrich.  On 27 May 1942, two soldiers from the Czechoslovak Army-in-exile assassinated Heydrich during Operation Anthropoid.  After the assassination, the Germans launched a manhunt.  The two soldiers involved, Jozef Gabčík and Karel Svoboda were finally cornered in Karel Boromejsky Church, as the cathedral was then known, and were killed when the Germans assaulted the church after a brief siege.  There are memorials on the outside to those who died and a museum in the church crypt.


The walk there was bracing to say the least!  The temperature was -9°, but the wind whistling off the Vltava made it feel an awful lot colder.  And, to cap it all, when we got to the cathedral we discovered that we’d decided to visit on the only day that it was closed!

We spent a little while wandering around Prague, found a nice restaurant for lunch and then wandered back to the hotel to wait for the transfer to the airport.

Having got to the airport nice and early, checked in and found somewhere to eat, we were all ready for flight.  However, things did not go according to plan!  We were due to board at 1900 and fly at 1950.  However, there had been freezing fog at Gatwick during the day, so all flights to and from the UK were subject to delay.  Unfortunately, the Prague authorities failed to keep everyone informed, so even 30 minutes after the gate was due to open, we were still sitting with in the departure lounge with no information.  And to make matters worse, the t'interweb was telling us that our flight that was due to land at 2055 was now “expected” at 2330.

Thankfully, the delay was not as bad as expected, and we took off only one hour and forty-five minutes late, arriving one hour and twenty minutes later than we should have originally landed.

Having got back to the car, in the positively balmy 2°, we got home just before midnight, with time for a coffee before bed.

So, as the title says, what a weekend!  And thanks to Emma, I will always remember my 50th birthday.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

What a year!

Well, so much for my next post about the Olympics. It’s been four months since I lasted posted anything.  In fact the summer is long gone and we’re now deep in winter and very nearly at the end of another year, a year that has seemed to have passed really quickly and seen a huge number of celebrities dying.

Just a few weeks after my last post, me and Emma flew to Rome for a week’s holiday and, despite it being October, we were really lucky with the weather and had a fabulous week, doing all the usual touristy things and walking for miles!

The first surprise for both of us was that, as we were in the bus on our way to the hotel, we noticed that despite Italy being such a Catholic country, at every bus stop on the outskirts of the city there were extremely scantily clad young ladies, clearly touting for business!

The hotel where we were staying was quite close to the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore and although we arrived quite late, we were referred to a very pleasant café right opposite the Basilica where we were able to enjoy a very nice pizza and a couple of glasses of vino rosso.

On our first full day, we walked into the centre of Rome to do a bit of sightseeing.  Prior to going, I  had downloaded an app from a company called Ulmon (I have no connection with this company other than using the app) which made it extremely easy to navigate our way around the City.

Our first port of call was to the Pantheon, which I had only explored previously when playing Assassin’s Creed, but which was far more spectacular in real life.  Sadly, when we left, it had started to rain, but it didn’t dampen our spirits too much as we headed to our next destination.


The Trevi Fountain was a big surprise to both of us.  I’d always imagined that it would be ‘out in the open’, but it was in a very small square, surrounded on all sides by buildings.  It was also absolutely rammed with tourists, but that didn’t prevent Emma from getting close enough to launch her ‘three coins in the fountain’.


From there, we made our way round the corner and to the Spanish Steps, before finding a little café for lunch.


We were very lucky with the food, as we were only B&B at the hotel, and I think that other than one evening, we were really lucky with the places that we ate, finding a café or restaurant that was both reasonably priced and good every day.

On our second day we walked the half mile from our hotel to the Colosseum, which was the only place that we visited where we did an organised tour, which also included the Roman Forum. 







Like almost everything that we saw during our week in Rome, the Colosseum was truly spectacular, and the tour was enhanced by the fact that our tour guide was actually an archaeologist on her winter break.

On our third day, we did something a little different.  One of Emma’s Staff Nurses on her ward is Italian and comes from a city a couple of hours train ride from Rome called Viterbo, so we were up bright and early and I had the opportunity to put my appalling Italian to the test when buying train tickets.  And we were both glad that we did as the city was fabulous, with lots of history and spectacular scenery.  Emma also found the house that she wants to retire to.


Not only that, but it didn't rain until we were on the train and on our way back to Rome.

Sunday was a lazy day, wandering around Rome, looking at the markets and paying our respects at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery which is located within the Auralian Walls, before taking a gentle stroll up to Vatican City where we had a bit of a wander around St Peter’s Square



However, we returned the following day and actually went into the Basilica and even made our way all the way to the very top,


after which we then went through the Vatican Museums, which although were fabulous, they were absolutely packed and it was disappointing that once we entered the Sistine Chapel the security guards just seemed to be pushing people through as quickly as possible.

Our last day was spent again wandering around Rome and doing last minute shopping before returning, ready for another holiday!

One bit of news that we did receive whilst we were in Rome was with regards to Emma.  Emma had worked at the hospital for 24 years, as a Student Nurse, Site Manager and, most recently, as a Ward Manager.  However, earlier this year she had been the victim of bullying by a more senior person, which she had challenged.  Although the matter was resolved, she was unhappy with the manner in which this was resolved, and so she had felt that it was time for her to move on.  To that end, she had applied for a Senior Site Manager post at a hospital a little further away, Princess Royal University Hospital in Farnborough, and whilst we were away, she found out that she had been successful.  However, because of the level that she is at, she had to give three months’ notice.  The upside meant that her last day was two days before Christmas and she doesn’t start the new job until next year (well, 3rd January, so only just the New Year).

But then she’s only at work for a couple of weeks before we are away again for my big 5-OH, and I still have no idea where she’s taking me!

So, with just over six hours of 2016 left, and just three weeks of my fiftieth year left, I can only look forward to what 2017 will bring and wish everyone a Happy New Year.