Frank Billions: Space Detective – Chapter Two

The words “long awaited” are often applied to long winded marketing-speak-riddled descriptions of various follow-ups to pieces of writing, films or other forms of serialisable entertainment. The term usually implies that somewhere vast hoards of ravenous fans are chomping at the bit, queuing for months on end waiting for some product or other to be ready for their growling appetites. So to call “Frank Billions, Chapter Two” long-awaited, while technically accurate, might be construed as misleading, were it to be revealed that the number of individuals who were actually waiting for it is quite small. Continue reading Frank Billions: Space Detective – Chapter Two


Tomato, Cheese and Eggs

I was recently asked to dinner by an acquaintance. Having nothing against this particular acquaintance and always being in the market for some free grub I accepted. I was then asked if I had any dietary requirements. I said that I didn’t. This is always the polite policy in these circumstances. Unless you have a serious allergy or something. If your whole body swells up like a jumping castle at the mere mention of the word ‘prawn’, then you’re probably excused from this piece of etiquette.

I’m not a fussy eater at all, I’ll eat just about anything set before me and often ask for seconds. Having said that, I do have a couple of rules of thumb that I try to observe as whenever I can, my own customised kosher, if you will. For the benefit of those ever thinking of having me over for tea, or for those thinking of devising their own dietary requirements or etiquette guidelines, I thought I’d list mine in full:

  1. Eggs and cheese can’t touch.
  2. Melted cheese has to be properly melted and golden brown.
  3. Tomato has to be very well hidden (preferaby wrapped in a lettuce leaf under a bucket in a locked shed on another continent).
  4. Yellow foods cannot be served on a Wednesday.
  5. Seafood needs to be moulded into the shape of Walt Disney (or Friz Freleng if it is a Wednesday).
  6. Potatoes must always be inscribed with an amusing limerick*.
  7. The knife must always be perpendicular to the fork, while the fork must at all times be parallel to itself.
  8. Peas are never to be eaten but must be pegged at the hostess when her back is turned.
  9. Formaldahyde must never be labelled vinegar and left on the table during mealtimes (except on Wednesdays).
  10. String beans must always be served standing on end.
  11. Never place elbows on the table, they should be left at the door with the umbrellas.
  12. Broccoli must be eaten stalk-end first. Caulifower must be eaten in reverse.
  13. Creamed corn must be served re-constituted into corn kernels and grafted back onto a cob.
  14. Pizza must always be accompanied by a square food.
  15. Never belch the alphabet at mealtimes, unless you can do so in Greek (or Hebrew if it is a Wednesday).
  16. Happy Meals should never be purchased when one is melancholy. Similarly, melons must never be purchased when one is feeling jovial.
  17. Although sausages are inherently funny, one must conceal one’s amusement until the hostess has made a humourous remark on the subject.
  18. Fish must be partially digested and later regurgitated into the beak of one’s young, if one is a penguin.
  19. Where one’s location is also the name of a food, that food should be eaten sparingly (e.g. eating a frankfurt in Frankfurt or eating Bega in Bega). The opposite is true for locations that merely resemble the names of foods (e.g. eating perch in Perth or eating haddock in a hammock).
  20. It is acceptable to throw grapes, pop-corn, nuts, and so forth up into the air and catch them in one’s mouth. This should not be attempted with anything larger than a watermelon.
  21. Except in very casual settings, one should never place spaghetti in one’s nostrils.
  22. When eating meat it is considered ‘of questionable taste’ to elude to the animal from which the meat originates. Exceptions include: humming the theme to “Skippy” when eating kangaroo, eluding to having “found Nemo” when eating fish and singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” when eating venison (it is customary to perform the latter with the aid of a cherry tomato).
  23. On Wednesdays it is acceptable to arrange items of food on one’s plate to resemble a clown’s face. It is not acceptable to reproduce any other clown body parts.
  24. It is not acceptable to pretend that tomato sauce is actually blood in some gruesome prank. Similarly it is not acceptable to put actual blood on a sausage sandwich.
  25. Squeezable bottles containing tomato sauce or mayonnaise should be replaced before they begin making a ‘farting’ noise. If a diner has the misfortune of using such a bottle, he (or she) must give the impression that the noise came from some other origin.
  26. It is generally unnecessary to ask permission to be excused at the end of a meal, quite the opposite, in fact. During the meal, one should frequently ask permission to remain at the table.
  27. When one is finished eating, one should place one’s knife and fork together in the centre of the plate, then turn one’s cup upside-down, hide the bread plate under the tablecloth and throw one’s napkin to the floor and say, “I’ve had quite enough of this company” and storm out in a huff.
  28. Two-minute noodles must be consumed in exactly two-minutes.
  29. Sneeze-guards at all-you-can-eat buffets should be tested regularly.
  30. Soup must never be consumed through a straw, except on Wednesdays when beverages must be consumed with a spoon, a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chives.

Observing these simple rules can make mealtimes more enjoyable. If you are aware of any useful rules, please let me know.


* Potato-related limericks are so commonplace and prevalent throughout the poetry world that I hardly feel it necessary provide any here. Nevertheless, for the convenience of those who might have forgotten some of the classic rhymes of their youth, or who may have misplaced their well-thumbed copy of “Mother Goose’s Standard Book of Limericks Relating to the Common or Garden Variety Potato and Other Tubers”, I have listed some of my favourites below.

There once was a garden potater
Who decided to make himself greater
He was salted a sprinkle
and cut with a crinkle
Although he preferred himself straighter

There was a potato called spud
Whose garden would usually flood
He would often predict
That his day to be picked
Would see himself dragged through the mud
A brainy young fellow called Plato
Predicted the modern-day NATO
He also devised
a medium-sized
bicycle made of potato
There was a potato called Sam
Who was served with some veges and lamb
When asked by the meat
Why he was so sweet
He just said “I yam what I yam.”

Day 39: Austria has no Kangaroos

Sorry but the wi-fi at our current hotel is so slow and unreliable that the full range of photos from this leg could not be loaded properly. Our apologies. -Ed

Ed, please stop writing in my blogge. -Tom

Shortly after midnight we arrived at our hotel in Vienna. We checked in and slept. Then next morning we wondered Vienna a bit, exploring a shopping centre, the first one we’ve been in in about a month.
Anna and I and our phrasebook took on the task of ordering breakfast at a bakery. We managed to get generally what we asked for and sat down to a pleasant Austrian breakfast.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed is visiting supermarkets in different places. In all honesty they’re all about the same, with a few brand labels a little different. In Paris we got in trouble at a supermarket because we picked out some apples but didn’t have them weighed in the produce section, so when we got to the checkout without a sticker, there was much bewilderment in broken French and English. Having learnt from our mistake, we picked up a bag of grapes, placed them on the scales, pressed the grape button, printed the sticker and then promptly spilled the grapes onto the floor. We scooped them up, replaced them on the stand and grabbed anotherbag. We then managed to purchase some other essential supplies without further incident.

After our jaunt at the shops we caught the train into the city and started exploring the sites. On our way to a museum we stumbled across the “British Bookshop”. This was an English-language bookshop, and since we had read just about everything we packed, we purchased a few more paperbacks for our journey. I picked up the second Harry Potter book (continuing my newly found although relatively late interest in the series) and Anna picked up a couple of Jane Austins, “Blitherington Parsonage” and “Compington-Spomford Manor”. Classics.

Next we enjoyed the museum of Music, an intersting and hands-on look at musical history, great Viennese musicians and the future of music. I particularly liked the display allowing you to conduct your own virtual orchestra.

Brahms' actual glasses through which he composed such classics as A German Requiem and the theme from Baywatch
Brahms' actual glasses through which he composed such classics as A German Requiem and the theme from Baywatch

After a spot of lunch (Wein schnitzel) we wondered back to the impressive and fairly old Vienna cathedral, not a bad example of the genre. Beatiful stained glass, marble and architecture. We polished the evening off with a concert in a baroque building with a stringed quartet playing some of Mozart and Wagner’s greatest hits. The night was complete with opera and ballet. This was definately one of the highlights of our trip.

The next day we caught the train to Salzburg, home of Mozart and setting for the film “The Sound of Music”. This was beautiful, although not as green at that time of year as shown in the classical musical movie. We saw the imposing castle above the town and explored the birthplace and residence of Mozart, which had both been turned into interesting museums. While we were in the castle it began to snow and by lunchtime it was coming down so heavily that it felt like being inside a snow-dome. We visited a cafe and tried some apple strudel, sache torte and Mozart kugeln (Mozart balls). All-in-all, Salzburg was impressive, although a longer visit in Spring or Summer would probably be impressive.

From Vienna, we caught another train into Munich, Germany.

Day 35: Ah, Venice…
Our last day in Rome and we were booked in to a bus tour of Pomeii and Naples. Here’s how it went:

  • Our friendly tour guide picked us up at 6.45am. We had been able to make short work of the breakfast buffet earlier so we climbed aboard the bus with pockets full of rolls and Nutella sachets (they’re mad about that stuff here – no vegemite, no peanut butter). We were then taken back to the tour guide’s office, a couple of blocks away where we waited a full hour for the other tourists to arrive from the various other hotels. Finally we climbed aboard our actual tour bus and made the long journey out to the cities. Arriving in Naples, we did a couple of laps of the more interesting bits before heading to Pompeii. Arriving slightly before lunch we were shown through a factory that made fairly awful trinkets out of shells or something, and then sat down to a warm lunch before finally being directed towards the region that once was the city of Pompeii.
  • Pompeii street
    Street in Pompeii - Stones in street were pedestrian crossings, chariot wheel would fit either side.
  • Mount Vesuvius, overlooking much of the region, is an active volcano. We knew that and were prepared to take the risk of being under it. So were the citizens of Pompeii. They were less fortunate than we were however because one day in the year 79 AD, Vesuvius errupted and covered Pompeii completely. Well, what with one thing or another the rest of the world forgot that Pompeii even existed. Years later, in the year 1748, the city was rediscovered remarkably preserved under its blanket of volcanic rock. It has since been largely unearthed and the public of today can roam about the streets of 79 AD.
  • Cafe Pompeii
    A Pompeii take-away joint
  • The first thing that impressed me was the sheer size of the place. Normally when visiting ruins you might expect to see a few buildings, or maybe a street of crumbling remains, but the excavated portion of Pompeii is vast. You could easily become lost in the streets and alleys of the place. Fortunately, our guide knew his way around.
  • Someone's place
    Inside someone's place - remarkably well preserved really.
  • The second thing that impressed me was how much of the old Pompeii still remains. It was quite an experience to stand on a street corner and look right along the streets at lines of houses and shops. It was not difficult to picture it in its prime. You could still see the markings on the stone streets made by ancient feet and chariot wheels. Inside the houses, baths, shops and market places you could still see the signs of ancient life.
  • Plaster Man
    Plenty of poor folk were trapped in the lava. Eventually their bodies decomposed and left a cavity in the volcanic rock. Acheologists filled these cavities with plaster to create these eerie moulds of Pompeii's victims.
  • Pompeii was fascinating and well worth the trip if you ever get the chance.
  • The next day we caught the train back northwards to the city of Venice.
  • Venice was amazing, and easily ranks as my favourite city so far this trip. From the moment we walked out from the train station, it did not fail to disappoint. When they say Venice is built entirely on canals instead of streets, they’re not exaggerating to get you to go there, they really mean it. There are no cars, buses, roads, bicycles or traffic lights in the city. City blocks are defined by canals and you get around by walking along the squares, alleys and bridges, or by taking a water bus to different parts of the city. Most other cities we visited are full of various points of interest to see. Venice is unique in that it IS the point of interest you go to see.
  • Building in Venice
    A building in Venice surrounded in canal
  • We managed to figure out the complex water bus system and arrived at our stop. From there we navigated the labyrinthian alleys and bridges and found our hotel. We explored some of the city squares and churches and had tea at a place selling individual (but huge) slices of Pizza.
  • Ferry
    The best way to get around Venice
  • The following day we decided to visit the Island of Murano, famous for its glass-blowing industry. We were warned that this was an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to take serious advantage of unwitting tourists. Not wishing to be unwitting we turned down our hotel receptionist’s offer of 70 Euros to go out to the island. The island of Murano is one of the stops on the water bus system, so an ordinary ticket will get you out there (€6.50 – or free if you already have a 24 hour pass). We wandered around for a while and eventually rocked up at a factory and watched a couple of the local glass blowers giving it their best. The visit out to the glass-making room cost €5 each. Here two blokes in t-shirt worked as a team to produce the various Murano glass products. Out of the furnaces, a blob of molten glass on the end of a long pole looks like fairly firm (slightly glowing) honey. They spent about fifteen minutes on each piece (vases on our visit), adding bits of colour, re-furnacing, blowing them out a bit, reshaping, re-furnacing, adding more colour, and so forth until they had an impressive looking vase. This they put into a cooler furnace, or else the rapid temperature change would cause it too explode, or so said our guide.
  • Gondolas
    Gondolas. Yep, gondolas.
  • On our final day in Venice, we found something I thought was quite cool. It was the church used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the exterior (that’s film-talk for “outside bits”) of the Venetian library where Indy and that Austrian lady find the subterranean crypt and the coffin containing the directions, inscribed on a shield, of where to find the Holy grail. Unfortunately they were followed by members of a secret brotherhood and almost incinerated. They manage to escape, which leads to an exciting boat chase through the canals and out into the open water. The boat chase, the catacombs and the library were all filmed in the UK, but the exterior of the church was right there in Venice.
  • Narrow canal
    A typical narrow canal, Venice has hundreds of these.
  • The church, proving its versatility once more, was hosting a hands-on exhibition of some of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, constructed from his original designs. This was an added bonus to the day.
  • The Grand Canal
    The Grand Canal snakes its way through the city.
  • That afternoon, we boarded the train again for the seven and a half hour journey to Vienna. I’ve mentioned earlier about how enjoyable these train rides are. This one was no exception. This train was arranged in compartments – think “Murder on the Orient Express” (without the homicide or quirky Belgian detective). Traveling northwards we enjoyed the sights of snow-capped mountains in the distance, and eventually snow on the ground outside. A little before midnight we arrived in Vienna and negotiated the underground, or “U-Bahn” to our hotel.
San Marco Square by night
Busy San Marco Square

By the way, if you’d like to, please feel free to comment! It’s great to have the feedback and get an idea of who we’re sharing our holiday with. Just click on the comment link at the top of each entry and comment away.

Day 31: Si fueris Romae

Ah Rome. Built nearly 2500 years ago by two brothers who, by all accounts, were quite well mannered despite being raised by wolves. Here’s the scoop:

  • A more sensible Tom and Anna arrived at the Florence train station with almost twenty minutes to spare before our high speed train pulled out bound for Rome. One of the nice things about seeing Europe by train is that you actually get to “see” quite a bit of it. Unlike flying where you’re high above the clouds, or driving where you’re far too busy wondering why everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road, on a train you get to enjoy the country side, small towns, paddocks and the inside of railway tunnels. We arrived at the enormous Roma Termini station and walked to our hotel and checked in.
  • After a spot of lunch (we decided to have Italian), we hopped on the Metro and travelled to the Colosseum station. The nice thing about the Colosseum station is that as you emerge from the underground, the first thing you see is actually the Colosseum. We marveled at it for a bit and then went in for a closer look. This enormous sporting arena, dating from the first century AD has survived surprisingly well for its age. Most of its original structure is still standing so, unlike other remains around Rome, you don’t have to push your imagination too far to get a feel for what the place must have been like in its prime. We managed to join a tour where a friendly looking Italian man gave an interesting commentary and made obscene jokes almost simultaneously.

    The Colosseum, with a bit missing.
    The Colosseum, with a bit missing.
  • Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the overall impression I had of the Colosseum was something like a post-apocalyptic Telsta Dome. It was easy to imagine finding your gate, pushing through the crowds, climbing the stairs, taking your seat in the stands, ordering an over-priced snack and sitting back to watch the tigers take on the gladiators. Of all the world-famous icons that we have had the privileged of seeing this holiday, I think the Colosseum was the most interesting and rewarding. It’s huge, it’s still mostly standing and after 1500 years since it was last used as such, it still feels like a sports arena.

    The Colosseum's insides. Note the partially reconstructed floor.
    The Colosseum's insides. Note the partially reconstructed floor.
  • After the Colosseum we wandered up the street, past the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II (big white building with chariots on top), to the Fontana di Trevi, an impressive and massive fountain. We threw a couple of coins into the fountain, as is the local custom (when in Rome…). Oh yes, we also enjoyed some terrific gelati next to the fountain. Gelati and coffee seem to be excellent from anywhere in Rome.
  • Finally, as the evening wore on we went to the “Time Elevator”, a “5D” history of Rome experience. Now in movie theaters your seat just sits still, right? Well, not the time elevator. As the movie sweeps left and right over the rooftops of modern Rome and a CGI representation of ancient Rome, our seats swooped left and right. As we flew through fountains, we found ourselves with drops of water in our hair. Through all the special effects we were treated to a 45 minute crash course in the history of Rome.
  • The next morning we ducked back to the Colosseum and went into the Palatine Hill, where we saw more ancient ruins, including the forum and a private stadium.
    Impressive view of ruins and intact buildings
    Impressive view of ruins and intact buildings

    Private stadium
    Private stadium
  • Next we strolled over the Circo Massimo, and then to the church where the Bocca della Veritas is hung. This piece from the first century BC, possibly part of a fountain, is a large disk, about one metre in diameter with the face of an unknown pagan god carved onto the front. Legend (and Gregory Peck) has it that if you put your hand into its mouth, and you are untruthful, it will bite your hand off. Evidently Anna and I are both truthful people as we both walked away with our hands intact.

    It had to be done...
    It had to be done...
  • The Pantheon was next. This round temple with an enormous dome was built a fair while ago. Not sure when. Wikipedia might know. On the inside it is not unlike many older churches. However the Pantheon’s dome is open at the top, so that when it rains, as it had done that morning, the water falls through onto the church floor below. The Pantheon is also home to the remains of artist Raphael. Evidently they were originally placed in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but as Raphael’s posthumous reputation became less than worthy of a possie near the Pope, his remains were moved out of the Vatican and eventually wound up in the Pantheon.

    The hole in the roof
    The hole in the roof
  • From the Pantheon, we wondered around the local shops and wound up checking out some of the artwork markets in the Piazza Navona. From there MORE walking until we were at the Spanish Steps. Another impressive city square complete with fountain and steps leading up to a church. I believe that their locality to the Spanish embassy led to them being known as the Spanish Steps. We had dinner near there (Italian again) before heading back to the hotel.
  • Day three in Rome and it was high time we visited the Pope. We caught the underground to the Vatican City. From the moment we stepped up onto the street we were mobbed by people trying to convince up to take their company’s guided tour. We finally decided on the least irritating company (the spruiker was from Sydney) and found ourselves following an extremely friendly and knowledgeable tour guide through the Vatican museum. According to our guide, the museum has more than two kilometres of corridors and so many pieces of art that if you spent one minute at each item, you would be there for several years and probably be asked to leave long before achieving your ridiculous goal. We were shown past some of the more interesting sculptures, paintings and tapestries. Our guide had a degree in art history and was completing another in architecture, so he was full of interesting facts about the artworks. He finally showed us into a small crowded church at the end of the museum by the name of the Sistine Chapel. This was truly an incredible experience. From time to time in Europe you come across a piece of art that impacts you in some way. Inside the Sistine Chapel, you pretty much have to stare at your shoes to avoid such artworks. Our guide, once again proving his salt, took us through each of the panels on the ceiling and the front wall, explaining the meaning, techniques and historical background. We shuffled out suitably impressed.

    The tour guide told us it was okay to take photos inside, promise...
    The tour guide told us it was okay to take photos inside, promise...
  • Feeling like we hadn’t taken quite enough steps that day, we decided to take the climb up to the top of the great dome. This long and dizzying climb led us to the very top of the dome of St Peter’s basilica. This must be one of the highest points in Rome as we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. With enough of the view and a little pale from the altitude we headed back down to terra firma. The dome climb stair deposits you back into the basilica itself.
  • According to Catholic tradition, St Peter, the apostle, after the early church was established in Jerusalem made his way to Rome where he continued to build the church. He was eventually martyred – crucified upside down. His remains were stolen by his followers and buried on one of the hills of Rome. Years later, the massive basilica of St Peter was built on the site on his remains. The inside the church is breath-takingly massive. The ceilings are impossibly high and the walls impossibly wide. Everywhere you could see beautifully decorated surfaces, huge columns and expensive-looking marble floors.
  • Finally we tumbled out onto the large square outside the basilica. I recognised the square from the grand inauguration of the current Pope. We ate crackers near the fountain in the middle.
  • Remember the Sydney spruiker we met on our way in? Well, taking pity on a couple of his fellow countrymen in a strange city, he recommended a little out-of-the-way restaurant, not far from the Colosseum where locals (and few in-the-know tourists) enjoyed some of the best pizza in Rome. Well, we could hardly pass up a recommendation like that. After freshening up back at our hotel, we caught the underground back to the Colosseum, wandered the back alleys for a while until we found a pair of frosted glass doors leading into the restaurant. Inside we found a warm, friendly pizzeria busy with tables of locals enjoying the atmosphere. The menus were in translated into broken English. I ordered in Broken Italian. All in all it was the nicest restaurant we saw in Rome. The food was good, the atmosphere was pleasant and genuine, and the prices were among the most reasonable we came across. I can’t tell you if it was the best pizza in Rome, as I have not had the opportunity to partake in a representative sample but It was certainly the best I tasted.
      One more day in Rome to go, and it’s not actually a day in Rome. We will be taking a bus tour out to Naples and the ruins in Pompeii – hurry back!

Day 18: A Tale of One City

Bonjour from France! Here’s what we’ve been up to:

  • We decided to head into Cambridge for dinner, it was Valentines Day after all. Cambridge was another unbelievable town. One of the things I find incredible about places like Cambridge is that, firstly it’s full of buildings that are hundreds of years old, but secondly those building aren’t museums or derelict ruins, quite often they’re still being used. In Edinburgh, the old parliament house, built in the 17th century is now used by the supreme court. Similarly, in Cambridge, the buildings dating from hundreds of years ago are still being used as lecture theaters, meeting halls and students accommodation. So as we passed under these ancient windows we could peek in and see the familiar scene of a student’s room. We drove around for a while, then parked and walked around for a while, looking for a nice place to eat. There were people everywhere, even though it was eight o’clock in the evening, the place was literally crawling with students. Also bicycles, bicycles were everywhere.
  • We found this Indian restaurant. We figured it must be good because there were plenty of Indian people eating inside. We went in and ordered. Apart from being one of the spiciest meals I have eaten in a long time, it was also one of the deliciousest. They say if you want some good Indian food and you can’t get to India, head to England. Sounds about right.
  • In the morning, we had a decision to make. It was 10am by the time we had breakfasted, packed and farewelled our host and we didn’t need to be at the airport until 5pm. We considered driving around to Windsor again to give the castle another crack, or checking out Hampton Court, roughly in the same vicinity. Finally we thought perhaps the best thing would be to head back to London and check it out once more, this time without the snow.
  • After some fine driving on my part, and some excellent navigating on Anna’s, we pulled in to a parking spot in London’s city centre. We had a fantastic couple of hours checking out Buckingham Palace, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, this time without the snow and with plenty of crowds (it being a Sunday afternoon). This was certainly one of the highlights so far. Where the snow had made everything quite beautiful, the lack of snow had brought these places to life. Check out these “before and after” pictures.
    Buckingham Palace - with snow
    Buckingham Palace - with snow
    Buckingham Palace - without snow
    Buckingham Palace - without snow
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - with ice
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - with ice

    Trafalgar Square Fountain - without ice
    Trafalgar Square Fountain - without ice
  • My plan had been to pull out of London by 2.30pm, get to Gatwick Airport and return the car at 3.30pm, get to the check-in queue by 4pm, check in by 5pm to get a good seat and then relax in the airport for a bit. Unfortunately things didn’t go exactly according to plan. We didn’t get back to the car until 3pm. Then, with heavy traffic and Gatwick being much further away than I had estimated, we didn’t get to the airport until 5pm. We returned the car to the rental company in the South Terminal, then had to catch a shuttle train to the North terminal in order to checkin, around 5.10pm (Our plane was due to leave at 6.40pm, but for some reason, I had in my mind it left at 6pm). Arriving at our check-in area we saw a huge mass of people, which turned out to be the queue we were supposed to be standing in. Another half an hour later later, we finally checked in went through security with an easy forty minutes before our flight was going to leave.
  • I looked on my boarding pass to see what gate we supposed to be at. It said “TV”. This had me stumped for a bit until I figured out that we were supposed to check the TV to get our gate number. I looked at one of the screens and after our flight number it said “Please Wait”. Oh well, they must still be sorting out a gate for our plane, I thought to myself. So Anna and I went and got a milkshake each and relaxed for a bit. After I had finished my milkshake and Anna had half finished hers, Anna noticed that our flight number had changed from “Please Wait” to “Now Closing”, this time with a gate number – 109, possibly the furthest gate from our location. We grabbed our bags and started running. Anna, not wanting the remainder of her milkshake, tossed it towards a rubbish bin as we ran past. Now, I have never actually seen Anna play basketball, so I can’t accurately comment on her usual form, on this occasion however she missed her target. The cup ricocheted off the top of the bin a splattered onto a lady sitting nearby. We paused momentarily to shower her with apologies and scrape up what we could and then bolted off again. Anna is still highly embarrassed by this event and would like to issue a public apology to the random lady who she threw her milkshake at.
  • Our jog across the terminal (motivated in equal measures by a desire not to miss our flight, and a desire to flee the country in shame for soaking an innocent lady in strawberry milk) was largely unnecessary. When we got to gate 109, there was a huge crowd of people waiting. Apparently there was another flight also boarding at this gate prior to ours. So we took a seat and waited a good fifteen minutes before we were able to board our flight to Grenoble, France.
  • Arriving in France, at the small Grenoble Airport we collected our bags and headed to the bus to take us into the city. France is the seventh country I have visited in my life, but the first country that does not have English as an official language. We needed to use the bathroom, to I strolled up to the bus driver to ask him if there was enough time before the bus left. I had gotten as far a friendly “Bonjour” when I remembered I that I don’t actually speak French at all. I babble out a clumsy “Me femme…toilet…um” and pointed to my watch helpfully. The bus driver clearly had no idea what I was trying to say. I stood there dumbly for a couple of seconds before a fellow passenger was able to interpret for me. It’s quite an eye-opening experience to be standing at a small airport late at night, not being able to speak the language and relying on the helpfulness of strangers to determine if you were on the right bus, or had enough time to go to the toilet. As the bus pulled out – driving on the wrong side of the road, past strange signs and through unfamiliar landscape, I began to get the feeling that I was quite a long way from home. And then we passed a McDonalds next to a KFC and I felt much better.

Day 13: When we were up, we were up…

Whitley Bay did turn out to be quite a nice town. The ocean looked quite beautiful, as well as absolutely freezing.

We headed out through Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The city seemed quite nice, from what little I saw. I did recognise some familiar placenames – Jesmond, Wallsend, Gateshead and Morpeth.
Next we drove for a couple of hours to York. Finding a parking spot in the city, and consequently paying through the nose for it, we had a quick bite to eat before hopping onto another open-topped city tour bus (our fourth since coming to the UK – just about the best way to “see” a city in an hour or so).

Micklegate Bar, one of the gates into the city.
Micklegate Bar, one of the gates into the city.

York is an ancient city. The centre of town is surrounded by a stone wall, built fairly early on in the piece. Through the town is some great architecture ranging from the Victorian era right back to the Roman era. York Castle, or Something Tower is actually a relatively small fortress built on a mound. It provides a decent view of the city.



Anna and Tower
Anna and Tower

Below the tower is the tower museum, which in all honesty is one of the least tedious museums we have visited so far. Among other things, the museum has a huge indoor section that has been restored to look like a Victorian street complete with cobblestones, horse drawn carriages, shops, workshops, side streets, and a handful of real-life Victorian era characters.

After visiting the museum, we had dinner at a pizza place. The food was great and certainly hit the spot after a long day. I ordered some Irish Cider to drink, which was just like a dry Appletiser. Anna had the house white wine – an Australian Chardonnay. From the bottle-shops, supermarkets and restaurant wine lists that we have seen, Australian wines seem to be as popular here as any other country’s. It is not unusual for the Australian selection to be the best represented, often moreso than France or UK. So, yay us.

After tea and a little stroll we drove to our B&B in “Stockton-on-the-Forest”.

After another fine English Breakfast, we decided to head back into York and check out the National Railway Museum. This was well worth it. The museum was built in and around what must have been railway sheds. As well as the usual artifacts and information that any museum worth its salt seems to have no shortage of, the NRM had dozens and dozens of real trains on real tracks. They had mostly steam trains, because let’s face it they’re the only interesting ones. First thing we saw were passenger carriages, and got to have a poke around inside a first class compartment, c1900.

Thomas watches a tank engine.
Thomas watches a tank engine.

Then we saw a display of Royal carriages dating from before Victoria’s time, right up to the 1960s. Good grief, they live in style. After that we saw a bewildering array of just about every type of steam, diesel and electric train in a full range of size, age and condition. I was particularly impressed by the “Mallard”, the fastest steam train in the world (202 km/h achieved in 1938 and never beaten by a locomotive). These things are huge – their wheels are taller then me. Outside we even saw a steam train pull out of the station and come back in again. This was one of the first museums we have been to where Anna was bored and worn out long before I was.

Notice the wonky floorline above the Opera House sign
Notice the wonky floorline above the Opera House sign

While driving out of York we saw a greying Vicar with a mustache riding a wobbly bicycle with a basket on the front. Have I mentioned how much I like this country?


Okay, another two hours drive brought us to Cambridge. We have just settled into our B&B in a little village outside of Cambridge starting with a B, I can’t remember the rest. I think we will stroll down to the pub for dinner shortly, which is something you can do in English villages. Our plan is to do a lightning tour of Cambridge tomorrow then head for Gatwick Airport in London where we farewell the British Isles and see what France has to offer.

Day 12: We took the high road then we took the low road…

Greetings from Whitley Bay. This is a seaside town, which from what we have seen so far bears a striking resemblance to that stereotypical English seaside town in my imagination. We arrived late last night, so haven’t has the chance to check it out yet. This is what we’s been up to:

  • We had a lovely drive around Loch Lomond. We kept an eye out for Nessie but didn’t get to see her, party because very few tourists ever do, party because she is said to live in Loch Ness, not Loch Lomond. Loch Lomond what very picturesque. Anna explained it best when she said it was like being on the lid of a jigsaw puzzle.
  • After a fairly long drive right around Loch Lomond, we wound our way to Edinburgh. We checked into a B&B in Tranent, just out of the city.
  • We went across the road for a pub dinner. They had Haggis on the menu, so I decided to give it a try (only brave enough to order it as a starter). It was no bad at all, quite like a spicy sausage, with just a hint of offal texture.
  • The next morning I was up at around 4am and saw the first few snowflakes fall. I went back to bed but the snowflakes didn’t. By 9am we were crunching through a couple of inches of snow towards the bus stop. We caught the bus into the city, through even more falling snow. We started an open-topped bus tour of the city (sitting downstairs this time). We got off at the castle, but sadly the castle had been closed due to the weather. We walked through a tartan mill and managed to avoid the  temptation to purchase a kilt or pose for a photograph in full highland regalia. After that the castle was still closed. We considered taking it by force, but history has shown it to be fairly impenetrable, so we had a spot of lunch instead.

  • Finally, after lunch the castle had been reopened. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the rooms and displays. At one o’clock they fire the “one o’clock gun”. It was quite a large gun, more like what I’d call a cannon. They fire it at 1pm so that ships at sea could adjust their chronometers. Apparently it can be heard at Leith Harbour, more than 3km away. I can certainly report that at a distance of about twenty metres with absolutely no warning, it is audible.
  • The Edinburgh castle also houses the Scottish Honours, or the Scottish crown jewels. These are the original crown, sword and sceptre of the Scottish royalty. Dating from the coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543, they are the oldest crown jewels in the UK, and the second oldest in Europe. There is an amazing story of how they were smuggled out of the castle to avoid caputre by Oliver Cromwell during the English civil war and buried in a parish church. Years later, after the union of the English and Scottish crowns and parliaments, the Honours were placed in a oak chest and sealed up in a room of the castle for 111 years. In 1818 a few Scots were wondering what could have happened to them, so they dug them out again and put them on display. Equally as interesting is the Stone of Destiny, or the Stone of Scone, also on display in the castle. However, as time is running out, I shall leave it up to Wikipedia to tell you about it.
  • We finished our bus tour of Edinburgh, passing by plenty that we would have liked to get out and explore if time were on our side, including the old and new houses of parliament at Holyrood. All in all Scotland was fantastic, hope we get to come back some day.
  • Back in our car we followed the coast down to Whitley Bay.

We’re about to explore the beach a bit to see just how the North Sea measures up to the Pacific Ocean. Then we’ll have a poke through their Newcastle, and finally leg it for York. This is our third last day in the UK, so making the most of it.


Day 8: Carlisle to Glasgow

Okay, it’s been a while since we’ve been near the interwebs, which has been nice in a way, and I don’t have a great deal of time now, so here goes:


  • We left Marlborough and explored Bath. This included taking the waters at the baths – a nice mixture of minerals and metal. We also visited Bath Abbey, which was quite something…
  • We headed towards Monmouth and got as far as Bristol before I remembered that we weren’t staying in Monmouth that night. We turned around and headed to Oxford.
  • Spent the morning in Oxford, which had a lot of old buildings. The colleges weren’t generally open to the pubic. Enjoyed a delicious English meat pie for lunch.
  • Headed to Monmouth, Wales. Unfortunately there wasn’t a great deal to do in Monmouth, being Sunday. We had dinner in a pub on Saturday night, mainly just to overhear some terrific Welsh accents. The girl at the bar couldn’t undersatnd my order, “Two Irish Stews”, thinking I had said “The Irish Juice”. I guess the accent thing goes two ways.
  • Left Monmouth for a small region of Lancashire called Anglezarke, which is apparently where the Anlezarks come from. It was snowing fairly heavily when we got there. I guess the region was glad to see two of its own.
  • Left Monmouth for Carlisle. Arrived quite late and enjoyed a sandwich in our B&B. At 10pm I had a job interview over the phone, which was quite a challenge. The call cut out 3 or 4 times. I’ll hear about that next week.
  • Explored Carlisle this morning. Carlisle Castle was quite amazing. They have a military museum based with the 12th century walls. Quite fascinating. Carlisle was an important city for the various English-Scottish conflicts over the years and has had a military presence from the 12th century until the 20th century.
  • We are currently scabbing free Wi-fi from Carlisle Maccas, having purchased a small diet Coke for 89p about three quarters of an hour ago. Perhaps we’ll have an early tea here.

Day 4: From Eucharist to the Motorways

Our last day in London, and first day on tour! It went thusly:


  • Hopped up bright and early and attended 8.00 am Holy Communion at St Paul’s cathedral. Like our usual church we were 15 minutes late, unlike our usual church the building dated from the 1670’s and was the crowning achievement of famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren, whose tomb is in the crypt beneath the cathedral alongside some heroes of mine, William Blake and Sir Arthur Sullivan. A mere 257 steps above the cathedral floor was the whispering gallery housed in the main dome, the acoustics were crystal clear yet strangely Anna still complained I wasn’t listening. A further 120 odd steps was a look-out over london. Not bad at all, although a little foggy.

    Windsor Castle with two Bobbies
    Windsor Castle with two Bobbies
  • Packed up the hotel room and headed to Guilford via train and picked up car. Navigated our way to Windsor, where we were too late to go into the castle but enjoyed much of the town (and a narrow escape from some very vigilant clamp-happy parking police!), including the crocked house of Windsor, more than a fair share of gift shops, and St John’s church which housed an enourmous painting of the last supper dating back from the 1600’s (the painting dated back to the 1600’s, the last supper was much earlier than that, obviously).
  • Navigated to Marlborough, a rural town in Wiltshire, where we stayed the night in a B&B called “Brown’s Farm”, scenery is unbelievable and made all the more incredible by a further 15 cm of snow which fell over night. Met a nice Edinburough couple at breakfast who gave us some travel tips for when we are in that neck of the woods.

    MISSING: One Ford Festiva
    MISSING: One Ford Festiva


Not sure how we will travel today with the snow and ice – it continues to snow at the moment. Catch you later, Tom and Anna

PS – Hi to Shaye  – you should see the yummy pastry shops over here. Tell Dale the holiday is a must 🙂 xx

PS – Hi to Anne, moving day is still fresh in our memory, it has made shivering away here much more bearable! Have been advised that the beard has now reached it’s length and should now be kept trimmed…