Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Turning into my Mother

We all do it. We hear our mothers whining that they're turning into their mothers, and the fact is we're destined for exactly the same fate.

Every single morning...

This morning I decided that cleaning a backpackers' hostel is no longer good for the soul. For almost a month I've been without a companion to help me - instead of a fun and practical way to start the day it's been a solitary slog from kitchen to bathroom to kitchen to bathroom (in total there are 6 kitchens and 10 bathrooms), picking up strangers' pubes from toilet seats and hefting industrial vacuum cleaners up and down the stairs.

Yesterday I came to the very last kitchen only to be confronted with a pile of breakfast dishes that some lazy sods had decided to just dump on the draining board, right next to the clearly written and laminated sign instructing them to avoid doing exactly that.

"Please take other guests into consideration and wash, dry and put away all the items you use in the kitchen."

I finished my morning chores suppressing a curse and returning to the tranquil, unaffected state that I've learned to live in through meditation.

...every single morning...

When, however, I this morning went to back to the kitchen and found the same pile of used dishes, I exploded. "WHOSE ARE THESE?" I belowed across the hallway to the nearby dormitories. One poor girl was caught in the stream of my wrath: "Um, I think everybody's just been leaving them".

I spent much of the rest of the morning muttering to myself, things like "look at the state of this bath tub, this was spotless yesterday, how on earth have they got it like this?", and "Oh for goodness sake, surely they could have put their own curry boxes in the bin, not left them on the floor".

And that was when I heard it: 'when will you children learn to clear up after yourselves? I'm fed up of tidying up after you all the time. And you're just as bad - what's this? Why are these here? Put it away!'. It had happened. Without even procreating, I had become my poor mother exasperated with her inconsiderate family.

Can you enter 'big kids'?

Run away!

Once the cleaning was finished I took my laptop to the library and booked a flight to Sydney. I will carry on working here but only until Saturday - then I'm packing my bags and heading back to the big city. I've made appointments to view some lovely apartments near the harbour (and, more importantly, near ALDI), and will resume my job hunting in person there. I'm sorry to break my contract with the hostel but I think they've had the benefit of me!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Appropriate or Not?

Today I have compiled a list of appropriate and inappropriate things from my tiny world in Australia.


Fire Exit

Since moving into this hostel, I've been plagued by the emergency exit sign in my bedroom. Harmless by day, this wired-in non-switch-off-able menace emits a bright green glow that fills every corner of the room with its erie luminations in an effort to prevent any kind of meaninful sleep. My requests to disable it fell on deaf ears: "we legally have to keep it switched on for health and safety".

The best part? It points at a wooden door that's bolted on both sides. A great bet for escaping in the event of fire. Much better than the double patio doors that lead directly outside, just on the other side of the room.

Targeted Advertising

I've been using a popular calorie-counting website to keep track of what I've been eating during my weight loss plan. Of course the website relies on selling advertising space. So what would be an appropriate targeted advert to see on this site, frequented by people trying to lose weight by only eating strictly healthy foods? Perhaps some health-related companies, body-building sites or links to exercise DVDs?

No, this is what I saw when I logged in:

Quality Street and Coca Cola. Just what I want to see.


Remember the Thyme

Yesterday I decided to make a potato, brie and thyme pizza according to this recipe:
I went to the local supermarket to pick up the ingredients and, after having walked up and down each aisle, thought to myself, 'I'm sure there's something I've forgotten'.

I went to queue at the tills. As I stood waiting I noticed the music being played over the the supermarket's sound system: Michael Jackson's 'Remember the Time'. I dashed back to the herb section...

That concludes today's list of appropriate and inappropriate things.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What exactly is 'Balancing Shampoo'?

I've been told off for not posting. So I'm posting. Enjoy!

Where the hell have I been?

I've been in Australia for 8 weeks now, most of it fairly uneventful. I went on a bush walk around Mount Sabine, swam in the ocean and spent a lot of time on the beach. I joined a local yoga group, started a new weightloss plan and did a lot of experimental cooking. I made new friends too - mostly backpackers and students passing through, some staying for a while and some staying in touch after they left. And I've done lots and LOTS of cleaning. Some might say a little too much.

A hearty meal with my fellow hostel cleaners Jen, Birte and Marie
What's next?

Although I'm not spending much money here, I really should be looking to earn some. I considered working on a farm, taking on the 'seasonal work' traditional to backpackers across the world. Tales of sharing a caravan with seven other workers and having to strap your valuables to your body at night to avoid theft really made the idea sound tempting. Even more so the idea of doing eight hours a day back-breaking work for fairly pitiful wages, and only having access to whatever food the employers provide. And if that weren't enough, how about the job openings for 'open-minded females' in the outback?

Despite that gloriously tempting offer, I thought I'd investigate whether Australia would actually like me to stay on under my own terms. It turns out, it would! I can apply for my old 'normal' job here and, all going well, can be sponsored for a permanent workers' visa. Hooray for careers.

So that's where I am now: two interviews done, both for jobs in Sydney, just waiting for their feedback. I've shortlisted five rooms-to-rent on Gumtree and am waiting for that positive contract offer before I start calling the advertisers!

What has any of that got to do with shampoo?

Not a lot. But this gives me the giggles:

Stepping into the shower of a morning...

...and picking up the bottle of Balancing Shampoo.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Life as a Buddhist Monk

OK, I'm not technically Buddhist. Or a monk. In fact I probably wouldn't get the job if I applied for it. But I have this week moved to another part of Australia and found myself in quite a different situation.

A few steps outside the door...
For one thing, I'm staying here. And I mean staying for about three months. Which sounds unbelievable - I've been known to get bored with a place before arriving at it - but actually there's something very calming about taking a break from travelling and settling into some sort of routine for a while. So here it is:


06:00 - wake up, get up and pull on some trousers

06:15 - march down to the beach for a spot of jogging and stretches (okay so I haven't done this yet but there's clear intention!)

07:30 - breakfast at home, check emails

09:30 - start work (as a cleaner)

11:30 - finish work, have a shower and change into clean clothes

12:15 - cook a proper (vegetarian) lunch, wash up

Today's baking effort: egg custard tart

13:00 - get the paints out OR
          - head to the beach for some swimming / surfing OR
          - take a hike around one of the natural beauty spots in the area OR
          - sneak off somewhere quiet and meditate

18:30 - prepare some (vegetarian) supper

19:30 - contemplate, jot in my diary or write a little update on here

21:00 - watch a film in bed, fall asleep (not necessarily chronologically)

It's certainly a departure from life in the campervan... and is it very different from the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk? I live in a hostel and share a room with a fellow backpacker. The accommodation is provided in return for cleaning work - the proprieter doesn't pay me and I don't pay him. The majority of the day is set aside for peaceful persuits in a beautiful setting, and do you know what? I really enjoy the meditation as a way to calm the world down - if you haven't already, try it and see!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Sydney: my insider tips

So, last week I arrived in the city of Sydney, New South Wales. And that doesn't really make me an expert... but I'll still share some of the budget traveller tips that I've collected in case they prove useful to you.


Hotels here are expensive, as you might expect. But there's a range of backpacker hostels in the heart of the city for only $25 a night. If you're in a group of 3-4, consider camping on Cockatoo Island - a quiet retreat in the middle of Sydney Harbour with a free ferry service to the mainland - for $45 split between you.

Cockatoo Island - cool place for camping or a day trip
But for travelling alone, nothing beats, especially in Australia where it's widely used. Be sensible - only go to stay with verified people who have a strong network of friends and references on the site - and you'll find that there are incredibly friendly, helpful and trustworthy people out there who can really give you an insider's viewpoint. I was lucky enough on this trip to stay with two different people who I got on really well with and who enjoyed doing the 'tourist thing' with me as well as introducing me to their friends in the area.

Two of my new couchsurfing friends, Hannah and Hassan

Of course restaurants can be really expensive, especially in the top tourist destinations. Every beach has a fish and chip outlet and the city centre is packed full of options. Unfortunately, if you're on foot in the middle of town, buying your own groceries doesn't save a lot - normal supermarkets like Woolworths (not to be confused with the defunct pick-n-mix shop!) really raise their prices to scary levels.

Outside of the main centre, though, there are Aldi stores so grab one when you see it!

And if you're looking for a nice meal out, consider Chinatown - a big Asian migrant population means there are plenty of high-quality restaurants, some at surprisingly low cost. I can heartily recommend a Japanese restaurant called Ramen Kan - it has no proper front door, just a scruffy old elevator to the first floor, making it a really secret spot. Once you're inside, it's casual and comfortable with quick service and a fantastic menu.

Three hungry people, two courses with drinks: $50.35
The good thing about Sydney restaurants is that a very large proportion offers 'bring your own booze', sometimes with a corkage fee. Ramen Kan above, for example, charges $2 per person drinking wine and you can bring as much as you like.


This has been a real problem... hotels that profess to 'provide WiFi' are actually offering to charge $40 a day for the privilege, and those claiming to 'provide free WiFi' are actually offering a service so restricted that BBC iPlayer thinks you're offline and Facebook spends 17 minutes just trying to display your friend's new profile pic. Even Starbucks issues thirty-minute vouchers if you remember to request it with your drink purchase - if you want more time, you buy another drink.

Apparently broadband is just damned expensive to provide. Those who know how simply nick bandwidth from their neighbours or make use of their office supply, rather than paying extortionate rates for the convenience of having their own provision. But the 3G service has been excellent throughout the city. This means that the trusty Kindle 3G continues to do a great job of keeping in touch for free, and a Lebara visitors' mobile phone package (with no minimum contract length) provides heaps of included data. You can order a SIM before you leave or just pick one up at the airport.

Techy enough for ya? We'll move on...


There are great public transport connections across the city: ferries (to cross the harbour and visit the beaches), trains and buses. Each has its own ticketing system and I haven't managed to work out how it's priced exactly - it seems to be a fixed cost per 'zone' and there doesn't seem to be any benefit in buying a return.

Unlike London, it is possible to drive and park around Sydney. It can be fun finding a space on a Saturday night but the option is still there.

What I have worked out is that the airport train stations take an extra charge of around $12, making the trains a less cost-effective way to get into the city. You can jump onto shuttle bus services to most hotels for $6 or, if you're heading for the South side of the city or if there are more than 2 of you, just grab a taxi. I know it's counter-intuitive but it's the best option!

Things to see

Well no surprises here: walk around the Circular Quay, past the Opera House and round the bay to get a picture-perfect view. Then walk back through the Botanical Gardens, chatting to the birds on your way. Luna Park is an old 1930s theme park - you can walk around it for free but it's nearly $40 for a day pass on the rides (I skipped that). You can walk across the Harbour Bridge and tour The Rocks (an old housing area with traditional markets) and check out a free exhibition in the museum there - I was lucky enough to catch an Aboriginal demonstration. And of course, you can chill out on one of the many beaches, soaking up sunshine and watching surfers at work.

Compulsary view
The one attraction I did pay for was the Justice and Police Museum, based in an old Police Station. It tells the story of convicts first arriving on Australian shores and how a system of policing was introduced and developed over the next 200 years. I normally try to avoid museums but this one was really interesting and worth the $10 entrance fee. Tip though: go with someone. The place is full of fantastic photo opportunities, such as lying on a wooden 'bed' in an old prison cell, if only you've got a friend to hold the camera up!

Result of putting the camera on 'timer' and wedging it into a crack in the plaster...
In conclusion, I think a week is long enough assuming you're full of energy and keen to get involved. And you can do it very cheaply indeed by focusing on free destinations, staying on people's couches and buying cheap delicious Asian food. Have fun!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Preparing for a new life down under

It's been a long time since my last post and there's a very good reason for that: I've been busy doing nothing interesting.

Yes, it's been a slog of filling out tax information, tidying up paperwork, selling things I no longer need, packing boxes away in the coal cellar and preparing for the next phase of the adventure: a working holiday in Australia.

I won't give too much away now but my flight is on Sunday and I'll be sure to update you with everything that happens from then on.

See ya later!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Some wanker stole my keys

I was very fortunate this week to receive an unexpected offer of a ticket to V Festival in Staffordshire. Never being one to decline an opportunity to camp in a field and watch live music, I packed my one-man hiking tent, negotiated an early Friday finish, picked up the friend who'd so kindly made the offer and drove North.

Not a bad line up

Oh yeah, that's why I don't buy tickets to festivals...

It didn't take long following our arrival for me to be reminded of exactly why I hate going to festivals as a member of the public. We'd both packed light, the majority of our weight being attributed to cider and wine, so we were prepared for a hefty walk from the carpark to the campsite. However, we weren't prepared for an hour and a half of being bundled into a tight crowd of people waiting to have their bags searched in the pitch dark.

Wedged behind a man towing a sledge, which constantly fooled me by disguising itself as 'a place to stand', and alongside an animated man with a camping chair over one shoulder that swiped heavily across my face from time to time, I tried to use a luggage strap tied round my waist to support the weight of my booze-filled carrier bag, the handles of which had been cutting fiercly into my palms.

When we finally emerged on the other side and walked to the nearest campsite, I discovered to my horror that something was missing: my belt. Which sounds trivial until I point out that this is a belt with pockets. And in those pockets were half a packet of paracetamol, some tissues, a battered old iPod and my car key.

My car key.

We pitched our tents and headed straight to the site's Lost and Found to report the missing item, aware that it was unlikely to be spotted in the middle of the night, and finally retired to lie pitched between consciousness and sleep according to the frequency with which young drunkards would shout "ALAN!" as loudly as they could in close proximity to dark tents.

How I've learned to hate you all

I awoke in good spirits and took a walk back up to the carpark to retrace my steps of the previous night and look out for the missing items. The pocket belt should have been easy to spot by now but there was no sign of it.

Coming back in through security was a much more pleasant experience thanks to short queues and plenty of daylight - a female security guard tugged at my wristband, noticed I wasn't carrying any bags and allowed me through.

Unfortunatey Lost Property had no news so I bought a cheap waterproof poncho (my rain coat was locked in the car) and headed in to enjoy the festival.

By 5pm, with still no news at Lost Property, I started to get worried. I had to be back at work in Cardiff on Monday - there was no choice about that - so it was time to start thinking about Plan B. I went on another walk to the car park. Perhaps someone found the belt, extracted the iPod thinking it was more valuable than it actually is, and threw my keys into a bush. So this time I did the walk much more slowly, kicking tufts of long grass aside and peering under cars. Still no luck.

This time Security coming back in was completely empty. Knowing the routine, I held my wrist out and offered "give us a tug then!". The young man tugged, then fiddled, then pulled a bit and slid my entire wristband off. I was confused. "Um - don't I need that?", I asked with a frown, but he refused to speak to me, instead calling someone else over.
"We've got another one", he said.
"Excuse me? Another what? Are you trying to suggest that my wristband is anything other than genuine?"
"It's not genuine, darlin'", he sneered, "genuine ones don't do that. This is a fake - where'd you get it?"
"Excuse me" I laughed, shocked, "but genuine ones clearly do do that, because this one has just done it!"
The young chap was not willing to let me through and did not offer any appeals procedure. What could I do besides kick off? I was outraged and made this perfectly clear to him! I insisted on speaking to someone, which happened very quickly when the rest of the security team smelled trouble in my direction. I was grilled: when did I buy the tickets? Where did I get them? Online? "I didn't get them", I explained, "my friend did. But I know for a fact that the ticket was genuine because it's already been scanned and exchanged for a wristband, which I've used to come through security three times so far!".

What would us paying customers do without your assistance?
Eventually they handed me the pieces of my wristband back and said that I would have to visit the wristband exchange tent and find out whether they were willing to refit it. No apology, no verification of my validity or otherwise, just a wave into the festival site with, at that point, no access to the main arena.

I got my new wristband and called the RAC to ask about my car. They were next to useless, offering only to give me the phone number of a locksmith who wouldn't be able to help because my car has a built-in immobiliser and new keys can only be programmed by a main dealer. I checked lost property again. No news. I burst into tears.

The guys at Lost Property, which at V Festival doubles as a welfare tent, took pity on me, giving me tissues and water and listening to my woes. I soon calmed down enough to think rationally about Plan B and to put it into action:

I called the RAC back and proposed that they find a main Mercedes-Smart dealer in the local area and tow my car there the next day when somebody would be there to let them in. They duly found a dealer in Wolverhampton that was 13 miles away and therefore 3 miles outside my membership allowance, so they were happy to do it for a charge of £21. Great. Perfect. No problem. I would meet the towage truck by the carpark entrance at 2pm on Sunday, accompany the car to Wolverhampton, catch a train home and deal with the rest afterwards. I would miss a lot of the festival but by then I didn't care very much.


Sunday morning arrived and I decided not to risk leaving the site, just in case Security got overexcited again. I packed up my tent before the rain started, checked at Lost Property (no news) and headed into an on-site internet cafe to shelter for a couple of hours.

At 13:30, to ensure I was there in plenty of time, I took my tent back up to the main car park entrance and hung out with a parking steward.

At 14:05, I phoned the RAC to ask what was going on. "Oh", she said, "well you haven't paid the £21 charge so it hasn't actually been booked."
"What do you mean it hasn't been booked? Can you take the payment now and get someone here now? We're on a deadline - we have to be at the Wolverhampton dealers before they close at four o'clock!"
"I need you to calm down Miss, and when you're ready I can take your card details."
Much as I resented the 'calm down' I played her game and read out my financial information.
"Okay so I'll schedule in a pickup for you and the recovery team will be in touch."
"Do you have any idea about timing? Will they come quickly?"
"I don't have any of that information Miss, as I say you'll get a phonecall..."

To cut a long and frustrating part of the story short, the recovery truck finally arrived at 15:50, otherwise known as 'too late'. I jumped in the passenger side and directed him to my poor little car. The dealership in Wolverhampton tried to call me but the mobile signal was in and out so I'm not sure how much they understood of what went on.

We walked round to the car and pulled off its waterproof cover. Stuck to the windscreen was a Staffordshire Police card with the following message:


I fell to my knees in the wet grass, much to the shock and dismay of the recovery driver who pulled me up by the elbow. He offered to drive me to the 'Police post' but we only got a limited distance before it was a purely pedestrian route, so I sent him on his way.

I arrived at the on-site Police caravan and presented my new message card with an excited grin. There was a new shift of officers there who started sifting their desk for keys. "No", they said, "none like that here... we're supposed to take everything to Lost and Found anyway".
"Are you sure?", I asked, "they were in a black pocket belt when they were lost - maybe someone found the whole thing? Could it be under those bags in the corner, or hanging under these coats?". The Police gave both a cursory prod and shook their heads.

I checked at Lost and Found. No news.

The Police gave a 'shout out' across their radio network and I went back into the festival to see Tim Minchin. I was glad of the opportunity to do that - he's a genuinely incredibly talented man and his show was extraordinarily good.
"Praise be to magic Woody Allen Jesus"
I came back, still jovial, stating that I was ready to collect my key and go home. One of the police officers was approaching the end of her shift and did not like my attitude one bit. She told me that they had nothing, no keys, and that they wouldn't keep someone's keys anyway. She said that the morning shift had all gone home now and no-one had replied to the shout out. She said that the message on my car probably wasn't even from the Police, that someone must have just found the card somewhere and then stuck it on the car as a joke, and that it was pure coincident that they'd done it to a car for which keys had actually been lost.

I stumbled out of the caravan and fell to my knees again, this time sobbing uncontrollably for the complete incompetence of everyone around me and for pure emotional exhaustion. I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to get back to Cardiff for my last week of work. And it wasn't happening.

I stumbled back to Welfare where I laughed and cried together with the staff I'd come to know so well about the latest stage of the saga. We had a pretty good view of Noel Gallagher's latest band and the Stone Roses so we drank black tea out of polystyrene cups and watched it happen. I called the RAC intermittently to hear their full range of amusing excuses:

- the AA are on site covering anyone who needs assistance (yes but only if you pay them to become a member - as an RAC member I need to call you)
- the AA are actually stopping any other recovery vehicle from coming on site (no they're not, in fact your guy was here with me earlier)
- if the Police have your keys then they count as 'found' so we can't come out to you (there's no way you can call my keys 'found' until I have, er, found them)
- the job has been closed so we have to open a new one (what the hell significance is that to me?)
- we have to recover your car tonight otherwise if you want it to tomorrow you'll have to call again and open a new job (again, so what?)
- you need to pay £21 for the extra three miles of towage (I've already paid it - can you not just use the same money again?)
- (in answer to "so you're proposing to leave my unlocked car in a public carpark overnight and leave me in a strange town after the trains have stopped running?") Our responsibility is to recover your vehicle, how you get home is up to you"
- no, we can't recover it when the dealership is actually open because you'll be at work in Cardiff and we can only recover a vehicle if the member is present with it

I finally gave up and sloped back up the hill to the Police caravan. I offered a hopeful smile and got a sad shake of the head in return, so I slumped and casually relayed how useless the RAC were being. Bless them, the officers then set to work to help me - one had a friend who works for RAC so she started a text conversation to get the inside scoop while another got onto good old Google. I stared blankly into space while they discussed options including taking the car to their Police compound to keep it secure until I could get back.

As I leaned my weary head and stared my eye was caught... inside the Police caravan was a desk. One of the officers was sat behind the desk and behind her... in the corner... don't I recognise those buttons?

I lept up and interrupted the three of them mid-sentence, "excuse me but what is that? There, in the corner, behind you."
"What, this thing? Dunno, it's been here since Friday night..."

She lifted my pocket belt up and handed it over. I grabbed the pockets and felt that they were full. I unzipped one to see my iPod and earphones. I unzipped another and pulled out my car key.

My car key.

There was stunned silence in the caravan. What was there to say? I thanked them and left. My next stop was Lost and Found to show them, which caused much joy amongst the staff who'd watched me go slowly insane over the course of the weekend. But they were also extremely upset on my behalf with whichever policeman had chucked it in the corner there without telling anyone, so they gave me a contact card to submit a complaint. I didn't really care, I was still stroking and kissing my car key.
Have you ever seen a more beautiful thing?
I picked up my tent yet again and strode on up to the carpark, keen to escape before the Stone Roses finished playing. I drove home.

That was my V Festival experience.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Resisting the Lure of Cats

This girl says it all really. Except the bit about bow ties. That's a bit weird.

But what is this obsession with cats? It seems to run in the family - certainly my sister and I have both ended up with it. Grandad was always a cat's best friend, our Aunt Tracy has had at least seven feline furballs at a time and Uncle Frank describes himself as 'dotty about cats'. I grew up with a fat moggy called, er, Moggy whose eventual demise upset my mother so much that she refused to ever form another feline bond.

I so enjoyed living with Tufter, the daft old cat who shared my home until his disappearence early in this blog. I was perfectly happy to just provide him with a warm spot on the sofa and sit next to his sleeping (occasionally snoring) little body. And now that he's gone, I leave the back door open whenever I'm home just in case the neighbours' cats fancy popping round.

Tufter in his usual repose
Cats are like the cuckoos of the mammal world. They simulate human babies by mimicking the pitch of their cry and by using their body language to suggest dependence, love and affection. And they've evolved to do this because, falling for it every time, we soppy old humans will provide them with free food and shelter for the whole of their lives. It's manipulation pure and simple, a drain on our resources, a parasite.

And you'd have thought that the modern astute person armed with this knowledge would kick the cuckoo out of the nest, but no. We still fall for it. I am not broody, I have no desire to partner up and have babies (and a good job too - it would put quite a kink in my travel plans), but I do feel that little tugging need to settle down somewhere comfortable and acquire cats.

Who can explain how to get over this?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Office Politics and Tea

I'm typing this as I sit here desperate for a cup of tea. Something hot, wet, delicious and ever-so-slightly stimulating while I tap away at my keyboard and click my mouse. There's a kettle just through that door over there. Mugs too. I've even brought my own tea bags in.

So why can't I just go and make one?

Well, it turns out this is the sort of office where anyone going into the kitchen to make a cuppa also goes round all of their colleagues' desks offering to make them one too. It presumably began when there was just a small team of developers huddled in a poky office above a bar but the obligation has lasted through the growth and expansion of the company - now there are more than thirty desks on this floor alone.

The thing is, in theory the system should be a good one. You would need to make only every twentieth cup of tea, with the intermittent nineteen being brought to your desk free of any personal effort. Sounds great, right?

No. It's not what I want. No-one makes a cup of tea the way that you make your own. You know exactly how long to keep the tea bag in the water, how much milk and sugar to add and the correct order to do it all in. You know whether you have to wait for the kettle to fully boil and whether to pour it immediately afterwards (that's a 'yes' to both in case you don't).

And the most vital reason why I don't want a cup of tea brought to my desk is this: we spend upwards of eight hours a day staring at computer screens. We already know that doing so is bad for our long-term vision but more recent studies have also shown that it can confuse your brain too by affecting production of natural chemicals like melatonin and seratonin. It just not good for you! So I don't just want to drink tea, I want to step away from my laptop, walk into a different room and stand there for at least ten minutes while I make it. I'd stand up, stretch my legs, stare at a dark wall and breathe.

So I opt out of the system. Every time someone offers me a drink, I politely decline.

But I still can't boil that kettle over there without eyes boring into the back of my head, eyes of the desk-constrained awaiting their turn for a free tea. Because I can't tell them I'm 'opting out', can I? It would be selfish, anti-social, billigerant...

It looks like I'll have to wait until I get home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I can still be a tourist!

Well I've been back for twelve days now and it feels like forever. The sky doesn't seem willing to stay up where it belongs, instead constantly pushing down grey clouds and wet spatterings, I've got allergic rashes from all the pollution and everyone's grumpy. It's like a darker, colder, less healthy Belgium. But we have to find happy things wherever we go, don't we?

Stimulating debates

I always wanted to join the debating team at school but it clashed with drama group and so was set aside. There's nothing more invigorating than a flat-out argument with someone who's wrong! That's why I've so enjoyed this week's fights with:

 - The Barclays staff who refused to give me my own money after a half hour queue, because I happened to mention that my debit card was in another country.

- The London transport system that made me tap into a train station, wait fifteen minutes for my platform to be allocated, then forced me to tap back out to get to the required platform by which time I'd been fined £10 for failing to travel anywhere, meaning I had to run to a nearby shop and top up my Oyster card again in the three minutes prior to the train leaving.

- Virgin Media (yes, again) for my internet being down for five days, which wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't kept saying "it'll be back on in the morning".

- Admiral Insurance who called to say that they forgot to mention: yes, Cecil is insured to be in France, but only until 7th August after which he'll be legally compliant but not in fact covered for any damage costs to himself. But don't panic - an hour later they called again to say they'd gotten their facts wrong and that he is covered after all.

Aah, Britain's customer service personnel, how I've missed you!

Touring London

This year more than any other, London is a hot global tourist destination. And I was lucky enough to be sent there to work for a week. Lucky me! I took a photo of St Paul's Cathedral in the rain to demonstrate what fun I had.

There can never be too many kittens

But at the end of the week, when the work is done, the hair shaken down and the heels kicked off, there's one genuine joy. Remember the little black kitten I told you about? Well she's back and she's brought a friend! Two curious, friendly, sweet wee cats with matching white bibs. I don't know their real names so I call them Cutey and Skinny Face (Skinny Face is a bit more wary than her sister).

"Oi! Get that camera outta me face..."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Back to the 'Diff

I promised to continue the blog despite putting the travel on hold for a few weeks. So here's a little update for ya.

Power dressing

I had a slight panic as I flew back to Cardiff; would I have anything to wear? I remembered selling a lot of my clothes and for the last four months I'd worn nothing but hiking gear and flowing cotton... if I still owned office attire I didn't know whether it would still fit. Thankfully I arrived back to a rail full of smart dresses and appropriate shoes, so I donned a Karen Millen number with medium-heeled court shoes for my first day.

How could something so pretty hurt so much?
Well that was a painful day! Apparently all this wandering about in super comfortable walking boots has robbed me of my ability to gracefully trip through the town in stilettos - for the first time in my life my legs are the wrong shape. I bought a pair of insoles from Clarks which helped a little but still my calves ached and the balls of my feet felt shredded, even into the next day. It looks like I'm going to need more practice!


I won't say too much about the work I'm doing, mostly because it's not that interesting, but I can tell you that it's no fun being back in an office after such a fulfilling adventure. The people there seem lovely and the location is perfect, but I'm still staring at a computer screen all day long. And my day is forcibly structured - get up at 7, walk to the bus station at 8, spend exactly one hour having lunch... this is not natural, people! Worst of all, I keep thinking. My brain is used to being free to ponder and meditate on a subject of its own choosing and it won't be reigned down again. Working on complicated website stuff is made much more difficult when your imagination keeps drifting off into post-apocalyptic survivalism and flying goats. Sigh.

I don't have a touchtone phone

Before this adventure had started, I'd noticed that one of the scart sockets at the back of the Virgin cable TV box was broken. I hadn't have time to see to it before I went and neither of my current housemates bother watching television so it wasn't an issue. This week I decided to call the media company and get it sorted - a tick for the 'to do' list. After all, it can't be that difficult to just call them up and report the breakage, right? Check out a transcript of my 1hr and 21 minute phonecall.

Tufter II

Last night I had a somewhat surreal experience as I arrived home after catching up with my good friends in the drama group. I stepped out of the taxi and was greeted by a young black cat who fixed me with round green eyes and trotted over with a small miaow.

My pen drawing of a young Tufter
She was actually a short-haired female with a white bib but her personality was so like old Tufter's! She was instantly affectionate, quite happy to be picked up and sat on my shoulder, and incredibly keen to come inside the house (which i didn't allow). I quizzed some of the neighbours and found out who she belongs to - a lady just across the road from me. Hopefully we'll see much more of this little fuzz ball!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Town in Three Countries

My final weekend of the European tour was spent in the City of Basel, Switzerland. With a little time spent in Basel, Germany. All with a fine view of Basel, France.

I was here to meet Jenny, an old school friend who now lives here with her German fiance Bjoern. With SatNav's help I negotiated the one way system but we still had the challenge of parking Cecil. Jenny and Bjoern hopped in outside their flat and we drove around the quarter on the lookout for any empty space marked in white (not blue) that was large enough to parallel park in. After around fifteen minutes we found an end-of-the-row. To my surprise there was a cream Late Bay with its hazard lights on across the road! But there was no time to take any pictures - we found our way neatly into the space and switched off the engine with relief.

The first evening consisted of dinner, fine wine, gossip and an early night since we'd all had long and tiring weeks to recover from.

Lots of Friends

It was difficult to miss the concentration of VW buses in this place. Having not seen another T2 in all my time in France, I saw 5 within a day here in Switzerland - four late bays and one early bay - plus countless T3s and T4s. I don't know why. But Cecil felt quite at home.

Just one of our new friends
Wave at the Animals

On yet another hot, sunny day, we took a long walk across the city (and across a country border) to a public animal park. Many of the animals, particularly those of a cat persuasion, were sensibly hidden in the shade but there were plenty of large birds including herons and storks perched on distinctive high up nests. Peacocks and peahens skipped away from small children on the paths and occasionally peered into the monkey enclosure looking charactistically grumpy.

Baby storks, not yet strong enough to leave the nest

Drowning in the Rhine

Jenny confided in me that 'Rhine swimming' was her very favourite thing to do, and that we should partake that afternoon to cool down from our sweaty hike. I agreed, imaging splashing about on a little stoney beach somewhere, and we changed into our swimming costumes.

It wasn't until I was chest deep in the river water that I understood what we were actually doing. 'Rhine swimming' consists of packing your gear into a waterproof bag, swimming out to the middle of the Rhine, and then trying to stay safely a float while the undefeatably strong current thrusts you downstream at a rate of several knots. It's important to avoid being flung into any obstacles along the way, such as moored boats or marker bouys. Then, approximately 2km later, you paddle desperately back to the side and grab a ladder in the wall with which to make an exit.

An exciting and frugal way to see the city
I took my waterproof camera again - there are still more photos to take before I can develop the film though!

Switzerland falls down

Once we'd showered, changed and eaten Jenny's fabulous home cooking, we wandered into the City centre for a tour of its sights and a beer on a busy high street that buzzed with every variety of human being. We ambled home and reentered the flat within seconds of a mighty hail and thunder storm, which we then enjoyed from the covered balcony with a cup of hot tea.

It's Art

The rain continued throughout Sunday so we hopped on a bus to the Tanguely museum to enjoy its range of 'machine art'. This local artist focused on putting together bizarre combinations of objects and then making them move in interesting ways. One particular piece included musical instruments to add an eerie sound dimension and another was large enough to enter and walk around. Frustratingly for us visitors, the machines were only allowed to be turned on infrequently so that they wouldn't wear out... there seemed to be a group of excitable children constantly ahead of us turning the sculptures on so that they were immobile by the time we arrived.
Exploring the art
The afternoon was spent back at the flat playing Carcassonne, a highly addictive board game, with a fourth friend of Bjoern's and enjoying a traditional Swiss fondue with some surprisingly drinkable English white wine.
A healthy meal
The end of the Adventure

... Or this leg of the adventure, anyway. I said a sad farewell on Monday and drove back South into France. Cecil was cleaned and aired and left in a sunny airport while I flew back to the grey and drizzly UK for work. Now my task is to get through my contract as quickly and efficiently as possible so that I can return and squeeze just a little more Europe in...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Emily sells out

Cheese, Watches and Yodelling

After a brief stop over in Grenobles, Cecil and I finally entered Switzerland this week and camped in a small village marina on Lake Geneva. We had one day of gentle rain, an opportunity to rest, recuperate and carry out house hold (or bus hold) chores. The next day the sun re-emerged and I took to the lakeside paths.

The village of Cully seems to have been set up purely as a rest stop for tourists. The marina here, which has a hard stand for campervans, is flanked by restaurants and bars, plus a grassy area with steps down into the lake for swimming. And that's it.

View of the campsite from the lake. He is there - look harder.

As I walked on past these in hope of something more (for starters I hadn't yet found a cash machine and was in dire need of Swiss Francs), I stumbled upon a train station and took the easy route to nearby city Lausanne. It was instantly noticeable how much more 'with it' this area was than anywhere I'd been in France... there were electric buses running up and down the streets using overhead contact wires, shops open right the way through the day, and the first restaurant menu I looked at included a vegetarian option with tofu!

Beetle boats with built-in water slides! How awesome is that?

I found a cheap cafe by the water for lunch and booked an afternoon cruise on a steam boat that would, in three hours, give me tour of the East side of the lake and drop me off back at my little marina. Most handy.

Betraying my mission...

It was whilst preparing to board the boat that I had a call from Cardiff. A job offer. It's only temporary! But I'm to fly back to the UK and start next Wednesday, finishing some time before the end of August. I know it's the boring thing to do and trust me I'm heartbroken to stop the adventure just as we were really making sound progress, but the money will help a lot and I'll have a chance to deal with some of the things that have slipped at home, such as finding a new lodger and selling my little car. It also sort of saves me from the 'high season' down here.

I'm still heading to North Switzerland to see my friend this weekend and then travelling back to France for the flight home (the airport parking is much cheaper there).

The boat where it all happened...

Anyway, I will continue to update the blog... I may even pop back to Europe for a long weekend... but the next big adventure will be the drive home. Then of course it will be Bestival and on to Australia! This is certainly not the end.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Whose idea was this?

I left the Antibes on Thursday, on yet another bright morning, to make my way North. I had researched some pretty campsites between there and my next fixed destination in Switzerland and plugged it into the old GPS.

A very, uh, 'interesting' route

The first hour of the journey was as easy as you might expect... we started on motorways and then took pleasant roads around pretty villages and landscapes, enjoying some shade along the way. There weren't many petrol stations to be found so we grabbed the opportunity around lunchtime, then pulled over in a leafy layby by the river for lunch.

Surrounded by waterfalls and mating beavers
As soon as we set off again I was glad we'd had the break... although much of our journey had been uphill already, the path ahead was getting steadily steeper and windier. But traffic was low and I figured it couldn't get much worse.

I figured wrong.

As the engine roared in first gear up steep hairpin bends, I thought "Holy altitude sickness, SatNav, where are you taking us?". There were insanely steep and high cliffs on the side of narrow roads, a noteable thinning of the air and snow. Real snow this time - actual frozen water precipitation snow.

On two separate occasions we stalled on a steep bend... each time I calmly applied the handbreak, restarted the engine and revved like hell to pull us up. Finally I grabbed an opportunity to pull over and take in the breathtaking views of the Alps.

How the hell did we get up here?
I returned to Cecil and stroked his dashboard gently, reassuring him that we were almost there - just 28km from our destination and as far as I could tell already at the highest point in the mountain range. Cecil quietly started but refused to rev. There was a moment of panic - we're on a mountain. No phone signal, no internet - what if we can't get down again? But it was just the weird angle we'd managed to park at - a little push in the right direction and he was back to roaring like the little trooper we know him to be.

Sure enough, the peak was just ahead and only a relatively gentle incline from where we were. The road began to slope downwards and Cecil gratefully rumbled his way down the same kinds of hairpins that had terrified us so much on the way up. We passed this sign on as we went:

2,802 metres high (that's 9,193 feet to you and me)
The highest road in Europe*. Holy. Shit. If there's one vehicle that doesn't belong on the highest road in Europe, it's a 40-yr-old campervan packed full of life posessions. But no matter - we'd done it. We cheerfully waved to smiling hikers and bikers and descended into Barcelonnette and to a campsite that was ready and waiting.


Barcelonette is an odd little town - it's set in a 'valley' that's still 1,000 metres above sea level, so it has absolutely stunning views all around with giant fir trees and towering rocky outcrops framing a frosty blue sky. For the last few hundred years, its main trade has been with Mexico and there are signs of it everywhere - from the Mexican flag on the town's welcome sign to the plethora of South American clothing and food available to buy. And is it pure coincidence that there is a higher density of moustachioed gentlemen here than I've previously witnessed elsewhere? Hmm.

I parked Cecil in the campsite and took a walk along the river into town. There was a live music event in the main square, so I pinched a seat in one of the cafes and had drinks and snacks brought to me while I enjoyed the entertainment. There was an intesting set by a young Stomp-style band, who played percussion pieces using things like suitcases and oil drums. They did insist on using a different set of instruments for each track which made for some slightly tedious pauses but I didn't mind - it was just more opportunity for ordering beer.

Teenagers banging on things
Well this is only a brief stop - we need to continue North. One thing's for sure, we ain't going back the way we came!

* I looked it up on Wikipedia - there are two roads in Europe that are slightly higher but they're both dead ends. So I guess it's the highest through road.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Voila, The Mediterranean!

On Saturday I drove to a vineyard outside Toulon, to meet a wine maker that I met in Japan. The farm is part of a national scheme of free campervan sites where you can buy local produce or artworks and stay overnight. It looks like a good way to see the country - if anyone's interested they can buy the guide book and pass from France Passion for €29 and get information on 7,000 such sites.

Seeing the Sea

After eating, drinking and catching up on Saturday night, we needed a spot of excercise. We packed bags and took a hike on cliff tops that would give an eagle vertigo, staring down into a clear navy blue sea. The sky was cloudless and the water's surface like glass so we were glad to eventually find a way down and to dive into a cove where the pool was deep and cool.

Not the English Channel
We ate an extremely fine picnic on the warm rocks and took out my waterproof camera... I had no goggles but nonetheless floated around trying to snap little silver fishes and the sea bed. I promise to share the results when the film is developed!

The climb back up was a little more difficult but we were soon sat in Thomas's car listening to Led Zeppelin as we rolled home. It was on this journey that I learned about the rule on speed bumps in South France. Apparently these sleeping policemen are always installed outside the homes of the people who requested them and it's therefore obligatory to make as much noise as possible when crossing them, both by honking the horn and by lowering gear and revving the engine.

Hungry cats vocally educating seafood diners in sharing
We finished the day by dressing up and heading to a secluded restaurant on the seafront where we provided fine dining to the local mosquitoes. The chef's special that night was my arse, served through a nylon skirt between narrow slats of a wooden chair.

Cecil has had a brand new battery and has had his gas cannisters filled and we've moved onto Cannes for a couple of days. From there, who knows? Maybe Italy, Switzerland... I'll be back.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Week in Provence

With Cecil finally back on the road and in ship shape, I thought it wise this time to be a little more cautious about leaving. Abandoning my plans for Espagne we instead took a short trip to Narbonne where we kipped in an industrial zone, frequently checking for any problems of a mechanical or electrical nature.

There were none.

An old friend from England called and we arranged for him to fly into Avignon where I would collect him and we would take a three-day tour of the region, after which I would continue alone in my usual style.

Sur le Pont

We checked into a very plush campsite a short walk from the city centre.My friend entered the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace), where Catholic popes and anti-popes resided in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries... I've done my fill of museums and abbeys and the like by now and couldn't justify the entrance fee, so I settled for a driving tour of the city.

The famous bridge of Avignon
The Sea is pink and it's snowing

This wasn't the effect of LSD but rather the effect of the natural salt marshes in the national park 'The Camargue'. As we drove into the area, we first noticed the bizarre stretch of bright pink waters. Apparently this is caused by algae who are compelled to live in very salty waters and who contain high levels of carotene. Of course its these algae who are eaten by shrimp, making them pink, and in turn eaten by flamingoes.

I was even more surprised, however, to see banks of snow along the side of the road. It was somewhere around thirty degrees celcius! The wind blew across the plains and the 'snow' flakes were thrust across our path. It was then that we realised they were salt flakes that had been blown from the surface of the sea and gathered naturally. So cool!

The salt gathers up on the rocks. The medieval city of Aigues-Mortes in the background.
I took a boat trip through the canals and saw a demonstration of 'gardians', who herd black bulls from their position atop white horses. Unfortunately there was also a gaggle of teenagers on the trip who'd clearly been forced to attend on a school trip, so I couldn't hear much of what the French cowboys had to say.

Chasing Bulls
The area is also famous for its 'Flamant Rose' (pink flamingoes) but, although I saw many from my position on the boat, they were all too distant to really photograph. Still, they were amusing to watch with their long skinny legs and stark pink wings.

Nothing like family

After dropping my friend off, I drove straight to my Aunt's house for a visit. We took a ride in her convertible to the Coustellet market and joined some friends of hers in the Poisonnerie there for oysters and wine. I'd never tried an oyster before so I had to be trained in the technique. It tasted rather like I'd imagine that pink sea tasting if you stuck your tongue into it.

My grandmother very kindly put me up at her house down the road and I went for an afternoon to visit one of my cousins and meet her baby boy for the first time. I also met her new boyfriend who was something of a VW enthusiast and a collector of spare parts. He turned up with a brand new pair of eyelids for Cecil and fitted them on the spot! You can see from his face how much he likes them.

A cheeky look for Cecil
Finally we all gathered at a fabulous outdoor venue in Gordes to watch my other cousin play guitar in his band... this was his final performance with the guys before he moves to Marseille for university so there was quite an emotional atmosphere... and a doting mother recording every second of it on her iPhone.

An astonishingly talented guy - I'm so proud of my cousin!
It's not quite over yet

Although I've taken this opportunity to update you, there's one more chapter left in Provence. Today I'm driving East to visit a winemaker who I met in Japan back in March. And then who knows? That's the beauty of being free!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

My take on RAC's European Breakdown Cover

This is going to come across as something of a rant. I'd much rather it didn't. I'm going to try and explain this fairly and even-handedly and I invite you, the reader, to leave comments that point out areas where I've allowed any traces of bias to seep through.

The RAC are a pile of big, fat, filthy mother-fucking wankers.

Why I bought the policy

When embarking on a six-month solo tour of Europe on a budget, it's important to consider safety as well as cost. What items, what paperwork, what servicing really needs to be done before you go? I took the low-risk approach. I started by heading to a VW specialist in West London for a full mechanical service. My campervan was not broken, did not need fixing, and indeed had just that week passed a new MOT with flying colours. But it's better to be safe. So I spent over £1,100 getting everything polished and replaced, from gear brushes to battery wires. In fact, sod it, here's the full list if you're feeling up to it:
An almost complete list of things Cecil had before I left (yes there was more).
I therefore had no expectation that he might break down in Europe... but it's still better to be safe. So I called the RAC and asked for their most comprehensive, most expensive, most 'peace of mind' policy to cover me in every country I could ever possibly visit. The quote was £680, a hard pill to swallow, but I withdrew a credit card from my wallet with shaking hand and read out the numbers knowing that this was the right thing to do.

Letting them take control

Well, wouldn't luck have it? On the second day of my six-month tour, the engine died. I pulled on to the side of the road thinking, "shit", but also thinking, "thank God for the RAC - come and save me you rugged heroes!".

Save me they did. They called a man from Citroen who (eventually) found me and dragged me to his garage. This was the extent of the RAC cover for Cecil - as soon as the campervan had been collected, all the expenses would be mine. OK, fair enough, there can't be much wrong with it anyway. The RAC put me in a hotel - OK, fine, not something I would do of my own accord but let's enjoy it while it's being offered, eh? Left to my own devices, I would probably have either kipped in my own camper, popped up the little hiking tent or caught a train to my parents' house, but they were offering a hotel - great!

Of course, another part of this service is the communication with the garage. Well wasn't that fantastic? The European breakdown service is provided by a third party called Opteven. Apparently they have a team of mechanical experts, fluent in French, who would call the mechanics almost daily for a detailed update. Then they would try to explain it to the customer services team in laymen's terms. Finally Debbie from the communications team would call me and say "they're working on it" or "it's not ready yet". If I pushed her for details, I might get, "they've done something with the wiring". No amount of nagging would get me any kind of meaningful information about what my money was being spent on or even how much I was spending.

Which one's Debbie? Grrrr...
I jumped up and down, cried, sent email upon email begging for information on my campervan but none of it was any use. 6 weeks later I collected Cecil and drained my bank account to the tune of 960 Euros. Don't try and tell me they didn't see the insurance company coming.

Taking my own control

So when I finally got to my Mum and Dad's house and discovered a nasty oil leak, I didn't have much interest in calling the RAC back. What good were they? I didn't need to be dragged off the side of a road and I didn't need a hotel. And I certainly didn't need total and utter confusion about what was happening to my campervan. So I saved everyone some time and money by sourcing a local mechanic to help out. He wasn't available for a while but sod it, I had places to be and caught my Ryanair flight to Belgium for the week.

Stuck on a motorway

Now, sadly every mechanic has his bad days, and when I departed for Spain 4 weeks later Cecil broke down again. This time I did need dragging around so I took a deep breath and called the RAC. They couldn't recover me themselves due to Autoroute regulations but they would pay for the private recovery. Cool! I was recovered a distance of, what, 6 miles in tandem with two ladies and their Renault. The first question was "do you have insurance?", and what a surprise that having replied "yes" his bill suddenly rocketed to over 200 Euros. And you can bet the two ladies (ahem, their insurance, ahem) were charged the same.

Having left the motorway and having established that the campervan really was broken again, I called the RAC to discuss options. I told them that a mechanic back up North had done the work and that I was very keen for him to continue that work, rather than taking it to yet another garage. They initially told me that the policy was limited to 100km tows and that my mechanic was around 120km away. I asked if they could just take me the 100km in that case, that perhaps I could find my own way the final 20km, but they seemed unsure.

10 minutes later, the phone rang and the chap told me, "OK as an exception we'll tow you the 120km, but if you break down again in the next few days it will be difficult".
"The next few days?", I replied, "no problem - it'll probably be in the garage again anyway and I certainly won't plan for it to break down!". As far as I was concerned, that was it.

However, soon after that the phone rang again. This time it was the supervisor. "I just want to make sure my colleague explained to you that we will not be able to cover future breakdowns."
"Yes", I replied, "for the next few days, right?".
"For the rest of this trip".
"Hang on a minute - you mean until the end of August? You mean if I break down in Poland in mid-July you won't cover me for that?". He confirmed.

Eventually we agreed that I would pay 50% of the tow charge and my policy would stay in force. I had a phonecall from yet another representative to take payment for my half, based on the tow company's quote of 517 Euros plus motorway tolls. Read that again: 517 Euros plus motorway tolls. With no other option apparent I paid again, my half of the total coming to 267 Euros.

When the tow company turned up they were expecting to take me to Montpellier. I stopped them immediately - that was far too far. We went into the office - I found the correct address on Google Maps for them and we left for the correct address, approximately half the distance of Montpellier. I called the RAC back to explain the mixup and to tell them we would not have to pay so much after all, and that I expected to get a partial refund from my half.

Wishing they'd go away

The tow company dropped me off ('dropped' being the operative word but I can't bring myself to mentally relive that moment) at the closed garage and made me sign a piece of paper. I tried to discuss costs with them but they refused, telling me to speak only with my insurance company. My favourite people. I telephoned them as soon as I got back to Dad's and explained the situation: even if the distance weren't so much shorter, we hadn't even been on the motorway that I'd supposedly prepaid tolls for!

Well they weren't interested in the slightest. The quote from the supervisor was "we're just lucky someone accepted the job", not appreciating how much every single Euro cent means to me right now. After days of hassling, I had to let it drop when they explained, "well there was a 50% surcharge you see".
"50%? Why so much ? A weekend is 25%."
"They charged 25% for the weekend and another 25% for being a bank holiday".
"But the bank holiday is on Monday. It's either the bank holiday or the weekend, not both!" As if that made a difference. Insurance job, right?

Excuse my French

It's been quite a relief to me that the RAC / Opteven / Big Fat Wankers don't have to be involved in these latest repairs. I've been able to wander round and visit the mechanic regularly - he's shown me the parts and the problems, and through waving and grinning we've understood each other well. We have a friendly relationship and he's reasonable, even apologetic, about correcting mistakes he made last time. The BFWankers had asked me for his phone number but I told them there was no need - they could save their time and energy and I could continue on my own. And that seemed fine.

Until today. Today I was called and told that the remainder of my policy cover had been cancelled. The reason? The tow company had informed them that I had directed them to 'my home address'. The BFWankers therefore felt I had reneged on the agreement and that I was abusing my policy to - what? Put my feet up and avoid driving? The fact that I had not given them a phone number was proof that my campervan wasn't even broken and that I was a naughty girl who was not to be given any futher assistance.

Yeah, 'cos Mum and Dad's house is exactly where I always wanted to spent my adventure-of-a-lifetime!

It needs saying.
And finally...

I've just given them all the phone numbers and addresses that I know and they've told me that they plan to check them out tomorrow. I feel almost ready to explode: these people cost me in the first place, they're continuing to cost me and they're continually stressing me *the* *fuck* *out*. Yes, they've probably paid out at least £680 on me so far. But that hasn't been £680 that I would have needed to pay! That's £680 of wasted money that's been absorbed by greedy recovery drivers, by unreasonable surcharges and by overpriced hotels beyond my means and way beyond my requirements. £680 that they've wasted and at least that amount again that I've wasted by paying for the things they won't cover.

If I hadn't taken that tow back to the Minervois on Sunday, who would have benefitted? The RAC would have had to start picking out hotels again, maybe also a hire car. I would have been presented with a whole new garage, one that was busy, ignorant and could smell insurance in the air. Both the RAC and I would have been ripped off. Again. Yeah, great idea.

Isn't this type of policy supposed to make you feel relaxed, comfortable, secure? Isn't it supposed to ease your mind and leave you free to concentrate on other things? Assuming this is true, the RAC is in serious breach of contract. I could be here relaxing, talking to my mechanic and getting things sorted out but no - instead I'm talking to the RAC, I'm explaining myself to them, I'm getting frustrated by their absolute lack of any kind of motivation to assist and I'm leaking money. And what's the betting that tomorrow morning they'll start calling those numbers I've given them and upsetting the people who're helping me. That garage bill ain't gonna go down.

So in conclusion, there are upside and downsides to having comprehensive RAC breakdown cover. Except that actually they're all downsides. No upsides. And you shouldn't buy it. And the RAC are a pile of big, fat, filthy mother-fucking wankers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

At least it's not just me

Today has been quite a day for vehicles, old and new. And not just mine.

The Quad Bike Saga

My parents' village has quite a nifty scheme. Each year, they divide up an area of a forest on their nearby mountain, and each villager is allocated a plot that they can cut down for firewood. In order to collect his allocation, my Dad uses an old quad bike to tow a trailer up and down the slope.

An old second-hand jobby, but it served the purpose
A couple of months ago it was stolen from his driveway in the night. Since it wasn't registered for road use, neither was it insured and my Dad was gutted. Gut-ted. So it was straight onto some dealers to find a replacement.

To cut a very, very long story short, he eventually found one in Wales at the right price and with the right spec and ordered it for delivery to the house in France. It had been so difficult to source that we had all hopes pinned on it arriving on time and in one piece - and this morning it would be coming, between 11am and midday.

At 9am the phone rang. My Mother answered the phone to a french warehouse worker who started talking about 'problem' and 'broken' and she panicked, calling my french friend out of bed to translate. He told us that when the quad bike had been delivered to the nearby warehouse it had been missing most of its packaging and that they'd therefore struggled to take it off the lorry. The warehouse worker described a box smashing and the tyres being flat and said that:
a) he was unable to load it onto his lorry for delivery and
b) if it was him, he'd refuse to accept the item and have it sent back to its sender.

This was not the news we wanted. My father, generally a solid and reasonable man, was close to tears. We asked to visit the warehouse (only 25 miles away) to see the damage for ourselves, fearing the worst. We imagined the bike having been dropped or having had something dropped on it... we assumed that the tyres would be the least of the problems, that the vehicle could be a complete write-off.

A burst tyre... not the end of the world
Such a relief when we were introduced to the beast! It was all a misunderstanding. The bike had been dispatched on a metal palette which had collapsed, but that was all. One tyre was flat - just one - and there was no other damage. The warehouse worker had misunderstood because he usually only saw brand new bikes shipped in fibre glass boxes, so he was surprised to see this one without. We rolled it off of the broken palette and arranged for a next-day delivery.

The Citroen Graveyard

This is a field that we passed on the way back. It's not quite as sad as it looks - there's a mechanic who owns the field and, although he's probably collected too many, he does work on them and may well refurbish them one-at-a-time to order. But there must have been 80 of them parked up here, in various states of repair.

They're just so ugly, aren't they? And wouldn't they make fantastic campervans?
Back to Cecil

My final visit was to the usual mechanic to check on Cecil, expecting to take him home today. You see, after our disaster en route to Spain, the mechanic diagnosed the following:
- The gasket rocker cover that he'd replaced before I left no longer matched perfectly with the one next to it, which was very slightly distorted. He said that he'd be gluing the two together to straighten them out and that this would finally fix the oil leak.
- The voltage regulator - an easy part to source and fit - was broken by the old alternator, so he would order this for the next day.

If that 5-day-old Bosch alternator is broken, I may hurt someone.
Unfortunately, nothing's ever that simple. The boss was there when I arrived and he started by telling me something I didn't want to hear: "the new alternator is broken". Nooooooooo! After more discussion, he explained that they had fitted the new voltage regulator but that the problem was still present. He promised that tomorrow he would carry out more tests to establish for certain which part was at fault and to form a plan of action. Please, please pray to whatever Gods or spirits you have belief in that my alternator will be OK!

Sod it, whatever the news is tomorrow, I AM going to Barcelona. By plane, by train, hell by walking - I'm going to see Spain. Uuuugh.