Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dining alone

This is a photo of a common situation for me. A lack of dinner companions can make eating a solitary affair. Dining alone is still uncomfortable to me even after all these years, such is the social nature of eating a meal.

I have calculated that I spend between 25 and 30 days a year eating and sleeping alone in foreign hotels. Every year for nearly the last twenty, I have travelled on approximately fifty aeroplanes a year. My conscience is relatively clear as most of my other journeys when I am home are by bicycle. I probably travel of 5000 miles a year on my bike.

But a month a year of solitary eating and sleeping! I had never looked at it in those terms before.
I like my job. It is an interesting job with just the right amount of technical content and the chance to meet and work with people all over the world. Some would see it as a nice little number and indeed, I do realise how fortunate I am to even have a job, let alone one which I generally enjoy.

But I do get tired of the business travel. It really is not exciting. Oh, I make time to see the places I visit, though some are rather too familiar to me to hold any allure after all this time.
My solution to the loneliness used to be to go to the bar and get drunk. But its not a healthy way to spend a month a year. And talking to people in hotel bars when on business seems not to be the Done Thing. Indeed, I have got myself in some very unexpected scrapes in hotel bars from a seeming overfamiliarity. Having unsolicited feels of one's biceps by a small hopeful chap resembling Zebedee from the magic roundabout, in response to what I perceived to be just normal sociable conversation, is not an experience I would describe as comfortable. I explained his mistake and he looked rather crestfallen and lessons were learned by both of us.No, I keep myself to myself these days and rarely make eye contact or conversation.

And so one diverts one's attention: I write letters sometimes. Actual letters. With paper. And a pen. But I never send them. Perhaps I should.
One memorable letter I wrote to myself described an evening in Cork where the bar initially only contained two solemn looking catholic priests in deep discussion of matters scriptural. As the evening wore on, more arrived until the whole bar was full of serious priestly fellows and ecumenical matters. At about ten, the whisky and Guinness kicked in. Then very suddenly there was much cackling, back-slapping and telling of dirty jokes. It really was all rather surreal. So, there are lighter moments.

But it is a soulless, lonely existence and despite the stimulus provided by new landscapes, it does make you a bit tired of travel. Holidays therefore do not seem particularly appealing, especially if air travel is involved. I am far happier in old clothes, driving my post-industrial van to the sea and sitting looking at the waves, or driving up to Dartmoor and hearing the murmur of the wind through the granite of the Tors.And indeed, when I close my eyes in my hotel room, this is where I go to. Then, the phone rings and it's a customer in reception come to take me to a meeting. And so, into character, straighten my tie, and off I go into the Real World to be respectable, credible, assimmilated.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Frozen North

I am in Helsinki. It's a long story. A three hour, incredibly cramped flight from Heathrow and I emerged into bitterly cold air, a long way North of where I started. Strangely, the short, dapper, alert man who sat next to me on the plane was at breakfast this morning in the hotel and I briefly wondered if I am being tailed. I caught his eye as I wandered past with my perfectly boiled egg and nodded to him, but I didn't smile because I didn't want to be construed as trying to pick him up. One needs to be careful with signals, I find. Ambiguity can be so embarrassing.

The bus from the airport was warm and efficient. It arrived at the stops exactly when the timetable said it would. En route, the piles of snow bigger than a car showed just how much snow they have here. A lot, it would appear. Snowploughs had pushed such piles aside such that every street was lined with them.

Walking down to the restaurant last night, I was the coldest I have ever been in my life. It was only -7 when I left at dusk, and [probably -10C when I walked back, but the cold was intrusive in a way I have never encountered before. I am told its because the sea is close and the cold is a damp, humid cold unlike what one normally gets inland around here. I can attest that, whatever the reason, Winter in this part of Finland seems disproportionately cold and I wonder at what possessed people to think it was a good idea to migrate here originally. I think they must have been here a long time.

I had an interesting dinner: Fried perch. I thought originally it was the fish, but after eating it, I think it may well have been the one a parrot spends its days upon. It gave me quite unpleasant heartburn but at least I can say I have eaten perch now. (I took a photo but I seem to have lost the cable for my phone. I didn't think I would own it for long. I am notoriously forgetful. Perhaps I can email it. Aha! Yes!).Actually, I do it a disservice. As fish goes, it was a bit bland and tough, but was edible and probably quite good for me.

I like Helsinki. I find the people here to be unpretentious, unconcerned with the opinions of others with respect to how they dress or have their hair. As a result, it feels a rather liberated place. So unlike home, where prissy judgment based upon appearance seems to be the norm.
As an external observer, that was my impression, but putting that view to a local resulted in a small snort of wry laughter, followed by a pensive pause: "That may be how it seems to you. To us it's very different. Look at this weather! Would you live here if you didn't have to?"A point well made, I suppose.

So, I am sitting in my hotel room, which is much like all the others thus far depicted on this blog, wondering what to do. I really ought to rouse myself to go and find some dinner. But looking out of the window, I see the snow is still falling heavily and the streets are barely passable. A convoy of snowploughs has just gone by, scraping the streets and flinging a trail of sparks as the metal from the blades chips bits off the tarmac. It doesn't look very inviting out there. People are kind of hurrying past.
Perhaps I shall just pop across the road to the kebab house.
Travel broadens the mind they say.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Surf and chillblains

I have never had chillblains before. I generally have very good circulation and my northern-European physiology copes admirably with the cold, what with its inefficient mitochondria and robust size to conserve heat. I have chillblains today. And they are a reminder of a marvellous day.

As I have mentioned before, I have a penchant for the possibly insane passtime of kayaking in the sea when the waves look like they might be fun. I look at a forecast on a website called which shows me with a star rating from one to five, how good the surf is likely to be, along with wind direction, strength, swell and air temperature. It is not terribly accurate but gives some idea of whether it is worth the two-hour drive to North Devon to get in the sea.Well, on Sunday, I looked at magicseaweed and saw it promised five stars and six-foot waves for Wednesday. This is too good to be missed! I had to go! Life has only so many days in it and a lot of those have no waves in them. Carpe diem, I thought!

So, i contacted a friend of mine and after briefly discussing that the water was 8C and the air temperature merely zero with a windchill of -2 to -4, we decided the potential discomfort from the cold was easily worth it for the thrill of six foot clean waves.
So, in my van we went, loaded up with surfboards, kayaks and wetsuits. Off down the M5 to Devon. My companion is a learned chap with much experience of interesting things, like his first job in movie special effects and the science and practical application of modern materials. Conversation was brisk and the traffic light for the whole journey.

But crikey it was cold!
Upon arriving at Saunton, we struggled into our wetsuits and gloves and wetshoes. Every piece of skin, apart from our faces, was covered with a 4 or 5mm layer of neoprene to keep out the cold. This is one technology which never fails to impress me. To be immersed in the sea, at 8C for two and a half hours and not really get cold, is utterly amazing. Without a wetsuit like this, you would be dead from hypothermia in minutes. And yet a suit of synthetic rubber and it is only your tolerance for numb extremities and the limit of your metabolic fuel that limits your immersion time. Imagine being up to your neck in icy water and not really feeling anything but a coolness around you. Thank science for neoprene!

Well, it was not entirely as magiseaweed predicted. It wasn't "clean" for a start. The waves were breaking upon us in walls of merciless white water, hitting us like giant cricket bats of aquatic force.
My shoulders burned with the exertion of paddling out through them, being knocked back twenty feet with each one and making up the distance with strenuous strokes of my paddle.
And yet, even this onslaught of freezing force, driving ice-cold water into my face and down my neck was not really daunting. A resolve to get "out back" past the white, broken waves to the big green clean ones kept me driving forward.
And my reward: Sitting with my back to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and looking over my shoulder, I saw a strip of water change colour as its angle reflected the sky differently to the rest of the water. Instinctively, I knew this was going to be a big one. The strip of sea rose into a long parallel ridge moving towards me and shaping itself into a wave and I paddled to where I knew I would need to be to catch it in order for its force to propel me along its top and down its face.

I paddled furiously to match the speed of the approaching wave and felt the back of the kayak begin to rise. I was moving forward but it seemed to be getting away from me! It was too fast! But oh! It was the perfect shape and I was reluctant to let it pass. With a hurculean effort I dug the paddle in and forced myself over its crest and success: Now I was on the front of it, traveling along it, downwards and to the right.

Suddenly, the Universe aligned into a Moment of Perfection: Riding fast, diagonally along and down a perfect half-sinusoid, the wave was breaking behind me, nipping at the back end of the boat and driving me along. To my right, I had the perfect wave, clean, six feet high and with the most beautiful smooth form of moving water. Suddenly, all I could hear was the sound of the boat across the water, like the noise a spoon makes when scooping out sorbet.

In that moment of perfection, I needed to do nothing to control my trajectory. In the tranquility of that instant, I had the freedom to look around me, first at the unbroken wave to my right, and then to the wild white spray on my left. The bright sunshine shone through it and created a breathtaking series of rainbows. This was a peak of existence and to me, nothing on Earth can surpass such perfection.

Before the break reached the whole length of the wave, I decided it was time to get off. I dipped in the paddle and, turning right, hopped over the back of the wave ready to paddle out to the next one.
And thus went the afternoon: Cold, glorious and exhilarating.

After what felt like just under an hour, my hands rebelled and would no longer control the paddle. Given that I was now merely a passive passenger on any wave that chanced to catch me, I decided it was time to go in. I could no longer feel my hands, though my feet seemed still to be my own.
I scooted in on a baby wave and lay spent on the sand and soon, my friend had also had enough.
We walked back to the van with our various toys for a cup of tea and a bowl of chilli. We had been out two and half hours, which had passed like mere minutes. The sea does that to you. In the constant momentary thoughts of "Is this the one? Where should Ibe to catch it?" and "Am I going to stay on here or be tossed about like a ragdoll?", all other thoughts recede. Only the immediate is possible and all else must be pushed out of mind. This is, I believe, why it is so good for you: Thoughts of work and financial woes have no space and must be left at the shore for that period of time. You have a small holiday from worry because every moment, every bit of mental resource is occupied in the task in hand.

It may seem insane when it is so cold to voluntarily immerse oneself in cold water, and perhaps it is a bit eccentric. But it is every bit worth it to experience the highs that nature can provide just by the interaction of fluid mechanics, tide and wind.
And strangely, the cold is part of it. The flooding of the briny water over your face is like a kind of baptism, washing away all the cares of the world which accumilate in one's everyday existence. When you come out of the sea, the hills are pin-sharp, the grass and sky vibrant in colour and gorse bushes on the headland so yellow you can almost taste them.

And so catharsis is attained. Until the serenity is filled with the usual static of modern living. And then, i shall go back and do it all again.