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Suomi Sojourn

Ahoy, I’ve not really been gabbing/bragging about going to Helsinki recently but now I’ve cleared up some of the more pressing chunks of debris in my life, it’s time for a blog post on my recent trip.

First, the video.

Purpose: work.  With a little fun attached.  There was a conference which I was uniquely placed to represent us so I lobbied and succeeded to go.  Thought it was a long-shot.  At least it got me out of the insanity that was the office move at the end of last week…

Day one was Wednesday.  It began at 5am, with the Doctor driving me to Heathrow very graciously (he was working in Reading so it was on his way).  Roads were pretty busy, even at that time in the morning but there was no reduction in stupidity from other drivers.  Arrived safe and sound tho’ and it wasn’t until I checked in my bag that I realised I’d not only left my iPad in the front pocket, I was certain that I’d also left the front pocket unzipped.  So the iPad didn’t get crushed/smashed by careless handlers, it could fall out and get lost or even nicked.  Spent the next four hours fretting over it – not in a happy place!  Fortunately the insurance policy wasn’t due to expire until 14 June so there was some degree of comfort.  Breakfast was a nice veggie affair in an American diner at T3, well, until the irritating Australian couple turned up at the next table, made a nuisance of themselves so I guzzled the last of my coffee and vamoosed.

Board the plane, wait for take-off and everything was fine until we get to the runway.  Engines get turned on, roaring into life when another passenger suddenly hits the “call steward” button – her seat neighbour has gone into convulsions and is spewing chunks everywhere, being completely unresponsive.  Take off has to be abandoned, we taxi back so the woman can be taken off the plane in an ambulance.  Then there’s a full security check (in case it’s an elaborate terrorist plot) to match people with hand luggage before we can take off about an hour later.

Get to Helsinki a little late, find that my iPad is in my case seemingly fine and I _did_ have the foresight to zip up the front pocket; I just had zero memory of it.  Buy a large cappuccino by way of a reward (though _should_ one reward thoughtless behaviour?) and board the train heading south to the city centre. 

Hotel Arthur is a stone’s throw from the station and it only takes five minutes to locate and check in.  My room was something out of the 1970s.  Lots of brown and yellow in the décor.  I thought this was a really out-of-date hotel but when I went to use the hotel sauna on the 7th floor, I realised I was…in a lower classed/priced room.  The 7th floor looked a hell of a lot better where the suites were. 

Anyway – get to my room, feeling tired given my lack of sleep the night before and lie on the mud-brown divan, just to chill out maybe even to doze for half an hour.  Plug in devices to charge up a bit and without any pre-amble, the hotel fire alarm goes off! We have to evacuate.  I hastily grab my important stuff, pack my bag and briskly walk down the emergency escape.  Of course once I’ve exited the hotel, the alarm stops.  Too late for me; adrenaline has perked me right up, I’m wide awake and in no mood to go and lie down.  Instead, I decide to go exploring. 

I take a spiral approach to my walking – it’s the most efficient way to see a city, starting at the centre of the spiral and gradually increasing the radius.  No “pick a direction and then get lost” today.  Wednesday was a nice day unbeknownst to me, also happened to be “Helsinki Day” – the city’s 569th birthday as it happened.  There certainly was a lot going on what with a concert in the park, a dinner on the esp and there was lots going on.  Eventually I found somewhere to eat dinner (Taco Bell – I wasn’t feeling fussy, just hungry), went to an Irish-American bar (O’Malley’s) which was Boston based, gave me a bit of a holiday nostalgia moment before ultimately, going back to the hotel.  I did try the local brew – Karhu.  Wasn’t too bad, as it happens.  Though they don’t fill pint glasses all the way to the brim.

Up early for breakfast – usual fare but they had lingonberry juice as a nice treat and a few local cereals in the mix.  Then a walk over to the Conference Centre which is on the eastern side of the city, on a peninsula near the Ferris wheel.  I later discovered that one of the carriages on the wheel has a glass bottom and another carriage is actually a sauna cabin!  Those whacky Finns.  Sadly, I didn’t make the time to go riding on the wheel.

I sat through day 1 of the conference, next to the Dutch.  Although the seating was alphabetical, Netherlands were seated as “The Netherlands”.  Still, it made a nice change from sitting next to Sweden – not that I’ve anything against the Swedes (although they didn’t attend) – variety is the spice of life.  Apparently.  We were also given some mints and liquorice-infused chocolate as a welcome gift.  Wasn’t too bad.

During the breaks and at lunch, I was cornered by everyone who wanted the dirt on (1) EU Exit and (2) the Tory leadership contest.  So we had something to talk about – within the bounds of propriety, of course.  I had a fifteen minute presentation to conduct which I did…nothing terribly special or spectacular but competently executed and managed to get in a couple of jokes.

After the conference, I had an hour of liberty – most other delegates were staying at the hotel across the road but it wasn’t in our budgetary rules hence I was at the Arthur.  So I walked over to the dock, watched the boats for a bit and then wandered back.  There was an evening programme of a boat tour of the bay and some of the islands, followed by dinner at Walhalla (yeah, Valhalla – just the Finnish spelling).  The weather looked ominous and there were a few drops of rain.  I was the only idiot who remained on the top deck whilst everyone else was hiding down below deck.  We arrived at Walhalla which is sited in a former coastal fort, probably in a supply room given the layout of the restaurant.

Walhalla (I’ve review on TripAdvisor) was rather nice – restaurant is circular and tables are in rows like spokes on a bicycle with the centre being the kitchen.  Food was a roast dinner and many of us opted for the reindeer as a main.  There were toasts, speeches and the company was good.  Politics and living in Brussels were the two main topics of conversation on my table.  People were surprised that the UK doesn’t elect the House of Lords.  The comment I was responding to, was that the UK was probably the most democratic country in Europe – I pointed out our foibles.  And the fact we don’t elect our head of state.  Anyway, that’s by the by.  Boat back, hotel, bed.

Felt more drained on the Friday as Thursday had been a full on day.  And the bloody seagulls were doing their level best to annoy me.  Fortunately, the Friday promised to be much easier, albeit with an earlier start.  Breakfast was a little less fraught – probably because I was downstairs earlier.  The remainder of the conference went ok although people seemed more muted than before, probably because most of the attendees were going to be heading home at the end of the conference.  AFAIK, I was the only foreigner staying on in Helsinki.

After an unashamedly healthy lunch and chats with colleagues, I went to a nearby souvenir shop and loaded up on goodies.  I had hoped for a model of the Temppeliaukio Church which I’d seen in another shop (couldn’t remember which one) but ended up with a model of the cathedral for my shelf.  There aren’t many key landmarks in Helsinki for those little models.  I’m not ashamed to admit I got back to the hotel and just lay on my bed for four hours before my sauna booking (mentioned earlier), dozed for half an hour, finished my fifteenth (or whatever) reading of the Godfather and caught up with iPad games.  The sauna revived me – once I managed to get the room up to an acceptable temperature and had a pre-dinner walk, going north and east before circling back and I went over to O’Malley’s again for dinner.  They had a decent cocktail list which I wanted to take advantage of.  And some fattening desserts.

Post Dinner – went to Mann’s Street which is a karaoke bar in what looks like a regular office building.  Could have stayed in O’Malley’s but elected not to as the England-Argentina football match (Women’s World Cup) was on and the bar was cheering for England.  Anyway, at Mann’s Street (named after General Mannerheim), the karaoke wasn’t obnoxious and was confined to a corner.  Mix of English language songs and Finnish.  Possibly Swedish songs too.  I was the only Brit in there – that I could determine so I caught up with TripAdvisor reviews on my iPad, stared at what was going on, trying to make sense of the blend of folk and had three pints of Happy Joe’s cider.  Very sweet cider although the description said dry.  WRONG.  Back to hotel at 1.30, slept 8 hours and NO SEAGULLS!

Saturday – fell out of bed (not literally) bleary eyed and rested but half out of it, staggering down to breakfast.  I suspect that many in the hotel were doing what I did last night, judging from the bloodshot eyes.  After the usual procrastinating, I packed my case and checked out.  Didn’t really have a plan for the Saturday though I did want to see Temppeliaukio Church.  Was ten minutes too late for the last pre-lunch tour as they’re closed during lunch to late afternoon.  But I climbed to the top at the very least and gawped around the neighbourhood.  Wandered back towards the centre and followed my nose to the smell of BBQ.  It turned out that this weekend was also the Burger Lover’s Festival in Helsinki, in Kamppi district.  I wandered in, tried some of the food (no free samples, or rather, sliders but I did get a free jar of red onion chutney), had a beer, enjoyed the nostalgia music and had to depart for Stockmanns Department Store.  Bought the usual office treats (Moomin biscuits) there, picked up a bottle Happy Joe’s cider – or rather as next week was Helsinki Pride, a renamed “Gay Joe’s Cider”.

Final bit of sight-seeing, met one of the locals for coffee for an hour down at the harbour but then I had to scoot off to the airport, just managing to catch the correct train.  This time, I made triply certain my iPad was not in my suitcase.  So, Helsinki airport.  Departures.  A minefield of capitalism.  For British Airways passengers, you have to go through Duty Free three times before you get to your gate.  They’re cunning people, those Finns.  It’s a linear route but it’s designed for maximum separation from cash. 

No incidences on the plane this time around and we get home a few minutes early.  Grab suitcase, take Heathrow Express back to Paddington given the time, drop into Nando’s in Vauxhall for something to eat (Supergreen Pita + corn on the cob & macho peas) and finally back home.   I was so tired, I didn’t realise I hadn’t closed the front door, I’d left it wide open overnight.  In fact, I didn’t twig until 3pm when I had to go to Sainsbury’s for essentials… Fortunately (again – luck is a feature of this trip), nobody came in or out of the building.  Downstairs would have shut the door if they were in and the gate & external door weren’t touched in a 17 hour period.

What did I learn about Finland and the Finns?

Hmmm, there isn’t a strong nationalistic presence in Helsinki.  They’re quietly proud of their achievements but aren’t in-yer-face about it.  But I think that’s part of the national character; modesty and humility.  Very Lutheran.  They like their liquor but I didn’t see anyone drop dead drunk.  They have a progressive social programme – streets were all clean, there were only two beggars seen during the entire trip, public transport ran exactly to time, trams were well maintained road signs and traffic signals were all in excellent condition, graffiti was at a minimum…

I guess that if you had to mentally picture the “good old days”, Helsinki would be a good start.  This was my first visit to Scandinavia and by all accounts, much of Norway, Sweden and Denmark is the same.  The Saturday market down by the harbour was very old-world, despite the range of modern-type items on sale.  Clearly a country that’s at ease with its history, its present and its future.  And it’s clear the Finns love the short summer as it felt like absolutely everyone was out enjoying the good weather. 

Food – there was healthy eating despite the national stereotypes of nothing but “bad-for-you” food.  Still, YOLO right?  Lots of root vegetables available and many restaurants seemed to offer buffet options.

People – civilised.  No threatening behaviour, no obnoxiousness, people were happy to be left alone but also could work in a group environment.

Overall – would go back though I think it’d pay to be smart and ensure there’s enough time to take a ferry to Estonia (two hours away) and even St Petersburg.

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Hi folks. Once again, like the proverbial broken record, I am compelled to offer apologies for the lag between blog entries. The feeble excuse that I offer, is that I’ve still not found my place, found my balance post holiday and until I do, everything is going to feel lacklustre at best and scattered at worst.

That said, there isn’t a great deal I have to share with the world. Not yet, anyway. I mean I’ve several reviews of video and board games that are in various stages of completion. And a couple of vlogs to weave together. So I’m not abandoning the social meeja world. Just struggling to interface with it properly.

Briefly then – I’ve given most of my April to playing and completing Far Cry 5 and Far Cry New Dawn (reviews to come). And I finally finished off the Xbone version of RE4. Horrible controls btw. Didn’t complete one row of collectibles in the shooting gallery mini game. After putting those games to bed, I’ve taken back up with Tropico, specifically Tropico 3 and 4.

Board games – slowly grinding through Betrayal Legacy still and had a few games of 7 Wonders and Dice Throne under the belt. Nothing else new played yet.

Oh – bought these bits to pimp out my next game of Eldritch Horror. Whaddya think?

And other stuff. Well, not much. Or rather, nothing worth writing home about. I’m currently in Swansea again with work, writing this whilst pondering the notion of mixing Becks, Stella cidre and a mojito together with dinner. Or if you will, having mixed them together and feeling knackered.

Viva New Vegas. Or something.

Let’s start with the link to the Vlog:

Sometimes, I find it very difficult to pack up and leave on my final day on a city break, other times, I’ve accomplished the [limited number of] goals I’ve set for the trip so I’m ready to go ahead of schedule.  Boston definitely fell into the former category but I kept telling myself “Vegas, Vegas” which acted as a suitable spur.  My suitcase was now heaving by this point, dangerously close to the 23kg limit and the rucksack overflow had to be employed so it was likely a second bag was going to be required for the return trip; chore #1.  Flight was at 1153 to Denver so checked out at 9, hit the subway and made my way back to Logan International on a bright, sunny and warm morning.  I know I keep going on with the comparisons but I was looking to see how the airport aligned to Fallout 4 and I should say, I really struggled to see it.  Though I did picture Liberty Prime being built on the tarmac outside, ready to storm the Institute.  Or be hijacked by the Institute, either/or.

The flight was pretty smooth and I enjoyed going over/past the great lakes, trying (and failing miserably) to name them all and guess which city was Detroit, which was Sault Ste Marie (from Ticket to Ride) and could I see Wes in Minneapolis?  No, as it turns out.  Well, that and watching BBC America which was back to back Star Trek with far too many ad breaks IMHO.  Anyway, after a couple of hours, the plane landed in Denver, we disembarked and there was time for a hasty lunch in the food court and a quick souvenir before going to the next gate.  The thing that struck me most about Denver airport were the copious number of tornado shelters.  Blessedly the weather was fine so the inside of the shelter remained a mystery.

 

The second leg was a much shorter flight from Denver and a turbulence-heavy flight.  In fact, it was such that the stewards didn’t get around to everyone on the plane for refreshments as everyone was confined to their seats.  Practically a rollercoaster combined with a bumper car in intensity.  We had a very clear day as we descended and the entire left side of the plane were staring at the sights below, the Colorado River, the various desert sights before swinging north and approaching that way.  Couldn’t wait to bound off the plane and practically threw myself out the row as soon as dignity permitted.  It’s one hell of a walk from gate to baggage reclaim at McCarran airport and you pass just as many slot machines as are in the casinos on the way.  As I waited for my bag, the following song came on my playlist – this is now officially my “arrived in a new city” go-to song.  I’ve always liked Megablast but DaXx did something special here.

Anyway, hopped in a cab, went to the hotel and had a nice chat with the driver who was from Georgia and we played a game of “which government sucks more – UK or USA”.  I defended the USA, he defended the UK.  I think it ended in a tie.  Then we switched to a discussion on which brand of bourbon was best.

 

Arrived at the Luxor and… I dunno how best to describe it.  Just admired the ballsiness of the hotel.  Sticking an obsidian pyramid in the middle of the desert takes a lot of guts and a certain amount vision.  26 years later, it’s still there doing a roaring trade.  The size and scale of it was impressive and despite what appeared to be chaos, there was order in the confusion.  People queued, checked in, went to various rooms or straight to the casinos, staff were omnipresent directing guests and visitors alike.  And best of all – no blimmin’ kids!

I was supposed to have a room in the pyramid but I was upgraded to a suite in the West Tower – gratis.  I wasn’t going to argue with that (though I didn’t have a legit excuse to use the famed diagonal elevators), went straight to my room, unpacked and got straight onto the interweb & the brochures in the room to see what activities I could get up to.  I’d reluctantly ruled out the helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon as it’d wipe out an entire day of my schedule but everything else was for grabs.  The Stratosphere Skyjump was first on the list, the arcade in New York, New York was also on there.  Mob Museum?  If I have time.  Neon Museum, sure thing.  Riding the Monorail at least once – yup.  Battlefield Vegas?  Deffo.  Watched planes take off and land from my room but could I hear them?  Could I hell.  Dear UK hotels – find out where the resorts in Vegas get their glass made and buy from that manufacturer.

 

 

For the first evening tho’, as I was on Boston time, I was beginning to fade “early”.  I went to dinner at the Sports Bar on the ground floor around 8, had a Greek salad with a few onion rings and a couple of local beers (see pic – heartily recommended) before trying out the casino.  Did quite well to start with, won $50 on the slots.  Then lost it all on different machines, ending up $50 down.  Didn’t have the courage to try the tables as many of them were $10 minimum bet and I couldn’t quite bring myself to part with the cash, even though I know a few tricks for Baccarat and Roulette.  I threw in the towel around 11pm and went to bed.

 

 

Wednesday morning, I woke up at 5am and could not get back to sleep, no matter how comfortable and cool I was in bed.  After an hour, I plucked my phone off of the nightstand and carried on my planning.  Skyjump was booked for 3pm so I was going to walk up the Strip, snap photos of the casinos and the other myriad sights before having lunch and then onto the Stratosphere.

First thing I really observed, was how clean the hotel was, even in the midst of whatever Bacchanal festivities were going on.  The army of cleaners employed were good as you never saw them and yet it was always near-spotless.  Similarly, step outside and you see how clean the streets were also.  Good mannered tourists or good cleaners?  You decide.  Second was how arid the air was – contrast with London, what a pleasant change.  The desert also had more joys in store.  The different flora and fauna, the landscape, the mountains in the distance, the smell of the air.

At 8am, the only people out pounding the street were those crawling back to their hotel beds from a Bacchanal night, early joggers and me.  I slowly wandered north, up the strip, taking pictures of the resorts in the gentle heat of the morning and wondering how much planning goes on to make the city work, and each resort.  The size and scale of the buildings, catering to guests, expositions, shows…staggering.  I think I read that MGM Resorts, who own many of the Resorts on the Strip, have 77,000 employees – but that’s worldwide.  Half of them have to be on the Strip – that’s an entire football ground worth of people.  Trying to figure this out appeals to my inner sociologist/nerd.  A resort city is surprisingly new to my life experiences.  Seaside towns are a whole different kettle of fish in comparison so I wanted to understand what makes a place like this tick.

Back to the Vegas report then.  I walked past the Linq hotel, spotted the Zipwire and immediately booked onto it for 11am – about 45 mins time.  This gave me time to pop into the gift shop below and I got my souvenir of the city for my shelf of landmarks: a cluster of the usual landmarks.  Also bought a load of postcards for my final dispatch home.  Again, despite the chaos of the gift shops, they still looked infinitely better than the grotesque tourist shops on Oxford Street and around Leicester Square.  Why as a city, does London permit those bloody awful things to exist – it’s hardly putting our best foot forward.  Smarten yourselves up!

The zipwire was atop the hotel – you can do it one of two ways, seated or superman style.  I opted for the former – it was cheaper.  You sail over the heads of the people browsing the shops and eateries before landing the other side of the Linq resort by the Ferris wheel.  It was probably longer than the one in Archbishops Park but not quite as high.  But great fun nonetheless.

After the zipwire, went into a VR Arcade for some 3D fun. Was going through video game withdrawal so that satiated the cravings.

Carried on northwards, walked past the cannabis dispensary on Paradise Road (does it need to be in so huge a building for what is supposed to be a pharmacy?) and turned right to go to Subway for lunch.  I know – all the eateries on the strip and I pick a Subway.  At least I got change out of a twenty.  Still, the sammich was good and I was finally able to read the copy of Retro Gamer I’d been lugging around since Dublin.  As I left, the wind began to pick up, as the forecast said.  In high winds, I was warned, the Skyjump might not be possible.  Got to the tower, checked in, no jump.  After waiting for an hour, I gave up and rebooked for the following morning.  Instead, I decided to go…elsewhere and amuse myself.

Wednesday evening then, I just couldn’t be bothered to walk back to the Luxor so I jumped on the monorail and took that back to the MGM Grand.  I must have exited incorrectly as I couldn’t navigate my way through the car park to the street.  And then couldn’t find my way out of the resort as the signs to the strip abruptly terminate half way through the complex.  This was not to be my first run-in with the MGM Grand’s appalling layout and lack of signage over the next couple of days. Also, a couple of the crossing points over the strip were closed for maintenance or St Patrick’s Day preparations just compounding the frustrations at getting back.  Think it was 9.30 by the time I staggered into the lobby.  I went up the escalator to the Diablo Cantina and had a Tex Mex dinner of Guacamole with Tortilla Chips and a Burrito with a couple of tequila cocktails.  Utterly stuffed by the end of the meal so surrendered to the night and went to bed at 11.

Thursday morning – I was nervous about the jump.  No, not the jump, more the anticipation of the jump.  With these sorts of things, it’s those few seconds between standing at the top and then launching oneself into the air.  Once that mental prod has happened, joy.  Had a breakfast at the SLS casino of a coffee and a cinnamon roll the size of a child’s head and then ran across the road to the Stratosphere to make it in time for the safety briefing.  Very thorough, nothing too complicated (perhaps they can write instructions for board games) and then I put on the unflattering jump suit before…well, this.

 

Joy.  Love.  Pleasure.  Ecstasy.   That’s what it felt like to be plummeting at 40mph.  These are the moments that make life worth living.  I can’t describe it more adequately than that.  Once I got the gear off, the adrenaline shakes kicked in but I was ready to go back up and do it all over again.

After the jump and a bottle of Diet Pepsi, I was walking down Paradise Road, behind Circus Circus to Battlefield Vegas, another activity which had caught my eye.  Crossing the Expressway where cars were zooming along at 60mph felt like a game of human Frogger but carried on that adrenaline rush a little more.  Anyway, Battlefield Vegas is a gun range and armaments museum where there was a massive choice of firearms to shoot.  I *may* have shot guns in my childhood, growing up as an army brat, I honestly don’t remember.  But given the means, motive and opportunity, this was definitely going to happen.

I decided on a three-gun bespoke package: a Mauser rifle (from any WW2 video game), a Remington Shotgun (from Resident Evil 4) and a 1928 Tommy Gun (from the Godfather).  So very video game related.  I couldn’t think of a Fallout weapon I wanted to fire except for a “Lawmaker” (Colt 45) from the Nuka World Expansion.  That cost me about $90.  I must admit, I was really tempted by the Minigun but $299 was just out of my price range.  Anyway, I met my… Marshall (for want of another word) Tim who talked me through the weapons, set me up and I got on with it.  The Mauser had one hell of a kick, I think it was most responsible for the bruising on my shoulder.  No wonder the Wehrmacht ripped through Europe in the 40s.  The shotgun packed a satisfactory blast (note to self, add to pre-civilisation collapse shopping list) whilst the Tommy Gun was ridiculously easy to control.  No wonder it was known as the Chicago Typewriter.

Really had a lot of fun, glad I did it.  And they gave me a lift back to the hotel in a Humvee playing some kick-ass EDM.  Stupidly didn’t take any pics.

Lunch – had a quick bite in the Luxor’s food court, a Pesto & Vegetable Stromboli with a side of garlic bread.  Then I went to the Concierge to organise a helicopter tour of the strip for that evening and they managed to get me a $40 discount on the trip.  Another point in the hotel’s favour.  You know, nobody ever explains these things to you, what a hotel concierge is and what they can do.  When I think concierge, I think “doorman” or “information broker at Westfield”.  Now I know what they can do, will be making more use of them in the future.

The afternoon’s activity, was to go south to the Las Vegas sign and then on to the Town Square Outlet Centre for board games!  The walk south was rather pleasant and the road was full of tourists all doing at least half of what I intended to do.  Annoyingly, they’d made the sign green for St Patrick’s Day as well as bung several fake shamrocks around the sign.  Grrr.  What I did enjoy, was watching the aeroplanes coming in to land at the airport across the road, coming in so low you could practically touch them.

Got to the Town Square, was a bit labyrinthine in layout but located “The Gaming Goat”.  It’s large store, chokka full of games new and old.  There were a few esoteric games in the mix and I bought a gift for a friend there, as well as Fallout New California for myself (saving £20) and DC Heroes Deck-building Expansion #7 New Gods.  Tried for a Talisman Expansion (Fallen Realms or Dragon Expansion) but alas there was none.  Then I went a couple of doors down to the candy store to stock up on the usual sugary goodness for folks back home.  Told the clerk, I wanted something that was totally lacking in nutritional value, given some of the fruit fascists (who only want healthy snacks) in the office.  Bought a giant box of gummi bears which stated on the box “totally lacking in nutritional value”.  Kismet.  And other odds and sods.  Could have bought the contents of the entire store TBH but rang up $40 worth of purchases and left before I gave into temptation.  Had a general wander before going back to the strip, not least as I had time to kill before the helicopter tour.

Given the land prices in Las Vegas, off the strip at least, it’s little wonder why most of the main shopping areas are grouped together in outlet centres.  The Strip has malls full of designer brands, the more individually owned businesses are sequestered farther away.  Apart from souvenir shops, of course.  I didn’t see much of the rest of the city, perhaps that’s for another time but I think it’d have been interesting to see how the city has grown from an oasis in the Mojave to the bustling metropolis it now is.  Anyway, hotel, chill (and the chill-out music channels on the TV).

One shower and shave later and we were picked up in one of those luxury minibuses to go to the airport.  In my helicopter group, I recognised a gay Austrian couple from earlier in the day and rounding out the group were a New Zealand couple who were not letting the earlier events of the day in Christchurch mar their holiday.  So this helicopter tour of the strip was organised by Excalibur Travel who had a great giftshop, has to be said.  My eye was constantly drawn to the Native American items on offer, particularly the Scorpions in Amber (probably coloured glass) which looked magnificent.  Somehow doubted I’d be able to bring them back to the UK if I’d bought one.  There were other items which appealed to my inner-collector.  Resisted though, I wanted the souvenir photo package.

The tour was magnificent, first scooting along the runway, lifting into the air in a way that’s so different from a plane and soaring over the strip, looking at all the lights below.  I sat there, picking out the sights below, the different resorts, watching the lights of the cars, the monorail…and Fremont as we circled around the Stratosphere.  I watched the pilot fly the chopper, it looked seamless – almost want to try it for myself sometime. We landed on time, went through the rogues gallery and I picked up my framed snapshot before getting a lift back to the hotel.

Sadly the plan for the last night in Vegas involved more work than pleasure.  The mission: buying a new bag.  Didn’t care if it was a suitcase or a holdall, it had to be large enough, robust enough and something nice, not random tat.  I figured that the large souvenir shop by the Stratosphere was the place to go and almost an hour later (yes, another sodding walk through the MGM), I was there, among the knick-nacks, hidden gems and random tat in Bonanza Gifts.  And being abused by one of those motion sensor parrots, far cruder and ruder than Billy Bass.  Looked at several designs, settled on a large black holdall with wheels.  Score.  Now…get it back to the hotel.  Took an age, including barging my way through the crowds in MGM who were there for the nightclub.  Crossed the road, went to Shake Shack for dinner, hotel, bed.

Last day: checkout was 11 so I packed my things, watched Alien 3 on TV, had a long shower and generally dawdled.  What I haven’t been whining about in this blog entry, was the BA cancellation – the second for the journey home.  I agreed, after some haggling, to the 9pm flight back which is a direct flight that lands after 3pm UK time.  What that translates to, is being awake for 36 hours.  I don’t think I’ve slept on a plane since 1985 when we flew to Germany.  So the next day was going to be interesting.  I guess it gave me what I wanted, more time in LV but still, I was erring between happiness and fuming for a lot of the day.

After dropping off my bag, I walked to the Coca Cola store and had a really chavvy breakfast of a pretzel and an Orange & Vanilla coke.  Looked at all the stuff on sale and being the Fallout addict that I am, the words Coca Cola were mentally replaced by Nuka Cola.  Still, was interesting to see the sheer range of stuff available.  went north on the bus towards Fremont, had a quick look around and walked to the North Outlet Centre, looking for bargain buys and the like.  Utterly failed, but I finally sent my postcards home (there are zero mailboxes on the Strip).  Treated myself to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory and was defeated by it.  I wanted a “light” portion but as it was 3pm, they were out of the pre-set lunch portions and they only had a full sized portion.  I reluctantly agreed and they brought me a plate the size of a tractor wheel.  No cheesecake for Joe for afters as he spent much of the afternoon feeling like a bloated mess.  Also, the two Long Island Ice Teas probably didn’t help but gave me a nice buzz for the rest of the afternoon.

Got the bus back to the strip and watched as the slappers (those who hand out escort/call-girl cards) were plying their trade, the showgirls and muscle guys looking to hustle tourists for pictures and the party boys and girls strutting about, pissed as farts at 5pm on jumbo-sized margaritas.  As I hadn’t been to the Excalibur Casino, I popped in for a look around, remembering Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s diatribe on the place from QI, tried a Matcha flavoured lemonade in the Starbucks (wasn’t bad but needed mint), then strolled over to the Mandalay, paid my respects and then headed back to the airport.  Given the shenanigans around the flight, I asked for an upgrade but alas the last one had gone ten minutes beforehand (curses).  But we shared a joke and through security I went.

I was quite surprised I still had $200 still in my wallet by this point.  The sensible thing to do, would have been to save it for the next time – and I’ve already decided to come back.  Nope, I bought last minute gifts for people, a bottle of apple flavoured Jim Beam for me (memories of Boston) and a coke.  Tempted as I was to squander the remainder in the slot machines, or at the spa opposite the gate, I resisted.  Just boarded the flight (last) and…well, the least said about the flight home, the better.  It wasn’t good.

And finally, to wrap up this lengthy blog installment, we arrived back in the UK on time at least.  My voyage was over and I had to rejoin my life.  Except…I wasn’t going to.  I don’t know if it’s turning 40 or a three week holiday, meeting people etc…there’s no way I’m going back to what came  before.  At the time of writing, it’s two weeks since I returned home and things are different.  Life feels better.  I don’t feel trapped, I feel liberated.  Maybe, just maybe the chrysalis has opened and someone else has emerged.

Boston Monday

My final full day in Boston, I’d already see what I wanted to – albeit on the surface rather than getting into the blood and guts of the history of Boston. That’s what a second trip is for. Anyway, my first goal was getting a hold of souvenirs and postcards and I returned to Faneuil Hall as there was a very nice shop there. And it was close to lunchtime given my slow, roundabout walk northwards. The rain from the previous day had done a good job obliterating the rain on the pavements and the sun had come out, heating the city quite nicely.

Lunch was In B.Good, a health and burger place, kinda like a mashup of GBK & Exki. Anyway, I was kinda stuck for an activity in the afternoon. Thought about the Museum at the Old State House or something similar but then my thoughts turned to Fallout 4 and I thought that the Castle or rather Fort Independence was the place to go. Cos that’s the headquarters of the Minutemen if you liberate the castle. I decided to walk there, through South Boston. My vlog shows some of the walk and again, it’s just interesting to have looked at the houses, the streets and the cars parked outside. See how the other half live and all that. Again, like trying to get across the Charles, maps and real life didn’t quite marry up. Gave directions to a trucker on my way, was impressed by my memory retention.

Anyways, managed to get to Marine Park and Pleasure Bay. Bet it’s lovely in summer. By this point, I was knackered and settled for taking photos of the Fort in the distance. And cos of my fatigue, I decided to get the bus back to Park Plaza. That was an interesting experience. Mainly because it coincided with school being out. Let’s just say – I thought British kids were badly behaved on the bus. They’re placid compared with out trans-Atlantic cousins.

I survived, back to the hotel to pack and then to go out and source something to eat. I’d walked past PF Chang’s near the hotel a few times and that was the one that was calling me. So glad I did, food was amazing and the service was great. After such a big meal, I’d no urge to stay out so went back to the hotel, read and slept, ready for another day of travelling.

An Englishman in Boston

It’s not that I don’t love ya internet, I was just too busy enjoying being in Boston too much to want to have set aside some time to scribe up what’s been going on these last few days. I’ve had a great time here, seeing the sights and meeting people. Definitely somewhere I’d like to revisit in the future.

Have you been watching my vlogs? No? Then bloody well watch them! Landed at Logan International, waited forever in a queue at the airport to clear immigration and exited the terminal to try and work out how the hell to get to the subway. Signage just isn’t clear at Logan – information is sadly lacking. I know many people will opt for airport transfer or taxi but those of us who want to get on public transport – throw us a bone.

Checked into the Park Plaza on Plaza Square. Very nice rooms which I forgot to snap a few pictures of, like a big old boob. Very plush, an AC that worked and a comfortable bed. Huge hotel too, not like others I’ve stayed in with the exception of the Grand Majestic in Praha. Sufficed to say, the bed was enough to magnetise me to it – having been awake for close to 22 hours, I was ready to pass out.

Next day, I awoke at 7 and reluctantly pulled back the covers, threw myself under the shower and got ready for a day walking the Freedom Trail, calling in for a swift breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. Although the vlogs are on an earlier post, here’s a few snapshots.

What’s the Freedom Trail? It’s a Tourist Trail which links landmarks around Boston during the Revolutionary War period. Naturally it was Fallout 4 that first turned me onto this feature. And it was going to be totally my first stop. You start off at the Common, work your way east and then north, to Charlestown. The walk takes a couple of hours, depending on how long you want to spend at each stop and is a great way to get to know some of the city.

After I finished with the Trail, I had a look around the USS Constitution museum – but not the ship itself as you needed identification and I had left my passport in the safe. Strolled back to Faneuil Hall for something to eat – a large slice of pizza and a cake.

My shoulders were killing me by this point so I wandered back to the hotel for a rest and I decided to accept an offer of coffee from a fellow traveller by the Common. Coffee lasted five hours and after a hasty dinner at Chipotle it was time to pass out and await the snow. Now, nobody told me that clocks went forward overnight so it was a surprise to see the time change and caused a cuss out. Just a small one.

Now Sunday, if you’ll recall from the vlog, was a day of snow. It was glorious. Big, fat and fluffy flakes cascading down in a ceaseless tide. I wanted out, I wanted to head out right in the middle of it. To get my digs in, it’s nice to see a city that can operate in the snow as if it were a distraction rather than a major hazard, unlike London which just grinds to a resolute halt if there’s even a hint of the white stuff. So I dressed up, headed out (after a quick breakfast in Starbucks) and went west. The destination, the goal of Sunday was to reach Fenway Park. Or Diamond City, if you’re a follower of the Commonwealth. Forgot that Boston Library was on the way so made a slight detour to see it. Huge building, very grand.

Carried on going east and reached the Fens. Looked very nice in the snow, would be worth heading back in the spring or summer to see what it’s like in bloom. Must have been settlers from East Anglia who owned the land when the city was being built up given the names of streets and buildings. Anyways, I did a quick circuit of Fenway Park, tried to imagine what it’d be like at game time and then thought about my next move, MIT.

Crossing the river Charles was an issue, mainly as the road maps don’t quite align to real life and I was forced to run across the expressway in order to cross the Boston University Bridge. Walking through Soldiers Field Playground was akin to walking along the Battersea Embankment – except you’re much closer to the water. No signs of a tide mark so made me think it’s not a tidal river. And this is when the snow finally turned to rain and although my shoes and coat held it off – my jeans were another story.

That afternoon was the Bacon and Bourbon event at the Castle which is down the road from the Plaza Hotel. I was kinda nervous to begin with as I was literally the only person there who’d gone stag. Once the liquor had started flowing, I warmed up, chatting to folk. Ended up spending $70 at the merchandising booth on a hoody and other items. There was also live music from Brian Richard (https://www.reverbnation.com/brianrichard) and his daughter which set the ambience nicely.

That evening, I went to Cheers. There are two bars called Cheers in Boston – one at Faneuil Hall, the other is the inspiration for Cheers which started out as the Bull and Finch on Beacon Hill (aka the north side of the common). Sat at the bar where Frasier used to sit, as it were. And enjoyed a bowl of linguini. Though it might have been a mistake to have had a beer and two ciders atop the bourbon! Still, what good is a holiday if you can’t get liquored up first?

Boston Blogging

That’s a lie. It’s Boston Vlogging. No musings today but four more vlogs for you. Starting with a misplaced vlog from Dublin:

And Boston in the snow, parts 1 & 2:

And my last day in Boston:

In Search of the Railroad

Greetings good citizens, the prologue.

Brief update for ya, I finally walked the Freedom Trail for myself. See the videos here:

All Aboard Flight BA0215

Greetings from BA flight 215 on a rainy day in London. Mind you, Dublin wasn’t much better today. The better weather has deserted me and the long-forecast grim weather arrived. As I type, the plane is about to leave Great Britain and head over to Northern Ireland. I like the little map on the screen.

Here’s the first vlog entry for ya:

Apologies for the quality of the vlog, kinda brain dead.

Anyway, Dublin. I’ve only ever been to Dublin with work so it’s been quite novel to be here for pleasure. Think it’s been my fourth trip over to the Emerald Isle. Quite nice not to have had to make my way south of St Stephen’s Green and instead explore the city for myself. I was staying at the Staycity Apartments – liked the bee motif and I got a large apartment all to myself.

Starting with…the Guinness Storehouse. I’d prebooked the tickets so skipped the queues and started off with the Legacy Tour. Met a very effusive host called Oliver who took me (as I was the only person on the tour) around the Storehouse, pointing out the founding of the company, the legacy of the Guinness Family, a few choice facts and some other hotspots along the way. And I was able to sample a few odds and sods along the way including West Indian Guinness (I determined it’d be good with cottage pie).

After the Legacy Tour, did the self guiding tour thing and may or may not have had several pints of Guinness along the way. Also, this:

Had a really nice lunch in the restaurant – soup and a sammich, then finished up the tour and bought me a new fleece in the souvenir shop. Six Nations in grey.

Had a good old wander around the centre, taking in the sights and geeked out at Forbidden Planet and the board game shop. Dublin felt such a lively place – locals, tourists all creating such a buzz. It was nice just to watch folk going about their business. Made for a mellow day. Too mellow perhaps, went back to the apartment and passed out for half an hour.

Just passed Iceland. Anyway, Dinner was a chore. Took forever to find a place that wasn’t full and wasn’t bloody Italian/pizza. In the end, I foresook any hope of Irish cuisine for dinner and went to Eat Tokyo. Oh man, the tofu steak was amazing and asparagus nigiri was rather interesting. No points for that in Sushi Go but heartily recommended. Rounded off with baileys cheesecake. Cos why the hell not?

Over Newfoundland – had a break for tv. Thursday – started off with a glorious lie in and then just a walk around the city centre, looking at landmarks and statues. It’s a shame that there don’t appear to be blue plaques on buildings for other information on people who lived in certain buildings or areas. Well – I freely admit I could have missed this kinda stuff. The sun was out and it was a nice walk. After lunch, I had a boat ride down the Liffey and in the afternoon, hard drinking with a couple of new mates in Dublin, Jurgen and Noel.

So whilst in Dublin, I’ve been catching up…no, I’ve been ploughing through my books quite nicely. Shortest History of Europe, Enigma Tales, couple of Sherlock Holmes stories. I also, whilst in FP, bought a graphic novel based on the later years of Oscar Wilde. Not read it yet, think I’ll wait for the flight to Vegas on Tuesday.

I’m not sure how best to describe feelings in/about Dublin. Worried about holiday burn out. As much as I’ve enjoyed heading all over Europe, it does kinda take its toll. Blessedly, I’m not stressing over returning to work. Just yet. And it’s been nice meeting new folk and just hanging out. All my boring stories are new again! Hooray.

Got some other vlog stuff but need to sew it together.

Black Pool

Aloha. Reporting in from Usher Quay in Dublin today where I’ve just emerged from the bath and am now an undignified heap of skin, bones, fat, hair and towels on the couch. I’m in the Staycity Apartments, making full use of the washing machine to get some laundry done. It almost feels refreshing, to be doing something domesticated. Almost.

What’s the skinny? Kind of a bit whiny, I’m afraid. If you don’t like rants, skip ahead.

Well, my last day – full day – in Berlin was very pleasant indeed. First, I finally resolved a baggage query with BA. Then after…an interlude, I went to the Boiler Sauna and had a Honey-Wellness massage treatment. Basically, they cover you with honey and they beat the hell out of you. My back feels all the better for it after sitting in all those railway seats over the last week. I actually had no idea what was going to happen during the massage – I thought it might be like a wrap and massage through the wrap. I guess the holiday is about trying new stuff.

Sauna’d, sweated and came out smelling like I’d been violated by a swarm, I went to Alexanderplatz to write some postcards, buy some jeans in C&A – but not the ladies underwear as we all know that gag – and get some coffee from Starbucks as the queues for Dunkin Donuts were far too long. As the vlog mentioned, without warning it began to rain – wrath of god type rain – and the Fernsehenturn was hit by a bolt of lightning (Starbucks was at the base of the tower). It was this bright blue flash and immediate bang – the coffee shop just perked up then by this event. Sorry I didn’t capture the moment but I did capture this about five minutes afterwards.

Decided to head back but called in at KaDaWe, not for chocolate sadly, but for a couple of souvenirs and gifts. Like many other places in Berlin, the department store was undergoing refurbishment. Was Xmas that rough? Is Berlin gearing up for a new event in 2019? Across the road, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was undergoing similar renewal. Ironic, for a bombed out ruin. Then back to the hotel, packed my case, tried to edit the last vlog entry but ran out of patience and headed over to Faustus for dinner. Great food, nice staff, shame about the English twats the other side of the restaurant in their gobby voices saying ‘like’ every third word talking patronisingly. The Germans at the table opposite mine were saying some very uncharitable things about them. I agreed with every insult.

It was my intention to head out to Woof for one final drink or two but the food in Faustus defeated me and I had to surrender to sleep. But I got eight hours. Awoke kinda fresh and made my way to the airport via the 109 bus. Flight to London was delayed because we had to wait for some crew from an earlier cancelled flight. My question is – why the hell weren’t they at the gate when we were boarding? Suppose it’s better than being chucked off. But more than one person on the plane was beginning to sweat about missing connections at Heathrow, particularly when the chief steward came around with an iPad talking to people. Also, dunno why the stoned Canadians were allowed onto the plane. They were clearly off their rockers and yet…

Moaning about the journey warning…

I wasn’t sure why we all had to go through security a second time – it wasn’t on the in-flight video. It was only as we were stalled later that I switched on the news and read about the incendiary devices at Heathrow. Not one word about it at the airport. I dunno whether to be pleased or vexed at the cover up. I’m glad I wasn’t delayed by half the airport being shut down but I’m angry I wasn’t directly told and offered the chance to amend my journey if I wanted. I may pursue this later.

Irrespective of the ‘incident’, I had about ten minutes to get something to eat and go to the gate as time was a-ticking. This is when things start to bigger up nicely. BA calls the priority borders onto the plane but only the queue for pleb class like me is open. So all the business class passengers looked hopelessly lost. Kinda funny. Then we board the plane – no problems yet apart from the usual throng of idiots who only decide to sort their gear out when they’re going to sit down rather than at the gate when there’s plenty of time. Personal peeve folks. Like morons who try and get dressed again after being X-rayed rather than collecting their stuff, moving to the side and then getting dressed. Idiots.

Anyway, I digress. Then comes the delay. Then comes a longer delay. Then comes an even longer delay. By now, we are going for Air Malta’s sense of time keeping. The guy on the end of my row has fallen asleep and is snoring loudly. And the Hispanic gentleman. Next to me has already adopted the brace position – for what possible reason I don’t know. Things are getting odd, the heat in the cabin is slowly rising – something is going to give, the tension is palpable. Finally, we get clearance up go…

I was the only one listening to the announcements I think when the plane landed. Everyone faced front to get off and I faced back, slipping behind a couple of people so got to be first off the plane when the rear doors opened, catching everyone else by surprise. It was honestly a collective shock that we were able to exit the rear doors. Anyway, out the airport, managed to get the 747 to Usher Quay and reported to the hotel. After I checked in and chucked in the first load of laundry, it was time for a mad dash to the barbers for a shave and a trim as reported. Now that it’s all gone again, I feel so much better. Soft, smooth hair isn’t for me. Give me my shaved head any time. Gave the barber a 25% tip. Well, I had planned to go to the T5 barber but they were at arrivals and I didn’t have time. I’d already set aside the money so Carlos and the boys at Fades & Blades could have it. But Carlos did a thoroughly good job and earned it.

Chips and curry sauce for dinner, food of the Gods. And the hot bath, which is where we come full circle. Now at 10.15 (or 11.15 according to my body clock), I’m in bed waiting for the tumble dryer to finish its magic.

Railway Madness

So, Poznań. Nice place. Germanic in the old town. More Polish and ‘Soviet’ if you stray out to the ‘burbs.

I’m well over the personal embarrassment of leaving my phone on my bed this morning. Still a dumb thing to do. I remember my passport (doesn’t get inspected once) but leave the mobile which has my BVG travel card and my rail ticket on it. Twit.

Anyway, first I’m going to bitch about both Deutsche Bahn and PKP railways. Get on the train, find a free compartment – yeah, it’s the old sorta set up. Get kicked out of the first compartment by DB staff who want the compartment for themselves. Choose another compartment, get kicked out of that one by PKP employees at Rzepin who want that one for themselves. I’d like to point out, for the record, that neither compartment was closed, reserved or otherwise occupied. Just some Delta Airlines style BS. Looking back, I should have picked a fight as they had no grounds to be so belligerent. I vowed to myself that if it happened on the return leg – I’d go full angry. But as I was in first class, I wasn’t disturbed.

(River Oder – the border between Germany and Poland)

Now dig this – you would think that looking at a map, it’d be fairly quick to get from Berlin to Poznań. It’s about the same distance to Szczecin, which is about 1hr 45 on the train. But no, first you go south, for what looking like no discernible reason. Then you go back north and then finally you go east. You essentially go to Cottbus without stopping before heading to Frankfurt an der Oder. Why? Why why why? Makes zero sense. Adds almost two hours to the journey. DB, PKP – an explanation would be fabuleux.

Anyway, get to Poznan on time and heading out of the station towards the city centre, I’m struck by how familiar it feels to Szczecin. The main station is on the outskirts of the city centre and it takes a short while to walk to where the action is. The station is connected to a shopping centre, more developed than the Victoria Station mall or St Pancras parade. But despite my research, no shops were open at all, just the restaurants and coffee shops. Which kinda dented what I wanted to get up to. Guess it’s like Germany – Sunday shopping only at Xmas.

I strolled east towards the centre of the town, passing by a number of fancy looking buildings which were very Germanic in style. I know that Poznań passed to Prussia hands in something like the second partition of Poland at the arse end of the 18th century. And reminded German until 1919 when Poland was reconstituted. The Prussians/Germans intended Posen (as was) to become the military district for the south east so they massively built it up, bringing many German settlers to the city. Which probably explains the heritage. Difficult to ascertain how much damage the city took in WW2 but my guess is that it didn’t see much fighting.

As alluded to, this year is the year that modern Poland is 100 years old. And Poznań is having a two month celebration of this fact in the old market square. There were stalls, live music, food – good stuff. Am glad I blundered into it. I had a Pirogi and bought some souvenirs. I’d have loved to have bought more but there are two more weeks of my holiday and I don’t trust baggage handlers.

After an hour spent watching the festivities, I walked to lake Malta, had a look around and walked back to the centre, calling in at a coffee shop on the way for a tasty piece of raspberry cheesecake (no photo, the cake was practically pornographic in calories). More walking, more sightseeing and then back to the station.

Another thing that stuck me about Poznań was the very liberal use of colour in the buildings. No homogenous greys and whites like London but a riot of pastels and highlights which made for a very pleasant stroll. It also struck me how clean the streets were, even in the less sexier parts of town. Brits take note, dropping litter isn’t cool.

The one thing I couldn’t get was the city vibe. Every city has a rhythm. A pulse. I just couldn’t hear the heartbeat of Poznań. I can tell you what it wasn’t. It wasn’t fake, it wasn’t phoney. It wasn’t trying. It wasn’t desperate, it wasn’t melancholic. It just…was. It is the twin city of Nottingham. I can see why. Except these days, Nottingham feels like a cancer patient who has half her insides scooped out as part of their treatment. Poznań thrives, that’s immediately apparent. Nottingham is on life support. Why? The city isn’t what it was in its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s diminished but has yet to find a new path.

It feels like theft to have a good two course meal on the train for less than £10 and yet… a restaurant car is something you don’t see in the uk on the trains why? Surely a good catering service would be well patronised. If I could get the menu offerings I had on a long distance train like… Paddington to Swansea, I’d totally use it. Stupid train operating companies. People want more than a bloody sandwich on a four hour journey.

Re-reading the Never Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack who’s a British writer and seems to have nailed the Cardassians (the Star Trek aliens, not that talentless family of NOBODIES who we all hope get put into a rocket and fired into the sun real soon) in terms of fleshing out the general character of DS9s favourite villains. Regardless of whatever happens with CBS, I hope they keep churning out more novels of this quality in the TNG era, not the Disco era.

Voila the latest vlog:

Oh, and why is there a Monopoly version of DDR? Is irony lost on these people?