5 days in Munich

The sun sets in Munich after the rain has clearedAlternate blog post title: “Hamburger! Der Grundstein eines jeden nahrhaften Frühstücks!”

On Wednesday night in Munich, I was sat outside in a movie-theatre-cum-restaurant.  All of the menu was film-themed, I chose a hamburger and because of my love for Pulp Fiction I chose the Big Kahuna Burger from what was on offer.  Except the waitress corrected me: it was not Big Kahuna it was Big Kahlúa.  I had a feeling the restaurant had confused Pulp Fiction with The Big Lebowski, but ordered the burger anyway.

Fortunately, it did not contain Kahlúa.

I’ve been in Munich since Sunday, for a conference about Drupal — it’s my first time in both Munich and Germany.  I should get extra adventurer points for visiting two new cities in the space of two weeks, and points for visiting a new country.  I deliberately booked a flight out of London early Sunday evening so that I would have time to go to my Dragon Boat training in the morning, and still get home, showered, changed and to the airport.  I’m reluctant to let things get in the way of my Dragon Boat, although it isn’t always easy.

(As a brief aside, the Dragon Boat training is coming along well — I have been to half a dozen training sessions so far, and I will be taking part in a regatta in London at the beginning of September.)

London was in the grip of a heatwave last weekend, and my journey to Heathrow was too hot as I was overdressed as normal, hoping that dressing smartly would possibly get me upgraded.  As with Dublin, there was just enough time between checking in and walking to the gate before boarding, but I should have checked in online earlier in the day — I was stuck in the dreaded middle seat, with no others available to change to.  The plane sat on the tarmac for way too long, it was stuffy and hot and the air blowers overhead seemed to only blow warm air.  The captain made some announcement, but it sounded something like there was engine trouble, which sounded worrying and couldn’t possibly have been right.  Eventually we were on our way, the blowers started blowing cold air, and I went to sleep as usual — though the person next to me woke me up when the cabin crew brought some food or pretzels round.  I refused them and went back to sleep.  It’s quite a talent to be able to sleep when your flight is only an hour.

As we began to descend on Germany, I was looking across past the man in the seat next to me and down onto the fields of Bavaria.  I can’t remember what the man said to me any more, perhaps it was just “Look, it’s Germany” — but I do remember thinking he was right, in his own stating the obvious kind of way.  I enjoy landings more than take offs, just for the view — you seem to be below the clouds for a lot longer, and I like looking at the land.  I get a strange sense of peace looking at the cars with people going about their daily lives, oblivious or indifferent to the plane overhead — just like I am every day.  I also like the contrast of how different countries look from above.  Returning to England, I never fail to be struck at how green it looks.  Germany seemed to be a country of autumnal colours — yellows and oranges and browns.

In Munich airport it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever been in a non-English speaking country on my own.  While there would be colleagues at the conference, I was on my own until then — and my heart started to beat a little faster when I remembered that I don’t speak a word of German.  My brain would unhelpfully dredge up Italian, Spanish and French phrases I’ve learned when faced with the indecipherable signs.

Dramas were all averted despite this — I bought a drink of water, collected my bag and even got a taxi.  Although my white-haired taxi driver and I had a few minutes of language barriers, as I pronounced “Westin Grand” with a “W” rather than as a “V”.  We drove in silence for the 45 minutes to the hotel, until we had almost arrived when he attempted to tell me in what little English he knew that the Audi he was driving was new, although it was not his own car.  I tried to be polite and tell him it was a very nice car.  He unloaded my luggage, gave me the long bag containing the pop-up banner I’d brought for the conference and attempted to ask me if I was a snooker player.  He also asked if I was American.  He’llA beer garden in Munich be writing in his taxi driver blog about the silent American billiards player that was his fare.

In the days that have followed I’ve spent all of the daytime working — on our conference stand, doing the usual marketing thing.  The evenings have been spent doing things like visiting German beer gardens.  I imagine a beer garden to be like in an English pub: a small garden or just a pub car park with a dew tables outside.  In Munich, the beer garden we went to seemed to be an entire town square just filled with people: sitting, drinking, eating, talking.  I read somewhere it could hold up to 700 people.  The other nights of drinking aren’t worth going into detail about: there was the pub meetup of the UK Drupal people: they said they’d found a British pub. It wasn’t, it was an Irish-themed bar.  But it was fun all the same.  We came in to this post at the outside cinema/restaurant: something London could do with — and we’ll leave there, too.

There had been thunderstorms predicted for days, that never arrived.  Tonight after several days of heat, it finally rained.

36 hours in Dublin

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that it feeds my passion for travel — and with travel comes my passions for writing and photography.  It might not be “adventure” like the Inca Trail was adventure, but it’s an adventure all the same when you’re travelling alone.

Dublin was a very short business trip.  I aim to visit all of the user groups I look after in EMEA, and there is a burgeoning user group in the city.  One of my colleagues was going there to present, and it made sense for me to pay them a visit since my company has an office in Dublin that I could work out of while I was visiting.

I had a flight out of London City Airport early on Wednesday morning.  City Airport is a short walk from where I live, and since European flights only need an hour’s check-in time, it made sense to book a 7am flight.  Until I worked backwards and found that I’d still need to be out of bed at 4.30am.  Just the same, I wanted to have two full days of work in the Dublin office — and I’d just sleep on the plane.

Except from my paper journal:

“As the plane idled on the tarmac, in some deep part of the engine I could hear a singular note. High and clear, for all the world it sounded to me like a jazz musician’s trumpet — like that first note in ‘Stella by Starlight’.

Awake since 4, I quickly fell asleep with the sun shining on my face. A thought passed through a distant part of my brain, “Wasn’t it supposed to rain today?” and I smiled at the idea. It’s always sunny above the clouds.”

After landing and collecting my bag, I checked my wallet to see if I could scrape together enough Euros for the bus, and I was briefly excited when I thought I had 5 Euros more than I’d expected, but on closer inspection found I’d got Australian Dollars mixed in with my currency.  I took a taxi from Dublin airport to the city, instead — it would go on expenses anyway, but I still don’t like spending money where I don’t have to.  On the radio in the cab the DJ was making jokes about how the wind was going to blow, the sky was going to fall and the earth would crack open.  Despite it being quite a bright and sunny morning, apparently there was the tail-end of a hurricane expected to hit Ireland later that day.  “Here I am without an umbrella,” I commented.  My driver laughed at me and told me that an umbrella wasn’t going to help.

I got the office without event, my colleagues made me welcome, and from there it was apparently just business as usual — a normal working day in the office, except in a different office.

By lunchtime the storm had arrived — a short walk to the shops meant battling against gale-force winds and driving rain. It wasn’t really a hurricane, though, more what I was used to from Ireland’s weather (I visited Cork several years ago, and have enduring memories of standing by myself on the top of Blarney castle in the wind and the rain).

Mid-afternoon the rain and wind stopped, so I took the brief window — what could have just been the eye of the storm — to check in at my hotel.  These are the kind of moments I enjoy when I’m travelling alone, just a quiet walk and a chance to enjoy the scenery of the city.  People in Dublin seemed friendly in the way that only drunks and crazy people are in London: as I walked down the street, a lady on the other side of the road, walking in the opposite direction, shouted across the street to me to comment on the weather.  She’d got drenched this morning, she told me, now look at it!  The sun was out and you’d never have known.

I grabbed  a quick shower at the hotel, changed my clothes, and went back to the office.  I walked in just in time — my colleagues were sat around the office “virtual water cooler” because Mayor Bloomberg was visiting our New York office, so everyone was gathering around to join in from their various locations.

The user group on Wednesday night was in a company called Engine Yard, in a part of the city where Google have several offices and a stone’s throw from Facebook’s Dublin office.  Engine Yard was a big, airy loft space — surprisingly large for a small number of people working from the office, so either they are expecting to expand or space is cheap in Dublin.  Either way, it was an impressive place.  The group’s turnout was good — about 45 to 50 people from 60 registrations, and the talks seemed to go well.

I was back at my hotel before midnight, and slept soundly until my normal alarm the next morning.  I considered resetting the alarm and going back to sleep — after all, I was much closer to the office here than I live in London — but in the end just had a slow start to the day, enjoyed my walk to the office and was the first one in that morning.  Another day in the office that was much like any other if you aren’t interested in the minutiae of what I do all day, until it was time to catch a taxi back the other way.  I walked with my colleague from London along the Dublin street as it started to rain again, and we caught a taxi the first time we tried — it was that that time of the evening, when every third car is a cab. We crawled for a while until we were out of the heavy traffic, where I wound down the window so I could smell the air and appreciate the passing sights properly.  Ireland often feels to me just familiar enough to be like home, and just different enough to feel like a foreign country.

Dublin airport was busy, there was scarcely any time between checking in and boarding for me — what little time I did have, I spent searching for something to take home to the girl.  When I was little, my Dad used to travel for work a lot and he always used to bring back European chocolate for my brother and I — I don’t remember how, but it became known as “Pilot’s chocolate”, and we believed that the pilot used to give my Dad the chocolate to bring home for us, which is a bit of a rough deal for my old man.  I wanted to find pilot’s chocolate for the girl, and couldn’t — even if you can buy 5 varieties of Milka chocolate in our local supermarket.  She has also almost accidentally ended up collecting Starbucks mugs from various cities around the world, but I was foiled again when the Starbucks in Dublin airport didn’t have any of that kind.

Then it was the journey home. Safety instructions in English and Irish, I close my eyes and drift in and out of a light sleep, until we are descending over England and London.  Through the low cloud I try to see the flashing light on top of Canary Wharf, but can’t work out where we are or what direction we’re facing — even when I can see a white light flashing above the clouds.  Arriving in England was a little disorientating, we landed, I picked up my bags, walked out the airport…and realised at no point had anyone checked my passport.  I don’t know why, maybe there’d been some kind of extra check in Dublin I hadn’t been aware of.  Either way, I walked out of the airport, snapped a picture of the entrance and labelled it “home”, and was once again back where I belong.Home: London City Airport

Chasing the Dragons

Image credit: photo by Andy Wilkes
Source: http://ow.ly/cQyf3

The Year of the Dragon is off to a strong start, with two training sessions now attended (and, most importantly, completed).

I was slightly disappointed that after my first training meeting with the illustrious Thames Dragons I then had to miss the next two dates.  Work commitments first meant that I would miss Tuesday night’s training, and then a wedding reception in Essex was to keep me away from Sunday morning.  I was disappointed and reluctant to miss them, and even tried to work out if it was possible to do all three.

If I missed dinner with my colleagues, could I go to training, finish by 9, then hot-foot it back to central London in time for the after-dinner drinks?  If I went to a wedding reception on Saturday night, could I get up extra-early on Sunday morning, just to drive back to north-east London for training?  It may have been physically possible to do these things, but it wasn’t practical: there would be plenty more opportunities to come.

Last night was the next opportunity to attend.  There was a temptation not to go when I was invited out for a drink by my colleagues, but I have committed on paper — or, at least, online — to the Year of the Dragon and I’m determined to see it through. If I start not bothering this early on, then the adventure is as good as over already.

Instead of a warm, sunny Sunday morning when I’d worn shorts and applied sunblock, last night although still warm was threatening rain from the start and I knew that evenings on the river would need insect repellent before it would need sun protection.  I arrived on the train in plenty of time and enjoyed the downhill walk to the river, and was glad to see that many dragon boaters were already there — including members of the Typhoon Dragon Boat Club in their team uniform — but also some reassuring members of my own club.

There were a few people that were clearly regular dragons that I hadn’t met before, along with a man who was returning for his own second session like me, and then a couple of completely new people.  You can tell a newbie when they come along, slightly hesitant, and ask “Is this dragon boat racing?” and then questions about how we would be racing, and if you fall in the water.  There is no actual racing, this is training. Later it was asked if anyone goes to races — I don’t know if the question meant did my team member personally race, did the team race, or if anyone actually races.

I can see clearly the areas I need to focus on for improvement.  While my first session was focused on keeping time with my other team members rather than paying attention to the shouted instructions or speed, this time I felt I should at least start considering myself part of the team and acting accordingly.  There are times when we start from what is called a standing start — you start with the paddles are buried in the water, then set off at a break-neck pace. Much like you would in a race.  The only trouble with this is being able to keep up — and if you can’t keep up with the speed, you can’t keep in time.  And the timing is the single most important thing.  The other things I need to improve include not taking the paddle past my hip (I think the key is reaching much farther forward) and the occasional tendency to splash half the boat with water.  I have no idea what goes wrong there.

Very soon, I am going to take out formal membership. And before long I am going to have to face that The Year of the Dragon is a very real adventure, and a challenge, even if it is entirely different from my previous adventures — and this means I am going to have to stop thinking of it as something I do for fun a couple of times a week, and actually start training for it.  There might not be a dog sled and a frozen Arctic tundra up ahead, but if I am going to compete within the year, I need to take it seriously and train.