Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sometimes the bear eats YOU

Well my company has eliminated a few jobs in our Sydney office. You may know that I had been excited about my upcoming relocation to that region. Well one of the jobs eliminated there was mine.

The good news is that I still have a job here in Chicago, but I've got some thinking to do about my future. I'm not sure I want to stay in Chicago. I need to reconsider all my options and figure out what makes the most sense at this time.

The economic downturn is what's to blame, according to my employers. I'm not sure Chicago's in any better position to weather this than Sydney, but at least it's familiar. Unfortunately, I think it's the familiarity I'm constantly trying to get away from. I need a novel experience, a change of scenery. My company also has offices in England, central Europe, and Singapore. I guess I've always wanted to stay in English speaking countries to live, but as far as long-term work, I'm open to suggestions. What do you think?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering January - Part 2

My second week in England (third week in January) proved to be a very rainy experience. The River Aire had risen to the same level as the canal, which was probably about 8 feet over the typical height. York and Leeds were both flooding. Luckily my hotel was in a dry spot, so I wasn't concerned about that. I was concerned about stuffing my face with food and not getting too wet! I found a great pizza place in Leeds called Box Pizza. I think they only deliver, but their pizza is incredible. When I travel I tend to have trouble with my appetite, but pizza always works.

I decided to book a flight to Barcelona for the following weekend. A coworker lent me a city guide that had some information about the place and I also bought a lonely planet guide. On Friday night I went out with some coworkers and set myself up for a rough Saturday morning... In sorry shape, I made it to the airport. It was one of the windiest days in history in Leeds, so the flight was delayed. It continued to be delayed further for several hours until finally it landed... at another airport.

Three large coaches came to pick up all the passengers destined for Barcelona and we rode for about 2 hours during rush hour traffic to Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster. This certainly added to my traveling experience, and gave me another pushpin to put on my "where I've been" map. An interesting point here is that in America, were this to happen, people would be VERY angry. In England, in fact, people were singing "Yellow Submarine" on the bus and generally having a good time. I think they are so used to disappointment that this sort of thing really doesn't phase them.

The flight from Doncaster was otherwise uneventful. I befriended some English women on the bus and we happened to have seats near each other on the flight. We all were staying in the same area in the city, and by the time we landed at 11:30pm the last train from airport to city had departed. Since I had some experience with Spanish, I made a deal with them that I would try to get us a cab to the city if they would split the fare with me. They ended up insisting they pay the entire fare, and I was able to get us to the right place.

The hotel room was fantastic! It was too late to go out and do anything, I was in an unfamiliar place and didn't have a good command of the language. I think that venturing out this late without any plans would have been unsafe. I watched some TV, amazingly the primaries were already in full swing in America and it was on most of the news. I ended up watching the World's Strongest Man competition in Spanish for 20 minutes or so before falling asleep.

The next morning I felt like I had to pack a LOT of sightseeing into a short period. I had booked two nights in this hotel, so I could at least spend an entire day in the city. First I decided to go take the subway to the Placa de Catalunya at the end of Las Ramblas. This is the main pedestrian walkway through the old part of the city. There are shops, street performers, and produce stands from end to end and it even extends into the Mediterranean Sea on a bridge / wharf called Rambla del Mar.

I walked out to the end of Rambla del Mar and then up through Port Vell. It was mid January, but the weather was not bad. The temperature was in the low 60s and the beach looked nice. I walked along the beach and back through a neighborhood to the Museum of Catalonian History. I bought a ticket and took a tour through the museum. This took me a couple hours, and afterward I was ready for lunch. I went back to the hotel and was thinking about finding a place online but then I remembered La Boqueria on Las Ramblas.

I had passed La Boqueria, one of the oldest markets in Europe, on my way to the sea down Las Ramblas. I wanted to get a closer look. When I came back, I was amazed by what I saw! This really started my thirst for touring open-air markets wherever I go. There was ham, fish / seafood, steak, lamb, chickens, produce of every kind... the colors and smells were fantastic!

I had my heart set on oysters but for some reason I wasn't able to find them anywhere. By this time the sun was starting to go down (the day went by so fast!) and I was getting desperate. I remembered a seafood place by the sea and walked back in that direction. The seafood platter I ordered was adorned with salmon, swordfish, mussels, calamari, clams, shrimp, and lobster! This was a gut buster, and the beer they brought me was huge!

After this, I wandered back toward my hotel. I was dark and I was sleepy. I saw a hot dog stand on my way and decided to have a "superdog" with the works... for dessert. I ate this while walked back up Las Ramblas and then cut over to my hotel. I got a beer at the hotel bar and surveyed the scene. I didn't recognize any of the languages being spoken. There were a couple Asian businessmen at one table, and a few others here and there. I took my drink up to my room and read a bit from the book "Notes from a Soggy Island" by Bill Bryson before falling asleep.

The next morning I needed to hit the ground running. I always try to time my wake-up to coincide with the hotel breakfast hours. This is sometimes as short as a 30-minute window, so I need to be sharp. The restaurant happened to be on the same floor as my room, so this was convenient. I walked over there and had a selection of ham and salami, some eggs, toast, bacon, and orange juice. A substantial breakfast, by all accounts. It had become evident that my appetite had returned with a vengeance, so I kept stuffing myself.

I needed to be at the airport by around 3pm for my 5:00 flight back to Leeds. There were a few things I wanted to do today. First I decided to take one of the walking tours suggested in my Lonely Planet guide. I walked to Placa Reial where there was some kind of flea market taking place. The Gaudi lamps were pretty interesting. From here I walked through the narrow medieval alleys to the old Barcelona Cathedral. Unfortunately, it was being renovated so I couldn't see the exterior facade. I took some shots inside, but the camera I had was not very good and it was difficult to get a clear shot.

After walking from the Cathedral back to the subway, I wanted to take the cable car over the harbor. I rode to the stop near my hotel and then transferred to the Montjuic Funicular Railway. This is a train that goes up and down the side of a steep hill. There is a passing area in the middle and it uses the weight of both trams as a counterbalancing system to minimize the load on the motors. I rode up to the top of the hill and then walked past part of the 1992 Olympic park. I didn't realize that's what it was until I got home, so I only took one picture of the backs of some seats.

At the top of the funicular, there is another cable car to take you to an old castle at the top of the hill. Alternatively, you can walk to the bluff and take a cable car out over the harbor. This was my plan, so for 9 euros I rode this over the city and got some spectacular views. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting Barcelona!

After this it was time to start heading back to my hotel. I collected my things and then hopped on the subway to the train station. From there I traveled on to the airport. I saw the women I'd met earlier and we waited in line together to check in. The two hour flight back to Leeds was quiet, I slept a little.

I highly recommend Barcelona as a weekend getaway if you happen to be in Europe. I wish I had more time there, so some day I may visit for a week or more. On my next trip, I'd go see the downtown part of the city and Gaudi's cathedral. I'd also like to see some of the surrounding countryside and perhaps some of Valencia to the south.

Next week I'll write about York in Remembering January - Part 3

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Remembering January - Part 1

In January of this year, Isabelle's mother came to visit for two weeks. The main reason she was coming over was to see Isabelle's graduation from Saint Xavier University's nursing program. But she was also coming to visit and spend a few weeks getting to know me better. On the night she arrived, we all went to a special "underground" dinner at Bonsoiree. It was New Years Eve, so the dinner was made extra special by the chefs for that. For the next two weeks, Isabelle and her mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up some great meals for us. After her graduation we had a party and they made a FEAST for everyone!

After her mother left to head back to her home in Switzerland, I was called to England for work. We had a couple of projects underway and our lead engineer in Leeds just left the company. At first, it was just supposed to be for a week. But what started out a week turned into three weeks! A co-worker suggested that since I had already spent time in Leeds and York, I try catching a cheap flight to Amsterdam. I found one for a good price (total cost was around $300 USD) and booked it, plus a hotel.

When Saturday rolled around, I caught a taxi to the Leeds - Bradford Airport and flew off to Amsterdam for a 24 hour tour of what has become one of my favorite places in all Europe. I arrived at around 9pm and came to the abrupt realization that I was in a land where people spoke a foreign language. Getting from the airport to the Amsterdam train station was simple, but after that I walked around the station area for a little while and attempted to get my bearings. I was NOT going to take a taxi... I read that it was the easiest way to get ripped off in Amsterdam. I struggled with the maps for a little bit... it was dark and foggy outside.

I stopped a couple of people who were evidently the only people in Amsterdam who didn't understand English. Finally... I surrendered... I caught a taxi to Hotel Amsterdam in the Leidseplein. The taxi driver spoke English. The fare was 30 euros, which was ~$50 USD at the time. In retrospect this was highway robbery and completely idiotic on my part. There is a tram that goes directly from the train station to the hotel. This was my first solo foreign travel experience, so we'll write that off as rookie error.

I got to the hotel and dropped off my things. I took a quick peek around the neighborhood and then got some dinner and went back to the hotel. I got to sleep at midnight. I would have stayed out later, but the hotel check-out time was 9am and I couldn't sleep in. I also wanted to be awake the next day because I had a very limited time in which to see this city. I needed to fly back to Leeds at 5pm!

I slept great, the bed was comfortable... the hotel was quiet. I woke up at 7:30 and took a quick shower and went out to start some sightseeing. The canals are beautiful! I wandered around the neighborhood a little bit, it looks like I randomly chose a very cool place to stay. I walked over to the Rijksmuseum and went inside. They were pretty clear that I wasn't to take photos inside the museum, so I put my camera away once I got inside the galleries.

After I left the museum, I walked toward the city center and into another museum that had an exhibit about Afghanistan. I grabbed lunch at a "coffee shop" that my friend Jen recommended. That was an interesting experience... I'll leave it at that. I decided after lunch to wander over to the Red Light District to see what that was all about. Here were a lot of interesting sights. A number of brothels, the women were not yet in their windows. There were also a number of coffeeshops and head shops. I think I learned a few new words!

I continued to get lost and find my way again throughout the city. I caught a quick ride on the tram and giggled at the way people sound when they speak Dutch. Just before catching my flight back to Leeds, I took another quick tour through the Red Light district. Now there were women in the windows and it had picked up a very "seedy" element... especially for a Sunday night!

Anyways, that was my Amsterdam experience. I had a good time and can't wait to return some day for a more thorough experience.

In Part 2 I'll talk about the next weekend in Barcelona!