All posts by Neil Thompson

What do you mean mats aren’t included?

Those of you that are reading this and know me will know that I like my cars fast and, like many others, like top end marques such as Jaguar, Aston Martin and Tesla.

Helen and I have long talked about what our next car would be to replace the hated Vauxhall Insignia and had our eye on a nice new BMW 1 Series. Yesterday we bought a Hyundai i30. How on earth did that happen?

Our current car, the aforementioned Vauxhall Insignia, we’ve had from new since 2009 and has been a pain from day one. We picked it up from a garage in Cambridgeshire and on the drive home there were problem with the electrics. Over the years there have been all sorts of issues with it including needing a brand new gearbox. We’ve spent a lot of money on that car and it hasn’t seemed very grateful.

Just recently there have been a spate of niggly issues with it (the coolant appears to be leaking away somewhere) and it has been in and out of the garage. So it was clear that its days were numbered and I wanted to avoid the issue we had with the previous car, a BMW 3 Series, where I came out to drive to work one morning and found that it had wet itself!

In an ideal world I would have been straight off the the local Tesla garage and ordered a fully loaded Model S or even that BMW 1 Series but financial realities took hold and so we found ourselves sat in the Hyundai showroom. We had pre-booked a test drive and they were obviously keen for us to attend having emailed, phoned AND texted to make sure we were going to be there.

I have to say that I like the look of the Hyundai but I had low expectations for the comfort and engine so I was pleasantly surprised when we took it out for a spin. It not only drove well but was comfortable too. Based on this we decided to commit. As an aside it seems that the time spent viewing (anything) is inversely proportional to the purchase price. I’m sure we spent more time contemplating our last fridge than we did this car!

One of the things that had drawn us into the Hyundai garage was a very generous amount on offer as part of a government backed scrappage scheme to take older, more polluting cars off the road. We knew that this would be £4,000 for our Vauxhall and the salesman almost immediately upped this to £5,000 or about £5,000 more than our car was actually worth! I did also consider asking if I could come and watch as my old car was crushed just to make sure nobody else had to suffer it.

Next came the difficult questions – what did we want from our car. We had a fairly modest list: not the 1 litre engine, had to be petrol, doesn’t need Sat Nav, shouldn’t be white, er, that’s about it. It seems that Hyundai have taken a leaf out of the Henry Ford playbook as we were told we could have any colour we wanted as long as it was white.  If we wanted a poncy name colour that would be an extra £600 – kerching! Oh and as for that 1.4 engine you can only get that with the third model up, the SE NAV, which, of course, comes with Sat Nav and a higher price tag – kerching!

Then there are the insurances, one of which was to protect the paint and upholstery. From behind his desk the salesman produced a large bag, similar to a pilots flight bag. From this he began to pull all sorts of cans and bottles like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. He then explained that these could be used when polishing the car. Helen and I looked at each other and then back to him. “Polish the car?” we thought, “that’s not happening.” Maybe we could gift the bag and its contents to the nice Eastern European gentlemen at the local hand wash place at the shopping centre?

By this point we had been in the showroom for getting on for two and a half hours and I was frozen and if I heard diamond cut wheels one more time I was going to scream. Part of the problem was that our conversations with the salesman were punctuated by long breaks as he went off to check things. As it turned out this checking also seemed to include the score of the England v Ireland rugby match…

Decisions had been made and so the salesman took us through our purchase and the financial implications of it. “So you have the Hyundai i30 SE Nav in poncy name blue with 1.4 litre petrol engine, electric mirrors, bluetooth, DAB radio, Apple carplay, a wireless charging mat, rear parking sensors and rear parking camera (why both?). Oh and are you happy to pay £60 for the floor mats?” Excuse me? The floor mats aren’t included in the price but a sodding rear facing parking camera is? Ah you see these aren’t any sort of mats, oh no these are “luxury” floor mats! I am therefore expecting them to be stitched with gold thread.

The deed is done and it has to be delivered to us (well we have to collect it) before the end of the month to ensure that the scrappage applies. I just hope that this time we can make it home from the garage before a warning light comes on!

Hamilton, a Load of Rap

It seems that the lead times from ticket purchase to actually going to the event are getting longer and longer. We waited the best part of six months from booking to seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Yesterday, some 13 months after we booked the tickets, we got to see the musical that everyone is talking about! Yes, we finally got to see Hamilton.

Now those of you that know me will probably assume that this is a musical about the life of Stevenage’s best known export, F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton. However, you’d be wrong, this was about the rather lesser known (to me and, one suspects most others) Alexander Hamilton one of the American founding fathers. The musical has had rave reviews on Broadway and I was interested to see just how well it played in front of a UK audience.

The show is written by Lin-Manuel Miranda someone I knew only from his small role in the TV show House. In that he does some rapping and the style and feel was very similar to that used in Hamilton. I’m no great rap fan and I must admit that there were times when I wished that there were subtitles. That said there are other musical styles too such as the appearances by King George III which were probably my favourite bits.

Like every West End musical there was a terrific cast (who knew George Washington was black?), a superb set and I came away having learnt a lot more about the America founding fathers and Hamilton in particular. He didn’t strike me as a particularly likable person and get his comeuppance in the end.

What I found most particular was the audience though who I came to suspect must have been predominantly American. They let out a huge cheer when Washington was introduced and laughed heartily at the jokes about New Jersey which went over my head. But most weird was the cheering after every song as if it was the end of the show, along with the obligatory whooping and a hollerin. I started to wonder just how would they top this at the end? With an instant standing ovation of course! I’m not suggesting that the show wasn’t worth a standing ovation but it all felt a bit contrived to me.

So, to sum up, Hamilton is a superb musical with a great back story and the right balance between humour and history but it needs a better audience!

Szczecin 2018 – Day Two – Food Glorious Food

I think that there might be a risk that today’s post may well be more foodie than travelogue. My hosts are keen for me to sample everything Szczecin has to offer and so that is what I have to work with.

As I said yesterday the eating habits of the Poles, or at least those I visited, are very different to my own. With no lunch taken I was offered a “second breakfast”, again brought by my host for me, to try during the day. Firstly this consisted of a savoury wrap with vegetables and the inevitable gherkins. This was followed by a sweet pancake filled with a white substance that I couldn’t identify.

Late afternoon we took the tram back into the city. There’s something exotic about trams, even the ones in Birmingham, but when they are abroad they seem positively cosmopolitan. The trams in Szczecin are no exception and I greatly enjoyed get from place to place on them. Especially the old yellow Berlin trams which had a bit of character.

We visited Pierogarnia Kaszubska to sample another local delicacy, Kashubian dumplings which are potato based and stuffed with a variety of fillings but the tastiest were those with meat. They very much reminded me of the gyoza dumplings that you can get here. They came warm with an onion sauce and were very tasty.

The dumplings were warmer than the welcome we received. I’m told, as this passed me by not speaking the language, that the woman behind the counter didn’t want to take one order for the two of us but do us individually. This would have been challenging as despite the menu being in English she was not going to accept it in any language other than Polish. So two orders were duly placed and then I pissed her off a second time by having the cheek of paying with too large a note. Thing was she opened the till to reveal a mass of notes of all denominations so I suspect she was just being difficult!

Finally we went up what I am reliably informed is the highest building in Szczecin and the cafe at the top, Cafe 22. Twenty two stories is not really that high but it was the tallest building that I could see across the city by some considerable margin. By this point I think we were both full and so just restricted ourselves to tea.

So that’s my time done here and I flew out of the tiny airport which only has two international gates. Szczecin airport must be the only airport in the world named after a union as it is called Solidarity. Can you imagine the GMB Heathrow Airport? Nope me either. What is universal though is the grumpiness of the border guards. On the way in there is no welcoming “welcome to our country” smile and on the way out they don’t seem pleased that you are leaving either. There’s no pleasing some people.

I liked Szczecin but I’d have liked to have seen more of it in the light, so that’s a job for next time.

Szczecin 2018 – Day One – Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

All my previous travel posts have been documenting our adventures while we have been on holiday so this post is a little different as at the moment I am away on business.

Travelling for business doesn’t always make for the most interesting of trips. Often you are on the outskirts of town on some business park seeing only the inside of an office and a hotel room. However, on this flying visit to Szczecin in Poland I have managed to get out and about to sample the local architecture and cuisine.

I got up this morning to find that lovely great big flakes of snow were falling and settling. In the UK this event would have caused chaos but the plucky Poles were going about their business travelling to work, school or wherever without any problem whatsoever – it was a sight to behold. And so I was able to take the tram (bought secondhand from Berlin apparently) and get to my destination where I spent the day in the office.

It’s always interesting to see how countries not far from your own differ and the culture shock here is the Poles eating habits. I was told that they don’t do lunch in the same way that we do in the UK but something much more like grazing. So a big breakfast and a snack at 11, again at between 2 and 4, and then a meal in the evening. To be honest I do that AND have lunch at 12! So today lunch consisted of gherkin soup kindly provided by my host’s wife.

This evening we went to what was a up-market Spudulike where fillings included a very tasty grilled chicken and broccoli option which would have been very healthy were it not for the cheese sauce. More interesting was a visit afterwards to Bar “Pasztecik” to sample local delicacy Pasztecik szczeciński. This is a like a doughnut with a meat filling, served hot in a simple paper wrapping clearly designed to eat on the go. It wasn’t unpleasant but there was such a small amount of meat in it that really it just tasted like a doughnut! The place itself was interesting too as it clearly hasn’t changed much since it opened 50 years ago. There was a cash desk by the door where you paid. Running the length of the wall was a brightly coloured mosaic leading to a hatch at the back of the room to exchange your receipt for the goods.

Later I walk out from the hotel and did a loop around some of the sights of Szczecin. I had particularly wanted to see the Philharmonic Hall which is the building in the header picture. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen, it almost looks like a temporary structure. Some of the pictures I have seen of the hall the place was lit with coloured lights. Tonight it was only white but no less impressive.

I then walked down to the river and then back up to the Ducal Castle and then past one of the many churches here. I would have lingered longer but it was cold and by this time my hands, which had been out of my pockets taking pictures, were frozen.  I’m hoping tomorrow that I might also be able to see some of these place in the light.

The Amazons, Reading Hexagon, 10th February 2018 – I’m getting too old for this!

A year or so ago I discovered Reading band The Amazons and really loved their music. So when I heard that they were going to be playing a homecoming gig at the Hexagon in Reading I had to go. Tickets went on sale August 2017 and were either seated in the balcony or standing downstairs. I love live music but I have reached the age where I won’t stand for long periods any more, so I elected to get a seat in the balcony.

A week ago I got out my ticket for the gig and my heart sank. It very clearly said “General Admission” on it. In other words – standing. I still have no idea how I managed to screw this up so badly but there it was. So last night I went along to the Hexagon to see The Amazons and stood for the duration. That said I wasn’t willing to also stand for what could be a couple of dodgy support bands so I got to the venue just before I knew The Amazons would be on.

I had feared that I would be the oldest person in the place but that fear was unfounded as it turned out. Myself and all the other old people formed a line around the back of the auditorium and let the drunk students get on with their stuff in front of us. They were certainly “enthusiastic” and interesting to watch, although I’d have perhaps liked to have been a little further away from the action. What seemed to be happening would be that somehow they would clear a large space in which a couple of inebriated youths would dance before there was a massive bundle like a playground game of British Bulldog. This continual expanding and contracting had the effect of pushing the old fogies further and further away from the stage.

One of the great things about new bands is they have virtually no material to play and so it was last night. By the time the lads had rattled through their first album and a couple of covers they had managed to fill an hour and a quarter. Even I can stand for that length of time!

What was that? You want to know what the music was like? You see here’s the thing, by the end of the third track my ears were buzzing so much that I couldn’t make out much at all. I know that they played Black Magic, Junk Food Forever, Palace and most of the rest of the album but it was just a fuzzy mass of noise. Part of that is the acoustics in the Hexagon which are right up there with Wembley Arena for awful sound. It’s also because it was just so loud that my ears couldn’t take it.

So, to recap. The Amazons are great. The Hexagon is awful as a music venue. I’m getting too old for this!

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

I was lucky that my boys were exactly the right age for the phenomenon that was the Harry Potter books. Each time a new one came out they would eagerly await their arrival from Amazon on the day of their release. We would order two copies to ensure that they could be read in parallel.

For me the books were an entertaining work of fiction from an inventive mind that inspired my children to read for which I was grateful. I didn’t think much about the detail that was written in them, dismissing it as nothing more than a work of fiction, until today that is.

Today we visited the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition that is on in the British Library. Like everything else that is Harry Potter related it was sold out a while ago and having been I can say that’s with good reason.

The exhibition merges the fiction of JK Rowling with the “factual” magical history from centuries of books and other artifacts. There were historical records including a six foot long scroll with the recipe to make your own philosopher’s stone and the first known reference to a hippogriff in print alongside original drawings and pages from notebooks from JK Rowling.

What came as a surprise to me (apart from that Rowling is a pretty good artist) was just how much of what you might describe as the background detail in the books is based on “fact”. I had assumed that the books were just a product of her imagination but, no, there is much there which is based on hundreds of years of mythology. Obviously not Quidditch or Hogwarts but much else and there must have been so much research that went into it to give the books an air of authenticity.

The event was very well laid out with rooms dedicated to lessons, so divination, potions etc. with each having a number of related and relevant artifacts in cabinets around the walls with one centerpiece. This layout, however, presented the biggest problem for me because while it wasn’t overly crowded everyone was crushed against the wall cabinets. Patience was required as you queued to get access to the next cabinet.

The whole thing was fascinating and I would have loved to have gone round alone to get better views of some things. Best bit? The empty cabinet with just a simple hook at the top and the card saying “Invisibility Cloak”!

And yes, when you have finished, it does exit via the gift shop where you can buy a copy of the official book at twice the price that you’ll find it on Amazon!

Seville 2018 – Day Four – (not so) Open all Hours

One thing that never ceases to amaze me when visiting Mediterranean countries is the odd opening hours kept by the shops here. To be honest I still haven’t worked out exactly when, or in some cases, even if they DO open. There is, of course, the loooooonnnnnng siesta that is taken from about 11 AM to 5 PM but not many seem to be open that early in the morning. Nor do they seem to be open that late in the evening to compensate for the lack of being open any time in the afternoon. How do the places make any money?

The shops here also seem to be very individualistic unlike the incessant chain stores that are to be found in the UK. A small haberdashers, a butchers, bag shop etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t chain stores here, including the ubiquitous Costa, but it is mainly small stores that never seem to open.

By this stage we had pretty much “done” all that we wanted to do in Seville with the exception of going into the cathedral. So we went over at opening time (11 AM, it seems the Catholic Church isn’t keen on early starts either) to get a head start but there was already a sizeable queue there. After dithering a bit and having a coffee we finally joined the queue and eventually got inside.

As I hinted at yesterday I am not a huge fan of the over-blown style of Catholic churches and the Seville cathedral very much fitted into this category. The adjoining tower, however, was interesting and would have been perfect were it not for the rude tourists that we had to share it with. They all seemed to be from the same country which I won’t name lest I slight the wrong one but they weren’t a great advert for whichever country it was.

The afternoon was spent pottering before taking an open top bus ride around the city. While the weather has been very pleasant for a January it was probably still a bit too chilly for an open top bus. We did, however, get to see parts of the city we had not previously explored. This included the areas built for Expo ’92 and the cantilevered Alamillo Bridge. Like every country the highlights were bigged up as the biggest, best, first etc. but there was a bout of honesty when describing the bridge. There was, it seems, supposed to be a twin bridge but due to “economic difficulties” it was never built. The architect was said to be “extremely disappointed”!

So that’s Seville done. I can imagine coming back here again and revisiting the Alkazar and other sights. It was also very pleasant to get some vitamin D so early in the year. It’s going to be a struggle returning to the UK where it is currently snowing.

Seville 2018 – Day Three – Cordoba

Today we left Seville behind and got the train to Cordoba. The station at Seville is a thoroughly modern affair, clean and efficient. By the time we reached the train we’d been through an airport like security check and had our tickets checked twice. The latter seemed very much like a job creation scheme to me. The train too was modern, clean and fast with bags of room – so the complete antithesis of anything in the UK.

On arrival in Cordoba we walked through a tree lined green space that went right down to the Alkezar. Unlike yesterday this one was a small affair with none of the geometric patterns that fascinated me so but it did have some nice mosaics on the wall in a church which looked as if they’d been on the floor somewhere at some point.

Whenever you mention Cordoba to anyone that has been there they always say “oh that’s the place with the church inside a mosque… or is it mosque inside a church?!” For the record it’s a church inside a mosque and we went there next. The mosque was another thing of beauty. A simple, clean open space with repeated pillars joined by red and white striped tops. And there, right in the centre of this beautiful mosque, was a garish Christian church. It was incredibly ornate with all the bling that you associate with the Catholic church. It was jarring to see it where it was but fascinating at the same time.

Our next stop was the Roman bridge. This seemed to be a bit of a con to me as the deck of the bridge was definitely not Roman in fact it looked very twentieth century to me. Peering over the edge and looking down what I saw could have been Roman but who knows?

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the beautifully maintained pedestrian streets. There is a very simple palette of colours used both here and in Seville consisting of white, terracotta, sandstone and blue. It all looks very appealing, especially in the warm January sun.

The temperature has been just right for us over the last few days getting to about 20 degrees. If I find it pleasant in January that tells me that it is going to be pretty hot in the summer. And while I am happy to go around in a jumper you can tell the locals as they are the ones in the bobble hats and scarves!

Seville 2018 – Day Two – Moorish

The hotel we are staying in is lovely, especially as we are in a “junior suite” which has a separate lounge as well as the bedroom. We weren’t supposed to be in a suite but swapped with the mother-in-law so that she could have the bath that the standard room we had paid for offered. Result! When it comes to hotels we are, to be honest, cheapskates. We regard it as somewhere to sleep and so given we spend so little time there it doesn’t have to be that posh, just clean and tidy.

Similarly we won’t overpay for breakfast. The current hotel want €16 per person and there is no way I’ll ever eat that much. So we tend to wander out and find a local cafe and have a coffee and a croissant there. This is what we did today and ended up paying about €3.5 each for what was billed as coffee with croissant and marmalade. Seville is, of course, famous for its oranges and marmalade is made of said oranges. So it came as a surprise when the marmalade turned out to be jam! I suspect that this is because the Spanish for jam is mermelada.

Anyway, despite not having had my marmalade, we still went out to visit the Real Alcázar de Sevilla. The Alcázar is to Seville what the Alhambra is to Granada – a royal place left by the Moors. Unlike the castles left in England by the Normans which were boxy affairs the palaces left by the Moors are intricately detailed places with fascinating geometric designs (some shown below). It must have taken decades to achieve the quality of workmanship on display.

What appeals to me most is that sense of order and regularity. Everything seems to be in place and is aligned symmetrically with clean lines. I have always had a fascination with repeating patterns and it is still my favourite boring meeting doodle involving different sized boxes radiating out.

We wandered through the palace and the gardens before heading out and towards the Plaza de España built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. We approached it from the back and from that side it was pretty uninspiring but there was a real wow factor from the front. There is an ornate building in a U shape with the plaza in front of it which also has a small canal on which you can row. It was very attractive but it did also remind me of the front of the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas so make of that what you will!

Today was my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday and the reason for making this trip. In celebration of that we had booked to go for a special meal at a restaurant that bills itself as the oldest in Seville (they are clearly proud of this fact as the Est. 1670 is printed on everything). So it is fair to say that they have had plenty of time to get the experience just right.

I knew before we arrived that the place was going to be quirky. It is basically a bar with a couple of small rooms at the back sat out as a restaurant. If you are at the bar area you can only stand but you can have tapas. The rooms, such that they were, at the back are seated but there is a more traditional menu. We arrived and it was packed, always a good sign that somewhere is popular. We had difficultly attracting someones attention to get our table but finally tracked it down and seated ourselves.

Menus were provided in a number of languages so this made it relatively straight forward for us to be able to choose a starter and main course each. When the old fella that was to be waiter for the evening finally deigned to take our order it was quickly obvious that we were to be an inconvenience to him. When one of our party couldn’t find again the in the menu with the item he wanted the waiter let out a very audible sigh and rolled his eyes!

When the food started to arrive it came in dribs and drabs rather than all at once. So first the quick and easy cold cuts came. Fair enough we thought, next must be the rest of the hot starters. This was confirmed in our minds when next arrived a soup. At this point there seemed little point in wait so those that had their starters started. While we were not more that a few bites into these than the main courses began to appear (and far too quickly to have been cooked from fresh I felt). This led to some interesting juggling of plates as the table wasn’t big enough to accommodate all that had been ordered. Finally all the main courses had arrived but we were still short of one starter – mine of course. This finally arrived pretty much as I was half way through my main.

It should be said that the food was very good even if it did arrive in a peculiar order. Had we been having tapas it might not have been a surprise but given the menu was laid out into starters and main it was very odd. We got the bill and went to pay by card. The waiter arrived with the card machine and no sooner had he done so but another waiter came over and sent him away so off he went without a word but another obvious huff. We were left with no idea what had happened and had to wait another five minutes before he arrived back again and finally took payment.

All in all it was an entertaining meal!

Seville 2018 – Day One – Oranges

Our first trip in 2018 is for some early sunshine in the Spanish town of Seville. I can’t remember the last time we went away so soon after Christmas but based on today’s experience I might be tempted to do it more often.

Getting here required an early flight on the smallest plane I have been on since my honeymoon to Guernsey some 27 years ago. At least this time there was somewhere in the hold for luggage. On that occasion our bags were placed behind netting at the front of the plane! To go with the small plane was the small airport and we were through passport control and out in next to no time. Let’s hope it’s the same in Orlando in April…

It’s an odd experience to board a plane with the temperature being close to freezing and grey and to step off at the other end and it be (almost) tee-shirt weather and brilliant blue skies. The other thing that is a little different is that this time we are here with my mother-in-law and her husband to celebrate her birthday.

Armed with approximately zero Spanish we managed to get a taxi from the airport to the hotel. Even without a shared language the driver did manage to mime how pleased he was to see the sun. Not as pleased as I was I can assure you!

The afternoon was spent orienting ourselves and trying not to do too much that we have allocated for other days of the holiday. Normally decisions on where to go are relatively straightforward with only two of us travelling. As on this occasion there are four of us and more weight is given to the birthday girl it is more, complex.

In the evening we went out to a local tapas restaurant that had been recommended by the hotel. Unfortunately it was still closed post New Year (that must have been one hell of a party!) and so we moved onto the next one on the list. This too was shut but only because it was still early as far as the Spanish were concerned (it was just before 8pm). We walked on and found ourselves in an open plaza with a number of restaurants around it. We rejected a few before finding one that looked welcoming and ate there.

Even as we walked the short walk back to the hotel it was a pleasant temperature and you could easily forget that it is still January. It is going to be a real shock to the system when we get back to the UK on Sunday!