Thoughts of a geek

9 February 2013

2012 in review

Filed under: Lists, Me — Tags: , , , , , , — qwandor @ 10:47 am

At the start of last year I wrote out some objectives for the year. This is a bit late being February already, but now that it is 2013 it is time to review how they worked out over the year. So going through the list from that post:

  • See some more of the world: I did see some more of the world. I did the east coast trip, and caught up with Teresa, Jordan and Kirsten. Unfortunately I did not manage to see Dave or Carlton, or various other people further away. It was enjoyable, I saw some new things (Niagara Falls, museums in DC, Boston…), met some new people, and had some fun dances. I went to Poland and Hungary, which ticks off the two more European countries. Though I think my intent with this was to take two trips, so I did not quite do that. I toured around Scotland for 9 days with my parents, which was excellent (apart from the rain), and we saw lots of beautiful scenery and castles. The only new place I went in the UK other than that was down to the Isle of Wight with some interns and other Googlers, which was pleasant enough.
    • Visit the east coast of the US / Canada, and see at least 3 of the 5 friends I know over that way: 0.9
    • Visit at least 2 more European countries: 0.8
    • Visit Scotland: 1.0
    • Visit 2 more places in the UK: 0.5

    Overall: 0.8

  • Improve my dancing (and enjoy it): Dance-wise, I did a couple of workshops and a few classes in Balboa, but then did not keep it up or get practice much. I have not really done any in the last six months or so. I have done a fair bit of Lindy and blues though, including going to several weekend festivals (Blues Shakedown, Berlin Blues Explosion, Blues Baby Blues). I went to LSF again as well, though did not find it as good as 2011. I did a bit of Lindy in Wellington while I was back, and it made it along to one night of NZX up in Auckland as well. Getting friends along proved a bit more difficult. Oh, and I managed to find some Lindy or blues in Toronto, Krakow, and of course New York City when I was there (which were variable, but interesting nonetheless), plus a great contra in Princeton.
    • Learn at least one new dance this year (probably Balboa): 0.3
    • Go out for social swing (Lindy Hop) dancing regularly: 1.0
    • Take some classes / workshops to improve my blues: 1.0
    • Do some swing and/or blues with friends while I am back in NZ visiting: 0.8
    • Go to the London Swing Festival again: 1.0

    Overall: 0.8

  • Work out where I stand with God, and what that means: No progress on this one really.
    • Discuss more with some friends. Not sure exactly what: 0.2
    • Finish reading some of the books that are on my shelf, and write up some responses to them: 0.1

    Overall: 0.1

  • Improve my social life, and build and maintain a good group of friends with whom I regularly do things: I had a people over for a barbecue for my birthday. I cannot remember what else, maybe that was all?
    • Host at least 3 social gatherings (parties / dinners / whatever) at my flat: 0.3
    • Any other ideas I come up with: 0.0

    Overall: 0.2

  • Improve how I dress: I bought a suit to wear to Daniel and Sharon’s wedding, and have not worn it since. It felt awkward. Otherwise no improvements to my fashion sense or wardrobe.
    • Buy a suit, or at least something a bit more formal, for the odd occasion when that might be necessary: 0.8
    • Find other ways to improve in general: 0.0

    Overall: 0.4

  • Maintain other hobbies: I did some baking, but do not think I made stuff for other people as often as once a month sadly. I did not do any work on theQuotebook, Fridge or anything else, nor any further electronics projects.
    • Bake something for other people at least once a month, preferably more often: 0.4
    • Do some work on my existing programming projects such as theQuotebook and Fridge: 0.0
    • Do some work on electronics projects, such as the paper keyboard I started on last year, some kind of floor instrument, or something else based on the Teensy: 0.0

    Overall: 0.1

I have some ideas for this year as well (and have even started on one of them), but I will leave that for another post, and I think I will organise them differently.

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30 December 2012

4 months

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 3:29 am

It has been ages since I last posted, so I guess it is high time I wrote something again. A have done a fair bit in the mean time:

The weekend after my trip to Amsterdam was Blues Shakedown, a blues dance exchange in London with 8 different bands plus plenty of DJs playing for lots of dancing all weekend. I was a little apprehensive as it was the first such event I had been to, but it was great fun and I was very glad I went. I definitely plan to go again next year assuming I am still around by then.

My parents came to visit in September. On first arriving in the country they spent a week by themselves in a cottage in the Lakes District, then I met them up in Glasgow and we spent a week driving around Scotland, visiting Glasgow, Oban, Skye, Inverness, Pitlochry and Edinburgh. Scotland is pretty, and it was nice to see some hills again; London is much too flat for my taste. The west coast of Scotland has particularly nice scenery, and reminded me a lot of parts of New Zealand. We saw lots of castles, lots of rain, and a fair few lochs and hills. There are plenty of photos in the usual place.

From Glasgow

They then spent another week by themselves in the Peaks District before continuing on down to London to stay with me for a week. It was nice to finally be able to show them around some of the city I have been living in for more than two and a half years now, and we went out to see a musical and a play as well (Singing in the Rain, and One Man, Two Guvnors; both were good). They then spent another week enjoying the warm weather in Greece before heading home via Singapore.

Shortly after my parents left London I headed to Berlin for Berlin Blues Explosion, the first weekend in October. It was also good fun, if rather exhausting. I met some nice new people there too.

On 20th–26th October my friend Chris Wood came to stay and see a bit of London. He was over from NZ for work, so stayed on a little as a tourist while he was over this side of the world.

Warsaw: With Andrzej and Małgorzata

I then flew to Warsaw the night of the 26th, to spend 9 days travelling around Poland and Hungary, catching up with a few friends and seeing some new places. I stayed with Agnieszka (who had been an intern at Google London) in Warsaw, and also caught up with Małgorzata and Andrzej, whom I met through Charlotte in Uppsala last year. Apparently it had been around 20°C the week before I arrived, but when I got there it was below 0, and it was snowing much of the time I was there, which made sightseeing less pleasant. Nonetheless it was interesting to see Warsaw, and I had a really good hot chocolate (with ginger and orange) at a nice café there. On Sunday we took a daytrip to Lublin, and then on Tuesday night flew down to Budapest where we stayed a couple of nights with a friend of Agnieszka’s.

From Budapest: Looking out from Gellért Hill

Budapest was beautiful, though unfortunately quite rainy. Not as cold as Warsaw at least, though. The photos tell most of the story. On Thursday evening we flew up to Krakow and I stayed 3 nights there in a backpackers’ hostel, but unfortunately Agnieszka was not feeling well and had to go home early. Along with the usual sightseeing and a couple of guided walking tours of the city, I met up with Nina (whom I had met at the aforementioned Berlin Blues Explosion a few weeks earlier) and some of her friends. She happened to have a friend in town for the weekend as well, so the 3 of us plus another of her friends did a bit of sightseeing together, which was nice. It also happened that the friend, Jordan, was planning a visit to London later in the year, which worked out well as I was then able to show her around London.

Back in London, the London Jazz Festival was on so I went to a couple of different free gigs as part of that: on Saturday 10th November there were 3 different bands playing at the Royal Festival Hall, and on Sunday there were 4 bands, all from Finland, playing at the Barbican. Unfortunately there were big gaps inbetween their sets, so I left after the first couple, but they were all good music.

The following weekend was time for yet more blues dancing, with Blues Baby Blues happening in London. I really enjoyed it, learnt quite a bit I think, and again made some new friends.

I had been thinking for some time lately about changing churches, for a number of reasons, and so in November I decided to check out All Souls Langham Place again. It is a large central London church, near Oxford Circus, and some of you may know it as the church where John Stott was rector for some time, and closely associated with until his death. I had been to All Souls a few times in the past, and was always impressed with the quality of the preaching and depth of thought that seems to go into everything, but this time I also found it to be quite friendly, more so than I had noticed in the past. So I went along to an open evening to learn a bit more about the church, and have now started attending regularly. It seems like a really good church so far, so if any of you reading this are in London, you should come along with me to a service there some time!

I had three different American Thanksgiving meals this year. There was a Thanksgiving themed lunch at work on Thursday 22nd November, which was alright. That evening an American couple I am friends with, Sean and Sarah, had invited me to a Thanskgiving dinner at their place with about 12 or so people. Sarah and a friend of hers had cooked an amazing meal, and the company was good too. Then on the following Saturday another American friend (Jennifer) hosted a pot-luck Thanksgiving meal at her flat, which was also full of tasty food. There was just so much of it! At first there was a reasonable amount of food, but then people kept arriving with more and more pies and cakes, and despite all eating too much there was still heaps left over.

The next weekend Jordan (the friend of Nina’s whom I met in Krakow) was in town. She is from Texas but spending the year working in a small town in Poland, and trying to travel around Europe as much as she can. She arrived late Friday night and left Sunday morning, so only had the Saturday to see London, but we managed to fit a lot in: starting at Baker Street we walked through Regent’s Park, up Primrose Hill, along Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, then spent a while wandering through much of the Camden markets. We then took the Tube down to Leicester Square for a quick around there, Chinatown and Trafalgar Square, along The Mall for a brief glance at Buckingham Palace, back through St. James’s Park, past the Horse Guards, along Whitehall, Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey, Dean’s Yard, then across Westminster Bridge. We walked all along the Southbank, with a brief walk through the Tate Modern, a detour through Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral, then across Tower Bridge for a look around the Tower of London. We discovered a little church there which I had noticed before, which had a small free museum in its crypt, featuring among other things some original Roman tilework. We then walked past St. Paul’s Cathedral to poke our heads in, by which point it was getting dark already, so we just had a quick look at some of the remnants of London Wall around the Barbican before heading home. Not bad for a day’s looking around though! I think that may well have been the most of London I have managed to show someone in a single day.

In December we had two work Christmas parties, one just for engineering at the Natural History Museum Earth Hall, and one for all London Googlers at some big club on the Southbank. The latter was extremely crowded much of the time, but the snowball fight was fun.

Christmas itself was pretty low-key. All my flatmates except for Steph were away with their families in various different places, and Steph had her sister and father visiting. Unfortunately her father only speaks German, and I only speak English, which made conversation rather limited. On Christmas Day itself I just went to church in the morning, then went to visit a friend for a bit in the afternoon, for some tasty lasagne. Boxing day was even less eventful. Work has been pretty quiet all this week, especially on Monday, but hopefully more people will be back next week.

Well I guess that is all my news for now. Next up, what to do this year… any suggestions?

8 September 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 6:20 am

Monday 27th August was a bank holiday, so I went to Amsterdam for the long weekend. Unfortunately it rained a lot for most of the weekend, with Saturday and Sunday alternating between torrential downpours and nice sunny weather every half hour or so. Other than that it was a good trip though, and I got to see some interesting things, as perhaps you have already seen in my photos.

Amsterdam: A well-known sign of the city’s slogan

It happened coincidentally that one of the interns who is working at Google London over the summer — a girl from New York named Erica — had also decided to go to Amsterdam that same weekend. We had each booked independently several weeks beforehand, but discovered the day before that we were both going there when another intern mentioned it to me. A number of other Googlers also happened to be in and around Amsterdam the same weekend, but they were busy with other things, so the two of us met up to walk around sightseeing together most of Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning. We were staying in different parts of the city but not too far away. There also happened coincidentally to be a free music and arts festival on that weekend called Uitmarkt, so we went to see and listen to some of that at various points on Saturday and Sunday. Among other things the Holland Symphonia was playing a selection of Eurovision hits on the Saturday night, and songs from various popular musicals on Sunday night. A few of the latter were in English but most were in Dutch, so it was funny to hear songs I recognised (like those from Wicked) but in a different language. There were also songs from The Sound of Music, The Little Mermaid, Fame, The Buddy Holly Story, Yab Yum, and various others.

Amsterdam: Songs from Wicked in Dutch

We went to the Amsterdam Museum on Saturday to escape the rain for a while, which was reasonably interesting. Among other things they had models of houses from different periods of Dutch history. We also walked around a number of parks, which were nice but no doubt would have been much nicer had it not been raining much of the time.

Amsterdam: We came across this strange playground equipment on Saturday

On Sunday we took a daytrip to Volendam and Edam, which are nice old towns a short distance out of Amsterdam, with more traditional architecture (and lots of tourists). It was cool to see what we could in-between the downpours. I had been advised that it is nice to bike up there, but the weather being what it was we decided to catch a bus instead. Later in the afternoon we visited the NEMO science museum, which I found a bit disappointing. It was mostly just the standard basic science stuff, not terribly well done, and very much aimed at kids. Definitely nothing to compare to the Science Museum in London or the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the latter still being probably my favourite museum of any that I have visited.

Amsterdam: Little houses in the old town of Volendam

Funnily enough, on the Sunday night as I was sitting on a couch in the youth hostel, catching up on Facebook, Twitter and IRC before going to bed, there happened to be a Chinese girl sitting to my right with her Mac. Looking over her shoulder she seemed to be compiling something and reading something programming-related online. After a while we ended up chatting, and it turned out she was working through Stripe CTF 2.0, a set of web app cracking puzzles. Furthermore, it happened that she also lives in New York and studies computer science at Columbia. I mentioned that I had a couple of friends doing their PhDs at Columbia, and sure enough it turned out that she was friends with Erica but did not know that she was in Amsterdam at the same time. So, we ended up working together on the cracking puzzle for a bit before I went to bed, and then the three of us toured together for a bit on the Monday morning and early afternoon before Erica and I had to catch our respective flights back to London. Monday was thankfully sunny so we walked around some parks and nice areas in the east central part of Amsterdam, and bought some Stroopwafel as I had been instructed by one of the other interns who used to study in Amsterdam. We also took a free ferry across the harbour to see what was on the other side, but it was not particularly exciting.

Amsterdam: Strange creatures we came across

26 April 2012

Decisions, decisions

Filed under: Me — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 6:45 am

I moved to London in May 2010 for various reasons. Partly because Jordan and Josiah told me to (hmm…), partly because I was not sure what was next in life so I thought a change might be helpful, partly to travel and see the world a bit, partly because I did not seem to be getting anywhere in Wellington on several fronts. I originally was planning to stay for between 6 months and a year, get whatever job I could find, travel as much as possible, and then head back home to Wellington. I ended up getting a better job than I expected, and found the travelling bit to be much more time-consuming than expected (particularly planning and organising everything) and so did not get as much done as I had thought I would.

It is now 23 months later, and I still have not done as much travelling as I would like or feel like I should, but am not keen on the idea of staying in London long term either. I have still not worked out what to do with my life. A number of things which I am dissatisfied with include:

  • I am not finding the project I have been working on at work all that interesting, fulfilling, or in an area I want to focus on.
  • My flat has numerous problems (the kitchen not being very nice to cook in and living areas not being particularly conducive to community are probably the biggest issues for me, though how cold and damp it gets in winter is a close runner-up). It is not possible to find a flat in London which is all three of nice, affordable and in a convenient location. Even finding two out of three is tricky.
  • People are almost always very busy with work, travel or various other commitments, and also tend to be a bit more reserved than those in e.g. New Zealand. This makes it difficult to make friends, and even once one does have friends or at least acquaintances they hardly ever have any time to actually meet up or do anything. Some people are always busy with work, some are travelling a lot, some are booked up months in advance; for one reason or another pretty much everyone is busy. Even organising weeks in advance people are usually busy, or will cancel at the last minute. Not that this is never a problem anywhere else, but it seems to be worse in London in my experience.
  • The city is just generally big, crowded, dirty, noisy and unfriendly. There are no beaches, no hills, and I cannot really go walking about barefoot. The parks are good but not really comparable to Wellington’s town belt.

On the other hand, there are many good things about London, and this side of the world in general:

  • Lots of great museums, art galleries, and some fairly decent parks
  • Lots happening to see and do — plays, musicals, live music, dancing, festivals, and pretty much anything one might be interested in
  • Cheap and fast Internet connectivity
  • Amazon MP3 store, free last.fm radio, iPlayer, and other online services that are not available in NZ
  • Cheaper music than NZ, cheap or free delivery from Amazon and various other online stores, and some other cheaper things too
  • Cheap and quick flights to pretty much anywhere in Europe

On that note, and a particular dislike of cold dark winters in London, I am pondering moving on at the end of the year. Though there are yet things which could keep me here, your advice (dear readers!), would be much valued. Some options I am considering — with varying degrees of likelihood, and not actually in any particular order — are should I:

  1. Keep working at Google in London
    1. On Offers
    2. Transfer to another team
  2. Transfer to Google somewhere else
    1. Sydney
    2. New York
    3. (where else?)
  3. Do an MSc in Computer Science
    1. At VUW
    2. At Auckland University, Canterbury, or somewhere else in NZ
    3. Somewhere in London, maybe Imperial
    4. Somewhere else in the UK
    5. Somewhere in Australia
    6. Somewhere in Europe
  4. Do some sort of diploma or certificate in theology, or something similarly God-related.
    1. At Laidlaw in Auckland
    2. Somewhere else (where?)
  5. Move back to NZ and look for a job (at what company?)
    1. In Wellington
    2. In Auckland

Any advice? Comments? Suggestions for other options? Things to consider?

This also means that I need to get on with seeing as much as possible on this side of the world before I leave.

7 January 2012

Objectives and Key Results

Filed under: Christianity, Me, Travel — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 8:23 am

At work we plan each quarter by writing Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs for short. The idea is that there are a number of broad objectives, then specific quantifiable and measurable key results that achieve them. So I thought I would try writing some personal OKRs here, though for the year rather than just a quarter. These are more a draft than anything fixed, so I would much appreciate any advice about how to achieve them, what else I should try to do, or anything else.

It is a bit late, this already being 2012, but that is like work too. The top level points are the objectives, the second level are the key results.

  • See some more of the world.
    • Visit the east coast of the US / Canada, and see at least 3 of the 5 friends I know over that way.
    • Visit at least 2 more European countries.
    • Visit Scotland.
    • Visit 2 more places in the UK
  • Improve my dancing (and enjoy it)
    • Learn at least one new dance this year (probably Balboa)
    • Go out for social swing (Lindy Hop) dancing regularly
    • Take some classes / workshops to improve my blues
    • Do some swing and/or blues with friends while I am back in NZ visiting
    • Go to the London Swing Festival again
  • Work out where I stand with God, and what that means.
    • Discuss more with some friends. Not sure exactly what.
    • Finish reading some of the books that are on my shelf, and write up some responses to them.
    • Any other advice?
  • Improve my social life, and build and maintain a good group of friends with whom I regularly do things
    • Host at least 3 social gatherings (parties / dinners / whatever) at my flat
    • Hmm, not sure what else to do towards this, any suggestions?
  • Improve how I dress
    • Buy a suit, or at least something a bit more formal, for the odd occasion when that might be necessary
    • Hmm, not sure about this one either, any advice?
  • Maintain other hobbies
    • Bake something for other people at least once a month, preferably more often.
    • Do some work on my existing programming projects such as theQuotebook and Fridge.
    • Do some work on electronics projects, such as the paper keyboard I started on last year, some kind of floor instrument, or something else based on the Teensy.

Well, does anyone have any suggestions about how to achieve some of these, or other things I should aim for?

21 November 2011

Blog it more

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , — qwandor @ 11:28 am

I guess I should continue the no-doubt-fascinating story of my life, starting back at the beginning of September where I left off. I got back from Spain on Sunday 4th September, and straight back into work as usual. The following weekend was the Thames Festival, which happens each year along the Southbank, with four zones of music, dancing, stalls, performances and all sorts of things from noon until midnight or so on both Saturday and Sunday. I went for some of the Saturday, which was enjoyable. Swing Patrol was running various things on an outdoor dancefloor with various DJs and bands, including some performances which were interesting to watch, and free beginners’ lessons for the public. I also managed to get a little bit of dancing in which was nice. And there was plenty of other things going on, making it a particularly good afternoon to just wander along the Southbank. That Saturday evening my flatmate Donna had her 40th birthday party in a bar near our flat, with an open mic night. She has quite a few talented friends who sang or played various songs, plus poetry readings which were not so much my thing.

I had a pizza and pancake party on the 18th, which was fun despite not that many people coming. We made all sorts of interesting flavoured pizzas, including a dessert pizza with custard and many different sorts of fruit, and so in the end everyone was too full for pancakes. Well, maybe next time?

From Pizza & pancake party

My birthday was rather uneventful, as I could not find any friends to hang out with in the end. This was partly my fault due to not planning anything very far in advance, as people are always busy and booked up here. My flatmates made me breakfast and gave me a card and some gifts though, which was unexpected and pleasant. And I went out by myself in the evening rather than staying at home by myself, which I guess is an improvement.

I went to Paris for the first weekend of October, which was enjoyable. My friend Matthew was going over that weekend to stay with his parents, and had invited me to join him, so we took the Eurostar over after work on the Friday night. I stayed for two nights as I had to get back for work on Monday, while he stayed a bit longer. Unfortunately he had an overdue report for his PhD which he ended up having to work on all weekend so I was mostly on my own exploring the city, but it was still fun to see a bit more of Paris, and to meet his parents and various siblings, who were all cool. The weather was perfect too, clear and sunny the whole time. It happened that the Saturday night I was there was the annual ‘Nuit Blanche’ (White Night), an all-night arts festival with various installations and performances running from 7:00 pm until 7:00 am on Sunday. Neither of us had the energy to stay up that late, and there were massive queues for many things, but we saw a few things after dinner until around midnight.

Paris, take 2: The Petit Palais

The following weekend (well, Friday 7th October) I flew over to Sweden for a week travelling around. I spent the first few nights in Uppsala staying with a kiwi friend of mine (Charlotte) who is over there on exchange at Uppsala University, and meeting a bunch of other international students there. Although I saw lots of interesting things around the place during the week, I think the evenings in Uppsala hanging out with a bunch of cool people from all over the world were my favourite. And I got to bake for them, which I do not get to do nearly enough of! I made the ever-popular chocolate fudge pudding, a giant muffin-cake for lack of muffin trays, and pancakes another night. One night we made pizza together, which is always fun and tasty. I am getting the impression that pizza is the Polish national dish, at least several of my Polish friends like making it. Around the dinner table we had a couple of Germans, a couple of Americans, a couple of Polish people, the two of us Kiwis, and later a Chinese girl. All good fun sorts.

Uppsala: International pizza eaters

While in staying in Uppsala I spent a couple of days down in Stockholm looking around, and went again to the Vasa museum where about 20 years previously (so my parents tell me) I set off an alarm by opening a door I was not supposed to. Oops. I managed to avoid that this time, I guess I have learnt something in the past 20 years. There were plenty of other things to see too, but my photos tell that story better than writing it all down so check them out if you have not already. Though unfortunately the batteries in my camera were flat for my first day in Stockholm so I did not get many photos then.

Stockholm: The Vasa in its eponymous museum

We then flew to Oslo, Norway, where we stayed a night in a big flat with a bunch of Christian students at one of the universities there, whom Charlotte had a contact with from the IFES conference she went to earlier in the year. That was cool; it happened that the night we were there they were having a dinner and games night with a bunch of the students living there and the adjacent houses, so we got to join in for that, and even sing some hymns in Norwegian which was cool. We also managed to see some of the main sights of the city, including the opera house (the roof of which slopes up from ground level, so you can walk up to the top and admire the view, and the famous sculpture park).

Oslo: Sculptures in the park

After that we took the bus down to Ljungskile to stay a night with an old family friend, a woman named Lena who stayed with my parents in NZ when I was about 8 or so I guess. It was interesting to catch up a little, before we headed on to Göteborg in the morning to continue the touristing. The highlight of Göteborg for me was the Maritiman, a maritime museum consisting of a collection of various military and civilian boats, barges and a submarine moored together in the harbour (19 in all plus a crane), most of which you are able to wander all through. The submarine was very cool, though also very cramped. Living in a submarine for any length of time must be rather uncomfortable. There was also a destroyer, which was enormous and mazelike with 8 different levels in total.

Göteborg: Bunks and torpedoes in the submarine at the Maritiman

After a night in Göteborg it was on to Lund to stay with another friend of Charlotte’s for a couple of nights, during which we explored Lund, Malmö and very briefly a bit of Copenhagen. They were all interesting, but now it is late and I cannot be bothered saying any more than I already have with the photos, so ask me if you want to know more.

Planking in Malmö

I flew back to London on the evening of Sunday 16th, ready for work on Monday. Since then I have not left the city again, and am not looking likely to until Christmas at the earliest. Though I do not have any firm plans for Christmas yet. One of the American guys I met in Uppsala is coming to stay for a week just before Christmas, which should be cool.

I have been sick with what I assume is the flu, which has been a pain. I took a day off work last week because of it, would have taken longer but could not because there is too much to do and I had already been working late. I spent much of last weekend in bed but am mostly better now, just a bit of a cough and stuffy nose remaining. Unfortunately I missed the Lord Mayor’s Show last weekend on account of being sick, but this weekend was great, the best in a while. The London Jazz Festival was on this past week, finishing today (Sunday), and I got to a couple of the free concerts at the Southbank Centre yesterday afternoon, and another this afternoon. Then there was church this evening, dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, various chores, all in all a full and fun weekend. So life is good at the moment despite work being a bit crazy busy just now! And I get to cook for people on Tuesday night next week, which I have not done for ages, so that should be good.

6 November 2011

Blog it all, continued

Filed under: Travel — Tags: , , , , , , — qwandor @ 11:25 am

Continuing on from my last post, a few days after I got back from Switzerland (back in August, still), a couple of friends from NZ came to visit for a few days each. One was on the way (rather indirectly) to Canda, while the other was just visiting the UK. It was great to see both, and a good excuse to go and see a play (Anne Boleyn) at the Globe, take a day trip to Oxford, and have a lovely sunny picnic in Hyde Park. We also went to BBC Prom number 50. The BBC Proms are an annual series of classical music concerts every summer, where standing (so-called ‘promming’, for promenading) tickets are available on the day for £5. The one we went to had some contemporary classical music, which I did not particularly enjoy, followed by Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, which I did really enjoy. In Oxford we went got to see the bible that Anne Boleyn owned in an exhibition at the Bodleian Library, which was particularly cool after having just seen the play about her.

Oxford: Me by Oxford’s ‘bridge of sighs’

A couple of days after everyone had left, on Saturday 27th August, I went to Spain for a week with a friend from London. This made for a rather hectic time of things, but it was interesting to see all sorts of things. We spent a couple of nights in Sevilla, where I particularly enjoyed the old town (it reminded me a bit of Venice, with all the maze of crooked narrow streets, except without the canals of course). We then had 3 nights in Madrid, exploring the city. It has quite a buzz at night, and there is a great park called the Parque del Retiro which was my favourite part of the city. We then had a night in a cool little hostel in Valencia, which seemed like the friendliest of the places we stayed. There is great big beach too, where I went swimming in the lovely warm water. Just a pity there is no surf. Finally we spent 2 nights in Barcelona. I was not particularly keen on the city, it seemed too noisy and dirty, but I did really enjoy seeing all the Gaudi architecture, particularly Park Güell and most of all the Sagrada Família.

Sagrada Família is an amazing cathedral, the construction of which started with Gaudi in 1883, and currently planned to be finished in 2026, 100 years after Gaudi’s death. It is absolutely amazing, and full of symbolism, all sorts of interesting geometrical considerations, and so much detail! It has (or will have) 3 facades. The Nativity facade representing Jesus’s birth, on the side facing the sunrise, has many ornately sculptured scenes, with hundreds if not thousands of different plants and animals, most made from plaster casts of dead or living specimens. On the opposite side, facing the sunset, is the Passion facade representing Jesus’s death. In start contrast to the ornate and organic curves and details of the Nativity facade, the Passion facade is abrupt and angular, with a bare minimum of detail. It is often described as looking like it is made of bones. It has twelve scenes representing the stations of the cross ascending in an S shape, with stylised figures of people. The third facade, which is to be the main entrance but is not yet finished, is the Glory facade. I did not get to see it as it was under construction and covered with scaffolding. Apparently the main entrance will be reached via a large staircase and tunnel under the road, representing Hell and sin.

Inside there is an amazing roof, designed to look organic like a forest canopy, with the pillars holding it up branching like tree trunks according to a geometric pattern. There are four different types of pillars in a pattern, each type being a different size, having a different number of sides, and being made of a different sort of stone. Hyperboloid windows in the roof and walls let plenty of sunlight in. There are many many other sorts of symbolism and detail in the design, some of which are detailed in a museum under the church, which also has lots of the plaster models and other things used in designing the church. All in all it is amazing, and a must-see if ever you are in Barcelona or indeed Spain, despite the queues and rather expensive entry fee. I spent about 3 hours there I think.

I took lots of photos in Spain, but unfortunately have not got around to sorting through them all to pick the best ones, label them and upload them. I should get onto that, they would tell the story better than just all this writing. But for now I should go to bed, and will continue writing the rest of this update again soon hopefully.

Blog, blog, blog it all

Well, it has been ages since last I posted here! A lot has happened in that time, where to start… Well, since July I have had my cousin Philip visit (briefly, we just caught up in a café as he had plenty of other things to see and do, but it was still nice to see him after quite some time), taken a holiday to Austria, Liechtenstein (heh) and Switzerland with Charlotte, had two friends from NZ to stay at overlapping times (which was great!), went to Spain for a week, went to some of the Thames festival, had one of my flatmates turn 40, had some friends over to make and eat pizzas and pancakes (except not very many in the end), turned 24 fairly uneventfully, baked a few cakes, spent a weekend in Paris staying with Matthew Sinclair’s parents, spent a week travelling around Sweden and briefly Norway, bought a new bike (at last) and along the way did a bit of dancing.

Austria and Switzerland were both great. My friend Charlotte from NZ, who is presently studying on exchange in Uppsala, was travelling around Europe for several weeks before she started her studies for the semester, and I was fortunate to be able to join her for part of that. We met up in Vienna on Thursday 4th August and stayed a couple of nights in a youth hostel, during which time we got around a fair bit of the city. I particularly liked the areas around the various branches of the Donau (Danube) river, the park around Schloß Schönbrunn, and the large Prater park. As well as the park itself, which has lovely grassy and forested areas and some good playgrounds, Wiener Prater has a fairly substantial amusement park. We went on a rollercoaster where you lie forwards hanging down from the track with your feet sticking out rather than sitting down, which was cool.

Vienna: Schloß Schönbrunn

From there we travelled on to Salzburg, and stayed in a hostel where they play the Sound of Music every day. We did not watch it. Salzburg was nice though, with the Hohensalzburg fortress up on the hill, a nice old town, and Schloß Hellbrunn just a short bike ride out of town. We had one lovely sunny day where it was so hot we had to find somewhere to go swimming, and then one dreary and rainy day during which we ended up going round Schloß Hellbrunn and then biking back in the rain. Sunday night we spent in Feldkirch, mostly because it was on the way to Switzerland. There was not much to do by the time we got there fairly late, but we did get to explore a glowing green power station, which was pretty cool.

Feldkirch: The hostel where we stayed was quite an old building

The next morning we took the bus across to Liechtenstein, walked down the main street of Schaan and Vaduz, then continued on to our train to Romanshorn, Switzerland. In Romanshorn we were picked up by Charlotte’s friend Sarina, whose family very kindly had us to stay in their farmhouse near Arbon. Although we did not see as much as in some of the other places on the trip, the time there was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Sarina took us biking through the beautiful Swiss countryside, through Arbon, and down to the lake Bodensee where we went swimming very briefly in the lake and then for a while longer in the nearby outdoor swimming pools, before it got too cold. And then we had a delicious homecooked dinner of raclette. The next day the three of us went to St. Gallen and had a bit of a look around before Charlotte and I caught our train to Lucerne. In particular we went into the library of the Abbey of St. Gallen, where there was an exhibition with a lot of old musical manuscripts and various texts. The room was also beautiful. Thanks Sarina!

Liechtenstein: The royal palace in Vaduz

Lucerne is a lovely little city around a lake. It has a nice old town, walls with towers around the outside (some of which we were able to climb to enjoy the view, and to walk along some of the wall), and some great mountains nearby. We stayed in a Korean hostel, which was a bit different. There was Korean fried rice for breakfast and lots of Kimchi in the fridge. We went on a paddleboat on the lake (which was rather slow) and I later walked around some of it and went for a quick swim, which was nice though a bit on the cool side. We also went up the nearby mountain Pilatus on the Wednesday, and took plenty of photos.

Lucerne: The view from one of the towers

We took the Silver Roundtrip up Pilatus. This meant catching a train to Alpnachstad, taking the cogwheel railway up Pilatus from there (the steepest in the world, apparently!), spending a fair while walking around some of the different tracks up the top of Pilatus to a few different peaks and eating out lunch, then taking three panoramic gondolas down to Kriens via Fräkmüntegg and Krienseregg. From Kriens we could then catch a bus back to Lucerne proper. It was lovely, though like everything in Switzerland rather expensive. Unfortunately our views were rather limited by the large amount of cloud all around us by the time we got to the top, but we did manage to see some things through brief gaps in it, as the photos show.

From Lucerne — Pilatus

After Lucerne we headed to Interlaken, so named because it sits between two lakes, with a river flowing through the town from one to the other. The river was an amazing translucent blue colour; I am not sure why. While there I found a couple of geocaches, and swapped a weta travel bug I picked up in London for a Swiss Army Knife one, which I later dropped off in a geocache back here. We biked out to one of the lakes for a swim, which was nice, but the highlight was surely going up Männlichen (via various small towns along the way) and admiring the view of all the different mountains around. As usual the photos tell this part of the story best.

Interlaken: See how blue the water was?

After a couple of nights in Interlaken we stayed just one night in Zürich, with a friend of Sarina’s. On the way we stopped in Berne for a few hours in the morning, and I am glad we did. It is a nice city to walk around, and we also happened to be well-timed for a tour of the Swiss parliament building there. Unfortunately the tour was in German as the English tour was at a different time of day, but they did have an English booklet for us so we could follow along with what the various rooms were.

Berne: Some shop doors at a different angle to that which I am accustomed

The night we were staying in Zürich happened to be the night of the annual street parade, which is a pretty big thing with lots of DJs on various stages around the city and then lots more DJs and bands going around on big trucks along the parade route. It was a bit crazy with so many people, and at one point we got stuck in the crowds and it took us quite some time to get back out again. But we did manage to find a nice and quieter spot to go for a swim in the lake, and also went up Üetliberg the next day to see the view of the city. Charlotte left shortly after that to continue on to Italy for the next part of her trip, while I had the afternoon to myself to enjoy a museum and walking along the lakefront promenade before catching my flight back to London.

Zürich: along the riverside

Well! I think I have written about enough for one post, so I will continue the story in another post shortly. I will get there yet! In the meantime, there are plenty of photos to look at.

23 May 2011

Italy

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 12:09 am

Oh, time flies. I was going to write about my Italy trip just after my last post, and now it is 10 days later. Well, I have been busy since then. And lazy.

So! I went to Italy. I went for 9 nights in all, over the Easter / Royal Wedding week, as there were 4 bank holidays over 2 weekends and so by taking 3 days of leave it was possible to have a total of 11 contiguous days off work. We left early on Easter Saturday, 23rd April 2011, and got back on the evening of the Early May Bank Holiday, on Monday 2nd May 2011. I guess I should start by noting that I went with my friend Vivian, and her friend Cathy. Both are American and both accountants, though Vivian lives in London at the moment. They had actually planned the trip anyway, and I was fortunate to be able to join them. Travelling with other people is nice, though it does bring its own set of challenges.

Milan: The entrance to Castello Sforzesco

Anyway, we started off by flying to Milan, where we stayed for one night. We had a wander around the city on the Saturday, and saw most of the main sights that we could find, including (as was to become the pattern of our trip) lots of beautiful churches. The castle, Castello Sforzesco, was pretty cool, and the park around it is nice too. We also made it to an interesting interactive art exhibition in front of the Duomo, in large white bubbles. There were all sorts of interesting things to see, try and listen to. On Easter Sunday we went to a service at the Duomo, which was interesting and beautiful despite having little to no idea what was going on due to it all being in Italian. We also paid our money and climbed up to the top to get a view of the city, which was worthwhile. I also bought an Italian SIM card to use in my phone for cheap 3G data. For €20 I got a prepaid SIM with 50 MB free 3G data to use per day for a year, plus some number of free SMSes and the prepaid credit itself, which was rather more than I needed but still a good deal. After a little more looking around near the Duomo we caught the train to Venice.

Milan: The Duomo is really quite spectacular

Venice was completely different, of course. We arrived at the main station on one of the islands, and decided to walk the 20 or 30 minutes or so to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. The route we took, like most routes in Venice, was rather roundabound and involved crossing many bridges, sometimes back and forth over the same canal. We also found ourselves going from crowded streets, to wide empty streets and squares, to narrow back alleys and back frequently. 3G data, a GPS and Google Maps routing came in very handy, here and for the rest of our time in Venice. Well, it was handy for all our time in Italy, but especially so in Venice.

Venice: Gondolas, of course

After checking in to the hotel the girls got some dinner while I wandered around for a bit, then we met up again and headed to the Basilica di San Marco as it was not that far away. It was a bit late to do anything much, so we just spent the evening wandering through all sorts of different streets, along the waterfront, through empty back streets and crowded streets of shops and restaurants, and over the famous Ponte de Rialto and along the main canal a bit as it got dark. One thing I did notice about Venice is that it never seemed unsafe, even at night on back streets. Perhaps it is just too expensive for the usual criminal demographic to live there. The next day we went back to the Piazza San Marco, where there happened to be a celebration of the city’s anniversary day, or something along those lines, with various military types parading around and raising the flags of the EU, Italy and Venice. We then attended part of the Easter Monday service at the Basilica, which was again beautiful if incomprehensible. After that we climbed up the bell tower to take photos and enjoy the view, then went to the Palazzo Ducale and the various other museums on the piazza. All were interesting, especially the Palazzo, but we were not allowed to take any photos inside so I have no record. For the rest of Venice, though, check out my photos! After that we picked up our bags from the hotel and caught a very crowded river bus back to the train station to head on to Florence. Unfortunately it was rather late by this point, and the only train left was a slow regional one, so it took quite a while and we arrived in Florence quite late that night. Curiously, despite Venice in most respects being one of the most expensive places in Italy, the gelato there was probably the cheapest, ranging from €1.10 to €1.50 for a small cone or cup, compared to closer to €2.00 in most other cities. Strange. Though perhaps they were smaller? I am not sure.

Venice: Looking over St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

We got to Florence late on Monday night, and went to bed as soon as we got to our hostel. Tuesday was our only full day exploring the city, and we saw plenty of things. Lots of lovely churches, again, the Duomo, and again we went up a tower and took panoramas of the city. In Piazza della Republica we found a 3D map of the central city with labels in braille, for the blind. I again tried various different flavours of gelato, all of which were yummy. We went past the Uffizi, which was really near our hotel, but even the queue to buy a ticket for a time later on was enormous and we did not want to spend our limited time waiting in a queue, so we decided to miss it. We did however make it into the Galleria dell’Accademi to see the original David, by paying extra for a 1 hour tour after which we could stay and look around by ourselves. It cost a bit but saved time waiting in line. There were also replicas of the statue in the Piazza della Signoria near the Uffizi, and in the Piazzale Michelangiolo up on the hill across the river, where we went that evening to look down over the city lights.

Florence: The Duomo at night (click the photo, it looks much better bigger!)

On Wednesday we went straight to Pisa on the train, and booked our tickets to climb up the tower. While we were waiting for our assigned timeslot we had a bit of a look around the town, which apart from the touristy bits immediately by the tower and duomo and so on is actually a nice old university town, with lots of nice old buildings and lots of students. It is a walled city, so the walls are interesting to see too, and there are the remains of some old Roman baths. When it came time we headed back to the tower and climbed up in our group. It did have a nice view, and quite a noticeable lean as we climbed the spiral staircase around and around. We also went into the Duomo and the Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), which were both nice. The Baptistery in particular is definitely worth a visit on the half hour, when one of the guards comes in and sings a few notes. It is a circular building with a domed roof, and if you sing from the right position as he does it has a quite spectacular echo. By singing different notes each for a few seconds he was able to harmonise with himself, forming chords with the still-echoing notes. After that and the obligatory tourist photos we hired bikes and biked out to the coast. Unfortunately we did not have much time to look around Marina di Pisa, but is was still an enjoyable ride. After returning the bikes we got dinner, had a little more time looking around the city as it got dark, then headed back to Florence and back to bed.

The next day we caught the train to Naples, which took a while. Our hostel in Naples was my favourite of the trip, a proper lively backpackers’ hostel with plenty of people from all sorts of places and quite friendly. It was a pity that we only stayed there one night. We were not impressed with our first impressions of Naples, getting from the train station to the hostel in rain and busy traffic, but it did somewhat redeem itself later in the day as the sun came out and we wandered around some of the nicer and more interesting streets. The staff at the hostel recommended two famous pizza places for us to check out (pizza having been invented in Naples), which we did for lunch and dinner that day. Both were very busy, hectic and quite small, with crowds waiting outside trying to get a seat. We got our pizza to take away both times rather than wait for ages. Both were nice, different to the pizza we had had elsewhere, and also the cheapest we had on the trip. They seemed very popular with locals and visitors alike. We also went to see various churches as we walked by, of course, as well as some streets of interesting shops. We made it down to the waterfront in the evening and walked past a castle, though it was closed by that point.

On Thursday we took the advice of the hostel staff to catch a bus from near the hostel straight to Pompeii scavi, taking our bags with us to store there, which they do for free when you buy your ticket to see the ruins. We spent the whole day wandering around the ruins, which are really quite extensive. The main baths are particularly well preserved, as well as many homes large and small, shops, bakeries, fora and public spaces, theatres and a brothel. It was fascinating, especially because when I was learning Latin for 3 years back at Rongotai College the textbooks we used followed the life of a boy growing up in Pompeii. Sadly I have forgotten most of the Latin I learnt, so I was not actually able to make much sense of the signs and inscriptions around the place. At the end of the day we picked up our bags, took the local train straight back to the main station in Naples, then the next train on to Rome. Unfortunately it was delayed quite a while, but we made it in the end.

Rome was full of people, even more so than the rest of the cities we visited. No doubt it is always pretty crowded and busy, but the particular weekend we went happened to be the weekend of the beatification of John Paul II at the Vatican, so there were even more visitors than normal for that. Especially Polish people. We spent the Saturday looking around some of the main sights, including the Forum area and of course the Colosseum, along with Trajan’s Column, the Arco di Costantino, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. We also happened to walk past the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice, apparently something like a supreme court), which just happened to be open to the public for a free tour just then, as part of some anniversary celebration, so we went on that. There were a lot of guards and other staff going around with the tour group, and we were fortunate to have one of the staff give us an English translation of some of what was being said. We were not allowed to take photos though. We found a nice restaurant near the Pantheon for dinner, which was better and less touristy than many of the other places we had eaten.

The next day we attempted to get somewhere near the Vatican City to see what we could see, but could not get anywhere near due to the streets and streets packed full of people all around. We gave up and tried to see some other things in the area, but again got stuck in crowds which took quite some time to escape. We finally made our way to the park near the Monumento a Garibaldi for a nice rest in the sun, lying on the grass and snacking on fruit, which was a welcome respite from all the crowds and walking. There was a nice view of the city, too, as it was up a bit of a hill. We went back past the crowds, which were thinning a bit but with a lot of people still around (and there was so much rubbish all over the streets!), and went to see the Piazza del Popolo and a little bit of the park on the hill above it, then headed back to the Colosseum to take some photos of it in the evening sun. That night we went to the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a particularly famous gelato place near the railway station. It was indeed popular, and they had an enormous range of flavours including many unusual ones. It was also cheap, especially for Rome, and tasty. I had mandarin, liquorice and coconut, and tasted some of the other flavours including rice. On Monday morning we did not have time to do much as we had to get to the airport to catch our flight and it takes quite a while to get there, so we just paid a quick visit to another famous gelato shop, Giolitti. It was also nice, and I tried some new flavours, but I think Giovanni Fassi was still my favourite. Go there, if ever you are in Rome! We then made our way to the airport and flew back to London, which took the rest of the day.

All in all, it was an interesting trip. We saw lots of places, I ate lots of gelato and a fair bit of pizza, and it was nice to have company for a change rather than travelling by myself. I took many many photos, some of which are already online (and linked above). The rest will hopefully be making their way online shortly, so check my Picasa gallery.

Now, where to next? Scandinavia has been suggested to me as a good area to visit in summer. What advice and suggestions do you have, fair readers?

10 May 2011

Malaysia, New Zealand and Sydney

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , — qwandor @ 8:47 am

Hello everyone! I have not posted here much lately, so figured I really should get onto that. So, what have I been doing since February? Well, I went to New Zealand for 3 weeks, as planned, and had 5 days in Malaysia on the way. I also had most of a day in Singapore on the way out and in Sydney on the way back, due to the timing of flights. I also more recently had a 9 day holiday in Italy, which was interesting.

Kota Kinabalu — General and flight home: A beautiful sunset by the beach in KK

Starting at the beginning, I had a 5 night holiday in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia on the way back to NZ. I spent 4 nights in KK itself, and one up near Kinabalu Park. During this time I went out to two of the islands (Manukan and Mamutik) and went swimming, explored the city a bit, went hiking in Kinabalu Park, went to a museum and a heritage village with lots of different styles of longhouse from all the different tribes on display, ate various different food (and Soursop juice, which is delicious!), and caught up with my good friend Shirley who lives in Sabah. It was an excellent holiday, and the first time I had been swimming in ages. The only bad part was that I got quite badly sunburnt on my first day, while out on the islands and swimming, despite having applied some sunscreen. I also had a day in Singapore in-between London and KK, as there was a gap between my flights. It was not that much time, but I went into the city and wandered around some parts I had not seen before, which was good. You can discover more by looking through my photo albums linked above, and reading the descriptions and captions.

From Kinabalu Park

Back in New Zealand, I was working from home most of the 3 weeks I was there (all but 3 weekdays) while I was waiting for my visa application to be processed, and spending most of my evenings and weekends catching up with lots of people. I had a picnic at Oriental Bay, had various people over for dinner and lunch, caught up with lots of people for ‘coffee’ one day, went to a barbecue with Memphis people, had lunch with some postgrad students and lecturers up at Vic, visited various people’s houses, visited my old company (Innaworks) twice, celebrated my mother’s birthday, visited family up in Palmerston North, went up to Auckland for a weekend to catch up with various friends for picnic lunches, dinner, a flatwarming and swing dancing, taught a few friends some moves, had some delicious meals cooked for me (thanks for the chicken curry, Thi, and the roast, Talitha! And Richard, and Emma, thanks too!) and generally tried to make the most of what time I had. Thanks to everyone for the company, conversation, card games, geocaching, dancing, food, and everything else! Unfortunately I did not get to celebrate International Pillow Fight Day, but I guess it is alright, I did many other things. (-:

Weekend in Auckland: An interesting sign

On the way back from Wellington to London I had a stopover of about 8 or 9 hours in Sydney, due to the timing of Qantas’s flights. I went into the city, wandered around some of the parks and the botanic garden (which is well worth a visit, I wish I had had longer there), and met up with my friend Arya who is currently over there doing an internship with Google. We had a bit more of a wander around the city, especially the waterfront, and I took a few photos. We even walked past the Google office, but unfortunately Arya had left his badge at home and they require a special building access card rather than just the standard one so we could not look inside.

Sydney stopover: The Sydney harbour bridge and me

I got back to London, and back to work here, on Monday 11th April. I then headed off again on Saturday 23rd April with a couple of friends for a holiday in Italy, which I think I will split off into another post. In the meantime, check out the photos I have posted so far!

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