Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Rushing through France

Mark has lost the keys to his brain apparently. He's sitting opposite me, speeding backwards through undulating countryside between Paris and Lyon, grumbling about the lack of sleep he's suffered in the past couple of days. To be fair, he's also throwing potential blog post titles at me and, extremely helpfully, giggling at the curvature of my bluetooth keyboard,, apparently distorted from the pressures inside my rucksack - so the cheerful Mark we know and (sometimes) love is still in there somewhere. After ten minutes of massaging the keyboard back the other way and considering the relative merits of writing about our travels so far or preparing for our next destination with a quick Italian lesson I think I finally know what I'm doing.

It's been a slightly mad twenty-four hours or so, beginning with my departure from my parents' local station in East Sussex, leaving behind my guide dog for a couple of weeks, and finishing with a rather civilised stroll next door from the Mercure Gare de Lyon to catch our TGV service to Turin, sitting at platform D (who's idea was this strange lettering system anyway?) an almost lliteral stone's throw away. It almost feels rude to be rushing through France so quickly, with barely a moment to breathe. We arrived just before eight last night, having enjoyed a stress-free trip from St Pancras, crossing to Gare de Lyon and settling intoo the Mercure without having to give it much thought. It was all a far cry from the middle of the day, as I frantically completed my packing before crawling painfully along the District Line to Bow Road, all the time attempting to keep tabs on Mr Rogers in the vain hope that he wouldn't cause me to run for our international departure. I'm personally no stranger to cutting it fine when heading off from London, but when the train is merely the first link in a 1,800 mile rail journey there is a little extra impetus to get it right and avoid messing up the the rest of the trip. I'd be lying if I claimed not to be just a little nervous as I waited for Mark outside the Tube, the clock ticking away the final minutes before check-in closed, in fact I'd be lying if I claimed not to have threatened him with a slow and grrzzly death if he made me miss the train. Thankfully Mark was spared a premature meeting with his maker, and I could look forward to a great continental railway journey rather than decades in prison.

The threat of indefinite incarceration may have receded a little as we squeezed our way through the ticket barriers, security machines and two sets of passport control crammed into the tiniest of spaces at St Pancras, but I wasn't without a ball and chain - and this one would be joining me forr the entire journey to Sicily. One of these days I will learn to leave the kitchen sink, oven and cupboards in their rightful place at home, but for this trip, as for so many that have gone before, I'm lumbered with an enormous holdall filled to the brim with sufficient clothing for a Grand Tour of Victorian proportions. That's all well and good when it only needs humping to the airport conveyor belt, but a little different when your trip involves ten station changes and goodness only knows how many flights of steps. As Mark keeps reminding me, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger., though I may reserve judgement until I returrn in one piece.

Talking of death, or at least pushing one's body to the limit, and then a little further, Mark is not only testing my hhheart rate on this trip. Seeing him arrive yesterday with three rucksacks to cart down to Sicily, wheezing from exertion, or tucking into an enormous meal at the wonderfully grand Train Bleu restaurant, complete with champagne and half a bottle of wine, one would be forgiven for questioning the merits of undertaking such a trip following a diagnosis of sky high blood pressure. Thankfully for him we're heading to the world of olive oil and heart-sustaining cuisine, which should at least appease his doctor should he return in an even worse state than when he left.

In the meantime, a couple of hours after I began this post, and as we twist and turn through stunning Alpine scenery I can hear sleepy breathing from across the table. I'd better not wake him, he needs all the stamina he can build to get through this mammoth adventure.

*Please note that this post was written on a dogy bluetooth keyboard which is inclined to omit or invent characters. I hope you will therefore forgive the inevitable errors.


Monday, 17 August 2015

To Sicily

After months of planning the big trip is finally here. I hope to post plenty of updates on this blog, and will also be uploading audio to AudioBoom ( http://www.audioboom.com/rjnet). To get things started, here is a recording taken as I returned home, having left Vance with my parents:

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Flirting with truly independent travel

I've been waiting for this evening for years, but now that it's here I can't decide whether to relish every step along the way or curl up in a ball, grit my teeth, and hope that I make it through in one piece. And, isn't that invariably the case::? When a plan is still on the drawing board, sufficiently distant from reality for comfort, it's easy to get excited about the grand adventure one will be embarking on, but once it gets close enough to ssee all the individual elements for what tthey really are it all begins to feel a bit too big and scary.

I can't remember who said that the journey was as important to travel as the ultimate destination, assuming I ever knew, but it certainly rings true for the journey that Vance and I are a couple of hours into making. As we race east from London, watching the setting sun lighting the high clouds behind us I can't help, despite my nerves, feeling just a little excited that by the time daylight arrives once more we will be on one of the largest passenger ferries in the World, approaching the Hook of Holland. From there, after hopefully enjoying some breakfast prior to disembarking, we will travel by train to the outskirts of Rotterdam, changing for our intermediate destination, at least for twenty four hours, Amsterdam.

I have never been to The Netherlands' most popular, well known, not quite capital, city - but when planning to take the overnight ferry route on my way to visit friends in norther Germany, stopping there felt like too good an opportunity to miss. The only problem, easily glossed over at the point of booking, was that, despite having travelled widely in Europe, including independent journeys to see the same friends, I had never yet stayed in a foreign city alone, with or without my guide dog. Somehow finding a hotel, walking the city streets, popping into restaurants and bars or visiting museums and other sights feels quite manageable in the UK, but an enormous challenge anywhere else.

Thankfully the promise of the sea crossing, which I first read about long ago on www.seat61.com carried me through the booking hoops, ensuring that I didn't lose my nerve before I could commit myself to travelling, leading me directly to this seat, on this train, speeding backwards through the late April dusk.

The trip could go one of two ways. If things go according to plan, if I avoid getting too lost in Amsterdam and Vance isn't prevented from entering too many places, it could well give me the confidence I need to try it again, potentially opening up many an opportunity. But it wouldn't take much to knock my existing confidence, and I worry that this could be my one and only flirtation with truly independent travel on the Continent.

Location:Claremont Heights,Colchester,United Kingdom

Sunday, 12 April 2015

One stride forward and two steps back

Imagine you've just purchased a new computer. You've snipped off the packing tape with a knife, sniffed the unique scent of electronics fresh from the factory floor, and have set it all up on your desk. You know that things are going to be a little different from this point onwards, and as you depress the power button you take a deep breath.

But all the oxygen in the world couldn't help you as you go into battle with a way of doing things so different to what you knew before that you want to turn back the clock, pull the old machine from the skip, and forget all about things new and shiny.

First up, every time you click on anything it takes an additional second to load. Doesn't sound much, but when multiplied across hundreds of interactions in any one session it begins to feel like a lifetime.

Next up is the screen, or rather the characters which appear on it. Call you a luddite but you prefer your letters crisply formed rather than in this new font which starts off strong but, within the space of a few pixels, becomes fuzzy and rather incomprehensible.

Finally, to cap everything off beautifully there's the keyboard. I suppose you do at least have a choice, able as you are to pick between the keys you knew, but slowed down so that each press takes an eternity to register, or one where you can type quickly but every third word will be nonsensical and the entry of punctuation or carriage returns involves a complex and time consuming process.

Before long, faced with this, you will nodoubt have slung your new toy in the bin and have embarked on a process of rebuilding the old device.

Except I don't have that option. Having installed iOS 8 on my iPhone, metaphorically hurling the old operating system into an eternal pit of fire, and suffered the consequences, there is no way I can roll back time.
So, whilst my two year old phone may now be sluggish and frustrating to interact with,, the voice I was used to, effectively the equivalent of a font to a fully sighted user, may be painful to listen to, and my typing options may make writing either time consuming or hideously inaccurate, I am going to have to live with it.

The majority of my ire over the past few hours has been reserved for a little app called Fleksy. In my phone's previous state this was a stand alone application which allowed me to type emails, messages, tweets and other text at a pace approaching that which might be possible on a full size, real life keyboard. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that Fleksy was at the very center of my iPhone toolkit, absolutely essential to a whole raft of activities. Now, on the new operating system Fleksy has graduated to the impressive status of an embedded keyboard, able to work with almost any program that one might pick. The problem is that, alongside this change, has come an apparent and entirely understandable refocusing of attention on the mainstream market and all the bells and whistles that entails, to the extend that the app is now no longer nearly as accessible as it once was. Not only that, but an increase in vocabulary has seemingly resulted in a degradation of accuracy, requiring one to flick through countless alternative words to find the right one, where before this might have been accomplished with one or two swipes.

It could be that, as with many changes in the way one is used to doing things, I just need to let the new experience bed in, in the knowledge that within a week or so this will have become the new norm for me, as unlikely as that may seem. However, at present it feels as if I am being required to take an enormous step backwards in my interactions with my phone, with direct and increasingly negative effects on the things I use it for. My writing may not be quite as fluid as usual, my spelling and punctuation may be a lot worse, I may shy away from shooting off a quick response because it simply isn't worth the bother, or I may simply be even more irritable than usual as I struggle to get to grips with things. Let's hope it's a bit better than that rather gloomy prediction, but I'm not holding my breath!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Train to the coast

Onboard the 0919 stopping service to Waterloo the passengers were syking themselves up for the first day back at work after the long Easter weekend. Outside the train the sun beat down from a sky almost entirely devoid of cloud as if the weather knew the Bank Holiday was over and the slog to the next break had begun. The lady next to me was using the thirty minute journey to redirect a parcel apparently left at the wrong address, and across the aisle somebody was rustling a newspaper noisily.

At the terminus commuters strode off purposefully, the single aim of reaching the office by 10am shared by thousands. Services west were delayed due to tresspass, the station announcer intoned, but there were none of the inpatient crowds one becomes accustomed to when travelling regularly on overcrowded lines.

With ten minutes to go a lady approached to check if I needed help. My train was yet to appear on the departure board but she would ensure I caught it. And whilst I waited the sun continued to shine, lighting the concourse like some giant mirror.

The railway tracks out of Waterloo are familiar to me, having lived in Richmond and travelled all about these parts over the past eight and a half years. In the past I used to catch the Weymouth service frequently to start or end a working week in Southampton. Now, on that same train, I remember the little knocks and jolts as we speed out through the suburbs, the sudden shuttering out of daylight as we pass through Wimbledon, and the flashes of other trains heading eastwards to the big city. Onboard little sound can be heard above the rush of air conditioning and the rhythmical squeaking of the bogies. Occasionally the crisp flick of a magazine page catches my attention, as do the hisses and grunts of the automated toilet cubicle. The air that surrounds me is bland to taste and smell though it's temperature is startlingly chilly. My ears feel cool and I clasp my hands together whilst typing to retain some warmth.

Our first stop outside London rolls into view outside my window and the train jerks to a halt. As the doors slide open a passing diesel train can be heard, drowning out an announcement itemizing the further stops we will make. Three days ago I changed here for Salisbury, Newport and Abergavenny as I headed for lunch with my sister. Today I remain in my seat as the doors slam shut and a lady settles herself next to me.

"he looks comfortable " she notes as Vance rolls onto his side, jamming the guide dog harness into my shins.

He's certainly no stranger to a bit of rail travel, having accompanied me on numerous trips throughout the land. I wonder if he will miss it when he eventually retires, becoming a normal domestic dog, banned from so many public buildings and modes of transport. He so loves to work that I struggle to imagine him doing anything else, and of course, to him, this is the only life he knows.

Lying at my feet as the train turns south for Southampton before continuing along the coast to our destination for the day, he knows little of what we're doing. He saw me pack my bag, paying particular attention to the folded long cane which has previously heralded him being left for a time, but which more frequently comes along to support me if the chance of a long lead walk arise. Vance is thankfully used to these somewhat impromptu visits, to wandering around unfamiliar destinations, walking one way before losing our bearings and doubling back, or pausing every twenty meters for me to photograph some object which has caught my attention but which will ultimately turn out to be a street lamp or rubbish bin when viewed at home. I love capturing the moment, whether visually or audibly, but this doesn't mean I can see what I'm doing when framing shots or selecting settings. There is a certain amount of art, but an awful lot of luck.

An hour after leaving London I'm halfway to the sea. The train is still half empty, though conversations are becoming louder, the conductor ever more cheery. The glue which bone binds the lips of Londoners when travelling by Tube or train is less evident here as we travel deeper into Hampshire, further away from our capital.

I know little of exactly what the day will have in store for us. The idea was crystallized whilst reading a Diamond Geezer article, but I have never been before and have undertaken precious little research. There will be a beach, I know, a cliff lift, two piers and some art deco architecture. I hope that there will not be the tourists who undoubtedly flocked there yesterday. I hope too that the clear skies and bright sunshine will create a warmth not present in London this morning. Aside from this my mind is open, I'm ready to walk and learn, to capture memories and to enjoy time with Vance on the final day of this early April break.

Location:Central Station Bridge,Southampton,United Kingdom

Monday, 6 April 2015


I'm sitting at a table in the center. My glass is empty but I'm invisible.

All around me friends talk animatedly, the individual subject's blurred by the inebriation of the participants and the general hubbub. The area is popular with nationals of many countries, but this evening Atlantic English predominates.

The American couple to my left suddenly lean over and ask his name. I don't hear at first as I have my earphones in, am busy with the phone, absorbed in my own life.

"sorry? " I ask.

"his name? " they repeat expectantly.

Vance is the focus as ever, and I'm invisible.

They pet him and make those silly clicking noises that people who think they like dogs but don't really know make. Vance doesn't care, they return to their conversation, and I remain invisible.

I've been sitting here for half an hour with an empty glass, staring into, space, hoping that a barman will clear my glass away, giving me the opportunity to request a top up. I could go to the bar, it is only to my left, but I would surely lose the table whilst risking the fuss and embarrassment created when disturbing the dog and fumbling my way across a crowded floor. So I remain drinkless, moving my glass to a place where I think it might be visible, but sufficiently hard to reach that I'll have time to make my request. But they're too busy and I'm invisible.

The American man is back. His voice reaches me from below. Either he's the height of a three year old or he's kneeling on the floor touching the dog.

I don't understand him at first, and remove my earphone.

"you don't see, right? "

"not very well " I reply, "I see a bit, but... "m

He's sorry about that. I don't know why, as I don't recall him being the cause. I mean, why are people sorry for things that they didn't do, which they frankly know nothing about? I'm not especially sorry for myself so I don't know why he should be.

He asks my name, and I ask what brings him here. He's from Amsterdam, studying marketing in London, but doesn't have time to talk and leaves. And I return to being invisible.

Location:Petersham Road,Richmond,United Kingdom

Sunday, 29 March 2015

A blog reawakening

I feel, for some reason, that I ought to begin this post with an apology.  It is quite a while since I last penned a piece, but it is not for this that I wish to say sorry.  Rather, to those of you who have been alerted to the presence of a new entry, perhaps by email or via Twitter, and who have arrived here full of expectation, looking forward to a read of some substance, that I speak when warning my readers that this will not be a long post.

I actually have plenty that I want to tell you, with the fledgling ideas for several entries stored away waiting for me to find the time, inclination, and, yes, the words to put them together.  But now is not the moment.

So what is this moment for, and why have I already spent the best part of two paragraphs telling you precisely nothing?  Well, I am sitting here writing this post on my MacBookAir, a computer which I purchased almost three years ago, just before the wonderful London 2012 Games, with the intention of writing more.  Having used an iPhone for several years beforehand I had felt confident that I could make the switch from Windows to OS X without too much difficulty, and that then was the time to begin using a screenreader - in this case, VoiceOver, for the majority of my interactions with the machine.  Things didn’t work out however, I struggled to get to grips with both operating system and access technology, and soon my enthusiasm for blogging - or pretty much anything that involved my rather expensive white elephant -waned.

Fast forward to early 2015 and, having rebuilt my Mac-confidence using other machines, I finally felt ready to give it another shot.  I wiped the MacBook and installed the latest software, returning it to that lovely just-out-the-box state when everything is new and exciting and nothing feels like too much trouble.  We’ll see how long that feeling lasts, but for the moment I am trying out a new (for me) blogging Client, “MarsEdit”, and have even invested in a domain name for the blog.  All I need to do now is turn inspiration and inclination into articles for you to read!

So, the aim of this post was to be something of a testing ground for the new domain (http://www.bearingaway.co.uk), for MarsEdit and for my reborn MacBookAir.  How much easier is it to type out a post on the laptop rather than thumbs on the iPhone?  How much simpler will it be to check and post?  Am I any more likely to write, having taken away some of the barriers of doing it on a phone?  The answer to the first two questions is undoubtedly “yes”, but the jury’s still out on whether any of this will make a difference to the frequency of my posting.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Slow travel the fast way

I'm lying in bed pouring over a railway timetable. More precisely, I'm searching over and over again the databases of Deutsche Bahn's answer to a well thumbed copy of Thomas Cook's wonderful encyclopaedia of train times, neatly packaged as an app on my iPhone. It doesn't quite have the romantic appeal of the paper and ink version, a thousand or so pages encompassing commuter services in Lisbon, the wonders of high speed travel in France or Germany, ferries in Greece and Italy, and multiple night sleepers crossing Turkey or Russia, but it does have the benefit of being portable, up to date, and - most importantly for me - accessible. And whilst I do miss the smell of the paper, the little city diagrams showing you just how far you'd have to walk to connect between trains at, say Gare Du Nord and Gare de Lyon (about three miles I believe), and the appeal of holding the whole of Europe in my hands, the DB Navigator application somehow makes it all feel a little more tangible - no longer a dream, but real tickets waiting to be bought, and trains ready to depart for destinations new and exciting.

The trip I'm thinking of isn't some pie in the sky adventure to be enjoyed only in my mind. Perhaps some of the options I've looked at would be overly complicated, expensive or ridiculously circuitous, but there is a very good chance that in a little over six months or so I will be watching France glide by outside the 14:41 Paris to Milan TGV, connecting to the Intercity Night service to Sicily, or arriving at Palermo on a sunny summer's morning, having travelled from the tip to toe of Italy. I'm planning a real trip, with long passages, quick connections, and a myriad of changing options to be worked into a coherent itinerary capable of being followed later this year.

But, so far out from the trip itself, plans are already being re-sketched as the European railway map is redrawn by cash strapped operators, seemingly with little regard for the needs of the long distance traveller, still less any nostalgia for the services being erased from history.

I'm not much of a television viewer, I don't own a TV myself and so any programme I do see has generally been pre recorded by my parents in anticipation of me visiting them. Michael Portillo's Great Continental Railway Journeys was one such show, having the fortune to be aired shortly before one of my visits, and to catch the attention of my mum. In this particular episode. Watched - and frankly drooled over - back in the Autumn, everyone's favourite heir to the Palin travelogue journeyed down Italy's west coast, taking in Naples and Vesuvius, crossing the Messina Strait on one of Europe's only remaining boat trains, and finishing up in Syracuse. The scenery was fantastic, the food to die for, but the boat train... I had to do it!

So an outline itinerary was hastily stitched together. The Man in Seat Sixty One ( www.seat61.com ) was, as usual, though unbeknown to him, my travel consultant - suggesting routes that would work, the time it would take and how I should go about booking (not for quite a while yet). We would take the very earliest Eurostar train of the morning, requiring a check in at St Pancras around 5am, then cross Paris in one frantic hour before speeding on down by TGV through the Alps to Italy. After an hour's connection at Turin, apparently one of Italy's most underrated cities, we would continue by Freccisrossa to Rome, and from there to Naples - all in one extraordinary day (particularly if we missed any of the connections... ). In Naples we would break for a day or so, perhaps visit Pompei or Mount Vesuvius, before taking the Intercity day train all the way down to the Straits, across the water on the train ferry, and then onwards to Syracuse. Yes it would be fast, yes it would be exhausting, but how wonderful to travel from London to Sicily, mostly in daylight, and to have ticked off a line on my imaginary bucket list, travelling by train on a ship.

But TrenItalia and Eurostar, it seems, had other ideas. The train ferry link has been under threat for years, apparently losing vast amounts of money, money which the national operator in a struggling Mediterranean economy sorely needs. Several years back they cut some of the long distance services which continued to connect Sicily to cities in the north, leaving only a skeleton timetable of a handful of day and night trains. And then, just a few days ago, came the hammer blow - removing all but one service, the nightly sleeper to and from Rome, taking effect two months before we travel.

Though enormously disappointing this move could have been worse. At least we can still cross the water on a train, albeit at around five in the morning. I won't see the ferry, but I should still experience it, assuming that no further cuts are made. But, the railway gods hadn't finished with my plans - apparently causing eurostar to withdraw their crack of dawn departure, replacing it with a more civilized, though significantly less convenient train ninety minutes later, effectively making it impossible to reach Rome or beyond in a day.

So, I'm pausing for breath and rethinking our options.

In the fast paced world in which we live few of us consciously take the time to do things slowly. Work is about speed and efficiency, we snack as we type, dash for the fastest train connections, and cram as much as possible into every waking hour. So, it probably isn't surprising that something of a revolution has been brewing, a reaction against speed and convenience in favour of comfort and quality. Slow food is one of the ways that this movement has become visible, valuing hand crafted ingredients combined with love and attention, creating dishes to be savored. Slow travel is another such embodiment of the idea, turning our backs on polluting, uncomfortable, frankly undignified aviation, and embracing overland transport once more. I am a big fan of the latter, and would always choose the train over the plane when travelling in Europe, where time and cost allows. But perhaps I've lost my way a little, perhaps the ever expanding tentacles of the European high speed rail network have lured me into thinking that every journey has to be accomplished at 300KPH, with connection times pared to the minimum, and as much distance as possible crammed into a tiny amount of time. Where went my belief in the journey being an integral part of the trip? When did my wish to experience the land through which I travelled depart me? Am I not at risk of taking flights at ground level, knowing little more about the places through which I travel than I would from the window of an aeroplane?

So, I'm starting again, plotting out the lines and services which will not only get us to the ultimate goal of our trip, but will form the straps on which it is suspended, the context in which it is set. Why speed through the Alps when we could pause overnight in Turin, or bypass Milan in the year when it hosts the World Expo? Or spend an hour changing in Rome, not knowing what lies immediately beyond the front door of the station, or be so exhausted from travel that we cannot see the splendors of Etna or the shimmering sea on arrival in Sicily? We still won't see everything en-route, and there will be some compromises along the way. Naples feels, for instance, to be a natural place to pause on our way down the coast, but its tourist centred crime and endemic filth suggest to me a stop elsewhere would be preferable. And, whilst it will be sad to miss the sea views on our way south from Solerno, a night in a sleeper compartment will leave us ready for the experiences of the day to follow.

Arriving at one's holiday destination after a grueling journey, shedding one's luggage, cracking open a beer and enjoying a new found sense of space is a wonderful experience. But how much better will it be knowing that we haven't pushed ourselves to the limit, and knowing a little more about the continent we have just crossed?

Location:Victoria Place,Richmond,United Kingdom