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