Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Got to stop

All UAE school buses have for the past couple of years been yellow, in the style of North American school buses, even Toyota Hiace minibuses. 

Some ravening bureaucrat decreed that the four-way hazards and brake lights should flash whenever the brakes were applied, which was a ludicrous idea because you couldn’t tell if a braking bus was slowing to enter a bus stop or to turn left or right. Thankfully, this ridiculousness seems to have been addressed, and the flashing lights that come on with the brakes are now additional to the normal brake lights and indicators.

Something else borrowed from North America is the swing-out STOP sign. Whenever a school bus stops and the door is opened to let passengers on or off, a red, octagonal STOP sign swings out and red lights flash. As far as I can ascertain from the internet and my American friends and family, when the sign is deployed, it’s illegal to pass the bus. On a single carriageway, that’s in both directions. The basic idea is that children can cross the road to and from a school bus without being hit by cars overtaking the bus.

I was going to have a rant about this a couple of years ago, but decided not to because it seems the legality of and penalty for passing one of these bus-mounted STOP signs depends on which US state you’re in.

The inevitable tragedy recently happened. Reported in 7DAYS, it seems a seventeen-year-old got off her school bus in Dibba Fujairah and was hit by a car. What a senseless waste. My understanding from the newspaper story, inferred from the bus driver being detained and questioned by the police, is that the bus was at the roadside when the collision occurred. Did the student cross the road when the STOP sign was deployed? The newspaper doesn’t say. 

Here is the problem. It’s very easy for the police and the courts to come down on the driver who hit a pedestrian crossing the road with a “You passed a school bus showing its STOP sign. That is forbidden. You are culpable.” But where is the requirement to stop enshrined in law? Certainly I’ve never seen it written. Is it a legal requirement in the UAE to stop behind one of these buses? My personal experience of stopping on Street 71 in Mirdif when the school bus deploys its STOP sign is that I get hooted at by the driver tailgating me, and everyone else razzes past the bus in the fast lane.

Legal issues aside, what possesses someone to hurtle past a stopped school bus or ice-cream van? These are both child magnets. Not UAE law, but the UK Highway Code (Rule 209) says to: “Drive carefully and slowly when passing a stationary bus showing a ‘School Bus’ sign,” and Rule 206 includes the note that “…children are more interested in ice cream than traffic…”

We’re back to the same old mantra that I’ve talked about before. Local highway authorities cherry-pick ideas from international design standards, and similarly cherry-pick the rules for road users. Drivers from any of 150 or more different nationalities apply their own versions of what is right (and what they can get away with), or have learned from driving instructors who apply their own opinions from their own training and experience. And no, it isn’t “obvious” that you don’t cross an unbroken centreline, that parking is forbidden on double yellow lines, or you’re not allowed to drive on the breakdown lane. Normal custom and practice, perhaps, but unless It Is Written, it isn’t the Law.

What is desperately needed is a federal rule book; a Highway Code, if you will. With all the rules written down and publicly available, there’s much less scope for wild interpretation. And no, printing up a list of traffic offences in the local paper does not constitute publishing a Highway Code.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Invoice in the wilderness

NOT a Business Centre
“That’s curious: this month, Itisalot’s online billing system seems to have gone wrong.”

The Crumbling Villa typically generates about AED50 a month in international phone calls made on the land line. Other calls are made, but these are on pre-paid mobile accounts. Why is an unprecedented five-fold increase in IDD calls this month coupled with an inability of Itisalot to itemise the bill?

Is it the housemaid making long calls to Sri Lanka? Probably not. Is it Beloved Wife liaising at length with retailers in the USA who are incapable of understanding that 95% of their potential customer base doesn’t have a US ZIP code? More likely.

I phoned Itisalot’s Helpless Desk on 101 and explained that this month, and this month only, the International Direct Dialled phone calls were not itemised. After a long waste of oxygen, electricity, and everyone’s time, the guy on the Helpless Desk agreed to email the call breakdown to me. He then chose instead to email a form to fill in to apply for an itemised bill, which would have to be taken to an Itisalot Business Centre with copies of Passport, Visa, ID card, National Cycling Proficiency Certificate, and Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring. I’m disinclined to do this, primarily because the service has already been applied for and, up until last month, works.

I dropped into Itisalot’s outlet at Mirdif City Centre to sort out the problem. No, they couldn’t help; I’d have to go to a Business Centre. These, I was assured, are all over the UAE. They’re easily identifiable because they each have an oversized golf ball on the roof. I’d have to take an ID card, official NOC letter, passport and visa copy, attested inside-leg measurement, hoofprints…

This is not entirely true. The golf ball near Trade Centre Roundabout does not surmount a Business Centre, the only place to go is in Deira, and how unreasonable it is of me not to know this. 

So I went into the Deira Business Centre and, after queuing for half an hour, explained my difficulty. Clearly, because Itisalot can total up and invoice the value of last month’s International Call Charges Charges [sic] then Itisalot must have a record of the calls. But no: owing to a problem in upgrading the software, the breakdown is Not Coming In Dubai. More specifically, “No Call Details for the selected Account and period.”

But Itisalot is adamant that the call breakdown is not available. “Definitely within two days,” I was told, with all the confidence of an Itisalot employee who’s heard so much propaganda about how wonderful the organisation she works for is that she believes Itisalot's hubris, and was mortified when her confidence was questioned by a world-weary Goat who has heard such hollow promises repeated before.

Maybe next month I should display the same lackadaisical attitude to payment as Itisalot does to itemised billing.

Edited 10 December to note that the Itisalot website has changed again, and the itemised bill has at last appeared. It was indeed within two days; pity it was ten days late. 


Tuesday, December 03, 2013


At a recent party, I trotted out my usual excuse for not taking my motorbike on to a racetrack: “Dubai Autodrome’s rules require full leathers. I don’t have full leathers; I can’t find any leathers in my size.”

“Ah, but you’re off to Germany for the UAE National Day long weekend, a country where many large gentlemen ride large motorbikes, and rather a lot of them also enjoy beer.”

Beloved Wife wanted to visit the Christmas markets and purchase more glass tree-bling, and she really, really needed a short but total break from work. Now added to the list of Things to Do in Germany was a quest to insert my unorthodox shape into a set of motorcycle leathers. I’ve tried this before: witness my previous futile attempts in the USA.

We previously went to München in 2010 and enjoyed the snow. I was admonished in the blog comments by one of my online motorcycle friends Martín, who writes the ¡Tengo Hambre! (I’m hungry!) blog because we came and went without giving him a chance to meet over a meal of beer and sausages. This time I dropped him a line, and he agreed not only to meet for breakfast and bring a friend and work colleague, but to drive us over to Munich’s motorcycle accessories souq.

Hearty breakfasts and a gallon of coffee later, we arrived and discovered that Hein Gericke had very little in the way of leathers, and certainly nothing in my size. But not to worry, because about three doors down was Spätzünder, emporium of motorcycling clothing and accessories.

I was impressed by the huge display of bike gear, and particularly by everyone’s patience while I tried on almost all the racing and touring suits in the shop. The pile of leather that was too tight across the shoulders, too long in the leg, too heavy to wear except in winter, or the wrong colour soon formed a mountain that my shop assistant Luigi was going to have to deal with once we’d gone. Martín, Simon, and Beloved Wife sat patiently and chewed the fat, while I eventually located a zip-together two-piece that I was happy with. Speaking of ‘fat,’ by some miracle it’s a good fit, with plenty of ventilated panels and is only slightly too long in the limbs. I also picked up an undersuit which is easier to wash my sweat from, and a spine protector. And I discovered that I’d be able to buy a replacement visor for my helmet too.

I am so pleased at the customer service I received from Luigi – which is why this bit reads like an advert for the shop. The story gets better, with about 12% knocked off the final bill, and then paperwork that should enable recovery of the 19% VAT. For unknown reasons, having had the paperwork stamped at the airport, we have to mail it back to Spätzünder to get the VAT credited back to the card. Beloved Wife’s other, non-motorcycle-related purchase had the VAT returned immediately at the airport.

Thank you for your service, Luigi. Thank you for transporting us around Munich, Martín. Thank you everyone for your astonishing display of patience.

There you have it: The Goat went to Bavaria and bought some leather trousers. Now there’s no excuse for not attending a motorcycle track day apart from the usual real one involving cowardice.


Monday, November 25, 2013

It's a knockout

'Brockian Ultra-Cricket is a curious game which involves suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away. "Let's be blunt, it's a nasty game," says The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.'

Indeed it is. A very nasty game. And now there are news reports of such bestial activity being dubbed 'Knockout,' the object of which is to render some random passer-by unconscious with a single punch. A suitable victim seems to be old, frail, female, weak. Cowardly attacks aren't generally made on WWE wrestlers or nightclub bouncers. I’ve seen video footage of such alleged attacks: one member of a gang leaps out from behind his mates and sucker punches some unsuspecting member of the public, and the gang wanders off.

Knockout differs from 'Happy Slapping,'  in which, according to the Urban Dictionary, "...chavs ambush an innocent passer-by, and beat them up while one of the gang videos the whole episode on their mobile phone. The video is kept as a trophy and passed round the class at school." Multiple attackers; sustained attack.

The Urban Dictionary also notes of Happy Slapping that, "In America we call this practice assault and I do believe you would get shot with a gun if you tried it."

There is a story circulating on social media regarding Knockout that a victim shot and killed two of a gang when she was assaulted. It gets a lot of, "The punks deserved it" comments on forums, but the story seems to be a work of fiction or wishful thinking. This is not to say that deadly retailiation to a Knockout assault hasn't or won't occur. One day, a victim will pull out a firearm and render the entire gang dead or injured. Or he’ll fail to fall over and there’ll be a frenzied street brawl. It’s only a matter of time.

I pulled the picture at the top of this post from a Facebook post. At a hypothetical level I concur with the sentiment, “Don’t mess with me, or I’ll use deadly force,” but in the Real World things are a lot more complicated.

My concern is how the courts would deal with such a reaction. The initial blow is straightforward Felonious Assault, there’s an obvious aggressor, and there’s a clear victim. Hopefully, CCTV images will bring the perps to justice. But any less-than-instant reaction by the victim is, unfortunately, difficult to justify on the grounds of self-defence. It’s impractical and obviously illegal to be proactively violent towards every gang of youths. It’s difficult to react immediately in the split-second of a single-blow attack. And reacting afterwards isn’t self defence, but revenge.

When the aggressor and his gang walk away, there’s no follow-up violence or explicit threat. So a wronged victim who shoots his assailant (presumably in the back) becomes the new aggressor. Perhaps a solution is to get the gang member responsible to turn around, plug him in his chest and forehead, and then claim to the police that he was coming back to inflict more violence. Good luck with trying that when you're dazed following a knockout blow.

In 2008 in High Wycombe, UK, a British businessman Munir Hussain and his family were threatened in their home by a gang of intruders. Hussain chased, Walid Salem, one of the intruders from the house and, 'about four Asian men,' according to eyewitnesses, beat Salem with a cricket bat and other implements. The court sentenced Munir Hussain to 30 months in prison for the assault on someone who had, it was claimed in court, threatened to kill the Hussain family in their own home. English law treats Salem’s leaving the house and his subsequent beating as separate incidents. He was no longer an immediate threat to Hussain’s family. The whole case is more complex that my summary. I suggest the References section at the bottom of the Wikipedia article.

I bring up this case to illustrate possible legal consequences of actions by the victim.

My feelings on the subject aren’t entirely theoretical. Many years ago I was walking home from the pub with a few friends. When they nipped into the Chinese takeaway, about four or five local yobs beat me to a pulp. They wanted a fight, which I wouldn’t give them. Mercifully, no weapons were involved.

I realised that to fight back would have the police show up and arrest us all, and there’d unprovable claims on both sides about who started it. I absolutely refused to fight back (but believe me, I so wanted to), and called off my friends when they emerged from the Chinese. Thus when the police eventually did turn up, the deserving mob was arrested, charged, and subsequently sent down for Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm, and Criminal Damage.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Unpleasant surprice

Holiday season will soon be upon us, and Beloved Wife spent some time on line, researching options for air travel to Foreign Parts. The favourite plan appeared to be to visit her parents over Christmas, and one of the most cost-effective ways to do so was to fly via Munich.

I'll let that sink in for a moment. Separate flights: from Dubai to Munich, Munich to Washington, then home again home again joggity-jog. Cost of all four flights: around AED4200 per person.

These flights are scheduled for every day of the week, and it stands to reason that it costs the airline exactly the same in landing fees, passenger handling, luggage handling, extra take-off fuel, etc., whether our stopover in Munich be four hours or four days. The only additional costs that I can identify are use of the baggage carousel, and having someone inspect our passports. And these costs are borne by the airport, not the airline. They're presumably funded from landing fees and therefore paid for anyway.

I tried many variations to get a stopover in Munich, but every one of them totalled up at the same cost, to within AED100 or so.

Why, then, does stopping in Munich on the way west cost AED8250 per person? That's almost twice as much money for exactly the same effort. Anyone would think that Lufthansa didn't want people to visit Germany, to stay in German hotels, ride on the German rail network, drink German beer and Glühwein, eat German Wurst, or buy German Christmas ornaments; in short, spend money in Germany.

So we won't be stopping over in Munich after all.


Thursday, November 07, 2013

Doing the splits

I am not going to be an apologist for the motorcycle buffoons who scream through tiny gaps in traffic, removing mirrors in the process, nor those who zip along the white line at R17 when the main traffic streams are doing close to the posted speed limit. Neither will I defend high-speed zig-zagging across multiple highway lanes by anyone, not just bikers. My point is limited to the well-known motorcycling practice of filtering between queues of cars.

In this discourse, I'm treating 'filtering' as riding a motorbike between queues of stationary cars; 'lane splitting' is a similar thing, but the cars are actually moving.

Whether the practice is legal or not depends on where in the world you are. It's legal in California, but nowhere else in the USA as far as I know. Filtering and lane splitting are both legal in the UK and mainland Europe. In the UAE, where the legality of most things on the road seems to be decided ad hoc, it's apparently not allowed in Abu Dhabi, but may or may not be permissible in Dubai. Not that this stops most motorcyclists from doing it anyway.

The UK's Highway Code (Rule 88) includes the phrase: 'Additionally, when filtering in slow-moving traffic, take care and keep your speed low.' OK, I know that this rule is specific to the UK.

The definition of 'low' speed in this context is a grey area. Personally, I slow to a crawl so I can stop if the taxi driver in front of me suddenly opens his door to spit in the road. Random door opening seems less likely when traffic is moving, but sudden lane changes become more likely. Hence 'take care'. Various highways experts and driver pressure groups have opinions published on the internet and elsewhere, but the consensus seems to be not to lane split at more than 30mph above the prevailing traffic speed. This seems on the high side to me.

From a motorcyclist's point of view, it's only reasonable to move to the front of a traffic queue and be away with the green light, rather than to sit in temperatures in the forties Celsius with the engine blowing more hot air on his legs. Cars, at least, usually have air conditioning. This option should always be available on normal roads where a car is typically 1.8m wide in a 3.6m traffic lane. At roadworks, for example, traffic lane widths may be reduced, and my monstrous 101cm wide bike won't fit through the gap. I have to queue and watch the pizzas speed past me.

The advantages of allowing filtering and lane splitting don't stop with preventing bikers from getting hot legs. From their perspective, not getting stuck in traffic queues speeds their journeys and they're presumably not late for their appointments. This alone should make motorcycling an attractive proposition for commuting. A modal switch from cars to motorbikes offers advantages for everyone else on the road:

  • When traffic is moving freely, a motorbike takes up pretty much the same amount of road as a car. That is one whole lane width, plus a gap in front and a gap behind. As congestion develops, the bike moves into its own narrow lane between queues of crawling cars and the space the biker was occupying becomes available for a car. The bike essentially disappears from the traffic volume.
  • There's a safety issue. A bike is invisible in the middle of a traffic lane behind a bus or truck, and it's to everyone's advantage if the biker moves to one side so that the machine is visible in the mirrors of the vehicle in front. Moving to the side is also likely to reduce the chance of the bike being rear-ended.
  • A motorbike, even one with a big engine, usually uses less fuel than a car. It uses a lot less than a car of comparable performance. Although motorcycle exhaust emissions are dirtier than those of modern, cat-converted car exhausts, it is fundamental that if you burn less, you pollute less. If you're not sitting in a traffic jam for half an hour, you're not polluting for 30 minutes at zero miles per gallon.
  • Having arrived at his destination, perhaps his office, our hypothetical biker can park his machine in a much smaller space than a car. You can get three or four large motorbikes into one car space, and if the bike's parked in an alley or on a hardstanding where cars can't go, it's taking up no car spaces at all.

You can achieve these last two by car sharing. Four commuters in one car take up only one parking space, and quadruple the effective gas mileage. But you lose convenience and flexibility in travel arrangements.

Whether lane splitting is legal where you ride or drive, it isn't the job of car drivers to act as unpaid Traffic Policemen. Bikers are familiar with the scenario in which a driver sees a bike riding up the gap between queued cars. He becomes envious and resentful, and deliberately moves his car to block the biker's path. The biker simply rides around the other side of the car. If he's of the rude and vulgar type, the biker might choose to hurl abuse at, or to flip off the car driver for being a selfish pillock (which I cannot condone, but it happens). The car driver takes offence, having been rebuked for driving like an arse, and thinks, "Bikers are all ignorant, knuckle-dragging morons. QED."

Motorcyclists are, by and large, not knuckle-dragging morons. We are people, going about our daily lives the same as everyone else. Don't be envious if motorbikes pass you in a traffic jam. Just imagine how much worse that queue would be if each biker were driving a car.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Greece is the word

Ruined Erechtheion temple, Acropolis.
 It might have been nice to leave on Thursday night, but we couldn’t leave any earlier than Monday because of the way Eid Al Adha was declared this year. Late. With less than a week to go, we learned from rumours published in the official national newspapers that the Public Sector would get a full nine days off. The government decreed that the Private Sector could come in to work on both Sunday 14th and Thursday 17th October and like it.

Beloved Wife had booked Monday to Saturday, anticipating that these days at least would not be work days for her, and we set off for Athens at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve never been to Greece.

In keeping with tradition, custom, and practice, the flight was 20 minutes late out of Dubai. Oh, and left from Terminal 1. It’s a long walk from the T3 taxi dropoff to the aircraft.

Breakfast in McGettigan’s (the airport Irish pub formerly known as the Irish Village) consisted of an ‘Irish Breakfast’ plus a pint of Guinness for me, and Eggs Benedict and cider for Beloved Wife. An Irish friend of mine assures me that it’s soda bread that turns a Full English into a Full Irish. Breakfast was yummy, albeit not even slightly Irish. Apart from the Guinness, obviously. And with the sun barely over the yard-arm. I’m shocked at myself.

I think I’ve found a way to get peace aboard aircraft: wear earplugs under the headphones. The plugs cut out virtually all of the jet roar and infants’ screams, but it’s still possible to hear the movie soundtrack. One disadvantage is the way that earplugs tend to allow internal sounds to seem exaggerated. Eating cream crackers makes one helluva din.

There were about three of us in the EU Citizens queue at Athens airport, so poor, foreign Beloved Wife had to weave back and forth while her Goat wandered around and picked up some discount cards that apparently work at museums, restaurants, shops, and spas. They don't. "Athens Spotlighted' cards were absolutely useless wherever we presented them.

The metro took us straight into central Athens at a cost of €14 for two (travelling together (compare with €8 each for singles)), and it took around 45 minutes to get to our hotel. We decided not to rush and immediately buy week-long transport passes at €20 a pop, airport trips excluded (when single journeys were €1.20), partly because the map in our Lonely Planet guidebook seemed rather to suggest that all the stuff we were likely to want to see was within walking distance of our hotel.

The Hotel Fresh was excellent. It's Four-Star and therefore a bit pricy, and is in a grotty area of town. However, it's clean, the rooftop bar and restaurant are very good, breakfast is marvellous and extremely comprehensive, and there's free wireless internet all over the building. It's also a short walk to the tourist area and ancient sites, and to the Metro.

Having checked in, chilled out, and fought with my computer, we retired to the rooftop bar for beer o’clock and a sunset look over the Athenian rooftops to the mountains beyond and the Acropolis, which is surprisingly close.

Part of the view from the hotel's rooftop bar.
The evening walk from the hotel down to the tourist area took us through a seedy-looking neighbourhood. It looked like the hardware souq. Most of the tourist shops were selling the same selection of alabaster gods and heroes. One shopkeeper did agree with me that it was a bit odd selling images of ancient Sparta in Athens: the Spartans and the Athenians basically hated each other’s guts. Oh, and of the fauns and satyrs for sale, most were – to say the least - anatomically ambitious, which is more than you can say about Greek gods and heroes.

This Is Athens. Not Sparta.
The only thing, aside from food, that we bought this evening was a hat. Muggins forgot his Very Pterry Hat, and on Tuesday would be appearing in public on the Acropolis as a bekilted Goat From Del Monte.

Tuesday: "Acropolis" is more-or-less Greek for "Uptown."

Nobody knows if Athens is named after Athena, or the goddess Athena is named after Athens. But what is certain is that the ancient Greeks adopted Athena as their own goddess of wisdom, chastity and moderation and built a huge temple on top of a hill in the middle of the city.

And to this temple we slogged. It’s uphill all the way. The basic fee to see the Parthenon on the Acropolis is €12, and this includes various other sights and sites such as the Theatre of Dionysos, and Agora. If you buy individual admissions to the smaller sites, you’ll still get hit up for €12 for the Parthenon, so pay for the lot up front. Thank you Lonely Planet.

Erectheion by night.
Front row of caryatids at the Erectheion. These are copies.
Five of the originals are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens;
the sixth is in the British Museum in London.
The Parthenon. Nearest to the camera is the southeast corner.
I confess to a little gentle Photoshoppery. I’ve trued up the verticals and removed the cranes that make the Acropolis look like a building site.

Several people ‘liked’ my kilt, in a Facebook sort of way. Mostly Aussies and Canucks, plus a couple of Greeks. One mature American lady confessed to “Really liking MIKs.” As a Utiliclan member, I’m an unpaid ambassador for Utilikilts, so I dished out business cards. Brace yourselves, Utilikilts Seattle!

Kilted photographer at the Theatre of Dionysos.
Kilted photographer was allowed to take pictures without flash,
except in the Acropolis Museum where all photography was forbidden.
It was a minor disappointment not to be able to walk around inside the ruined temples, but they were building sites, so I basically understand. What was less understandable was the outright ban on photography in the Acropolis Museum (unless, apparently, it was undertaken surreptitiously with a telephone.) Muggins with his DSLR stood no chance.

Acropolis Museum main entrance.
Below is part of ancient Athens.
The museum is very interesting. The top floor is an exact layout of the top of the Parthenon, and the friezes and marbles, or copies, are displayed exactly as they would have appeared on the monument if it hadn’t been vandalised by arsonists in the fourth century AD, the early Christian church, the Turks who turned it into a mosque, the genius who stored gunpowder inside and had an explosion, more Turks who tore bits down to make a signal tower, and Lord Elgin.

The museum very much takes the attitude that the twirly-moustachioed villain Lord Elgin took advantage, and stole the Marbles for his own purposes. They’re in the British Museum, along with one of the columns and a caryatid from the Erechtheion, an adjacent temple. In one version of the story promulgated by the museum, the Turks were using marble from the Parthenon to build their own new tower and Elgin realised that he could obtain permission to take the Marbles before they became part of a new structure. In another version, Elgin’s cronies hacked the Marbles off and stole them away without Greek consent.

But I feel that, as most of the site was being pillaged by all and sundry in 1801, it’s far better that the Marbles ended up in a foreign museum than as a Turkish tower or hardcore beneath a new road. How many different bas-reliefs of Centaurs fighting Lapiths does one museum need? Should the British Museum give the reliefs back to Greece? I really don’t know.

The friezes are on display on the top floor.
Back to the museum. The lower floors are orientated to fit the adjacent streets, so the top floor is at a peculiar angle. Parts of the ground floor are glass, and it’s possible to look beneath the museum at the walls and wells of ancient Athens, plus archaeologists working on them under glass but in air-conditioned comfort. The columns holding up this magnificent new building carefully avoid the archaeology, you will be relieved to learn.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus used to have a roof.
Presently, Beloved Wife declared Cake O’Clock, which was followed by more walking, this time around the southern side of the Acropolis. Agora (Roman; temple; ruins) closed at 3pm, so we’d have to visit that tomorrow. I attempted to order my coffee and salad by reading the Greek and mispronouncing it at the waiter. Success at my third attempt: I must have the world’s worst Greek accent.

I gave to a busker who was standing in front of Roman Agora and playing a tenor recorder. One of my musical instruments of choice, he was clearly a better player than I, but he was helped by a microphone, amplifier, and a backing track.
A busker, recordering in front of Roman Agora.
We discovered the flea market. Definitely the place to go for crappy, broken furniture, dodgy fake Reeboks, and military apparel. The place was overrun by army surplus stores. Having bought precisely nothing, we headed back to the hotel for a short siesta prior to heading out for food.

Wednesday: Oh noes! Rain.

We very quickly had our dilemma – south to Agora or north to the National Archaeological Museum – solved. The museum represented a day of indoor culture.

The octopus motif appeared again and again.

Mosaic Medusa.
Some mythological deal being made over at Pan's house.
First century BC bronze racehorse.
Here we have Aphrodite, accompanied by Eros, beating off Pan.
You can see she's having at the satyr with her shoe.

Why, what did you think I meant?
And what culture! From the gold, bronze, and pottery of ancient Mycenae, through sculptures dating from around 800BC to 100AD; glass from the Archaic period up to the 1300AD; terracotta; and bronze. It’s all somewhat overwhelming to think how incredibly old some of this stuff is. I found a 5000 year old piggy bank. The plaque said it was a vase, but it looked exactly like a piggy bank and not much like an actual pig.

Zoomorphic vase or piggy bank?
Beloved Wife declared Cake O’Clock, and we retired to the basement level for cake and coffee. The rain was still hurling down in the middle of the quadrangle, and we had the choice of either fresh air and tobacco, or stale indoor air and coffee. We chose the latter, mostly because all the tables in the covered arcade were occupied.

Zeus, King of the Gods.
It looks like the thunderbolt he's throwing has been lost in the mists of time.
Funerary monument to a fallen Greek warrior.
The museum shop missed a trick, though. There are a lot of examples of Mycenaean jewellery on display and, according to Beloved Wife, reproductions of these should have been available for sale.

There was a special exhibition of the Antikythera Shipwreck. The vessel sank in the first century BC and took a wealth of bronze, glass, marble, and The Antikythera Mechanism to the sea bed off the west end of Crete. Sponge divers discovered it in 1900, and Jacques Cousteau had another go in 1976. The museum made a big thing of The Mechanism, with a 3D film and displays showing how, over 2000 years ago, a mechanical device existed that could do celestial calculations. As I understand it (from the Greek soundtrack), you wound the handle to set the date and time, and pointers showed sunrise, sunset, moon phase, that sort of stuff. It’s the earliest example so far found of a portable astronomical calendar calculator, and predates similar machinery by an incredible millennium and a half.

The museum staff threw everyone out at about 1530, but by then the rain had at last stopped. We wove our way back to the hotel pausing to obtain beer, Coke, and crisps in a mini-mart. The plan was to take a break, and then to go out again for a late afternoon to evening session of sightseeing and restaurant.

We ended up at a streetside restaurant in the Plaka area, right on the northern slope of the Acropolis. There has been a town here for nearly 3000 years. The restaurant was very traditional, right down to the live bouzouki players and ritual breaking of crockery on the flagstones. I had lamb kleftiko for the first time since a few years ago in Cyprus: lamb, cooked slowly in a clay pot for several hours until it’s melt-in-the-mouth tender.

Also much in evidence were souvenir statuettes of gods and heroes. Beloved Wife has instructed that no such tchotchkes shall adorn the Crumbling Villa.

Thursday: Markets and Old Town

“Partly cloudy. 20°C” said the weather website. With blue skies overhead, we set out without an umbrella.

Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaestus were on the menu, along with the local food market. On our way around the market, some random Greek dude insisted that he have his picture taken with the bekilted Muggins. Shortly thereafter, he chased us down with a note containing (presumably) his name and address. He’d managed to work out that without this information, there would be no way we could let him have the picture. He even attempted to pay us for it. Unfortunately I managed to lose the scrap of paper, so if you know this guy, please get him to contact me.

Do you know this man?
The meat market. There's absolutely no doubt what this guy is selling.
Spices for sale. Beloved Wife bought some "Award-winning" olive oil,
but we have no idea what it's like.
Presently, we entered Ancient Agora using part of our ‘Acropolis and Everything’ tickets and, in accordance with the guide book, headed for a reconstructed arcade to get orientation about the site. The Stoa of Attalos has a museum on the ground floor and lots of statues and models on the upper floor that overlooks the site of ancient Athens.

Waiting for the rain to stop.
The big selling point is the Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved ancient temple in the world. It protrudes from multiple shades of greenery and really sells the place as Classical. At this point the heavens opened so, like everyone else, we hung around the ground-floor museum and then sat and waited for the rain to stop. By the time we got to the Temple of Hephaestus, the sky was blue and the damp ground was starting to steam in the sunlight.

The Temple of Hephaestus is surrounded by greenery.

South west corner of the Temple.
Many photographs later, at 1430 we were abruptly thrown out. The staff clearly want to go home spot on 1500.
Ancient Agora and the Acropolis, as seen from the Temple of Hephaestus.
Beloved Wife advised that the Museum of Cycladic Art was recommended by both the guide book and her friends. It was a tidy step away – at least a mile – but by curious happenstance was advertised as open until 2000 on Thursdays. So off we ambled, through the tourist shops and then the National Gardens (a park), pausing only once for coffee and cake.

It’s a small museum, but there are four floors of it. Paying our admission, we were advised to go to the top floor and work our way down. At the top were exhibits about Life in Ancient Greece, with artifacts, illustrations, and even a video of Scenes From Everyday Life. (Birth, betrothal, marriage, going off to war, funeral rites).

The Cup Bearer. Carved from marble about 5000 years ago.
The third floor contains a display of ancient art and culture from Cyprus, with items dating from 4000BC to 1800AD; mostly the very old stuff, and a lot of it in amazingly good condition. On the second floor are displays of ancient Greek art, with a lot of pottery and bronze, plus some glass and a number of interactive displays.

The first floor houses Cycladic art. Dating from 3000BC or thereabouts, this is the stuff that developed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in the Greek islands. There are many marble figurines in a distinctive style that could have been 20th century modern art. Picasso is one of the artists who nicked the style. The Cycladic people had little in the way of arable land, and scratched a living with a little agriculture and animal husbandry. But they had the sea, and became big-time maritime explorers and traders, and they also had masses of marble.   

This museum had not missed the same trick as the Archaeology Museum, offering for sale reproductions of the bling in the glass cases and reproductions of the marble figurines.

It became sunset and time to find food, so we staggered back through the shopping centre until we located a quiet restaurant in Plaka. I am pleased to note that I have failed to notice any McDonald’s outlets. In fact, the only big-name restaurant I’ve spotted so far is a TGI Friday’s, and that’s out among the foreign embassies and not in the middle of town.

Friday: Funicular fun

Today we went up the funicular railway to the Chapel of Agios Georgios. This chapel and attendant café and bar is right at the top of a hill a mile or so north west of the Acropolis. Owing to yesterday’s rain, the atmosphere was pretty clear, and I hoped to get some reasonable views and photos looking down on to ancient Agora. I wasn’t disappointed.

The green patch represents most of Ancient Athens.
Beloved Wife decreed that we’d take the metro two stops to the foot of the hill. We alighted at Evangelismos and headed up a seemingly never-ending flight of steps. I’m really glad I don’t have a job delivering grand pianos to the apartments served by these steps. Just as well we’d not walked from the hotel too. More than halfway up is the lower station for the funicular. It cost €7 return each. We were planning to get the train up and then walk down, but single tickets were not available. They are from the ticket machine at the top, which is a bit weird.

St George’s is a tiny traditional Byzantine chapel. The whitewashed exterior is inevitably covered with spray-painted graffiti, as is every other vertical surface in Athens. The hilltop is also covered with masts and antennae, so it’s quite a fiddle to get photos whilst avoiding these and their guy wires.

Coke and cake followed, as did beer. It was, perhaps surprisingly, not ludicrously priced bearing in mind the location. We speculated as to the lack of rooftop swimming pools and shortage of solar panels on the apartments stretching off to the edge of the Attic Basin.

It seemed a very long walk down from the funicular to the main street. Beloved Wife wished to visit the Byzantine and Christian Museum. This is magnificently laid out, and takes the visitor from the fourth century AD up to the nineteenth. Frescoes rescued from old churches that were flooded by reservoir schemes, stone bas-reliefs, icons. That sort of thing. It did occur to me that a huge Last Judgment could have been used by the artist to take all sorts of cheap shots at unpopular public figures by portraying their likenesses burning in the fiery pits of hell.

Elijah ascends to Heaven aboard a fiery chariot.
Fourteenth-century centaur, from an equally old church.
I was pretty iconed out by the time beer o’clock occurred, and then Beloved Wife mentioned that the Changing of the Guard was due to happen on the hour just down the road. We made it in good time to see the actually rather difficult high-stepping drill by the Greek soldiers in their ceremonial tunics, hose, and hobnailed shoes with pompoms. The two guys who started their one-hour stint at 1700 stand to attention for half an hour, then do ten minutes of pacing up and down, then stand for a further twenty minutes before being relieved. They’re back on duty at 2300. There’s a third Superintendent, whose job appears to be to talk to onlookers, prevent them from molesting the guards or taking the piss, and to ensure that the guards’ uniforms are exactly right.

Changing of the Guard. They do this on the hour, every hour.
The new guard makes the most of his time in the shade.
The first train to the airport on Saturday leaves at an unholy 0536. The hotel has, at least, offered a packed breakfast because we’re leaving before the breakfast we’ve paid for starts being served. And we’re doing our packing this evening, prior to our Riotous Night Out with one of Beloved Wife’s old friends and former colleagues from Dubai, now living in Athens.

Saturday: Back to reality

I do not function well on three hours’ sleep a night, and it was pretty much Dawn of the Living Dead by the time we rolled into Athens airport. I do not know how Emirates gets their aircraft back to Dubai from Athens, but we were obliged to fly Aegean to Milan in order to catch an Emirates flight. The self-check-in was a recalcitrant machine that showed us our flight details and then refused to issue boarding passes for the Emirates flight. And as we were carrying liquids, we had to check a bag, so we needed to deal with a person anyway.

I think we encountered the only Lawful Neutral person in Greece. It turns out that, in order to prevent leaking liquid food from ruining everyone’s luggage, Aegean has an inane rule that requires liquids to be packed in a wooden box. That a tin of olive oil – not a fragile glass bottle – was wrapped in plastic, then padded with underwear, then inside a suitcase was not good enough. No wooden box: no olive oil, and Beloved Wife found a Greek couple to give it away to.

Had we been desperate for some Greek olive oil, it would have been possible to buy it in the airport shop and transport it as carry-on. I hate the capricious ill-logic of airline security rules.

Aegean left late, so much so that someone met us at Milan and led us very swiftly across the entire, huge airport to where our Emirates flight was waiting. I asked, and was assured that our checked bag was on board, which it wasn’t, as we learned in Dubai six hours later. One of our aisle seats was also as far from an aisle as it’s possible to get on an Airbus A340; a lie that we discovered about five minutes after being spun this whopper.

When the bag was finally delivered some 24 hours later, it had been ripped open by persons unknown. Presumably by either cack-handed baggage handlers or airport security. Nothing was missing, and I went to Emirates the following day bag in hand, and eventually received financial compensation.

All in all, then, a fun break in Athens that was ruined at the end by airline security and mishandled luggage.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The trouble with Triple

Click here if you'd like one of these
Beloved Wife and Goat were finally cajoled by Itisalot into getting a fibre-optic cable to deliver all landline-based telecomms to the Crumbling Villa. It's slow; it's expensive. But cheaper than paying for wireless internet plus a separate landline. And basic cable TV was thrown in too. hence 'Triple Play': Telephone, Internet and TV all for a single monthly payment.

And all was well for a few months, until the cable TV stopped working. The Goat got around to calling Customer Care about six weeks ago, and a new set-top box was duly delivered by one of Itisalot's technicians. He said that it would configure itself over the next hour or so, and all would be well.

The following day, the Goat was on the phone to Customer Care again. All was far from well. The replacement set-top box was as dysfunctional as the first.

There followed around two weeks and a dozen appointments for technicians to resolve the problem. Five actual visits later, a tech declared that there was no more he could do, and the complete lack of cable TV was a total mystery. A subsequent technician promised to return the following day with yet another new set-top box, configured for use, and with a working remote control.

But he never showed up, instead choosing to close the complaint. So a couple of weeks later when the Goat rang Customer Care yet again, Itisalot had been under the impression that the problem had been fixed. The Goat theorises that technicians are on some kind of bonus/penalty scheme, and closing a complaint even if it's not fixed results in a new complaint being generated, rather than the technician being berated for his failure to perform.

In fact, three times the Goat's complaints were closed without a technician addressing the problem. Or turning up at the Crumbling Villa. Or phoning the Goat to make an appointment. The absence of a solution was getting beyond irritating.

Enough being enough (and then some), today the Goat undertook to reduce his 'Triple Play' to 'Double Play' (internet and landline only) with the consequent AED40/month reduction, backdated six weeks to when he first reported the problem. He had to go to an Itisalot Business Centre with the set-top box and wait first for twenty minutes, and then for a further thirty, to obtain An Audience With Itisalot.

Far from obtaining his AED40/month reduction in subscription, the Goat is now persuaded financially to keep 'Triple Play', even though part of it doesn't work. The reason?

Itisalot's cajoling way back included a special offer of AED229/month instead of the normal AED299. 'Double Play' is AED259/month, which is indeed AED40 less for no cable TV.

AED229 is £39, which is for up to 1Mbps. How much do you pay for your internet?

It would be ludicrous to hand back the set-top box and pay an extra AED30/month, and in an attack of irony, Itisalot even said that the Goat would have to pay AED100 to downgrade his subscription.

The Goat has packed the useless device away. He'll probably ring Customer Care every now and then, just to see if a technician is ever invented who can actually fix the problem, but he's not holding his breath.

Edited on 23rd October to note that the Goat received an unsolicited SMS from Itisalot on 20th October to advise that a technician would be visiting tomorrow to fix the problem. And to date, the Cable TV still seems to be working. Its only taken 51 days.


Saturday, October 05, 2013

"I am the One Per Cent"

This blog post isn't the
Tales of 1001 Nights...
Apparently, 99% of boat owners on the British inland waterways are over fifty, which makes my friend Richard one of the 1%. But because he’s not a merchant banker or a US congressman, and has to work for a living, he’s happy for friends to come and crew his narrowboat on tours of the inland waterways of England.

I wanted to go, and Beloved Wife said that I could, suggesting that I make a fortnight of it and see friends and family. This was in lieu of Plan A: Nanny Goat’s proposed visit to Dubai over Eid. Not least because Beloved Wife’s employer still hasn’t made up its corporate mind what days will constitute a Public Holiday, we abandoned Plan A and invoked Plan B.

Plan B had me flying into Birmingham International, taking a train to Nanny Goat’s and staying a few days, then borrowing her car and touring southern England. After returning the car with a full tank and my seriously depleted wallet, I would take a train to the midlands, go narrowboating for several days, and then get off right next to a railway station. The airport would be a short rail journey away, and I’d fly back to Dubai.

And guess what. Everything went exactly as planned. It’s amazing what a little forward planning can achieve.

Ducks in a row.
At the airport, something odd did occur to me. Airport security has always been a bugbear of mine because of the illogical rules. This one involves half-litre bottles of water. These are not allowed on board aircraft because they might be liquid explosives, so we’re told. We’re also told that we may dispose of them in that basket full of bottles of liquid piled just there, right next to the security desk. What, I ask myself, would happen in the terminal if some ne’er-do-well did succeed in getting a bottle of cellulose nitrate into this basket? At least the aircraft would be safe…

I now fly with minimal-to-zero metalwork about my person, even resorting to draw-string trousers so that I don’t have to risk a wardrobe malfunction when I take my belt off. The full body scanner at Amsterdam flagged the wristwatch that I’d forgotten to take off, but that was OK because it was obvious what it was when the alarm bells rang.

Travelling around England for a few days did result in Beer. I fear I broke David over a long afternoon session in two Bristol pubs, for which I ought to apologise, but it was good to catch up since we parted ways way back in my Doha days.

I deposited rare spices from the Orient with some friends who might appreciate such things, and eventually headed back to Plymouth in the rain. Nanny Goat’s car does 42 miles per (imperial) gallon on a steady run, which is just as well given that petrol costs a rather shocking £6.15 a gallon. For readers in the Middle East, that’s around AED7.80 rather than the usual AED1.72 per litre. Americans might be shocked and appalled by the British reality of $8.20 per US gallon.

The narrowboat lives in a marina in Droitwich, which is an excellent location as it’s near the Worcester end of the Worcester and Birmingham canal and the river Severn, so Birmingham, Tewkesbury, and Stourport are all potential destinations, each with their own charms.

This time, we were heading for the Birmingham Canal Navigations, so it was up three locks out of the marina, up six more to Stoke Prior, and then the remaining thirty on to the BCN Main Line level. Tardebigge Locks constitute the longest lock flight in the UK, and they’re all self-operating. You operate them yourself, which is why Richard really needed a small crew.

Waiting for a lock to empty.
We had a Bard. That's plusses on all Inspire Competence rolls.
An overnight stop opposite a pub in Stoke Prior and a hearty breakfast later, we set off, arriving at Tardebigge Top Lock three and three-quarter hours later. It might have been quicker, but we’d been following a boat all the way and had to cycle every lock. Once on the summit level, it was easy cruising at about three miles per hour all the way to Gas Street Basin, which is right smack bang in the city centre.

Gas Street has become rather trendy since my last boat trip there back in 1987. Trendy bars and restaurants have popped up but, after a shower in the civilised full-size facilities kept under lock and British Waterways key (which all boaters have, and nobody else does), we ate, and then found the gloriously eighteenth-century Canalside Inn and its stock of Real Ale. 

The double-hearthed fireplace inside the Canalside Inn.
In days of yore (from 1773), the Worcester and Birmingham canal and the BCN were not joined up, and cargo had to be manhandled from one boat to another at this very spot. The Worcester Bar was a water-saving measure, I can imagine that if this building were an inn at the time, they’d have made a fortune. Eventually, in 1815, a seven-foot-wide 84-yard length of canal was constructed to join the W&B to the BCN, and later the lock gates were removed, allowing free passage.

Gas Street Basin is to the left; the BCN Main Line is to the right.
Just beyond Gas Street, we turned right and headed down Farmers Bridge flight of 13 locks. These pass beneath later buildings that have, in some cases been built on columns over the canal. It’s all very industrial. Then there was a right turn at Aston Junction on to the Digbeth Branch Canal and six locks, plus tunnels and bridges.

The canal is easily the oldest thing in this picture.
Two hundred years of wear and tear.
Nobody told me to turn left at the bottom and I overshot and we were heading towards Typhoo Basin before my crass mistake became apparent to everyone. I had to reverse out, which is interesting in a long boat that doesn’t steer in reverse. Nevertheless, we caught up with a working boat and butty (an unpowered towed boat) that were taking coal to canalside pubs along the Grand Union. The butty has to be worked through locks by hand, and it’s a long and slow process. If you fancy this, the Narrow Boat Trust is always looking for crew.

Nuneaton and Brighton.
We ended up following NB Nuneaton and the butty Brighton along the Grand Union Canal until they managed to run aground on a mud bank beneath a bridge. We sneaked past with a couple of inches to spare, and then towed them off.
A very tight squeeze.
Having passed a newly-built Dutch barge, which was for sale, I inferred that we were now on broad canal. Sure enough, as dusk fell we encountered a flight of five broad locks at Knowle. Having got to the bottom of these, we sought a mooring right outside a pub. Huzzah!

The following morning, it was necessary to climb back up to the BCN Main Line level. From Kingswood Junction there’s one lock up to the Stratford Canal, then nineteen more to Kings Norton Junction. The last one is a stop lock. It’s a guillotine lock that nowadays is welded open. The Stratford Canal is very picturesque right into the heart of Birmingham’s sprawling suburbs.

Rush hour on the Lapworth Flight.
Brandwood Tunnel sports William Shakespeare's likeness.
Appropriate for the Stratford Canal
Kings Norton stop lock.
As this was a holiday in England, remarks about the weather cannot be avoided. It was dry almost all of the time except at night when we were safely indoors enjoying a small wood-burning stove, port, and card games, right up to the Kings Norton. Then a large umbrella had to be deployed. The rain had stopped by the time we got to Bournville. Mooring just next to the railway station, we had another social evening, and early the following morning I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the station at the start of a long trip back to Dubai.

The remaining crew went and explored Birmingham again, before turning around and heading back on their own long trip down Tardebigge, and home.

Hey Richard, how would it be if I wanted to borrow your boat for a week next year?


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