Travels (again)

I hate to do this to you folks, but I’m off for a quick holiday in Greece. I’ll be back on Tuesday, watch out for falling Confederate statues and mysterious sentient vans ploughing into crowds while I’m gone.

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No Fun in Germany

When I opened my letterbox on Saturday I was rather surprised to find a speeding notice sent all the way from Germany. Apparently when I was in Baden-Baden I was travelling at 41kph (38kph after tolerance adjustments) in a 30kph zone. Or in English, I was doing 23.6mph in an 18.6mph zone.

Until recently I wasn’t even aware that speed limits below 30mph existed, but I see some 20mph zones have appeared in London down residential streets full of chicanes and speed bumps. In France, the general limit in built-up areas is 50kph and occasionally 40kph. So what did this road in Baden-Baden look like? Well, street view is banned in Germany (along with most everything else) so we only have the aerial view of Geroldsauer Straße:

Geroldsauer Straße is a 2-lane road forming part of the B-500, which puts it in the Bundesstraße category:

In the German highway system they rank below autobahns, but above the Landesstraßen and Kreisstraßen

In other words, if you drive at more than 19mph along sections of Germany’s second-tier highways you’re liable to be photographed and fined. The photo is quite funny, it shows my Russian pal and me on our way somewhere, but the road is wide and clear. The fine is only 15 Euros which I have no problem paying, either in practical terms or in principle; that’s not my point here.

My point is that Germany looks about the least fun place to live or visit, especially when compared to France. I suppose mind-numbing sterility is what happens when a largely secular nation’s middle-classes get wealthy and comfortable enough that they find it necessary to meddle and proscribe to an ever-increasing degree. But hey, if this is what the Germans want, then who am I to complain? I’ll just keep to my side of the border and laugh at things like this:

It’s also going to be interesting seeing how the Germans will enforce their millions of petty laws in a few years’ time when the effects of their immigration policies begin to take hold. Historians might find some bemusement in a country that fined people for driving at 38kph down what would be a major highway in most of the world, but couldn’t stop mass sexual assaults in its city centres.

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A Trip to Nantes

The city of Nantes in the Pays de Loire region consistently ranks highly in the lists of best places to live in France, probably because it is big enough to have all the amenities of a city, yet it is surrounded by countryside and only 2 1/2 hours from Paris by train. Possibly the biggest attraction is that you have a dozen or more beaches and seaside towns within an hour’s drive, making the place great in summer.

The town itself is nice enough and reminded me a lot of Bordeaux: lots of little side streets, cafes, bars, and students. There were also a lot of unwashed hippy-types sitting about in bare feet holding pieces of string with a dog on the end. I’d not seen many of them in France before, but Nantes had plenty. Probably the best thing to do when arriving in Nantes is to walk around the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and then find something to eat and drink: being a former port town whose shipyards closed long ago, Nantes is nice but not beautiful.

The mirror above was pretty neat. In front was a football pitch laid out in a curve such that the mirror would reflect it as a perfect rectangle.

One of the main attractions of Nantes is Les Machines de l’île, a permanent exhibition of animatronic animals built in the steampunk genre in an area of reclaimed dockyards near the city centre. The most famous of the exhibits is a giant mechanical elephant which carries passengers on a journey of a few hundred metres every hour or so.

It’s both a fantastic work of art and feat of mechanical engineering. Driven on wheels by electric motors, hydraulics make the legs move giving the impression it’s walking. A combination of pneumatics and hydraulics make the head, ears, and trunk move. Were this in Australia the people following would be stood two hundred metres away behind barriers, but in France people are still allowed to have fun so everyone walks alongside or in front, with the kids getting sprayed with water from the trunk. A security guard sort of ushers people out of the way, but otherwise you can get pretty close. To be fair, the thing moves pretty slowly and you’d have to be trying pretty hard to get hurt.

Inside there were some smaller animals, including a mechanical ant which I’d seen a year before at the Paris Maker Faire.

There was also a caterpillar, a heron, and a giant spider each of which could carry a handful of passengers who, by pulling various levers, could make the animals’ appendages move in a realistic fashion. The whole exhibition was an excellent combination of aesthetically pleasing arts and complex engineering, something which is never easy to pull off.

Afterwards I went for a short walk along the slipways of the old docks, where the city has adopted and preserved an old crane as a reminder of its industrial heritage (If you look carefully you can see the elephant on the left).

That evening I watched footage of the flypast in Paris and Trump causing lefty heads to explode by complimenting Macron’s wife on her figure. I was hoping he’d rumble down the Champs Élysées in an Abrams tank, crushing a few vehicles on the way, but instead he turned up in a limo. Back in Nantes, the municipality laid on a firework display in the castle for the Bastille Day celebrations. Judging by the crowd, the entire city turned up to watch them.

The next day I headed to the harbour town of Pornic, which sounds a bit like an app connecting amateur pornstars with budding directors in your area. Naturally, the first thing to do was eat some oysters at the grand price of 6 for 10 euro.

France is probably the only place I’d eat oysters, and the Atlantic coast is the only place I’d make a point of eating them. Meaty, cheap, and delicious they were. As I found with other small coastal towns in France, the visitors are almost exclusively French so you can safely eat in a restaurant which looks “touristy”. You’d not want to do that in one of the more famous towns like Etretat or Le Mont Saint Michel, where the menu will be laminated and in sixteen languages with Russian and Chinese near the top.

Pornic was a nice place, even with the tide out.

On the way back to Nantes I stopped at the Réserve Naturelle de Grand-Lieu, which is basically a lake.

It was nice enough, but what I most enjoyed was coming across a field of mowed hay and taking in the smell of it. Then a tractor pulled up with a hay-turner and I stared long enough for the driver to hop out and ask me if I was wanting anything in particular. I explained that I’d grown up around farm machinery and, living in Paris, I missed it. He sympathised, but not enough to immediately put the thing into action for my entertainment. On the drive back I passed a dozen or so fields of wheat being harvested, dust flying everywhere.

Just for fun, here’s a pic of me with the elephant.

(The rest of my photos from this trip can be seen here.)

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More Travels & House of Cards

Sorry folks, I’m off travelling again, this time to Nantes for a few days. Friday is Bastille Day and a public holiday in France, so I’m turning it into a 4-day weekend.

To keep you entertained, I’ll leave you with a post from last July on what I thought of seasons 1-4 of House of Cards. It may explain why I’ve not bothered watching Season 5 (spoilers follow).

I recently finished the fourth and most recent season of the American TV series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and nobody else who can act.  Several people had recommended it to me, with one or two saying it was “amazing”.  Perhaps I should have been forewarned by the fact that two of these people were women of a feminist persuasion.

Seasons 1 and 2 weren’t bad, and depicted an utterly unscrupulous and ruthless Kevin Spacey manipulating situations and people as he wormed his way from Democratic party whip to Vice President and finally to President of the United States.  What I found most interesting about the first two seasons was that it showed what I suspect is the true nature of politics, i.e. politicians making decisions which affect millions of people purely to further their own personal ambitions.  The series lays bare the corrupt and unprincipled nature of politicians and politics for all to see, yet the show is loved by people who favour big government and believe politicians should have ever-more involvement in people’s lives.  I know at least one fan who decries the antics of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood yet intends to vote for Hillary Clinton in November.  Go figure.

But somewhere between Seasons 2 and 3 the feminists got hold of the script and effectively made the show all about Frank Underwood’s wife, played by Robin Wright.  She played a reasonable supporting role in the first two seasons, ably assisting her husband in his rise to the top (but also betraying him in more ways than one), but during Season 3 she revealed her own political ambitions and contrived to land herself the position of US ambassador to the UN.  During the nomination process her opponents pointed to her utter lack of experience yet she obtains the position anyway thanks to her husband’s prerogative to just appoint somebody of his choosing – whereupon she promptly makes a complete idiot of herself and the United States by being played like a fiddle by the Russians.  I thought at this point she’d be relegated to a supporting role again, her character having been shown to lack experience or competence in a political role –  as her opponents were saying (and any reasonably viewer thinking) all along.

But no.  The feminists who had hijacked the script were having none of it.  Season 4 saw Frank Underwood lying in a coma having been shot in an assassination attempt, a weak VP in temporary charge, and First Lady Claire Underwood running about doing what she likes as though she had some constitutional authority to do so.  A strong, experienced, and somewhat ruthless female secretary of state allows herself to be bullied by Claire into submission, to the ridiculous extent that it is Claire who is sent into a room alone with the Russian president to negotiate a solution to some strategic issue of vital importance.  And of course, Claire gets the notoriously stubborn Putin-a-like to capitulate by browbeating him in a manner in which I suspect feminists think women should speak to their husbands.  As the season advances, Claire finds herself able to order members of the presidential staff around on whim, involving herself in matters of national security even to the point of being in the situation room, and not a single person in the administration raises a squeak in protest.

This wouldn’t be so irritating were it not for the fact that each scene of Claire’s brilliance takes on exactly the same form.  She wears the same arse-hugging style of dress or skirt in every shot, she manages a single facial expression throughout the entire series, and for each pivotal scene the only thing that changes are the words being spoken.  It quickly becomes repetitive, and not a little tedious.  But not content with that, the feminists have to ramp it up by making Claire the object of seemingly every key man’s sexual desire as well.  In Seasons 1 and 2 she is shagging a rather hip British photographer who is world famous, the type that would in real life be hanging around models from Eastern Europe.  But in House of Cards he’s pining after the ageing wife of a US senator.  She finds herself fending off the advances of the (divorced) Russian president, who tells Frank that she is truly beautiful, or something like that.  Because prominent Russians are well known for flattering American women and have difficulty picking up stunners back home.  Uh-huh.  In Season 4 Claire is shagging a famous author, a younger man hired by Frank to write their speeches or biographies, or something.  When Frank finds out he doesn’t mind, and this ruthless motherfucker who committed two murders in his ascendancy to the White House doesn’t just accept it, but gives the couple his blessing.  Again, the idea that a famous author would fall in love with the older wife of the US president instead of having a beautiful, loving partner of his own doesn’t even get questioned.  Despite various betrayals on her part of her husband’s political maneuverings plus the aforementioned infidelities, Frank wakes from his coma praising her to the heavens, forgiving her in full, and stating in unequivocal terms that she is the most important person in the entire series.  Even the wife of the Republican presidential nominee is forced by the scriptwriters to shower her with gushing praise during a visit to the White House.  Season 4 ends with her being nominated as the VP on her husband’s ticket, having seen off seasoned and ruthless female opponents by making hackneyed speeches in a figure-hugging dress.

The audience, by having it rammed down their throats every episode, is expected to unconditionally accept that Claire Underwood is a brilliant politician, responsible for every success her husband has achieved, desired sexually by every man who meets her, and is easily capable as a president herself (there is a Season 5 on the way).  By contrast, despite a brief affair with a young journalist in Season 1, her husband Frank is a greying, cuckolded, semi-invalid who owes her everything.  It is the definition of tedious, and I almost didn’t make it to the end of the series.  Watching this rubbish during the current buildup to the US presidential election, I got the feeling that the scriptwriters were fantasizing about what Michelle Obama could do in her position as First Lady.  Now I see the progressive media praising her speech at the Democratic National Convention for all its worth, I am wondering if a section of the American liberal left haven’t confused real-life politics for a TV show.

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A Trip to Baden-Baden

Last week I spent a few days in Baden-Baden, a German town so bath-like they say so twice. The springs there have been known since Roman times and nowadays one can visit the Friedrichsbad bathhouse, which is a classic 19th century building containing pools of various temperatures which I assume are similar to the Széchenyi baths I went to in Budapest.  Alternatively, you could do what I did and go to the much more modern Caracalla Therme complex, which is fantastic.

I’d not been to one quite like it before. What made this one different is it had dozens of jets, waterfalls, currents, bubbles, and baths which all did different things. There was a row of seats which blasted bubbles around your lower back; there were powerful underwater jets which could massage your legs, glutes, and back; there were fixed hoses which would massage your neck, shoulders and upper back, and waterfalls which would do the same thing. Somebody had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how much water to send where and at what pressure, or how much to fall from which height, to allow you to get a proper massage without it stripping skin or killing you. There were also several jacuzzis of various temperatures, and each was set on a time-cycle: half were switched off for ten-minute intervals while the other half worked, then they swapped over. This was to stop people hogging the things all day. All you had to do was sit in something that wasn’t working and wait for it to start. There were also steam rooms, saunas, solariums, and a half-decent cafe (although the whole place was alcohol-free).

One amusing point is the upper floor is a compulsory nudist area, i.e. no bathing suits are allowed. For anyone rushing to book tickets with hopes of sharing a hot tub with a naked Maria Sharapova and two of her closest friends, I must warn that you’re more likely to be rubbing up against fat Germans the wrong side of sixty who don’t know their way around a Bic razor. I didn’t hang about in there long, but I spent three hours in the main complex one day and five the next: it was good for my bad back.

Something else I found interesting was the designers’ estimations of their clients’ intelligence. They had arranged three identical water fountains in the foyer as per the photo below:

The little sign on the nozzle on the two end fountains was like this:

But the sign on the one in the middle was like this:

Only in Germany would somebody install three identical fountains, make Nos. 1 and 3 dispense drinking water and the one in the middle non-drinkable, and rely on people reading signs to differentiate between them. Anywhere else in the world and they’d have to put the fountains on different floors. Inevitably, somebody told me that non-Germans (meaning, Russians) often end up drinking from the middle fountain. Nevertheless, the baths are well worth a visit: clean, accessible, and very well organised.

Germany is still an odd place, though. One evening I went with my friends to buy copious quantities of alcohol from a supermarket to drink in the apartment we’d rented. We arrived at about 9:45pm and the place closed at 10pm. For some reason I faffed about and by the time I got to the checkout it was 9:55pm and there was a large queue in front of me. For reasons known only to the people running the place, there was only one checkout working and three supermarket staff watching. As I moved along, the Germans in front of me started pointing to the bottle I’d placed on the conveyor belt and saying things like “Nein! Nein!” I couldn’t work it out until I saw the woman on the till frantically shoving the bottles of the customers in front over the scanner. Apparently once the clock on the till passes 10pm it’s not possible to buy alcohol. By the time my turn came it was about 10:02 and the bottle wouldn’t scan. The woman harangued me in German for a full minute, which I utterly ignored as if she were talking to somebody else about her dog: there was no point in arguing and I wasn’t interested in her explanations. I got the last laugh though: my bill came to €10.01 and I handed her a €20 note. She asked me if I had a cent and I said no, even though I did. Flexibility works both ways: you help me, and I’ll help you. After some huffing and puffing she gave me a €10 note in change. I left hoping she’ll be shot in the morning for that missing pfennig.

I wasn’t bothered about not being able to buy the booze, I had plenty of it already and my friends had gotten through ze German till with ein minute to spare. But it did highlight the difference between France and Germany. In France they’d have found a way to get around this restriction, one way or another. Either they’d have fiddled with the till or they’d have got a supervisor to override the block, or something. But they’d not tell a customer they couldn’t buy drink because the till said it was too late.

There were other reminders that I was in Germany, too. Last time I went was in 2012 and I thought the food was good but then I was living in Nigeria. Alas, this time around I found the food bloody awful: grey sausage on a bed of sauerkraut sitting in watery gravy. That’s what three years in France does to a person, it renders them unable to eat practically anywhere else. In one place I ordered a dish which came with two very small pork chops, which I found hiding under some cabbage. Halfway through the meal the waitress came over with a small bowl, like the kind you put sugar in, containing another two pork pieces. She said “These are for your meal,” and walked off. I dumped them on my plate and carried on eating. I was sat with a Frenchman at the time and I asked him if he could imagine this happening in a French restaurant, a chef forgetting to add half the meat and sending it out in a bowl later. He couldn’t, and neither could I.

The beer was good though, and cheap. Some things never change.

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Holidays and Sport

Tomorrow I’m off to visit some friends in Baden-Baden until Friday, so no blogging next week I’m afraid.

I was going to write a post on the Lions v New Zealand, but what’s there to say? The Lions played well but didn’t take two golden chances when they ran right up to the line, which you can’t afford to do against the All Blacks. The pack played well but so did that of the Kiwis, cancelling each other out. There was little penetration by the Lions for whole periods of the game, but the breaks by Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies were very good indeed and justified their selection. Nobody played badly for the Lions, in fact everyone played well, only the Kiwis played better.

It’s hard to know what to do for the second test. Perhaps play Itoje instead of Kruis? As I said, nobody played badly. The worrying thing is the All Blacks generally put in their weakest performance in the first test and get progressively stronger thereafter. Gulp.

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Beating Up Passengers Because We Can

Oh well done, United Airlines:

Videos showing a man being violently removed from a United Airlines flight have provoked an outcry on social media.

The footage taken inside the airliner shows a man being violently pulled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle as passengers prepared to take off from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening.

Little wonder the US government has to invent “security concerns” in order to force passengers to fly their substandard airlines instead of the vastly superior foreign ones.

As I have commented elsewhere, this is merely a natural extension of the police-state tactics that were introduced to the airline industry following 9/11: simply cite “security” and the door is open for police brutality of the type normally seen on the streets of Africa or South America. The fact they were prepared to do this in full view of the public shows how blasé the authorities have become about this sort of thing.

I am heartened by the response of the public, who were appalled and objected loudly. I am also glad that somebody videoed it and made sure everyone was aware that this is how business and the government combine to treat airline passengers these days. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if legislation is rapidly introduced to ban the taking of videos in aircraft – citing “security concern” of course.

There are some people on the internet pointing out that the customer was in breach of the law and by refusing to leave the plane was committing a criminal offence and therefore the police had every right to arrest him and remove him by force. This might be strictly true, but I don’t find the argument holds much water. You might as well say that Rosa Parks ought to have been arrested because she was actually committing a criminal offence by being black and sitting in that particular spot.

I hope this incident costs United Airlines dearly, but I suspect their lobbyists and bought-and-paid-for politicians will ensure it doesn’t.

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Hotel Internet and Uber

Via Samizdata (and others), it appears Italy has banned Uber:

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

In my recent post on Budapest I said:

I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers.

I remember back in 2004-2006 when I did lots of business travel one would have to check in advance whether a hotel would have internet in the rooms. In those days this meant an ADSL connection in the wall and (sometimes) a cable, and not all hotels had them. In December 2005 I went to Korea and found the (wonderful) hotel had a 100mbs ADSL connection in the room that required no login or faffing about whatsoever, and they didn’t even bother to advertise it. When I went back to Seoul a couple of years later I said:

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.

I cite this passage because it shows how unusual it was back then to find a functional internet connection in a hotel room even as late as 2007. Within a few years an internet connection became standard everywhere, and shortly afterwards this transformed into a WiFi option which eventually became standard. It may be the case that some hotels still charge for it, some require fiddly logon procedures, and the quality can vary but it is almost unheard of nowadays to find a hotel without WiFi, and it is usually free and often good. I suspect in the age of iPads and WhatsApp, any hotel that didn’t offer WiFi both in the rooms and common areas would quickly go out of business: people simply don’t use the telephone or even wired internet these days.

I reckon in a few years we’ll be seeing the same thing with Uber, or at least a very similar service that works in much the same way. If Uber can survive a little longer, we will soon have a demographic that has only used Uber and is completely unfamiliar with the archaic practices and unwanted delights of a traditional taxi service, and will not contemplate using the latter any more than they would accept having no internet in a hotel room and instead have to use the single desktop in the hotel “business centre” with a broken mouse and an AZERTY keyboard left in Cantonese mode by the last user.

I give it five years, ten at the most, before cities where Uber is banned and no similar alternative exists start to see a serious reduction in visitor numbers. Like having a decent internet connection, being able to use an Uber-like service will soon become a key requirement of a holiday.

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