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  1. After our full day's adventure at Tsarskoe Selo and knowing that we're heading to Moscow tomorrow, you might have thought that our plans for the early hours of the morning were limited to being in bed, as they would be for sensible people. That wasn't the case for us; there was still more adventuring to get in and so at 23:20, Clare, Helen and I headed out of the hotel in the direction of the Fortanka to get on a boat. Not just any boat. This one was advertised as being romantic and featuring a saxophone player. In spite of that, we still chose to go because this was going to be a night-time cruise featuring the raising of the drawbridges! Because of Moscow's international status, it's easy not to be aware of quite how important St Petersburg is. It was the Empire's capital city until 1918, an important port on the Baltic Sea and Russia's Window to the West. Large ships need to travel through it, even though the bridges spanning the Neva and main canals aren't large enough to let them through. The solution involves a nightly process of raising 22 bridges across the city according to a timetable, allowing the larger ships a temporal and physical slot to pass through. It was the ceremonial raising of the drawbridges which we came to see. Leaving the hotel, we noticed that streetlights were on, although they didn't really need to be. St Petersburg is sufficiently northerly that there was still a fair bit of natural light even though the midnight hour was approaching. The red church we regularly pass was perfectly bright in spite of the time: The Fortanka presented a perfectly lovely sight too: We arrived at our ship with plenty of time to spare and were rewarded with even more spare time by the lady in the ticket office informing us that our boat, set to depart at 00:10, was no longer running. But that was alright because we had been moved to the 00:30 departure, so we sat at a little table for the next forty minutes or so as more people arrived. After boarding, we proved to be one of only three little groups to take a seat inside; everybody else was sitting on chairs on the deck, leaving us with the impression of having the room to ourselves: We were sitting at our corner table as the boat pulled off: We had 360-degree vision because of all the surrounding windows: But the best views were provided by popping up to the deck. I was quickly rewarded by the sight of the circus: What a beautiful building! Soon we had passed through a bridge and had left for Fortanka for the Neva: We were surrounded on both sides by illuminated grand buildings: We passed several familiar buildings, including the Winter Palace: And the Kunstkamera, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography: We travelled as far as the Admiralty, and then turned back. Within a couple of minutes we were part of a fleet converged on a bridge, gently bobbing on the water whilst people lined the banks: And then music struck up and we were treated to the following spectacle: That was amazing! All too soon, we had passed under the bridge and were leaving it behind: The Winter Palace looked wonderful as we drifted past: Why were we drifting? So as not to get to the following bridge too early and miss it being raised! Soon we'd passed that too! There wasn't much of the journey left as we turned back down the Fortanka. Still enough time to grab some wine whilst the saxophonist continued his somewhat lonely vigil. Before long we'd disembarked. This was approaching 2am and the sun was on its way back! Human engineering ingenuity had presented us with some remarkable and memorable sights over the course of our evening, but Mother Nature had a trick in hand too. Look at this remarkable gradation in the sky, preceeding from a very deep blue to a pale dawn. You can't notice the difference between one strip of sky and the next but spanning from side to side, you see how intense the colour change is: And so began a totally relaxing stroll back to the hotel in the tourist-free early hours of the morning. Tomorrow we leave Saint Petersburg for Moscow!
  2. Tim

    Day 2: Kiev

    As usual, I hadn't updated the time, so we really arrived home at 18:17, a full eight hours after we'd left!
  3. 2019 started with a lie-in for me and Alfie because we were going husky-sledding, courtesy of my parents, who treated Alfie to this for Christmas. Clare didn't fancy being a driver, so instead set off snowshoeing in the woods, leaving us behind. There was fresh snow on the ground, which always gives a lovely crunch when you walk on it: For once, we didn't walk in the direction of the supermarket but instead took the opposite turn walking uphill to our bus stop. The scenery is just as pretty: We got there with plenty of time to spare, nearly half an hour before the bus was due. I remember from last time that it's not the easiest bus stop to find but we were there within minutes and awaiting 12:30. We ended up waiting longer; the bus arrived at 12:43, forty minutes after we did, but was still earlier than last year. We boarded and there was only a family of four there. I thought our luck was in! Not quite so. We drove to the main office whereupon the guide explained that we were picking up some more people and that we were free to use the toilet, get a drink and even pick up some equipment. He made a point of suggesting to me that I might quite like to borrow a jumpsuit to protect me from the cold. Clearly he's not aware that this is the man who forswears gloves and a jacket at minus 17 if he's required to do any form of exertion! Alfie asked me how long this was going to take. Theoretically, it shouldn't have taken any time at all; the information on the ticket stated that we would be picked up at 12:30 and that the event would start at 13:00. However, we didn't leave until 13:20, arriving at 13:50. It was a lovely journey, though. We were quickly welcomed off the coach and given our safety instructions. There really wasn't a lot for passengers to learn, other than sit down and keep your extremities within the sled: Drivers had a bit more to learn, including hand signals for stop, go and slow down, and how to brake: We were even further delayed because the safety instructions were being translated into Spanish. I grew a bit restless and had a peek at some typical Sami accommodation: The dogs were all tied up and ready to go: There are 160 dogs at the farm. Although they're there to work, they each have names and personalities. Some of them bark in excitement because they want to run, others are more restful and have a quick nap between tours, whilst still others pull at their leads to try to get the tour started earlier! We happened to have the first sled in line and were soon off with our team of six: Sometimes there are eight dogs in a team for when there are more people on the sled. The dogs might have liked to have another couple added to their number once we hit the uphill stretch! The dogs are partnered alongside the dog they live with. Usually the whole team are neighbours. If the team works well, the dogs are kept together but changes are made if required, such as if the dogs fight. It's rare but it can happen. Our own team was soon broken up because of a problem. It didn't involve fighting though: Ours was a team of five boys and a single, solitary female. Apparently a "heat team" had been out a couple of sessions before and it gave two or three of our males ideas about the female in our group, so she had to be removed and replaced! Soon we were off and running again. The dogs nearest the sleigh are wheel dogs. They tend to be males, since this position requires the most strength, the dogs taking weight on their shoulders. The dogs in the middle are the fastest. The first dogs are the leaders, the brains of the team, planning the route. Usually these are females. Don't worry about the cold and how much you would hate to be out in it. The dogs live outside and love Arctic conditions, tolerating up to minus 45 degrees. Optimum weather for running is minus 20. When they get hot, they just grab a mouthful of snow on the move to cool off: One of the few things you have to do as a driver is apply the brake when bends come up so that the dogs, in taking a corner at pace, don't end up swinging the sleigh off the track. The guide on the snowmobile gives you the hand signal to slow down, which you then relay to the people behind you: Before long, darkness had descended and the dogs led us home: Everything looked beautiful with the magnificent sky behind it: Our own dogs were too keen on grabbing a drink to want to play with us, so we went and said hello to some of the dogs who were already in place for the next tour. There were some really friendly dogs there! We then got a chance to warm up by a fire: Our guide served us some hot berry juice and gave us some information about the farm and the dogs there. She explained that the dogs don't eat in the morning because their guts might twist when they run. In the evening they get a kilo of raw meat and dog pellets. They work quite hard in the winter, running 20 to 30 kilometres a day. The season starts in early December until mid-April. In summer the dogs get to play outside because they don't do any running in the heat. Training for the new season starts in August. After that we got to meet the 13 puppies, born and raised there according to a strict breeding programme, where males are matched to females! Sometimes, however, there are surprise puppies. Otto, who is 14 and the oldest dog on site, used to escape by scaling a wall and then would open the door of the cells of the bitches in heat. You know what happened next. The puppies are kept as pups until they're one. They start training for a year and join a team at two, racing until they're ten. Old retired dogs typically live with the puppies, doing grandparenting. Sometimes they get a new home because there are people in the area who collect retired sled dogs. Once they get a taste of it, the puppies love running. The relative calm can quickly be broken by puppies chanting in unison once they catch sight of another team getting ready to head out! One final look at the farm with that wonderful combination of snow and sky, and then we were back on board our coach, returning home after a really fun day out!
  4. Part 3 of turning 40 was the big event, a medieval banquet at Coombe Abbey. I'd invited my family and Clare's family, plus my best friend and his parents. That made us 19 in total. By the time we arrived, darkness had already fallen, which made for wonderful scenery amid the Christmas decorations: There was even a reindeer in the courtyard: Clare and I arrived early so that we could go to our room and get dressed up: Clare's family similarly decided to wear period clothing: Our parents hadn't seen each other since we moved into our house in 2009, so it was probably time to reunite them! And then we were off for the meal. It consisted of four courses. I'm told that my mother assumed that the waiting staff had forgotten the spoons when the soup was served. Alas, no; this was a genuine medieval experience. The food was fairly good and the courses were interspersed with comedy spots and singing from a band of actors, encouraging lots of activity from their guests. The evening passed rather quickly, I felt. Not a bad sign, then. As everybody else left, Clare and I retired to our room: And that was that. A day of celebration from start to finish, starting with the two of us plus Heidi and Pebbles, a surprise party with the younger members of the family, and a feast with the grown-ups. It was a lot fun and I'm really pleased that everybody gave up their day to come and join us. We're lucky in how life is going for us and I still hold no regrets about turning 40 (complete with a reasonable head of hair in spite of the genetic curse!), although I noticed the next morning that you appear to feel not quite yourself, a bit sluggish or queasy once you turn 40. Oh well; still no regrets!
  5. I'd managed to arrange something for many of my family members to do to help celebrate my 40th birthday, but five were unable to go. I call them my niblings; it's to nephews and nieces as siblings is to brothers and sisters. Such a cute word; I used it with the first when he was little and the only one (so "my nephew" would've been enough) and it never went away. I remember being at my younger brother's wedding and it was time for the younger generation to come up for photos. One call of Niblings! and up they came in the blink of an eye. There are currently five of them: Alfie (11), Max (7), Mia (5), Oscar (3) and George (1). I didn't want them to miss out and I didn't want to miss out on them either, so I asked my sister to arrange for them to throw me a surprise children's party. I was late, of course. That goes without say. But Clare and I arrived to a quiet house, met by Matt, my brother-in-law, informing me that nobody was there but he was sure they'd be back soon. Well, I'd just have to walk through and wait for them, wouldn't I? Surprise! Great! They were all there and so was I! Time to start playing then! We started with pin the tail on the donkey. Alfie needs to learn that at about eight feet tall, he's going to have to crouch if he wants to get anywhere close: Oscar gave it a good shot: Mia ... eh, not quite so good: Max is a cheater and got busted feeling the edges! Judge Shanie dealt with that problem: One thing that's good about being a hobbler is that you're bent over quite naturally at just the right height: I think George won overall: We celebrated with some lollipops: Then came my favourite game: pass the parcel. It was a bit of a near miss; Oscar and Mia had decided to start attacking the parcel not long after I arrived but Lucy wrapped up the outer layer again. George was chuffed to win Thomas the Tank Engine: Alfie's present didn't bring quite the same sense of fun as the others' had but they'll come in very useful when he's in Lapland in a fortnight's time; they're grips to prevent slipping on the compacted snow: I learned that all the niblings are cheats. Look at how they tried to tear the parcel out my hands before I barely had a chance to touch it! "Party's over; I've got to do some reading now!" We played musical statues. The rules are simple; when the music stops, you have to freeze. The first one to move is out. I might not have won but at least I wasn't the first eliminated! And then out came the cake. James and Pam had done the homework for this one: Happy birthday, Uncle Tim I had to recruit Oscar to help me with the job of blowing out the candles: I'd have needed all five niblings if there'd been 40 candles on there! All five of them were briefly quiet enough to pose for a photo, though George wasn't fully signed-up to the idea of smiling: That's my five-a-side team! I thought that was the end of it but no, I'd forgotten that other great part of children's parties; getting presents! I soon unwrapped a box of beer but they had saved me a very special present till last. It seemed a bit tricky for an old man's fingers, so I recruited Mia and Oscar to help me: What was it? It was my favourite present, that's what! That's what my grandfather used to call me. The name's not been mentioned in over thirty years until Rob thought it would be funny to teach it to Oscar. Or Robert Yogurt, as I perhaps should say. That's going to take pride of place on a wall once I get organised! The day wasn't over yet, though; there was a table set, complete with triangular jam sandwiches, dinosaur serviettes, crispy cakes, and crisps. The niblings were all seated and there were two free spaces. It also happened to be James's birthday (he was a gift from my parents on the day I turned seven) so we were the guests of honour: For the avoidance of doubt, James is the grown-up that looks and acts like a grown-up. Blimey! I was tired after all this and needed to get ready for the main event in the evening, so had to leave. But this was tonnes of fun and everybody had done me proud. If they're not totally embarrassed of me by then, we'll have to try it again for my fiftieth!
  6. I seem to be one of those curious creatures who likes growing older even if I don't actually celebrate the fact. The last birthday I did anything for was my 30th, and that, my first celebration since 21, consisted of nothing more than asking three friends from different points in my life to meet me down a pub for a quick drink, the sort of thing that most people probably consider being a normal part of their week, a purely routine bit of socialising. I was quite looking forward to turning 30 and consigning the waste of time that much of my twenties had been to memory. It felt good to have a sense of focus: I'm going to grow a beard, get a mortgage and settle down. It all seemed far more positive than the largely aimless vagaries up till that point had been. Oh sure, I'd got my degree, lived abroad, was functionally fluent in two foreign languages, had even got an ultimately valueless MSc but nothing was established, no career in mind, no savings made. 30 was going to be the point when I turned the corner. In practice, the thought was a lot easier to realise than it might have been; I'd already met Clare at that point and we were coming up to our two-year anniversary. Not much by many people's standards but a record by a long shot for me. And my thirties have gone largely to plan, chiefly down to Clare and her support, and equal parts luck and hard work. I still have the beard, resisting the urge to shave it off because it's become a trendy thing in the intervening years. If I were still in my twenties, that beard would've gone. But no, I was doing a good job of being in my thirties, and so it's stuck with me and I to it. I head into my forties feeling positive. I'm not in a hurry to leave a decade behind as I was last time but I like the idea of being older. My thirties introduced many new people into my life; Clare's family have been wonderfully welcoming and treat me as one of their own. My interests have introduced me to many new people, nearly all of whom are very nice, and social media makes it easy to keep in touch with little effort. Most notable, though, are the people who weren't alive back then. I enjoy spending time with them and seeing them grow up and I'm looking forward to seeing more of the same. I can't do that without getting older. I decided it would be nice to offer something to my nearest and dearest, and so, though I wouldn't normally have done anything for my birthday, this time around I decided to throw a party and invite them to a medieval banquet at Coombe Abbey. It cost a fortune (topping £1000) but two days removed from the event, I'm glad I did it. We had a full turn-out and everybody got on very well. Our parents haven't met each other since the day we moved into our house, and that was very nearly a decade ago, so it was probably time! The younger members of the family weren't allowed there but I didn't want them to be left out, so I asked their parents to arrange a surprise party that they could throw me and then we'd get them involved that way. That will be part two of this blog but first we have to get from the morning to the point of driving to my sister's house. I got up earlier than Clare, which is fairly normal. I don't need as much sleep as she does and she works so hard that she often doesn't have a lot of fuel left in the tank, so I was out of bed long before her alarm was set to go off. I started the day with a mug of hot chocolate and a read of my current newspaper, The New European: That mug of Ludoviko Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was a nice personal present from Clare's sister, Helen, years and years ago. It usually sits in my office as a pen-holder but I decided to give it a one-off outing today. Once Clare was up, it was time to serve breakfast. Again, nothing out of the ordinary for many people but we particularly enjoy the bacon from a local man, such that we can't buy the cheaper stuff from supermarkets anymore. I love his pork pies too and although I discipline myself from buying them usually, today was an exception and I had a few slices: We split that equally between us just in case you get the idea I might have somehow wolfed down the lot! We're not the only people who live in this house: Heidi and Pebbles do too. On their birthdays and at Christmas, they get prawns for breakfast. I decided to treat them today so that they could join in: Clare's parents and sister had kindly sent me some gifts to open on the day, so that's what I started with. Her parents know me very well and so treated me to a trip for two to a cat café: Helen is the queen of thoughtful presents and so, on top of contributing to the trip to London to eat among a host of feline friends, provided me with a little stocking filler. It was a pin from a previous World Esperanto Congress. In itself, that's probably not terribly special; you can often find them on eBay easily. But she'd taken the personal approach, which becomes clear when you look at the date: Much better than an old newspaper... That was from the year in which I was born, which makes this a very special present! At this point it had been all of a few minutes since I'd fed the girls and both had empty dishes and were looking at me expectantly: This is an old phenomenon whenever they have prawns so I served them the rest of the pack, knowing full well to give Pebbles the lion's share because she would force down every last one whereas Heidi would stop when she was full: Regular as clockwork. Once her own mountain was consumed, she wobbled over and finished off Heidi's too. After this brief interlude, it was time to open presents from Clare: With Christmas coming so soon after my birthday, it can be a little unclear what to offer me. I suggested that it would make sense to have some light reading to do in the week before Christmas and to save the bigger presents until then: Not random either because this range covers several geeky interests of mine that go back decades. And to cap it off, there was a thoughtful final present: What's so special about a pen? I became a published author a couple of months ago and a couple of people have asked me to sign their copies of the book when I see them. I'm going to be in an environment in a few months' time where other people might ask the same service of me, so I need to have something a bit more glamorous than a standard ballpoint on my person. Even better is this feature of it: So the morning was off to a flying start. Now we had to jump into the car because I had a surprise party coming up with some very special younger people.
  7. Tim


  8. Tim

    Þingvellir - Thingvellir National Park

    Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is a historic site and national park in Iceland, east of Reykjavík. It's known for the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland's parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. On the site are the Þingvellir Church and the ruins of old stone shelters. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagjá fault.
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