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  1. Our two-night stay in Veliko Tarnovo coincides with Unification Day in Bulgaria, celebrating the unification of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria in 1885. It's a national holiday which falls on September 6 and in Veliko Tarnovo happens to feature an elaborate sound-and-light show. We set off in the evening and straightaway saw that the fountains in our nearby park were illuminated after darkness had fallen: They colours changed every few seconds: We'd soon paced through the town, past the Hanged Rebels Memorial, which looked a lot more noticeable in the dark: Within a few minutes we caught a glimpse of the fortress in the distance: We needed to get a lot closer, which meant passing the cathedral: Some of the fortress walls were extremely bright: Eventually we reached the entrance and were standing with a crowd: The lights were dimmed... ... and then various sections were lit up... ... one after the other... ... until the whole complex was glowing: We were spoilt for choice with colourschemes: Soon the fortress was shooting lasers: Until hitting the best colourscheme of all: After that, the scene turned red and the sound recording accompanying the display stopped: You can get to experience a similar display thanks to a recording which somebody uploaded: And with that, we and the thousands of other people watching dispersed. Today's been a long day but fortunately we don't have to check out until noon tomorrow for our afternoon trip to Bucharest, and the bus station is only a two-minute walk away, so we can have a lie-in in the morning to recover before heading on our first ever visit to Romania!
  2. We're safely back home. Here's how the weather was on the day our flight was due to leave: We travelled through a very aggressive hailstorm on the train earlier in the day.
  3. Some people like surprises. And what could be a nicer surprise than finding out you've got an extra day on holiday? Alas, we didn't enjoy finding out about ours. Arriving at the airport, we knew that our flight was slightly delayed. No harm there. A little later, we noticed something of a commotion in front of our gate, three hours before the revised take-off time. We ignored it but a little later Clare overheard a man explaining to his wife, who was sitting next to Clare, that there was a problem and that the plane might not land. I made a point of going up to the gate to hear for myself. That's when we got confirmation. The plane was not only en route but was also on time ... and always had been. It had been circling above the airport looking for an opportunity to land. Madrid, in the centre of the desert that is Spain, was experiencing inclement weather. We'd already seen the downpour ourselves arriving at the airport. It happened that the weather was so bad that it wasn't possible to land a plane safely. The staff informed us that the plane had been diverted to Barcelona to refuel and that Head Office would later make a decision on whether it would come back afterwards. The best-case scenario was that it would arrive at 01:00 if it were allowed to return. This was no good to us personally, since we wouldn't be able to retrieve our car until 05:00 at the earliest, making it very unlikely that we'd be back at time for work, especially for Clare's early-morning work commitments, which required her to be suited and booted. The staff were trying their very best to be helpful, especially given that they didn't know anything beyond the information which they were passing back to us. They informed us that we would be given food vouchers for a restaurant, although they didn't know which ones at that moment. In spite of the total innocence of the staff in this matter, some passengers seemingly couldn't resist taking out their frustrations on them with infantile outbursts about wanting a flight rather than a food coupon. The news later came in that the flight wouldn't be returning soon from Barcelona. The latest update was that it would leave at 08:00, and that the airport would arrange overnight accommodation and food. At least, I thought that's what was being said; people seemingly couldn't stop grumbling such that those of us trying to get accurate information could clearly hear it, and the staff members were soon inundated by a queue of people all asking the same questions and getting the same answers. We waited until the end and then spoke to a staff member, who was taken aback at somebody being polite and even said 'Thank you for your kindness!' Things became a little unclear once we'd retraced our steps back to Terminal 4, 20+ minutes away, and, as instructed, had joined the chaotic customer services queue. Nothing was budging there for half an our until finally a woman told people that there was a bus outside to pick us up, and off we headed. Well, not quite all of us. There were people for whom Madrid was a connecting airport who were complaining that they couldn't retrieve their hold luggage. If they'd been listening up top, they'd have heard a gentleman informing everybody that hold luggage couldn't be returned so late at night because of security reasons. We waited at the bus stop without much happening. Business Class passengers were allowed to get on board the bus but for seemingly little benefit; they were sitting down in the dark with nothing happening whilst we were standing. Meanwhile, the sky was flashing, followed by extensive roaring and rumbling. I think we probably all felt better being on the ground than in the air! Eventually, a second bus pulled up and we were allowed to board, after which we were transferred to a hotel. We received coupons for the restaurant whilst we queued and then checked in. The lady doing so stated that there was no news on when the next flight would be but if it were early, then we'd all get wake-up calls. Otherwise, we could pop down casually after breakfast and check to see whether any information had been printed and posted. We could see some posters for a rescheduled flight to Berlin, so the process seemed easy enough. At this point, it was 00:30, with the restaurant closing at 01:00, so we didn't spend long in our room. Our first impressions were very good: There was plenty of food and we weren't slow in finishing it, so soon were back in the room ready to sleep. I woke up at around 6 and headed downstairs to see whether there was any news. The lady who had checked us in hadn't heard of anything. My phone had, though: Oh, crikey. That's a lot longer than we were expecting. Getting to work really wasn't going to be possible today. And there was the problem of our cats; they hadn't had fresh food since Monday morning, when their feeder had discharged the final of its four offerings. They were now going to go without for not only Monday evening but all of Tuesday too. I thought of a solution but it was too early to act upon it. Their regular catsitter, who visits daily when we're on longer breaks, has a key, and so I texted her as soon as I thought it possible to get away with it, which was 07:00 UK time. She's a star, who did an emergency visit and made sure they were well loaded for our return. The breakfast spread was a very generous one, although neither of us was particularly hungry having eaten dinner only a few hours before. The morning then became one of idleness, with us having nothing to do but wait for our bus, which was due at 12:00. I bought an obscenely overpriced book at the airport yesterday evening anf managed to resist the temptation to read it because I didn't want to have to spend another 20€. We got to the airport with no fuss but then hit a roadblock: our flight wasn't mentioned anywhere on the boards. A quick check with a staff member was fruitless, and she recommended we go to customer services. More queuing followed, accompanied by the frustration which always results when there's no movement and you can't understand how everybody being served could possibly need so much time. We finally got through and got some fairly uncomplicated instructions: retread yesterday's steps and at some point your flight will be on the board. This we did and thus it was, although rather unhelpfully it was yesterday's flight details and an indication that it was cancelled. We knew that we were entitled to a food voucher and so set off to find someone who could give us one. The answer to that request was initially no but magically turned to yes within minutes and, eventually, we were able to get the required paperwork. We headed off and ate a fairly standard meal. And now we're sitting near our gate. It's two and a half hours until our flight is due to leave. Let's hope we don't get another bonus day in Madrid.
  4. My day was going to be an early write-off. We arrived at our spectaculary good apartment at about 16:30, around half an hour after finishing a colossal steak which was far more than I would normally be able to eat but the expense of which compelled me to attack. In a sweltering hot country and with a beer and some wine in me, that was a recipe for a food coma, and so I was immediately asleep as soon as the host left us. More or less. Clare wanted the photos for the blog preparing first, so I did those with my eyes partially closed and then had a cold shower. It didn't work and I was soon a curious combination of asleep and feeling sorry for myself. Clare is much more disciplined than I am and set to work on the blog. When it was finished a couple of hours later, she asked me whether I felt it was time to go out and see the town. As far as I was concerned but it wasn't fair to give her cabin fever, so I agreed to go out too. cursing myself for still being too full to be able to even consider buying some beer or wine to enjoy on our rooftop. It turned that I needn't have felt so full at all. You see, when we arrived around 2 o'clock looking for a meal, we went to the only place we'd encountered stating that it was a pizzeria/restaurant and tried to order. It wasn't open, aside from its cafe. So I asked the lady whether there were any other places open. In her opinion, that was very unlikely, although she suggested we head down the main road. That was how we found the restaurant offering our very expensive meal. It turned out all she would've had to say is 'There are about a million restaurants in the Old Town. Why don't you head there?' We didn't even know there was an Old Town until we headed down the main road this evening and went further than the restaurant we'd visited earlier! We espied a spire in the distance and so headed towards it: We saw a sign pointing out that there was an Old Town and so headed into a side street: And look what we found: a busy square! The mountains in the background were a sight to behold: It had a large clock tower: There was a small section of portici: And the church whose spire we'd glimpsed earlier: We headed down a street in the direction of the castle: There was a couple getting married: We thought we'd leave them to their privacy. Or didn't want to pay the entrance fee. Delete as applicable. And so we turned around and headed back to the square: Emerging from that direction presented us with the mountains again. We'd driven along them earlier to get to Castelbuono: And so we began the journey home, heading up a small street with an attractive tower beckoning us: Soon we passed a lovely fountain: Before we knew it we were a two-minute walk from our appartment with an ice cream store next to us, so we picked up a large mint ice cream apiece and retired to our rooftop to see the soon fade away behind the mountains: I'm really glad that we ventured out ... but can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the lady we spoke to earlier in the day didn't tell us about the Old Town. I'd have loved to see it in proper daylight, plus we wouldn't have been compelled to eat so large a meal that we were effectively denied the chance to sit on our rooftop with a nice bottle of wine to end the evening. There's always a wineless tomorrow morning, of course, when I inevitable wake up early and need somewhere to sit whilst reading!
  5. Tim

    Evening 6: Enna

    Today was such a full day that we were wiped out and didn't want to do much other than go to bed once the blog was finished. We started the day with a guided tour of three churches in Naro, had a lengthy stopover at a garage when it transpired that we were within 120km of the car breaking down, drove for a couple of hours to Villa Romana di Casale and saw perhaps 30 or 40 mosaics, drove to Enna, were sent up some very steep streets by Google Maps, which were so narrow that we eventually had to reverse because our car was too wide, so instead had to park the car elsewhere and then follow Google's indications up those same steep streets for over a kilometre with our backpacks and suitcases. Nonetheless, we hadn't actually seen anything of Enna since we got here so forced ourselves to go on a stroll. Our hotel is on Via Roma, the main street. The main street that we would've reached had Google Maps not taken us on a 'shorter' detour. From our window we could see that some lights had been switched on: We followed the lights, which soon became a second type: We soon reached a square: It overlooked the old town. You might get an idea of how narrow and steep the streets we'd been driving earlier were: We turned around and left the square: The next stretch of road featured lights in the shape of candelabra: We then reached the Duomo. Unfortunately, it's all covered up for the renovations so there wasn't any point in photographing it. On the other side of the road was a square named after and featuring a statue of Giuseppe Mazzini: Via Roma is a one-way street because there is another road running parallel to it. We walked through an archway to get to it: We're quite high up! The building in the distance is the Palazzo del Governo, so we headed down to see it: And with a quick crossing of the road, we were back in our hotel two minutes later.
  6. Tim

    Evening 5: Naro

    Clare worked hard to bring you today's blog and then after a day of 35-degree heat and accummulated sand needed a bath, so I had plenty of time to do some reading. It's a shame that I'm so slow at it though; I'm two pages from finishing so will get there before lights out! Having moved our car from its temporary location to the square recommended by our host earlier (and having conquered again the one-way system and streets which were narrower than the car), I had noticed how pretty the yellow stone looked illuminated by the streetlights and suggested to Clare that we nip out for a stroll. Just standing in the doorway, we were treated to a sight: And our street was very pretty too: After a couple of minutes, we passed our hire car: We knew we'd hit the local hub when the street became wide enough to accommodate cars in each direction. There were a couple of cafes open but I quite liked the sight of a pizzeria on the street corner because there was lots of empty space. We ordered a jug of wine and a large beer: I was feeling a little peckish so ordered a burger. The server called it a 'Luxembourger', which confused me, until I realised on the second occasion that she was saying 'deluxe hamburger'. It was big: So big, in fact, that I couldn't fit it into my mouth. It was sliding all over the place, most of it finishing on my hands and face. Fortunately the waitress had seen it all before and brought me out a stash of serviettes. There was an unfortunate moment when a freak blow of wind blew up the paper sheet she'd added as a second tablecloth, which began a chain reaction starting with an empty beer bottle toppling into a wine glass, the contents of which spilled, with the result that a poor ant which we initially believed had drowned was a few minutes later zig-zagging across the table. We chatted for a while and then I asked for the bill: 10.50€! Yet again, we'd benefitted from paying the price the locals do by speaking the language! I'm not sure it's much of financial return on the hours invested but I always love it when it happens. We then had a slow walk home, culminating in the lovely yellows on our door step: Today was a busy day with lots of road driven and a few towns stopped in. Tomorrow promises to be much easier. Because there's less on the agenda, we didn't have any qualms in accepting the offer of a post-breakfast guided tour from our host for tomorrow. Fingers crossed I'll have finished my book by then.
  7. 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!
  8. 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!
  9. 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!
  10. 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!
  11. 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!
  12. 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.
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