Ryanair strikes again

 

I’m currently sitting at Stansted airport, stuck, because my plane broke down, so they’re having to fly in a new one in from Greece. I suspect I’m going to be here for a very, very long time.

I hate flying Ryanair. Every time I board a Ryanair flight, a little piece of my soul dies. Unfortunately on this particular trip, there weren’t a lot of other choices. The worst thing of all is, Ryanair doesn’t need to be as crappy as it is. If they just did the following:

  • Sort out that garish blue and bus-yellow colour scheme
  • Remove the stupid “We’re on time” chime, and, especially, stop playing it when the flight arrives late
  • Stop making me queue up at the check-in desk to have my boarding pass stamped, with a crappy date stamp. I’m actually going to walk into Ryman and buy one, so I can stamp my own Boarding passes in future
  • Stop capping peoples’ bags at exactly 10.0000KG. Standing in the queue worrying that your bag is 1 gram over, and that you’re about to be slammed with a huge fee tends to make you a bit of a nervous wreck at the best of times
  • When you deliver your passengers at their destination 4 hours late, surely, you could pass up on playing all the cabin audio advertisements and apologise? At 1:30AM in the morning in a foreign country, I’m generally more concerned about how on earth I’m going to get to my hotel than I am about buying perfume from this crappy airline.
  • Generally just “de-tackified” the whole operation. Just because it’s cheap, it doesn’t have to be tacky too

On the face of it, Wizz Air may appear to be a crappier airline still, due its run-down planes, astoundingly even-smaller amount of legroom, but actually; I’ve been on a few Wizz flights now, and unlike Ryanair, I’m not furious and disillusioned after every flight.

Filed under Opinion.
 

DB: BAHN.

 

With almost endless daily ranting about the poor level of service provided by the UK rail companies, it almost seems a shame not to join in. But I ought to keep my mouth shut, as the railways in my own country, far from a vast nation-wide network covering every place worth-living-in, are little more than rusting scrap. Even then, one can’t help but stand on the sideline and observe the spectacle.

So what on earth is all of this about then? As a New Zealander who grew up in a culture barely knowing of the existence of trains, the offering in the UK is impressive: It’s fast, efficient, comfortable, effortless, fairly expensive (but worth it). What on earth is there to complain about?

After living here for a few years, I’m starting to see what people are complaining about. The most common complaints generally seen to be centred around overcrowding, overcomplicated ticketing systems, punctuality, cleanliness, and so on. When we lift the lid just a little on the British railways, we see a highly dysfunctional mess with many private companies and state owned enterprises generally just “not getting along”. Everyone’s got their own little patch within the nationwide system and they couldn’t give a darn about anything other than profits. So what on earth is the solution to all this mess? The United Kingdom government has been trying to figure that out for the last 50-70 years, with varying combinations of full state ownership, partial privatisation, largely privatised and so on. They’ve all (eventually) fallen into some form of dysfunction, requiring government intervention. Every time this comes up in the media, one name is always mentioned, which is also the subject of this post:

Deutsche Bahn. Ah yes. Those pesky Germans again. When you first arrive in Germany, you’re immediately smitten by its presence: The super-giant public transport “Machine”. Its logo can be seen on almost anything that moves. It’s efficient, reliable,  clean, punctual, comfortable… and it’s also owned 100% by… The state. So how is it then, that this state owned railway in Germany has been so successful, when the same recipe failed so spectacularly in the UK? Politicians of this country have been trying for a long time now to “Bottle up” some DB and bring it back here.

Is that really possible? to somehow create a whole new transport body, which I’m going to cheekily call  “Großbritannien Bundesbahn”, or GBBB for short. Let’s say we pass every necessary piece of legislation, and 100% copy the DB “operating manual”, Could this monster possibly succeed and even come close to the level of efficiency as its German counterpart? Not a fucking chance.

When you ride on German public transport, there’s something different about it, something “intangible”. You could try and bring DB’s body here, but its soul will always remain in Germany. When you’re building a Bismarck sized entity like DB, there’s a few very-difficult-to-get-right things that are absolutely essential to its success:

  • Objective. A public transport system should be a service to a country, not a profit generating machine. It’ll always run at a loss, the profits will be made on taxes from the economic activity it generates.
  • Jiggery-pokery. People like tradition and familiarity. If you’ve got a brand set-up, working and successful. Leave it alone. Even if operations are a bit complex behind the scenes, always present the same simple and unified face to the public. Transport for London at least, manages to do this.
  • Repeatability. Use the same ticketing system, same fare structure, same ticketing machines, same everything nationwide. If people think a system is too complex to figure out, or that they have to re-learn it every time they use it, they’re not going anywhere near it.
  • Engineering efficiency. If you’re running hundreds of different types of vehicles in a system, this severely reduces efficiency, as many skill-sets, workshops and parts inventories are needed to service them.
  • Brand acceptance. The staff will treat your brand exactly the same way in which the public treat it. If the public hates your brand, your staff will trash it from the inside out.

Sure, DB does all of the above, and the UK railways largely do none of it, but the last point, to me, is the most important and most difficult. No legislation or operating procedure can immediately create this. I also feel that it’s the one the UK would struggle with most of all. The British public hate the railways, and the staff working on them could care less. As far as I can see, there might be 2 ways to solve this:

  • Fix the symptoms: Sure, if you throw enough subsidy at the system, the level of service will eventually become satisfactory, but this would take far more money than the Government can currently spare, so we can pretty much forget this option.
  • Fix the problem: This would require a fundamental restructure of the current system, basically bringing everything back under the control of the state, or a single central (properly) managed private entity. For this to succeed, everyone involved would have to be working not just for money, but also for dignity and gratification. In a culture were people would rather a hand-out, this has little chance of success.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I’m not sure I can actually see any way out of this at all.

Filed under Opinion.
 

Prague: The perfect antidote to modern urbanism

 

Now, if you think I’m about to write a lengthy blog post about the beauty of Prague, think again. Doing so would be akin to writing about the roundness of the wheel, the greenness of grass, or perhaps even the wetness of water. I know you’ve already been to Prague, and I know you’ve also witnessed it’s beauty first hand.

As always, I don’t just write about places because they’re beautiful. I write about them because there was something thought provoking. The thing that’s stood out in Prague is the tourist demographic. Specifically, the American tourists. I mean sure, there’s a fair few American tourists in the big hang-outs such as Paris and London but their numbers are eclipsed by those of the Eastern Europeans and others, thus to say they are in the minority.

So what’s up with all these Americans? Well unfortunately I don’t know too many Prague-loving yankee folk, so as usual I’m just going to have to speculate on this one, which is much more fun anyway. To get to the bottom of this we need to go back to the key objective of tourism: To see something you don’t normally see in your home town/country. Let’s suppose you were born and raised in the so-called “Greatest country on earth” and you’re about to load your arse onto a plane and go some-wher’, by golly, it had better be somewhere good. Strictly speaking, by Amercan standards: Prague is good.

So what do I mean by that? I’ll come right out and say it: The urban fabric in most of North America is, well, different. My predominant memories from my 2010 visit were Strip malls, Parking lots, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Wall-marts, K-Marts, Home depots, McDonalds, Taco-bells, Blank concrete walls, Blank grass berms, Asphalt, Vast highways… I could go on and on. Needless to say these aren’t the building blocks of a beautiful city. It hardly needs to be said that Prague (as arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe) is extreme opposite of all of that.

You could say I’ve been a little hard on the little ol’ USA there but actually, as someone from New Zealand I’m fairly well qualified to comment on this as we are also a suburb loving, “built post world war 2″ car-culture country . We’ve never heard of public transport and we too have (albiet smaller) strip malls to go with our vast state highway network, not to mention many millions of auto-mobiles. Our country was also almost entirely constructed in the golden age of liquid fossil fuels and it really shows. Indeed it is very difficult to find urban beauty in New Zealand. Most of it seems to be either painted over or buried amongst modern developments. In an age where it’s not acceptable for a building to take longer than 2 years to construct, we’re only going to see less and less of this beauty. It also doesn’t help when a fistful of them are levelled by a large earthquake.

Now, is all of this urban trash isolated to New Zealand and the USA? Nope. It’s a global phenomenon and an unstoppable one at that. You only have to venture a short distance outside of Prague to find the same flimsy GIB Board®, MDF and Fibrelite™ constructions seen throughout my own country. The fact of the matter is that although Prague’s urban landscape is almost utopian, building this kind of thing comes at considerable cost.

So it appears that for now, at least, humanity continues its new found endless cycle of constructing buildings which always look fantastic in the Artists concepts, but turn out to be a just a little less than fantastic when completed, finally to end up as “tacky” in 30 years time, when the wrecking ball finally moves in and the new Artists concept is drawn. All the while these hand-built timeless stone and marble buildings will be preserved and continue to be enjoyed throughout the generations.

Anyway. Enough of all of this heavy-hitting, depressing ramble. The other thing I’d really like to mention about Prague is the refrigerators found in small shops. I walked into a shop to buy a bottle of water, I head over to the fridge and start tugging on the door, but it wont open?! stranger still, the handle is half broken off. Seconds later the store keeper is yelling at me. “You have to ask!” he shouts. He then pushes a button under the counter which “buzzes” the fridge door open, much like you would buzz a guest through the front door of your apartment block.

I’m sorry, but what is with this? So I have to go down the the front of the shop and ask the owner to buzz the freakin’ fridge door open? What on earth is the point of this? I thought this might be an isolated case but alas, no. I came across it several times and even found a shop with this same style of electronic lock on the ice-cream freezer. There were no shortage of amusing occasions where other tourists were seen to be tugging and heaving on the doors of these frozen Fort-Knox’s. No wonder the handles were often broken off. I can actually see a sane use-case for this kind of thing in the home, where young children are constantly stealing from the fridge, certainly, one would not have gone a miss to keep my child self out. But in a shop? I was so peeved at being told off for attempting to buy a drink that I almost stormed straight out!

Filed under Opinion, Prague, Travel.
 

Salzburg

 

I wedged a day’s visit to Salzburg within my Munich trip. There’s not really a whole heap I can say about this place. It’s a small, beautiful city whose main attraction is its’ self. You don’t need more than a day to see this place, unless there’s something specific you’re there for.

That said, it well worth the visit.

Filed under Austria, Salzburg, Travel.
 

Munich

 

After my trip to Turkey I had 4 days in Munich. Munich its self isn’t hugely interesting but there sure is a lot of interesting stuff to see in Munich. It doesn’t need to be said: I’m an engineer first and foremost so of course my most enjoyable experience was the Deutsches Museum. This Museum isn’t just a “Science and engineering museum” It’s a freakin’ shrine to Science and Engineering. The scale of this place is extraordinary. I’ve been to the Smithsonian, London Science museum to name a few and this place beats them all. It beats them because of the depth of the content. For example: If the London museum has a small exhibit pertaining to a particular industry, Deutsches museum will haul almost every piece of paraphernalia associated with that industry into the museum, make cut-aways, models, interactive displays and text blurbs with almost endless detail.

The most extraordinary exhibit I saw was a pair of 110KV high voltage cable joins presented as cut-away displays. They weren’t extraordinary themselves, but the fact that the German government thought that this would be interesting to the general public, because, let me tell you: This is some highly expensive, highly esoteric stuff. That display about sums Germany up nicely: Germany collectively cares about Engineering. A lot. Their economic success rides almost entirely on the back of engineering. The United Kingdom government also cares about engineering, they care because they see the prosperity Germany enjoys from its huge engineering sector and they’d like a little of that too. It’s a damn shame the U.K. public no longer shares this interest as they did more than 100 years ago. With the current culture in the U.K. it’s difficult to see the country ever returning to its highly industrial past which brings me to the next question: How are they going to pay off that deficit whilst maintaining current standards of living? Err.

Germany introduced me to a new concept: Reuse. “I know what that means” I hear you say. Do you really? I ask. When you buy a soft drink in Germany it comes in a heavy duty, standard size and shape bottle which is literally, reused. The label is stripped off and that very same bottle is re-filled and re-sold as a different (or similar) product. It must require some extraordinary government initiated ass kicking upon local industry to establish a system like this. Sadly this practice is rarely if not ever seen in any English speaking countries.

All and all, Germany seems like a country I’d like to live in. Everything seems well organised and smooth running. To coin a phrase: The country seems as a well oiled machine. Of course no country is perfect, but this one, is my kind of country.

Filed under Germany, Munich, Travel.
 

Turkey

 

I booked a 9-day tour for Turkey ending with a night at the ANZAC Cove for the dawn service. I’m not going to write a whole lot about Turkey as it was generally a fairly pleasant relaxing trip with not many highs or lows. Being on a tour is great. They take you everywhere, warn of the scammers, and tell you everything you need to know. My tour group consisted of 8 guys and 27 girls.

Prior to arriving in Turkey I had imagined it as a largely dysfunctional country but this belief began to fade after only being there for a handful of hours. Clearly this country was a big step up from Romania.

My well known obscure observation skills were working overtime in Turkey. As a colloquial mention – there were four sights I saw repeated over and over and over again:

  • EFES: Turkeys main beer. This stuff is for sale everywhere its logo is reproduced literally millions of times. Every bar, hotel, supermarket or anyone selling anything worth buying had this logo outside their store. Wow. You cannot drive or walk more than 100 meters without seeing an EFES logo. That’s branding success!
  • Turkish Flags: There are one hell of a lot of Turkish flags in Turkey. More than there are American flags in America. Think about that!
  • Solar water heaters: It seems that basically every home in Turkey has one of these on the roof. Good on them! This actually makes them a pretty environmentally friendly country! The more densely packed neighborhoods literally sport many thousands rooftop of solar water heaters. There were so many of these things that some of the girls on the bus were actually starting to notice them.
  • Satellite dishes: Some larger apartment blocks have hundreds of satellite dishes plastered all over their roofs! Of course we’ve all seen this kind of thing before but Turkey is extra special. Possibly first prize for largest number of satellite dishes per capita on the planet!

Anyway back to the things people actually care about. I enjoyed Istanbul, specifically the Grand Baazar markets, Ayasofya and Blue mosc were some of the most extraordinary sights I’ve seen on my travels to date.

In Turkey I had my first experience of truly ancient ruins. This consisted of visits to four ancient sights: Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Pergamon and Troy. Before visiting these sights I thought I’d be a bit bored there as the tour leader kept emphasising that there wouldn’t be much to see (I guess that’s probably they assume that the average TopDeck customer is more interested in partying than ancient ruins?!). I found it interesting, at least.

I’m not sure I’d write much more about Turkey. The trip largely went perfectly and I find it a lot harder to motivate myself to write about things that didn’t cause distress!

Filed under Travel, Turkey.
 

Bucharest

 

After a long, slow, grinding train ride we finally arrive in Bucharest. Immediately after leaving the train we are swamped by shady looking characters offering us taxi rides. Oh dear, Bucharest is going to be one of *these* cities. Getting to the Hostel proved to be our first major challenge as unfortunately my friend Stuart had not printed out a map to the hostel. Getting directions was hard as everyone we asked was trying to sell us either a taxi ride, or private driver. Like hell they were going to tell us how to walk. We eventually managed to get some directions from a service station which we at best, vague. After a fair bit of walking it was clear that we were lost in a very dodgy neighborhood of Bucharest. We asked several strangers for further directions but got different answers every time. Eventually I snapped, pulled out my laptop, fired up my mobile internet (paying the significant roaming data charges) and found a proper map to the hostel. Yay. Found it at last.

The next day we decided to do the tourist trail. There’s basically nothing to see in Bucharest other than the extremely extravagant, decadent every-other-adjective-to-describe-excess “Peoples Palace”. It was difficult to understand how such a structure could be built without plundering the entire countries economy for many years, oh, wait. That’s exactly what they did.

That evening we were to catch a train to Istanbul at 12:16(am? – more about that later). We arrived at the train station and noticed that there was no train to Istanbul on the information boards. After a lot of confusion and asking around we really just couldn’t figure out where or if there even was a train. The station staff spoke almost no English but did keep telling is “Tomorrow!” “Tomorrow!”. Was that “Tomorrow” as in a few hours time? Or tomorrow as in lunch time the next day? We just couldn’t really seem to establish this basic shred of information with the Language barrier presented. While we were trying to figure this out we were also surrounded by a hoard of scammers trying to take advantage of our desperation. One dodgy character was trying to pull what I think was the cruelest scam I’ve ever encountered in my life: He was trying to tell us that the train to Istanbul was leaving from a station 60 kilometers out of town, and he would drive us there for 300 LEI. Nice try. If we had have fallen for that one we’d be in the middle of nowhere and 300 LEI out of pocket. Eventually we were starting to realise that we had screwed up. The train left 11 hours ago, at 12:16pm. We confirmed this after pulling out a sheet of paper printed previously. We headed straight back to the hostel and booked last minute flights from Bucharest-OTP to Istanbul-Attaturk.

Unfortunately the hell of Bucharest wasn’t quite over. The next morning we had to head straight to the airport to catch our flight which unfortunately meant a trip back to that damn train station, with all of those dodgy private drivers, and taxi drivers. By now they all know there’s a couple of desperate tourists trying to get to Istanbul so they’re all shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. By now we know all of the possible ways to get to Istanbul – We also know that none of them can offer us anything other than a scam.

The next challenge was to figure out the airport bus. This was somewhat stressful as once again we were hitting the language barrier with the station staff. We eventually got a ticket but couldn’t establish where the bus left from. We had already seen two busses pass us by while we franticly looked for the bus stop, all the while dodgy characters followed us around shouting “Istanbul! Istanbul!”. Eventually we found the stop and boarded a bus. Big sigh of relief. Finally, we were out of this hell hole. As we sat on the bus we watched this horrible city slowly decay back into sparse grassland. After about half an hour I looked out the window to see an Airport fading into the distance. What?!?!? Have we somehow managed the mother of all screw ups and miss the airport stop?! Noooooooo!!! It as as if Bucharest was throwing one last punch. A guy on the bus confirmed that we had missed the airport. Great, We thought we were clear of this place. We stood up with our bags to try and exit the bus. The bus didn’t stop. It kept on going and going and going. At this point I’m on the brink of nervous breakdown. A couple of people at the front of the bus asked us in (would you believe it) English why we were trying to get off. “We missed the airport” We said. “Which airport” they asked. “OTP” We responded. “You stay on” the woman shouted. Whew. Apparently there are two airports in Bucharest and we hadn’t arrived at ours yet. We arrived at the airport and sat for an hour or so in an almost euphoric state. We’re finally leaving this place.

Filed under Bucharest, Romania, Travel.
 

Brasov

 

After the long train trip from Cluj we finally arrived in Brasov. We decided to catch a taxi to the Hostel who (predictably) ripped us off, charging 4 times the going rate. By the next day we had managed to hire ourselves a private driver for the whole day. We paid an almost negligible 180 LEI (£36) for his days service. He drove us everywhere! First Peles Palace, Which by my standards wasn’t hugely interesting, it was very pretty and ornate, not to mention snow covered as it had been snowing in the mountains that morning but Gee, you know, I’ve seen so many palaces in the United Kingdom that it wasn’t anything new to me. We then went onto Bran Castle A.K.A. Dracula’s castle. We were greeted with an intricate castle perched on a sharp peak of a small mountain. We went inside and were very impressed with it. It had many small rooms and staircases throughout all of the numerous additions over the years, which made it much more interesting than the castles one would find in, say, England.

The second day in Brasov we rapidly hopped around all of the sights (Churches, towers etc) and saw the “Narrowest street in Europe” which was more like an alleyway and a little disappointing. I was hoping for some shops at least. Nope. We then caught a soviet-era cable car up to the top of the mountains overlooking Brasov, primarily to visit a large “BRASOV” sign at the top (very much like the Hollywood sign). As it had been snowing heavily it was freezing cold and subsequently, a tad depressing up there. After visiting the letters we had a beer inside a large, empty, run-down, freezing cold cafe which was a far cry from the comfortable cafes found on hilltops in New Zealand’s cities (or anywhere else I’ve been for that matter).

Food in Brasov was amazing: Everything we ate was top notch, service was excellent and all so incredibly cheap. When I say cheap I mean cheap, about a quarter or less than the prices often seen in say, London. The food was definitely my prevailing memory of Brasov. It’s amazing how much happier you feel when leaving a place feeling like you’ve had good value for money!

All and all Brasov was good. We met interesting people, saw awesome sights and ate amazing food. It’s one of the most enjoyable places I’ve visited so far. As I type this I’m sitting on another train to Bucharest: Romania’s capital city. Something tells me things aren’t going to be quite as utopian as what we’ve had so far.

Filed under Brasov, Romania, Travel.
 

Cluj

 

My arrival in Cluj-Napoca was very bumpy indeed. Literally. The plane bound up and down as it came to an eventual stop on the heavily pot-holed, concerningly rough runway of Cluj-Napoca airport. We were all loaded into buses and transported all of 50 meters to the airport terminal. I guess they have at least some regard for health and safety! After a bit of confusion trying to establish how exactly we were meant to get from the Airport to the Centre we eventually came across a small “Dogbox” down the road with a grumpy Romanian woman inside, whom spoke no english at all. With some pointing and hand gestures we managed to get bus tickets. The bus trip from the Airport was a real eye opener, I had not seen so many ruined buildings and shantytowns in my life. Finally, I think, I’m in eastern Europe. Proper.

Eventually we got off the bus at a run-down public square. It was quite a sight: Walls broken, cobblestones missing, weeds everywhere, rubbish on the ground. Wow. The first thing we did was made our way to the main railway station as we were due to catch a train to Brasov that evening. When we got to the station we discovered that we had just missed a train, leaving us with an hour to kill. We wandered down the road and found some slum like housing with children playing in piles of rubble. I couldn’t help but whip out my camera and snap a picture, as I had never seen anything like it before. Within seconds the kids had noticed me and were throwing stones my way in anger. Ooops! better get out of here!

We strolled down the road a bit more and found a playground with 3 kids kicking a ball around. As we approached the ball flew out over the fence and onto the road. I thought I’d be nice and kick it back in. Mistake #2 of the day: Don’t kick balls while wearing two huge packs. The ball didn’t make it back into the park, Instead it bounced off the fence, back onto the road and was immediately run over by a passing car, bursting the ball. I immediately panicked! I just destroyed their ball. I felt absolutely awful as I saw them come onto the road to collect its carcass, staring at it in disbelief and making gestures suggesting they thought there may be some way to repair it. My friend Stuart made the suggestion that I should give them some money for it. Somehow that blunderingly obvious solution to this poignant situation had not crossed my mind. I handed the kids 20 LEI (£6) for their ball and left. Whew. That was that largely solved. With the kind of prices we saw in Cluj, 20 LEI would have bought them several new balls and let them live like kings for a day so that definitely should have covered it!

Eventually we boarded the train for a 6-hour ride to Brasov. Looking out the window along the way was interesting. I saw a lot of small villages and shantytowns without a single car in sight, or even provision for cars. They had no streets, driveways or garages for cars either. There also did not appear to be any electricity or telephone lines wired to any of these places. They seemed to be surrounded by crop fields and were seen moving goods around on horse carts. I was surprised to be seeing this kind of living in an EEA member state! Amish (like) people perhaps? The entire world could go into financial meltdown and these guys would hardly even notice.

Filed under Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Travel.
 

War of the green crosses

 

As I’ve travelled around Europe I’ve noticed something: Pharmacies. Not the fact that there are pharmacies, but the signage they use, specifically, the large bright green flashing Neon and LED signs. They’re everywhere and they’re very hard to miss. What amazes me is how much of an eyesore some of them can be. I’ve literally seen pharmacies with huge more-than metre by metre, flashing, blinking retina burning, gigantic green crosses. Often they will display crazy animated patterns or some form of semi-useful information on them i.e. time & temperature. I once saw one with a stock ticker. Apparently the pharmacy owners have a need to “one up” their competitors as the scale of these signs seems to balloon as the density of pharmacies increases in a given area. The United Kingdom is a notable exception. Pharmacies tend to have small subtle non animated Neon signs, probably due to fear of being served an Asbo. Pictured below is the grand daddy of all of the pharmacies I’ve ever seen – In Lyon, France, this guy has no fewer than 46 Neon & LED crosses on his shop. Nice. I can’t help but feel that he may be taking the mickey.

Filed under France, Lyon, Opinion, Travel.