blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Our arrival in Sydney

On the night we left Vancouver, I had fallen asleep before we finished taxiing from the gate to the runway, and woke with a jerk as the engines revved up. Later, wearing the eye mask, I slept some more, and so did Chris, so we weren't unbearably conscious of our surroundings for the whole of the 14½ hour flight time. A nice girl from Melbourne, nowadays studying in Vancouver, slept at the window beside us, and we had a chat to an air hostess strapped into her temporary seat during the approach and landing. We were in the same seats as for our Toronto-Beijing-Toronto flights earlier this year, the exit row over the wing, which allows for leg-stretching, worth the extra cost.

At around the half way point, between Hawaii and the International Date Line, I chose to watch the recently made film Woman in Gold, about the rightful Jewish owner of Klimt's famous painting, and how the Viennese authorities were reluctant to have the painting returned to her after it had been pillaged from her home by the Nazis. In the end she donated the painting to New York. It was a true story, movingly told. The other films I saw on the way were a French one: Flight of The Red Balloon (a subtle tribute to the original Red Balloon film of 1956) starring Juliette Binoche, and a Japanese film called Mother's Trees, that I'm still saddened by, because it was about a woman who had lost eight sons in the "patriotic" Japanese wars against China, again, a true story.

A good moment on these transoceanic flights is when daylight comes, and you realise you have made it through the night to the Other Side. We landed smoothly at SYD (the Melbourne girl very excited to be back home for the first time in four months, she said) and our plane-load of passengers burst into cheers and applause. I decided to declare my energy bars to the customs officials because they are full of seeds of unknown provenance, but the man let me take them through anyway. Beyond all the hurdles and barriers stood George with a balloon in his hand, saying WELCOME to AUSTRALIA. It has a koala and a kangaroo on it. Feeling remarkably well, I slipped into the ladies' washrooms to change out of my winter clothes into my summer ones, and before we left the airport George took a photo of us.

On our drive through the suburbs of Sydney we remarked upon the impression that there seems to be more Chinese influence than ever in this part of the world. The roadside posters all have Chinese translations. It was much the same in Vancouver, actually. Our little grandson speaks a fluent mixture of English and Mandarin now, fascinating to hear. When he chats to himself he seems to mix the languages, but when communicating with his mum he only speaks Mandarin. With his dad and with us he only speaks English, except for when he doesn't want to do something. He did not want to perform Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when asked, telling us very firmly: "Bu Twinkle Twinkle!"

Eddie and George took us out to the "small park" at the bottom of the hill they live on, next to the sports fields belonging to the Epping Boys' Grammar School; we played on the swings there and with a toy football on the grass. I never used to feel my stomach muscles when I went on a swing. I must be out of shape.

In the afternoon everyone except Chris and George had a siesta. When I had woken up from mine it had begun to rain, so George invited Chris and me to visit the Macquarie Shopping Centre, very busy with Christmas shoppers. In the evening, Eddie, more malleable than when we'd first arrived, gave us his repertoire of songs: Row, row, row your boat, Twinkle Twinkle (after all), Happy Birthday to you, and one that I didn't know, in Chinese. I'm not convinced he understands what the words of the songs mean, but he likes the way they sound and manages a good approximation. He is being very good about not touching the pile of Christmas presents under the tree, but takes the decorations off the branches to give them to us, from time to time. His favourite toy of the moment is Play-doh (sic).

Today, the rain has been continuous. George escaped from the fray at home by going to work, and while Eddie and Sha were still asleep, Chris and I started the day (awoken early by the raucous cries of the parrots outside our window) with a walk under the umbrellas to the Zig Zag café where I breakfasted on flat white coffee with toast and vegemite. Later in the morning we went out the shops again, Sha driving this time, to buy some more Play-doh.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

19th December, Vancouver

I'm writing this at the "holding area" (Gate D52) for Flight AC33 to Australia. It will be a very long flight, 15 or so hours long, and we are already extremely tired! Woke up at 5:20am Vancouver time this morning (because of the different time zone), and did sleep again a little, but not deeply. We had a substantial and well cooked breakfast at the iHop next to the hotel, then rode in the shuttle bus back to the airport, where Chris had the bright idea of looking for a left-luggage place. That's not the right word in Canadian English, where I think they call it baggage consignment, and a luggage label isn't a familiar concept to Canadians either. They call them luggage tags.

I enjoyed the Canada Line to the city, sitting in the front seats with a view forward. These are driverless trains. To our delight, it wasn't raining as we'd expected from the forecast, and we could even see snowy mountains to the south, in the distance. Vancouver's own mountains were covered in low clouds.

The floating world in the doorway of Vancouver's
Convention Centre
All day, we walked and stopped, walked and stopped, on benches, in cafés, shops, restaurants, including a pleasantly quiet Thai restaurant on Denman Street for a hot and sour soup. We remembered where the second hand bookshop was, approximately, and found it. We saw ducks, geese, swans, and birds that I think were rufous sided Towhees (yes, I am right), round the edge of the Lost Lagoon, and gazed for a while at the tankers moored in English Bay, waiting for high tide. It felt cold at first in the wind, and it was good that Chris had bought a new woolly pullover to wear under his summer jacket; when the wind dropped we felt less chilly, but it began to rain. At the end of the day we rested at the old station known as Waterfront and when we re-emerged outside it was dark. Round the edge of Canada Place a Christmas display had been set up, aimed at entrancing the children with tableaux of wintry scenes and toy animals that move their heads. Some children were playing with artificial snow, inside a plastic bubble. The coloured lights in the Christmas trees and around the buildings and the harbour created magical effects.

Back to the airport much too early, for a 5 hour wait for departure. If we don't manage to sleep on this flight in this state of exhaustion, I'll be disappointed.

18th December 2015

This worked well last time I travelled long distance (less than 2 weeks ago!), so I’ll try it again. We are travelling to Vancouver this evening, and tomorrow evening we board the ‘plane for Sydney, to visit George, Sha and little Eddie. During the many hours it takes to get there, I might catch up with some of the blogposts I should have published sooner. I have handwritten notes with me in my carry-on bag.

Good start to this trip, so far, although the No. 97 bus from town to the airport was so crowded that Chris had to stand for most of the way. My grey hair usually gets me a seat. Younger people vacate their seats for me. I sat next to a blind lady with a lovely seeing-eye dog, a poodle called Noland. She was only going as far as Moncton New Brunswick, so the dog was going to be fairly comfortable en route; she says he sits under the seat in front of hers, like the heavier baggage, but if he shivers with the chill from the air vents she covers him with her blanket.

Security clearance was easy and quick and we have just had an excellent supper at D’Arcy McGee’s pub at the eastern end of the departures lounge. Must remember that. We are now about to board Flight AC189.


We reached Vancouver after I'd watched two films, one slow-moving one about a married house renovator falling for his son's schoolteacher, all in French, and a more gripping one about Cold War espionage (Bridge of Spies) in the 1950s. Our seats were uncomfortable and Chris had pains in his leg from a muscle strained in the gym last week. The only turbulence we encountered was while approaching the Rockies west of Calgary where we could see a glow in the sky from the city. It took a long time waiting for our luggage to arrive on the same carousel that was receiving luggage from Montreal, so we missed the shuttle bus and had to stand on the ramp for half an hour before the next one came. Our hotel room at the Accent Inn was fine though, with a soft bed.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trying to achieve chronological order

There are huge gaps in the sequence of happenings I describe in my blog. I still have things to say about Chicago and about the Music and Beyond Festival in Ottawa last July, even.

Some of the missing record is on Facebook, but my Facebook timeline has the annoying habit of making my photos appear in backwards chronological order. To avoid this for my next few blogposts, I have managed to publish the account of my latest travels in Europe in an as-it-happened sequence, day by day from November 30th to December 6th. I wrote the posts in a notebook en route and typed them up on my new Chromebook (laptop computer) while returning across the Atlantic on yesterday's flight AC889.

Once home, I added the pictures.

Written on Monday, November 30th

I’m in an Italian restaurant in Echterdingen near Stuttgart airport. It’s called (in English) The Flying Ship which from the outside looks like a Bavarian Bierstube, with lorries parked in front, a pitstop. Inside, the decor is nautical or, this week, Christmassy. Most of the waiters are Italian and I have ordered a pizza.

I ate too much today, starting with a large English breakfast at Caffè Caffè on Broad Street in Teddington. Then I burned a few calories hauling my luggage to Emma’s house and tidying up there for a couple of hours. I also took a walk to deliver a Christmas card to the home of a couple who know my mother and live nearby. Lunch was at Chow Chow with my daughter during her lunch break––Singaporean chow mein. 

The flight from Heathrow was fine, with a phenomenal tail wind, but behind me, an aging German businessman was chatting up a young, Indian-British girl in a loud voice, to the embarrassment of all around. The lady sitting next to me swore under her breath, or hardly, and ordered a gin and tonic. We talked, to drown out the chat-lines; she was embarking on a cultural tour of Swabia with some of the other passengers, starting at Schwäbisch Hall this evening.

The Italians have just presented me with an enormous spinach strewn pizza, calling me Signora. It’s very good.

(I then slept for 11 hours.)

Written on Tuesday, 1st December

In Zürich
It was a rainy morning, so I used my brolly on my walk to Echterdingen station, 500m down the Hauptstrasse, and just missed an S-Bahn train to Stuttgart. No matter; another rolled in 10 minutes later. I caught the 11:53 Stuttgart to Zurich train after browsing in the Presse+Buch shop.

This is a quiet, stopping, SBB train with a Swiss guard. We’ve been trundling along through sloping beechwoods with little black foresters’ huts, to the industrial suburbs of Böblingen. I’ll be on this line again, later this week. Many of the houses and sheds here have solar panels. The farmland is such as I saw near Ittersbach last summer. Little towns with imposing churches on the edge of the Schwarzwald. The sky is brightening in my direction of travel. We’re passing vegetable allotments as neat as the cemeteries. The station names are written in Gothic script.

Horb, on the Neckar, like Tübingen a few miles downstream, is a colourful old town in a steep, wooded valley. There are tall houses with pointed roofs and many gabled windows. The train announcements seem to be in langsam gesprochenes Deutsch like the news for foreign students of German on Deutsche Welle, easy to follow. There’s sunshine ahead! The Neckar is very full. On the slopes, Swiss chalet kind of farmhouses and ruined fortresses on the hilltops. After every stop, they come round to check people’s tickets: Noch jemand zugestiegen? Next stop is Rottweil, where the dogs come from. This town is near the source of the Danube (Donau). We’re about to cross the watershed, twice. I see covered wooden bridges over the Neckar, now little more than a stream.

Part of Rottweil is perched on the cliffs here. Der Zug-Team wishes us a pleasant onward journey. Beyond Rottweil, the general trend is downhill, in a broader valley. Thence to Tuttlingen, an der Donau. We stop at Singen near Lake Constance, with log trucks parked on the rails. Next comes the border with Switzerland.

We pulled out backwards, so I swapped seats. I have four different currencies in coins and notes and must sort them out, must concentrate. 70 Swiss francs will probably not be sufficient.

Then the announcement: Herzlich willkommen in die Schweiz. Geniessen Sie Ihren Aufenthalt. Enjoy your stay in Switzerland. I intend to. The Swiss girls in the seats behind me are singing, “Coming home, coming home!” Schaffhausen is our last stop before Zurich. To my delight we have just passed the Rheinfall, a wonderful sight, last seen in 1971 while I was studying in Freiburg. And in the distance I can make out the snowy Alps, the lower slopes, at least. The peaks are hidden in cloud.

I didn’t read any of the papers / magazines at all, nor did I do any work on my laptop. I just gazed out all the way on this journey. Good therapy! In Zurich, I spent 2 hours walking round the streets between the station and the lake and taking photos, thoroughly enjoying myself.  I had a pot of tea and slice of warm Apfelstrudel in a posh bar on the Bahnhofstrasse; at the tables outside were bearskin rugs for smokers to keep warm in.

The Limmat, Zürich

On the east bank of the River Limmat, Zürich

View of Zürich from the Quaibrücke

Pedestrians on the Bahnhofstraße
Chris and I met on platform 13 in Zurich according to plan and immediately hopped onto the train on the opposite platform which was bound for Yverdon-les-Bains where as a teenager I spent three summers. We alighted at Olten, had a meal at an Italian restaurant there, and caught a taxi to Egerkingen where we met Chris’ colleagues Peter and Marcus at the Mövenpick hotel up the hill.

Wednesday, 2nd December

Ritterquai, River Aare, Solothurn

Baseltor in the mist
Even though I saw it in thick fog, Solothurn didn’t disappoint; the poor visibility added to the other-worldly atmosphere. Je me souviens des jours anciens (... mais je ne pleure pas). The River Aare flows from Thun, through Bern and Solothurn, to the Rhein. The town had cobbled streets and hardly any traffic. I could smell roast coffee, pipe tobacco, grilled bacon (Speck), impressions that can’t be photographed. It is like a quiet version of my beloved Bern, but with a vast, neo-baroque cathedral at its centre, with flights of steps outside it: the St-Ursen-Kathedrale. The old city had high stone walls with a Bastion, and city gates: the Baseltor and the Bieltor. I went inside the cathedral, very Catholic-Baroque inside with a high dome, also entered the Naturmuseum to see stuffed mammals and birds, reptiles, fish, and an exhibition on bees. There was the inevitable Christmas market, this one with a live pair of donkeys, tended by two young girls who were very protective of them. I bought some Christmas gifts and a silk tie for Chris which to my annoyance he never wore.

Rathausgasse, Solothurn,
where I had lunch
My lunch in Solothurn was at a little restaurant in the Rathausgasse, not a place for tourists! Called the Pfefferkorn. I had the set meal, since no other choice was on offer, consommé soup with rice, a well prepared salad, Kartoffel-Gratin mit Rosenkohl und Speck, all really tasty and only costing 15 Francs.
Was wär' wohl wert ein Würzbaron /Gäb’s nicht für ihn das Pfefferkorn /Er wär' bloss ein armer Wicht /Und unbekömmlich sein Gericht.
(Emil Allemann)
There was a mini biscotti to finish.

Kartoffel-Gratin mit Rosenkohl und Speck

Solothurn market

Inside the cathedral at Solothurn 
Donkeys at the Weihnachtsmarkt

Other place names in Solothurn: Hauptbahnhofstrasse, Kreuzackerquai, Kreuzackerbrücke, Klosterplatz, Kronengasse, Barfüssergasse, Hauptgasse, Riedholzturn, Ambassadorenhof (which was decorated to look like an advent calendar), the Altes Zeughaus, Marktplatz, Friedhofplatz (where the Xmas market was, with donkeys), the Schmiedergasse, Ritterquai, Landhausquai, Rötibrucke.

In summer I could have gone for a ride on the Aare, on an Öufi boat.

Remnants of Chris' QNX conference
When I’d got back to Egerkingen and walked all the way up the hill from the station I had to join the end of meeting party with the QNX people, before a 2-and-a-half hour ride north, Peter and Hanspeter talking in the front seats about mountaineering in the Alps. We did 220kph on some stretches of the Autobahn that followed the Rhine valley north, before we turned eastwards near Karlsruhe.

Written on Thursday, 3rd December

Nächster Halt, Herrenberg ... Endstation. Fahrgäste bitte alle aussteigen! Ausstieg in Fahrtrichtung links.

Today Chris is giving his talk at the ESE-Kongress (Die Bayessche Darstelling eines Sicherheitsnachweises: Kann das uns helfen, den “Confirmation­Bias” zu vermeiden?) and I’m spending the day in Herrenberg, as recommended by my friend Annegret.

Sundial, Herrenberg
Carving in the choir stalls
Panel from the Mömpelgarder Altar (reproduction)
Old Herrenberg is mostly 16th century, with the Stiftskirche at the top of the hill, up many flights of steps. The influence of Martin Luther was very strong here. A lady got talking to me about the sundial painted on the wall by the church door. Her son had researched its history before restoring the signs of the zodiac painted on it, though someone else did the actual painting for him.  She was very pleased to find me taking an interest in this. Inside, the church had many 15th century carvings in the choir stalls, with expressive faces, as well as some examples of modern art. An organist was practising Bach. In the church gallery I found an exhibition about the Mömpelgarder Altar, painted in the 1540s, and now to be found in Vienna. The creator of the altar was born in Herrenberg.

The Herrenberg Christmas market wasn’t yet open or ready, but I loved seeing all the half timbered houses in these old streets. It is definitely not Canada, here. Cobbles underfoot, again. I explored some of the gift shops and drank Latte and ate a hot slice of Zwiebelkuchen topped with carraway seeds at a little pub called the Hirschstube, actually part of someone’s house, with the Altstadtbäckerei adjacent. Three pensioners at the next table were talking about aid for refugees and other immigrants, how they were getting help with their German lessons, comparing them with the Gastarbeiter of the 1950s and 60s. I had also read in the Tageszeitung im Kreis Böblingen (the Gäubote): Flüchtlinge [sind] hier kein neues Thema. Bereits 1950 hatte [...] 30% der Flüchtlingsanzahl im Landkreis. In 1992 the district had welcomed 50,000 refugees.

Zwiebelkuchen in der Hirschstube

Sindelfingen from the Marriott Hotel
I feel quite at home in Sindelfingen, know the short cuts over the Goldberg now, heard a cock crowing and remembered the vegetable garden behind the infants’ school. I discovered, from reading plaques made by Gymnasium Year 8 students on the platform at Goldberg station, that in 1525 this was the site of a terrible battle, a sort of Peasants’ Revolt on the Goldberg, the peasants having been stirred up by the ideas of Martin Luther.

My train rides to and from Herrenberg were both very peaceful. It is hard to remember the warzones of the world when you’re gliding through this peaceful farmland. By the end of the morning it was sunny weather. I took the path over the Goldberg in the other direction getting back to the Marriott around 4pm and watched the sun set over the industrial chimneys from our hotel room. Chris had to keep working till very late, so I bought myself a glass of rose wine and a portion of fries in the bar. We ate at the steakhouse associated with the hotel but repaired to our favourite watering hole in Sindelfingen, the cosy Faessle, at the end of the evening. Chris’ work for the week is still not done; he has another meeting at Filderstadt tomorrow morning, so I’ll be on my own in Stuttgart.

Friday, 4th December

Herbert picked up our luggage and put it in the back of his car at the doorway to the hotel before driving Chris to his final extra meeting at Filderstadt. Meanwhile, I walked over the Goldberg to the station again. The weather has not been cold as in previous years for this trip, so I unzipped my thick coat again. I decided not to leave my backpack in a locker, carried it round with me all the time, in Stuttgart, but felt very tired by the end of the afternoon, especially after the Glühwein that I treated myself to towards the end of the afternoon, in the Christmas Market. This is one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe. Every year it seems to be slightly larger. I looked at the model village with miniature railway this time, as well as all the usual stalls and attractions, didn’t spend much.

I was lucky to be walking by the Musikhaus behind the Stiftskirche when the people inside were setting out chairs in the piano exhibition hall for a concert. That looks promising, I thought, and went in. It was a piano recital, one of a series organised by the music school rather like those concerts at the Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama in Cardiff, and my ticket only cost 3 Euros. I bought it in advance and had time for a mug of Apfelglüh outside before the concert began. The pianist was a professional -- I was lucky -- a young man from South Korea, who played a Bach Prelude and Fugue, a Beethoven Sonata, and a piece by Debussy, all flawlessly, on an unusual piano with double keyboard (one at either end) made at the end of the 19th century in Paris. After the performance, I lingered to look at the other pianos in the collection.

I was intending to buy myself some lunch in the cafeteria of the Kaufhof, but the Kaufhof was no more. Several of the larger stores in Stuttgart Stadtmitte were being replaced by new ones. Instead, I found a Chinese self serve buffet which served me well, before zigzagging back to the station, through the Christmassy scene. I stopped to buy a skewer of chocolate covered pineapple on the way which made me and my bags all sticky. Nearly fell asleep in the S3 train to the airport where I met Chris again who was looking after our luggage outside the airport’s sex shop and Apotheke.

We had a really good Italian meal in the departures lounge and took the BA evening flight to Heathrow, during the start of which I felt quite poorly, from exhaustion, probably, but I recovered before landing. The flight had been delayed at the start by a de-icing procedure that went on and on, so we were late arriving. I insisted we take a taxi to Teddington rather than the infrequent bus. At the hotel, finally, we were horrified to find a noisy party in full swing, especially as the receptionist gave us keys to a room just above the worst of the noise, saying there was no other room available. Back we went to the desk, to tell him that we’d try for a room in another hotel (even at that hour), but it suddenly transpired that there was spare accommodation in the annex after all. That was a mistake on their part because it will be mentioned on TripAdvisor shortly.

The party weekend

5th December, Saturday

...was our grandson’s 9th birthday, complete with Star Wars themed birthday party for nine noisy boys with plastic “light-sabres”. They all fantasize that they are Luke Skywalker come to life. Little Tom joined in with the best of them and somebody’s light-sabre got bust, but nobody seemed to mind. It was all fighting and shouting, with a “base” for respite behind a cloth poster advertising the Return of the Jedi and a Darth Vader figure drawn by my daughter.

-- Guys, let’s truce for a couple of seconds.

-- Truce, truce!

-- I’ve already truced!

-- Forget the truce, let’s battle!

One game was to try to free the Han Solo character (in miniature) from his block of ice (previously prepared by my daughter in duplicate in the freezer) and brought in on baking trays. One team was much faster at this than the other. No 8 or 9 year old likes losing, I observed. Alexander wasn’t too cross when young Tom blew out all the birthday candles on his cake, though, and we all sang Happy Birthday, including Alex’ other grandparents who had just arrived from the other side of London to spend the afternoon with us.

6th December, Sunday

Emma met us when we boarded the 285 bus she was on, together with Thomas (his brother being at an away match with the Rugby club, with his dad) and the four of us attended a Quaker Meeting in Kingston, for the sake of an hour of Peace.