Northern tours and detours

  

A cautionary tale to all men. Don’t forget the charging cable for you GPS unless you want a photographic tour and detour of wherever it is you might be trying to get to. Especially if she is French and especially if she loves taking photos as much as you do. The day may end up a lot longer than expected and you may end up talking to one too many cows. Still the photos were worth every moment of getting lost.

Cows of the north

'More lost tourists........ Quick look busy before they ask for directions"

Golden field 1

Serenity and piece. What a spot to get lost in

Castle

It's a castle, but it's not the one we are looking for

Your last hope

At least if we wash out to sea we will be ok

Golden field 2

Hang on, this looks familiar. Haven't we been here before?

Distance

Just the other side of that hill. That's were we need to be.... I think!

The better view

Wave at the helicopter. I bet he knows where we are

The beach

What is that over there? Is that the castle we are looking for?

Dunstanburgh castle

Dunstanburgh castle, you found it you smart little French thing

Dunstanburgh castle 2

WOW, just WOW

A place to stay

Maybe we should just see if we can sleep here

'More lost tourists........ Quick look busy before they ask for directions"Serenity and piece. What a spot to get lost inIt's a castle, but it's not the one we are looking forAt least if we wash out to sea we will be okHang on, this looks familiar. Haven't we been here before?Just the other side of that hill. That's were we need to be.... I think!Wave at the helicopter. I bet he knows where we areWhat is that over there? Is that the castle we are looking for?Dunstanburgh castle, you found it you smart little French thingWOW, just WOWMaybe we should just see if we can sleep here

 

The butterfly effect

  

There is a phenomenon referred to as the butterfly effect, the principle is simple enough. Think of it as every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Or maybe cause and effect, for anything to happen, a whole bunch of other things will have had to have happened beforehand.

The extent of this is rarely witnessed in every day life. We all go about our normal days not thinking for a moment about the choices that we made that got us here, or what actions of others may have had influence on the cheese sandwich I am about to eat. Such things as what if the baker had not turned up for work to prepare the bread, or if my alarm had not gone off to get me out of bed to get the bread.

Let’s be real here for a moment, think about this for too long and it is likely anyone will end up confused, not just a blonde like myself. But this was all brought to the forefront of my mind last weekend.

Let’s begin the story, Sunday morning of a bank holiday weekend. Picture layers. Layer 1: Girlfriend hungry to see new areas of England on front seat of car, Layer 2: camera, sandwiches and emergency M&M’s on back seat. Layer 3: suitcase, Wellington boots and umbrella for two in the boot and off we go.

 

Butterfly effect day 1 – The missing cable

As we got closer to the north of England, the annoying beep from my GPS was reminding me again that the charging cable was sat on the kitchen table. With navigation now reduced to the old fashioned way, that is asking HER to ask for directions, little did I know this would result in my own personal French tourist leading us to a train station, a second hand bookshop, a derelict castle, countless sheep, a nice farmer, a man walking his dog and a couple of Dutch tourists, before eventually finding ourselves on a beach  by Dunstanburgh castle in time for sunset and photos.

 


Butterfly effect day 2 – The missing shoe

Picture a night out, maybe a bunch of girls getting very drunk and one losing a shoe. Someone finds the shoe and places it on top of a red post box for safety. Now the next morning the shoe catches the eye of a travelling couple who in turn catches the eye of self professed Geordie war veteran who wonders why anyone is so interested in a shoe. This leads to a conversation  about a statue of Queen Victoria and why she was neither facing the town hall nor the church and in the process totally confusing a poor French girl with all sorts of new words and phrases usually reserved for the north.

 

All this got me thinking, what were the events that took place for the two of us to find each other. In this big wide world, with so many things going on in everyone’s lives, what are the chances that two people that are so right for each other meet up at all. It has to make you wonder a lot about fate. Good things will eventually happen to good people given enough time and enough patience.

 

The butterfly effect in all its beauty


A weekend in Provence

  

Picture a weekend in Provence. Sun warming the soul, fun and care free atmosphere to enrich the good in life, time to relax and recharge the batteries. Maybe a spontaneous barbecue with friends, some wine and cheese, or picnic together under the shade of a pine tree or even an impromptu bathroom refit……. Hang on…. a WHAT?????.

It was far to early to be landing without sufficient coffee

In any long distance relationship, one of the most challenging aspects is getting to see each other, and I mean physically as opposed to seeing each other over a phone screen. For this particular visit I had booked myself on a very early flight from an airport 2 hours from home. Result was I arrived in the sun, tired, groggy, and in need of a shower and a coffee.

Maybe I should have had the coffee first.
Maybe I would have been more awake.
Maybe I wouldn’t have slipped on the soap and slammed hard against the tiled wall and then maybe the wall wouldn’t have decided to join me in the bath tub!!!. Soapy, naked and surrounded by tiles I then had the rather embarrassing task of calling for help. ‘Ma chéri, je suis desole,  j’ai détruit votre salle de bains’, ‘My dearest, I am sorry, I have destroyed your bathroom’

 

I was planning spending the day like this!

 

Repairing the destroyed bathroom was now the priority for the day. The romantic meal she had planned for us would have to be put on hold for another time and be replaced with a visit the local DIY store. Luckily for me a DIY store in France is much the same as a DIY store in England on a Saturday morning. Full of clueless people pointing and umming at things they would like to put into their homes but have no idea how to do it, so it didn’t look at all out of place asking my girlfriend to ask where the tile adhesive and grout was, and with the instructions being in French and the last thing I needed at this point was to get back to here place with a tub of white emulsion by mistake

 

 

 

This is how Sundays should be spent

With emergency planning, the rest of the day went well. We found another activity we could do well together and despite me trying to destroy a large proportion of her flat, she at no point tried to thump me! The romantic meal for two was exchanged with an impromptu evening with some of her friends. I overhead the start of the conversation that sounded like ‘Hi, How would you like to meet my new boyfriend, he needs a shower!

Sunday was then clear to spend a day in Provence the way I had imagined. Relaxing with friends, chatting and having fun. Enjoying good food, good wine, great company and the sun warming my pale English skin. A day of pleasure that somehow was made even more special by the chaos of the previous day.

French men don’t get fat

  

There is a best selling book you may have heard of, by Mireille Guiliano called “French Women Don’t Get Fat”. This very title kept rolling in my head as I was spending my very first romantic week end in Paris with my girl friend this Easter. And as hours were passing by, I started wondering if by French… she meant Parisians?

Spend sometime on any RER or TGV and you will be reassured that some French women do get fat. I have been there, all squashed against the window as they sit next / on top of you. Just like at home.

No its not French Women but Parisians that don’t get fat, men and women. You see, it is simply impossible, at least without a lot of work and dedicated gluttony, to get fat when you have to walk half a mile just to get your bread. And the French ALWAYS insist on FRESH bread.

I found this out the hard way. Saturday morning and I awake next to my long distance love.  “I will pop out and get une baguette and les croissants, ma chérie” says I, in the hope to impress her with my chivalry. Almost an hour later, I am back with baguette and croissants and she is happy. My feet however are not!

Look how far away we are still. My poor feet!!

Wind the clock forwards to later in the afternoon. After walking the length of the Champ de Mars to the Eiffel Tower and then along the bank of the Seine, she suddenly remembers she had promised her sister to pick up some more Nespresso for the coffee machine. Well… you know, this is not a case where you jump in your car and drive to ASDA. In the French version of this, she grabs my hand, pulls 2 metro tickets out of her handbag, and drags me down the stairs of the closest station.  “Where do we get the coffee ma chérie?” “Nearest shop is on the Champs” says she (NB: les Champs is local slang for Champs Elysées apparently).

By the time I know it, I am changing lines at Châtelet Les Halles, the worlds BIGGEST underground station. Really this thing is massive, looking after something around 750,000 passengers a day. You can walk for half an hour just to change lines, even more if you are blonde and find yourself looking at the wrong train.

Any one with a belly must be a tourist

By now I am thinking I must have lost a good few pounds in weight over the day. Using the mad rush as an excuse we  stopped at a very nice looking Café.

Relaxing and enjoying the simple pleasures in life, a cold beer, my French girl by my side and my throbbing feet were being forgotten about. But then who turned up but the pee pee fairy. Off I go in search of the local convenience only to find it wasn’t in the slightest bit convenient.

Little did I realise that just to use the loo would require climbing up and down 2 flights of stairs. Shattered and exhausted it was becoming very clear that even the belly expanding pastime of beer swilling could not produce excess calories.

Watching the thin and even thinner population of Paris passing by it was clear. It is not French women that don’t get fat, nor is it French men, it’s Parisians. It is almost implausible to think that a Parisian could get fat. A mile walk for bread. Several miles to get to and from the office and even a mammoth task to go for a pee.

 

Planes, trains and automobiles – Episode 1

  

As a child I had always dreamed of building my own teleportation device. They had one in Star Trek, and even in Blakes 7 and if Vila could build one then so could I. Up to now though there really had been little purpose in learning the complexities of quantum physics, other than the fame and fortune. Suddenly however I could see the practicalities of such a device.

Let me blonde here for a minute and state a fact that I took a little while to realize. Having a distance relationship implies TRAVELING. The distance that separates us became very real the day when I started looking for the various ways and options for us to meet more often.

I was one of those that perceived airports and taking a plane as a real adventure with complication and problems. After 20 years of driving, the car was and remained my first approach to everything, including crossing the sea!

What do you mean? I can't just post myself to the South of France?

So, you are an English man from the 21st century, teleportation has not YET been invented, what do you do? OK well, no shame in admitting it, first I…. ASKED HER!

‘There is no contest’ she tells me, ‘you need to fly’ Well I am man, and man knows best, so I started to investigate.

First, pick an airport you want to leave from, then an airport you want to fly to and times and dates that suit you. The result: A very expensive flight, you are unlikely to want to take. With my head held high I went back with a ‘I Told you so’. With the knowing smile I got in return I decided to do some more digging and look at more unusual options.

To start with were can I fly from. Well I have a car so technically almost anywhere in the UK, but lets keep it between Manchester and the London airports. Then where can I fly to. Looking at the maps and investigating TGV options I found a lot of solutions in France too. And then to top it all off, if I can be flexible and creative with dates then there are even more options. The results were that I found I could fly for as little as £40 return in some cases but always for around the £70 mark. That’s less than I would spend on a taxi and a round of drinks for a good night out. Maybe she was right after all.

But I can do better, says the blonde to himself. I still have my car. I can drive. Turns out though that this is not a cost effective option unless there are a few people in the car. The crossing alone is likely to set you back the same amount as a flight, then the fuel and have you seen how much the tolls are in France? All in all I worked it out that it would cost me something in the region of £350 to drive to Provence. Suddenly even the more expensive flight options didn’t seem too bad. Even if not cheaper then they were only a 2 hour flight as apposed to a 13 hour drive. What was even worse was that she was right all the long!!

Tip: There are many sites out there for finding cheap flights, but I have found I need little more than www.SkyScanner.net or www.Opodo.co.uk. They do nothing more than find the flight options, but this could save you hours of searching.

So what did I learn from this.
Firstly that as a man I am not always right, especially as I am a blonde one.
Secondly that experience is golden and admitting you are confused is a good place to start. That way you ask the right questions.
Thirdly that driving to Provence is only an option when there is more than one person traveling saving the price of several plane tickets, or you have a longer stay that would requiring hiring a car once there.
And finally, that I really should have followed that childhood dream and invented the teleportation device before I really needed it.

 

Frankfurt smells like Jude Law in Paris

  

Not so long ago, relationships were about someone ringing at my door or me driving to this pub or restaurant to meet up. 2012 has come, and I have been turned into an almost “frequent traveler”.

One of the first things I have found out in this newly born long distance relationship, is that NOT all flights are direct, and that saving money on plane tickets can lead you to spend some extra time in “transit” in distant and foreign airports with rather little to do to keep yourself busy. My first experience in the matter was in no less than Frankfurt Airport, one of Europe’s 5 largest airports. With some 56 million visitors in 2011 it’s easy to see why it is popular for connecting flights.  I’ll leave you to decide if I am a slow or fast learner, but here is what 4 hours between connecting flights taught me.

Comfort
As I was on connecting flights with Lufthansa, I arrived and left from their terminal, which of course made it a lot easier, and as a not so experienced traveler, gave me a sense of security. After a few minutes walking around and looking through the terminal windows at all the planes tidily parked, and at those leaving and taxiing by, I noticed sets of tables and chairs at almost every gate, placed next to, will you believe it, courtesy tea and coffee facilities. And by tea and coffee facility I mean a BIG machine giving choices of latte, black coffee, fancy cafés, hot water with boxes filled with a rather large variety of tea bags, whichever colour you like. With the free hot drinks, newspapers are readily available, power points for recharging your essentials, my stay wasn’t starting too badly.

Connection
Sat with a cup of coffee, I started aiming my iPhone towards the planes and taking all sorts of photos of multi-coloured planes. As any nerd would do, I decided to check the WiFi connection options only to find out the airport offers a 30 minutes connection if you fill in the access page with your email to receive the connection code. 3 minutes later, I was on FaceTime with the little frog who had already arrived home safely. Said Hi, shared the surroundings and to all intense and purposes we enjoyed our coffee together.

Shopping and Browsing
A good Duty Free shop is like a big department store at Christmas: it has temptation for everyone!

Not being a smoker and undecided about bringing back some gigantic Toblerone for my family members, I remembered my little French woman had bought herself an airport exclusive perfume so I started hunting for my own new smell. And that’s when I saw it!

Have you ever wondered why we want to buy a fragrance just because of an advert? Well I guess I had just become one of those drawn in by all the arty imagery embedded into my brain… I remembered the music and the car. A Dior perfume, one of those unforgettable tracks by Muse, a scene in Paris and, and, and…  It made sense. Jude Law is blonde, I am blonde, he was driving a flashy car in France, I drive a car and I am dating a girl from France. As difficult as it may be to admit, I was becoming a victim of clever marketing, I was trying a fragrance on the main ground that I had liked the advert!!! Luckily for me I just LOVED IT (and now so does she!)

Big airports, the good and the bad
If you are connecting flights, the big airports can be your best and your worst option. Give yourself as much time between flights as you can, minimum of 2 hours. It can take an hour to find your way around a new airport so it only takes a small delay and you will miss any connection. If however you have a very short connection, my advice is avoid the big airports like the plague. If you think you can make it between gates in half and hour then forget it. Be prepared to miss your flight. So for short connections, pick a small airport. Better option, take a 2 hour plus connection and pick a large one. find your gate and then start playing in the shops, looking for WiFi and being creative.

Oh and if you have not seen the Dior advert, well it’s directed by Guy Ritchie of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame as well as various other English films. It’s worth a look if for nothing else for the fabulous views of Paris, and for us men, that awesome car he is driving.

16 hours in Paris

  

Her: I have 2 tickets for a concert, do you want to come?
Me: Yes, of course I do
Her: It’s a Tuesday night, can you make it?
Me: I am sure I will find a way!

And then the problems started. Location Paris. Another iconic city in the world I have managed to escape up until now. But the location was only the beginning of the problems. With work and other commitments it meant that for this to work we both needed to meet in the center of Paris early evening and be gone again around 6 the following day.

By now I had found a very useful site for finding flights, Skyscanner.net almost always finds me the best and cheapest traveling options. An Easyjet flight from London Luton to Paris Charles de Gaulle was booked for the Tuesday afternoon, arriving at 17:10 I knew that time would be tight. The concert started at 20:00 at the Bataclan but without reserved seating, so the earlier we get there, the better the seats.

Tip: For a speedy escape from the aircraft, get your seat on the as close to the front of the plane as you can. You get off quicker, there is less time spent at passport control and you can cut your departure from the terminal down to about 10 minuites.

The only realistic way to get to the center of Paris from Charles de Gaulle is using the train system. The RER is very reliable and only goes in one direction from the airport. Good news for all would-be blondes in a mad dash to meet a hot French girl waiting on a random underground station in the center of a totally unknown city.

By chance I found a very useful guide on getting to the RER from the terminals. Take a look here, it could really help you. In the end though I didn’t use it. Arriving at Terminal 2b, once out from baggage claim and passport control, facing the exit of the airport (the big glass doors) I turned left and marched with all vigor towards the station.

It’s a long walk but it is well signposted (always follow signs for RER), look out for cash-point machines along the way and keep going. There are travelators but they were all out of action when I arrived and when I left, maybe this was the part of the French system currently on strike? who knows.

Get a ticket from the automatic machines (there is an English option for the menu) and get on the train.

The train should look like this

 

Tip: If you are on a big flashy 2 story expensive looking train, you are most likely on a TGV. I did say follow signs for the RER. This not only the wrong train but also the wrong station.

Now on the right train it is much like any other subway, tube, u-bahn system so if like me that fills you with dread and fear have no worries. For the iPhone there is an app called vianaigo, this allows you to plan all your routes. Put in the departure and destination points and it will tell you what you need to do. I punched in cdg (Paris Charles de Gaulle  Terminal 2 pops up) and my destination as I have been told is Denfert Rochereau. That’s easy. Its one train and I am on it.

 

 

 

The meeting point

We met up and escaped out of the Metro to grab a taxi. Time at this point would not have allowed for any more.

1 concert, a bottle of very nice champagne and a not so great hotel room later and we are back on the trail of travel, this time to get back home. First I have to put her back on a train towards the South. Gare du lyon was a short taxi ride away (the metro does not run at 5:30 in the morning) and time for a coffee and un pain au chocolat from the only vendor open at that time. Someone was in the loo so time to practice my French. ‘Bonjour, deux cafés noir, et deux pain au chocolat s’il vous plait’ Seemed to get me what I wanted. I handed over some euros in response to what ever was said back and in return i received what I had asked for and some change.

 

Go down that escalator for the RER back to the airport

 

Tip: A little French can go along way

Now safely deposited back on the train I can concentrate on getting back to the airport so I can be back in the office for lunch time, a quick look at the app and I can see the route, the trains and even the directions I need to be taking. Result. This blonde was back in the airport with lots of time to spare.

Now back in the airport and through passport control I thought it a little odd that there had been no security checks. Then I realised that if you fly to Luton with Easyjet they package you off to a remote corner of the airport with no toilets, shops or facilities other than a vending machine. So beware, if you are passed passport control and there is no sign of security checks, stay around the shops until you are within an hour of departure or you will have to cross your legs.

It seems that Easyjet from Paris Charles de Gaulle have found entirely new levels of cattle class for their flights. It is normal and acceptable that having purchased the Speedy boarder pass that you get on the plane first, this was however the first time I have been directed away from the other passengers, down stairs to be confined in what felt like a corridor to an abattoir to then be directed to the back of the plane to climb back up stairs to find my seat. Mooing along the way I chuckled at how pathetic this was in a effort to get passengers to upgrade to Speedy boarding. But on a serious note, if you have problems with your knees or walking at all, make sure you kick up a fuss at this point and avoid the unnecessary complication.

Back in Luton, back at the car, back at work. 16 hours in Paris flew by, but despite being blonde and confused I managed without a problem. I met my girl on that underground station in the middle of a city I had never been to before, on a deadline and feeling good about my achievement. If I can do it, so can you!