Thursday, 30 December 2010

Smell My Finger, and other Christmas games

Christmas has been a mixed bag as far as preparation for the ride is concerned. On the one hand I received my own portable library in the form of a Kindle but on the other hand my foot nearly fell off.

The Kindle is mightily impressive but it's not without its problems. The screen with its magnetic ink is absolutely gorgeous and the clarity is amazing. But it has to be. The text within Open University PDF course books has a font size of about five points. Honestly. I was trying to work out what a word said the other day and it turned out to be a dead ant. If this blog suddenly dries up halfway around Europe, it's because I've gone blind. And although most pages turn in a second or so, page 32 of S283's An Introduction to Astrobiology took over four minutes! Now, page 32 is a lovely page but it's not worth waiting that long. Admittedly, without it I'd have no idea what a bilayer vesicle is but, now that I come to think of it, I'm still not entirely sure. But, on the plus side, the battery lasts for ages and if it can even temporarily replace my laptop for reading OU stuff then that means less time recharging batteries in one-star hotels and more time wild camping. So the Kindle may work wonders for my pocket, although perhaps not for my body odour.

The foot incident came about as a result of my family's ridiculous competitiveness. Christmas Day isn't a time for telly in our house. No, it's a time for games, and lots of 'em. Both my brother Dave and I had organized our own family Christmas quizzes. His was a straightforward question and answer game whereas mine included rounds such as Smell My Finger and another based on a former Lloyd Grossman show, which I called Through The Bumhole. The rules of Smell My Finger were easy; each contestant had to tell me what my hand smelled of. Despite familial concerns that loading my fingers for this round was going to involve sexually abusing my brother's dog Britney, in the end I plumped for the less deviant odour of salami. My dad went first, took a deep sniff of my forefinger and decided that it was aftershave, which is a bit worrying but at least explains why Britney loves him so much. Through The Bumhole involved identifying celebrities by photos of their arses. Unsurprisingly, everyone correctly guessed J-Lo's, but Ann Widdecombe's was more of a challenge. Next year I'll have to make it harder and make sure that they're clothed instead.

Anyway, after our two quizzes, and following in the footsteps of his dad, my twelve year old nephew Conor decided to do a gameshow of his own. This involved everyone thrusting his or her hand into the Bag of Doom and pulling out a number. Whoever selected the unlucky number three was then forced to undergo some stupid challenge. I lucked out and was the first to receive trial by snowball, right down the inside-back of my new Christmas jumper. This was pretty tame stuff compared to later items on Conor's deathlist. Dave was next, and his involved lying in the front garden for thirty seconds stripped to the waist in the snow. He took his position and started counting. Surfing a wave of Jack Daniels, I decided that what Dave needed more than anything in the world right then was to have extra snow kicked on top of him too. (Around here they call that "teabagging" but I'm pretty sure this means something else entirely where you are.) In my haste to cover him, I stood awkwardly on a rock, heard a tearing sound in my foot and then danced around the garden like a Native American. The game was abandoned after that. It was just as well because the third challenge involved a bear trap and a can of petrol.

So, for the rest of Christmas, I'll mostly be confined to the sofa with a swollen foot, but at least I have my Kindle to entertain me. Well, I will if it ever finishes loading page bloody 33.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Norman Wisdom's Role in Communism

How many facts can you tell me about Albania? I bet it's not many. Before I started to research this trip all I could have told you is that the capital is Tirana, that Norman Wisdom was popular there, and that they once came last in the Eurovision Song Contest with a ditty called "Goats Aren't Just For Kissing", and I'm pretty sure I've made up at least one of those. Y'see, it's a mystery is Albania. I don't know anyone who's been there. Maybe that's not such a big deal. I don't know anyone who's been to Ipswich either.

The reason Albania is such a mystery is because it was closed to the outside world from 1944 until 1991, which means that they missed all the decent Only Fools and Horses episodes and only caught those shite Christmas specials. But, on the other hand, this also means that Albanians inhabit a universe utterly devoid of the concept of Jive Bunny. So perhaps forty-seven years of communism isn't as bad as it's often made out to be.

During this period of closure, religious organisations were banned as was the private ownership of cars, which presumably spelled the demise of the Albanian travel sweet industry. I assume that's true. I mean, you never hear about it, do you? Most homes didn't own a TV and those that did had the choice of a single, black-and-white channel. It must have been like living in that town in Footloose without even the excitement of Christian fundamentalism to keep you occupied at the weekends. To make matters worse, this one channel seems to have featured an endless, back-to-back Norman Wisdom-a-thon. With the Communists in charge, Albania certainly put the 'grim' in Mr. Grimsdale.

Want some more facts? Go on, it's free. Not long before the Communists, Albania had a beautifully alien-sounding monarch called King Zog. The Zogster was famed for smoking 150 cigarettes a day. Assuming he got a decent night's sleep this means he puffed his way through one cigarette every six minutes. Or maybe he just smoked a handful at a time, I don't know. This all seems a tad excessive until you learn that during his life he survived over fifty-five assassination attempts. It must have been hard to take seriously the doctor's health advice about cutting down when someone's permanently trying to pop a cap in yo ass. In one famous attempt on his life he survived by shooting back at the wannabe assassins, the first modern Head of State to do so. I can't imagine the Queen whipping out an Uzi and letting rip. Prince Philip maybe, if the assailant was from an ethnic minority, but not the Queen.

But if their human leaders are superheros, their superheros, especially their divine superheros, are more human, and Albania seems to be a strong advocate for excessive political correctness and positive discrimination in the heavenly selection process. For starters, there's Verbti, the god of storm and fire, whose name translates as 'the blind one', and Shurdi, the weather god whose moniker means 'the deaf one'. There's also a minor deity with a club foot, a stammer and a bit of a bad back but he doesn't get much of a mention.

One last nugget of useless information: Albania is also home to the Cursed Mountains. As tourist marketing board disasters go, the name of these hills is up there with Galicia's unwelcoming Coast of Death and Llandudno's ill-received but astonishingly accurate brochure "Welcome to Shitsville". The Cursed Mountains are home to wolves and bears and, come 2012, one very nervous cyclist pedalling faster than he's ever pedalled before. Still, it could be worse. With a heavily French accented 'nul points' still burning our singer's disappointed but horny, little ears I could be being led backstage dressed in a goat costume.

Toodle pip!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Open University and Tracy Jackson's Bra

Today is Open University results day. With passes in S282 Astronomy and MS121 Exploring Maths, I edged a little closer to getting those OU degrees. How much closer? Well, if I'm represented by me, which seems fair, and my degrees are represented by the surface of Pluto, I've moved from the living room into the kitchen. There's a long way to go.

I may have mentioned it before but I love the Open University. And I think most OU students do too. It consistently comes top of university student satisfaction surveys. That's quite an achievement when you consider that they have more students than the population of India. You would think that with all those people to organize something would go wrong occasionally, but apparently in forty years of operation the worst thing to happen was when, during a residential course in 1985, a Mr Barry Mansfield of Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire snapped his favourite pencil. It was a black day for everyone involved.

But maybe I'm looking at it all through too rosily-tinted a pair of spectacles. Maybe question papers don't turn up in time for examinations, or perhaps people register for courses and then slip out of the system, or maybe maths tutors routinely machete tutorialfuls of students for failing to grasp calculus. But it's never happened to me and so it doesn't count. Allow me to adjust my glasses. Yes, it's all very nicely pink, thank you very much.

But what's really great about the OU is that it gives you a second chance. You may have messed up at school, spending more time trying to catch a glimpse of Tracy Jackson's bra than knuckling down to your GCSEs (or O-levels as it was when I was at school back in 1741) but that doesn't mean you have to consign yourself to the academic dustbin along with things like board dusters and canes and pupil discipline. No, you can reinvent yourself. You can become a scientist, or a linguist, or a philosopher. You could even become a trawlerman, but I'm not sure the OU has a course for that. Maybe next year.

Some people are nervous about returning to education but the OU eases you in gently with its Level 1 courses. And Level 2 builds on Level 1, increasing the complexity and preparing you for the big stuff. It's not until Level 3 that they hit over the head with concepts that makes your brain want to leak out of your ears. But it's a degree. It shouldn't be easy. If you didn't want to work for it, you may as well have bought your certificate on Ebay. (Speaking of which, if you've got twenty quid I've just uploaded a lovely PhD in Molecular Engineering. First come, first served.)

So I'll keep at it, taking those little steps each year heading for my final destination on the surface of Pluto. And - who knows? - perhaps next year you might find I've got as far as the garden.

Toodle pip!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Sex-Trafficking for Beginners

As part of this pan-European adventure I'm hoping to have a bash at the mother tongue of each country I'll cycle through, even if it's only something superficial like asking for directions or delivering an astrobiology lecture. Unfortunately I decided this before I'd counted how many languages are en route. There are more than thirty. Bugger.

The good news is that I'm already sorted for fairly large chunks of Europe. My schoolboy French should get me through Gaul as long as everyone's called either Jean-Paul or Claudette. And working in Graz for five years has given me enough Deutsch to survive Austria and Germany, which basically just involves memorizing the names of at least twelve different types of sausage. And I've spent enough time in Spain to stumble through there. Now that I've learnt the Spanish word for tripe I'll never have to eat it again, which is the main thing. So the first major and unknown language I'll come across is Polish. If you don't already know, let me tell you that the Polish language is a complete and utter arse.

So far I've had ten half-hour lessons and I'm still trying to negotiate my way out of a virtual restaurant in Warsaw's Piękna Street. I can ask for a beer or a coffee but I can't order any food yet. I think I might lose some weight on this trip. I can tell you - vaguely it seems to me - that I'd like to do something ("Chciałbym coś zrobić") but if you ask me to specify what exactly then I'm limited to suggesting either eating, drinking or buying. Unfortunately, I don't know the vocabulary for anything I might want to eat or anything I might want to buy. So it's back to drinking again. I wonder if I'll also learn the word for 'cirrhosis'.

The language learning comes courtesy of Pimsleur. I've got a few of their courses and they all have the same structure. Basically you are an American male trying to chat up a native-speaking female. I think it's really designed for gigolos or international sex traffickers. There's one section where you ask the woman if she'd like to go for a drink at one o'clock. She declines. So you suggest two o'clock. She turns you down again. You continue to repeat the question for every hour of the day with her steadfastly refusing to budge. Get the message, knobhead, she's not interested! My American's behaviour was getting worrying. I thought our next move would be to pop to the chemist's next door and ask for some chloroform.

Polish is a difficult language for tons of reasons. Pronunciation is your first problem. Most Polish words look like the work of a typist using only her nose and a keyboard with drawing pins glued to its vowels. I thought a quick google for a particularly unpronounceable Polish phrase would illustrate this but all I turned up was "w Szczebrzeszynie chrzaszcz brzmi w trzcinie". Simple. This, by the way, means "Szczebrzeszynie the beetle is in the reeds". That's not so much an example of difficult Polish as it is a warning about giving your pet a bloody silly name.

Polish loves nothing more than a good, old-fashioned declension. For some unfathomable reason the Polish word for 'two' has seventeen different forms depending on things like case and gender and whether or not it's a Tuesday. Seventeen! If you know seventeen words in English, you can get a job at Currys! And it gets worse. If you wear beige in March you have to reverse every third word and sing the rest in a squeaky Orville the Duck voice. OK, I made that last one up.

But I won't give in. I have ten more hours of lessons to go. It's bound to get easier. And my American will get his own way. By the end of the course I'm sure I'll be able to book a cheap hotel room at an hourly rate and negotiate a decent price for Rohypnol. It's just a pity that I still won't have the vocabulary to ask for a sandwich.

Do widzenia!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Being mad

Since I first mentioned this trip to family, friends and online OU students, my sanity has from time to time been questioned. I know that these accusations are made with a tongue in cheek, but there's something worrying about proposing an idea and then being told: "You must be mad". Have I made a mistake? Have I underestimated what's involved? If I'd suggested eating a tree or indulging in a session of heavy petting with Ann Widdecombe then these people might have had a point but I haven't. It's just a bike ride. Yes, it's a thirty thousand kilometre bike ride, but it's still just a bike ride.

Some long distance cyclists however clearly do believe that they are mental. One of the best websites for cycling blogs is, originally set up by, well, a guy on a bike who thought himself crazy. Some people revel in the idea of their own insanity. They love nothing more than to think that they're utterly, toad-lickingly bonkers. But I've yet to meet a self-confessed madman who was anything more than a bit wacky. Real loonies tend not to know that they're barking. No, they think that they're Napoleon, or they're Scientologists.

Y'see, I'm not mad. I'm the sanest person here. The nutty ones are those who say that they'd love to do something like this (or some other type of adventure), but then never get around to it. They get old, and by then it's too late to do anything useful. And then they die. Or they enter the House of Lords.

Personally I think it's more insane to sell your finite existence to a company you hate, to work with people who get right on your areolae and to slowly decompose in traffic for an hour in each direction just for the privilege. Of course everyone needs to earn some money but in this short life you get what you settle for and if you're in a job that makes you want to take an AK47 to your co-workers, or if you're not enjoying the majority of your life for whatever reason, then it's you who's off your rocker. But of course you can change all that. Go on, buy a bike. Or an AK47.

So now that we've established that I'm not mad, I can tell you the details of my next charity venture. Yes, you've guessed it. After a lunch of deep-fried elm, I'm going to indulge in a session of heavy petting with Ann Widdecombe. Tongue in cheek? Only if she asks nicely.

Toodle pip!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Welcome to the beginning of something lovely

Hello there. Welcome to the very first entry of a brand new blog, a blog that, if all goes well, should last for the next three years. I won't bore you with all the details here - they're written elsewhere ( - but basically I'm going to be cycling from 2011 to 2013 to each of the fifty capital cities of Europe while studying for two degrees with the Open University. Well, it's something to do, isn't it?

Between now and the 31st March 2011 - the official start date - this blog will cover my preparations and other nonsense that occurs to me. After that it'll get more exciting and will suddenly be teeming with photos of fabulous cities, picturesque mountains and East European industrial estates as well as stories of the exciting people I've met, the strange food I've eaten and perhaps what it feels like to be run over by a Romanian juggernaut. So please bear with me as the countdown counts down.

This won't be the only blog of this adventure. I'll also be blogging on the Open University's community website, Platform, but the content won't be the same on both. I'm not sure what the difference will be yet. Over there it'll probably be more studenty, y'know, about the trials of the courses, the problems of studying via a laptop and of course how fit Rachel Riley is.

There's also the Facebook page for UniCycle50. That's where the majority of my photos will go. If you nip over there and 'Like' the page then piccies will be delivered directly to your Facebook newsfeed. That's what I'd do. And follow this blog, obviously. And the OU one. And donate loads of cash to each of my charities. But that's just me.

So now the blog's Welcome message has been written I'll have to think of something witty and insightful to write about for the next one. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. If you just want to call me a dick and tell me to get a job then please get in the queue behind my mum.

Toodle pip!