Friday, March 21, 2008

Working in the London

I flew from Berlin to Glasgow to catch up with Pat & Stef who were taking a weekend vacation in Edinburgh. P&S once again were gracious enough to put me up for a couple nights not to mention bring my luggage from Aberdeen (they did get some babysitting out of the deal, which involved no effort since Chloe never woke up once). I was travelling Poland/Germany with just a small day pack, which is most certainly the way to travel. I finished writing the the last bit of the Berlin blog on the train from Edinburgh to London on Monday (which had wireless!) and then Tuesday....

I'm finally in London working! Was what I first talked about in when I left San Fran in April 2006! More specifically, I'm in the Canary Wharf office working on the 2012 Olympics for the next month or so (until Vietnam/Thailand). Which isn't really a CH2M office - it is, but isn't - more of a project office dedicated to the one project. Kind of different lifestyle as the office is right in the center of the financial district (21st floor of the Barclay Building) and I'm taking a ferry each morning from the Hilton Docklands. Let's just say I'm going shopping this weekend to buy some nice close to fit in a bit better!! And I'm also checking out of the Hilton for a slightly more reasonable hotel (only a mere £120/night) and, more importantly, a funner neighbourhood (Old Street). It has been quite a shock from the stay in London a month ago - a £14 4-bed hostel room to a £200 hotel.

There have been numerous phone calls and emails over the last few weeks about my future in London (post Thailand). Nothing confirmed, but looking like the Olympics project may try to keep me part time and the work in Ireland wants me for ~3 months (based out of the main CH2M London office). And the client for the Dublin work also needs support for sites in the Netherlands & France. All this looks like lots of travel, but doesn't look to be too settled. So choices are looking like:

A. Forget about work and travel (Ethiopia & Tanzania are still quite interesting)

B. Support projects in a few countries for up to a few months at a time, get to travel, but don't really get to settle in a have a normal life.

C. Settle down in London, get a flat, but then have all the London expenses that somewhat limit travel.

I'll have some decisions to make and no doubt some will get made for me. And in order to get this all settled, they want me to attend a quarterly client meeting on April 29-30 (apparently the Ireland client really likes local staff and will have to be won over by Canadian charm). But this is just a few days before Ben's wedding and they are unwilling to hold the meeting in Bangkok - how unreasonable! Everyone seems eager to get me on board, so hopefully my absence at the meeting isn't a fatal blow.

And a really funny one... I spoke some words of French with the PM of the Ireland work (who happens to be French and lives in Marseilles) and next thing I know I'm getting a request to do a senior review of a report in French. Ummm... big difference between being able to order a meal or navigate the metro and do a senior review of a technical report! I could have brutalized it after a few beers (my French vastly improves after a few beer!), but not understanding the subtly of one word can greatly change the meaning of a sentence and.... I spoke French with Chloe my entire time in Aberdeen (granted she's 2 1/2 years old), but my experience there makes me think that a few weeks in France talking French (maybe taking a class) would do a world of good. Hmmm... maybe that should be Choice D above?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Krakow & Berlin

And off to Krakow, barely looking at a map, not knowing how to say hi, not knowing if it's in the EU, and really just being quite ignorant and indifferent to my ignorance - bliss, perhaps. Turns out Krakow is a very nice city with lots of old buildings, churches, palaces, etc. (the only largish Polish city not to be leveled during WWII). It's one of the cities where I feel I could settle down and just hang out for a few weeks without wanting to leave. I really didn't take many photos of the town itself as kept planning to get evening photos (the town square had great light in the morning and evening), but I never got up early enough and then always forgot at night, so I stole the last two...

As a summary, I'd have to say Krakow was great. I'm left wanting to do a lot more travel in Eastern Europe. Prices are reasonable, people are more or less friendly, lots of fun, beautiful tourist things, nice when out of the tourist area, beautiful women (as in holy cow), and they love to party. What else could one want? Was a good time to visit as well being fun but a quieter than the summer months (which can supposedly get a little crazy). But to put it in perspective, I arrived at the hostel at 9PM and was out at a club by 10PM (of course with no food or water, so...).

On the tourist side, I did a day trip from Krakow to Auschwitz, the infamous WWII concentration camp in which a few million people met their fate (predominantly Jews & Poles). Wasn't exactly a destination that you want to go, but more a destination you have to go. Was quite impressive, if that's the right word.

And then from Auschwitz we went to Birkenau, which is right next door. Auschwitz was a Polish army camp that the Germans took over and then they built Birkenau so they could hold more people. Many parts of Birkenau got destroyed / burnt as the Germans left so you have to use your imagination when you just see rows and rows of chimneys just how many people actually would have been in this camp.

More on Auschwitz & Birkenau from wikipedia...
Auschwitz-Birkenau (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (help·info)) was the largest of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp complex. Located in German-occupied southern Poland, it took its name from the nearby town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), situated about 50 kilometers west of Kraków and 286 kilometers from Warsaw. Following the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, Oświęcim was incorporated into Germany as part of the Katowice District (Regierungsbezirk Kattowitz), or unofficially East Upper Silesia (Ost-Oberschlesien), and renamed Auschwitz. There were also around 40 satellite camps, some of them tens of kilometers from the main camps, with prisoner populations ranging from several dozen to several thousand.

The camp commandant, Rudolf Höß (in English commonly Hoess or Höss), testifed at the Nuremberg Trials that 3 million people had died at Auschwitz during his stay as a commandant. Later he decreased his estimate to about 1.1 million. The death toll given by the Soviets and accepted by many was 4,000,000 people. This number was written on the plaques in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The Museum revised this figure in 1990, and new calculations by Dr. Franciszek Piper now place the figure at 1.1 million about 90 percent of them were Jews from almost every country in Europe. Most deportees were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon B; other deaths were caused by systematic starvation, forced labor, lack of disease control, individual executions, and medical experiments.

Another afternoon trip was to the W Salt Mines. Wasn't sure if I'd enjoy this trip, but as a geologist, I figured going into a mine is always good. And it turns out the mine was a very worthwhile trip. It's not so much of a mine as a serious of rooms. Well, it is a mine with I think 250 km of tunnels, but the rooms they've carved out are cathedrals, music halls, elaborate swimming pools which now function as resorts, etc. etc. All with hundreds of sculptures lining halls and rooms. Very nice and well worth an afternoon. (photos cost extra, so the last couple are scavenged off the net)

After 4 days in Krakow and after work stalled a bit more, I decided to go to Berlin on the train. Rather than doing a night train (Krakow to Berlin ~11 hours), I broke up the trip with a night in Wroclav. But since my bed in Krakow ranged from 4 to 5 in the morning and usually involved many vodka drinks, Wroclav ended up being a movie night (Control - about Ian Curtis of Joy Division) followed by early to bed. So I actually didn't take any photos here.

Berlin was another unknown for me. I had never been to Germany, though I felt like it would be more like home and it was. I think in part because Germans are so well educated and also travel so much, english is never a problem (Poland was sporadic, though the younger folk are definitely more worldly). Similar to Poland, I arrived late (8PM) and ended up finding myself cabbing it home from a club at 3AM. Unfortunately, the subways and buses were on strike, so the 3AM cab ride was a tad pricey, but the only option was to wait till 4:30AM when the overground train (S-baun) started to run (I took this option the following night).

I was really just in Berlin for one full day, so I had to make the most of it. I did a free walking tour by the same group that do the walking tour in London (and a couplie other cities, too). The tour took us through many buildings and statues and such with WWI and WWII relevance. Was quite eerie in a way to be in the German capital talking about the Nazi war machine (and the Holocaust Memorial - the field of grey cement blocks in photos below) after having been in Auschiwitz just a few days earlier.

Maybe one of the most interesting things for me was the Brandenburg Gate, largely because of its history and story that it tells. The gate leads from the Tiergarten (big park, zoo, etc.) into Paris Platz (Square) and has history from Napoleon to being part of the Berlin wall. Here's my photo of the Brendenburg Gate on a cold rainy morning (sort of fitting).

To start, the gate has a statue with 4 horses that was stolen by the French a few hundred years ago and then the Germans (actually the Prussians at the time I think) defeated Napolean and recaptured the statue. After taking the statue back to Berlin, they changed it to look more fortified (took away olive branch and put militaristic staff in hand) and put the statue back up on the gate leading to the newly renamed the Paris Square (kind of a screw you French, we're watching you sort of thing). Supposedly they also turned the head of the statue so it angles down looking at where the French Embassy is (more subtle German sense of humour).

In early 20th century (before WWII), the square was described as one of the nicest squares in Europe and was home to many prominent buildings including the US and French Embassies, a fancy hotel, etc. (currently home to a new the French Embassy and the US one is under construction). Then WWII and literally every building surrounding the square was leveled (apparently the Russians had some frustration to take out) and only the gate survived, albeit a little worse for the wear. Up close you can see how it looks like a patch work of plaster filled bullet holes. This is a photo of a historic sign they have that sort of shows circa 1944 vs. today.

Then, lastly, after WWII the gate became part of the Berlin Wall. Can't say I have any photos of this, but definitely a few of the Berlin Wall and one that I scavenged off the internet (pretty obvious which one is not present day).

The last night in Berlin was a DJ club type thing in the basement of an abandoned building in the outskirts of what was Eastern Berlin. This was quite an adventure ending at 6:30AM (this left 2 hours for sleep before going to the airport). Ouch! My ears were ringing for 2 days, I was blowing smokey snot out of my nose for the same amount of time, and my feet are still sore from dancing. But was definitely worth it!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Old Scottish Friends

After the couple weeks working in London, I went up to Aberdeen to visit Pat, Stef and Chloe, of course! (old friends, though newly Scottish!). The time in Aberdeen was very nice and relaxing with some quality time with friends. Pat & I got many a scotch tasting (tours, local pubs and the living room). We also did a hike in on a nearby "mountain" - okay, it wasn't a mountain, more of a large hill, and it was covered in snow, and the distillery at the base (Glenlivet, which was supposed to be our reward), was closed, but still a nice hike and some much needed exercise. Stef and I also got a day adventuring to nearby castles (we avoided the snow!). And then there were the many fun days of hanging with Chloe and, I must admit, some days doing some remote work to pay the bills.

Here's a few photos from an expedition Pat & I took to the town of Elgin and the Glen Moray distillery (3 pounds for a tour and 7 scotch tastings!!).

And then Stef & I left Chloe with Pat for a day and did an outing to see a couple castles and have a really nice dinner just south of Aberdeen in Stonehaven. The photo of Stef next to a very special piece of Scottish history is quite impressive isn't it? (click on the photo and you can see a larger version of the photo and see what is underneath the box) I nearly had enough "covered" or "being repaired" photos of Scottish monuments to make an entire photo series of hidden art!! Or the other possibility is that this is a Scottish obelisk that will be the found during the beginning of A Space Odyssey: 2014?

How about Scottish mountaineering?

And some general trouble causing with my favourite girl in Aberdeen...

After two great weeks in Aberdeen (which flew by!) and with the work in London in the works but the paperwork dragging along, I made a quick decision to make a trip. After printing a map of Europe, going to the local pub, taping the aforementioned map to the dart board and having a few scotches, I threw a dart. Okay, in reality it more involved finding a cheap last minute flight to somewhere I wanted to go. As it turns out, Poland (and more specifically Krakow) was the final choice. And so I said farewell to Pat & Stef (left March 8 to be precise), but left the majority of my luggage with them ensuring another visit sometime very soon!