Twelve

The time is officially 12:12 on 12/12/12

This kind of repeating date will not occur again until 01:01 on 01/01/01 (That’s in 2101, 89 years away).

I’ll only see it if I live to be 116 years old.

Christmas Zombies

Hallowe’en is one of those times when it is acceptable for people to knock at your door and demand sweets, threatening terrible consequences if you don’t obey.  It’s a time that one can prepare for; by 31st October you must have bought enough sugary food to last a hypoglycaemic throughout the winter or risk cleaning egg and silly string off your exterior walls for the rest of the week.  Alternatively, you could prepare for this fateful day by removing yourself from the house for the evening, like I managed to do this year.

Christmas time, on the other hand, is a completely different story, you never know who will knock on your door, or when they’ll do it.

I live by myself in a new build estate on the edge of a small village.  Normally it is quiet, especially on weekday evenings.  Tonight however I was subjected to a terrifying ordeal that, up to this point in my life, has eluded me.  One which I was in no way prepared for.

I was upstairs at the time, sat in front of my computer having just finished catching up with the latest episodes of The Guild, Space Janitors, Essnemma’s Grab Bag 2.0 and Neil’s Puppet Dreams and was quietly pondering the option of wandering to a nearby shop to purchase some more tobacco when I heard a noise.  At first I thought it was my neighbours, sometimes the noise from a TV or stereo will carry through the walls so I wasn’t too worried and carried on perusing the interwebs.  Then the noise came again, louder this time.  An undeterminable drone to begin with but becoming slightly more tuneful and merry as it got closer.  Christmas Carollers.

There are a number of things that went through my head when I realised what was happening:

  1. “My lights are on, they’ll think I’m at home”
  2. “If I go downstairs to turn my lights off they’ll know I’m at home”
  3. “This is what it will feel like when the zombie apocalypse comes”

Then my doorbell rang.

I cowered, sitting alone, frozen in my chair.  I was alert, my hearing trained on the shuffling of feet outside and broken fingernails clawing at my door.  The merry tunes had ceased, all that remained was the dull groan of walking corpses.  I could do nothing, my only way of escape involved alerting the crowd of merciless, flesh eating abominations to my presence and it wasn’t worth the risk.  Outside, the world was falling apart, being destroyed by a hitherto unknown force, devouring everyone in its path.  This was how my life would end.

I snapped out of it.  There were no zombies, the shuffling of feet was merely the carollers moving to the next house, the clawing noises were actually the sounds made by my letterbox as someone inserted a card promoting the local church and the groaning once again returned to Christmassy merriment.

Maybe I should stop reading quite so much of The Walking Dead.

Prague: The Pictures

Now that I’ve had time to re-cooperate, party till 5am, re-cooperate some more and then go back to work after my holiday I figured it’d be high time to reminisce about Prague some more.

You may, or may not know that I am a hobbyist photographer.  I haven’t got the fanciest camera in the world and I’m by no means a great photographer (yet) but I like the art form and find comfort in taking photographs.  This being the case, it was a pretty forgone conclusion that I would take my camera with me to Prague.

Sadly, the weather wasn’t fantastic.  On my first day in the city the sky was a thick and miserable grey expanse of cloud that provided very undesirable lighting.  It also rained a bit.  That said however, I am a supporter of the “A bad workman always blames his tools” phrase and as a photographer, light is one of my tools; I shouldn’t blame the weather for my poor photographs.  A challenge had been presented.  A challenge that I chose to accept.  Read on to find out how I did…

Prague has a large hill; Petrin Hill, which happened to be opposite my hotel so I decided to head up that as my first point of interest, hoping for some picturesque views of the city on my way towards the observation tower that’s at the top.  As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of stuff on Petrin Hill; my first discovery was that of a small pond, complete with waterfall and a statue of a man wrestling what appeared to be some sort of dragon.

Dragon Slayer
Dragon Slayer

After snapping away a few exposures of this dragon slayer I carried on meandering along the paths on Petrin Hill, generally in an up sort of direction, and came across a run down old building that was well worth investigating.  I would have gone in, but there appeared to be someone’s laundry draped across the broken walls and I feared that I may disturb someone’s living arrangements.  The building turned out to be an old restaurant, certainly disused but definitely worthy of a photograph.

The Restaurant That Once Was
The Restaurant That Once Was

Those of you who have a wee bit of knowledge regarding digital photograph processing may have noticed that the images above have been HDR processed.  For those of you who haven’t come across High Dynamic Range processing before, it’s a processing technique by which multiple exposures of the same image are combined to create pictures with more pronounced detail.  It can be a risky processing technique, some like it, some don’t.  I’m interested by it and have been experimenting so I’d appreciate your comments, whether you’re a photographer or not.

After a couple of hours wandering I finally reached my destination.  Perched at the top of Petrin Hill is a watch tower.  Inspired by Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Petrin Lookout Tower is a 63.5 metre tall steel construction and although not quite as big as the French original is still an impressive sight.  I’d already decided on the kind of shot I was hoping for that would capture it’s grandness.  Annoyingly the widest focal length I can achieve with any of my lenses is 18mm and I couldn’t get to a position where I could capture the whole structure, but I tried my best.

Petrin Lookout Tower
Petrin Lookout Tower

The trip down Petrin Hill was a more pleasant affair than lugging 8Kg of camera gear up it, my next aim was to arrive at Prague’s famous Christmas Market, via Charles Bridge.  The mission was a simple one and achieved with ease.  I fired off a few more shots on the way and spent some time taking in the sights and sounds of the market.  I tried my hand at a bit of street photography, something that I’m terrified of (I’m not too keen on photographing people), and failed spectacularly, the only shot in which the subject was in focus was empty and devoid of meaning, the subject (a female baked goods vendor) is looking directly at me in a very disgruntled manner.  With my uncomfortableness increasing I turned my efforts to less emotional focal points, those which aren’t likely to get pissed off with someone taking their picture without permission; buildings.  The Church of Our Lady before Týn is a mighty structure and one of several large buildings that surround Old Town Square.

Old Town Square
The Church of Our Lady before Týn

At this point of my day I was starting to get very cold and slightly damp, to the extent where one of my knuckles had split slightly due to eczema and I was struggling to alter the controls on my Nikon D3100.  I decided t would be a good time to trek through some other areas of the city and across the river back to my hotel, my ulterior motive being to spy some other visual pleasantries that I could come back and shoot the following day, hopefully with some better lighting.

I did find some things worth shooting but sadly when I awoke the following day, my hope for better light wasn’t realised.  Nevertheless, I had vowed to continue my photographic exploration and retraced some of my steps from the previous day, returing to visit Fred & Ginger.  The Dancing House, as it is more formally known, was designed by Frank Gehry in 1992, construction finished in 1996.  It’s a pretty incredible looking building and conveys the image of a man and a woman dancing, from which its nickname is derived; Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers.

Fred & Ginger
Fred & Ginger

Once I’d revisited some of the sights I’d found on my first day in Prague I started concentrating on new sights, this time heading towards Wenceslas Square.  I must admit, I was a bit disappointed by this area of Prague, my trusted Trip Advisor guide had recommended it but I found it quite dull.  The National Museum is a very impressive structure but I didn’t get a particularly good photo of that.  Instead, I continued wandering and after a while I came across a chance to shoot in a slightly more abstract way.

H&M
H&M

I’m a fan of abstract and fine art architectural photography, it’s a subject that I would definitely like to pursue more of.  The above shot is of the outside of an H&M store, something I wasn’t expecting to find but was pleased that I did.  This wasn’t the only abstract shot I took on my travels though, oh no!

On my final day in the city I awoke to a light snow shower and some sunlight filtering through patches of cloud!  My flight was in the evening and having checked out of my hotel room I had time to kill, not a great deal, but enough to have another wander up Petrin Hill.  So with my rucksack securely deposited in the hotel’s luggage store I set out again.  I fired off a few shots of paths and benches when suddenly, inspiration struck (not fantastic inspiration, but inspiration regardless!) as I walked past a common landscape feature.  Litter bins.

Bins
Bins

I liked the mesh pattern and was excited to be shooting with my 35mm f1.8, wide open.  Granted, the result wasn’t quite pleasing as I’d hoped, but it’s almost there.

This was also the day that I stumbled upon a building I had spied briefly but missed on my first day, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was but it looked interesting.  A bit of Googling upon my return home revealed the place to be Kinskeho Zahrada, or at least part of it.  If anyone has more information on this location I’d love to know.

Kinskeho Zahrada
Kinskeho Zahrada

With time running out I made my final descent of Petrin Hill to await my taxi (fear of taxi drivers diminished this time round) to the airport.  I managed one final image on the way down.  At some point I spotted a man hole cover, a pretty ornate one at that, and when one finds an ornate man hole cover it is their duty to photograph it.  So I did.

Manhole
Manhole

So that concludes the photographic portion of my short but sweet excursion to Prague.  To be honest, there’s not a lot more to tell about the trip, there was the moment I discovered a worryingly debilitating condition that almost prevents me from entering food/drink establishments on my own, there was a £10 chunk of ham and of course the point at which I lost my annual battle to avoid that bloody Pogues song.  Maybe I’ll tell you about those in the next few days.

For now though, please check out some of the other photographs I took whilst in Prague, you can find them HERE.  When I processed the shots that I’d taken I considered 23 to be adequate for uploading to the web, and 2 that are pretty awful shots but I felt obliged to upload because of their content.  I’m still learning the art of photography and accept that I still have a long way to go on a never ending journey, so as I said above, I really would like some feedback on my shots, feel free to comment below or on my public Picasa Web Albums.

Prague: The dilemas of an outbound journey.

I’ve been back at home for a day now after my small, and relatively unexciting adventure to Prague.  There’s still no food in my fridge and I’ve only just put my clothes in the washing machine but I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about my outbound journey.  Priorities right?!

Of course, the first thing to do after booking a holiday was to check out how to get to the airport.  I’m not one for paying extortionate fees to park my car for a few days and there’s a train service that runs from my town straight to London so that seemed to be the logical method of transport.  Not knowing London too well, I also thought it wise to check up the fastest route from Kings Cross to Heathrow.  This happened to involve the Tube to Paddington followed by the Heathrow Express.  Can’t complain at a total time of around an hour and a half, so when the day to leave finally came I made my way to the train station, bought a £30 return ticket to Heathrow and set off on my travels.

Firstly, the train was late.  I don’t fully understand why; by my calculations the train had stopped 8 minutes from my station and ended up being delayed by 20 minutes because of a level crossing problem “in the Peterborough area”.  Now I would consider the Peterborough area to be somewhere around Peterborough, which is 25 minutes from my station.  From these two facts I logically calculated that my train had stopped because of something going on behind it.

Despite the lateness, I managed to get to Paddington and hopped aboard the Heathrow Express.  I was a bit confused by the general clientele on the train; well dressed folks with designer luggage and shopping bags from high end London stores.  I seemed to stick out like a sore thumb in my grotty jeans, jacket and rucksack but I didn’t dwell on the matter too long.  My confusion by the rich folk dwindled once the train had departed though.  After handing my ticket to the conductor I was informed that it only included tube travel to Heathrow.  I rapidly discovered that the Heathrow Express is a private rail service, not included as part of the Tube network.  Shit.  The resulting purchase of a more valid ticket set me back a further £25.  At this point, my public transport costs had tripled the cost of my holiday.

So, 25 quid and 15 minutes later I alighted the train at Heathrow, rucksack and camera bag secured to my person and followed signs for Terminal 1.  After a bit of looking around confused in attempt to find where I needed to check in I conceded my lack of location based knowledge and asked a nice, Heathrow emblazoned lady for assistance.  She kindly informed me that flights to Prague departed from Terminal 3, not Terminal 1.  Shit.  Terminal 3 is only a 10 minute walk away from Terminal 1 and I made it without a hitch thanks to the guidance provided by a friendly gentleman member of staff who was headed in that direction.

Finally, I had arrived at Terminal 3 and quickly managed to locate the correct area for British Airways flight passengers to check in for their flights.  This is when I discovered the cluster fuck of confusion that is Check-in.  Not being an overly well-off chap, and one who is conservative with my money I usually fly with budget airlines such as EasyJet where Check-in is a straightforward affair (or at least has been for me in the past).  The esteemed British Airways however, in an effort to make it easier for customers, provide 4 different methods of checking in for their flights.  Four!

You can Check-in online before you leave and print your boarding card at home (I have no printer so that option’s out of the question), you can use a smartphone app to Check-in whilst on your journey to the airport, the app provides a scannable boarding card to your phone (my journey to the airport passes through plenty of low signal areas so I didn’t want to risk that option).  At the airport you can use self service Check-in kiosks, ironically manned by helpful staff to guide you through the process (I’m aware of self service facilities at supermarkets, people’s unintelligence normally causes more hold up than a regular check out and sure enough, there was a queue for the self service Check-in desks, sod that).  Finally, there’s the good old fashioned way of checking in, navigating through a maze of horizontal seat belts, spectacularly arranged to send you walking through the entire airport, only to leave you stranded at the wrong desk.  Nonetheless, there was no queue and this was the only option I felt comfortable with so this was the way to proceed.

Do they make it easy though?  Do they fuck!

All the little maze entrances were signposted with the type of customer that can use them; Silver card holders, Gold card holders, Club World Traveller, Club Euro Traveller and similarly confusing terms.  EasyJet has one type of class; shit class.  I’m used to that.  When presented with a series of fancy, marketing department conjured titles to pick from on this British Airways flight, I had no idea (I still don’t), to me, there are two classes on fancy flights; first class and economy.  Neither of these were signposted.  So what does one do when posed with this kind of situation?

Pick a desk, aim for it, duck under every piece of maze-guiding seatbelt and plead ignorance:

“Am I in the right place to Check-in to this flight to Prague and if so, can I Check-in please?”

“Yes”

“Hooray”

“No, wait a minute.  The system’s got a block on this flight, it’s not open yet”

“Oh, should I come back in a few minutes?”

At this point, a flustered looking lady in full BA garb rushes around behind the desk, informing all other staff that every flight is in fact open, except one to Taiwan.  I wasn’t headed to Taiwan so all seemed promising.

“Ok, I can check you in sir, did you pack your bag yourself? Has anyone asked you to pack anything on their behalf?”

Eventually, I’m checked in.  I made my way through Airport Security without a hitch and arrived in the duty free area.  Straight to the only electrical store, Dixons to play with cameras.  I nearly dropped £1,400 on a Nikon D600 (seems like a lot, but that’s a reduction of £700) but resisted temptation, instead opting for 2 new 8Gb cards for my existing camera.

My next port of call was food, I found a suitable place and purchased a toasted sandwich in this remarkably wise paper bag.

The wisest paper bag of all.
The Paper Bag Of Wisdom.

 

After obeying The Paper Bag Of Wisdom by dutifully eating its contents I was able to go to my departure gate, board the plane, get comfortable and await take off.  Which came without delay thankfully.

The flight itself was fairly normal as far as hurtling through the air in a winged metal tube, although I was slightly caught off guard when I was handed food.  For me, food on a plane is a ridiculously expensive affair, the £2.50 for a pack of crisps kind of expensive, and it’s a choice, not mandatory, so when the handing of food was followed by the question “would you like something to drink sir?” I was dumb struck.  Head spinning in a haze of worry that I’m going to be charged for this, and trying to figure out the best course of action I managed to blurt out “a cup of tea would be nice” (a true Englishman).  Tea was provided, milk was provided, sugar was provided, and a really dinky little stirrer was provided.  All with no mention of or request for payment, my wallet was safe, I had free food and a cup of tea.  It wasn’t until the same offer was extended to my temporary flight neighbour that I discovered I could have made a much better choice than a simple cup of tea.  Without hesitation, and in very rapid succession the chap ordered a bottle of wine, a can of Coke and a glass of sparkling water.  I could have had alcohol.  Dammit!

In this modern age of technological inventions, one of the things that confuses me is the point at which I am allowed to turn on my electronic devices on an aeroplane.  I know when they must be off; when the engines are running on the ground, during take-off, approach, and landing.  But at what point does ‘take-off’ end?  Is it when the wheels are removed from the tarmac? When the seat belt sign is turned off?  When the plane finally levels out?  When God dammit? WHEN??

Normally for me, with my sheep like nature, it’s when I see someone else using an electronic device.  After some furtive scanning of the aircraft, trying not to look too suspicious I spied someone using a laptop.  Huzaar!  I quickly  turned on my Nexus 7, lovingly prepared to boot into flight safe mode and open up the Trip Advisor Prague City Guide to learn more about where I was headed.

I had already investigated the suggested method for reaching my hotel destination from the airport.  A complicated series of bus and tram connections that I would rather avoid at around 9 o’clock in the evening and had opted for the much more convenient taxi option that is available at all airports the world over.  About mid-flight, I had reached the Transport section of my Prague City Guide and read the following sentence:

“Prague’s taxis are legendary for their bad reputation; nowadays things are changing for the better as authorities are cracking on the system.”

The term “legendary” to me, invokes thoughts of Norse Gods, Minotaurs, Hercules and occasionally, some seemingly impossible feat casually achieved by a drunken friend in a pub, so if Prague taxis are “legendary for their bad reputation” to large online corporations then it was time for me to start worrying about my potential method of transport.  I had a choice to make, risk something terrible happening at the mercy of a Czechoslovakian taxi driver before I even reached the hotel or risk ending up on the wrong side of the city due to my own stupidity and failure to navigate a simple metro system.

I’m far too proud for my own good sometimes, and hate looking stupid.  So I went with the taxi option.  Signs around the airport stating that fair prices were guaranteed from two taxi firms eased my worries a bit and when I left the airport I scouted a clean looking cab, labelled with one of the two names I had seen on the signs.  I told the driver my destination and he kindly helped put my bags in the boot of his car before setting off on an unknown and potentially life threatening car ride to my hotel.

After gazing out of the window at the new sights that I may or may not be able to see ever again, wondering if I should have actually called my parents before leaving instead of sending a heartless but informative text message, the driver turned the car into a side street and slowed to a stop at the side of the road. My heart started racing, the street is large but quite empty and pretty dark.  With the possibility of being ass-raped to death I paid the man 600 Koruna (£20) and peered out of the window.  There was a hotel.  Thank fuck, there was a hotel here.

It wasn’t my hotel though.  I hastily made my way round to the boot of the car where the driver was already unloading my rucksack and tried to convey my confusion as to where we were.  After a broken conversation I remembered that before leaving my house, I had scribbled down the hotel address.  I dug out my note pad and showed the driver the street name, which he recognised as not where we were.  The driver, who now knew where I was headed, loaded my rucksack back into the boot and gestured for me to get back in.

A short ride across the river later and I was outside The Red & Blue Design Hotel.  Exactly where I expected and needed to be.  The driver began to unload my rucksack for the second time and I gingerly asked if I owed him any extra money.  He declined, insisting that the extra journey was his fault.  The fear of being butchered by a crazed and psychopathic taxi driver diminished a bit, this guy seemed honest and helpful.

I checked in to the hotel with relative ease; considering the language barrier it was far easier than checking in to my flight earlier that day, and ascended the stairs to my fourth floor hotel room.  A simple, but pleasant and well designed room with free tea and coffee, a nice bathroom and a television.

I had arrived at my destination.

Bed

TL;DR – Guy fucks up getting to airport a bit, flies to Prague, successfully gets to his hotel room without dying.

 

And so it begins: In Prague

So I’ve been in Prague for the past couple of days, not doing anything especially exciting; just wandering around taking some photos (More on that in the next few days) and having some time off work.

I’m on my own. There’s no special someone that I’ve got to come along and keep me company and I seem to be too old to be invited on family holidays with my parents. Either that or they don’t like me anymore.

So what does a 27 year old single guy do on holiday in a foreign country? Not a lot in my case. I’m shy, introvert and paranoid so apart from spending a few hours walking around taking photos I’ve been holed up in my hotel room, perusing the internet on my Nexus 7. Some might tell me to go and do something more exciting and meet people and that’s an understandable reaction. I don’t feel comfortable doing that on my own so instead, I do what I do feel comfortable with.

I’m a subscriber and fan of Geek & Sundry; a YouTube channel from Felicia Day and Kim Evey, and with plenty of time to kill this evening I found myself watching the Story Board Hangout. The latest video, hosted by Patrick Rothfuss, features Jenny Lawson, John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton talking about life online, maintaining a blog, why they do it and what keeps them going. Give it a watch here:

I’ve wanted to maintain a blog for a while and have made a few failed attempts trying to write about specific themes. My latest attempt (this blog) is inspired by that Hangout. I’m going for a more “I’ll write what I want and fuck you if you don’t like it” approach with this one. I’m sure you’ll discover that if you stick around to read more.

So before I kick off on this written exploration of my world I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone at Geek & Sundry for creating and maintaining great content. Everyone should go and subscribe to Geek & Sundry by clicking HERE

Exploring the complexities of a strange world

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