Travel Optimism for 2021

It’s a gorgeous sunny day outside today, which means all I can think about is summer. Since last year was a non-starter I desperately want to get back out into the world and do some travelling. I really do hope that there will be some opportunity to do so and am quietly praying that it will all be fine.

The past few weeks I’ve been thinking about a route and some of the things I’d like to see and do. The #TrainToTurkey trip in 2019 was fantastic and while I wouldn’t change much, there were a few lessons we learnt to apply to the next trip:

Know what to do It’s fair to say that we weren’t adequately prepared with ideas of what to do or where to go in certain cities, particularly Sofia and Ankara and as a result we ended up wandering without much of a clue. In Ankara we weren’t able to get an internet connection and that really hampered things, we ended up in some pretty strange bars, wandered around an abandoned theme park and along a motorway before finding something interesting and a bar that was showing the Formula 1. That and in some places we weren’t staying long enough to have time to figure things out, Sofia was an example of that. This issue is mostly solved with prep beforehand, we just didn’t really do much.

Duration We did get the duration for most places just right, staying less than a day in most cities with a little more time in the places we knew we wanted to spend time (Belgrade and Istanbul). This does against the general advice of most Interrail travel blogs to basically spend WAY less time travelling but we were probably more time-restricted than most on this kind of trip and actually didn’t feel the need to spend that long in places. We were on a bit of a mission though, rather than a holiday.

Distance We need to dial the distance back for future trips. Travelling from Penzance to Ankara was a really freaking long way, it was great but now that we’ve done that I would instead fly in and fly out allowing more time for the relevant journey or destination. in 2019 we basically ‘gunned it’ to Munich and the first part of the trip didn’t add much in the scheme of things. That said, if conserving annual leave from work weren’t an issue then I would absolutely travel on rails for the whole thing, doing a big loop would be pretty amazing.

Pack lighter This is always a top tip but I took heed and packed pretty damn light. I took the same bag I use to commute, I wore the same shoes, shorts and shirt for basically the whole trip and smelt like a foot when I got home. Foolishly though I packed a pair of jeans that I didn’t wear at all until the last day and carried around my $2,000 MacBook which I refused to let out of my sight - this was stupid. On days where we were back to back on sleeper trains this meant we carried everything in the day which was really quite shit. Slimming packing back even further and only taking things that are replaceable would have made a big difference for comfort and freedom. An iPhone, headphones, charger, toothbrush, passport and the clothes I’m wearing is all I’m taking next time.

Keep and eye on the time We very, very nearly missed the flight out of Kiev on the way home. While it all would have been fine, it would have been painfully expensive and soured the last day. We didn’t build much contingency into the schedule so a failure early on would too have totally screwed us until we got to a ‘checkpoint’ where we did have contingency. The delayed train situation from Cologne to Munich very nearly knocked the dominoes over but thankfully we get back on track.

Actually visit the country It’s bugged me a lot since we got back that we completely sailed through Slovenia and didn’t spend any time there, same with Zagreb to a degree. If the goal is to visit the country, spending the day there is kind of the minimum that I think I’m going to consider fair. I’ve noted where I’ve been in a country/state but only been in the airport, I think I’ll note something similar for when I have been there but haven’t been there.

Blog better I was lazy with this. I should have taken more photos and journalised everything I could. The blogs I did get out were pretty much me just thinking back and I know I’ve missed certain things that are interesting. Using Squarespace was the most frustrating thing and that has changed in my new setup and I would probably just publish straight to Microblog more frequently to capture things.

For the 2021 trip, as with #TrainToTurkey, the goal is to visit new countries and to get some time on the tracks. There are three clear candidates for trips when looking at what’s left for me tick off, and if I’m going to see all of Europe making all of these happen is really the fastest way to do so: * The Balkan states (Bosnia - Greece) * Central Europe (Poland travelling south to Hungary, possibly on to Moldova via Romania) * Nordic region (Norway, Sweden, Aland Islands, possibly travelling to Latvia too)

The Balkan States

It feels like the this is an ‘advanced’ level trip. Trains don’t operate in certain countries and where they do the connections aren’t ideal for a Northwest to Southeast route. To make it possible, it’s going to involve road transport and patience. I think we’d need to be more flexible in scheduling, prepared to operate in full backpacker mode and allocate more time. That said, these are some of the more ‘unchartered’ countries in Europe and I would love to get the opportunity to visit and blog about them - one of the best parts of #TrainToTurkey was visiting cities and countries that were off the normal tourist trail. This option certainly presents the best ‘haul’ for ticking countries off the list too, there’s at least six and potentially the opportunity to cross off some of the more obscure territories based on the Century Club list. Avoiding COVID restrictions would be tricky here and not being able to enter a particular country could completely scupper the trip, so presents a big risk.

Central Europe

This would certainly be a little easier than the Balkans but still present a bit of a challenge. There’s great train connections across the board and pricing should be reasonable for ticketing. There’s night trains that could work for a number of routes and in 2019 these proved to be fantastic for keeping hotel costs down and proving an effective method for keeping on the move but visiting places during the day. There would be plenty to see with food, drink and accommodation all pretty inexpensive too. The route could be planned pretty well up front, I think something like Gdansk > Warsaw > Katowice > Bratislava > Budapest would work well. It could also be possible to include a cross-Romania trip into Moldova to make things interesting although looks as though the train on this route has been cancelled for the time being.

Nordic Region

This is the one I’m leaning to most although would certainly prove to be the most expensive. As with the other two options it would prove a little too time consuming to travel from the UK via train to start the trip so it would make sense to fly in to Stavanger or Bergen. That said a UK start would allow for the Harwich to Hook ferry which is on my unpublished list of things to do. I would expect that these counties to have a reasonable grip on the COVID situation or at least a well published policy as to whether a trip is possible or not. Food, drink and accommodation would be expensive, travel costs too would be high but there may be options to control that with a Eurail pass. I think a West to East route is the obvious approach but that doesn’t lend itself too well to night trains, although that’s probably not too much of an issue as there wouldn’t be took much ‘rail time’. North/South travel does provide sleeper options but would likely eat into trip time. There’s a lot to do, The Flam railway in Norway, visiting the famous [Vasa](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasa_(ship) in Stockholm and it might event be possible to align the trip with the Tall Ships Races which visits the Aland Islands in July. In addition to visiting Norway, Sweden and Aland I would love to get to spend some more time in Finland. I absolutely loved being in Helsinki during 2019 and want to see more of the country. Could be possible to extend the trip by travelling from Helsinki to Riga by ferry or St Petersburg by train - both would present a great ‘final stop’.

Still seems too early to be making plans though, I’m typing this out very optimistically while under national lockdown rules. If it does look like international travel is off the cards for the summer then the opportunity would be to put in some UK travel instead, there’s a lot of domestic railway that I’ve not travelled on and a whole heap of cities I’ve yet to see. A week with an all UK Rover ticket could prove to be a lot of fun. Potentially a good chance to visit Northern Ireland too, which always seems to get bumped to the bottom of the list!

Let’s see how we go, I’m confident that something will be possible. Might start piecing together an itinerary or two.

Mandatory Leave

The COVID situation last year meant that we really didn’t get to go away as much as we usually would have and as a result I had lots of annual leave left. Colliers permitted the carry-over of five days leave to 2021 on the condition it is taken before the end of March. With the current national lockdown we aren’t going to be using those days to go away. So, I plucked a week out of thin air and booked it off…

It’s actually been quite refreshing to have a week off with no rush to do anything in particular or with a set agenda. I can’t say I love it, I much prefer the hustle and bustle of a full calendar, but that’s not an option. In my week off I have managed to get quite a few things done that needed to be done.

In the house I put up some new blinds in the conservatory. When we moved in there were some vertical blinds installed which were not great, so we took them down. We have lived with no blinds for a while now, but it’s a bit annoying having to close the lounge curtains when it gets dark outside. The new blinds were only cheap, £25 quid each from Dunelm and do the job, the all needed to be adjusted to the right width which took about an hour and a half per blind since they were “not adjustable”. I also had to install some spacer blocks so that they didn’t catch on the window handles. After having installed them I am really quite happy with them, certainly £100 happy, it feels a bit warmer in the conservatory and the neighbours can no longer see me rowing either. We installed “party mode” for the conservatory too, with 10 meters of cheap LED lights which I ran around the inside edge between the window and the roof. I was surprised, the lights are actually really fun, although I have no idea what the neighbours must think - from the outside it looks a bit like a shady nightclub. They will be really good for parties when we’re all allowed to see each other again.

With that all done I also had a bit of a digital cleanse. I have been using Google Apps/G-Suite since about 2012, I moved from the personal Gmail service to GSuite because it enabled me to use my own domain name. This was great for a while, it gave me a few different capabilities and everything played well, I could have any number of email aliases and victoria had an account too. More recently, it’s become a bit of a pain.. Aside from having to pay for it every month, it has grown into a very enterprise-focused platform rather than a bit of a workaround that let me use my own domain name. Since moving from Google/Android to Apple/iOS I have also slowly realised that Google isn’t the right cloud for all my things to live, while things work they just don’t integrate as well. Photos was the big one, the Apple Photos app is just better if you’re in the ecosystem. Mail, Document Storage and Calendars were less important, they all worked but not quite as well as things could work. This week I have been chipping away at getting my precious data out of Google closing G-Suite.

Moving email was relatively easy, I signed us up for Fastmail and shifted the domain/s over. I debated moving all the email data out of Google and into Fastmail but in the end just moved everything to a local mailbox on my Mac. There it’s backed up it’s not just taking up cloud storage and it’s going to be a hell of a job to filter genuine email from marketing spam. One of the benefits of the COVID situation is that I have no reservations or emails that I might need while I’m out and about, so that’s kind of convenient to have a fresh start. To get mail working I changed the default mail app on devices and deleted all the email that was left in Google. The setup process from Fastmail is really good, it sets up the profile and does everything for you.

Calendars was pretty easy too, we have two shared calendars in Google, one for Events and another for Birthdays & Anniversaries. These I simply exported, added to the native mac app and merged. Apple has a calendar for anyone in a ‘Family’ already, and I just added another for the birthdays calendar and shared. Again, just , I had to adjust the default calendar app on devices too. I really like the native calendar app, I probably should have synchronised Google with it a while back, but hey! I know that if you add a birthday into Contacts it also adds it to the calendar, but these aren’t shared so we’d have to both manage everything.

Getting documents out of Google was a bit more tricky. It seems that when you initiate Google Takeout and instruct the export of everything in Google Drive it includes all of my photos too, as Google used to present these as a folder (and still do, although it doesn’t update). The folder isn’t displayed as something that you can unselect but selecting everything else seems to exclude it. Downloading the takeout files is a complete PITA on my internet connection, the files just seem to timeout and fail but once they are down it’s fine. Helpfully Google converts files from their format into Microsoft and those files that I used to use frequently still seem to work. I haven’t yet deleted all of these and am particularly curious if it will let you delete the Google Photos folder, once I have everything backed up I will be deleting everything here.

The one Google service I completely overlooked was YouTube which I will still need to use. I don’t have many YouTube videos but I do have some, erasing them from the internet would be a little frustrating. What I managed to do in the end was to move my channel to a new brand channel called ‘Laurence Andrews YouTube’. This moved all of my videos and subscriptions into a separate channel but retained comments/likes and permalinks. I then created a new personal google account (google@andrews.io) and added this new account as an owner of the new brand channel. This seems to have worked quite nicely, I am signed out of my G-Suite account and still have access to all my content and surprisingly still have my subscriptions too. The final thing to do is to make the new personal google account the primary owner of the new brand channel, this can only be done once it’s been an owner for 7 days, which seems to be a safeguard Google have implemented. Of course, I will still need to have a google account, but there’s not much I can do about that and at the end of the day, it’s going to be difficult to live without YouTube! Here’s a link to moving channels

Moving Photos has been a whole thing, I have shared a blog about the process I used to export from Google and ingest into Apple. Fair to say that this was one of the most painful things I’ve done in a long time. Good news is that I am almost there, Apple now has essentially all of my pictures and once I go through the few that are remaining it’ll all be in one place. This makes me very happy. I look forward to some product improvements with Apple Photos, it’s absolutely better but it’s crying out for better integration into the “Family” functions within Apple. I can share Albums with Victoria but I can’t make that the default for most things, which I’d prefer. The lack of Folder management for Shared albums is annoying too. Another function that would be really helpful is to store a full copy of my library on an external drive but an iCloud optimised library on my local storage. This isn’t a problem yet, but will be if the album grows much more. Certainly a consideration when buying a new mac too, as the internal storage needs to be able to manage the full library.

Aside from the Google shift I have signed up to Backblaze in addition to managing TimeMachine for backups. I’ve been putting this off because of the cost, I have so many subscriptions to services I just couldn’t justify another one but with Google about to go away and save £17 a month (1TB storage + 2 G Suite licences) it makes sense to sign up and cover ourselves. Backblaze has been doing it’s thing on both mine and Victoria’s computers for the last three days, our piddly 6Mbps upload is frustrating for things like this. Still, I think we should almost be there by this time next week. To help it along I spent a good while going through my mac and deleting a load of stuff that I don’t need any more (I have a crazy amount of screenshots and screen recordings stored) and got rid of all the one time applications I installed and no longer need - including Chrome! I did the same on my iPhone too, no more Google things there any more.

All in all, a busy week or so but happy that there is some order in my digital life. :) Now, back to work.

Coronavirus Update Two

Well, so much for hoping that this would all be over by August…! Welcome to instalment three in the Coronavirus blog series. Since the last blog things were slowly beginning to open up following the original spring lockdown and while life certainly hasn’t been normal, it has become the ‘new normal’ to use one of my most disliked phrases. The rough timeline since my last post is that on the 10th of May gyms and shops were permitted to open back up and a few months later in July, pubs too reopened along with the welcome news that families can once again visit and stay. Like many others, we were a little hesitant to stick our heads out above the fox hole, but after a long few months of what had essentially been isolation from the outside world we certainly weren’t complaining.

The latest news that prompts this post is that following a sharp increase in cases, dubbed ‘The Second Wave’, we are once again being plunged into another full-scale nationwide lockdown, set to begin on Thursday 5th November. This is not a great surprise, many had predicted from the start that while things may subside in the summer, it’ll all be back in the autumn and winter, as people being to spend more time indoors and flout distancing rules. I was beginning to hope that the threat of a nationwide lockdown had gone, replaced with the very-recently-announced regional three-tier system. It seems that despite the government having months to come up with that concept it was all just a bit too late. Things are set to be a little different this time around, most significantly because schools are to remain open - most likely because of the exam result fiasco that Owen was impacted by. How keeping schools open will change the duration of this, only time will tell, but since it’s now evident that this isn’t going away quickly it seems to be the only sensible course of action.

In terms of statistics, things are all a little different from the first post, in the UK there have now been 46,717 deaths and while that number isn’t climbing rapidly, it is expected to very soon. The death rate naturally tags behind the case rate and that is currently off the chart high, somewhat attributed to improved testing. There has been noticeable improvements to testing over the past months, it now exists and does so on scale, it doesn’t seem to be perfect, but it’s there. Victoria and I have both had tests done, I had an antibody test privately though work (which was negative) and had a got-it-or-not before I went into hospital for my ear (more on that later). The antibody was a blood test and the got-it-or-not was a cotton bud to the brain - which was incredibly unpleasant. To our knowledge, neither of us have contracted the virus and we haven’t shown any symptoms either. We have however noticed that as a result of wearing a mask, sanitising our hands and reducing use of public transport we have basically not been sick at all, no colds, coughs or stomach bugs in this house!

So yes, lockdown 2.0, frustrating news, but we are ready again to do our part. We’re stocked up with food, have all the creature comforts we could ask for and a 4K UHD subscription to Netflix. It’s not like I’ve got to pack up off to Belgium to fight on the front line, we’re sitting at home binge-watching box sets and smiling on Zoom calls, not exactly a massive hardship. But we’re very lucky, we both have our jobs and are able to take some punches, there are people out there that are suffering following the loss of their job or similar and I certainly feel for them. This time round the lockdown is going to be a bit more difficult, I remember remarking in March that “It could be worse, we could be in lockdown over winter” - a dog walk in the morning March sunshine was something to look forward to, the same in November’s wind and rain will be a whole lot less novel. Small things like that make a difference and without them it’s going to be a struggle, we’ll very much be on submarine HMS Galleon Way, with no immediate plans to resurface. We do however have Christmas to look forward to, in whatever form that may take, it’ll be one to remember, that’s for sure. Oh and the US Election is this week too and that is certain to result in some entertainment.

Godspeed.

Coronavirus Update

It’s been 50 days since I first posted about Coronavirus and it’s fair to say that in that time, the world has changed. 50 days ago there were 289 deaths in the UK and yesterday’s daily government briefing announced the total is now 31,589 - which puts our little island nation second in numbers only to the USA. Italy was at the centre of the crisis and is now barely even mentioned in the news. There have been plenty of significant events in those 50 days, an emergency hospital was built inside the Excel centre, Boris Johnson was diagnosed with the virus spending time in intensive care and the Queen made a historic and emotional televised speech to the nation.

This whole situation is now certainly one of the most notable and impactful events to occur in my lifetime, it’s up there with the news stories such as the death of Diana, the turn of the millennium, the September 11th attacks, the 2007-08 global financial crisis, the birth of Prince George and more recently, the UK choosing to leave the EU. More significantly than all of those though is what may come in the future, the IMF has projected that this event will trigger the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The government is paying the wages for almost 20% of the employed workforce through a furlough scheme and providing loans and grants left right and centre in order to try and protect the economy. We’re living in interesting and scary times, but I’m thankful that everyone close to us is safe and for now life goes - albeit in lockdown.

Victoria and I have been very fortunate, we’ve both continued to work and are busier than ever. There have been some small changes at Colliers and although the firm announced reasonable Q1 2020 results, the projection is for a reduction in revenue between 15% and 25% in 2020. At work I continue the effort of improving remote working technology for the business, with good success in adopting Microsoft Teams next month we will retire Skype for Business, a big step forward. The past month has been really rewarding speaking to colleagues across the company, hearing how they are adapting to work and how the technology we’ve implemented has allowed them to continue to do business.

The lifestyle change over the past few months has been interesting too. A few years back I was working from home full time and while it worked, I didn’t love it. I enjoyed and respected the freedom but the hours were debilitating. I lived and breathed work, it became the centre of my life, waking up at silly o’clock and grinding late into the evening took a big toll on my mood and wellbeing. Changing to a 9-to-5 office job was the adjustment in life that I needed and one of the key reasons for moving to Colliers. The change took some getting used to, I still don’t enjoy getting the train every day but I do enjoy almost everything else, I love my job and the people I work with.

With the virus, Colliers like almost all office-based companies enacted a work from home policy. I was a little nervous, fearful of seeing a repeat of the experience at the last place - but conscious that things were both temporary and necessary. I’ve learned over the past few months that the problem wasn’t working from home, it was working in the wrong way and with the wrong hours. In complete contrast, working with a regional team with most colleagues located only a few hours East, having support over deliverables and encouragement to separate working hours has made all the difference. Victoria and I walk Dexter at 8:30 before work and at 17:30 after work, separating the day. I’ve been busy, really busy and some days I don’t get everything done that I had hoped, but it waits for tomorrow. When I check my emails in the evening, and I don’t often, there’s nothing unread to lure me back to my desk. The removal of the train commute has given me hours back in my day which I spend cooking, walking, running or with Victoria - it’s made me happier, healthier, more appreciative and much less stressed. Not perfectly healthy, I’ve had more beer recently than I should but I’ve enjoyed drinking that beer, I don’t overdo it and end up on the last train home. I’m hopeful that once things are back to normal, whatever that looks like, there is an increased element of working from home. I’m enjoying it and making the most of the time.

Aside from work, we’ve been doing our best to make the most of being at home, its been good, I feel closer than ever to Victoria and am enjoying being away from all the distractions in the world. It’s made me appreciate things more, the things I’ve done and the freedom we all used to take for granted. It sounds a bit nuts, but when you go to the pub, restaurant or the gym sometimes you’re just there - when actually the value in all those things is who you’re there with. I’ve been thinking a lot about the trip Owen and I took last year, it was such a fantastic, amazing adventure, we were so lucky that it worked out. The trip now is much more than the journey to me, the countries we visited or the trains we took, it was the time we spent together, the stupid jokes and the weird people we met. I don’t know when something like that trip will be possible again, but I know I’m going to appreciate it all the more when it is.

Despite the lockdown, I had the most fantastic #StayHome 30th birthday. We opened presents in bed and took things easy, it was fantastic. This year I was very lucky with presents, Victoria treated me to a stay in Spitbank Fort in the Solent, a surprise she kept for many months. The original plan was to be there for our birthday, but we’ve rescheduled for August and are hoping that this is all over by then. It looks fantastic, you take a boat over and then stay there until it’s time to go home - totally up my street and I can’t wait to be sitting there with her enjoying a nice dinner together. The weather was beautiful on the Sunday and we spent time sitting in the garden drinking beer and playing ‘Who Knows Where?’, another great gift. I enjoyed wearing my summer shirt which I bought (for too much money) while we were on honeymoon in Malaysia, I thought it complimented the celebratory moustache well.

The week after our birthday weekend we had originally planned to travel to Glasgow, unfortunately, that was cancelled but instead, we spent time at home. I planted up some seeds which are coming up to three weeks now, most of them are doing great. The Cos lettuce is doing particularly well as are the tomatoes. I had almost written off the tomatoes because they didn’t surface for almost two weeks, I think you’re supposed to dry them out first. Speaking of tomatoes, the food and supermarket situation is much better now. Almost everything is available once again and food shops are open and being reasonably sensible about how many people they let in. Going shopping is actually pretty great, yes you have to queue but parking is easy and when you get in the shop there aren’t hoards of people.

This past weekend was the 75th anniversary of VE Day, celebrating the end of the war against Nazi Germany in Europe. We put up the Union Jack, made some bunting and had some drinks in the front garden with the neighbours. It was refreshing and demonstrated that celebrating things at home can be just as fun as going out or travelling. We got rather sozzled towards the end of the day but had a rather lovely time. I vaguely recall carving a chicken for the dog at about 10pm! Oh and yes, I know that my flag is the wrong way round (wide white top, broadside up) - too late, I’d already attached it to the frame.

Coronavirus

The past few weeks have been quite extraordinary. The current Coronavirus pandemic has begun to affect our lives in the way nothing like it ever has before - and I suspect that we’re very much still at the start line.

on Friday (20th March 2020) in a live TV address to the nation the prime minister, Boris Johnson directed that as soon as reasonably possible all pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants should be closed to the public. I had settled in my mind that the point at which the pubs are closed is when things change from being a concern to being something quite serious.

Since we got back from New York in February the news has been an endless stream of information on the Virus. It has been headline after headline of infection and death statistics, event cancellations, speculations and nonsense from the US President, Donald Trump. Brexit which was set to continue to plague news stories for yet another year has seldom been mentioned, with a brief exception for when the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier confirmed he had tested positive.

Right now each day reveals a new record, change or policy: - Monday 16th: The PM advises everyone to avoid non-essential travel and contact with others, encouraging home working where possible. - Tuesday 17th: The Chancellor announced a £330bn support package for businesses. All nationwide cinema chains announce closures. The NHS postpones all non-urgent operations. - Wednesday 18th: The PM announces that all schools are to be closed except for children of key workers. This year’s Glastonbury Festival (it’s 50th anniversary) is to be cancelled. - Thursday 19th: The Bank of England base rate was reduced to 0.10%, the lowest rate in its history. - Friday 20th: The Chancellor announces further measures including the government paying 80% of wages for those who are now out of work as a result of the Virus.

Ultimately, the country still thinks much of this is a novelty - but the UK has only suffered just 289 deaths. Many people over the weekend were ignoring advice to stay at home, some were even relaxing at the beach in Whitstable! Conversely, Italy which has been severely impacted suffered 793 deaths in just a single day on Friday despite the entire country being on a government-enforced lockdown with all access to the outdoors forbidden. Things are set to get worse before they get better.

On a personal note, Victoria and I are at home and have been since we last went to the pub on Tuesday 17th. Work continues for us both, I have been working on the deployment of Microsoft Teams to Colliers’ in EMEA and Victoria is working on managing cases remotely for the CCG.

Thankfully we have plenty of food and drink at home so will hopefully be able to see things through without too much trouble. Let’s hope for the best. Expect more blog posts to come.