Monday, April 23, 2007

Sidebar: The Sugared Almond Syndrome

When we were getting hitched in Sardinia, we followed the custom of presenting our guests with bonbonniere as a memento of the day. They were basically little silk bags of sugared almonds tied up with a nice ribbon and tiny dried flowers. Why? I have no idea. It was the done thing, and we (to our eternal regret) did the done thing till it was done to death. These tokens were received with smiles and thanks by the Italian side, and with ohs, ahs and the occasional huh? by the Irish/English contingent. One of our English friends was to be plagued for days afterwards over the phone by her mother, because she made the mistake of recounting the Tale of the Sugared Almonds.

"But why sugared almonds, Sheila!" came the plaintiff telephonic cry from somewhere in middle England. The poor woman was desperate to know. Clearly she felt that there was some great meaning behind the gesture, some wisdom of the ages, some lost secret of antiquity, some eye-watering truth-and-beauty, wrapped up in silk and sugar, it's significance lost to the common locals despite - or perhaps because of - it's very popularity.

All perfect bollocks, of course.

They're sweeties. "Thanks for coming, thanks for the pressie, now go home and practice my new spouse's foreign-sounding name and see if you can master it by our 10th anniversary". That's what it means.

But our friend's mother saw something else in it, and felt that as it was of another culture, it should be imbued with an import that it really didn't deserve. I've seen it exhibited time and time again in various forms, the Sugared Almond Syndrome. It's harmless enough but it does remind me of the way US tourists coming here to Ireland would use the work quaint to describe all kinds of crap. Oh look - he's taking out his teeth and lifting his lower lip around his nose! How quaint. (That wasn't quaint of course - it was evidence of poverty and a dilapidated mental health system that hasn't improved much since - though as least the quality of US tourist has).

So - a shit-covered toilet is a shit-covered toilet. I can find them here without looking too hard, so I won't be wallowing in excrement elsewhere in some vain attempt to get closer to the culture. And a sugar-covered almond is a sugar-covered almond, and assuming I don't find it in one of the aforementioned toilets, well, I think I might just eat it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

China: Plane or Train

According to the Rough Guide, the price of a Soft Sleeper on the train (example pictured below) is about the same as a flight. I'm really tempted to fly in order to see more in the 3 weeks we'll be there, perhaps taking the train just once or twice. I have to confess that the main problems with the train is the toilets. From what I've learned, it's a case of 'first up, best dressed' - the soft sleepers don't have their own toilets, and if you want to be more sure of a clean start to the day, you need to get there first. Otherwise, all bets are off.

It wouldn't be a big deal for me if I were traveling on my own, but with wife and kids, the levels to which I'm prepared to descend are limited.

There's also the consideration of time saved. Instead of a 12 hour overnight trip to Xian from Beijing, for example, we're talking about a 2 hour flight. Perhaps a mix would be best - sticking with the train where I'm fairly sure the quality and cleanliness is likely to be high.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Home Swapping

One of the ways of minimizing the cost of a trip like this (I'm summarize them all in a post later in the year) was the idea of home swaps. Up until recently it's been very much a theoretical proposition, though one that is built in to our budget! Having looked at a number of different sites, we had been slowly coming round to the idea that it would remain theoretical. It seemed that there was no really good match out there for us, and in any case the awkwardness of our requirements would have excluded us from normal home swappers.

But we took a few pictures of the house, and signed up to homelink. I had heard them on the radio a few months back, and I liked the sound of them. It's an international group (they claim to be the biggest) but very importantly each country has its own local grouping and management. This is what makes the difference. I was able to pick up the phone and talk to Marie in Dublin and get all my questions answered before I decided to commit. Due to a minor problem with their web site (don't use Firefox) I couldn't pay online, but Marie went ahead and uploaded my profile (trusting me to ring back the next morning with my credit card details).

I hadn't even made it into the office today when a phone call came in from our first potential match in Australia. It didn't quite suit, but the important thing about homelink is that if you have the time, you can enter into correspondence with any other member and tell them in detail what you're looking for. Because we have still got 8 months to before we're off, I'm feeling a little more confident that we'll find something to fill the three gaps in our programme: Sydney, NZ North Island (tbd) and NZ South Island (also tbd).

More on this as I learn about it.

Kids Passports Part II

Just a quick update to say that getting the kids' passports, including German-born Nina's, was a piece of cake. The only glitch was an error that the Passport Office made in setting Sara's date of birth, but they fixed it free of charge and free of fuss.

The result is a pair of all-grown-up passports for a 6 and 8 year old, complete with their own rather absurd, but cute, signatures.

Full marks for the Passport Office.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Review of Jared Diamond’s Book "Collapse"

This book makes gripping and important reading. It is balanced and builds a cohesive model of the parameters that can predict our own success or failure as a society.

Review of product: Jared Diamond’s "Collapse".

Rated as 4/5 on Apr 03 2007 by Brendan Lawlor

One of the really refreshing things about this book and this author is that he is playing to nobody’s tune but his own. He acknowledges from the outset that what he has to say will please neither those who assume that modern technological society is inherently wicked, nor those who feel it is blameless for our current state of affairs, ecologically speaking.

The book charts the success or failure of various human societies in the past and the modern age, compares them, and asks the question “What makes the difference between sociatal life and death?”. The author extrapolates 6 variables from past societies that, he argues, can be used to predict our own fortunes.

Most of the content is, it has to be said, disturbing. But Diamond insists that the jury is still out in our own case. He offers, as an appendix, a common sense list of things that every single one of us can do to play our part in addressing current problems that could lead, if unchecked, to the demise of our society as we know it.

I’m really glad that I read this book, and it’s one of the few books that I will undoubtedly re-read.

[Note that this blog entry was published through an exciting new (still in beta) service called Louder Voice - well worth checking out.]

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Cool place to stay in Chengdu, Sichuan.

Somebody needs to explain to me how travel worked before the internet. Actually I'm well old enough to recall, but I've blocked those memories for my own protection.

Thanks to a brief perusal of TravelPod I came across Sim's Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu. I wasn't planning to decide on places to stay this far in advance, but I'll make an exception in this case. Instead of staying in a standard big faceless hotel (we'll be seeing enough of those in Beijing and Shanghai I suspect - and to be honest we'll probably be damn glad of the familiarity of those places when we're awash in a sea of culture shock and jet lag) we'll be staying in an altogether friendlier setting. The pictures of the family room look great, and the price (€20 per night for that family room) is superb. These guys have a travel agency as well, and were able to give me advice (and prices) about how to travel to see the Panda breeding zoo near Chengdu, as well as the giant Buddha of Leshan. They'll also be able to set us on our way to the Yangtze river (we'll probably get the hydrofoil to Yichang and the train onwards to Shanghai).

I've already swapped a few emails with these guys and they seem friendly and on the ball. I'm feeling very much vindicated in the decision to go that little bit further West.