Bits and Pieces

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Heading to Europe

As you'll know if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, for the last year or so my partner and I have been in visa exile in Bangkok, Thailand.  Unable to return to Mongolia (her home), I stole her away and settled for a while in Thailand, home of lax visa requirements and reasonably priced beer.

A little later this year, though, we'll finally have enough money to choose our home based not on price and visa requirements but our own preference, and we couldn't be more excited.  I'm from the UK and the missus used to live in Paris, so we've decided to head to Europe for six months or so to catch up with family and friends.

We won't just visit the UK and France, though.  Since my girlfriend's visa will allow her to travel to every country in Europe we're gonna take a little tour around the place.  Just recently a few of my friends have taken holidays in Javea, Spain, and they've been raving about the diving down there.  The sounds like a good place to start the summer (we're both avid divers).

After that, who knows?  We'll eventually work our way up to Paris and then head on to the UK to spend Christmas with my family, after which we'll explore the winter wonderland of Scandinavia.  I've been reading a perfect travel destinations blog post about North Cape, the northern tip of Europe, and that sounds like as good a place as any to end the trip.

So, six months in Europe and only a few destinations decided on.  Any recommendations?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Paper Shredding Randomness

Procrastination takes many forms, but for me I've always had a solid fall back when I'm trying to avoid working on something really important: I research topics that have no real world application for me.

I wonder who else does this.   Who looks at a messy room and a basket full of dirty laundry and then turns to Wikipedia to waste two hours reading about the world's longest suspension bridges or some such trivia?  I've been doing it years, and it rarely adds up to time well spent.

Today, though, I finally used one of my 'research' bouts for something useful.  A few months ago I was trying to put off an important writing job, and I spent an entertaining couple of hours learning all about home paper shredders.  Before that day I assumed all shredders were pretty much the same - they cut your documents into fine vertical strips.  What I learned, though, is that there are many different types of paper shredders that each come in at different price points and offer varying degrees of security.

So, when I was out shopping for a shredder today I came across a smarmy salesman who tried to convince me that a cross-cut shredder was the creme de la creme of shredding technology, which justified the ridiculous price he was trying to charge me.  I live in Bangkok right now, so each shopping trip involves a lot of tiresome haggling, and it always helps to know a little about the products.

So, when I came back at the salesman with the fact that cross-cut is in fact inferior to micro-cut in the shredding world I managed to beat him down a further $30.  I went on and on about the fact that a micro cut shredder can turn a sheet of A4 paper into 12,000 pieces of fine, unreadable trash, and eventually he decided he was no match for me.

Score one for the procrastinators!

Friday, March 09, 2012

Back to Mongolia and a Wood Burning Stove

Well, after many months living in balmy Bangkok my partner and I will soon to be returning to icy Mongolia, home of the minus 40 degree winters.  We'll be spending about a year there this time, presuming my visa comes through in order, so once the relatively warm summer is over we'll be settling in for many months of extreme cold, tucked away in our little house with nothing but the fire to keep us toasty.

In advance of heading up there we've been looking at places to rent in the city.  We'd usually stay in one of the many Soviet apartment blocks in Ulaanbaatar, but after the pain in the ass of going without hot water for two weeks last year we've decided to rent a real house for the year - one with its own water supply, generator and a couple of wood burning stoves.

It's the stoves I'm most excited about.  Mongolian central heating leaves much to be desired, and for much of the winter we're usually wrapped up in blankets even inside our apartment.  A wood burning stove, though, will keep us going all through the winter provided we keep feeding it fuel.

It's a little odd right now to be sitting on the balcony of my Bangkok apartment, sweating at 9PM in humid 30 degree heat while reading an article titled 'how to clean a wood burning stove'.  This is a skill that would never in a million years be required in Thailand, but I suspect it'll come in very handy in the snowbound nation a couple of thousand miles to the north

Friday, February 24, 2012

Shopping in Bangkok

It's shopping day today.  Here in Bangkok we have to plan our shopping carefully, though.  It's a military operation, you see.  Back in the UK a trip to the local Tesco would involve nothing more complicated than hopping in the car, driving a mile and deciding how many bananas I'm really going to eat before they go all mushy.

Here, though, it's a different story.  The Bangkok streets aren't well equipped for the average foreign grocery shopper.  7-11s can be found on every corner, with a wide enough range of food to keep a man going for a few days (though you get bored of ramen noodles and prepackaged sandwiches pretty quickly).  Fruit, veg and meat markets abound, but as a non-Thai I find it a challenge to negotiate prices, weights and exactly how many bananas we're talking about here (and are those really bananas?  They look more like plantains, and I'm not sure of the Thai word).

In any case, Tesco ad Big C are the only real options for a proper grocery shop.  The closest stores, though, are an hour away by two trains and two 15 minute walks between stations, so the logistics of carrying home a heavy load can be... difficult.

What makes it worse is that my girlfriend doesn't seem to understand the idea that we'll have to carry everything she throws in the cart.  Last time we went shopping she bought a set of car seat covers for girls and a Canada Goose Freestyle vest.  It's ridiculous.

So, I'm sitting here with a double whisky planning the shopping list.  I think I may need the help of the A-Team.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Live in Spain

My partner and I have lived in Bangkok for the last several months.  Before that we lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and before that Bangkok again.  Before that I lived pretty much everywhere, bumming around everywhere between China and Europe, stopping off for a spell in the strange 'Stans of Central Asia.  I'm no stranger to living outside my comfort zone, is what I'm saying.

Some people, though, are afraid of leaving the comfortable womb of their home country to experience the wider world, and many don't even bother to get a passport.  I have several friends who have never left their shores, and while I always say 'each to his own' I can't help but feel a little sorry for them.

I understand them, too, in a way.  It's rarely pleasant to find yourself in a situation as alien and unfathomable as, say, a government office in downtown Barcelona.  The last time I was in Spain I parked my beloved mid-90s BMW by a gym in Barceloneta, spent a weekend admiring the Gaudi architecture only to return to find every window of the car shattered.  I spent a day shuttling between police stations and local gov. offices to get the necessary paperwork to claim on my insurance.

That was bad enough, but imagine living in Spain and going through it every day (not the car damage, but the admin, of course).  It can be stressful, so it's nice that people have made guides about how to live in Spain.  These things are a Godsend for foreigners looking to spend their retirement in a warm climate filled with sangria and tapas.  They explain the ins and outs of dealing with visas, real estate agents and other troubling annoyances of an otherwise peaceful life.

How to Live in Spain takes all the hassle out of expatriating yourself to this beautiful, welcoming country.  It guides you through the process and helps you avoid the pitfalls of immigration.  We need more guides like this.  Bravo.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Leo Traits a Result of School Year Cutoff?

Those who know me will tell you that I don't believe in astronomy.  I don't believe the stars and planets have any effect on my personality or any impact on my actions.  Simple as that.

However, I do have a theory that the month of our birth has an effect on our outlook on life.  It's nothing to do with the stars, and everything to do with the way school years are organised.  You see, I was born on July 23rd, right on the cusp between Leo and Cancer, and in the UK that means I was one of the youngest kids in class.  The cutoff point for the school year is August 1st, so if I'd been born just a week or so later I would have grown up as one of the oldest kids in the year below.

Now think for a moment about how that would have affected the development of my personality.  I would have been among the biggest in class rather than the smallest, for a start.  As it happens I grew into a timid, retiring sort, surrounded by bigger boys and much more mature girls.  A difference of a week would have flipped that on its head.  Maybe I would have been better at sports, competing with smaller kids rather than those who had up to a year of development head start on me.  Who knows?

In any case, that's my theory.  When we talk about things like Leo traits - specifically, that Leos gravitate naturally towards leadership roles - I believe it's because the average Leo, especially in the UK (I'm unsure of the cutoff dates elsewhere), will have spent his or her formative years as one of the oldest in their class.  They naturally adopt the same sort of leadership role you can see in Ralph in Lord of the Flies: confident, assured and (occasionally) a little arrogant and cocksure.

Just a theory, of course, with as much chance of being false as true.  What do you think?

After Dinner Entertainment

There comes a certain point in a man's life at which the way he spends his evenings shifts dramatically.  In my twenties my nights would be spent in the local bar, shooting pool and drinking beers with friends who had no obligations more pressing than beating the hangover enough to work a production line.  Life was simple, and we lived from paycheck to paycheck without a care in the world (provided the pay stretched until Friday).

Today, though, things are different.  My social life rarely leads me back to the old bar with its bewitching aromas of stale beer and cheap perfume.  Instead I find myself planning my downtime weeks and months in advance.  My evenings are controlled by RSVPs, long weeks of phone calls and, for some reason, everything must go through my wife before I hear about it.

It's not that I miss the old days of carefree drinking, you understand.  Well, I do, but my life now is so much better than it used to be that I don't wish to return to it.  My evening entertainment right now is just different.  No better, no worse.

Occasionally lots of fun, though.  We tend to go to a lot of awards ceremonies, charity events and dinners in honour of this and that.  I'm a Rotarian and my wife works for a high-profile law firm, so there's no shortage of events to attend.  Every so often we'll find the organisers have arranged fantastic after dinner entertainment, and I think you'd be surprised as to how damned good it can be.  Back in my bar days I'd never dream that I'd enjoy an evening in a ballroom watching a ventriloquist, but today I find myself eagerly awaiting the announcement of who will provide the corporate entertainment at any upcoming event.

Hell, maybe I'm getting old.  As a young man I was satisfied with a cold beer and a pool table.  Today, in my early forties, I want a puppet show and a magician, damn it!

I'll still take a beer, though.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jailbreaking the iPad 2

I've really been getting into hidden object games recently (for an example, check out Hidden Chronicles on Facebook).  They're a great time waster, and when you're stuck on a train for hours on end they're a great way to make it a little more tolerable.

I got a new iPad 2 the other week in Bangkok, and two days later I found myself on a train to Laos on a visa run.  The problem is that money's a little tight these days, and I just didn't have the money in the bank to pay for a whole new set of games for the new iPad.  For some reason I wasn't allowed to simply copy the games from my iPhone to may iPad, despite the fact that I'd already paid for them once.

So yeah, 12 hours before getting the train I was desperately looking for a way to jailbreak iPad 2 in order to download a few games to pass the time.  After a few hours of running around the Bangkok electronics markets to find someone to do the job for me I finally returned home and found a piece of software that allowed me to do it in 5 minutes (you can check the link for the site).  After hours of downloading games I managed to get enough to last the 20 hour train journey.  Score!

email soldiers to show your support

Over the last ten years or so there has been an ongoing groundswell of supports for our men and women in uniform.  Before the 9-11 attacks we didn't really spare a thought for our soldiers, engaged in small, low profile squabbles in little known countries around the world.  Iraq and Afghanistan, though, brought our soldiers once again to the fore, and every so often it's nice to offer a little appreciation.

These days you can email soldiers to offer your support, thank them for a job well done or simply to chat with and get to know one of our brave young men and women working to keep us safe and secure.  An international pen pal is a great thing to have... while you get the benefit of chatting to someone doing a difficult, dangerous job in a far flung land they get the opportunity to catch up on events back home, relax at the end of a long day and escape their difficult circumstances, if only for a little while.

We love the idea of emailing soldiers, and we think everyone should be doing it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Hello Kitty Car Accessories

I've always hated Hello Kitty Car accessories, so when my girlfriend arrived with her brand new Toyota last week I was horrified to see that she'd decked out the interior of the car with seat covers, fuzzy dice, floor mats and all sorts of other things, all carrying the Hello Kitty brand.

Now I can't go near the car without seeing that blank, horrifying cat face staring back at me from every surface.  I love having the car, but I can't bring myself to drive it over to a friend's house for fear that I'll be rightfully called 'whipped'. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

Car Seat Covers for Girls

After two years without a car we finally picked up a beat up old Toyota yesterday.  We don't really have the money to pay for gas, insurance and everything else you need to get on the road, but we were so sick of riding the Bangkok BTS every day that we splashed out a little.  The BTS costs about 3 dollars a day, so driving around the city is sure to cost us much, much more.  Oh well. 

We did splash out on one thing, though.  My girlfriend is a huge fan of pink, girly things, and since I convinced her to cut back on her shopping in order to afford a car she backed me into a corner and got me to agree to buy a couple of car seat covers for girls.  I'm now the proud owner of a pair of Hello Kitty car seat covers.  Oh dear. 

Now, I'm no fan of Hello Kitty.  I spent a couple of months living in Tokyo in 2010, and that experience was enough to turn me off the sugary, oh so sweet and innocent phenomenon.  I'd just as soon not have Hello Kitty car seat covers in my Toyota, but I guess this is what happens when you stumble into a relationship.  It all starts great, then you start to compromise who you are for the sake of your girlfriend.  Before you know it you're driving around Bangkok in a beat up second hand car with Hello Kitty kissing your back. 

Well, it's better than getting the train.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Finally Learning Thai

Well, I've been living in Asia for three years now and I think it's high time I learned a language other than English.

Now don't get me wrong.  In the last three years I've picked up enough Thai, Mandarin and Mongolian to get by from day to day, and my Mongolian girlfriend is often impressed by my command of her language (in that polite, patronising way that people who speak three languages fluently display when a dullard such as myself manages to order a meal in broken Mongolian).  Unfortunately, my attempts at anything more advanced than 'restaurant' and 'taxi' language - i.e. enough to order a meal and get home by cab - have fallen flat.  

I've recently been looking into language learning methods, and I've come across a few promising examples of software for language learning.  We're living in Bangkok for the next six months or so, so I've registered for a course to learn conversational Thai in three months.  

So, check back around April and we'll see how I'm going.  Will I be talking Thai like a native, or will I be bumbling along in broken phrases interspersed with English?  Who knows?  Only time will tell. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Freezing in Mongolia

God damn, it's been cold recently.  I've spent the last few days packing for Thailand.

I really want to get out to exercise, but short of wearing my Canada Goose Freestyle vest beneath my Columbia Bugaboo parka (a bulky combination, to be sure) I can barely make it out the front door!  It's just ridiculous, and I can't wait until next week when we move back to Bangkok.

The next four months in Bangkok are going to be the time to get in good shape.  Our apartment block has a gym and two pools, and the bar scene sucks for anyone over the age of 25.  I'll be giving up the beer in favour of the pool most nights, and I don't think I'll miss the bars too much.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Addicted to Gun Games

Right now I'm living in Bangkok, busily researching for a book we're writing for first time visitors to South East Asia.  It's hard work, but it should eventually pay off.

Unfortunately I'm being side tracked every day, from two different directions.  First, the apartment block in which I live has just reopened the pool after a few months of renovation, and it has one of those crazy glass walls that let you swim to the edge of the building and look out on the city from underwater, 25 storeys above the street.  It's pretty wild.

Second, I just can't seem to stop playing these damned gun games.  Every time I sit down to type up a few notes or do a little work on a chapter I black out for three hours.  When I finally wake up I realise I've played several hundred games.  My scores are through the roof, but my productivity has never been lower.

What's worse, I just discovered a whole new section of the site focused on zombie games.  I.  Just.  Can't.  RESIST!  I'll be playing these for weeks, emailing lame excuses to my publisher, and before you know it I'll be stuck out in Bangkok without a book deal but with an awesome high score on 'All We Need is Brain'.

Oh well.  I've made my bed, and now I must lie in it.

We're Moving to Vancouver!

Well, my girlfriend and I are finally looking to settle down.  I'm British, she's Mongolian, and neither of our countries want anything to do with the other.  Fortunately, I also have a Canadian passport, so as soon as we get married later in the year we'll be heading over the Vancouver to find a place to call home.

I'm a little scared about the prospect of buying a house, but a Canadian friend of mine assures me that Vancouver realtors aren't nearly as pushy as those from the UK.  All the same, I hate dealing with salesmen of any stripe, and I'd much prefer it if they'd just hand me the door key, point me in the direction of the house and send me on my way.  If I have any questions, I'll call.

Anyhoo, we've been looking online and the prospects so far are looking pretty good.  Naturally, the property prices are much higher than we've found in Ulaanbaatar and Bangkok, but then again it's possible to earn so much more in Vancouver.  I guess it all comes out in the wash.  Right now I earn just enough to afford a nice condo in Central Bangkok, but back in Vancouver I'd expect to earn at least twice my current salary.  Should be enough to buy a decent property, fingers crossed
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