Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Friday 10 September 2021

Expedition Cardiff

We now interrupt our special features to resume our regular service...

That's right, a TRAVEL POST ! WOOOO !

For obvious reasons, it's been 18 months since I was last in the UK. This is by far the longest I've ever been away. Although living a gilded cage is incomparably better than living in a dung heap, it's still... not ideal. I love working from home, and long may this pandemic-induced trend continue. But that doesn't want to mean I want to be literally caged up here forever.

Travelling in times of a pandemic is a bit different to normal. The worse part wasn't the new procedures themselves, but the disorganised mess of figuring out exactly what the regulations are in the first place - both on the Czech and British sides. In the end I had to email both governments to determine what I should do, because both had confusing instructions though for different reasons. The British had a nice, clear website with, easy-to-follow, contradictory instructions and webpages that were updated out of step with each other. The Czechs had a horrendously over-complicated flowchart that was plastered with random symbols for some reason. Fortunately, somewhat incongruously, both responded promptly and cleared up this mess very easily.

The procedures I had to follow were :

  • Book flights. EasyJet have not yet resumed their Bristol service, so this meant a Ryanair flight through Stansted and a National Express bus to Cardiff. This was all very cheap, but added an extra 7 hours (!) to the journey. And the extra complication of finding the different route in the first place, of course.
  • Get a negative test result within the 72 hours preceding travel to the UK. This meant searching for a host of testing centres until I found one that definitely gave me the required documentation. I paid the equivalent of about £20 for this, which I found out on the day that I needn't have done since two tests per month are covered by Czech health insurance.
  • Book a test for day 2 after arriving in the UK. This was relatively easy since the Welsh government insists on using one particular supplier, but it cost a stupidly expensive £88. Which is utter bollocks because that's the same price they used to charge for two tests.
  • Fill in the UK's passenger locator form, which is easy but needlessly tedious. For some silly reason you can't do this until the last two days before you leave, which is irritating and pointless. The Czech equivalent on the way back asks for all the same information but can be completed in a small fraction of the time simply because it has a better, more concise layout. It also doesn't try and make you feel like a criminal in the way the British one does with its constant veiled threats.
  • Print out all this documentation plus my EU Digital Covid Certificate (a.k.a. vaccine passport), in order to avoid the need for 10 days of self-isolation. This meant a trip to the office on the day of departure.
All this made me considerably stressed. I'm far more sympathetic now to people who complain that things are complicated : individual steps really aren't complicated at all (the concept of the "amber list" is hardly the double slit experiment, for goodness sake), but combine the whole mass with different, constantly-varying rules for different countries and overly-elaborate government websites and actually yes, it is rather unpleasant. Why can't there just be a simple web-based form ? Input your country, vaccination status, etc. and have it spit out the customised rules for your travel, with warnings about what to do if the status were to change. It ought to keep an unpaid government intern busy for all of twenty minutes. Like, say, this one.

(Incidentally, I thought long and hard about whether to travel at all. In the end, since me and my whole family are double-jabbed, and I would also be tested, the risk seemed to be as low as possible. And given the unpredictable nature of the restrictions and the virus variants, it seemed like there was no better time - the thought of another 18 months is frankly unendurable.)

Well, I'm pleased to say that after becoming increasingly anxious in the final few days (not least because I would have to leave Shirley and the dogs behind), as soon I got to the airport everything went as smoothly as possible. "Be early", they said. "It's very busy right now", they said.

It wasn't. It was deserted. If it had been any more deserted there would have been tumbleweed rolling through and a creepy-looking dude playing a banjo.

It took me all of 25 minutes to get through check-in and passport control. Hardly anyone was using the non-Schengen terminal so the passport queue was non-existent, and the check-in was mainly slow only because everyone else seemed to be travelling in groups. The extra documentation didn't seem to matter much at all in terms of extra time taken.

This helped put me much at ease covid-wise*. Apart from a couple of choke points, social distancing at the airport was maintained by default. And in those exceptions I was always with my fellow passengers, who would necessarily be similarly double-jabbed and negative tested. They were all wearing masks too - I can't say I saw any covidiocy in the airport at all.

* What I would have done if my pre-departure test was somehow positive I know not. Melt, probably.

So my two and a half hours of waiting in an empty airport was rewarded with a very pleasant and mostly empty flight with a very nice view of the clouds.

At this point I kind of relaxed exhilaration took hold. I became acutely aware of just how important the trip really was. The sense of relief was palpable. The anxiety vanished and elation took hold. No amount of Zoom calls or the like can ever replace in-person contact; for the first time in a long while, I could actually appreciate how marvellous the ability to fly around actually is and not just whine about the restrictions of budget airlines or the inconvenience of the experience. When you're choosing to fly a few times a year, these things do become problematic. But when you can't do this any more, when you're prevented from seeing friends and family for eighteen months, these pressing issues become the utmost trivialities.

I'd left in the midst of a protracted discussion about some philosophy crap. At times, as perhaps any good discussion should, it had become rather heated. And I just remember thinking very clearly how anyone able to spend their spare time having a philosophy discussion ought not be quite so angry that the other fellow is a twit, but simply marvel and rejoice at how fortunate they all are to be able to have such a discussion at all. It's marvellous, really.

Of course, such a feeling in unsustainable. You can't continuously, actively appreciate everyday occurrences, it'd drive you mad. But it's a nice feeling while it lasts.

I remember seeing some cynical twattery back at the start of pandemic about how we should let the airlines fail. Well !

I mean, seriously, just fuck off.

What in the hell the aim of letting the airlines fail was supposed to be I'm buggered if I know. I mean, sure, they may have some very unpleasant characters, but are all their staff profiteering capitalist oppressors ? Really ? Every stewardess ? Is every passenger taking a cheap flight a climate-change-denying consumerist moron who just wants to get blind drunk and wave their gonads around on a foreign beach ? Like hell.

Cheap travel is wonderful and we should celebrate it. Yes, we should probably not fly ten times a year if we can avoid it, and yes, we should actively seek alternatives and use carbon offsetting (I paid for mine) whenever we have to fly, as well as investing in non-polluting vehicles for the long term. But we should also not forget just how important it is to see the world, and most of all to be able to see our far-distant families. All you cynics posting anti-social-media memes on social media, forever hypocritically banging on about how we should talk to each other more instead, well, let me tell you, there is no more important human connection than seeing one's family in person. Anyone ranting about the evils of cheap travel is a vacuous twerp who ought to go home at once and rethink their life.

That said, Ryanair's carry-on policy is a bunch of bollocks, because you can easily get a bag at least 50% larger than advertised under the seat in front of you. That was a concern I really could have done without.

Anyway, I landed in Stansted and disembarked swiftly. Like Prague, it wasn't even remotely close to its apparent usual capacity. I celebrated my repatriation my gorging myself on a Wispa Gold, some angel slices, a packet of Monster Much and some Ribena. Say what you will of British food, our confectionary is as good as you'll find anywhere. Not posh, to be sure, but perfectly decent.

I had to hang around outside the airport for a while but this was fine because of my prolonged state of exultancy. I walked the length and breadth of the car park twice just to pass the time, which is a dull place but I didn't care. Then I got on the bus and went home.

The number of other planes I saw at the airports was about the same as the number of cars in the car park.

The bus trip was about as exciting as you'd imagine being on a bus until 2:30am could ever possibly be. The only excitement was the 50 minutes in the Victoria coach station. Now the bus itself had all of six other people aboard, so as covid-safe as is reasonably possible. But the station was full of maskless idiots, which annoyed me quite a lot. So I waited in an empty section and ate another angel slice, which was delicious. And then I went home.

The next day I had a pint of something in an actual pub and it was delightful.

For the next three weeks, mostly I did homely things like walking the happy little dog :

With side cast of herons, kingfishers, fish, moorhens, a fox, and a great big hedgehog. It was lovely. I felt little need to do anything special, that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted normal. And I got it in spades, which was fan-bloody-tastic. My mum made scones and a great big chocolate cake, which is about as homely as you can get.

I thought about putting the jam on first on one and second on the other, just to really annoy the internet, but I was hungry.

Once, I did technically visit a nightclub when running into some physicists. But this really was a technicality : in fact it had been converted to an outside sit-down bar. There was no music at all, and certainly no dancing, just people sitting around at picnic tables getting drunk. That level of interaction I'm covid-comfortable with; an actual nightclub I would certainly shun for some considerable time, covid-passports aside.

Unlike many previous trips home, this one featured exactly no astronomy at all. But I did do an experiment - to wit, testing these super-fancy whiskey glasses that Shirley insisted were amazeballs. If you read the website, they talk about "bio mimicry" and "standing waves", which has all the classic hallmarks of bullshit. I mean, what sort of animal is suitable for bio-mimicry for the purposes of drinking whiskey ? If they look like anything, it'd be a sort of cone jelly, and I imagine that most of them have the same level of whiskey knowledge as an American I once met who introduced himself as being Scotch. But Shirley ordered them (far cheaper for me to bring them back in a suitcase than get them shipped to Prague), and she said we should test them. So a friend and I did just that. Thoroughly.

No no, thoroughly.

That bottle was full when we started, and it was emptier still by the time we finished.

In fact we tested four different glasses with a single malt. At first, we were both resolutely unimpressed. The Talisker glass gave a much stronger smell and flavour immediately. The shot glass, well, it's a shot glass. The Penderyn glass was delicious. The Norlan glass, however, was devoid of smell and tasted positively bland.

After continuing to sample the whiskey from the various glasses, we were quite convinced that the "bio-mimicry" had failed as spectacularly as you'd expect when you put a cone jelly in charge of a complex chemical research project. But then... we decided to let it breathe for a few minutes.

Well ! I suppose I have to re-assess the whiskey-appreciation skills of the humble jellyfish. The other glasses did something, but not very much. The taste and smell from the Norlan glass, however, was transformed. What you get is a massively richer, more complex flavour, very much smoother and without the harshness of the alcohol. We still don't think the glasses do the pseudoscience crap described on the website, but blow me they're doing something - and doing it well.

Our final extremely drunken assessment was something like the following :
  • The shot glass is only to be used by Ian McShane in the wild west.
  • The Talisker glass gives the best results if you absolutely need to drink your whiskey as soon as possible. It is also the most satisfying to hold.
  • The Penderyn glass is the best if you're the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty in the 18th century and are having an important meeting to plan a mission to measure longitude. It gives the most smokey results by far, but loses all of the other flavours.
  • The Norlan glass is easily the best under all other circumstances. They're expensive for glasses, but not as expensive as the Borg-assimilated pumice infuser they sell (whatever the hell that is), or the £450 it'll set you back for a box and four glasses. They're pretentious twats, to be sure, but they doing something right.
  • Drambuie is completely unaffected by any glass as it overpowers everything.
I also took advantage of Amazon Prime actually working properly in a country with next-day delivery and got the Hollow Crown trilogies on blu-ray. And wandered around an actual physical bookshop buying books and a delicatessen buying high quality cheese. Wales may not be France or the Netherlands, but we absolutely do world-class cheese.

This is Cardiff's city hall, not far from where I bought the cheese.

Which I feel was a very productive day.

I made indulging my evil consumerism easier by finally getting around to setting up Google Pay, so now I can not just pay for things with my phone, but my watch. Madness, I tell thee, but convenient madness. Though I was tempted to go a bit mad with buying more books, I also wanted to take some more of my old ones back with me. This involved a lot of unpacking and sorting from storage.

Afterwards I re-packed them in carefully labelled boxes, so next time it should be a lot easier.

And I can read them all in comfort thanks to finally, after four years, getting new glasses. My prescription has only changed slightly, but it took a lot more getting used to than I was expecting. It's a very strange sensation. Everything close just felt immediately clearer and bigger. Everything far away seems a bit sharper. But everything in the middle distance had (and this has diminished but still not completely faded) a different feeling of distance, as though I'm not quite properly able to judge how far away it is. This goes away instantly when I take them off, and I find it very strange how mere lenses can change such a fundamental part of my literal world view.

And finally, my mum has been on an Ancestry binge and has traced part of the family as far back as 1807. Here, for instance, is my great grandfather Edgar Smith, who was on the Welsh rugby team back in 1907-8:

We already knew about him though. More interesting are these fine figures, who we believe are my great great great grandmother and grandfather.

We don't know much about them, except that surely great-great-great-granny is very likely to be haunting someone somewhere. Incidentally, I re-read Dracula before I bought all those new books. Just thought I'd mention that.

The highlight of the records are my paternal grandfather's letters to my grandmother during the war.  Here he is somewhat later (right), with his father at his chemist's shop.

In the war he served aboard the tank landing ship HM LST 3504, renamed HMS Pursuer some years later, on a mission that went through Egypt, up to India, and eventually to Sumatra. His letters were limited as to what he could day, though the route of the ship could be quite well-traced. He talks about landing troops at one point, but that's about the extent of the military content.

I found them a hugely interesting read. He died when I was very young so I don't remember him all that much. The letters are... a warts-and-all view. He talks about the "wogs" and "coolies" and "dirty Indian villages", as well as breathtaking scenery and other places which are basically hell on Earth (Port Said in Egypt is apparently a "godforsaken place"). There's also a deep homesickness, something I can certainly empathise with, a burning desire to return to family and home. That was particularly poignant for me after so long away. And there's also a very deep affection for my grandmother. Racist, yes, but that doesn't detract from their other aspects. 

And of course there are the amusing anecdotes. Like making a hammock for the ship's dog because dogs get seasick, something he was particularly insistent on because he knew my grandmother wouldn't believe it. Or being granted special and exclusive privileges to play the ship's piano, or trying the "American drink" Coca-Cola for the first time and thinking it was "OK, nothing special". My personal favourite part though :

I also had an air mail from your mother with a lock of Keith's hair [that being my uncle, then five months old]. The lads in the mess saw and pulled my leg unmercifully. They said that it came from an entirely different part and not from Keith at all. You can guess what they meant. Anyway they were only jealous.


There are many mysteries in the letters. We don't have my grandmother's correspondence at all, so we're only getting half the story. We don't know anything much about the enigma that is my grandfather's brother. According to the letters he did something he should be ashamed of but we have no idea what, or if this should be read ironically. We don't even know how he died, since my grandmother gave completely contradictory accounts ranging from "torpedoed in the war" to "had a lorry accident". Ho-hum. And we don't know what crisis was happening that prompted my grandfather to insist that "we'll get through this", which feels quite different from the usual homesickness.

Even so, what we do have is a treasure trove. God knows what future archaeologists will think when they dig up old computers and uncover Facebook. Probably they'll run like hell.

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