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Tuesday 12 July 2022

Expedition Cardiff II : The Fluffening

Last September I broke an 18-month stint in Prague by finally returning to the Welsh motherlands. Getting there was, of course, more of a procedure than usual. Since then the world has changed and changed again; in December I went back, but once more the travel situation is unrecognisable. I even had a visitor come to me from the once plague-ravaged UK, instead of the other way around !

So why should I bore you with yet another post about visiting Cardiff ? Well, this time the travel itself is part of the experience, not because of any so-last-year "pandemic" restrictions*, but because we decided not to fly and to take the dogs - a feat that would surely test the mettle of even Michael Palin. We planned this for two years, but the bloody resurging virus kept making it impossible. Until now.

* I use the sarcasm quotes out of pure facetiousness, not any retarded** anti-lockdown nonsense. That said, some caveats are to be found herein.
** That's probably offensive, sorry. But I cannot find another phrase which adequately conveys my disgust for the painful, gut-wrenchingly stupid libertarian nonsense about just letting everyone die instead of asking them to follow simple, common-sense guidance.

We wouldn't dream of trying this crazy adventure in a single stage. It would be cruel to the dogs and Shirley would miss a perfectly good chance for a visit home. So we made it a multi-stage process : a 14 hour train trip from Prague to the Hague*, four of five days there, an eight hour ferry crossing from Hook van Holland (which is practically in the Hague itself) to Harwich, and a five hour train trip to the fabled city of mighty Cardiff. Of course, we would have to do the whole thing again on the return journey. This is necessary because it's very hard to take dogs into the UK except by boat. So a boat out means a boat back.

* I don't know what it is with the Dutch and "the"s. The Netherlands, The Hague... it's all a bit the odd.

The dogs have done long train trips before. They're quite content in their little backpack carry-cases (they will voluntarily take themselves in), especially when equipped with cooling pads. This leads to many adorable photo opps.

Lulu (right) is the big sister, aged 5. Gilly (left) is our little pandemic pup, aged two.

Nothing interesting happened on the train. It's a scenic route, especially at the Czech-German border, though the last few hours we had no air conditioning. This was made all the worse because Germany, unlike everyone else, still insists on mask-wearing on trains. 

To be honest, rationally or not, I'm fed up with this. It's hard to describe. When I sit down and think about it, it makes sense. But I cannot honestly say I want any restrictions any more, I cannot welcome them as a reassuring safety measure. Something inside me has flipped, and while I might consciously advocate for keeping case numbers low, and certainly I follow all the rules, I cannot say I feel protected by the measures any more. The emotion is drained, possibly as a result of the other global crises*.

* You know the one I mean. I'm almost at the point of ignoring that one too, a case partly of crisis-fatigue but also an abundance of evidence that a wider global conflict is not at all what Russia is after. It seems to me that Russia has backed down too many times in the face of Western counter-threats to see them as terribly scary : concerning, certainly, but not a direct military threat to the whole of Europe. I will stress that my support for Western sanctions and indirect military support to Ukraine is 100% as strong as ever.

But I digress. While in the Netherlands, the main event was Taking The Dogs To The Beach. Lu especially loves the beach, and will start accelerating towards the sand as soon as it's in sight. They don't especially enjoy swimming, though their freely-floating fluff looks extremely cute when they're fully immersed, but they are increasingly appreciative of a good paddle. Lu did manage a little swim, until the six-inch high "waves" became too scary and I had to carry her across part of the flow. And watching them run in slow motion just never gets old.

The Hague beaches remind me a fair bit of the British seaside, except that they're a lot nicer.

View from a restaurant where the fish is so fresh you can almost see the boat it came in on.

Of course we also had time with Shirley's massive extended family and ate plenty of delicious food. I was finally introduced to Dutch pancakes, which are somewhere between the British and American styles, closer to the former. They are excellent. if you haven't had any, you should. And get yourself some kibbeling too, which - as I've probably mentioned before - is something that should be available on every street corner in the world.

Behold Gilly, the dog who rides elephants.

Then it was time for the signature feature of the trip, the overnight ferry. Deliberately slowing the crossing from the 5 hour day version to 8 hours at night ensures the boat both leaves and arrives at a reasonable time. And though expensive, you get what you pay for. First the terminal, which was a place so empty it would make a hermit feel lonely :

All the staff were extremely friendly from start to finish. Boarding with dogs is easy and you can take them in-cabin if you book this ahead of time (the only extra procedure being that you have to get them wormed by a vet a few days ahead of departure). 

The ferry itself was really very nice indeed. It has several restaurants, a sun deck, a literal poop deck* for pets, a basketball cage**, and even a tiny cinema and a casino. The cabins are cosy rather than small : spick and span, very comfortable beds, a giant porthole and a sizeable (and excellent) shower. The soothing motion of the boat and ability to lie properly flat ensured that I got a full night's sleep, something I wouldn't be able to manage on a plane unless shot by a tranquiliser dart. Watching the ships pass in the night all lit up, and waking up to the sun on a calm and silent sea, is at least fifty-eight times preferable to being on a cramped aircraft with its weirdly low-pressure, noisy, desiccated air and cramped seats. If you have the option to take the ferry, I highly recommend it : unlike an aeroplane, you come out of the trip feeling refreshed instead of drained. This is a slower but objectively better way to travel.

* Not its actual term, but this is what I shall call it.
** This is a cage containing a basketball court, not just a basketball.

And it's so damn shiny !

Arriving in Harwich we saw David Attenborough, or at least his very own personal boat :

A.k.a. Boaty McBoatface.

We proceeded to Manningtree and took an hour to allow the dogs some respite. They'd been quite unsettled on the boat until we took them to the poop deck - they didn't do anything, but seemed finally to understand that they were on a boat and therefore all the weird noises and vibrations became less scary. At Manningtree we had tea and cider at 8:30 in the morning, at which the sever batted not an eyelid nor showed the merest flicker of judgemental disdain. 

As it happened we arrived on the week of the train strikes the one day the strikes weren't happening. Consequently the only real difference was that we didn't have seat reservations, but we didn't have problems getting seats so this had no impact whatsoever.

When we got to Cardiff we immediately rejoiced in the marvellous beacon of hope and glory that is the United Kingdom by having fish and chips. Okay, the fish is not as good as kibbeling, of course, but the chips are unquestioningly the best in world. However I did not have long to revel in my patriotism, as we soon witnessed an auspicious sight :

At least the Welsh flags were standing tall. For them to have collapsed at Cardiff Castle would be like finding a dead raven at the Tower of London.

Thankfully the end of the trip was to prove far more restorative to whatever dull flame of national pride still lingers in my bitter and disillusioned soul.

The dogs, of course, were the stars of the show for the next two weeks. Papillions are virtually unknown in Britain, but given how people flocked to them like moths to a flame, perhaps that won't be the case on our next visit. It's interesting to see how much friendlier people are when you have a couple of cute bundles of floof in tow, but even so, I swear people have gotten nicer. I have this very cool T-shirt of a cartoon axolotl reading a book, with the caption, "reads-a-lotl". Hilarious, but I didn't expect a small boy in a train station to spontaneously point and shout "Axolotl readaslotl !!!" with obvious delight. What happened to the sullen, depressed, reserved countrymen I grew up with ? Weird.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the floofers doing what they do best.

Anyone who says I'm anthropormorphising by saying Lu is clearly thinking, "da fuq are you wearing" is, quite simply, wrong.

We've been trying since day one to get them to play with the same toy at the same time and IT FINALLY HAPPENED.

Non-dog activities included an open-air theatre production of Blackadder Goes Forth. This was hilarious, with the cast being superb : Baldrick was as close to Tony Robinson as you can get without being Tony Robinson, while the glorious, furiously insane portrayal of General Melchett and the unstoppably randy Lord Flashheart were both outstanding. There was some nice interaction between rain-soaked cast and safely-under-cover audience without feeling like a pantomime.

This being Wales, we had to visit a castle or we'd have been murdered by Plaid Cymru smothering us in our sleep with a sheep. We've done Cardiff* before, so this time it was Caerphilly.

* I've done all the local things before, but Shirley hasn't.

Caerphilly is a fine castle in a good location, with a tower that famously leans more than the more notorious Pisa and a set of replica siege engines that have been used in many a historical documentary. But its presentation to visitors does veer a little on the silly side, with a large dragon pit that has a somewhat ridiculous, over-lengthy and over-dramatic narration. It's kindof fun, but maybe overdoing it for the children ? I dunno, a better visitor centre and a café would work wonders. More ambitiously, Wales is in desperate need of a Hollywood blockbuster to present itself to the world. Not for nothing does it have monumental castles in dramatic locations, but we've done a hugely terrible job of selling Welsh heritage to the wider world.

Also noteworthy here was that Gilly chased a goose. Gilly is 2 kg of pure fluff and has the hunting instincts of a brick, whereas geese are several kilos more of angry beak and claw. Quite why the goose felt the need to run away I will never understand : being attacked by Gilly is like being savaged by a bag of candy floss.

We also did something I've never done before and walked over the Cardiff bay barrage to Penarth, somewhere I've not been in probably 30 years. It's quite nice.

Another blast-from-the-childhood-past was a visit to the St Fagan's Museum of Welsh Life. This is a collection of Welsh buildings reassembled from their original locations, including a farmhouse from 1610 and a medieval church restored to its original colour scheme.

The red colour supposedly protects against evil spirits. This wasn't applied to the privy, which was presumably defended by a foul stench.

The church is dedicated to St Teilo, who sounds worth looking up. Apparently he defeated a dragon he found in an orchard by picking it up by its tail and swinging it into a river, thus becoming the patron saint of cider. Or something like that.

Sadly I don't have any good photos but many of the paintings are meme worthy, including one guy who looks like he's crying because he's poked himself in the eye for literally no reason at all.

These days the museum also has more standard exhibit halls, which are worth a look around. If you ever want a demonstration of the difference between the Welsh and the English (we sometimes say that the Welsh define themselves by being not English, but there are real differences in the cultures), look to the responses visitors have left about Thatcher's famous line about there being "no such thing of society". This includes such things as "murderous bitch" and "you stole my father's bones", whereas the responses supposedly agreeing with the statement are far fewer in number and include such astute observations as "I like dinosaurs."

There was of course much pub and day drinking down the bay, with a visit to Cadwallader's ice cream café being a necessity, as was Waterstones. I got a lot of reading done in this trip, which means by backlog of things to blog is now even longer. I call that a success. There was also a food festival, and I'll likely be changing my profile photo as a result.

The end of the trip proved doubly rewarding. First, I got by far and away the most positive first referee report to a paper I've ever had (thank you, kindly and well-timed constructive reviewer !). The last paper I co-authored (to be blogged here in the near future) was also accepted just before the holiday started, but that had the usual protracted back-and-forth : nice to finally resolve it, but that doesn't really undo the months of mostly unnecessary wrangling. So to finally get a reviewer who just likes the paper from the outset is... well, for once I don't have to go on a rant about the need to reform peer review, and that, frankly, is just bloody great.

Second, if we'd waited two years for this trip, we'd waited even longer for this wonderful moment at the end :

I think I can look at this for some time to come and get a happy.

We watched the full news coverage of this for two days straight. After having endured this lying, contemptible, delusional fascist scumbag grind the country's reputation into the dirt for far too long, the release was almost cathartic - tempered only by uncertainty about who comes next*. Perhaps auspiciously, that same day the conservatory window spontaneously shattered and the washing line broke. I'm fairly sure this is the doings of the ghosts of my Conservative grandparents, although a significant caveat is that Boris Johnsons is to the Conservative party what a circus lion tamer is to serious wildlife preservation efforts.

* I've thought about writing a scathing political obituary to the racist piece of self-serving egomania, but I've decided not to bother. You may recall my last protracted anti-Boris rant ended with "fuck off Boris" and off he has jolly well fucked, so I'm satisfied. Defending a sex offender was, it seems, the straw that broke the camel's back, and there is scarcely a need for me to shout loudly from the rooftops, "I TOLD YOU SO YOU SODDING MORONS !" although I'd very much like to.

And then we did the whole thing in reverse. This time the dogs immediately accepted the ferry as their temporary home; we spent only a day in the Netherlands before catching the again miraculously smooth series of trains back to Prague. 

Well, there you have it. Cardiff remains a lovely place despite the current assorted crises (as well as its stupid 20 mph speed limits), and finally being able to show everyone the marvel that is the papillion was as good as I hoped. I re-iterate that slowing things down, taking the ferry instead of the plane, is just incomparably nicer. But now it's time to get back to science.

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