Monday, 29 May 2017

Tech talk with Kath

We all slept in and breakfasted late this morning, then went into town on a shopping expedition - well, it was so for Kath, Anto and Rhiannon, as their usual busy work schedule rarely permits such an outing into nearby Coventry, Leamington, or Birmingham. So, bank holiday Monday shopping is on the to-do list, even if there's no urgency to purchase. It's leisure for those who often shop on-line.

While the others took the bus, Kath and I walked in together through the park, taking the opportunity to talk about future Wiggledance plans. They are putting together a project in which they'll work with a research scientist investigating the nature of touch. Dance is an activity which involves a great deal of physical contact between participants, and touch is such an important element in healthy bonding between parents and children. Wriggledance specialises in working with young children in dance, so all sorts of possibilities will emerge as the project develops.

She also told me about her recent experience of becoming an Apple Mac user with her co-director Lucy, as a result of their 'Colours of Me' show. This made use of video projectors driven by software written only for the Mac, requiring the company to procure Mac Minis, which both of them can now use for administrative purposes, in between times. As a small scale arts enterprise they've acquired free Microsoft Office 365 software for the Mac, as this gives them the scale of on-line storage they need for their work. She's delighted with how it all works, now she's got used to the Apple keyboard layout.

The downside of the Mac is that her physical PC back-up drives aren't compatible with the Mac without paying for additional software patches. She still has to rely upon her Windows 10 Acer laptop when she's out and about, and can back up to that from OneDrive cloud storage. You can't be too careful, when there's so much at stake. Despite being reasonably equipped, Windows 10 on the Acer is still a source of frustration to her, because of the latency of some of its file system read and write operations. This had been my experience too. I'm not surprised so many business users don't want to upgrade from Windows 7. It was quicker.

We met up for coffee and a light lunch at the Queen Street Costa Coffe shop, then went to the clothes shops. I took myself off to hunt for a sun-hat to take to Spain with me, as I left the one I usually wear in the Winzerkeller we visited in Rüdesheim last week. I found a suitable white cotton cap of a design I feel at ease in wearing in TK Maxx, after fruitless visits to several other stores. By this time it was drizzling, so I took a 61 bus home, which arrived conveniently, given the diminished holiday service only minutes after reaching the stop.

The others arrived home a short while after me, then Kath, Anto and Rhiannon left for Kenilworth, leaving us to ponder on a happy family weekend, and start thinking about our next travels. I have some flights to book for locum assignments in Montreux and Mojacar, for later in the year.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Bute Park lockdown

This morning at St German's I celebrated the Solemn Mass and afterwards the baptism of three year old child. There were three times as many people present for the baptism as there were for the Mass, and it was an effort to get everyone to join in with the responses correctly. Some repeated what I said rather than giving the answers, an indication that they were unused to participating in a liturgical act, or unused to having to follow the text from a service sheet. But, they all behaved respectfully. The child seemed less than used to being surrounded by so many people and being the centre of attention. She looked suspiciously at me when I spoke to her, and cried when poured water over her head in the baptismal act. 

It was one of those situations where the mother came to church after Mass one Sunday to fix the date, but as far as I recall, hadn't brought the child with her. Even though we encourage parents to attend ahead of the service with the child and familiarise themselves with the environment, if its unfamiliar to them, it's impossible to insist, as this is interpreted as rejection. St German's tries to be welcoming and unconditionally accepting of families seeking baptism for their children, and develop a pastoral relationship from that starting point. Being a locum priest means this is hardly possible for me to do. The best I can offer is a positive experience and interpretation of the service as it proceeds.

When I arrived home, Kath, Anto and Rhiannon were there, having arrived a short while before me. It was warm and sunny enough for us to have lunch in the garden, making the most of Clare's fresh bread rolls and special cheeses from the Cheese Pantry stall in Cardiff Market. After a brief siesta we walked to Bute Park and returned through Pontcanna Fields, marvelling at the size of the 'tent city' overflow, and speculating about who wuld occupy it.. 

Preparations for next weekend's UEFA Champions' Cup football extravaganza between Real Madrid and Juventus extend right into Bute Park itself, with a three metre metal wall enclosing a large portion of the space where some of the hospitality marquees have been planted. The Castle grounds are also covered with marquees. Sponsorship and other commercial interests in the two sides playing call for the city to provide this, plus a high level of additional security. It like to think of such exclusive areas as 'back-scartching zones'. 

All roads across town are equipped with heavy duty metal gates for planned road closures and there are gates blocking streets affording pedestrian access to the city centre to permit security screening of shoppers and football fans alike. It hasn't been like this since last year's NATO summit meeting came to Cardiff. It's been months in planning, and isn't a reaction to last Monday's bombing in Manchester. Normal life in Cardiff grinds to a halt when global big business or the war machine comes to town. This is profitable city hospitality, always at the expense of the locals.

Disdain for globalised capitalism didn't, however, prevent us from playing a game of Monopoly after a superb pizza supper, washed down with bottles of German and Italian red wines. It was great fun, and I came last in the scoring league, having invested too much in bricks and mortar. 'Woe unto you who have many posessions ..' I hear you say?

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Bank Holiday Weekend - again

I spent much of yesterday, as the previous day, uploading and writing some key captions for the 900+ photos taken on our Rhine cruise, I only discarded a couple of dozen bad pictures. It's a tribute to the reliability, ease of use and responsiveness of the Sony HX50 and HX300 cameras I took with me.

Many photos required no editing at all. A few were taken in situations where conditions confused the camera sensor leading to underexposure, but this could be rectified using the old desktop Picasa, still a versatile easy to use app. For the most part, however, Google Photos on-line editor provided all the tools I needed. With poor connectivity on the cruise, uploading, let alone editing was impossible, so my spare time since arriving home has been taken with making an album for each day's photos.

Encouraged by Clare, I also made a couple of web albums using just a third of the available photos covering the trip in two halves, so as not to exhaust the patience of viewers. You can find the first of these here and the second here.

Owain came over to visit in time for supper after work and stayed the night, returning to Bristol in the afternoon, as he has a gig to prepare for tomorrow.. It was good to see him, and enjoy our evening meal outdoors in the warmth of the evening sun, drinking a bottle of Alsacian Gewurztraminer for a change. Before lunch, he took us to Luffkin's Coffee Roasters a tiny cafe in a King's Road back alley next to the evangelical mission hall calling itself the 'Church of God in Cardiff'. The cafe offers a few select single estate grown filter served coffees from Africa or Latin America, and offers a breakfast featuring several different special kinds of bread. A foodie's paradise. 

Further down the alley is the popular local Pipes micro-brewery, whose beers can be found in several places across the city centre. The alley also boasts a small select farmers' market stalls on weekends - organic veg, bread, cheese and a dried meat and sausage stall. It's the first time we've had occasion to explore this alleyway properly when fully in use. I turns out to be a hidden treasure of our Parish.

In the evening after supper, I walked around Pontcanna fields. The entire north football field area is currently enclosed in Heras fencing, and half of it covered with tents - a hundred four person and a hundred two person tents, plus wigwam shaped marquees and toilets. This is the 'Tent City' which is being prepared to accommodate surplus visitors arriving for the UEFA Cup Winners' cup final in the city centre's Principality Stadium next weekend. Apparently all hotel are already booked, and a large crowd of Spanish fans are expected, as the finalists are the two top Spanish teams. There's an unprecedented high level of extra security measures being taken in town as well, planned for a long time, and not just in response to last Monday's terrorist incident in Manchester.

The British Airways total IT systems failure has been headline news all day, bringing to a halt all their operations at Heathrow and Gatwick. Every one of the airline's activities is so heavily dependent on use of networked computers and phones, that nobody could communicate with anyone else, and passengers were left stranded in departure lounges and on aircraft, unable to move safely without the appropriate forms of clearance. It's been attributed to power failures at the server farm level, and thankfully, not to cyber attacks. This high level of electronic dependency and reliance on the core of the system never failing is a disaster waiting to happen.

IT workers unions criticised the redundancy imposed on 1,200 BT computer system staff last year, and outsourcing of their jobs to Indian company Tata Consultancy Services. Cardiff Council made the same move several years ago, as a money saver, and on a couple of occasions I know of, the entire system went down for much of a day. The technology is new, state of the art, but this doesn't mean it's been tried and tested to the extreme limit of reliability. This couldn't have happened at a more critical time, Bank Holiday weekend. One can only hope questions are asked and lessons learned about long term sustainability from such disastrous experience.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Ministry in the face of fear and anger

At breakfast aboard ship yesterday morning, a lady with a Mancunian accent told me about the bomb incident at Manchester Arena. It seems she'd been watching late night TV news in her cabin. We had not found a moment of idleness in which either of us wanted to watch TV  throughout the week, or listen to the radio, or scan internet news feeds, so we had no idea of what had happened. Sadly, she was quick to lay the blame at the door of 'them foreigners', and my 'what if the bomber was British?' speculation fell on deaf ears. Away from the ship, it was easier to follow the story from the phone, as signal reception in the Dreieckgebeit is strong, no matter the nationality of the service provider, which switches not infrequently as you travel around.

I woke up early this morning, aware that I'd be facing a class of children attending the midweek Mass I was due to celebrate at St Germans's. It was difficult to know how to prepare for this, especially as they could be any age group between seven and eleven, and there's no way of knowing how much the kids would have taken in at home, let alone in school. For once I wasn't looking forward to taking this service. Thankfully the morning's 'Thought for the Day' by Dr Michael Banner, offered me an insight I could work with, about kindness being essential to peacemaking. And I managed to use the story of Beauty and the Beast to illustrate how loving those we fear can change people. Well, I survived. And probably wittered on too long. As I do.

Fr Phelim arrived at the end of Mass, to meet the wardens and discuss his official arrival in the Parish as he finally has a licensing date, 14th June. It's to take place in the Cathedral, Both St German's and St Saviour's will be felt to welcome him in their own way. The previous effort to unite these Parishes was a failure which damaged relationships between them, so Phelim will be the man with a mission to build bridges, re-establish trust and heal divisions. I feel confident that his background ministry experience from working in Belfast will be a blessing to all in the long run. I'll be praying for him and cheering him on from Malaga by then, thankful for the last couple of years I've be privileged to share at St German's.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Journey's end - Basel to Cardiff

Packed cases left outside cabin doors for collection were swiftly removed from the MV Emily Bronte while we ate breakfast this morning. After correct identification they were loaded on to the coach as their owners climbed on board for the half hour drive across from the quay on the German side of the Dreieck to Basel-Mulhouse-Freibourg airport, across the river on the French side of the Dreieck - the land is leased to the Swiss, who run the place. We had to wait ten minutes for group booking check-in desks to be opened, but were diverted by the sight of several young Asian travellers, struggling to re-close huge suitcases they had to open in order to retrieve some essential item, their scattered goods and chattels seemingly resistant to being rounded up and contained. 

We were through check-in and security two hours before flight departure, and our our way back to Heathrow just after midday. British Airways has now moved over exclusively to card payments for on-board, evidently convenient for flight staff, but maybe not so convenient for those reluctant to adopt new technology, who prefer cash. Currency has long been a symbol of sovereignty. It seems we are surrendering this to the international banking network, in the name of improved efficiency, cost and convenience. Fine, until the next catastrophic system hack, financial melt-down, or collapse of the global electronic network due to an unprecedented huge solar flare. I'm happier to put my faith in God, than I am in the latest electronic/economic fad, however brilliantly designed there are hidden flaws in everything that the Bible calls 'the work of human hands'. This is ignored at our peril.

We had booked on a later coach, two hours after arrival, in case there was a flight delay. We landed on time, however, and were shocked to discover that instead of paying a £5 fee to change our National Express booking we'd have to pay £24 to ride on an earlier coach. I was furious about this as we had not been correctly informed when booking the tickets at Sophia Gardens Coach Station in Cardiff, but Clare insisted that we pay up, so after another four hours coach riding and a local bus we were back home by six o'clock. Thankfully, there as no need to go out and buy food, as we had enough veg to cook an evening meal, remaining from last week. Now there's a big pile of washing to be done, mail to open, grass to be mown and early bed, after ten hours travel time. It's such a relief to return to reliable decent speed internet again. And finally tidy up the mess made to this blog by such an inadequate on-board wi-fi system. 

Apart from this hassle, the cruise itself was an enriching experience, thanks to the professionalism and care of all those who were involved in making it work. A fine example of euro-co-operation, at the domestic consumer level. I wonder what impact brexit will have on this, apart from higher prices?


Monday, 22 May 2017

Alpine excursion

We had another early start for an excursion to Luzern this morning. Clare decided not to come along, and took herself off across Basel on public transport to visit Colette, a colleague from Geneva days who lives in the southern suburbs. As we drove along the eastern ring road past the vast industrial estate of pharmaceutical factories, I remembered how we'd first driven this way in 1976, with the children in a Citroen Dyane, towards the Gottard pass on our way to a group holiday in Palazzola, Rome. Indeed, we stopped overnight in a small hotel in a village near Luzern, to get some rest, after having driven all day from Bristol. The place names along the route are still familiar to me, as I'd rehearsed the route with a map several times before this first experience of driving on the continent.

We made good time to Luzern and the coaches dropped our party conveniently in the town centre and then went to park elsewhere. Each tour group is allowed to do this, booking a drop off time to suit themselves, and a return pick up time. All is expertly marshalled by a man wearing a Securitas branded luminous vest. I enjoyed an hour of brisk walking around taking photos, before returning early to observe the comings and goings at the coach stop. There seemed to be mostly selfie stick wielding Chinese and Japanese visitors in town at the same time as us. Many of our group were toting cameras or smartphones, but not one had a selfie stick that I noticed. From Luzern, we drove on into the Bernese Oberland,  past Lake Brienz, then turning into an climbing up a valley on a narrow winding road, to Lauterbrunnen. 

There, we boarded a mountain railway train cremaillere, similar in design to the one that ascends from Yverdon les bains to Ste Croix in the Jura. It offers great views of spectacular scenery as we climbed to 2060m to stop off for half an hour at the busy station of Kleine Scheidegg, passing Wengen on the way. The station serves two different railway lines that link the pass with Grindlewald in the valley 1500m below. This is a hub for winter sports, skiing, hiking and mountain climbing, situated at the top of a pass from where the still snow clad slopes of the Jungfrau, Moench and Eiger peaks can be seen towering above. At station level, most of the snow had gone, though only recently, we were told. The higher mountain passes are only now starting to open for the summer season.

After our brief look around and photo opportunity, a different kind of train took us down the eastern side of the pass to Grindlewald, where we were met by our four coaches punctually. From there it was a a two hour return drive past Interlaken, alongside the Thunersee towards Bern, then back to Basel. Despite rush hour traffic, we were back at the ship by six. It can sometimes take an extra hour if there's any  traffic problem.

Then, a final supper, and bag packing, ready for a nine o'clock departure for the Dreieck Flughafen, and our flight back to Heathrow. Four and a half hours in a coach today, and tomorrow another five hours in a coach plus an hour's flight, to get us home. An inevitable surfeit of sitting, I'm afraid, but with delighful memories and photos of all the places we've seen this past week. It will be good to get back to decent speed internet again. Doing anything apart from emailing this week has been a nightmare of delays and dropped links. And this on a new ship. I think the travel industry that caters for 'silver surfers' greatly underestimates their need for connectivity at least as good as at home.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Speyer to Breisach

After passing through a sequence of five locks during the evening and early hours of the morning, the MV Emily Bronte moored outside the historic town of Breisach, in the so called Kaiserstuhl region of the German Rhineland plain which has the mountains of the Black Forest to the east and the Swiss Jura to the south. At the centre of the region is the ancient university city of Freiburg im Breisgau.  It's a highly fertile region with volcanic soil, renowned for its wine and brandy production.

Then, after breakfast, we were taken by coach on a tour through some villages of the Kaiserstuhl, and up into the mountains to visit Titisee, a small lake fed by glacial waters, with the holiday resort town of Neustadt wrapped around its eastern end. The journey took an hour and a half, and we were subjected to a well informed running commentary throughout, delivered by someone whose accent and English grammar were characteristic of someone for whom English was probably their third or fourth language, and wasn't as accurate as it needed to be for a British English only audience. As it was still early in the day, a few pauses to look at the scenery without interruption would have helped data digestion.

Titisee was busy with visitors from all around the world, and our scheduled stay was just an hour and ten minutes. Not just to get us back in time for lunch, I suspect, but because there would be a flow of other scheduled coach parties to maintain in the relatively small car park, throughout sensible visiting hours. We walked around the eastern edge of the lake in two directions, observed the boat traffic on the lake, and then followed the sound of an open air band to the place where it was performing Strauss waltzes in an open air concert arena several hundred metres away. We also briefly visited the Christkoenigkirche, and said a few prayers, mindful of the fact that it's the sixth Sunday of Easter. 

Disappointingly Riviera Travel scheduling does not take into account the worship needs of its clients. There's no information provided about the possibility of attending a Sunday service at any destination. Some opted not to go on the bus trip, but to stay and attend Mass in Breisach. I had a personal reason to visit a place where my mother had been before she had her stroke, and hoped there might be a mid morning service to drop in on, but there wasn't. At least the church was open. Given the number of people we've met on this trip who are churchgoers, and with so many of the travellers senior citizens, more likely to attend church than any other demographic group, I think there's room for improvement here.

Our return trip was half an hour shorter, by a faster route. Two and a half hours in a bus with a one hour stay didn't to me seem the right balance for an outing. Anyway we were back at the ship just after one, and after a couple of short travel briefings about tomorrow's Swiss Alps trip and homegoing, the rest of the afternoon was free for us to spend exploring Breisach.

The town has a fine Minister church on top of a promontory overlooking the Rhine. For centuries this rocky outcrop was an obstacle dividing the river, and most of the area where the present town stands was flood prone meadow or wetland. In the nineteenth century a major engineering project established a huge long barrage covering the main river channels and islands, containing two separate lock systems. The river banks were stabilised, land was drained, and the town built around and on the promontory could then be extended over the reclaimed land.

The Minster church originated in the 11th century but was enlarged in the 14-15 centuries. One tower is Romenesque, the other later one has a Gothic spire. The west end interior walls are covered with frescoes from the expansion period, much faded but well conserved nevertheless. There's a carved stone chancel screen of this period, also in a north aisle side chapel a niche elaborately carved with images of Christ's burial, at one time used as part of the ritual of the Paschal Triduum. The modern nave altar is a glass box, showcasing a reliquary chest to hold the bones of local saints. Amazingly, this fine piece of craftsmanship dates from the 1970s.

The territory on which Breisach stands has been fought over by French and Germans for centuries. The Minster was reduced to ruins towards the end of the second world war, but rebuilt and restored thanks to the leadership of the Parish Priest and an eminent local academic historian. Both had been against the war and nazism, and were imprisoned for their witness in a concentration camp, yet survived to carry out a great work of love and peacemaking.

The Rhine is the Franco German frontier. Because of 19th century alterations in the course of the river, Breisach although a German town is in France, and the frontier line is now just outside the town boundary. In the 1950s, the town took advantage of this unusual situation, declaring itself to be a truly 'european' town where borders no longer matter, a first grassroots step towards building a European Community of nations. What lovely stories to arise from the tragedy of what will hopefully be the last European war, to matter what English nationalists may do to disassociate the UK from this reconciliation project.

Supper this evening was preceded by another Captain's reception to thank the staff and the crew for their work during the cruise, and was followed by a seven course meal. We sat at table with a couple from Telford, we'd not met before. Both are active in their local church, one a church warden, the other an ex-church warden. married in 1966, like us. I think we've met about ten people who are churchgoers during this week. It rather proves my point about the neglected churchgoing demographic among cruise clients.

As we were getting ready for bed, we went through the last of the ten locks on our 500km journey up river. We will dock in Switzerland at Basel Hafen, according to the itinerary, just after midnight. It'll be our first return visit to the country in five years. This time at the opposite northern corner from where we arrived to live and work back in November 1992, just after a Swiss referendum declined participation in the Schengen agreement, like the Brits. Neither country has suffered, and both have prospered since. But Switzerland has the Rhine as its main industrial artery, and a different economic story altogether.