Monday, July 21, 2008

Summer 2008 Europe trip

Much travel. I (Richard) was in Trinidad for about 2 weeks, then flew to Dusseldorf via New York and via train to Muenster. After a whole 2 days we were back on the train to Dortmund with our bikes (which live here in Muenster) for the EasyJet to London Luton. At that point we were supposed to have a simple 30 mile ride to Teddington and the UK National Physical Laboratory. We spent several hours seemingly circling St. Albans but eventually broke free and made it to London proper. Unfortunately I lost Bonnie in London traffic. She turned right, I couldn't see her in the crowds, and after I kept on a kilometer or so I couldn't even find my way back (tried for an hour). So, no problem, just use the cell phone! Unfortunately, Bonnie had switched the chip in her phone and I didn't seem to have the new number. She also had all the maps. Fortunately, the natives spoke a language much like mine, so I queried them and found that they had no idea how to get anywhere at all. Fortunately some of the girls were quite attractive so it wasn't a complete waste. I finally found a petrol station, got directions to Teddington, and cycled there. The address of the Teddington Lodge was in my notebook, but it was a bit hard to find since it had no sign or building number. Eventually found the Lodge. Proprieter not there, nor Bonnie. Sat on stump, after a while a tenant came out and we phoned the proprieter. No reservation, it seems Bonnie hadn't confirmed it. Got a room anyway due to kindness of proprieter. Waited on street for an hour and Bonnie comes and I flag her down! She had lost her notebook on the way and had no address for the Lodge (which no one had heard of, of course).

We both gave seminars at the National Physical Laboratory, and they were received kindly. Bonnie ran some aerosol samples on their SIMS (Ian Gilmore has terrific facilities at NPL) and the data looks useful. Teddington is close to the Thames River and to the palace at Hampton Court, overall a pleasant area. After a week of work and excellent fish/chips/ale we rode into central London to spend Saturday at the splendid British Museum. Strongly recommended, particularly the Middle East sections. Rode back to the Lodge through the spacious and green deer parks of Richmond and Bushy Parks. Next day we left Teddington for Montpelier (France) via Gatwick Airport, which was the usual ghastly fiasco of little sleep the night before, ride to the airport in heavy traffic, dis-assembly and re-packing of bikes/luggage, difficulty in checking bicycles, security issues, etc etc. This theme occurs at every airport and so we will probably not be flying with bicycles again. Train, easy. Plane, bad.

Montpelier is a lovely city with excellent cycling infrastructure, a very attractive pedestrian-zone central area, and a great deal of wine. Our little room on the Rue Verdun was nice (in that the proprietors were very accommodating of our cycles) and so loud that I had to sleep with earplugs. During our week here I wandered around and Bonnie attended the Chemometrics conference. Her talk here was again well received. We watched the EuroCup 2008 final on the outdoor big-screen set up at the Place Comedie. Lots of Spanish fans and German fans cheering in a square in France. Maybe the world is getting better. Spain deservedly won despite Lehmann’s best keeping efforts.

Following the conference we headed along the coast on our cycling tour. The Mediterranean coast had lots of traffic (mostly well behaved) and was the anticipated sun and sand. Naturally we swam, sat on the beach, and completely ignored the topless bikini babes. Beziers had a beautiful church, but our bikes were slightly robbed. We lost Bonnie’s binoculars, axle nut wrench (which had significance), some gummi-bears and a watch. Roughly that night also our dinner was inedible due to some contamination of the cooking pot, either from soap or alcohol denaturant. The food was so bitter from whichever contamination that we couldn’t eat it, despite hunger and Bonnie’s cooking efforts. After a day or two we turned inland along the Midi Canal to Carcassone (well preserved medieval city). The canal path was a good overall choice of route, since while dirt and bumpy it was also shady and significantly cooler than the surrounding area. It also made it very easy to find campsites. The view of the medieval city was splendid; the interior a kitchy mess of tourist shops. At this point we realized that our travel rabbit was gone! Polly, the Polyester Bunny, had been kidnapped. She was no longer strapped happily to the top of Bonnie’s rear panniers. Saddened and rabbitless, we returned along the canal to Narbonne and continued down the coast toward Spain. Interestingly, as we crossed the border the signs did not all change to Spanish as anticipated. They were in Catalan! Some had Spanish also, but indeed we were in Catalunya and that was the prevailing tongue (and flag). Awkward, since that meant we didn’t have the language. To me it seemed Catalan was in between French and Spanish. I could figure out the written words, but couldn’t communicate. However, thanks to British/American/capitalist imperialism, lots of folks had some English and we muddled through fine.

While we had decided that we didn’t really need to do the Pyrenees on this trip, the coast road had plenty of climbing/pushing for Bonnie and her Baby Bikie. Once again we found the temperatures inland to be overly warm, so we tended to stay near the Med. as much as feasible. This also gave us beach showers (hooray for civilization) and seafood paella. We had one night of significant thunderstorm but fortunately found a site off the road and got the tent up in time. Lots of people drove up to honk at us, but at least we were dry! We made Barcelona at mid-afternoon and got to see the wonderful Sangrada Familia Church of Gaudi. We had done reasonably well for campsites until Barcelona, but here we slept uneasily the first night under a bridge. Next morning we rode back into the center and blessedly found a hostel, so we could take a hot shower and deposit our stuff in safety. We spent hours at the extraordinary Cathedral and wore ourselves out walking around Barcelona. We loved Barcelona and Catalunya and will definitely be back. The people were cycling friendly and nice, architecture impressive and inspiring, the mountains and sea and pines lovely, the food pleasing. Prices were not low but average Western Europe.

This years roughly 900 km trip included some travails, but was overall a merrie voyage. Cycling in southern France and Catalunya was a joy. Getting on the plane from Barcelona to Dortmund was miserable since our bikes couldn’t fit into the x-ray without removing the wheels, which we couldn’t do (recall the wrench was stolen way back in this story?), but the personnel at EasyJet in Barcelona were a wonderful help and eventually got us through security. The bikes seem to have come through the plane ride trips OK in their plastic bags, excepting a crushed Tubus rear carrier tube on mine. The rack does still work. The cargo people scuffed up our panniers something fierce. I feel fortunate that our gear mostly survived and dis-inclined to risk it again, especially with the misery involved in each air flight. Right now I am happy to be in our apartment in Muenster and not have to leave for a month! The weather has turned rather cool and wet, but we are here to work afterall.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Moving Woes

Sorry that I (Bonnie) haven’t updated the blog in months but life has been very hectic. Those of you who have moved in the recent past will likely remember that moving is at best an unpleasant task. Multiply that misery by some very large number and you will get the agony of moving your household and laboratory overseas to a small island developing state (SIDS).

I had an NIH site visit in Seattle in late February which corresponded with spring break at UWI, so I arranged to spend several days in Salt Lake with Rich sorting and packing our stuff. The task was particularly painful because stuff had to be sorted into stuff we planned to store, stuff we needed to take, stuff to get rid of and stuff we needed to take but that Rich needed until he moved at the end of May. This was made all the more difficult by the fact that we had no clear idea how much stuff would fit in a 20 foot shipping container.

Back at the beginning of the year, I contracted Global Ocean Freight to move a 20 foot container loaded with our stuff to Trinidad. If ever you should need to move something overseas, DO NOT use Global Ocean Freight. They screwed up every single aspect of the shipment. Under the contract, they were supposed to deliver the container to us on March 1 while I was in the states for an NIH site visit. Since we were told we would have only 2 hours to load the container, we spent the week prior to March 1 trying to get them to nail down a specific time when the container would arrive at our condo. No luck. Finally on Friday afternoon (Feb. 29), they told us that they wouldn’t be able to get a container to us until the end of the following week. (insert appropriate string of curses). Of course, I had to fly back to Trinidad on March 2 so I could teach my classes on March 3 which meant Rich would be left to do the job without me. Even after a great deal of negotiation about their breach of contract, we still couldn’t actually pin them down to a delivery time but they did agree that we (or rather Rich) could have a full day rather than just 2 hours to load the container.

To make matters worse, both of us had picked up the nasty stomach bug that was going around Salt Lake at the time. Rich spent the rest of the week trying to not collapse completely while finishing the packing and teaching his classes. Meanwhile the shipping company still wouldn’t give us the slightest clue as to when the container would arrive. Friday afternoon, Rich left work early because he was so sick so he happened to be home in the middle of the afternoon when a truck driver called saying they were on I-15 and would arrive any minute. So the truck showed up and left the container in the Condo driveway, still on the semitrailer (5 ft off the ground) and without a ramp. As soon as he left, the Condo manager showed up and yelled at Rich because we had not properly informed them of the time that the container would arrive. He was quite insistent that the container had to be moved immediately (which was physically impossible since the truck had left) or he would call the police. Luckily my Father showed up just about this time and managed to reason with the Condo manager. Fortunately for Rich, my Dad was able to arrange for a bunch of family members to come help with the loading, which required hoisting everything up the 5 ft. Unfortunately, they could only do it Friday night and Rich was sick so the packing wasn’t finished which didn’t make anything easier.

It turned out that a 20 foot container holds about twice as much as we’d estimated so after all the stuff we’d originally planned to take was packed, Rich and I talked it over on the phone and decided to bring the rest of the furniture. That meant that everything in the container had to be rearranged once again and a bunch of stuff we’d sent off to storage had to be retrieved. Rather a nightmarish weekend for a sick guy. Finally, on the 11th of March they came and picked up the container only 10 days behind schedule. Not so bad for a SIDS, but this was still on the USA end, a supposed developed country.

Fast forward 20 days to the beginning of April. I’d been busy working with the Trinidad subcontractor to Global Ocean Freight to make various customs arrangements, which included things like getting a license to import a freezer and a sea kayak. So we were all ready for the container to arrive before its scheduled date on the 2nd of April. I got a call from the shipping company late on a Friday afternoon (March 29) saying the shipment had arrived. False alarm. The ship had arrived but my container wasn’t on it. A mad search ensued to locate the container, which was initially thought to have been left in the Bahamas but was ultimately located in Dominica. The container gets booked on a new ship scheduled to arrive in Trinidad on April 21. This is cutting things a bit close since I have plane tickets to attend an advisory board meeting in Seattle on April 30 and I have to be there in person to clear the shipment through customs. The Trinidad shippers did a fantastic job expediting everything so that we can get the container rapidly cleared through customs but there is still one problem. Global Ocean Freight hasn’t paid the freighter so they won’t release the container. Both the Trini shippers and I talk to them several times and are assured that the bill has been paid and the container will be released before the ship reaches port. The ship comes in Sunday and Monday morning it still hasn’t been released. I make panicked phone calls to Florida but since it’s a Jewish holiday, no one at Global Ocean Freight can help. First thing Tuesday morning, I’m back on the phone to GOF, and the same woman who told me the previous Thursday that the bill had been paid and the container would definitely be released before it arrived in port, tells me she had just paid the bill and it will take 72 hours for the payment to clear before my container gets released (insert appropriate string of curse words). I point out to the woman that if I can’t get the container before I leave, it will cost me $50 US per day. She tells me tough luck. This continues through the week until late Friday afternoon when the ship finally releases the container. At that point, customs set an appointment for me to clear the shipment on the following Wednesday. AARRRRRGG, I’m scheduled to be on a plane to the USA at 7 AM that morning and it will cost me over $1000 to change the ticket. Early Monday morning, I accompany a representative of the Trini shipping company to customs and they agree to move my appointment to Tuesday morning. The plan is to get it cleared through customs in the morning and then deliver it that afternoon when I’ve arranged a group of people I know from church to help unload.

Tuesday morning I arrive at customs at 9 AM but the container isn’t there. A truck has to haul it around the fence from the port to the customs office. This was supposed to happen Monday afternoon but customs had closed before the trucking company got there. About 10 AM, the truck comes to the port to get the container but there is a long line waiting for the crane so my container doesn’t get loaded on the truck before 11 AM, when the port takes its 1 hour lunch break. About 5 minutes after noon the truck carrying my container pulls into customs but now customs is taking their 1 hour lunch break. Shortly after one, a woman from customs escorts me and the rep. from the Trini shipping company out to the container to check the seal. BIG PROBLEM. Global Ocean Freight has incorrectly recorded the seal number on the paper work; they left out two digits. BIG PROBLEM!!! So the rep. from the Trini shipping company literally runs across town and persuades some upper level person in customs that this was a clerical error and they agree to let me have the stuff. So now its nearly 2:30 and they start unloading everything from the 20 foot container and then a customs inspector and I go around while he randomly opens boxes to see what’s in them. Finally, they clear my shipment at shortly after 3 PM. They are then supposed to repack the container and deliver it to me. I rush off since I’ve got people from church meeting at my house at 4 pm. When I’m about half way back to St. Augustine, I get a call on my cell phone saying that customs closed before they had reloaded the container and locked all my stuff inside. No chance or recovering it before my flight the next morning. (Insert appropriate string of curses).

In the next hour, the Trini shipping company arranges for some professionals to unload the container the following evening and my neighbor agrees to open my flat and sign for the shipment. So the next morning I hop on a plane for Salt Lake City with my stuff still locked in customs. Luckily, my good Trini neighbor Annabelle and the local shippers managed it all with only one small hitch. The truck carrying the container was too tall to fit under the electrical wires above the gate to our complex. It hit the wires and according to the neighborhood kids there were sparks flying. Then they had to get a smaller truck to shuttle stuff between the gate and our flat. Luckily, I didn’t hear anything about this until the neighborhood kids regaled me with the tale. When I called from the states, Annabelle just said everything had arrived and was safely stowed in my flat.

Two weeks later when I returned from the states, the first floor of my flat was packed to the ceiling with boxes. Some wonderful friends from church came over the next couple of days and help me carry beds upstairs and unpack most everything. By the time Rich arrived on June 1st, there were only a half dozen or so boxes left to unpack. Amazingly, only a couple of things got broken and they were largely reparable. The glass from only of larger pictures got broken and it was quite a hassle cleaning it up without cutting the rest of the pictures but Rich managed.

The day after Rich arrived, we had our first guests, a friend and student who we’ve worked with in M√ľnster Germany for the past several years and his lovely girl friend. Between entertaining guests, trying to get Rich’s VISA (another torturous tale) and various obligations at UWI the next two weeks raced by and now we are on study leave in Europe for the next two months. We barely managed to recover Rich’s passport and VISA from immigration hours before our plane departed.

It was a hellacious three months, but we are finally moved in with legal VISAs and everything. We'll post some stuff on our Europe trip soon.

Bye for Now.