Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Night Shift in Beijing

It's 00:38 in Beijing. The grey breathiness of air conditioning permeates the hotel lobby where I sit, tapping at my laptop. I have spent the past three hours marking assignments. To my left, an eerie deathmask gestures at me for silence from a bookshelf, and a humidifier exhales steam silently. There are two charming hotel staff at the faux-marble desk to my right, occasionally chatting; apart from these, the lobby is silent as the proverbial tomb. Perhaps more silent, since I'm pretty sure tombs get lots of creaking and settling noises.

To cut a long story short, I'm locked out of my hotel room.

I'm confident this is accidental, my betrothed having retired to our twin room when I started marking in the hotel café. The door isn't exactly locked - I've got the key - but the security bar was over the door, preventing it from opening more than two inches. Alas, it's also an actually good one, which even one of my slender wrist and flexible roomcard cannot flip open. So I have returned, somewhat ignominiously, to the lobby.

Explaining this situation is one of the weirder things I've had to do so far in China, but at least (once the idea was grasped) they have been sympathetic and helpful. Thankfully there's a toilet here and some comfy chairs. They offered to try and get me in, but on balance I decided staying up really late (until it's technically early, in fact) was preferable to waking my intended wife with the sound of splintering wood in a strange hotel in a distant city. She is a gentle soul and easily alarmed, and I would hate to upset her.

Right, let's see what we can get done tonight...

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The First Fortnight

I have been in China a little under a month, but more importantly, I've now completed my first fortnight of teaching. Somehow.

The first few lessons were inevitably tough, but I feel like I do at least have some idea what I'm doing now. I've had the chance to clarify some really important things, like:

  • "What is the actual content you are expecting them to have learned in this course?" (A: Important issues like that are why we recruited foreign experts; you decide)
  • "how many students are in the class?" (A: at least twice as many, in all cases, as you were told to expect)
  • "how am I supposed to assess them?"

There are a lot of unresolved issues to deal with. I'm racking up incredible bills on my UK mobile, since I need to turn on roaming intercontinental data daily for vital things like checking vocabulary, navigating and getting fairly-constant messages from my employers. I still don't have my long-term work permit, which means I can't open a bank account, which means I can't get a Chinese mobile account, which means I can't register for basically any Chinese services because the government demands real-ID linking for most things and nobody accepts foreign mobile numbers.

The syllabuses were provided a couple of days before classes began, so I didn't have much time to prepare. Let's be honest; my first classes were outright bad. I like to think I improved quickly, but it's very much a case of frantically running to get ahead of myself, since I have even more classes starting soon.

It's the end of summer here, and I am only glad to have escaped "the hot part". I'm still constantly aware of just how warm it is for my delicate rain-fed constitution. Like wading through hot fog, or fumbling through a warehouse filled with heated silks; there’s a physical presence to the heat.

The combination of jetlag, workload, and the general mental pressure of coping with so many things at once has left me pretty exhausted most of the time, so let's call this one done for now.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A change of career

Ten years is a long time, from a certain perspective.

Ten years and six months ago, I deposited my ID and left the building with that unique relief that comes from freedom.

If you’ve ever spent six months in the twisting out-of-town lair of a multinational credit card company, sat with a thousand other nobodies in a gargantuan drone-hall that is merely a fraction of the corporate sprawl; wearily tabbing between PDF and ungainly in-house system as you enter the meagre figures from raw, humiliating debt repayment proposals so they can be summarily rejected by the algorithms that dance for your soulless masters; subject to the same endlessly-looping company radio in any room or corridor you enter, as your mind slowly devolves into gruel; watching exploited colleagues on temporary minimum-wage contracts delude themselves into machismotic displays of break-skipping self-sacrifice before being summarily laid off as backlogs clear; passing from inky autumn morning to clinical fluorescence and back to the darkness of early evenings; finding respite only in the nigh-religious ritual of breaking free each noon for an hour of honest air and tranquillity regardless of thundering rain or bone-chilling cold, and granting atrophying muscles a desolate circuit of the palace of Mammon; finally slipping free of the uncaring hand and striding out into the heady air of freedom – well, you’ll know what I mean.

Why no, I haven't slept more than two hours before writing this. Why do you ask, imaginary made-up person?

In that particular case, I was departing for a voluntary teaching placement in China. During a previous job I’d noticed an advert for volunteers willing to teach at universities in China, and having studied linguistics (amongst other things) and enjoyed the TEFL module I took, this seemed like an interesting opportunity. Expensive, like a lot of these things, but worth it. I did a lot of research and took the plunge, so thankfully the aforementioned six months was leavened by knowing I had an out.

So in March 2008 I nervously set off for Xi’an, Shaanxi, central China. Home of the Terracotta Warriors and, of more personal interest, one of the places my dad had visited in the late 1980s as an invited lecturer, when China was beginning to open up more to foreigners.

That particular trip is another story for another time. Suffice it to say: it happened, there were ups and downs, and moved on to my next job with the vague feeling that TEFL wasn’t something I desperately wanted to continue with.

Seven years and a bit later, in Sheffield, I signed up for a language exchange scheme at the Confucius Institute, where I was partnered with a lady who turned out to be from Xi’an.

A bit shy of three more years later, I am preparing to leave my job in Sheffield and move to Xi’an, where I’ve been offered a place as an English-and-associated-stuff teacher in Xidian University. This will involve a huge amount of time, effort, emotional exhaustion, and indeed money. On the other hand, I’ll be able to hug my girlfriend without using an emoji.

Plus, maybe I can finally get another bowl of 鸡汤刀削面…


P.S. September 1st: The last year or so have been a soup of repeated minor illness, family stuff, work stuff and the huge amount of time that this move has required. Hopefully this will explain the complete dearth of posts recently. Hope to get back to it now I've actually hit Xi'an, but I do have entire courses to write, so who knows?

Thursday, 6 April 2017

April updates

I just wanted to flag up that there are quite a few posts queued up to finish, as I've been on a trip this spring. However, I'm currently adjusting to some new medication and have very little energy, so I imagine it'll be a while before I get to finish and post them. Apologies for the delay.

PROTIP: If you're missing your extremely irregular dose of this blog, you can soften the blow by looking at a picture of some cherry blossom while complaining at great length about inadequate bread.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

China 2017: Muslim Quarter

When last we left our very unheroic hero, he had arrived in Xi'an a full day late, without sleeping, appallingly jetlagged, and in the early stages of adjusting to powerful mind-affecting medication, to find his hotel politely reporting they had never heard of him.

Well, you may say. Well. Well, well. Um. I mean, I had definitely made a booking, and had money taken for the booking, and I have a fair amount of confidence that STA Travel weren't scamming me.* On the other hand, these nice people couldn't find a record of my booking or payment. What a conundrum, you might say; rather a pickle, isn't it?

*they had of course used an intermediary, and in theory they could have been scamming me; but I was far too tired, nauseous and language-shocked to think of that.

Obviously I'm not about to do anything outrageous, like throw a tantrum, or burst into floods of tears, or demand to speak to the manager, or proclaim that I was being treated appallingly, or threaten to write to the Telegraph, or insist that they give me a room, or suggest that they might be wrong, or imply in any way that they might personally be at fault, or look cross, or sigh heavily. I must confess I do at one stage raise one eyebrow and show them my booking printout, but in my defence, I am very tired and assume this was all some simple misunderstanding, and no actual injury was intended; though I do of course later send an anonymous basket of flowers.

Anyway, I look sheepish and tug my right earlobe a couple of times, and apologise several times for troubling them, and murmur in an embarrassed way that there seems to have been some kind of mistake. These moments are when you realise you're abroad, because this does not send the entire staff into a frenzy of anxious activity; nor does a grizzled veteran named Pam or Tom emerge from a secret abode, plonk a brick-red cuppa down on the desk and stare thoughtfully at my passport for a minute, before rummaging in a hitherto-unnoticed drawer and producing a document that explains and resolves the whole affair. In Japan, too, this behaviour would probably have caused the silent flaring of emergency lights in a back room, from whence a crack team of customer service marines would have sallied forth to deal with the seething client before any kind of rampage could ensue. In China, for some incomprehensible reason, they appear to take my mild demeanour and friendly tone as an indication that I'm not stressed or irate about the latest in a string of exhausting failures, and we can discuss the whole situation at length.

My Chinese is definitely not up to this. I have probably never been happier to have a native speaker on hand to help. Between us we relay information back and forth for a good fifteen minutes, comparing different screens and sets of paperwork - I dig out my laptop and fire that up in case it helped (it didn't). Eventually they offer to give me the room, since I do seem to have all the right information, for which I assume HT's silver tongue and obvious trustworthiness is responsible. Personally I tend to have more of a "police are anxious to speak to this Caucasian male seen in the area" vibe. I agree to email my travel agent and ask them to provide more information so we can resolve this in the morning; one of those occasions where the 8-hour time difference causes problems!

After my very late arrival, HT suggests we go for a walk. We head to the nearby city centre; it has a concentration of interesting historical areas that I remember well from my previous trip. The sun is slipping lower in the sky, casting soft yellow light.

Here's my route: you can sort of follow along, although China and Google maps don't play well, so I suggest you use Baidu maps instead for street view exploring.

The underpass that encircles the heart of the Old City

^_^

Left: The central square by the Xi'an Bell Tower. Right: Archival footage! I took this back in 2008, at the same Starbucks. The lady is Joanne, who was on another volunteer programme. One day I'll get around to blogging about that trip...

Looking up towards the Bell Tower.

I believe this is a hotel and/or restaurant in the Bell Tower Square. Left: 2017. Right: A view from the bridge in 2008.

This man is creating elaborate pictures inside a bottle by very careful application of sand.

How many different kinds of shop is this? And more importantly, why? I count: shoes, bubble tea, whole coconuts, and dried fish products. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just... not a combination I would have predicted, you know?

Muslim Quarter

This district has a high concentration of Muslim residents; I assume this partly relates to Xi'an's historical role in the Silk Road, bringing traders from across Eurasia. It has all kinds of stalls and shops, and is a hotspot in the evenings. I've heard it's also a hotspot for pickpockets, so as an exhausted tourist I try to take good care.

It's also busy most of the time, day and night. There are plenty of souvenir shops here was well, and an excitingly windy covered market; but this time we don't go in there.

This is not particularly busy by the standards of the street.

Quite a lot of the stalls are dedicated to food. Below is an artisan making traditional sweets, kneading and stretching and twisting dough hung on a hook. It will be cut up and rolled in various combinations of nuts, spices, sugar and other flavourings. On the left you can see deep-fried squid and crustaceans, which are eaten like a lollipop.

These ladies run a sweet stall - quite a popular one as you can tell by the number of staff.

After a wander round, HT takes me for a meal. She recommends a regional delicacy called Majiang Liangpi (麻酱凉皮, Májiàng liángpí). These are cold noodles, served with a sauce based around black sesame. I try some, because it's not like I get the opportunity often. Unfortunately, between exhaustion and the unfamiliar taste, I find I'm not able to eat very much. I know sesame paste is one of the more acquired tastes in Chinese cooking, so I'd like to try and get used to it.

I think the green place in the centre is the entrance to the restaurant, but it's hard to be sure.

This is the upper part of just one of the buildings that line the Muslim Quarter. There are lots of these striking buildings near the city centre. I love the architecture.

As the evening sets in, it starts to get busy - people are finishing work, or deciding to head out with the children, and congregating here to take advantage of all the food stalls.

We decide to call it an evening, and HT kindly escorts me back to the hotel. On the way I take this photo, to help show off the sheer sense of vastness that I always get in China - the cities are so big, so tall, and although Japan was similar in some ways, Xi'an also has (unusually?) some big wide open spaces that highlight it even more. I suppose the areas of clustered tall buildings have a claustrophobic feel, whereas when there's a break in them, it gives you the space to more fully grasp the size of what you're dealing with?

I got way too attached to this function.

China 2017: The Long Hello

Hi there! Anyone following this blog in real time - wow, you're patient. So I'm about to post some things I started writing a full year ago. There's reasons for it. Partly it's that I've spent a lot of time working on some other projects that have come up in the meanwhile, and all my blogs have been on hold. Partly, continuing health issues coupled with family stuff and starting a new job, which has meant I just haven't had very much energy to give the blog the time it needs to be vaguely interesting. I mean, if I just wanted to post bad attempts at pretty pictures, I'd do it on Instagram. I know what you all read this for is amusement at my misfortunes, and how can they be funny unless I devote myself to painting you a rich word-picture of each event?

Anyway, I will now begin posting these, in the hope that starting will make me more likely to actually get through them. Enjoy.

It's a long time since I went to China.

Long ago, in fact, that this blog didn't exist. I bought my digital camera specifically for that trip - the most expensive thing I'd ever owned at the time (graduating from a very elderly film camera). It was nine years ago in fact; or, as we Millennials measure these things, five jobs and six addresses ago.

But I've been wondering what it's like, and I have a number of Chinese friends, and one of them just recently returned to China. I wasn't sure what I was doing with my holidays this year, and it seems a shame to have spent all this time trying to learn Chinese and not actually visit. So, well, I am.

It's fairly well-planned out. After much complicated negotiation with various friends, I'm going to spend a week in Xi'an visiting two friends, then take the plane down to Japan to revisit my Fukuokan friends and to explore a little more. I'd originally thought of spending the whole time in China (much cheaper) but I don't feel confident enough to explore on my own, unlike Japan. On the other hand, a single week is a complete waste given the heavy jetlag and the cost of the intercontinental flights. So two countries it is. I'll leave Manchester in the evening, and arrive in Xi'an the following evening, ready to sleep - this worked well last time and should help minimise the jet lag.

A week or so before the journey begins, I am finally prescribed some antidepressants. I begin taking them immediately, which means the key adjustment period will take place while I am staying in a variety of unfamiliar accommodation, travelling enormous distances, violently altering my sleeping pattern, switching diet, operating in a second language, and exposed to a huge range of new and exciting illnesses. Luckily, Sertraline adaptation doesn't cause any inconvenient side-effects like exhaustion, severe nausea, overstimulation or insomnia.

Sorry, what was that? I'm holding it upside down? Oh, so I am. My, that is an extensive list of side-effects. Well... pants.

On a grey Thursday morning, stuffing Peptobismol into my gob at regular intervals like some kind of junkie hamster, I get on the bus to the station, where I find the trains to Manchester airport are delayed by Storm Doris.

So it begins.

With all trains listed as indefinitely delayed, I eventually board one to Manchester itself where I plan to change. We travel sloooowly through the damp, windy countryside, eventually reaching Manchester Piccadilly. As I cross the platform to await the airport train, speakers grimly announce that trains originating from Piccadilly are cancelled and instruct passengers to return home. But mine isn't one of those. I wait.

The next train is delayed. The amount it is delayed ticks back slowly, until it passes the time when the following train is due to arrive. This one repeats the process. There are now three trains queued up to be the next on arriving, always due in a few minutes, but like "tomorrow", that time never arrive.

After about an hour waiting in the cold winds, occasionally pestering an unfortunate security guard with no insight into the weather or the machinations of rail company management, we begin to filter out towards the taxis. I gather four random passers-by and we head to the airport. It's a long ride, but thankfully not too expensive between us. I have four hours until my flight, plenty of time. Other travellers are reading out updates which boast of how the Manchester pilots are bravely defying the storm to continue flights as normal.

After the usual bafflement about exactly how to navigate the floors and passages, I calmly pull my suitcase into the check-in area and glance at the board. There are precisely two flights cancelled. But one of them is mine.

I line up for the information desk, and pass my tickets to the busy staff. After much typing, they offer me a flight the following morning. This is exactly what I didn't want - morning flights, arriving in the morning, which result in the absolute maximum jetlag. Plus, my second Chinese friend is only visiting for the weekend and I'll miss half her visit. I try to haggle, but basically anything earlier has already been booked out.

They hand me fresh travel information and tell me to go home. I point out that I can't. The trains from Manchester were being cancelled; okay, this is a certain amount of extrapolation on my part, but I have zero faith in the ability of the railways to get me home today. Moreover, even if I did, I don't think it's physically possible to reach the airport for 7am the following day. In the face of my determination they decide to book me a hotel room, and also give me a voucher for tea and a snack.

Shortly, a group of us are escorted to a minibus and driven for long, long minutes to Altrincham, a place notable only for the fact that it's a shibboleth for regionality. No, I'm not telling you how it's pronounced... the hotel is okay, but this was really, really not how I wanted to be spending this time. I begin messaging my Chinese friends (and my family) with news of the delays. I also ask both my travel agent and my Xi'an friend to contact my hotel, to let them know that although I won't be arriving on the expected day, I do still need them to keep the room for me!

The evening is slightly enlivened by our meal, as they pack a group of us strandees into a dining room and provide a special meal. We bond over our misfortune and the evening passes fairly pleasantly. Eventually I retire to my room, where the situation preys on my mind enough that I am still awake at 3am. Okay, my new medication is also playing a role here.

At long last, with just a few hours' sleep behind me, I drag myself downstairs. A taxi arrives, but the driver says the name it's booked under doesn't match either our airline or the hotel. After several minutes of confusion we establish that it is in fact ours and we're allowed to go.

With my flights entirely rearranged, I'm now due to fly with only a single change, via Beijing. This means at least an opportunity to sleep. As soon as breakfast is over, I bundle myself up and attempt to sleep. And again. And a little more. Then I try watching a film, before trying to sleep again.

They do at least manage to get me a spare seat, since my original flight was for a seat with extra legroom. Featured: the revolting neck pillow I bought at the airport.

Twelve hours later, we unload in Beijing, having watched three films (a prologue to Journey to the West, Dr Strange, plus another I can't actually remember) and slept for no discernible amount of time. It's 5am and I'm due to be on another plane in two hours' time.

First sight of Beijing

I'm transferring here, but I took the time to check the instructions for exactly what that entails. Basically it's almost entirely the same as arriving; you have to go through immigration. There is a long, long queue for immigration and not many staff. A small group of us foreigners forms and reassure each other about the process.

Half an hour later, we have moved fifteen feet. We are not even yet at the official queue. It's seeming likely I won't get my flight. I'm too tired to be fazed or alarmed by this, but I do want to inform my friend who's supposed to pick me up at 9am. I try to connect to the internet, but in a stroke of genius, this requires a Chinese mobile number, which none of us have. In frustration I watch the time tick away, unable to think of a way to stop my friend from leaving. I am also rapidly dehydrating.

As my flight departs from Beijing, we are exchanging stories of previous foreign encounters, and are getting quite close to the front of the queue. Two and a half hours after arriving, I am finally through the door and head towards the transfer area. A bored man desultorily feeds my rucksack through a scanner, apparently without interest in the result, and nods impatiently at me. I'm somewhat alarmed by what may have happened to my suitcase in the two hours since I arrived, but find a helpful member of staff who assures me it'll have been collected. I manage to collect my suitcase from the luggage area, then wander around for quite a while trying to find the way to the transfers section, since half the building is still locked up. Finally, I reach the check-in desks. My company is not here.

Two members of staff and a twenty-minute walk later, I'm in the next terminal and finally track down Hainan Airlines, who I wasn't originally flying with at all. I'm not especially confident about how this is going to go, but I manage to explain somehow and they find me another flight. It leaves at noon, so I'll arrive five hours later than scheduled.

Eventually I manage to purchase a small drink, and get someone to show me the special machine where you can scan your passport to get a code for the wi-fi. It's a shame they didn't think to put one in the immigration queue because this must be a pretty common occurrence. I finally, finally manage to contact my friend, who is of course already on the non-stop bus to the airport and has nearly arrived. But I can at least apologise.

Duties over, I set an alarm for an hour's time, lie down on a hard wooden bench with my luggage lovingly enfolded in my arms, and pass blissfully into unconsciousness for a regrettably short spell.

This sort of thing is what's frustrating about air travel. I'm not allowed to check in my luggage until two hours before the flight, but need to leave at least an hour to get through security. This means I can't sleep for three hours and then do the whole thing, but neither can I check in my luggage and then sleep until shortly before my flight, either before or after security.

Eventually I pass through into the departure lounge, and fly uneventfully to Xi'an. HT is waiting for me. It's about 1pm and I have slept for 4 hours in the past 48. But I'm finally here.

We head sleepily back into the city on a minibus, which takes about an hour. At long last, I reach my hotel and trundle my luggage to the desk, presenting my passport. After a long muttered conversation, the staff turn to my friend to announce that they are unable to find any record whatsoever of my booking.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Shimmin Scones

I've been asked for the sugar-free scone recipe I mentioned in May.

This is a set of variations around the theme of my parents' recipe, which they have from my grandparents. It may be centuries old for all I know, although I suspect not because self-raising flour is pretty modern.

Sugar-free scones

You'll want the following ingredients:

  • 8oz self-raising flour
  • 2oz margarine (or butter)
  • Spices to taste
  • 1/4 pint water or milk
  • 2oz dried fruit

Mix the flour, spices and marg together, then slowly drip in the liquid. It should start to gather into a ball of dough with a claylike texture - it'll never get quite dry, but it should get easy to handle. If it becomes really tacky you'll need to add more flour.

I use a food processor which has only a blade (no blunt stirrer) so I throw the fruit in at the last minute. You can add it earlier if you've better equipment than me. If you add it too early, it can be ground up so small it's no longer noticeable, and it'll also upset the balance of the dough because it's basically adding sugar and water.

Although scone recipes normally include sugar, I find a reasonable amount of fruit and spices give it plenty of flavour. If you use butter or jam you should be fine. Personally I don't, but then I make these scones deliberately as a convenient but relatively healthy breakfast - quick to eat and with minimal mess, which means I can eat them at work.

Milk supposedly makes for a more luxurious recipe, but water always does fine for me. The milk recipe doesn't keep as well so that's another reason I avoid it.

Good combinations I've tried include the old staple of cinnamon + raisins, and cocoa powder + cherries. Cherries have a fair bit of sugar in, of course, so that's less healthy; on the other hand it offsets the bitterness of the cocoa. It's quite easy to overdo cocoa, it'll look very pale in the raw mixture but darkens on cooking. Mixed Spice is also a good bet.

I've also had a successful savoury recipe: poppy seed and rosemary, with a dash of salt to bring out the flavours.

Because I tend to make these as handy breakfasts, I divide the dough up into large chunks. You can normally get 3-4 large scones from one set of mixture, squash them out into a flat lump and they'll rise nicely (no need for kneading). Smaller ones work just as well, but need a little more watching because they burn more easily.

Put them on a greased tray and cook at preheated GM7/220C without fan/200C with fan for about 10 minutes. It's worth quickly separating them from the tray when you take them out just in case they stick; slightly tricky as they'll still be a bit soft. I find carefully shaking the tray side to side is often enough to dislodge them. Don't put them in a box straight away, as they'll release a lot of moisture as they cool and it'll fill with condensation. Leave them to cool (maybe with a dishcloth over them) and then box them up. Mine last a working week without going off, which is as long as I've ever tried it...

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Basel: Last Day and Departure

By the morning of my third day in Basel, I am rather fed up. I'm still tired and ill from whatever blight has afflicated me. I've spent a good part of two days wandering aimlessly round the city, seeing the main streets and landmarks. I'm sincerely wondering what I can do with the rest of the day.

I take the bus into town, where I find a backery and pick up a couple of things to eat: Grättimaa Schoggi (chocolate chip pastry man) and a Schoggiweggli (some kind of chocolate chip pastry).

It all looks so delicious, and there's only one of me to eat it.

Today, I decided to head up through the Old City, which I'd only checked in passing previously. I avoided bringing a laptop so as to keep my bag light and allow for plenty of walking. I decide to turn off after the bridge and take a fairly circuitous route through various back streets. They're mildly interesting, but not in a photogenic way for the most part.

This mural is on a random wall. I have no idea what it represents, but it's both cool and trippy - could easily be early roleplaying game illustrations.

There's a large building ahead which attracts my attention. This proves to be the Congress Centre, which I can't actually get inside. There's some kind of events going on, but there are security - presumably you either need a pass or to buy a ticket. On the plus side, there's some restaurants around too, and one of them is a relatively affordable Japanese restaurant! Hooray. I leap at the chance.

Weird hole in the middle of the roof; it lets in a reasonable amount of light and presumably lightens the roof as well. Kind of cool.

Not pictured here: very numbers of people breathing smoke all over me from all directions.

This was perfectly pleasant. It came with lamb, which I've only seen at a Mongolian restaurant in Japan, but was quite nice.

Refreshed, I head back towards Barfuesserplatz and the Historical Museum, which was closed yesterday.

I wander inside and find a handy locker to store my stuff. Some confusion ensues, because I'm under the impression that the museum is free, but as I try to wander down a set of stairs to check out the basement gallery, a staff member pounces on me. I apologise and go to buy a ticket I don't especially want. I think the setup may be that the basement part is ticketed but the upstairs is free? I'm confused. Maybe none of it is. Anyway, I pay and get on with it.

A town model

There was an exhibition of chemistry, innovation and its social relevance.

I believe this is a coal-bearing rock, or some such.

Looks pretty groovy to me.

The museum is inside a church, and most of the fittings are still here. There are also some displays of historical church silverware.

The basement contains a more general set of historical goods. Most of them are the usual generic artefacts - bowls, coins, bits of bone and so on. All fine, but I've seen plenty before.

These are incredibly thin stackable bowls.

I think this is a coconut turned into a dispenser of some sort.

Animal samples in a cabinet of curiosities.

There were also plenty of tapestries, bits of mediaeval artwork (including rescued fragments of a huge Dance of Death mural) and samples from various local crafts.

This room is preserved as it belonged to a famous theologian, but embarrassingly I can't remember which and it's not on the website.

Museumed out, I stride off into the steep streets to the south-west, randomly doing a circuit and just scoping the place out. There's not a huge amount of great interest to see here - various shops, lots of houses, but it's fairly ordinary stuff and the lighting isn't very good.

To be fair, most places are not fundamentally particularly interesting. I've learned this more and more as I travel more. Many places are interesting to visit with other people. Some places are very scenic, although that often fades after a while. Most places have a few specific points of interest, which you may or may not be able to appreciate. I suspect it's a little easier if you're very much into restaurants or bars or something, because you can find that sort of thing more or less everywhere.

There is a large barometer in this street. I don't know why. At least, I think it was a barometer.

Roothuus

There's a big, distinctive red building in the town centre. This is the town hall; "Roothuus" is the local dialect term for Council Hall (elsewhere "Rathaus"), and a handy homophonic pun on "Red House". It's not particularly striking in the low light conditions that prevail, but when the sun strikes it's very pleasing.

With the night creeping in, I find a My Thai restaurant in a nearby shopping centre. I was actually planning to buy some bits from a supermarket, but it didn't have a suitable set of things (shopping for one meal for one person in a generic supermarket is suboptimal). So instead, I go for further noodles and nice green tea.

Once I get back, I write for a while and decide on a walk. I'm getting bored and want to get out. I deliberately head away from town, and meander nowhere in particular. It's not hugely interesting, being just a generic residential district, but my podcast is good so it's fine.

The following day, my flight is in the afternoon. For breakfast, I eat my cakes.

I lock up, hand over the keys, and head off into town. Here I find a luggage locker to tuck my case away, and have another wander around. There's not a lot of excitement; I take further photos of the red building, and have my lunch back at My Thai to save the effort of hunting around too much. At that point I see no particular advantage in hanging around and decide to just head to the airport. There's a few intriguing-looking books, but given the extortionate prices here I see no reason to buy them; I can always pick them up from German sources. And I really, really don't need any more books right now.

I sit around bored for a while, having several hours to kill before the flight. I sensibly brought some basic food, because the airport is sparse and extremely boring, though it does have a cafe. And now for the tedious journey back to Manchester.

Several hours later, I get into Manchester. The flight has not provided any form of liquid, and I've had no opportunity to collect any. My luggage takes so long to arrive that I have to sprint through the airport and down the stairs to the station, in the hopes of getting the 9.45pm train home. My hopes are dashed when, although I arrive a couple of minutes early, the train's arrival time slowly ticks back minute by minute. Before long, it's evident that there's no point getting it as I'll miss my connection and be stranded in the middle of nowhere overnight.

Thank heavens, the shop which earlier seemed to be closed has reopened. It's an all-night concern, apparently, and they were just restocking! I manage to buy a tea and muffin (eventually ferreting out my British money) and collapse at a table to wait two hours. As I do so, I realise that the foil-wrapped chocolate I was kindly given by my host at Aaron's Sleepwell, and hastily tucked into a pocket, has melted in my coat and seeped into the fabric, bestowing a large oily patch and a strong scent of chocolate which (SPOILERS) remains months later after several bouts of scrubbing and treatment.

I hate Basel.

I eventually get back well after midnight, pay for a taxi (almost unprecedented) and stumble into my flat around 1am. I'm so glad I took today off work.