Thursday 30 June 2022

A good read afloat

Our recent cruise gave me the opportunity of catching up on my reading – lots of reading, in fact. I normally have a book or two on the go at home, but “on the go” often means taking an age to complete, as a busy home and a still hectic work life (despite a cut in my hours), doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading. In fact, I consider I've achieved something, if I manage to read the odd chapter or two. This is a shame, especially if the book I’m reading is a gripping novel, or even a half decent one, but apart from when I'm in bed, there seems very little spare time for ploughing my way through a book.

I am a sucker for not going to bed at a decent time, and not getting enough sleep. Mrs PBT’s isn’t much better, although, it’s slightly different for her, as she doesn’t have to get up as early as I do of a morning. So, by the time I’m tucked up in bed, I’m lucky if I manage to get through the odd chapter prior to “lights out.” The obvious solution would be to go to bed earlier, but as I’m the person who locks up at night, I usually wait for my nearest and dearest to head up the wooden hill, before following suit. should be viewed against the fact that reading is a sure-fire method of drifting off into sleep.

Consequently, most books take me an age to finish, and this is where relaxing on board a cruise ship, comes into its own. There is something about just sitting there, up on deck, in a sheltered spot, watching the waves slip by as the ship glides effortlessly through them. Time seems to stand still, so what better excuse is needed, than getting your nose stuck into a good book, and totally losing yourself in its pages?

I took a couple of books with me, when we boarded at Southampton two and a half weeks ago. One was a lengthy and classic work of fiction, whilst the other was a recently published book about beer, and our relationship with it. It was a Christmas present, but one that until the cruise, I never managed to find time to read.

The first book, was one I’ve been making my way through  for the past year or so. I made some headway with it on our cruise to Liverpool and back, last September, but the most recent 12 night voyage, provided the perfect opportunity to get some pages of this novel, under my belt, and finally allowed me to put it to bed, so to speak, as I actually finished it on the final afternoon of the cruise.

The book in question was Anna Karenina, by the 19th Century Russian author, Leo Tolstoy.  It is a novel, which is nowhere near as well known as Tolstoy's most famous work - War & Peace, but after looking at a number of online reviews I discovered that the former, is far more readable and approachable than the latter. 

The book runs to over 800 pages, so is quite a weighty tome, and whilst Anna Karenina has a rather a tragic ending, Tolstoy tells an enthralling story that reveals much about the lives of a small, but fictional group, who are members the upper echelons of Russian society. The principal characters flit between city life in  St Petersburg and Moscow, before heading off to their estates in the country, and the life of one of the key players is said to reflect that of Tolstoy himself who, whilst a Count and landed gentleman, was someone who cared deeply about the countryside, and the people who lived and worked on his estate.

Despite its length, I found Anna Karenina easy to read, and this is largely thanks to the efforts of the two translators who corroborated on this latest edition of the novel. The only real difficultly I found was dealing with the names of the characters; a situation complicated by the Russian custom of having both  formal, and familiar version of their names. In addition several of the female cast, followed the convention that was in vogue at the time, of adopting anglicized versions of their names. Thus Katrina is known as Kitty, Darya is known as Dolly, and Elizaveta is referred to as Betsy, but only to their immediate families and close friends.

The other book I took with me is not a novel, but instead is an informative volume about beer – naturally. It was a Christmas present and is a publication that came highly recommended. Entitled “A Year in Beer - The Beer Lover's Guide to the Seasons," the book is written by Jonny Garrett, a London-based beer writer, author and filmmaker, who has picked up numerous awards for his work. One of these was for UK Beer Writer of the Year 2019.

Being back home, and back to work as well, I'm making slow progress, but the book is well laid out and, as its title suggests, follows the changing seasons, and the influence they have on the beers that are brewed and those that are drunk. Somewhat surprisingly, the season it starts with is winter, primarily because this coincides with the start of the year.

I'm drawing this post to an end now, as I'm sure you will appreciate I've got a book to read and it's getting close to my bedtime!


Wednesday 29 June 2022

An old laptop reveals its secrets


I took my old laptop with me on the cruise. It’s a rather dated Toshiba Satellite model, which runs on Windows 7. It belonged to my late mother, and I remember her asking me, before she went into hospital, whether I wanted it. I said "no" at the time, but after she passed away my sisters and I were sorting through various effects of hers, and the subject of ownership of mum’s laptop, came up.

This time I said “yes,” especially as neither of my siblings expressed any interest.  I also thought it would come in handy for blogging activities. I soon discovered though, that it was extremely slow – something to do with not having sufficient RAM – computer geeks please advise! I plodded on with it, and even took it with me when I attended the 2016 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference, which took place that year in Amsterdam. Regrettably 2016 turned out to be the last such conference, in Europe at least. A combination of rising costs and dwindling attendances meant such events were no longer viable. 

The conferences continued for several more years, in the United States, and I attended the one that was held in 2018. Loudon County, Virginia was a great location to host such a conference, with some really good beers and equally good places in which to drink them. I was equipped with a laptop again, but it was a different one that I purchased from a work colleague. He was something of a computer geek, and the instrument he sold me was a Hewlett Packard machine that he had refurbished. 

It was certainly much faster than my mother’s laptop, and everything seemed fine until it meant with an unfortunate accident. In the autumn of 2018, and just a few months after my Virginia trip, the family and I were staying at a Premier Inn, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, when after somewhat carelessly leaving the machine on the edge of a chair in our hotel room, the laptop slid off and landed with a bit of a clump on one of its corners.

The impact shattered one of the protective corners of the casing, and whilst it seemed to have done little else in the way of harm, it soon became obvious that it had. All sorts of weird, random things started happening, including the system shutting down without warning. I asked my colleague to take a look and the diagnosis was a problem with the hard drive. Unfortunately the problem was terminal, and eventually the machine just died.

So, to cut a long story short, this is why I’m sitting here tapping away on a laptop that’s probably over 10 years old. But old technology can sometimes prove superior over new, as I’m not the only member of the Bailey family to have experienced problems with a laptop – Matthew gave up on them after a couple of total system crashes, when he was a student, and Mrs PBT’s is now on her umpteenth model.

This rather long-winded pre-amble brings me onto the main topic of this post, which is the surprising things you can find on an old computer. As mentioned above, I took this particular laptop to the Netherlands, for the 2016 European Beer Writer’s Conference, and I stumbled upon several part-written posts, that are particularly interesting.

Unfortunately none are complete, which is a real shame, as several of them read as though they would have been really interesting. The trouble is, my memory is not it once was, especially after a gap of six years, so unless I can find the notes I made at the time, I will be unable to finish these pieces. I might be able to cobble something together from the multitude of photos I took at the time, but there will still be gaps, and if it’s facts and figures you are looking for, then there is little chance of accuracy.

So what are these partially completed posts, and are any of them still relevant six years down the line? Two of them relate to presentations given by a couple of beer-writing luminaries, in the persons of Tim Webb and Martyn Cornell. Tim is best known these days for his knowledge and writing on the beers, breweries and bars of Belgium, along with the various guides he has produced on this niche. Martyn is an extremely knowledgeable and highly respected, beer historian – again with a several books and numerous articles published under his name. 

Looking at what is saved on my laptop, Tim’s talk is salvageable-or at least the gist of it is, but unfortunately only a couple of paragraphs of Martyn Cornell’s talk exist, so we will have to kiss this one goodbye. There are also two brewery-related posts, concerning Jopen and De Molem breweries, which we visited as part of the 2016 EBBC weekend. Both companies acted as very generous hosts – both beer and food-wise.

With regard to these two breweries, I noticed that I had published a detailed write-up on the blog, of our visit to Jopen Brewery, but apart from a very short mention, I can find nothing about the trip we made out to De Molem. That excursion took place on the Sunday, after the conference had finished, and although I wrote up the beginnings of an article I’m not sure there is sufficient material to finish it. 

 I will give it a go though, as the photos I took at the time are probably sufficient to jog my memory and fill in the missing pieces. Watch this space, and to all those wishing to write off old computer equipment, just remember, "an old laptop won’t ever let you down!"



Tuesday 28 June 2022

Hamburg - third time lucky?

I started writing this piece, whilst onboard ship, hence the somewhat confused timeline, but it refers to what would be my third visit to Hamburg, even though the previous two occasions had been little more than fleeting glimpses of the city. More of that later, and for now here’s a look back at the events of a week ago, last Tuesday.

Our ship berthed in Hamburg, shortly after 7 am this morning. It had taken several hours to navigate upstream, from the mouth of the River Elbe to the port, but I went out on our balcony and watched as a tug turned the ship around and manoeuvred it into our berth for the day and night.

Unfortunately, the turnaround meant that instead of a nice view of the Hamburg waterfront, we found ourselves facing instead, a view of Hamburg’s massive container terminal. This is a major part of the bustling port, which is the third largest in Europe, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Every way you look there is row after row of massive cranes lifting containers off the decks of the largely Chinese-owned ships. COSCO was one shipping company, with Evergreen the other, although the latter is Taiwanese rather than belonging to mainland China.

Eileen and I didn't rush to get out of bed, or indeed get ourselves ready that morning, and in fact were really decadent having spoiled ourselves with breakfast in bed. This indulgence represented the second morning running, but with the whole day in front of us, in which to explore the town, there seemed little point in rushing, and it seemed best to let the early birds off first.

Quite a few passengers were leaving the ship, with some having sailed all the way from New York, but later in the day many more would be joining us, for the voyage to the fjords. Others, like us, would be going ashore. We hadn’t booked to go on any of the excursions, and instead would be taking advantage of one of the shuttle buses that conducts passengers to and from Hamburg city centre.

We had various items of paperwork-identification to take with us, but as it happened the only things, we needed were our passports plus our ship’s ID card. The latter is a credit card-sized piece of plastic which, as well as being the key to our room, acts as currency on board the ship. Cunard operate a cashless, “card only” system whereby the card is linked to an individual’s credit card, with all spending debited against the latter, at the end of the voyage.

We left our room sometime between 9.30 and 10 am and headed down to the gangway that would lead us off from the ship. Our ID cards were swiped as we disembarked, and the process would be repeated, when we re-embarked later. Our NHS Proof of Vaccination certificates were not required, although our passports were. I asked for mine to be stamped, a request that was granted, with a slight sense of amusement on the part of the officer in the booth. We then made our way to onto one of the “buses” that would take us into town.

I use the term “bus” in its American sense, as the vehicle we boarded was a comfortable, luxury coach, and the ride into the city centre enabled us to see more of the massive container area, before crossing one of several bridges over the Elbe river. I learned on a subsequent trip, that the river splits into two distinct streams to the west of the city, and these then re-join further east. This means that Hamburg is sited on a huge island, and its proximity to the water means the city has more bridges, and canals, than Amsterdam – a fact our guide was only too pleased to point out.

As hinted at in the title, this was my third time in Hamburg, but would I manage to see more than on the previous two occasions? The answer was a definite yes, but I was starting from a very low bar, as those two earlier visits had both been rather fleeting in nature. The first took place in the mid-1970’s when, as a student, I travelled around Europe by train, making full use of the Inter-Rail ticket. We had journeyed from Copenhagen, and had a brief overnight stop in Hamburg, before travelling on the following morning. 

We were running on a tight budget, so had opted to stay at one of the city’s Youth Hostels, a grim and foreboding establishment that appeared to be run on tight military lines To give a flavour of what I mean, we had to be back at the hostel by 10 pm, as the doors were locked at that time. It was lights out at 10.30 pm, and reveille the following morning at 6.30 am. This scuppered any chance of a night on the town, but also meant that we missed out on opportunities for sight-seeing were considerably reduced.

Consequently, apart from the rather austere youth hostel, the only memories I have of that first visit to Hamburg, are of walking along part of the infamous Reeperbahn and feeling decidedly on edge. Apart from that I don’t even recall the city’s main railway station. (We drove past it in the shuttle bus, and it didn’t look the slightest bit familiar).

My second visit to Hamburg, occurred approximately eight years later, and was a short business trip. I travelled there, with my then boss, for a meeting, having caught a flight the evening before. I was only present because I could speak a bit of German, and in the end my linguistic skills weren’t required. To make matters worse, although my boss was a person who normally enjoyed a few beers, he decided he was too tired to venture out that evening and grabbed an early night instead. I ended up having a couple of beers in the hotel bar, and then doing the same, so I saw nothing of interest that the city had to offer.

Returning to the present day, the shuttle bus, dropped us virtually opposite the imposing Rathaus, or town hall, “More rooms than Buckingham Palace,” said the guide, continuing with her little game of one upmanship! Leaving rivalries aside, the Rathaus certainly is an impressive building, standing out amongst a sea of modernity, most of which is surely the result of the devastating WWII bombing campaign, conducted by the allies.

We found a nice little, independent café, just around the corner, and sat out at a pavement table, enjoying a coffee. The sun had started to peep out from behind the clouds, adding its welcoming warmth to the proceedings. Afterwards, Eileen fancied shopping for some food and cooking related goodies to take home with us, so after checking on Google, I noticed there was a REWE supermarket, in an arcade, just a couple of blocks away.

REWE have outlets all over Germany, of varying size, and given its city centre location, this was quite a small one, tucked away in the basement of the arcade. It seemed a popular spot for office workers to buy lunch from, or perhaps a few groceries to take home after work, but we found everything we wanted. For Mrs PBT’s these were various herb and spice mixtures, that we have bought before in Germany, which don’t seem to be available back in the UK. For me, it was some tins of beer for drinking in our cabin, onboard the ship.

In common with other cruise lines, Cunard frown on passengers consuming their own alcohol, and given the prices charged on the boat, this is perhaps not surprising. However, having picked up six different brands of locally brewed pilsner, all for less than €1.00 each, I was quite willing to risk it being confiscated. Because of the times we live in, all bags, plus passengers were scanned, airport style, on re-boarding the ship, but fortunately my small stash of cans were either unnoticed, or just ignored.

Talking of beer, we decided it would be nice to find a pavement cafe-cum-bar, where we could sit out and enjoy a beer or two, and Cotidiano Alter Wall, tucked away at the side of the Rathaus proved the ideal spot. Cotidiano are a small restaurant chain, with outlets in Munich, Stuttgart and Regensburg, along with the one we visited in Hamburg. We’d already decided to have a late lunch when back on the ship – it was all-inclusive, after all, so it literally was just a couple of beers, plus a soft-drink for Eileen, that we were after.

Having said that, as we sat waiting for our drinks to arrive, the food that was being brought out looked really good, but we stuck to our guns and I enjoyed two slightly different beers from Ratsherrn Brauerei, a relative newcomer on the Hamburg brewing scene, having commenced production just 10 years ago. I sampled their Pilsner, plus their Hamburg Hell, and whilst both were good, the latter had the edge over the former.

As planned, we took the shuttle coach back to the ship, but this wasn’t to be my last trip into Hamburg. On the cruise back to Southampton the Queen Mary 2 again docked at the port, to off-load the substantial numbers of German passengers who had cruised up to Norway and back with us. The ship also picked up travellers who would be sailing onto New York.

On that particular morning, I embarked on a pre-booked excursion to the charming little, medieval town of Lünenburg. On the way back, and before returning to the cruise ship, we had a drive-by coach tour of Hamburg, with commentary by our knowledgeable tour guide, plus a couple of occasions when our driver stopped, for a few photo opportunities. This short tour helped fill in a few more of the gaps in my knowledge of the city and acted as a fitting farewell to this busting port city on the river Elbe.