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Vietnamese coffee is usually 'drip coffee' - hot water dripping through a large portion of ground coffee in a metal filter set above the cup - and what emerges is a strong and stimulating drink. Most places will serve either sweet milk or fresh milk with it: I have occasionally managed to get hot milk which means that the coffee as a whole is still hot - the dripping process takes time. I did not at first realise that the 'sweet milk' is condensed milk, which I doubt I have consumed since I was a child. The mix of ferociously strong coffee with a similar quantity of thick sweetened milk gives one a very powerful rush.

Yesterday we had a variant on the 'Hot Pot' idea I posted about earlier. The pan on the table-top stove was more like a frying pan and it contained lots of pieces of fish which were already starting to cook nicely in some oil. We were also given a bowl of noodles and two bowls of different chopped veggies (one mainly onion) to cook or heat in the pan. With this came several small bowls of condiments - including soy sauce, spicy sauce, oil and vinegar, small lemons slit for squeezing, chopped chilli - which could be added either to the food cooking in the pan or to one's bowl of cooked food. It all tasted very good.

In my discworld post I quoted a list of the more unusual foods consumed in Vietnam, including dog. I do not know whether dog is considered a delicacy but it is certainly a dish here and there are restaurants - mainly, I gather, in more rural locations - which specialise in serving it. I do not know whether these facts are connected, but Vietnam seems singularly free of the feral dogs which have been a feature of most places we have visited. Maybe Vietnam had a big blitz on them, like Greece did a few years ago, or maybe, as they have been regarded as food animals, they have traditionally been managed differently.
ruthct21: (Default)

I took part in the social contact survey!

I took part in the Social contact survey, which said that if I were an animal, then I would be a a fox! Go here to find your contact type, and help with scientific research.


My network:


contact network
TypeIndividualGroup Duration  
Home <10 mins
Work/School 11-30 mins
Travel 31-60 mins
Other >60 mins
Me!

My contact numbers are:


Home:
 
 

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Work:
 
 
 

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Other:
 
 
 

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ruthct21: (Default)
We decided to do a yoga course at Yoga Plus in Agios Pavlos (small place on south coast of Crete) this summer: me, Mick and my son Matthew. As we talked about it, we realised we really didn't want to fly there so we decided to look at other options. I had travelled to Greece by train many years ago with Matthew's father, so I knew that was possible.

We thought it would be good to visit some interesting places en route and make that part of the holiday.

Our eventual route was:

train to London
Eurostar to Paris
sleeper train Paris to Venice
a day and a night in Venice, staying near the Grand Canal
train to Ancona (Italy)
ferry (22 hours) to Patras (Greece)
train to Athens + tube to Piraeus
ferry to Heraklion, Crete

return route:
ferry to Piraeus + tube to Athens
train to Thessaloniki: an afternoon to wander about there
sleeper train to Belgrade
a day and a night in Belgrade
train to Vienna via Budapest
an evening, night and most of the next day in Vienna, staying in a hotel in the old town
sleeper train to Strasbourg
train to Paris to catch the Eurostar.

We were a little less green on Crete: we had a hire car for the fortnight, which cost about the same as the return taxi journey from Heraklion to Agios Pavlos. Public transport on Crete is rather limited outside the main towns. The car gave us the opportunity to do see a few places e.g. the Amari Valley (scene of village-to-village fighting during World War 2, loads of war memorials:also very green and lush compared with most of Crete), the excavations at Knossos, and a nearby resort, Agia Galini, where we were able to check email! We could have done all those things without our own car but it would have cost a lot more to pay for taxis each time and we would still have been going by car.

It was a lovely leisurely way to travel. A lot of the time, we were just looking out of the train window at the changing scenery, but it never got boring. We started out with a stack of cheap books from Oxfam plus the new Harry Potter. Most of these books (but not the HP) went into the library at Yoga Plus after all 3 had read them, or were simply left on a table or a seat for some other traveller to read. We always took food with us on the trains, but we were given breakfast on most of the sleepers and we had a lovely freshly-cooked lunch on the train from Belgrade. The boat trips were wonderful, very well-appointed ships, good food and superb weather.

The sleeper trains were ok but of course there is very little room in couchettes. The best one was Vienna to Strasbourg, where 3 of us occupied a 4-berth cabin and thus had a bit of floor space as we could put the luggage on the unoccupied bed. The most challenging was the sleeper to Belgrade which was old Yugoslav railway stock, no air-conditioning (window open or not open!) and the third couchette, suspended up near the ceiling, was tiny. That journey, which took us from Greece via Macedonia to Serbia was the only one which was seriously late (over 3 hours), mainly due, it seemed, to repeated stops for searches and checking passports. Of course, relations between the countries concerned is not of the best.

As we were visiting places for only a short time and the weather was warm, we concentrated on seeing as much as we could, eating and drinking in cafes or bars that looked interesting and simply enjoying the atmosphere. There were a lot of interesting meals. In Paris, we ate a curry in an English-speaking restaurant while waiting for the sleeper at Bercy Station. In Venice, we had great pizzas for lunch right by the Grand Canal and amazing seafood (including black sauce made from cuttle-fish ink) for dinner. In Thessaloniki we found what appeared to be a caff which served us wonderful chicken souvlaki, salad, fresh chips and chilled Mythos beer. In Belgrade we also ate pizza for lunch but these were the size of cart-wheels while very light: they served a fresh tomato sauce separately. Dinner at our Belgrade hotel was superb and we could not finish the bottle of red Montenegran wine that came with it. The breakfast there, which we ate at 6.30 before rushing off for our train, was all fresh and compared well with any European hotel. And we could not visit Vienna without having a piece of sachertorte for tea, although we had dinner at Go Wok!

How did the cost compare with flying? Well, the 22-day inter-rail pass costs about the same as a cheap return flight to Athens and rather less than a cheap return flight to Crete. You can travel on 10 days out of the 22, but that simply means when you start your journey: only the first date is crossed off for a sleeper train journey. The inter-rail pass also gives you a reduction on many boat and ferry journeys, including some of the sea ferries from the UK.

As it was the high season, our cheap hotels were not that cheap and we did a lot of eating out while we were travelling. We also made seat reservations and booked couchettes which added to the cost. This was definitely worthwhile on busy routes but may not have been necessary everywhere. For example, our train from Belgrade to Vienna was about one-third full while we were in Serbia, but started to fill up as soon as we crossed into Hungary and was standing room only from Budapest onwards. As to couchettes, I have slept on train seats when I was younger but I prefer a little more comfort now!

We could have made it quite a bit cheaper by going all the way to Athens by train, sleeping in couchettes rather than hotels and limiting our sight-seeing to places where we could stop for a few hours between trains. We could also have bought food in supermarkets and eaten either on the train or wherever we could find to picnic. It would still have been more expensive than flying but not much more. And we would still have seen far more and at a more leisurely and enjoyable pace than going by air.

I am certainly interested in travelling inter-rail again. In the years since I have used it, it has expanded to cover the whole of Europe plus Turkey, so you can go up to the Arctic Circle in Norway or Finland, right down to the Mediterranean and practically to the border of Iraq. There are other schemes which take in the Russian rail system and open up travel across into Asia......

One other observation which doesn't fit in neatly anywhere: I have often heard politicians saying that other countries do not police their borders as well as the British. Well, when we reached the border between Serbia and Hungary, we were stopped for over an hour by the Hungarian border police who did not just check passports but searched the train thoroughly for anyone trying to smuggle themselves into the EU. They looked under the train and on top of it. They had heat-seeking equipment which was pointed at any luggage or space in the train large enough to hold a human being. They were exceedingly thorough.

We had a great holiday!
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Mick, Matthew and I spent a chunk of Sunday in Sedgefield delivering leaflets for our by-election candidate Greg Stone. I have never knowingly visited the ex-PM's constituency before (although I must have been through it en route North) and was quite surprised by the layout, type of housing, quantity of rural area etc. etc. Certainly the bits we were in did not feel or look like the rock solid Labour seats I've seen in the North and North East before.

Teesdale lies to the west of Sedgefield. My parents lived there for several years in the 1970s when my Dad was in charge of the Methodist circuit based on Middleton-in-Teesdale. The proximity was tempting so we travelled home via Barnard Castle which I once knew quite well. The scenery lived up to expectations and a drink in a newly smoke-free pub was very welcome.
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I've been trying to write something every day to get the old writing muscle back into operation and surprised myself yesterday by knocking out some 2000 words of dialogue, the nucleus of either a short story or a scene from a play.
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I seem to be running out of people to visit. There are only the ones who are never in when I call, whose phones never answer and whose emails - if any - do not respond. It is reassuring to find out from our inveterate local gossip that my chief opponent has reached the same conclusion!

I shall do another phone round this morning and visit/speak to the people I have arranged to see today then I may give it a rest. I need to compose a cracking 5 minute speech for the keen members who will actually attend the hustings next Wednesday.
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I'm shocked to realise I haven't written any livejournal since February. Of course most of the Spring was taken up with a gruelling - and ultimately unsuccessful!!! - election campaign. I woke up the following day feeling more than a bit disoriented. No more Council meetings. No more in-fighting at LGA over the future of international work for UK Councillors. And after 10 years of being inundated with EU information and feeling very involved with the European project, no more Committee of the Regions.

A month on, I have updated my professional CV and am actively looking for consultancy work. I have applied to be selected for a much more winnable seat in next year's local elections. As I am suddenly time-rich, I am taking regular exercise and making inroads into the massive backlog of filing in my home office. I have tidied up our tiny back yard and now have plants (edible ones) growing there. I have even done a little mending but have not yet started altering or making clothes. I'm reading books!

Next Saturday we will have a family party at my sister Helen's to celebrate my engagement to Mick. Life moves on.
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I took my lovely new light laptop with me earlier this week in a roundabout journey to meetings in London, Chippenham and Brussels. This allowed me (amongst other tasks) to make some notes for livejournal - things I'd like to remember later.

Before I start, I have had a wonderful exchange of emails with a friend in Finland. She had signed off "from the real winter in Finland". I spent some time sounding off about the way England seems to react to winter weather with total surprise, as if such a thing had NEVER happened before. (Showing my age, I can remember lots of walking to school in the snow in 1950s winters, and schoolrooms being full of steaming wellies and school milk - anyone out there remember that? - defrosting on the radiator) Anyway, Heini has just replied that it is just the same in Finland, they have lost the ability to cope now that they have all the seasons at once, often in the same week.

Marrakesh
I remember writing about arriving in Morocco for the United Cities and Local Governments meeting at the end of October last. The next morning (the only free time I had) a colleague took me to see the Souk....

The Souk covers an immense area and has clearly grown organically with flooring from packed mud to smart inlaid tiles and stalls anything from cages of birds on rough trestle tables to luxurious wonderfully scented curtained rooms. It sells almost anything you could imagine or wish to bargain for. Avenues are marked with product type but it is remarkably easy to get lost and even find yourself in the residential areas which surround and overlap the stalls: we had to get directions out from a bored child on a bike. Due, I was told, to a government edict, tourists can wander fairly freely (and even take the odd atmospheric photo) without being constantly accosted by would-be sellers. (However, I got roundly denounced when I took a photo of a storyteller in the square outside without prior permission. To my embarrassment I had no coins handy to pacify the minder)

In the evening the square outside is full of stalls which gradually light up in the twilight, impossibly romantic. By day it is a kind of thoroughfare and we drank mint tea (ferociously sweet) in a roadside café and people-watched. Hardly any women were wearing veils (when they did they were normally light translucent things), although quite a number (and men too) were wearing the long loose Arab dress and and trousers, with sandals: very sensible in the climate. Lots of lovely bright colours, on both men and women. However, a large minority of women, even those in western dress, wore a headscarf of some kind.

There was a wide choice of food at the hotel and at the Palais du Congres where we had our meetings, from Euro-standard to Arabic, some freshly cooked to order, so I had no problem finding lovely meals there. The evening receptions were more difficult as local cuisine seems very much meat and 2 meat. I took care to fill up on the nuts, fruit and other snacks offered before the main dishes arrived. In one place, the meal was lamb stewed with nuts and, I thought, vegetables, so I asked the waiter to bring me plenty of nuts and leave out the meat. My dish arrived: about a teaspoonful of nuts and a great pile of figs and prunes! Not a dish to eat the night before a long plane journey…..

Tallinn

Thanks to a bit of forward planning, Mick was able to come with me to the EGM of the Liberal Democrat CoR group in Estonia in mid-November and we stayed on for the weekend. To me, Tallinn looks like a place out of a story book. Much of the old town was built all of a piece in the 14th or 15th century and is still in use, though much repaired: tall, colour-washed buildings, winding cobbled streets, churches and old inns with interesting twists and towers. Amazing statues and wall plaques.

In one of the old coffee-shops, just off the iconic main square, I had a wonderful drink (do try it at home!): hot chocolate with a large slug of grappa and a generous handful of tiny cubes of gorgonzola cheese stirred in.

In the newer areas, there is an energetic programme of replacing or refurbishing the Soviet-era blocks of flats with attention to public space. Lots of modern stuff in the shops and lots of people buying, plus assorted street stalls, many of them selling lovely woollens in traditional designs. Shops we could see from our hotel included a casino and a "gentleman's club".

They told us that one of the keys to Estonian independence and a resurgent sense of nationhood was the annual music festival in Tallinn that started featuring local and traditional songs and got a bigger and bigger attendance until in the late 1980s it was about one-third of the total population, maybe 300,000 people!


Saariselka

A Council in Lapland in Northern Finland invited the External Relations Commission (RELEX) of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) to discuss the Northern Dimension of EU policy: primarily cross-border cooperation in the Arctic to protect the fragile ecology, ensure appropriate economic development and retain/promote cultural diversity. The venue was a ski village called Saariselka, close to the Barents Sea. Facilities a bit basic but included a great sauna open from very early, which I patronised several times a day. The sign outside made it clear that nudity was compulsory and one woman who innocently came in wearing her swimsuit was steered out of the door until she complied.

It was very cold in Saariselka (4 to 12 degrees below zero centigrade) but largely free from wind so it felt fine outside (when suitably damarted-up), even on the “evening of outdoor cultural activities” in the local park. We were offered ski-boots and all-in-one suits to wear for this so we looked like a pack of large fluorescent babies on the loose. Activities included skibob and go-karts on hard-packed ice (no thanks): hot spiced drinks (yes please!): and traditional Lapp stories in a big tent lit only by a wood fire in the centre (very yes please!) This involved sitting on furs on the ice, mainly involved women, and was very enjoyable.

Apart from folklore, the women told us that the traditional Lapp dress (hat covering ears, long loose dress over baggy trousers tucked into boots, with plenty of room for extra layers) is subject to fashion. Sometimes the dress will be long, sometimes short and more fitted: the embroidery changes according to what fabrics they order. And they don't make them at home during long winter nights any more, they order them from a specialist store in Norway.

Mick had ordered me some spikes to slip onto my boots so I felt quite safe walking around on the ice and snow. On the last evening, as I wandered around the village trying to find which pub the rest of the Brit delegation were in, I got chatted up by a local Finn. As I was wrapped up from head to foot and wearing trousers, I was surprised that he even realised I was female: but maybe he didn't mind.

Hong Kong

2006 was a bit of a blur for me thanks to the various side-effects of chemotherapy (nb. I have been assured by the doctors that I am well on the road to recovery and no further sign of cancer has been found). So Mick and I decided to give ourselves a Christmas treat in the shape of a short holiday in Hong Kong. Although I have been to China (Beijing, Shanghai and a bit of the Great Wall), neither of us had ever visited HK. The outward flight, including obligatory waiting around in Amsterdam Schipol, seemed very long, particularly as the plane was extremely full. (It was 21st December!) We spent a jetlagged first afternoon walking slowly round the sights nearest to our hotel and watching the boats on the waterfront and had a welcome early night.

My main impression of the town centre was the inescapable insistent pressure to buy. Everybody was trying to sell you something and once you expressed any interest they would push you for more and more. Then after a bit of bargaining they would suddenly get fed up, settle for whatever you had then reached, grab the money and start talking to the person behind you. The best experience was probably getting a ludicrous quantity of clothes made-to-measure – we had to buy another suitcase! – with a lot of detailed attention. The worst was trying to buy a laptop only to be bullied and upset by the manager who thought he knew what I wanted more than I did. Only when I burst into tears and threatened to walk out of the shop did he start a panic negotiation down until he reached a price some 200 below my maximum for the machine I actually wanted. (It is a good laptop, very light with lots of battery time: I'm using it right now).

We did all the expected sightseeing and were not disappointed. Food was wonderful: this included an ace curry at the Delhi Club on Nathan Road (the main shopping street in Kowloon): a Japanese fish lunch on Christmas Day: and "afternoon tea" at the Sheraton Hotel in Kowloon, which comprised everything from the expected sandwiches and cakes to a variety of cook-to-order Chinese meals! Having said that, the hotel breakfast was pretty good with the full range of Chinese and European breakfast dishes and no limit on going back for more. No wonder we needed to walk around a lot.

We wanted to go to midnight mass but found we would have to queue and get tickets in advance, with no certainty of getting inside the Church, so we reluctantly gave up on that and went back to our hotel for a (outdoor) swim and hot tub. We were soaking in the hot tub under the stars and remarking that although we had heard Jingle Bells etc about a million times we had missed hearing real carols, when suddenly a choir started singing nearby and worked its way through a very good selection of traditional carols! A beautiful moment.

Chippenham

I attended Full Council a few days after my birthday in January, which I share (day and year) with another Councillor. I had suggested to him that we should treat the Group to a celebratory drink. I turned up with a quantity of chilled Cava, he failed to turn up at all, but those members of the group who were there seemed to enjoy it and were very laid back in the meeting! The opposition seemed fractionally less boring after a glass or two of fizz.

A week later, I attended Chippenham Area Committee, probably the last North Wiltshire meeting I shall go to as Councillor. I made sure I got two solid items minuted about issues in my ward, for my successor to take up in his campaign. The highlight for me was a discussion much later in the meeting about lost lorry drivers. There is apparently now a unit at County Hall dealing specifically with complaints about misdirection by satnav (largely due to drivers asking for the fastest route). Every day, drivers follow the siren voice of the satellite without paying any attention to common sense, ending up in streams or farmyards or wedged into tiny lanes at risk of demolishing historic buildings. One councillor related a conversation between a lorry driver and a farmer as they watched the lorry sinking into mud (or worse). Driver: “but she TOLD me to come this way”. Farmer: “Didn’t you notice you were driving into a field?”

A friend of mine lives in the village of Sherston by a street called Ford (a clue in the title!) and is forever having to fish out and dry out people who think they can drive through a river that is at least 2 feet deep even in the middle of a dry summer just because the satnav says so.

Brussels

I was there earlier this week with a group from the party's International Relations Committee coming to find out more about how the EU works. For the first time, they included a session at Committee of the Regions in their programme, with which I was delighted to assist. As I think I mentioned in my notes about the ELDR Congress in Bucharest a few months ago, the UK Liberal Democrats find themselves on the radical wing of the European Party and need very much to make contacts and have proper policy discussions with members of sister parties.

Incidentally, it was snowing in Brussels most of the time I was there but nothing appeared to be closed down or delayed. My only complaint was that my hotel - which I had picked out because it offers both Chinese and English cuisine - was unusually full of Chinese guests who had scoffed nearly all the Chinese breakfast before I came downstairs! I did manage to get a small bowl of fried noodles and rice soup but had otherwise to be content with bread and spread.

Enough for the moment.......
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Party Conference, September, Brighton

This was largely a blur as I got food-poisoning the first evening but the highlights for me were:

1) debate on Taxation. It is always frustrating when the press sets up a debate, such as this, as being a kind of virility test for the Leader. There was never any doubt it was going to be passed because the proposals are exceedingly sensible and very Green. The debate in fact was between those who wanted to propose cuts in current taxation because of the income to come from increasing taxation on polluting behaviour and those who said that if Green taxation actually works and changes people's behaviour then there will be less polluting behaviour hence less tax from it so you need to keep open your choices of taxation or risk having insufficient tax income to deliver the services you want to deliver. The first lot won. I agree with the second lot.

2) local government debate. Although the organisers of the Conference thought this was a really good paper, nearly everyone in local government thought it might have been cutting edge in about 1985 and was likely to be an embarrassment if passed. Sadly, we didn't manage to get it off the agenda. There was an attempt early in the debate to have it "referred back" i.e. sent away to be re-written. This was seen off by a lovely Welshman (insert accent) who declared "reference back is too good for it. It must be defeated". It was.

3) international debate on final morning, not long before Ming's speech. Always a good time to speak because the hall is full. I spoke on the role of local government in delivering democracy, good practice and the rule of law in many and diverse parts of the world, and the added value of giving aid and support to local communities in cooperation with their elected local authority (rather than some ad hoc body) which can then incorporate the improvements into its regular practice. Well received.

ELDR Congress in Bucharest, Roumania, end of September.

My main memory of my previous visit to Bucharest, some years ago, was trailing from gate to gate of the Presidential palace, trying to get into my meeting, and the total refusal of the gate staff to accept my credentials or give me any assistance! (I finally got in with the help of some local students, who then were shown in to attend the meeting with me, and thought it a great honour!)

This time the city seemed much cleaner and brighter,more developed, far fewer feral dogs to spook you when walking alone, and most people seemed better dressed. Of course, they now have a Liberal Government.....

The PM was an early speaker at the Congress, outlining how his government is tackling corruption and extending the rule of law. They have pioneered the so-called flat tax and say that it has been a great success. It is too simple to avoid, people are thus getting used to paying tax rather than evading it and the tax income - and hence their ability to deliver services - is going up steadily, year on year. Of course flat tax is profoundly unfair to the lowest earners. I suspect they will have to change it some time.

It seemed to me that the Congress agenda was crammed too full so we were having to make major decisions with a minimum of debate. The British delegation got very concerned at some of the decisions (e.g. the commitment to nuclear power, proposed by the ELDR Youth movement if you can believe it!) and we all felt we would have to make better contacts with other national parties between conferences and try to find allies.

One of the debates, proposed by the Liberal Womens Network, was about the issue of human trafficking, backed up by a lunchtime briefing of the harrowing facts. On the Saturday morning after the Congress I went on a study visit to 2 refuges for victims of trafficking and of domestic violence. One was run by the local social services, one by an Orthodox congregation at the initiative of their young priest. Both seemed well run and well resourced, and the people running them seemed to have a clear understanding of what was needed. Someone asked the priest whether their refuge was only for Orthodox victims: he looked shocked and said immediately "We do not practise discrimination here".

UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) Executive Committee in Marrakech, mid-October

As Chair of the UK Local Government International Bureau, I now lead the UK Local Government delegation to UCLG. I attended the launch, 2 years ago, but I was too ill too go last Autumn.

The key discussion for me was planning the future work of UCLG. There was, rightly, some self-congratulation at the good relations UCLG has established with parts of the UN, in particular UN Habitat. (Mick and I went to the UN Habitat Conference in Vancouver last June and found it very useful: lots of practical information about environmental building, planning, communications, plus study visits to some ace examples of Canadian good practice in water management and fisheries. Unfortunately, hardly any Brits were there to listen and learn.) I made the point that while the work with UN Habitat on cities and urban growth is very important, half the world does not live in cities and we need to make the contacts that will promote their interests too. I highlighted some of the particular issues for rural areas like sustainability of small communities, the differential cost of service delivery in scattered populations and the tendency of legislation to be written with an urban focus, hence the need for rural-proofing. This call was taken up initially by the Canadian and Australian delegates and became a very positive call for action.

This was my first visit to North Africa and landing on a hot dusty evening seemed just perfect. I only had a few hours of free time, on the morning of the first day, so went with a colleague to the Souk which is reputed to be the biggest market in the world. It felt as though you could buy absolutely anything and probably a few things you hadn't thought of. Apparently there has been a government edict to stop aggressive selling so it was really very pleasant to wander around. We then people-watched over a cup of local tea in the big square outside which becomes an extension of the market in the evening, with lights of varying kinds on the stalls. (Didn't get to see that, tied up in meetings.) There was a traditional story-teller, a very fierce character, who got cross with me for taking his photograph.

more later..........
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This is a copy of the comment I put in Rachel's journal. I may add to it later.

Many congratulations to Rachel, Tony and, of course, Charles! Super photographs (although I have a slightly shaky one on my phone taken even earlier when they first arrived in the recovery room)

I'm ecstatic at the arrival of my first grandchild and delighted to have been an active helper at the birth. We all thought he would be a big baby but the C-section was very unexpected. Oddly enough,Rachel and I had talked about a hospital delivery sometime Thursday evening and she made sure I read her birth plan and knew her wishes.

As the one in the delivery room, my main role was to support Rachel and, if necessary, convey her wishes to the theatre staff. Once the spinal anaesthetic kicked in, her face relaxed for the first time in many hours. Now the pain had gone, she was well able to speak for herself!

The theatre staff were all very supportive and made absolutely sure that Rachel knew what they were doing and why. They exuded calmness and confidence. After the internal examination, they explained that there was no possibility of an instruments delivery and that they would need to move to a caesarian. I sat close to Rachel, held her hand and chatted with her and the anaesthetist as they got things ready.

They erected a small screen to shield the lower half of Rachel's body from her direct view. I could easily see what they were doing if I stood up. The staff saw that I wasn't in the least squeamish and was not going to scream or faint and let me watch.

Rachel said she didn't want a running commentary!

The staff worked so fast! One moment they were putting a line on Rachel's belly, the next there was an incision then I saw Charles' head emerge, followed, naturally enough, by his whole body within seconds. Then the sequence I remembered from the birth of my own children: this blueish underwater creature goes first purple then pink and instantly turns into a human being.

I was invited to cut the cord and did so.

As soon as Charles was cleaned up and checked over, they wrapped him up and gave him to me to hold. This was wonderful, to welcome him into the family. He was a little fretful (not surprising after his recent experiences) but responded well to being cuddled. He blinked a bit and I could see his blue eyes.

I brought him close to Rachel so she could see him too. I managed to slip one of his tiny hands out of the covers and she held it. She looked so marvellously happy and said something about this made it all worth while.

After he was weighed, the staff took Charles for Tony to hold. By then the surgery was almost over: two people, one stitching from either side, closing up the incisions. It was so skilful.

It was a great experience. It was a real privilege to be there.


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Brief addition to notes on Inismore. We noticed that a lot of houses had a miniature house in the garden, like a dolls house but built of brick or stone. According to our guide, they are leprechaun houses: said with perfectly straight face. When someone queried this, he said "most people like to provide a leprechaun house".

I left my last entry en route to the airport for Sweden. This was in response to an invitation, made many months earlier but confirmed at almost the last moment, for me to speak at a Swedish local government conference. My friend Margareta Holmstedt, who runs the European Department at Bradford University, (and is Swedish-born) was to present a session on the new system of EU Structural Funds. I was to follow with a session on the value of the EU to local government, speaking particularly from the experience of a country which has been in the EU for many years (Sweden has been in barely 12 years). That meant that my travel and accommodation for the trip would be largely covered, bringing the cost well down.

We flew from Leeds to Stockholm via Amsterdam and noticed that, as in Ireland, the airports outside the UK were far less paranoid than those at home. At Arlanda, our old friends Andrew and Helen Ellis were waiting for us: fortunately - as it turned out we had neither their address nor phone number with us! Andrew is an old chum (ex-Cambridge!) from Young Liberal days. He worked for the party on elections for a time and they have worked on democracy and elections in many countries since (including organising the first Palestinian elections). Currently they are in Sweden (although Mick visited them in Indonesia only 4 years ago!) and next year, who knows?

That was late Saturday, so we had a lazy Sunday morning than wandered around Stockholm sightseeing. I have been there several times, at different times of year, but it is always enjoyable. The waterfront is central to the city, especially the old town, and there are so many fantastic buildings. Transport is easy and inexpensive and prices in general are affordable, although booze - as everywhere in Scandinavia - is more expensive than in the UK. We found a terrific SF shop with many English titles, close to one of a number of Viking shops (aimed at tourists): we were very tempted by a T-shirt saying "Viking world tour" and listing where they invaded in the 10th to 12th centuries......

We encountered first-hand one of the strange phenomena of Sweden: winter starts on August 15th. Nothing to do with global warming - in fact it was very warm and sunny - but to the schools hols. Swedish children are on holiday from mid-June to mid-August. As it is a big country and many people have holiday homes to which they decamp for the summer, much of the summer tourist provision is geared to Swedish visitors. Once the schools reopen, street markets and cafes start to close, even in Stockholm, and general tourist facilities switch to winter opening. We did, however, manage to find an outdoor cafe to lunch at and a brilliant 19th century house (one of the first to use electricity throughout) whose enlightened management kept it open even on a winter (!!!) Sunday.

As to food: Helen had bought reindeer steaks specially so we decided to stop being vegetarians for the night. It was very tasty and remarkably digestible. I might be tempted again but there are not many free-range reindeer in Yorkshire. otherwise, in another country with a lot of coast, there was plenty of fish and seafood for us to enjoy.

On Monday we had to travel literally from coast to coast, Baltic to Atlantic, to the conference in Smogen (this should have 2 dots over the o and is pronounced smergen). We took the train from Stockholm to Gothenberg (another city with lots of waterfront, which I visited a few years ago for an EU conference, some of which took place on a ship). And for those who would prefer not to fly, it reminds me that there are perfectly good north sea ferry services to Scandinavia.

Margareta had found that the first class fare, booked in advance, was only a few crowns more than the standard, so we enjoyed very comfortable seats, big picture windows plus drinks and snacks provided in each coach. Crowns or kroner are local currency:Sweden voted narrowly not to join the euro, but we found people were willing to accept euros or put receipts in euros.

I love the Scandinavian scenery: lakes, forests, granite hills and big sky. From time to time you see a wooden house, often of old-fashioned design, painted in bright or pastel colours: presumably holiday homes rather than for full time occupation.

At Gothenberg we had a choice of super restaurants at the station (we had seafood salad, sitting by the window and people-watching: couldn't finish). We then got on a bus which took us northwards along the coast, stopping at lots of tiny places. Dramatic sea views, especially when we were on cliff tops, reminding us of the Atlantic coast of Ireland. There are similar "pavements", large slabs of stone supporting sparse vegetation, but here the stone is granite not limestone so it will take geological ages to break down rather than the centuries for Irish limestone.

Many of the coastal towns and fishing villages have a significant percentage of holiday homes so we were not surprised to find that many of the shops and restaurants in Smogen were already closed for the winter with signs such as "Thank you to all our customers! We look forward to seeing you again in June 2007" Fortunately, some cafes by the harbour were open all year selling very fresh fish and seafood to eat there or take away at prices which competed very well with the hotel! Getting ahead of myself, they also provided a very good takeaway lunch pack which we bought for our return journey to Stockholm.

We were in Smogen for 3 days, covering the 2 day conference then a day as tourists, with Margareta. I also got the chance to observe another Swedish phenomenon. Mick and I were seated together at dinner on the first evening, with a fairly stunning blonde woman to his right. She paid him a great deal of attention, after exchanging family details (she had recently re-married, she and her new man have 8 children between them and, no, he wasn't with her). Glad to say that Mick resisted the implied offer of recreational fun and games. I doubt an English woman would have made such a play for someone who was very clearly there with his partner.

The conference went well, I got a good reception and plenty of questions. I scattered business cards like confetti in the hope that it might lead to some more offers of work. The hotel had a gym, sauna and pool so we kept up the exercise.

On our "tourist" day we hired a car from a local garage: inexpensive, very laidback, took a minimum of details from us and took our word that we had re-filled the tank on return. We did an extensive tour of the area and spent several hours at the Zoo which was maintained by the local council. It was big, BIG, with lots of dedicated space for each of the creatures so we walked several kilometres, many of them on boardwalks taking us high above the habitats for the best of views for us and the minimum of disturbance to the animals and birds. Lots of strange northern creatures as well as the more familiar wolves, feral cats, eagles and owls.

Back in Stockholm we were on a MISSION: we wanted to buy a fish smoker. Both of us have failed to find one in places like IKEA, Habitat, cookery shops. We had a (very good) dinner with Margareta's brother and sister - we'd met them in England before - and asked them where we might find such a thing. Her brother directed us to a fishing tackle shop: obvious when you think about it.

We found one at our second try the next morning: it's essentially a metal box with a grill inside. You scatter a smoking mix at the bottom, put your fish/tofu/whatever on the grill and heat it, e.g. on your stove, until it is smoked to your satisfaction. No we haven't got round to using it yet, BUT WE'VE GOT IT FOR WHEN WE DO.

This did present the possible problem of going through security with a metal box and two bags of a mysterious mixture. We handled that by packing the smoker in its box, inside Mick's suitcase, stuffing it with socks and underwear so it wouldn't rattle too much. When checking in, we told the desk staff that we were carrying this item and invited them to examine it. They didn't. We had no trouble.

On our final evening in Sweden, we took a ferry trip round a large part of the archipelago. This was Friday evening, so many of the people were going to their holiday homes for the weekend. Some lucky folk live on the islands and commute by boat into Stockholm daily (or weekly). The main dish on offer was Baltic herring, which seemed entirely appropriate, served Swedish style with boiled potatoes and a sauce. Lovely food, accompanied by local beer, and a lovely end to our short holiday.

A potentially less exciting mission was to find the sushi bar during our 4 hour stopover at Amsterdam Schipol. Pleased to report that we did actually find it (it's behind the lift) but only after hunger had driven us to eat elsewhere, at the noodle bar if you ask: we recommend it.
ruthct21: (Default)
My holiday in August started in Discworld then Galway then Sweden.

Mick, Matt and I got a student flat in Galway for a few days (the University now being attended by Martin Sheen!) plus a cheap car rental. We flew over on Aer Arann which was basic, cheap and a lot less fussy than UK airlines.

Weather not brilliant but scenery and food even better than I remembered. Our first evening we ate in a town centre pub in Galway: amazing 19th century decor, florid pictures, extravagant lamps and dark polished wood. A good start.

Next day we explored County Clare which we found pretty bleak. Its main feature is "limestone pavements", flat slabs of limestone supporting thin soil and limited vegetation . Lots of ancient remains, super views on the coast and in the Burren.

Our first proper stop was at Paddy's Oyster Bar in a small village a few miles south of Galway. Oysters were delicious and v fresh as was the seafood salad I had to follow. Couldn't finish. The Guinness was, as I remembered, completely different from anything you drink in England. Coudn't get Matt to sample the Guinness but he did try the odd beer.

We headed for a set of caves, the Bear caves, and did the tour with a voluble guide. Usual fantastic tale about some farmer following his dog into the cave by chance and telling no-one until he needed some money and decided to sell the land..... Apparently there are remains of bears inside. Amazing caves, some very large, some quite low (Jonathan would have struggled!), lots of stalagmites and stalactites formed by the slow action of mildly acidic rain on the limestone, plus a high waterfall. Glad I overcame my claustrophobia sufficiently to go inside. Of course, we completed the tour with tea and cakes at the attached cafe, very nice too.

The next day was a bit brighter so we headed north to sample Connemara, which is much greener and has a jagged coast (to the Atlantic) with lots of inlets and consequent dramatic scenery, plus the chance to see seals, dolphins or even whales. We certainly saw seals, not sure about the rest.

We decided to visit Dan O'Hara's farm, which was advertised as being a restoration of a 19th century farmhouse and associated buildings with information about life at the time. It was worth a visit, lots of interesting items in the museum including original newspapers from major events e.g. the sinking of the Titanic and the start of the Irish uprising in 1916.

After our tour of the farm, we were treated to the account of 19th century life in the farmhouse, the unpleasant practices of nineteenth century landlords and the influence of the Irish diaspora (half the US Presidents so far!!??. Our host then turned to another matter of major significance - poteen or home-stilled whiskey. It was outlawed in 1691 or thereabouts and has flourished ever since. He produced a bottle of alleged poteen with a flourish and offered all present a glass, Matt included: apparently it was 83% proof having been distilled three times. It certainly tasted good.

We finished the day in Clifden, a small coastal town which is clearly occupied by the trendy: adverts for yoga and bellydancing classes plus a fair trade shop. Wandering down the high street, we spotted Foyles Hotel which Mick and I thought had had a mention in a Joyce novel. It seemed a very traditional hotel with a super menu of very expensive food....until Mick spotted a tiny notice at the bottom "early bird special, 5.30 to 6.30 pm, 3 course meal for 23.95 euros." Early birds we were and straight in.

Matt's starter was a plate of mussels, a large dinner plate mounded high. I had crab meat wrapped in smoked salmon. (I'd had some delicious smoked salmon at lunch time in a nice cafe by the internet cafe in Galway so it would have been greedy to have it twice) For the main, Mick and Matt each had half a duckling which was huge and tasty. I spotted scallops on the menu: they were excluded from the early bird deal but I could have them for 3 euros extra. I decided to push the boat out. The puddings were wonderful but we couldn't do them justice.

We drove back replete round the coastal road and got a few more photographs before it got dark.

For our final day we decided to take the boat to Inismore, the largest of the Aran islands, just a few miles off the coast. (You can also fly in a tiny plane which takes 8 minutes but costs a lot more). The boatride took 45 minutes and was very pleasant, wind in your face and a bit of sunshine.

We took a bus tour round the island with a local man who told us everything we could possibly want to know about the islands. They are Gaelic speaking, there's a college there for Irish people to come and brush up their Gaelic. Only 800 people live on Inismore and some of the smaller islands are now uninhabited. The same limestone pavements that we had seen on the mainland plus lots of dry-stone walls, some of them rather casually constructed. Digging out the stones is the only way to provide any land for cultivation and there's not much will grow.

We climbed up to the big hill fort at the top of the island which is at the top of sheer vertical cliffs. It's hard to see how anyone could have caught the occupants unawares! Amazing views but not for the faint-hearted.

Needless to say, we ate plentiful and delicious fish and shellfish, all caught locally and accompanied by a glass of Guinness, and dozed on the return journey.

We then spent barely a day at home before putting Matt on a train south and Mick and I heading for Sweden, which will have to be another story.
ruthct21: (Default)
Two weeks ago I was in Montenegro as an official observer of the referendum about their independence from Serbia. I think I have just about caught up with myself!

The journey actually started a few days earlier when I flew to Pula in Croatia to attend a seminar/briefing on the situation of the minority communities in the Balkans: good background stuff! My journey south started with a leisurely car ride to Trieste airport (travelling right across Slovenia) where things got a litrtle less predictable.

I was due to pick up my round trip ticket (to Montenegro and then back home) from the JAT office (formerly Yugoslav airlines). Unfortunately, it was shut & no-one seemed to know when would open. (My enquiries were greeted with: "oh do you want to travel today?" and "Madame will open the office if it is needed").

Time and beers rolled on. My colleague, who was flying back to the UK, had his flight called and then was suddenly called by name to security for what turned out to bea full search. An omen? Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman come OUT OF the locked office and turn to lock it up again. I sprinted the length of the airport, chased after her and grabbed her by the shoulder to say "Buongiorno, I believe you have my ticket." "So you are Coleman" she said "I will be back in 5 minutes".

She was. I got it, a wonderful old-fashioned air ticket all in handwriting.

I flew to Belgrade, which was crowded out with observers, journalists and returning residents all hoping to get to Montenegro. The airport organisation seemed straight out of the old communist days: no information and nowhere to sit down: staff perfectly visible in their office but not responding to customers. It was a hot afternoon and the waiting area for internal flights (Montenegro was still in Serbia-Montenegro at that stage) was lined with windows. You could retreat to a bar or cafe (with seats!) but you risked missing the announcement that you could go through to the gate. In the end, every flight was at least an hour late due to incoming flights being held up. My alleged meal on board was a limp cheese sandwich and a bottle of water.

Once in Podgorice (capital of Montenegro), which was even hotter but with a cool breeze, the machine started working again. There was a bus to meet our team and a fast transfer to the hotel. The owner, Kostas (or Kosta's as the hotel was called), had built his hotel between the then edge of the town and a new housing estate which was only just starting to go up. Obviously the authorities would have to put a road in for the new development...... So we were in a fully functioning hotel which you reached by driving on hardcore across a building site.

They provided breakfast: choice on the menu of Salted Breakfast (omelettes, bacon etc.) or Sweet Breakfast (jam, marmelade, sugar to eat with the bread on the table). If you wanted a meal at night. they sent out for a pizza. We ate out.

The next two days were mainly spent in briefings about the history, culture, ethnicity of the local people then moving into considerable detail about the conduct of the vote and what our role as observers would be: mainly to watch and take note. If you saw something really gross taking place, it would be legitimate to ask a question but not to intervene. We were not to make comments or predictions about the vote. (This proved to be a problem when we ran into a BBC team halfway up a mountain who were desperate for an informed comment in English and were most fed up that we couldn't give them one!)

Finally on the second afternoon we got sight of the politicians. The "YES" side all seemed very dynamic and pro-European and full of excitement about the prospect of running their country themselves. The "NO" side, disappointingly, devoted all their speeches to accusing the YES campaign of electoral fraud: not a word of the political case for keeping Serbia and Montenegro together. I spoke to a European Parliament colleague after the speeches. He said that over 100 allegations of fraud had been made and investigated and the evidence was either non-existent or insufficient. It seemed to be an attempt to have the vote disallowed. whatever the outcome.

Our team (a dozen Councillors from all over the EU plus staff) went up into the hills for what someone lugubriously called our "last supper". The food was delicious and in enormous quantities. They had the Eurovision Song Contest on TV (sound turned off) and a local band playing mournful, presumably traditional, melodies. It was the first time we had been outside Podgorice. It became clear very quickly that the Monte in Montenegro was no joke: roads rapidly became more vertical than horizontal and every settlement seemed cunningly built into the hillside.

My team-mate for the day was an Irish Councillor and we were allocated the region of Cetinje (the former capital of Montenegro when it was last independent)for our observations. Although we would need to visit Cetinje, most of our destinations were in the rural hinterland. Our driver and our translator (a third-year student studying English) came for us at 7am. It took nearly an hour to get to our first polling station, up roads that were not much more than tracks and through some unbelievably beautiful scenery.

We arrived as they were finishing the preparations to open at 8am. It was in the farmer's bedroom: a single barn-like room with electricity connections from the nightmares of health&safety officers. His furniture had been pushed up to one end and covered with cloths, and the tables for the polling staff and the voting booth had been fitted in. The first voter of the day, a venerable old lady, was required to verify and sign that the ballot box was empty before she voted. With some ceremony she checked the ballot box, then slowly changed to her second pair of glasses to make her signature. Everyone coming to vote had to bring a passport, driving licence or ID card, which would have a photograph and a signature. When this had been checked, they had to sign in the register in order to receive a ballor paper. After voting, their hand would be sprayed with invisible ink (visible under ultra-violet: they had a special lamp to check hands onb the way in ).

Most of our polling stations had only a small number of voters. The 6 polling staff ( 3 from the YES campaign and 3 from the NO) were locals and knew many of the voters personally. As the day wore on and the turnout was extremely high, mostly over 90%, they effectively ran out of voters. At one place, only 4 more people could have voted: 2 were in America, one hadn't been able to get back from where she worked in Serbia and the other was in bed dying! None of the polling stations I saw had anything resembling disabled access - one of them we could only approach on foot along a track, leaving the car at a nearby farm - but voters could request to vote at home providing they asked before 1pm on polling day. A handful did at each place.

The poll staff were all really grateful that we had come "from Europe" to see their work: many of them wanted us to stay and drink and talk to them. There were local observers at every station, who stayed there all say: mainly students, they had been trained for this task over the previous year and I believe it counted towards their studies. They were also excited to see foreign observers and to ask how we were enjoying their country.

The answer is that we were enjoying it very much. When we broke for lunch, we were taken to a restaurant perched over a magnificent view, which was also being patronised by several other observer teams! (Apparently there were 3,500 observers altogether, approx 1 per 178 voters.)In the evening when we went into Cetinje, the streets were full of people strolling around or drinking coffee or beer, very laid back.

We had coffee with a local teacher and artist who had been one of our translators earlier in the week. He said he was so pleased that the old Communist bosses had not realised the potential of Montenegro's wonderful countryside or it would already have been spoiled. He wanted our assurance that there were people in Europe who would pay good money to see wild birds and animals and natural scenery. We assured him of this.

Finally we made our way to our last polling station, where we would stay until the vote closed and the ballot papers were counted. We passed fields of crops, goats and cows going to be milked, children waving, all against the backdrop of fantastic scenery. This one was quite remote, so we had to ask the way a few times and once to turn around on an extremely narrow road. As we arrived, a man was voting who had obviously been celebrating the result ahead of time. The staff, most of whom knew him, dealt with him very professionally and steered him on his way.

When the vote closed, they put a sign outside and locked the door. The Chairman explained to us, througn the interpreter, all the steps he was going to take e.g. invalidating unused ballot papers, verifying the votes cast, putting the YES votes in one box and the NO votes in another. They then went through their duties and showed a clear result in not many minutes; 77% had voted YES and 23% NO with one spoiled paper. They then packed everything away as required, made up a large parcel, tied it up and sealed it with an official seal in wax. They would then take it into Cetinje where the votes for that region would be aggregated.

My impression all day was that the polling staff were well aware of their duties and carried them out properly. Most of the voters knew what to do e.g. where to vote and how to fold their ballot paper: those that didn't asked and were politely told what they should do. I saw no sign of undue influence or fake votes. Most of our team had the same experience: if anyone was hoping to have the vote disallowed, the conduct on the day did not justify it.

What was interesting to me was the closeness of the overall vote: 55.4% YES, just above the required threshold of 55%. The figures we had been given about the local population made it clear that the Montenegrins could not win the YES vote on their own, nor could the Serbs get a NO vote on their own: either vote required support from the minority communities (Croats, Bosnians, Russians and others). Cetinje region was supposed to be very pro-independence: yet 23% voted NO in the polling station I observed and this was echoed elsewhere. My conclusion is that on both sides there was cross-community voting.

After the polls closed, the voting figures started to leak out. As we drove back to Podgorice, we saw people flying the Montenegrin flag - or anything red! - out of their windows, over their cars or just waving them as they walked. Closer to town the fireworks started: and the gunfire. Apparently one of the ways to celebrate in the Balkans is to fire your gun in the air. On the TV back at the hotel, there were already claims of victory for YES, hours before the final vote was verified. The hotel wanted us to stay up and drink the night away but most of us, me included, were already exhausted. We had a quick meeting to decide what we would put in our joint press release then most of us retired to bed.

I flew home the next morning. There were signs that most of Montenegro had spent the night partying. The flights were all late and supplies were haphazard. The stewardess kept apologising that the food for busines class had not been provided and she had to improvise....... We got to Frankfurt about 2 hours late, long after my connection had left. At first no-one would give me a ticket to fly on: JAT, who had provided the ticket, said it was down to Montenegro Airways: they had gone walkabout until their next flight out of Germany 2 days later: BA said they couldn't take the responsibility. In the end I went to a BA desk staffed by Germans and talked very loudly in English. I got my ticket.

I'd love to go back to Montenegro and see what they make of independence and to see a bit more of the country. They are planning a General Election later this year: if anyone wants me to observe it, I'll be more than happy!
ruthct21: (Default)
I'm writing this just after Mothers Day when I got excellent messages (thanks children!) which meant a lot more because this year I am ill, part way through chemotherapy. This has been slowing me down, has cost me my hair - but I have a very fetching wig! - and also a lot of my energy, but it's due to come to an end in May. After a medical appointment this afternoon I went to the cancer support centre to ask about support groups. Right now I am getting lots of support from doctors and nurses, as well as enquiries from friends and relatives, because I'm in the middle of treatment. Come May, I'll be back much more to my own resources: daily pills and annual reviews will not be the same! I'll try out the groups suggested and see if I can meet some people who've also had breast cancer and who have worked through it back to where I want to me: normal life.

Tomorrow I'm going to London in order to go to Brussels for Wednesday and Thursday where I'll be co-facilitating an information visit for the political leaders of the Local Government Association to help them find out about the EU institutions and how local government interacts with them. There is more than a suspicion that some of them would like to save money by closing or reducing our present linkages, so I hope to be in good form to convince them! While i London, I'll see Daniel, who will put me up for the night & also, I have just discovered, take me to concert which Carol is appearing in. What fun!

Meanwhile, Mick continues to mastermind the campaign team which is growing steadily and getting more effective. I have signed the forms to be the candidate in May and am cautiously optimistic that we will do well.

I'm quite tired from being out and about today, so will sign off in time to do a bit more paperwork before supper and tonight's treat: the new "A for Andromeda" (I remember the original......)
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