Thursday, 29 September 2011

A sad, busy and exciting week

It's been quite eventful since my last post, which is probably why it feels like I just posted yesterday. Time's been flying, I can't believe I've been here 2 weeks already.

First of all, I want to take a minute to acknowledge the loss of a member of the Michigan Marching Band trumpet section. Patrick Fleming was an excellent player who went to Pioneer 3 years behind me. He was a really nice kid who, even though we never knew each other at Pioneer, always came up and said hi to me when I came to MMB practice. He was in a car accident on his way up to the Flint campus earlier this week and passed away in the hospital. I know he will be dearly missed and I am really impressed by the outpouring of support that I've seen on facebook from the other Big 10 marching bands (and eastern) including a group of members from EMU, MSU and OSU bringing flowers and condolences. There is also a very moving performance of amazing grace that the Spartan marching band sent down to Ann Arbor today, it's all over facebook, so I recommend checking it out. Rest in peace, Patrick.

Moving on... when I left off I had just gotten back to the hotel after taking a walk and being harassed by bums. I forgot to put in a rather funny exchange between me and him... It went something like this (in twice broken French, because I haven't spoken it in a year and he was pissed drunk and half asleep):
Bum: "can you give me some money? I need some food"
Me: "no, I'm sorry I can't give you anything."
Bum: "please? I'm so hungry"
Me: "no I'm sorry"
Bum: "if you're sorry you'll give me some money!"
Me: laughing now "no, please leave"
That's when he decided to sit down. I was probably the first person to acknowledge his existence all night which he took to mean I wanted to pay for his next drink. Sorry pal, but we have homeless people in Ann Arbor too. I've been well trained.

Anyway, that night a pretty bad cold came over me and my sinuses were so congested I felt like I had been punched in the face a few times. With no painkillers and all the stores closed til morning I had to tough it out with large amounts of not very good tap water as my only relief. I had a really tough time falling asleep but somehow ended up passing out and sleeping through check out the next morning (had to move from a single to a triple). Luckily the guy at reception was nice enough to not make me pay another €140 for that night. That rush was enough to get me up and going, that and the room I was checking into for the next two nights being a complete mess. I decided to go for a walk, get intentionally lost and eventually find my way back to the train station in time to meet Katy and Cheri. I did just that, eventually finding myself at the Tuileries gardens so I decided to stop and read on my iPad for a couple hours, which was really nice. Tons of people walking by so it was great people watching as well as scenic garden views. Here's the people watching (you can just catch the Eiffel Tower in the backgroun)...

Eventually it was time to move on, but I was stopped by Amorino which happens to have a cart in the Tuileries. At this point I'm sure you're wondering, "what's Amorino?" Well I would love to tell you, but I think it will be easier to show you.
This is the most delicious gelato I've ever had. And I've had a lot of it. And I'm a man who loves his gelato. This wins. Period. Paragraph.

After that I made my way to the Seine (the river that Paris straddles if you didn't know) which is very close to the Tuileries. Ever since my first night I was ever in Paris I have had a soft spot in my heart for the bridges that cross the Seine. I think it's because shortly after arriving that night we walked across one of those bridges and I can pinpoint that as the moment I fell in love with Paris. It's one of the few pictures I took this time around. Notice Notre Dame. My camera doesn't have enough resolution to capture the hunchback, but I'm fairly certain he's there.

After walking down to St Michel to get a delicious ham and cheese crepe I went back to the hotel, took a quick nap and then met the girls at the train station. After dropping off their bags in the room, we walked up to Montmartre to check out the Sacre Couer since its absolutely beautiful at night. Of course right when we got to the foot of it they turned off the lights so Cheri only got to see the darkened version which is a bit less impressive. After checking out that scene for a while, including being offered beer out of a sketchy backpack (something that has happened to me every time I've been there) we decided to go back to the hotel and go to bed.

The next day we basically just wandered from pub to pub having a couple beers at each with some crepes or sandwiches in between. Lots of people watching and a bit of rugby and football. It was a very nice way to spend a day, though I definitely chose the wrong shoes considering we probably did about 10 miles of walking. We went back to the hotel to find a restaurant for dinner and after looking at a few menus online, Katy spotted calf brains on one of them and decided thats what she wanted so we went there. It was a very nice restaurant, especially for 3 courses at €31 each. We ordered a bottle of wine which Katy and I drank most of since Cheri isn't much of a wine person. Katy ordered the foie gras for an appetizer, the breaded and fried calf brains and some fig confection for dessert. Cheri had escargots, calf liver (which was huge, the size of a decent steak) and a roasted apple with French toast and caramel sauce. I had Serrano ham (basically prosciutto), duck breast on a delicious mushroom risotto (I bet you never thought you'd hear me say that about mushrooms) and an awesome chocolate cake with cinnamon caramel ice cream. I tried a bit of everything and it was all great with the exception of the brains and liver, which were very obviously brains and liver. Hard to wrap your mind around that one and harder still to wrap your taste buds around it. Still Katy and Cheri polished them off, which impressed the hell out of me. After that we hit another pub, watched some football and had a few beers and then made our way back to the hotel.

Sunday we walked down to a market a few blocks from our hotel where Katy had heard about a really nice butcher shop where she wanted to get some blood sausage. Then we went to Champs Élysées and tried to go to la Duree (a bakery that makes REALLY nice confections) but the line was ridiculous and I had to head out to catch my train. That's when things really started getting interesting...

So I get my bags and get to the train station, find my train on the departure screen and see that it doesn't have a platform number yet. I figured that meant I had a few minutes to get a sandwich, so I did, found a seat and enjoyed it as much as one can enjoy a salami and butter sandwich in a filthy train station. Eventually I got up to check the status of my train and realized I was waiting in the wrong place since I had an international train. I got up to the Eurostar area and realized I was WAY late and had about 6 minutes to fill out my border control form, clear security and run down to the train. Fortunately, a couple people let me cut them in line seeing how late I was running. I made it to the train and was surprisingly not the last one on board so if trains actually waited for people, that one wasn't waiting on me. But that's not the case, so all I did was get my seat mate's hopes up. Sorry pal ("lucky me...." was his reaction when he realized he didn't get an extra seat for his crap).

Upon arriving at King's Cross-St Pancras in London, I collected my big suitcase from the luggage check, made my way to the tube (aka the underground (aka the subway)) station, bought a ticket to Heathrow, lugged my 3 bags down the various stairs and escalators, got on the train and rode 45 minutes to Heathrow. Then I found the Hertz courtesy shuttle and rode to their lot, got in line and when I finally got to the front I walked up crossing my fingers that they would have an auto magic on the lot that wasn't reserved. They had one left. At this point I'm saying my thank you's to whatever deities popped into my mind at the time (plus an extra for letting me make that train) and then my luck ended. The guy is going through his checklist of questions (will you be the only one driving? want extra insurance? over 25? need a GPS?) I'm still saying my thank you's so not really listening. Wait what? No I'm 22. His face at that point said it all. I was done. I might as well have been a 16 year old who just snatched dad's credit card thinking I was getting a Porsche to go on a first date. Yeah right kid. So after making a couple phone calls to my coworkers/bosses asking what I should do, they told me to go back into London and get a train up to Warwick instead, get a taxi to the hotel and sort out the rental in the morning. Resignedly, I agreed, lugged all my crap back into London, got to the right train station, bought my ticket, made my way to the platform and waited. Within 5 minutes of finally sitting down (had been on my feet since the train from Paris, and pretty much the entire weekend before that) an announcement comes over the PA saying there had been an accident at the next station up the line and to please go back to the main waiting area of the station as all the trains in and out of my station were indefinitely suspended. Turns out someone was hit and killed by a train so the police had the whole area shut down to investigate and clean up. That's terrible, ew and damnit. I gave up on getting to Warwick for the night and walked to the nearest hotel hoping they'd have an open room. They did, so I checked in, rearranged my stuff since it was all mixed up after living out of 1 bag for 4 days and went to bed.

Monday morning comes, I get up and get dressed and talk to my boss. He said I should just come back to Bristol to sort things out so I made my way to the (wrong) tube station then the right one, then to the train station above it, bought my ticket, bought some breakfast boarded the train and was on my way. It seemed my troubles had ended. About halfway to Bristol I realized my rear end was wet. What?! Ugh someone spilled something on that seat on the previous trip I guess. Well after THAT my troubles were over. Rachel picked me up from the Bristol station, which she was happy to do since it got her out of doing paperwork and when we arrived at the office my new rental was waiting in the lot. It's a brand new diesel Kia Cee'd (as in 13 miles brand new). Normally I wouldn't want to drive a Kia, but this thing is actually quite nice! Still not going to buy one when I get back, but I definitely like it more than the Focus I had before so I won't be buying one of those either. After a day of filling in expenses and time sheets, I FINALLY made it up to Warwick, checked into my hotel and unpacked.
This hotel is interesting. It looks like it was decorated in the 60s but it's well kept. Other than the bed being rock hard and the shower not having much pressure I like it. I had my first traditional English breakfast here and I have to say I didn't really care for it. It consisted of an egg, fried bread, beans, bacon, sausage, a pile of mushy mushrooms (won't eat them straight, sorry), black pudding and terrible coffee. I didn't eat most of it but I did try everything. I'm rather impressed that I can pick out bad coffee already, considering it all tasted like bad coffee to me about 6 weeks ago. Still, I'm no connoisseur. I'm happy to drink the soluble crap you just pour in hot water and drink.

Tuesday morning after my not very good breakfast (apologies to any Brits reading this; your food just isn't very appetizing), I went out to meet Gandhar (one of my coworkers) at the University of Warwick to witness some electric vehicle power train testing. Unfortunately the engine had a bad RPM sensor and the dyno was dead so after checking the calibration certificates for a few minutes we left. It was a very short day as there was nothing else to do after that. We were scheduled to try again Wednesday, but having a feeling they wouldn't get it fixed, I made a backup plan to go down to Millbrook proving grounds (about an hour south of Warwick) to watch a rather impressive, small sports car produced by a very small company (I'm not sure I'm allowed to say what company it is so I won't) smash into a wall. As expected, the electric vehicle was still a no go, so I did in fact go watch the crash, and do some other tests on that car. Its interesting seeing a car that was designed for pure speed (0-60 in around 3 seconds) get transformed into something that's street legal. They did a really good job of not making it look street legal. I want one. Unfortunately I don't have £70,000 to throw around.

That was yesterday. Today, I went to MIRA, another test facility around Warwick to ride along for some brake tests. It was pretty interesting as a comparison to the way they do it in the states. The biggest difference being that in the UK the VCA engineer does the driving, whereas in the states they have a regiment of unionized test drivers to do it. I like the UK's way better, mostly because I'd get to drive some awesome cars that way. On a related note, Nic, the engineer I was working with today told me that on October 24th I'll be taking a class II drivers license class along with the rest of the UK based engineers, and will eventually (maybe) be going for a class I as well which is pretty damn exciting. He wants me to be his ambassador in the US to get the engineers there licensed as well because he is of the opinion that, since we're the ones giving the approval, it's really on us to make sure the vehicle behaves as it should, which is something that can only really be determined when you're driving. And in order to reduce the company's liability when we're doing these tests (as well as the risks of us crashing a half million dollar prototype vehicle) we should have some sort of driver training. A side benefit is that, with all the driving we do from test facility to test facility we will be safer on the public roads, which is important as that is on-the-clock driving. I'm all in favor of that, though I know that going up against the unions and insisting that we drive rather than them could very well lose us a lot of business to the Dutch or something, so who knows what'll happen.

Anyway, that's gotta be it for today, since it took two days to write.


Oh, and I almost forgot... I got paid today and it feels GREAT! One check in and its already the most money I've ever had in my account. CHA-CHING!

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