Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sorry it's been so long, I've been busy!

Well, I meant to start this post about 2 weeks ago, but better late than never. That reminds me of this: http://longestjokeintheworld.com/ Check it out sometime if you have a free afternoon and evening.

I seem to remember the last post being before I did my driver training, so let's start there. First off let me start by saying


There were four (actually five) parts, which I did entirely driving a manual, since it was faster than my auto and... why not?
1. On the mile straight. Basically, I took this time to learn how get up to speed, smooth out my shifting and then stop again from high speeds. There's actually more to it than putting your foot on the floor. Most people who've never done it before tend to be a bit hesitant about hitting full brakes at 120 mph, but its totally doable. Also, stopping fast without engaging ABS takes a bit of practice too.
2. In the high speed bowl. It's basically a circular track with the sloped sides so I learned about what happens to your steering when you go 130 mph (a new personal record). What happens? You go up and down (side to side) in your lane because of slight changes in the steering alignment as the suspension loads and unloads over small bumps. If you try to correct each little sway you'll only make it worse, so you just have to accept that its going to happen. Also, each lane has a speed marked on it, where if you drive that speed, the car will automatically hold the corner and stay in its lane. Since it's a circular track you could put on cruise control and take your hands off of the wheel. The car will keep going until it runs out of gas. That's pretty neat.
After lunch,
3. On the handling course. This is basically a small circuit with a couple hills and a bunch of corners that are all a bit different so you can learn different cornering techniques. This involves taking the correct racing line, braking the right amount at the right time to maximize your speed out of a corner (or not if you have another corner afterwards), how to combine two corners into one by taking the right line, how to steer around a corner only moving the steering wheel to one angle and then back (i.e. not making small adjustments through the corner). All of this makes the car more able to stay within or on the limit of adhesion (where the tires start slipping on the road) so you can drive faster and safer. This is the part that I can practice the most while doing every day driving since the rest involves going too fast or slamming on the brakes, which is generally frowned upon.
4. The alpine circuit. Similar to the handling course, except way more awesomer. There's lots of ups and downs and hairpin corners. The two other guys in my car have quite a bit more experience with track driving than I do, so they were about to do that course faster, and both of them got air coming over one particular hill coming into a hairpin. It was terrifying and exhilarating. We were all laughing hysterically after each time they did it because it felt like we just looked death in the face, even though we were actually quite safe. Don't worry mom. Fun bit of trivia, you know the scene in Casino Royale where Bond is chasing the baddies in his Aston Martin and then has to swerve (rolling and destroying the car) to avoid hitting the girl? Yeah, that one. It took place on that track. Very cool.
5 was a bit of a surprise for us, they told us at the end that to wrap everything together, they had set up a gymkhana course. If you don't know what gymkhana is, watch this. Actually, watch this anyway.
Our course was nothing like that, nor was our driving, but we it was a watered down version of that. Our course took about 30 seconds to drive, had a couple tight corners, a slalom section, a 360 "spin" and a little box to stop in. Fortunately, the cars we got to drive were separate from the rentals we had been using. The driver training company provided were about like these:
The one on your left is a run of the mill suped up Subaru Impreza, and the one on the right is a Caterham (pronounce kay-trim) roadster. When I first looked up the Caterham I couldn't find it because I thought it was actually called a k-trim car. Then I remembered people here have a silly accent so I started typing in different ways you could spell it. I never got close but fortunately google could figure out what I meant by cay tram roadster. Unfortunately we drew straws for who would drive what and I was put in the Subaru. Not that it wasn't awesome, it's just that I don't think I'll have a chance to drive a Caterham for a long time, if ever.

Anyway, the goal for the gymkhana was not to have the fastest lap, but the most consistent pair of laps. So after the warm up lap to familiarize ourselves with the course we got two more and the most consistent won a hat. It wasn't me unfortunately, because it was a really cool hat. I tied for 3rd out of 6 guys, so I'm reasonably okay with that. I think most of my time difference was because I had trouble getting the car started on one try, but I still did a lot better than I would have if I had been driving my auto all day! We all got certificates saying we completed the course, though I'm pretty sure they don't actually get us any extra privileges but it's still my best souvenir so far.

I'm gonna skip over most of the work stuff I've done since then because it was mostly boring. Did some tractor testing, some trailer inspections, and some brakes.

Now on to the fun bits, the weekends!

The weekend after the driver training was my Amsterdam Halloween trip! I left work a bit early on Friday, flew out of Bristol to Amsterdam and got on a train to the hotel to meet up with Megan. After checking into our super trippy room (see below) we decided to head into town for some delicious french fries and wandering around, checking out the scenery/people. This would become a theme for the weekend as the fries are amazing, the buildings and city are beautiful and the people are more diverse than Ann Arbor and even more free spirited and crazy. That was it for that evening.

Our hotel...

...was nuts. There was a panel on the wall controlling the lights. You could keep it steady or set it to strobe like a night club or have it slowly change between the colors. Surprisingly, this was not located in the red light district, but in the financial district, in the World Trade Center! Notice anything missing? Check the green one.

The next morning we had the bizarre experience of doing our respective morning routines while the other loudly watched TV on the other side of the wall, since the bathroom had no door. It was strange but we got used to it. We headed to the Nieuwmarkt to check out some food whatever else they might be selling there. Turns out it was pretty much just food, but it was really cool to see all the different stuff. Lots of cheese and bread, fruits and veggies and other things. For example, Megan found some vegetarian pate. I didn't know that was possible, but this very friendly Dutch guy figured it out. I think it was made from apricots? We bought half a loaf of yummy bread and a block of delicious gouda-ish cheese and ate it in a nearby park. After that we resumed our wandering around, checking out random things. We saw Rembrandt Square, near where I stayed last time in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House (still didn't make it in, the line has been around the block every time I've gone past it) and of course did the compulsory walk through the red light district. It's such a surreal experience. That's all I'm going to say about that here. We went to a bar and had a couple drinks as everything besides the bars, coffee shops and street food close up pretty early, in fact the whole city goes to sleep quite early, and likes to sleep in. My kind of place (at least the sleeping in part). After the bar we got a large cone of fries for dinner and went back to the hotel and slept.

The next day we decided we wanted some Dutch pancakes for breakfast and it was a GREAT choice. I had an apple and cinnamon pancake and Megan had banana and nutella. They were delicious and filling (each one is roughly three times the size of your average double bed). That kept us going strong until we required our next fix of fries. I suppose I should explain why the fries are so good and keep you coming back. First of all, they're steak fries, and somehow always perfectly cooked. Second, and more importantly, every shop has a huge selection of sauces including but not limited to fritesauce (like a sweet mayo), ketchup (boring!), mustard, garlic, hot sauce, cheese and curry sauce. And it's served in a parchment paper cone with a cool little plastic fork so you don't get too messy. I would go back for the fries alone. Okay, and the pancakes too. 

That day was filled with more random wandering, this time checking out some cool drawbridges, the theatre, the ballet, and a duck that loved peanuts. We also found a few street performers who were really good. One was a "magician" from Australia. I hesitate to call him that since one of his tricks was making a handful of cigarettes from the audience disappear... into a box in his suitcase. The other one was escaping from some plastic wrap and a chain that was cleverly wrapped so he could shake out of the whole thing. His real talent though was in working the crowd. He was hilarious and I can't even begin to explain his shtick because it was all "you had to be there" kind of humor, which is the best when you were there, and the worst when you weren't. I won't ruin it. Another performer was playing an amped acoustic guitar with a loop box so he could essentially play all the tracks of a song simultaneously, and he was really good at it. What drew me towards him was the unmistakable sound of Stairway to Heaven, and he continued with some more songs I recognized but couldn't name. Eventually we moved on and found a guy playing a bunch of Bob Marley songs, he was really good too, and a perfect fit for... shall we say the atmosphere of the city. Back to the hotel-rave again to sleep.

Our last day in Amsterdam was spent checking out the museums in the appropriately named "museum district". We looked at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. They were both awesome. I especially liked the audio tour guide for the Rijksmuseum. It was very personal, friendly and funny. He talked about his experiences as a kid in the museum and as an adult with his kids and how he perceives it differently. Very cool perspective. It turns out he's somewhat famous. If you're curious what the tour was like... check out this video:
Jeroen Krabbe guides us through the first room of the Rijksmuseum

Yup, so that took a while. We were hungry afterwards so we went to an Italian restaurant nearby and I'm sure there are some people reading this who may not believe what I'm about to write. We ordered an appetizer of mushrooms with a garlic butter sauce. Just a plate of mushrooms, and I happily ate a good portion of it. Also had some good pasta and a frozen, hollowed out lemon filled with tasty lemon sorbet. It was a bit of a pain to eat with a fork, but totally worth it. The wine on the other hand was terrible. Especially with the lemon sorbet. Good thing we ordered water too.

That was pretty much it for Amsterdam since I had to get up really early for my 8 am flight. It was super fun though, and felt a lot more productive than my last trip there when no one wanted to be decisive so we just wandered around pointing at restaurants saying "Wanna eat there?" "I don't care." "Me neither." "Ok, I guess let's keep going then." As much as I enjoyed the city then, it's much better when you just go do things.

The beautiful thing about the flight from Amsterdam to Bristol is that it was an hour long with an hour time change, so I took off at 8 and landed at 8. I made it to the office by about 9:15 which is pretty darn good considering I woke up in another country. Only 3 days of work that week since Thursday night I drove up to Edinburgh to meet up with my parents!

Let me start by saying... I love Edinburgh! Walking around it made me feel like I was in a Final Fantasy game or something.


Final Fantasy

See what I mean?

Even the drive up there, in the rain, at night, was beautiful. About 75 miles from Edinburgh, the GPS pulled me off of the motorway onto a little two lane mountain road. It was such a fun drive with winding roads and nice hills. Having no other cars the entire way also contributed to the awesomeness.

Since the parents had just taken a train up from London after flying from home, they were very tired so after some brief catching up, we all went to bed. The next day we walked the Royal Mile which includes a lot of historical buildings. Check it out!

 There were lots of these cool little alleys (called a close)

 The castle, complete with tactless Americans :-p
 View from the top

 I can't decide if I like the composition of this picture or not. I really the castle coming out of the rocks though.

Calton Hill, we watched the Guy Fawke's Night fireworks here
And we saw a super awesome DOUBLE RAINBOW!!


I felt super lucky to have seen this, until I saw the wikipedia page for the royal mile... the first picture has a double rainbow! I guess Edinburgh is just cool like that.

We also walked through the Grassmarket and had lunch there, then bought some sweaters and other wool/cashmere things because that's what you do in Scotland. I ended up with a sweater and nice scarf, and unintentionally continued expanding my blue wardrobe. Whatever, at least everything goes together :-)

Dinner on Friday was my treat to the parents as my thank you for all the support they've given me to get where I am in life and it was exactly what I was hoping for. I booked a table at the nicest restaurant in town, called Restaurant Martin Wishart. It's French cuisine and good enough to get a Michelin star. Apparently that scale has lost some credibility recently, but this restaurant definitely lived up to the hype. We got a few amusee bouches, all fall themed, mostly with pumpkin, all delicious. Then I had a wonderful white truffle risotto for an appetizer and roast hare loin and leg for dinner. After all the talk of what wonderful stew and slippers the bunnies would make last year, I had to order it when I saw it on the menu. The other thing that I had to order when I saw it was the "soufflee of the day." I mean really, how often do you see that? It was mandarin flavor and came with a mandarin, something and olive oil gelato. It was all so delicious. I think I have to say this was the second best meal I've ever had, only trailing Alinea, which was out of this world almost literally.

Anyway, after a wonderful dinner we went to bed. The next day we drove to Roslin Chapel (the one that was in the end of the DaVinci code. It was really stunning, but unfortunately it was being restored so there was scaffolding covering half of it so we could only look at part of it. There was a lot of really ornate carved stone covering the entire inside. It's hard to believe that it's so impressive and they never even built half of what it was originally planned to be. That night was Guy Fawkes Night, which is kind of the British equivalent to the 4th of July. Basically Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament on the 5th of November, was caught and hanged, so now every year they celebrate his failure by blowing up other stuff and having big bonfires. We walked up to the top of Calton Hill to watch the fireworks from all around the city. It was a bit chilly, but aside from that a great show. It's pretty unique looking down on fireworks. It makes them a bit less impressive I suppose, but the uniqueness more than made up for that.

Sunday we went to the royal yacht Britannia, which was the Queen's ship for 50 or so years. The tour was really well done, but unfortunately we had to rush through so the parents could get back down town to catch their train back to London. It was neat seeing the officer's quarters, the marines barracks (for security) and the royal family's area of the ship. It was all very different, but luxurious no matter where you went, even the engine room was chrome plated and sparkling! I would post pictures but I've been working on this post for something like 4 hours and I'm kind of running out of steam so I think I'm going to end it here. I'll put up a bunch of pictures on facebook when I get a chance. That might not be until I get home, but that's only 9 days away now!

I can't wait to have a kitchen and a bed room to sleep in for more than 4 days in a row!