Staycation

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En route home to London City Airport - my first time there, too
En route home to London City Airport – my first time there, too

Embarrassingly, I had never been to Ireland before my one-night-only work visit to Dublin last week, our flights in and out carefully tucked between major storms. Obviously I could barely glimpse the city during this short window, especially as I spent a good proportion of the time in fancy multinational offices, but even our quick lunch in a nearby café bolstered the stereotype that people here might just be… friendlier. I will be very happy to come back for a proper visit and see! In the meantime, it was great to meet some people in-person who might previously have existed solely in the realm of Slack.

My panicked "I haven't taken any photos for the blog!" moment before getting into a car to the airport
My panicked “I haven’t taken any photos for the blog!” moment before getting into a car to the airport
Goodbye, platelets
Goodbye, platelets

A week before I had an emotional rise-and-fall in my very brief career as a platelet donor. Since coming back to the UK I’ve been excited to be able to give blood again, and at one of my last sessions I was invited to test my blood to see if the platelet count was high enough to safely donate platelets instead. For years, I think I’ve been mixing up platelet donation with bone marrow or something else because I’ve associated it with something a lot more intensive and painful. Actually, donating platelets turned out to be easier and more enjoyable than regular blood donation. To get at the platelets, a machine removes your blood, separates out the platelets and then returns the rest back to you via the same needle. This means you’re much less likely to feel faint, since you aren’t losing much whole blood at all. The whole process does take longer (54 minutes in my case) but you can eat, drink and chat to staff while you wait.

Anyway, I was all excited that I had been inducted into this secret platelet club and then I got a call saying that my platelet count had dropped below the minimum threshold again and I had to switch back to whole blood donation. Boo. I commiserated with Joshua that night in a pub in our newly designated zone for North-South London meetups of West Hampstead. (Yes yes, I realise this is very much on the North side but it’s great for catching the Thameslink home again.) Thankfully Josh was able to cheer me up again.

Later that week I was back in North London for the QPCS Careers Celebration Evening, a networking opportunity where I tried to encourage every Year 12 student I met to become a Product Manager (we may end up with a surplus) but also gossip (which is basically networking) with former teachers over wine and sandwiches. Memo to the public high schools of Wisconsin: it is perfectly acceptable to provide wine at your public events.

This week, Randi and I have been on staycation. Hurray! I’ve never done this before, but we both had holiday days to use up (thanks, EU) and already have a big US trip planned in April, so we ended up replicating the aura of a rainy February half-term week only without the children. Our first act was to go see Parasite at the astoundingly good-value Peckhamplex cinema. Since this has already won the Oscar for Best Picture etc. you’ve likely already seen it and don’t care about my opinion either way, but I thought it was excellent – three-dimensional characters in a film which balances light and dark moments perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the intensely gory scene was too much for me, but I was glad that it came so close to the end that I didn’t miss much…

This photo happens to be from St. Albans, but it could have been from any of these muddy walks
This photo happens to be from St. Albans, but it could have been from any of these muddy walks

Otherwise, most of our staycation has centred on some very muddy walks. We completed our thirteenth London LOOP walk (Section 3), walked off brunch waffles through Verulamium Park in St. Albans (where I got nostalgic for the Romans) and were joined by my mum for a tour of deer-laden Richmond Park. On Wednesday night, we also saw my colleague Tabi on stage again as part of a Soul Stripped Sessions performance with three other artists: Natalie Duncan, Katie Coleman and Lisabel. The twist is that the venue was the basement of a Pizza Express in Chelsea, which means my life in attending gigs has progressed to “standing because that’s what all my friends are doing” to “hunting for a seat” to “sitting at a table eating dough balls”. Excellent. The performances itself were incredible, and Katie Coleman’s poppy Not Your Pin up Girl is actually still stuck in my head.

Soul Stripped Sessions
Soul Stripped Sessions

Oh, and our Would I Lie To You? episodes from May finally aired!

Front-row audience proof
Front-row audience proof

At 20.30, two and a half hours before Brexit, I bowed to the victory of the Brexiteers by sitting alone in a Wetherspoons pub and ordering British pie and British mash through the Wetherspoons app. (Thirty minutes later I realised I had ordered it to the wrong pub, but the staff kindly saved me from my own idiocy.)

At 22.00, one hour before Brexit, I was sitting on a plane with my seatbelt fastened, waiting to take off.

And by 23.00 I was safely in the air, somewhere over France…

Nothing but blue skies and single markets in Barcelona
Nothing but blue skies and single markets in Barcelona

I’d love to pretend that this was all carefully planned, but it was just a happy coincidence that Randi was working in Barcelona last week and suggested I joined for the weekend. Obviously I was happy to do so, because (a) it’s Barcelona, but also (b) the city has always gotten a raw deal on this blog. I visited twice in 2003 – once on a school trip and then later with my family – but alas this was a year before I started blogging so it left an annoying hole on my virtual scratch map. Until now.

The last time I was here...
The last time I was here…
...finally blog-official, 17 years later.
…finally blog-official, 17 years later.

Since we had both been here before – albeit a while ago – we didn’t feel any pressure to rush around ticking off all the tourist sights. Instead we did a healthy amount of walking and wandering: eating tapas, marvelling at how different big cities can feel from each other (there are no houses!) and saying silly things to each other like “this reminds me of Buenos Aires”. I was also pleased to confirm that, after over a year of Duolingo, my Spanish is definitely in a better state than it was in 2003. And sure, nowadays I’m even more aware that you’d be wiser to speak Catalan here than Spanish, but I hope that the bar for British tourists is sufficiently low that I passed.

Inside the Gaudi-designed section of Park Güell
Inside the Gaudi-designed section of Park Güell
Feels like some knock-off signage design right here
Feels like some knock-off signage design right here

The one attraction we did pay for was the famous Park Güell which consists of a small ‘Monumental Zone’ of Gaudi sculptures and a much larger free area with rewarding views of the city, the sea and the mountains if you climb to the top. We sat up here for a while in the sun, basking in the warm glow of an unhurried weekend trip and the knowledge that Europe is still right here, just over the water, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Glorious
Glorious

Last week, Katie and I supplemented our regular Doctor Who outing with the first episode of the new Picard series. It seems strange now but I didn’t discover Doctor Who properly until I was a teenager, while Star Trek was deeply woven into my childhood: my mum (the only one who knew how to program the VCR) would always make sure it was set to record if my dad and I weren’t going to be home to watch it live. It should be noted that my dad loved both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the best, but for almost opposite reasons. The former is a utopian fantasy of peace and flourishing, the latter exposes the darker underbelly at the fringe. One is a manifesto, the other is a reality check. Both series need each other, and play off against each other.

From a dramatic perspective, however, you can’t tell any interesting stories if all you have is peace and flourishing. That wasn’t a problem for The Next Generation because it was set on a spaceship exploring new life and new civilisations. As long as those civilisations were violent and warlike then you had yourself a plot. But Picard is set on Earth, so it can’t play the same cards. Instead, the first episode features the perils of celebrity, xenophobia and a manipulative media… all good elements for a high-budget science-fiction show, but they also makes it feel like a show set in a higher-tech vision of Future America rather than a genuinely bold and radical imagining of a different social order.

This isn’t a complaint – I enjoyed the first episode and I’ll try to watch more – and even if it wanted to, the makers of Picard couldn’t recreate the The Next Generation anymore than my mum could still program a VCR. It was just a strange feeling, that’s all, that the vision of the future from the past now feels so much further away than our newer imagined future.

As for visions which look backwards: last Thursday I saw Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt with my mum and cousin Alix. I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play before but apparently he has a reputation and the official reason for inviting me to tag along was that I might be able to “help explain what I thought it meant” at the end.

Leopoldstadt tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family starting in early twentieth century Vienna. Some of the family members have converted to Christianity for social reasons although everybody is still very much culturally Jewish, and together they debate questions of assimilation vs. identity etc. One member of the family acknowledges that anti-semitism is still present but optimistically argues that “pogroms are a thing of the past” and things will only get better. The audience is supposed to feel haunted by the dramatic irony, I suppose. As staged, it just felt like a cheap trick.

I have a big mostly-Jewish family on one side, studied mostly-modern history at university and have seen an above-average number of plays. So maybe I’m not the target audience here. But I’m going to trust my instincts and just assert that this isn’t a very good play. The characters are given a huge amount of clunking historical exposition (the British Mandate in Palestine one moment, Bolshevik revolution the next) for no good reason, the plot is full of clichés and the script abounds with arched contemporary references to make the audience feel worthy and knowing. There are so many powerful and moving works about this topic, but this isn’t one of them.

Once upon a time, I had a website on Geocities. Then I got my own domain instead, because that was obviously pretty l33t. To justify this minor expense to myself I started blogging so that it wouldn’t be going to waste. But the blog needed a name, and after not-very-extensive deliberation I went with “The Musings of a Red Dalek”. (Ever since, I regretted picking something which would show up alphabetically under T for ‘The’. Don’t do it, kids!)

My non-smiling 16 year-old self
My non-smiling 16 year-old self
At Christmas the Dalek wore a hat, and one time he went all mock-yoof
At Christmas the Dalek wore a hat, and one time he went all mock-yoof

Now we live in the future: we all own flying cars, nobody remembers Geocities and my hastily-picked teenage blog title has become increasingly confusing to anyone who reads this. So today, the loyal Red Dalek is entering retirement and this whole silly exercise is simplifying to something short and sweet: dom.blog. Many thanks to the kind people at the dotblogger program for entrusting it to me!

The last few weeks have been quiet blog-wise because Randi and I have been taking very tentative steps into the fun world of buying a flat. (Yes, the aim for 2020 is yet more change!) No one in their right mind would enjoy reading a running commentary on this process, but in these early days it has actually been a nice excuse to explore different areas of London where we might want to live and/or actually afford to be able to live. And along the way, I was strangely amused by this sign:

So who is it dedicated to?
So who is it dedicated to?

Along with these explorations, this month I had drinks with Clark and surprise special guest Matt Hull, stayed overnight at a fancy hotel in Windsor for a work event and very much enjoyed breaking open the Dominion: Dark Ages expansion with Randi, Katie and Kim. We also watched Hunt for the Wilder People – which was a lovely film and has been filed away in my brain along with Flight of the Conchords as evidence that New Zealanders have a great sense of humour – and, this weekend, hosted Oliver & Abi as our latest overnight guests. There’s no better way to recreate the feeling of university than beer and sleepovers!

Happy 2020! Randi’s parents have now returned home, but I need to dip back into 2019 quickly to round off their visit with our trip to the Peak District. Randi and I enjoyed our visit two years ago so much that we decided to take her parents to stay in the exact same B&B/pub – The Cheshire Cheese Inn – and rejoiced when we confirmed that they were still serving the same incredible cheese and potato pies. Don’t even think about staying anywhere else in Hope.

As we had already done the walk to Mam Tor, this time Randi and I used Saturday’s limited daylight hours to hike from the villages of Hope to Edale, which are also conveniently one stop along the railway line from each other so her parents could hop on a train and meet us there. The next day we took the shorter but muddier field route to Castleton. As I say, the prime motivating factor for this visit was the pies, but it’s important to work up an appetite.

Please don't be angry with us, but the paper map was mostly for show and we quickly ended up using our phones.
Please don’t be angry with us, but the paper map was mostly for show and we quickly ended up using our phones.
Arty sheep photos courtesy of Randi's fancy camera
Arty sheep photos courtesy of Randi’s fancy camera
Randi and her fancy camera
Randi and her fancy camera

After a couple of hours in Manchester (just time to visit an American restaurant and see the Piccadilly Gardens fountains impressively still going) we returned to London and the next day, on New Year’s Eve, I popped out with Cat and Matt for catch-up drinks and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in a ‘4DX sensory cinema’. Essentially, this means the chairs move around and occasionally some water is sprayed, although wussies can opt-out of the water via a control panel on the seat. (This option is clearly aimed at the same sort of people who ride log flume rides in ponchos.) Even though this is clearly all ridiculous, the pseudo-rollercoaster experience is at least quite well suited to Star Wars with its myriad chase sequences. I object more to 3D glasses, which always remind me of Bounty chocolate bars: every few years, I try them again just to confirm that they aren’t very good.

Our official New Year's Eve photo for the press
Our official New Year’s Eve photo for the press

We had a quiet New Year’s Eve in together this year, but did at least manage to stay awake until midnight which – given past performances – is not a guarantee. And on New Year’s Day we watched Doctor Who, of course, with its rather thrilling ending. I am gleefully anticipating the second half tonight.

Finally, today Randi and I walked the ‘first’ section (our eleventh) of the London LOOP from Erith to Old Bexley. We are still a very long way away from the pretty fields overlooking North London, but I have some hope that we have started to clear London’s industrial eastern edge and may soon return to parks, forests and meadows. And if not, at least we keep uncovering more unexplored fringes of the city!

No one has ever been so thrilled to reach Bexley before
No one has ever been so thrilled to reach Bexley before
2019's Chrismukkah Combination
2019’s Chrismukkah Combination

Last time I promised evidence of a fully-decorated Christmas tree and here you can see it in all its finery combined with our Hanukkah decorations and an excitingly train-themed menorah. This last item was a gift from Randi’s parents who are in the middle of staying with us for a couple of weeks over the holidays, which has been really wonderful and a great excuse to eat at all of our favourite local places in addition to all of the regular seasonal festivities.

It’s probably a good thing that all of this stopped me from blogging straight after the miserable election night two weeks ago, during which I felt a surge of rage flow through my bloodstream (you really spoke for me, Alan Johnson) which has now been temporarily blotted out by Christmas. Indeed, the very next day after election night was eviivo’s Christmas party, and although I didn’t have the energy to stay awake for the whole night I did stay long enough to collect my Secret Santa from a (somewhat martial) Father Christmas.

Too scared to get any closer
Too scared to get any closer

On Saturday night, Randi and I were joined by Irfan for an incredible dinner at Sophie and Naomi’s astoundingly tasteful and beautiful flat. Feeling too lazy to go home in the rain aftwards, and/or just wanting more time with their adorable dog Lottie, we crashed there overnight before rousing ourselves the next morning for our final London LOOP walk of the year. By coincidence, this walk – section 24 – is technically the ‘last’ one if you decide to walk the route in order from the start. But as others have noted, it’s not exactly the most inspiring finale. Most of the path is very industrial – exemplified by the scent of the Tilda rice factory – and there’s no grand monument (or even a sign!) at the end to celebrate the whole thing. I’m glad this won’t be our lasting memory of the LOOP.

Lottie has a great life
Lottie has a great life
Celebrating our final London LOOP of 2019
Celebrating our final London LOOP of 2019
Suspicious Simon
Suspicious Simon

A week later, I popped down to Hassocks for Simon and Fleur’s wintery wedding day. They added a few Christmassy touches which lent an extra special feel to an already special day, including a welcoming mug of hot chocolate at the start, mulled wine in the evening and a giant and beautifully decorated tree in the barn where the ceremony took place. One of the things that everybody loves about Simon is his gift for bringing people together, so it’s totally unsurprising that at his wedding I had such a good time chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. My only complaint is that as I took my place at the Bakerloo line table for dinner I was confronted by a very sad-looking incarnation of me. If you look closely, you’ll see he’s now bringing his misery to our Christmas tree too 🙁

For comparison, here I am next to the affable Robert Bell
For comparison, here I am next to the affable Robert Bell
A happier real-life me with Patrick, Ellie & Rob
A happier real-life me with Patrick, Ellie & Rob

Back in London, last week we saw Come From Away with Randi’s parents. This joyful and uplifting musical is based on the true story of the 38 planes which were grounded in the remote Canadian town of Gander on 9/11. I wasn’t expecting anything based on 9/11 to be so enjoyable, but this was a perfect feel-good show for this time of year and I’ve had much of the soundtrack stuck in my head ever since. Then, on Christmas Eve Eve, we joined up with my mum for the Christmas at Kew event at Kew Gardens. Essentially, this is a very middle-class version of Winter Wonderland but thankfully the weather stayed dry for us and we enjoyed a very nice stroll around the festive lights and sounds of the gardens.

Walking in a winter wonderland
Walking in a winter wonderland
All together in Kew (or Line, as the Americans call it)
All together in Kew (or Line, as the Americans call it)
Blog Santa #2
Blog Santa #2

And then – finally – it was Christmas! On Christmas Eve the whole family assembled at my parents’ house, guzzled down the latkes fried by Randi and her mum and played a few (generally successful) rounds of Codenames before laying out the stockings and going to bed. The extra guests obviously gave the magic a boost because it was a particularly strong haul of presents this year! On Christmas itself we enjoyed the traditional large family gathering at Carolyn’s with amazing food, a tough quiz and a very violent game of mafia (or ‘slaughter of the innocents’). Ah well. Merry Christmas and Happy Boxing Day!

Merry Christmas!
Merry Christmas!