Friday, February 27, 2009

Ryanair to Charge for Toilet Usage?

Perhaps my bestest buddy Abu Thaar aka Craig can confirm in the comments section that I called this one about 6 years ago after a trip from Frankfurt Hahn to London Stansted on Ryanair.

Here is the link for the following article.

Irish budget airline Ryanair has said it is considering charging passengers for using the toilet while flying.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary told the BBC that the Dublin-based carrier was looking at maybe installing a "coin slot on the toilet door".

Consumer group Which? said the airline was putting "profit before passengers".

Last week Ryanair confirmed it planned to close all of its airport check-in desks by the end of the year in a bid to reduce the cost of its flights.

'Fast buck'

Ryanair aims to offer low basic ticket prices, and then charge extra for items such as checking in at the airport or for additional luggage.

"One thing we have looked at in the past, and are looking at again, is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future," he told the BBC.

He added: "I don't think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound."

But Rochelle Turner, head of research at Which? Holiday, said: "It seems Ryanair is prepared to plumb any depth to make a fast buck and, once again, is putting profit before the comfort of its customers.

"Charging people to go to the toilet might result in fewer people buying overpriced drinks on board, though - that would serve Ryanair right."

I agree with the last paragraph in the article. I think overall this will hurt Ryanair's profits as it charges £3 or about $4.50 for a very average cup of coffee that I think a many a people will fore go so that they do not have to risk another £1 fee to use the toilet. And I believe that they charge an even higher price for alcohol.

BUT, and yes it is a big but, the CEO of Ryanair, a gentleman by the name of Michael O'Leary is renowned for crazy PR 'stunts' and press conferences. Check this Times of London article with the 40 best Ryanair headlines over the past decade.

I have never personally had a bad experience with Ryanair in the 15 or so times I have flown with them in the past 6 years. In fact I have had 2 very good experiences, one with a check-in person when my luggage was overweight and the other after I was late to the airport for my flight to Jerez, Spain and was rebooked on a flight to nearby Seville, Spain for a minimal cost.

But I have seen on a flight where a man was having some sort of problems breathing and the flight crew told him he could use a bottle of oxygen but that they would have to charge him £10.

Yes, you heard that right. Ryaiair charge to use oxygen... And you expect toilets to remain gratis???

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Celta in Solihull...

Today I had an interview at Solihull College to hopefully convince them that I possess the right material to partake in an intense course run by the very prestigious Cambridge University.

The CELTA course stands for Certificate in English Language Teaching Adults and is the best credential a teacher can have other than a degree in a specific subject.

I had sent in my application packet consisting of an essay on why I wanted to take the course, a 5 problem sheet with grammar and spelling mistakes and a lesson plan to teach the mistakes about a month ago. I was contacted about 2 weeks ago by admissions to arrange an interview and when I arrived today I was given another worksheet with 5 problems to correct.

This time I had to explain to the interviewer what my corrections were and why I deemed it necessary as well as briefly indicate how I would do teach it in a classroom setting. I was given 30 minutes to complete that and then the interviewer came and sat with me in the room and asked me some questions such as why I desired to take the course and what I hoped to achieve by taking it.

We then went over the work I had done and she explained to me certain aspects of the course such as the amount of individuals that would be with me as well as the type of students we would be teaching during the classroom modules.

The interviewer's knowledge of the English language was quite extraordinary and we discussed the variations of British English and American English quite extensively. I was told that if I was accepted that I should teach American English in my classes and not try to teach British English as it would not come across right. This seems logical enough. Why try to fake knowing British grammar and what not?

But then I was thinking what kind of effect will that have on the student I would be teaching? I mean, they are real students paying to be taught English as a second language in Britain. Some are spouses coming form different countries looking to learn English for a test they need to obtain permanent residency and others are students form other European countries looking to improve their English. Me teaching American English to students in Britain seems problematic to their development but the interviewer didn't see to think so.

And the interviewer definitely has more experience and knowledge in the field than I do...

And then I was told that I would be offered the 12Th and final place in the program. So I accepted and ran across to the main reception with my acceptance slip to register before minds could be changed...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Me & Prince Sultan

On this day 8 years ago I was deployed to Prince Sultan Airbase (also known as P-SAB) in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the United States Air Force. I had just turned 20 a few months prior and I had been in the Air Force for a few months over 2 years at this point.

This being my first time in Saudi Arabia I, much like most people first visiting, never know what to expect. I thought to myself things like, 'It's winter but it's Saudi! How cold can it really be?' And, 'What facilities will they have on base?' Fortunately I was the 2ND leg of the 6 month window our squadron was due to deploy and had some information from colleagues about certain things going on.

Upon landing at P-SAB we disembarked off the military jumbo jet and then had to find our luggage that had been taken off the plane and placed on the concrete for us to sort through. After finding my bags I found my way to a line consisting of the other people that were on the flight with me. At the head of this line was a man is traditional Arab dress checking through the luggage of all the people who had just arrived. It was his job to confiscate any contraband that was deemed prohibited under the agreement that had been signed between the two governments. I remember that a few VHS tapes were confiscated off of one individual to be reviewed and then returned to him once they had checked out. A few people had a particular CD by the rap duo,Outkast confiscated. Not because of the musical content on the CD but the artwork of a naked woman on the CD itself.

Once everyone had been past the customs guy we were in-processed and put on some school buses painted tan and driven to the location where we would be sleeping for the next 3 months. The accommodations were excellent. I was assigned to a room with another guy from my shop and in the room there was 2 bunk beds, 4 large closets and a small refrigerator. The room was within a larger building that had perhaps 14 other rooms just like mine and a large communal living room with American cable television and a full kitchen setup on one wall. There was a 2 communal bathrooms with maybe 4 private stalls and 4 private showers as well as a laundry room with a handful of washers and dryers.

The overall living conditions were excellent but that as because it was not easy to live in the desert for 3 to 6 months and they had to do everything they could from to prevent people from going insane. There was an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and a very well equipped gym.

The chow hall food was not the best that I had ever tasted but they did try. There were some trailers that held a Burger King, a Baskin Robbins, a pizza place and a Chinese restaurant as well.

Financially P-SAB was a great place to be. First off all there was not too much one could spend their money on. Secondly, being is a 'hostile' area we were entitled to tax-free income as well as certain hazard pay bonuses. One could easily walk away from a 3 month stint in the desert with $5 grand in his pocket if he was so inclined.

The work was very manotonous for us in Saudi as typically jets would take off and come back with generally a minimal amount of problems. In fact we spent most our time sitting in a trailer playing PlayStation, playing basketball in combat boots when the weather was not too bad or sitting in the back of a 'bread truck' waiting for work to develop.

Overall the weather was perfect for the 3 months I was there. I think we saw rain drops once or twice but they never amounted to anything more than a spectacle and the Saudi in March and April is actually quite lovely. There were a few sandstorms while we were there and one in particular was so severe that when I fully extended my arm out in front of me I could not see my finger tips.

In fact that sandstorm cost me a small chunk of money. While I was deployed I was taking an English course towards my degree and had all my assignments on a 3.5" floppy disk that I had to print out and send in the mail to my instructor. During that terrible sandstorm sand got into everything and everywhere that a grain of sand has the ability to fit into including my backpack that contained my floppy disk. Grains of sand managed to get into the disk and scratch the film inside making it so a computer could not read the files on the disk. And I failed the class.

Days tend to blend together in situation like these. Only remarkable events separate ordinary 'Groundhog' like days. Days where there is a mind blowing sandstorm. Or the day a French Mirage crashed not to far from the base on a training mission killing the pilot. The day that Chief Master Sergeant Thompson yelled at me for moving a porta potty with a forklift like machine because I needlessly drove to close to a jet.

And the day I was able to get an R&R trip to the capital city of Riyaadh a couple weeks before we went back home to Germany. P-SAB was about 2 hours south of Riyaadh and only a handful of people go to go every week. I was selected by my first Sergeant to go and really looked forward to it after being stuck on the base for the past 2 and a half months. I remember driving in a big Chevrolet Suburban with 3 other men, one woman and our two military chaperons. We were told to wear dress pants, a button up shirt and dress shoes while the woman had to dress in a traditional Muslim woman's dress. She didn't have to wear the face veil but chose to to get the full experience of the culture we were about to experience.

In Riyaadh we had the option to go for lunch at a traditional Arab restaurant or Fuddruckers, a classic American burger restaurant. I was outnumbered 3 to 2 and we ended up at Fuddruckers having burgers and fried chicken which was not so bad after 2 and a half months of P-SAB chow hall but... You know.

We were taken to a traditional Arab market in Riyaadh and went shopping for gold and mink blankets. I had a beautiful experience in the market when the Arabic call to prayer came over the loudspeakers. The man chanting in Arabic was very beautiful in itself but the speakers around me seemed to be a split second apart and it was kind of like 'surround sound' echo all around the area.

We flew out of P-SAB in early April and when we landed in Germany everything was a new green. Germany is an incredibly green place to begin with but after being in the desert for a few months even the military camouflaged uniforms looked greener.

After returning we were entitled to 2 weeks vacation to unwind and get back into the swing of things.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

British Things That Make You Go Hmmm #2

I am still having problems with my internet stick but have a dial-up like capability until I can get into the city centre to visit the T-mobile shop and get my stick fixed.

Today I went to a local take-away to get some fresh bread for my lunch of canned soup and was given the bread wrapped in tin foil and placed in a plastic shopping bag also known here in the UK as a carrier bag. I now there is nothing special in what I have just wrote. The thing that made me go hmmm is displayed here in this photo.

The logo on that bag is very familiar to me yet it is probably not known by 98% of the people living in this country. This is a shopping bag from a Belgian supermarket named Delhaize that I used to shop at while I lived in Luxembourg. So how did the plastic shopping bags from a Belgian supermarket chain end up in my local take-away????!!!

First off I should mention that they had a whole bunch of them. The local take-away has obviously bought them in bulk from some supplier. I have likewise seen shopping bags from French supermarket chains such as Cora and Auchan in the past year or so in Birmingham.

It makes me wonder why? Either a supplier is stuck with a whole lot of extra bags that were produced for these shops yet were not bought or the stores themselves purchased too many and are trying to offload them here in the UK (and probably other places).

This particularly makes sense when you know that Auchan and Delhaize charge 2 to 3 Euro cent for the bags in their shops while they remain free from major supermarkets here in the UK. Is it that far fetched to think that most people are no longer buying the bags in these European supermarkets and they decided they can still make money off them by selling them in bulk here in the UK?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sorry...Out of Order.

My wireless broadband internet stick has decided it doesn't like the new Mac security update and decided to wipe itself clean.

T-Mobile has called me twice since I first called them on Saturday morning but I missed the calls both times.

That's the way the cookie crumbles I guess...

Signing off from an internet cafe!

Friday, February 13, 2009

British Things That Make You Go Hmmm #1

In the UK they call a car's liscence plate a 'number plate' and they are a big business.

Normal number plates are issued to a new car when it is registered by the car dealer with the DVLA and they tend to stay with the car for its entire 'life'.

The front plate here in the UK is white and the rear one is bright yellow but that varies from country to country around Europe. The thing that is totally unique about UK plates is that the two numbers you see in the photo above indicate the year that the car is manufactured. So the 51 you see in the example above tells you that the car was made between September 1st, 2001 to February 29th 2002 and the plates issued by the DVLA from March 1st 2002 would have had an 02.

The impact of this on an economic level is that people desire to have the latest number plate and tend to upgrade their car just for that reason. As for used cars then you could have the same car with the same mileage and even made in the same year yet one has an 07 plate and the other a 57 plate and the 57 plated car would be worth more on the market.

There is also custom plates that you can pay for from the DVLA and they remain the property of the individual. Desire your initials? How about a nickname? Well there are two ways to get it. First you can hope that no one has ordered it already from the DVLA and pay about £250 for it OR if you are not so fortunate you will have to try to buy it off of the individual who already owns it.

In the case of the above plate, which belongs to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo's Bentley you would probably have to pay him millions of dollars or pounds to get him to sell that to you. You up for it?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rockin Like a Moroccan Part II

In my previous post I left off with DBH having a seizure in the bathroom of my friend Karim's house the evening before we are supposed to board the train for a cross-country trip in Morocco. I was able to squeeze part of my upper body through the slight opening we had created by pushing the door and his body forward and see that he was not in the best of condition.

I was able to see that DBH was still having his seizure but not as severe as when he first fell out. He was completely dressed and it was obvious he was about to leave the toilet area when he was overcome. He had somehow fallen so that his back was against the door and his legs were straight out in front of him facing towards the toilet. His eyes were still rolled back in his head and his jaw was clenched incredibly tight while the air coming from his nose was incredibly exaggerated.

I was trying to comfort him by telling him to relax and that everything would be all right and after maybe 3 minutes the seizure appeared to end. Using the left arm I had managed to initially squeeze through I forced him to slouch forward taking his body weight off the door. After that Karim and I were able to push the door forward enough so that we could get inside the bathroom and lift him up.

We carried him about 20 feet (6 meters) to a sofa in Karim's living room and left him to rest. Karim and I looked at each other in disbelief at what had just transpired in his apartment. He then asked me why DBH or myself had not informed him of DBH's condition to which I informed him that I knew nothing about it.

Karim explained to me that if DBH had needed medical attention or had died in his house just how severe the consequences would have been to him and his family. He said that the police would have basically arrested everyone and figured out the story at the station. He said that DBH and myself would have been okay as we had traveled together to Morocco but him being a resident and his wife a citizen they would have had it much worse.

About an hour or two later DBH came through from his sleep and looked around the room then at me. I asked him if he knew what day it was to which he answered incorrectly. I then asked him if he knew where he was. He looked around the room again and then back at me while revealing that he thought we were in England.

I informed him that we were in Morocco at Karim's house. He laid back down and went returned to sleeping.

He woke up again a few hours later and seemed to be a little clearer on where he was but was not too sure as to what had happened to him. He said that he had not had an episode like this one for well over 5 years and had no idea what had brought it on. He said he was very tired and did not think he would be able to travel the next day so Karim insisted that we stay until DBH felt well enough to leave.

By the next day DBH was just as active as he was before his seizure. We caught a taxi to the train station and each purchased a first class one-way ticket to Oujda with a delay in Rabat to visit friends and drop off some belongings. The train was modern and similar to ones I have traveled on in Europe. The cars had a corridor the length of the car with perhaps 6 separate cabins. Second class cabins consisted of a hard bench on each end of the cabin with a normal train window. First class cabins had 6 cushioned seats in a cabin and operated off of an assigned seating number printed on your ticket. We had each paid 450 Moroccan dirhams (about $45USD) for our seat in first class for an almost 16 hour ride from one end of Morocco to the opposite end.

The ride from Marrakesh to Rabat was about 3 hours and we sat by the windows watching the scenery go past. After a while we could tell we were entering into an urban area and all of a sudden the man came on the intercom calling out in French that we were about to stop at Rabat Agdal station. DBH and I quickly grabbed our belongings and exited the train onto the platform and hot humid air. As the train was departing we walked towards the station and then out to the parking area in front of the main entrance. I immediately knew that we had gotten off at the wrong station as the area was to suburban looking. We grabbed a taxi outside the station and told him to take us to the address we provided.

The taxi driver explained to me that he would only be able to take me to the edge of Rabat where I would have to catch another taxi, as petit (small) taxis can only operate within their district. So after switching taxis I gave the new taxi driver the address to the villa and after some confusion we arrived and were welcomed inside. We sat with them for a few hours had some mint tea and dropped off the diapers that were the majority of my luggage. We caught a taxi to the main train station Rabat and awaited the 11PM train to Oujda.

As it was late at night some men were cleaning the platform with hoses and other materials when it started to rain. The 20 or so of us on the platform all headed to the same overhang trying to keep ourselves and luggage dry and the train pulled in not too long after the rain had started. We found our assigned car and cabin and put our luggage on the racks above the seats and tried to get comfortable before the train pulled off.

We got some sleep on the trip but were typically awakened at every stop as people were embarking and disembarking the train. At the city of Fes we seemed to have stopped for longer than scheduled and had a man and woman enter our cabin for the remainder of the trip.

We arrived at our destination around 9AM and were greeted by a friend who lived in the same community with me in Germany for a time. Abdur Rahman is American and married to a Moroccan woman who is originally from the city we were visiting on the Algerian border.

We stayed with Abdur Rahman and his family for about 5 days. It was cool to have a window into the frustrations and happiness of his daily life. We typically ended up going to the market every day for groceries and other needs but stopped off for lunch and coffee occasionally. Oujda being so far from the main cities of Morocco and not having any tourist attractions of any sort people tend to wonder what westerners are doing all the way out there. Hence I felt like a curiosity to the people.

We did manage to walk out towards the Algerian border one afternoon. It was about a 20 minute walk and I would have loved to cross the border but unlike Morocco, Algeria requires visas to be arranged prior to traveling. Moroccan can cross the border with no problems but Algerians are not allowed to cross into Morocco without a visa or some official paperwork.

The day before our flight back to London we caught the long train ride back to Marrakesh with a change in Casablanca. Once in Marrakesh we caught a taxi back to Karim's house and spent the night. Our flight was around 7AM and that meant we would have to leave Karim's house around 5AM for an uneventful flight back to London.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rockin Like a Moroccan Part I

In May of 2006 a British friend of mine and I somehow came to the decision that we were going to go to Morocco for around 10 days at the earliest and cheapest opportunity. I wanted to visit because I had two good friends living there and my traveling companion, DBH wanted to go because he was on the search for a wife and Morocco is known for having ample single women looking for husbands.

DBH was all of 18 years old and actually looked more like 16 at the time. He is of mixed race (as they call it here in the UK) and originally from the south of England but had moved to Birmingham not to long after I had. DBH had received his full UK driving licence just recently and purchased a used Nissan Micra that he drove us to his hometown in, the afternoon prior to the day of our flight. We took the M40 south towards London where we eventually changed to another motorway that brought us to his mom's house. We visited his mother and brother for a short time before heading over to another area named Slough that is not to far west of London where DBH had arranged a place for us to stay the night.

The next day a mutual friend drove us to London Gatwick airport (one of London's 5 airports) which was where we had booked our departing flight that would take us to Marrakesh, Morocco. Atlas Blue airline is one of the many low-cost airlines operating out of London and their website had quoted me a roundtrip price of about £85 each. We were dropped off curbside and proceeded to check in our luggage inside the terminal. The line through security was pretty long but moved fairly quickly and before we knew it we were sitting at the gate waiting to board the plane. Unfortunately the flight ended up being delayed for about an hour and we didn't have much to do except look around for the person with the most outrageously over-weight and/or over-sized piece of carry-on luggage.

I do not remember much about the actual flight itself although it would have taken about three and a half hours to fly over the English Channel, France, Spain and most of Morocco. Upon arrival we were met by a bus at the foot of the aircraft stairs that brought us to immigration where our passports were stamped. I had arranged a place to stay for the night in Marrakesh for DBH and I with a friend who is married to a woman from Marrakesh. Unfortunately I did not know that I would be asked for his address and it held us up for a little bit longer than normal at immigration.

Once cleared to enter the country as tourists we went to the luggage belt and awaited our bags. After a short time they showed up and now we had to stand in a line for custom's inspection. Our turn came and we had to load our bags onto a conveyor belt that led into an X-ray machine. DBH's bags where deemed to be ok but I was asked to open my bag up because of odd shapes on the official's screen.

I had been asked by my ex-wife to bring some diapers from the UK to Morocco for my son as apparently they are much more expensive there. Her family is originally Moroccan although her and most of her siblings were born in France. Her parents had had the fortune and foresight to build a house close to the capital city (named Rabat) as a vacation home.

Upon complying with the customs officer's request to open my bag up for his viewing pleasure he saw 4 large packs (84 diapers in a pack I believe.) of diapers and asked why I was bring diapers when I had to child with us. In his mind I was bringing these diapers into Morocco to sell and make a profit. I explained to him the situation and he reluctantly allowed me to pass without paying any duty tax.

Once on the other side of customs my friend, Karim, who has lived in the UK for most of his life was there to greet us. We caught a taxi back to his place and sat in his in living room catching up on things for the majority of the night. The next day we went to visit Marrakesh's main tourist attraction known as Jamaa' al Fna, a market and square that I imagine has had the same vibe today as it did 500 years ago. In fact this main square has a history going back over a thousand years!

The market behind the main square was a maze of alleyways with hundreds of shops selling everything from clothing and refreshments to cheap Chinese made toys and authentic hand carved Moroccan household items.

But after the sun set the main square became a regular old 5-ring circus! I am talking about monkeys, belly dancers, fortunetellers, and much more. It was a feast for the eyes! You almost wouldn't believe that the same square you saw during the day was the same one you witnessed at night.

At the center of this circus were perhaps 50 open-air restaurants that were setup directly after sunset in the center of the main square. Each restaurant was like a stall with benches around the grills and men yelling things out in probably 5 different languages trying to convince you to eat at their particular stall.

We did and the food was amazing.

Upon returning back to Karim's house we began to prepare for our planned train ride to Oujda (On the Moroccan/Algerian border) with a few hours stop at my former mother-in-law's house near the capital. After packing our bags I decided to jump in the 'shower', which consisted of a closet with a drain on the floor and a tap with a showerhead attached to it, when all of a sudden I heard a continuous loud banging sound.

I had never experienced even a small earthquake at this point in my life but this sound was so loud that this is exactly what I thought it was, so I froze. The extremely loud banging sound continued in what seemed like a steady evenly timed manner. I changed my mind and thought to myself, "Someone must be dragging something extremely heavy down the stairs of the building. Perhaps a grand piano."

Finally the sound stopped and I was about to complete removing the soap from my body when Karim knocks on the door and calls my name loudly. I answer him "Yes" in an inquisitive manner and he then asks if I am okay. I am slightly baffled at his question and tell that I am fine.

Not a few seconds later he is banging on my door again yelling frantically that something is wrong with DBH and he needs me to come out and help him. I am standing naked in this closet with a 'shower' in it with my friend on the other side of the door telling me to hurry and help him. Not knowing what is going on I continue to dry myself off with my towel not wanting to put my clothes on while I still have a wet body. He frantically bangs on the door again yelling my name and telling me to hurry and come help him.

I break and just throw the towel around my waste and come out of the shower. Karim tells me that DBH is in the toilet, which is directly next to the shower closet but that he is not answering. And then the cause of the banging noise clicks inside of my head.

While trying to hold the towel around my waist I push on the bottom of the door that opens into the toilet room but it is no use. It does not budge. After both Karim and I put a lot of equal pressure on the lower part of the door and the middle part we manage to create a gap of about 4 or 5 inches and I manage to squeeze my still wet head, shoulder and left arm into the bathroom and see DBH sitting with his back against the door having a seizure.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just how Bad are Dentists in Britain?

I was checking out the BBC's website earlier today and came across this article with the following headline.

"Girl starved to death after op"

So in my head I say "Wow, that is odd. What kind of medical procedure could she have had performed on her that would lead to her starving to death?" You would in my opinion be likely to ask yourself the same question upon reading it as I.

So I look to the first paragraph under the headline and it reads the following.

"An eight-year-old girl starved to death at home because she refused to open her mouth after a dental operation, an inquest heard."

Huh?? A dental operation?? Really?!

Now if you are to read the entire article you will read that she had such a fear of dentists that it was decided for her that she would be put under general anesthesia (i.e., put to sleep temporarily) so that they could remove 8 baby teeth or as they are called here in the UK her 'milk teeth'.

So, just how bad do dentists in this country have to be for someone to get to this level of fear of them? Granted, it could have been all in the little girl's head. My brother bit the hand of a dentist when he was about 5 like some rabid dog when the dentist was trying to inject him with novacaine. But I really don't think this is the case

Why, you ask? Well, because Britain has quite the reputation for extremely poor dental hygiene. To the point that it has become a long running joke amongst Americans.

From Austin Powers to that famous episode of the Simpsons where Lisa goes to the orthodontist to get braces and is shown the 'The Big Book of British Smiles' to instill fear. And I am here to confirm that this is a joke that has ample proof to show that it based on reality. I have seen too many British people, normal good-looking people who open their mouth to speak and make you feel nervous that you are focusing your gaze solely on their crooked and stained fangs.

It really makes you wonder why so many people here do not utilize the dentistry service that is available in this country. Particularly since a large part of it is free on what is part of their social National Health Service, also known as the NHS.

Well perhaps that is the problem. The NHS covers almost all aspects that fall under health. From the optician to the doctor and the dentist. There is one large difference though between these 3 aspects of health I just mentioned. While the doctors remain a fully socialized and free service for all legal residents a decision was made about 20 years ago to privatize other aspects of the NHS such as opticians and yes, you guessed it! Dentists. They now had the option to remain under the NHS umbrella or remove it from themselves and be a fully private business.

It didn't take dentist long to figure out that by removing the 'shackles' of the NHS they could charge whatever they wanted to for a procedure. There was then a mass exodus from the system by dentists and it is now a broken system. This article from the BBC says that " over 300,000 people lost their dentist in three months" and that "900,000 fewer people are now seeing an NHS dentist than before government reforms, figures show."

Clearly government intervention has not worked to help the state of the poor British publics molars and incisors. Boy am I glad good teeth run in my family....

Monday, February 9, 2009

My First Trip to the UK

It was this month 9 years ago when I first set foot in the UK. I was amongst a small group who were issued orders for a temporary deployment to RAF Lakenheath, the largest American military base in the UK.

This was to be my 3rd deployment in less than a year since arriving in Germany and one that everyone looked forward to going on. The purpose of the deployment was to give air to air combat experience to both bases pilots although F-16s vs. F-15s is not much of a contest.

We left Spangdahlem in two coaches heading towards Calais, France to catch the ferry to Dover, England sometime in the morning. The ride was pretty uneventful other than the lack of comfort from being on a coach and getting stopped by the French Gendarmerie at the Belgian-French border. I do not remember if they stopped the bus I was on first or the other one but I remember them coming on board and wanting to see everyone's military I.D. and a copy of the deployment orders. I would say that we were held up for no more than half an hour before we were on our way to the port in Calais. It was all a little funny because none of the Americans spoke French nor did our German coach drivers and of course the Gendarmeries said they spoke no English. It seemed like the Gendarmeries didn't care after they realized no one spoke French and kind of gave up... Go figure.

I remember the bus driving onto the ferry and everyone going up to the cabin areas. It wasn't long before we took off for the port of Dover and everyone went in all directions exploring what the ship had to offer. The English Channel was especially choppy on this particular day. I remember leaning about 20 degrees to the side in order to walk without falling over. It was incredible. Unfortunately I and I assume everyone else had not had anything to eat since we set off from Germany about 5 or 6 hours earlier and we all set upon the small cafe on the ship before it set sail. Little did we know that upon hitting the extremely choppy waters we would all be losing our lunch.

When I felt the urge to vomit I headed to the bathroom and all the stalls were occupied with people vomiting themselves. I and another individual who was waiting could hold out and ended up puking in the sink... Good times.

We did finally land on the other side of the channel all be it a little late because of the choppy waters and continued on our coach ride up to Suffolk County. The base is about an hour and half to 2 hours drive north of London and it really did suck after being sick and having been stuck on the coach for the trip from Germany to Calais.

It was late afternoon or early evening when we arrived at the nearby base of RAF Mildenahall where the hotel (on base) was located where we would be sleeping. I was pleased to have my own room as we were told that we might have to bunk up 2 people to a room because of lack rooms. The rooms were very ordinary but had a very different smell to them. Not a bad smell, just different and I have since smelled it again at a couple hotels in other parts of the UK.

We were given a section of the flightline with 3 hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) to house our 6 jets and some other equipment that we had brought with us. My crew was given the responsibility of working the 'End of Runway' (EOR) which entailed performing a final inspection of the jet before it became airborne and then safing the aircraft up to go back to the flightline.
It was a cool job to have because you were out on your own and had more free time to do what you wanted when the jets were in flight.

I remember running back and forth from one end of the runway to the other as jets take-off and land on separate ends of the runway. Normally you have a crew on each end but as we limited in manpower we had to cover both ends and would end up speeding down the parallel runways in order to complete the tasks in a timely manner.

As we were there for 2 working weeks we has the weekend in between free to do what we pleased. A large amount of us were going to London but we all found our own separate ways to get there. The way my 2 crew members and I took was the cheapest by far though. I figured out by reading the base newspaper that they had a free bus service from the base to London Heathrow Airport on the western outskirts of London. From there we caught the Tube to central London to begin our fun filled weekend.

Only the supervising member of my crew was able to afford a hotel in central London so we ended up giving him £10 each to sleep on the floor of his extremely small room. I ended up with one of the livelier members of my work section looking for an even more lively place to dance the night away. We never found the London House music scene we desired but he did manage to find some ecstasy that he paid £10 for and preceded to drop. London proved to be a tad bit too expensive for me and I really just walked around for most of the night laughing at drunken people stumble over curbs and other objects that Brits are so famously known for.

We returned back to the base on Sunday afternoon via the same way we arrived to get ready for work the next day, We were quite shocked to hear that a guy from another work section got jumped in a large town nearby to the base name Newmarket while we were in London. Apparently he was waiting for a taxi back to Mildenhall and some guy came up to him and asked him some question and then proceeded to wallop on him with a few other friends. He was admitted to a local hospital and I don't remember seeing him until maybe a day or so before we were packing up to go back to Germany.

I do not recollect anything from the ride home other than the water in the channel being much more calmer than it was when on the way to the UK.

Overall I had a descent time in England. I tried some British 'food' and remember attempting to drink dark Guinness Ale but was not impressed with either of them. Never would I have thought I would one day return to the UK to live but that is what makes the whole journey fun I suppose.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why is sledding dangerous for Brits??

I wrote a few days ago about how most of the UK has been receiving the most snow in 20 years and the complications and ramifications have been down right funny and sometimes completely weird.

From an idiot burglar in the northeast of England to Bobbies having snowball fights with passers-by on the beat to an unusual amount of people getting injured while sledding. One even dying.

By no means do I intend to insinuate that these things do not or could not happen in other countries but it seems to be BIG news here in the UK. From my experience Americans are the most atentive to the weather forecast but Brits are not that far behind them. The major difference is that Brits tend to expect their weather to be terrible as it usually is.

But the past week's weather has taken some people by surprise because of the way the collective British society sort of threw in the towel. The Brits are a people that pride themselves on their stiff upper lip and being persistent through adverse conditions but there has been satirical news that the Nazis were going to create a snow machine to defeat the Brits that summed up the occasion perfectly.

I do not ever recall in the past 3 winters that I have been here seeing any sleds for sale at any stores here in Birmingham. And I am sure that it is purely an economical decision not to sell them as there has never been anywhere near enough snow to actually go sledding. But perhaps not having traditional sleds available to purchase led to this girl's death. Her and her friends decided to use a makeshift sled out of a car's hood and crashed through a barbed wire fence going down the hill at an estimated speed of 40 MPH.

There have also been numerous articles in the news similar to this one where people sledding have had to go the hospital. Now I have been sledding probably since before I could walk. Seriously. It is something everyone does in the northeast, as we tend to get quite a bit of snow and there are plenty of hills. But in all that time growing up I do not recall once hearing of someone dying from sledding or being injured because of it.

Maybe Brits really do need all these Health and Safety regulations that they hate so much.

And on a serious note. Why do they call it "sledging"?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lisbon, Me and my Mom...

Around this time last year my family and I had the pleasure to host my mom on her trip to visit us in Birmingham, England. I believe it was her 3rd time flying across the pond and she absolutely loves being able to visit her grandchildren AND having the privilege of utilizing her son's knowledge of traveling throughout Europe.

The problem that I have when my mom (or anybody from America for that matter) comes to visit is that they always do it on short notice. This usually doesn't make it easy to find low cost flights around Europe as typically you need at least 2 weeks notice in order to find the cheapest seats on Ryanair or Easyjet and the like.

I wanted to surprise my mom with the trip somewhere and after much searching I managed to purchase 2 seats on BMI Baby from BHX to Lisbon for about £95 roundtrip (Yes, 2 seats for £95!)

The flight to Lisbon was not until the evening so I didn't tell her that we were going anywhere until the morning of the flight. And even then I didn't tell her WHERE we were going. I told her to pack 3 days worth of clothing and other items she would need and we made off for the 15-minute drive to the airport.

The surprise was made even cooler because I had managed to check-in online the night before and we had no check-in baggage to drop off at the desk. So when we arrived at Birmingham International Airport we immediately walked upstairs and proceeded through security.

Now we are waiting in terminal 1 lounge and she still has no idea where she is going. I finally see out flight details change on the monitor in the lounge and we start to proceed to the airplane.

She finally figured it out after they closed the door of the airplane and the stewardess announces the information regarding the flight. She was going to Lisbon, Portugal!

This meant a lot to her because ethnically she is Portuguese and it is someplace I think she had always wanted to visit. Secretly I think she thought she was going to Morocco though...

When we arrived at Lisbon airport we proceeded to immigration and found 2 very long lines to choose from. The problem was that neither option fit us. One was for European Union nationals and the other was for nationals whose are part of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries so we just stayed in the CPLC line for about an hour, got stamped and walked outside of the airport.

I had booked at the cheap chain hotel I always stay at when I travel around Europe. I like Ibis hotels because I know what I am getting no matter which country or city I am in. By the time the taxi arrived at the hotel it was close to 10 or 11PM and we took a short walk around the hotel to find some snacks and drinks and then called it a night. The hotel was a little further away from the city centre than I would have desired but on the plus side it gave us the opportunity to explore typical Lisbon residential areas that we never would have if we stayed closer to the city centre.

The next day we walked towards the city centre and got a feel for the layout of Lisbon. The best parts of the city were the Castle of São Jorge, The Al Fama quarter of the city, the San Francisco style cable cars running everywhere, and the food.

São Jorge's castle was definitely the highlight of the trip though. You get a really amazing view of the city from it as it is on the highest point of the city. It has a real feel to it and they have done an excellent job preserving it in its original form.

The Al Fama quarter is too much to explore in one day. It is the old Arab quarter of the city and has very narrow roads and alleys with old cobble stone brickwork. As well you have the San Francisco style trolleys running about the narrow roads and tight bends. One more than one occasion you sit and watch it just because you cannot believe the car will make around a near hairpin bend without hitting the wall.

Portugal is renowned for its seafood and it did not disappoint either of us. On the climb up to the castle we find a nice looking restaurant and as mom was a little tired we decided to stop and sit. I had what appeared to be some sort of omelette with pieces of fish, potato and some cheese. A little bit of hot sauce and I would have ordered more to take away!

Close to the President's palace there is a bakery that has been making Portugal's national dessert since 1837. This is the one place to get the original Pastel de Belém in the whole of the country. And it is true! I tried one from a cafe we sat at and it did not have the same texture nor taste to the ones I bought straight from the source.

Overall I was very surprised with Lisbon. I would say that behind Venice it is probably the coolest and most unique city in all of Europe. I hope to return again to explore the city further with my wife and kids in the near future...