Saturday, July 31, 2010

Houses & Horses

In Conwy, I spent a day walking along the harbor. I took a boat ride, snuggled with an adorable dog (have I mentioned how much I love how dog-friendly Wales is?), and came across this house:

Just one pound to go in and have a look around the smallest house in Great Britain. Granted, the tour doesn't take very long. Funny, how much it could cost to rent out a space even that size many parts of Manhattan...

I stopped into the public library to use the Internet and ask the librarian for directions to Snowdonia Riding Stables, which I had seen in a brochure advertising scenic mountain rides through Snowdonia National Park. She told me which bus to take and said, "Make sure you ride in the direction of Waunfawr." I scribbled down "Winevow" -- the way it sounded -- and she peered through her spectacles and laughed, but in a kindly way: "Oh, honey. Not quite like that."
Despite my inability to spell Welsh words, I managed to find the ponies. This one was mine:

He looks a lot like Fable, a horse we used to have at camp.

I signed up for the half-day mountain trek, which turned out to be extra-awesome because the ride consisted of just me, the guide, and another girl my age who had similar riding experience to me. So we got to gallivant all over, dodging wayward sheep and galloping up sides of mountains, through fields of heather.

I also really appreciated how safety-conscious this stable was -- I am extremely pro-helmet (/anti-brain injury), and I was happy to see that all of their rental helmets fit the British equivalent of ASTM-SEI standards. Also, when I rather cheekily (albeit politely) asked if I could help around the barn to work off part of my ride, the barn director said I could help tack up some horses and turn them out afterwards, and she'd give me 8 pounds off (about $12).

The young woman leading my ride had moved from Manchester in order to ride horses through the mountains and have it be her job. Sounds quite nice, when put like that, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Visit to Caernarfon, Wales

Continuing my pattern of writing about my trip backwards -- before London, I came from Caernarfon, a very small (pop. 9611 according to Wikipedia) town in Wales. I took the train from Bangor to London Euston station, a ride that was essentially like watching an all-around movie of countryside, hills, castles, and sheep. I found Caernarfon itself to be sleepy and introverted -- the type of place that lends itself well self-reflection, in that it's completely beautiful, and everything closes around 5 pm.

I stayed at a small hostel that seemed to be run by a family as a hobby. There's something appealing in that -- the idea of having a place for travelers to come through, meeting new people from faraway lands, hearing their stories and listening to their languages. In the reading room I found a book written in the early 1900s on the Welsh language, practicing a few of the sentences in my head just for the mental exercise. Everybody in Wales speaks English, and I've read statistics that only about 15-25% of Welsh citizens even speak Welsh at all. The two languages have equal legal standing, and all official signs are written in both languages. Before coming to Caernarfon, I hadn't heard anyone speak Welsh at all during my few days in Wales. In Caernarfon, however, it was everywhere -- not spoken to me, but spoken among families that I heard walking on the streets. I could sit on a bench in the main square and just listen, and if I closed my eyes, it seemed as though I were among elves.

I find language fascinating, and I like the idea of claiming language as a source of home and nationalistic pride. I felt a similar appreciation listening to people in Bilbao speak Basque. I think being able to speak and understand every language would be a great super power. After all, keeping language alive means keeping stories alive, and I can't think of anything more important than that.

Since my plan was to explore castles in Wales for four days, I think I ended up in the right place.

Caernarfon Castle was one of several castles in Wales built by King Edward I of England. This one was built in 1283 and I have to say, as an American, it's hard for me to fathom anything that old, except maybe my parents (just kidding, Mom & Dad).

Next stop will be Riding-Ponies-in-the-Mountains -- if that were a country, I think I would live there.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Nothing Falls Like London Rain

Sifting through photos often makes me a bit unsure about where to begin. The end of my trip brought me back to London for less than 24 hours before I caught my flight home. This means that there are the fewest amount of pictures -- in other words, the perfect place to start.

I'm not so good at remembering to take pictures when I travel. I enjoy wandering and letting my thoughts wander with me. I like not having an agenda, and seeing what I stumble upon. So imagine my delight when I stumbled a few blocks from my hostel to find this:

My point is, sometimes the pictures take themselves.

I'd seen Parliament & Big Ben before, but there's something wonderful about almost tripping over them. (And I have to say, tripping is something that I'm pretty good at.)

I chose the hostel (The Steam Engine) somewhat arbitrarily and at the last minute, and was bemused to find certain eccentricities about it. First of all, the hostel is not only above a pub, but it is part of it. As in, when you go to check in at reception, you check in with the bartender. I stayed in one of the shared rooms and, even after many years as a camp professional, I was surprised to learn that there were such things as triple-layer bunk beds:

(Bed #3, on the bottom, was my temporary cave. I was worried about the people above me moving around and keeping me awake, but the triple-layer-bunk-bed proved to be surprisingly sturdy and non-avalanche-inducing.)

On Thursday morning, before I had to leave for Heathrow, I decided to take a long, wandering walk.

I thought this sign was really funny:

Stumbled upon a guard -- I told you that good things come from wandering:

If you're worried about this being the only horse photo of the trip, don't lose any sleep. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How to Not Be a Jerk in a Coffee Shop

Lifehacker just ran a post entitled, "Get Things Done at a Coffee Shop Without Annoying Everyone", quoting tips from a businessman who recommends:

* Learn the names of most of the baristas and also take time to have a conversation with them. It helps build a human connection.
* Make sure you buy coffee or something at least three times a day.

As a [reluctant & circumstantial] barista, I couldn't care any less if you remember my name. In fact, I'd prefer it if you never even read the name tag I am required to wear, if only for the one time a customer called me by my name on the street and it was totally creepy. I don't even care if you don't engage me in conversation (in fact, please don't if it's because you feel like you have to -- I don't need your condescension). My expectations for our interaction are not high. Basically, I would like you to not be a jerk. Since this can be complicated for some people, I am including, as a response to the above article, by own tips on How to Not Be a Jerk in a Coffee Shop.

#1- Clean up after yourself. It is amazing how many people cannot manage to move their dirty napkins and wrappers to the garbage can three feet away. It's even more amazing how many people feel entitled to leave huge stacks of books, plates with tons of leftover food, half-empty coffee cups with lipstick marks, and stuff spilled all over the table.

#2- Don't be creepy. I'd rather you didn't call me by my name, but if you feel the need to, please at least don't hit on me. Don't mistake me doing my job for interest. Realize that you as a customer and me as a barista places a power dynamic on our conversation in that I have to be polite to you, even if you are rude.

#3- Don't yell. I understand that for you, our interaction is more about you exerting control over one small portion of your life when the rest of it seems to be hurtling out of control. I will allow you this. But in the event that something about your order does not seem right to your exacting tastebuds, there's a polite way to say it and a rude way to say it (and many other ways, I'm sure). Sneering derisively, "Ew! Why is there cream cheese?! What kind of freak eats toasted bagels with cream cheese?!" is not going to win you any points.

#4- Don't assume that I'm stupid because I'm making your coffee.

#5- Don't throw money down on the counter, especially when it's a bunch of change and I have to pick each coin up off the counter. (If you have strict religious beliefs that would be breached if our hands accidentally touched, I'll give you a break on this one.) Don't hand me bills and then after I already have your change in my hand say, "Oh! I have change!" and then get mad when I won't take it. I'm the one who'll be in trouble if my register's off.

#6- Do teach your children to have good manners. I heard a mom correct her six-year-old-ish son on a throwing-money-on-the-counter habit, and it made my day. More often than not, well-mannered children seem to have well-mannered children -- and the rude, money-throwing, screamy children are imitating their rude, money-throwing, screamy parents.

#7- Do not, under any circumstances, talk on the phone while you are ordering. Unless you are on fire. In which case, you should probably take care of that before you get coffee anyway. Hot tip: if you are telling your friend on the phone, "Yeah, uh huh, I had a turkey sandwich for lunch and now I'm getting coffee! Now I'm ordering!", there is a 99.9% chance that your friend does not care. If your friend is in the remaining .01%, your friend has a 100% chance of being insufferably boring. Find a new friend! There are many places to meet them (though I recommend against dark alleys).

In truth, I don't really care how much stuff you buy in order to feel justified in sitting all day. It doesn't affect me; it's not like I see a penny of that. I just care about treating people like human beings, and being treated like one myself. I understand that it can be a wonderful thing to go and sit somewhere and read and have coffee, or sit down and catch up with a friend, or write, or whatever -- I like these things, too, and I respect your right to be able to do them. But you're still in public (yes, you, on your laptop with your hand in your pants -- there's a time and a place, and let me assure you, it is neither now nor here), so you might as well behave accordingly. I'll let you have your daily dose of caffeine-fueled escapism; just let me go back to doing my job and pondering the everlasting question on my mind: "Don't you people work?"