Wednesday 31 December 2014

A Musical 2014

2014 was a great year for my music collection. Several old favourite bands released new albums and I also explored a relatively new genre more extensively, discovering two new bands on the journey.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a new band called Within Temptation, a Dutch symphonic metal band, fronted by the wonderful Sharon den Adel. This year I decided to explore symphonic metal just to see if there were any other similar bands.

I discovered two absolute gems.

The first is Nightwish, a Finnish band who has been around for years and have produced some fantastic music. Ultimately I ended up buying six of their albums – and they are all fantastic. The first few albums are fronted by a woman with the most incredible voice in rock music. You will almost certainly never have heard of her but she is a legend in the genre. Her name is Tarja Turunen and her operatic voice, in my view, defines exactly what symphonic metal is – a mixture of classical music and heavy metal.

Nightwish with Tarja

Here are two of my favourite examples featuring Tarja:

Tarja has since left Nightwish and her replacement, Anette Olzen, although she has a different style of voice, added a new element to the band. In particular, the last album they produced, called Imaginaerium, explores other styles of music. 

Nightwish with Anette
Here are a couple of songs that illustrate this:

The great news is that in 2015, Nightwish are back with a new album.

Also, this year, Within Temptation released their follow up to the brilliant The Unforgiving, my album of the year in 2011.

Within Temptation
The new album is called Hydra and, once more, is a masterpiece. It features a few guest artists including Tarja Turunen. Here is a beautiful song from the album:

I went to see Within Temptation at the Manchester Apollo earlier this year and discovered the second symphonic metal band I mentioned. Within Temptation were supported by another Dutch band called Delain, again fronted by a woman with a fantastic voice. As a result of their 45 minute set, I bought three of their albums and saw them on their own headline tour towards the end of the year.

Here is a great song by the band:

Other old favourites released new albums. First, I was delighted that Judas Priest are still producing new music. Their previous album, Nostradamus, seemed to get mixed reviews, although I have to say that I loved it. This year, they got back to basics with Redeemer of Souls, which will definitely keep their hard core fans happy. This is heavy metal at its best. Here’s my favourite song on the album:

Last month, the Foo Fighters returned with their new album Sonic Highways. I’ve always loved this band and I think Dave Grohl is one of the world’s great rock stars. The first single from the album is brilliant and sums up exactly why I love the band. Here is Something From Nothing, a song which builds up from a mellow beginning into a great rock song. It includes a couple of swear words, if you are easily offended:

Finally, one of my favourite bands released their eleventh album this year; the problem is that you won’t have heard of them, unless you have read this blog before. The band is called Ten and they are a melodic rock band from Manchester who have produced some truly magnificent songs in their eighteen year history. 

The new album is called Albion and is a real return to form, Here is a song from the album:

I would like to mention one final album I acquired this year. I have been writing this blog now since 2008 and one of the people who has read and commented on my blog in the past is an American lady known as Bingkee, originally from the Philippines, who is married to a guitar player. This year he released his first album and Bingkee was kind enough to send me a copy all the way across the pond from the US.

It is an instrumental guitar album in the style of Joe Satriani and it is really rather good.

Here is a live performance of one of the songs I found on You Tube.

I hope you enjoyed the songs.

Happy New Year to one and all and see you in 2015.

Saturday 27 December 2014

Goodbye 2014

Another year has almost passed and tradition dictates that I summarise the past twelve months this old meme.

There is a slight modification to this year’s questions.

First, I discovered I had missed some – thanks to Pandora at Princess Pandora, Queen of Denial  for showing me a few missing questions (she obviously stole it from a better source than I did).

Second, 2014 has been a great year for music, so I have decided to write a separate post about that.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s take the plunge:

1.What did you do in 2014 that you’d never done before?

I climbed a volcano by accident. You can read all about it here.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

Yes – kind of.

I failed to complete my Japan travelogue but at least I I am closer to finishing it than I was last year.

I have increased my Spanish vocabulary but am really still far from fluency – nowhere near in fact.

I have failed miserably for the umpteenth year to cycle to work.

Will I make any more for this year? Of course, I will finish my travelogue, start a novel, continue with Spanish and try to scare myself every single day of the year by injecting a little more adventure into my life.

Actually, one thing I might try is to do a few 30 day challenges, where I spend a whole month dedicating a little time every day doing something that improves my life – for example, learning something new, exercising or giving something up.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

My cousin’s son had a baby boy. She's younger than me and is now a grandmother. That makes me feel really old.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Thankfully no.

5. What countries did you visit?

I visited France, Monaco (which is strictly speaking a separate country), Germany and Greece on holiday, which was fantastic.

It's nice in Nice
The Brandenburg Gate

The sun setting over a volcano in Santorini

I also visited Oman and Switzerland with work.

6. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?

As I implied in my resolutions above, I think I’d like to add a few more sparks into my life. Whether or not I will manage to achieve that remains to be seen obviously. I’ve kind of been inspired by other people’s attempts to scare themselves every day and I don’t really want to be in the same position as Trent Reznor describes in his song Every Day Is Exactly The Same, where he sings about the monotony of life:

I believe I can see the future
Cause I repeat the same routine
I think I used to have a purpose
But then again
That might have been a dream
I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
I just do what I've been told
I really don't want them to come around

As I approach retirement (even though I still have fourteen or so years to go) I feel a need to expand my horizons a little bit more. I just hope this isn't the beginning of a midlife crisis.

7. What dates from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

No single date stands out.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

I guess it was actually getting down to learning Spanish. I know more words than I did this time last year and I can actually vaguely understand basic written Spanish. I just need to step up a gear I think.

9. What was your biggest failure?

The lack of book and cycling – the usual stuff.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

I had a bout of man flu in January which resulting in a day off work. I rarely have sick days.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

This year was gadget heaven and the prize is shared between:

My HTC Desire HD smartphone simply died so I replaced it with a Samsung S4 mini.

I also bought a Google Chromecast. For £30 it is a bargain for watching stuff from the like of You Tube and BBC iPlayer on on any TV with an HDMI connection.

Talking of TV’s we decided to by a new smart TV, relegating the old TV to the back room where we can access Sky via an X Box 360 (a cast off from my eldest son) and, with the aid of Chromecast, watch video on demand from  the internet.

 12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?

 The same as every year, I think the countless thousands of people who deserve some kind of award but receive nothing. The New Year’s honours list will undoubtedly offer knighthoods and medals to celebrities who simply do their job. Services to politics? Services to acting? Services to business? Don’t make me laugh.

I award Plastic Mancunian knighthoods to all of those unsung heroes who constantly help people less well off than themselves and crave no thanks, no rewards and no recognition for their fantastic work.

I salute you – you know who you are.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?

The rise of Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) with their bizarre and extremely worrying views. If UKIP have any say in the next government then we are in deep trouble here in Britain.

Also, FIFA as an organisation and, in particular, the President Sepp Blatter are beneath contempt. The sooner this organisation is purged and replaced with people who genuinely care about the beautiful game of football, the better!

Oh – and, of course, Piers Morgan!

14. Where did most of your money go?

I spent money on gadgets, my mortgage, travelling and kids this year.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

I am always really excited about going on holiday and this year was no different. I particularly looked forward to my trip to Berlin as I had always wanted to go there. My good friends the German people did not let me down in terms of friendliness and hospitality.

16. What song will always remind you of 2014?

I will discuss music in depth in a more detailed post in due course. But here is one of the songs that will remind me of this year – Paradise (What About Us?) by Within Temptation, featuring the fantastic voices of Sharon Den Adel and Tarja Turunen:

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: (a) happier or sadder? (b) thinner or fatter? (c) richer or poorer?

I think I’m happier than last year. Sadly, I am also slightly fatter (we are talking about 3 pounds based on my weight this morning – one too many mince pies already I fear). I would say that I am probably slightly richer but not by a lot.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

I wish I had exercised more. At my age, I probably need to make more of an effort. Don’t get me wrong; I walk almost two miles every work day and further on at least half of the weekends so I’m not doing bad. I just need to step up a gear (again!).

And, of course, I wish I had written more.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

I definitely wish I had watched less television. There have been so many great series on this year that I have probably spent too much time vegetating on my sofa when I should have escaped into the great unknown and done something far more interesting. I need to be more ruthless when selecting TV programmes to watch.

20. How will you spend New Year's Eve?

We are going to the Metropolitan pub in West Didsbury again.

21. Did you fall in love in 2014?

I’m already in love – so yes.

22. What was your favourite TV program?

As I implied earlier, there were some fantastic programmes this year. Here is a list of my favourites:

Game of Thrones, Dr Who, Arrow, The Flash, The Walking Dead, True Blood, The Following, The Strain, 24 (Live Another Day).

I must cut down!

23. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

I don’t hate these people but I would like them to stay out of public life and retire to a deserted island somewhere with no contact with any other human being (apart from each other), keeping well away from media of any kind:

Nigel Farage, the rest of UKIP (particularly the ones with bigoted views), Piers Morgan, Sepp Blatter, George Osborne, Simon Cowell and all X Factor judges.

I’d better stop there before I start a major rant.

24. What was the best book you read?

I enjoyed the two remaining books in the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons, called Endymion and The Rise of Endymion.

25. What was your greatest musical discovery?

I will reveal all in a later post.

26. What did you want and get?

Apart from the new gadgets mentioned above, nothing sadly.

27. What did you want and not get?

A winning lottery ticket and the Fountain of Youth.

28. What was your favourite film of this year?

I didn’t see many films at the cinema this year. But of those I did see, my favourite was probably The Equalizer with Denzel Washington.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 52 in October. I was taken for a nice meal by Mrs PM.

30. What one thing made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

To be honest, everything outside the drudgery of work is totally satisfying. If only I could find a way to eliminate that part of my life.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2014?


32. What kept you sane?

 Everything but work, which did its best to drive me insane.

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

There are simply too many attractive female celebrities to name in one post.

34. What political issue stirred you the most?

The rise of UKIP frightens me half to death. The scariest thing is that there are lots of people stupid enough to consider voting for them,

35. Who did you miss?

Nobody in particular.

36. Who was the best new person you met?

Again, nobody leaps to mind.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2014.

 Never climb a volcano in beach shoes.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

What? Really? A silly question needs silly lyrics:

How about some Spinal Tap?

When we die, do we haunt the sky?
Do we lurk in the murk of the seas?
What then? Are we born again?
Just to sit asking questions like these?

Sunday 21 December 2014

Dear America

Dear America,

How are you all doing? How is Uncle Sam? How is the lovely Oprah?

It’s been a while since I’ve been over to visit you all, so I thought I would write you a letter just to let you know that I am still alive and thinking about you all. Last time I was over there, you offered me your spare room in Alaska, rather than somewhere warmer. 

Still, I got to visit Seattle for a day on the way – it’s just a shame that Frasier Crane wasn’t around Bill Gates conveniently had to be elsewhere. I had a few things to say to him about Microsoft (again).

Why do you think he keeps ignoring my emails?

Actually, now the pleasantries are over, I have a confession to make.

I have an ulterior motive.

I think I might have annoyed you – by accident of course. I love you guys and, being British, I like to poke fun at people I love. It’s just the way we are across the pond. Anyway, I’m also keen to make things right and explain my actions.

Here are some of my "sins":

Correcting Your Language

I know somebody has probably told you that whenever I watch an American programme or film (that’s “movie” to you), I stand up, ranting, and say things like:

Stop saying "Do the MATH"! It’s MATHS! And while we’re on, it’s ALUMINIUM not "ALUMINUM". And what the hell is a DIAPER and a FAUCET?

I’m just joking. I know what these things are – I’m just trying to impress any fellow Brits who might be listening by convincing them I can speak a foreign language fluently.

Mocking Patriotism

Listen guys, I can explain what happened on that fateful day in Florida. I was one of three British people waiting to see the Hall of Presidents and I honestly did not mean to say what I said. 

Looking back I should have just stood up and looked around instead of staying seated and cracking a joke.

When the folk band played your National Anthem I did not expect everybody to stand up and put their hands on their hearts and start bellowing the words. When I said “Spot the Brits!” while remaining seated, I was not being disrespectful. Nor was I being facetious when I giggled and pointed at a man who was clearly overwhelmed by the song, with tear-filled eyes and a voice so choked he could barely utter the words “Oh, say can you see …”.
It’s just that, as Brits, we are proud of our country but don’t blubber and stand there with our hands on our chests when God Save The Queen comes on. In fact, quite the contrary – it’s a dreary song and I think the Queen is so wealthy she could probably save all of us.

Furthermore, my joke about the ubiquitous nature of the American flag was not meant to offend. I was not actually going to steal one. What would I do with it?

Finally, I know you Americans are under the impression that you live in the greatest country in the world. I really did not mean to upset the poor pastor when I questioned this statement on his pompous blog. I was just having a bad day and all of his talk about how God loves America more than any other country just wound me up. I apologise to the pastor and all of his sheep who may have read my comment claiming that Britain is a far better and safer place to live than America. 

Mocking Stupidity

I laughed at these videos and I apologise:

I also have to laugh when asked stupid questions like “Do you celebrate 4th July in England?”

And yes, I really have been asked that question.

Moaning About The Slow Invasion Of Britain By America

Every year, a new American tradition seems to find its way across the Atlantic Ocean and wangle its way into our culture. It started with Hallowe’en, which means that every year I am supposed to buy bags of sweets and face armies of kids dressed up as ghouls and ghosts as they bang my door with the words that make my blood boil: “Trick or Treat”.

And then I noticed that the School Prom was the next invader. Both of my lads have dressed up in suits, jumped into a limo and attended a prom – just for leaving school. That did not happen in my day. 

And then the final straw, when, this year, a large percentage of British people went crazy on a day called Black Friday. Shops were invaded by crazed idiots desperate for a bargain, fighting over televisions and other expensive items that had had their price reduced. I don’t want to see my country descending into anarchy because of an American tradition.

What’s next? Will we end up celebrating Thanksgiving?

I’m not being awkward or funny. If I want the things above, I will visit America again and enjoy them with you guys.

Calling America "The Colonies"

What else was I supposed to say? 

Picture the scene. Mrs PM and I were on an old ship in Boston, that had taken part in the War of Independence. We were part of a tour group and were told some very interesting facts about the part that the ship had played in the war against the British over two hundred years earlier. 

“Is there anyone from Britain?” asked the tour guide.

Of course, being proud of my country, I put my hand up with a gleeful smile – and then I was roundly booed.

Listen, this war happened many years before I was born and I didn’t spot any people in the tour group who were that old. My response was simply a natural gut reaction – to inject a bit of humour (as opposed to "humor") into the situation:

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re looking after The Colonies for us until we get it back in the near future!”

There is no plot for the UK to invade America. Just because we are British doesn’t mean that we are all megalomaniacs and evil monsters, as depicted in films (or "movies").

It was a joke. 

And Finally ...

There are lots of other ways I may have upset you guys and if so, I am sorry. 

America is basically like a good friend to me, somebody who provides lots of fantastic films, brilliant music and, even though a lot of you don’t get irony, lots of great comedy.

I do plan to visit again soon but this time I will try not to take the piss out of religion, accents, words, history or the stupid people who live in your country.

Don’t forget, there are stupid people everywhere – including Britain.

Take Boris Johnson as an example:

This man is Mayor of London!! Yes – we REALLY DID elected him!

Actually, that’s not quite true; the population of London did. And there is talk that one day he may become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

If that happens, I will be over the pond in a flash.

Actually maybe not. You guys elected George W Bush didn’t you?

Not once but TWICE.

Oh dear – I’ve annoyed you again haven’t I?

Yours Sincerely

Plastic Mancunian

P.S. It’s great to know that you guys hate Piers Morgan too. I’m really sorry we inflicted him upon you – please don’t blame me personally for that!

Saturday 13 December 2014

Top Ten Science Fiction Shows

I am a huge fan of science fiction and over the years I have watched numerous series, so many in fact that I have forgotten a lot of them. Modern science fiction series benefit from superior special effects thanks to advances in technology, but I have fond memories of some of those old series with wobbly sets and laughable monsters. As a kid, these things intrigued me, even though they are ridiculous when watched today.

I thought it would be fun to compile a list of my favourite science fiction shows – which is actually much harder than it sounds. I have based the list , of course, on shows that I have watched religiously, which sadly excludes some high-rated shows that I actually missed, shows like Stargate SG-1, which I am told was great. I just never got round to watching it so apologies to any fans of that show and others like it, that I have had to omit.

Also, I have omitted anything to do with super heroes and horror; this list is purely science fiction.

Anyway, without further ado, let’s dive in:

10. Star Trek: The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation goes down as the most improved series. The first couple of seasons were a major disappointment, which is why this show comes in at a lowly number ten. Some readers may find this controversial. Let me explain. My problem is that the writers seemed to want to sacrifice the ideals of the original series in favour of more diplomatic resolutions to problems. They even had a ship’s counsellor who looked as if she was about to burst into tears all the time. I wanted the Enterprise to attack first and ask questions later. Thankfully, as the show progressed, this started to happen and we were introduced to the best Star Trek bad guys ever: the Borg. The cliffhanger for series 3 which involved this fantastic enemy, is one of my favourites of any Star Trek series and here it is for your enjoyment:

9. Star Trek: The Original Series

Star Trek comes in at number nine simply because it is now quite dated. At the time, it was cutting edge and the idea of a space ship exploring the galaxy was fantastic. However, I found the acting also a bit dated, particularly that of William Shatner as Captain Kirk, whose eccentricities and overacting techniques sometimes left a lot to be desired. That said, I still love the series and will often watch repeats, particularly now that it has been remastered. The planets now actually look like real planets, something that was lacking originally.

My favourite episode is “The Doomsday Machine” where the Enterprise takes on a machine that can destroy planets:

8. The X Files

I loved the idea of the X Files, a tiny department of the FBI that investigated weird phenomena consisting of Agent Fox “Spooky” Mulder and Agent Dana Scully. Mulder was the one who believed in UFO’s and that the supernatural incidents were actually real, as unbelievable as they were. Scully was the sceptic who tried to use science to explain everything they saw.

At times the show was fantastic and quite scary, but my one criticism was the fact that Scully still insisted on rational explanations, despite all of the dreadful things she saw and even the weird events she experienced.

My favourite episode is “Squeeze” which features a weird human who can reshape his body so that he can break into buildings via impossibly tight openings. What made it worse was that this guy would kill a victim, eat their liver and then hibernate for thirty years. It was tense and disturbing.

7. Fringe

Like the X Files, Fringe was a series about an FBI division that investigated unnatural phenomena. However, unlike the X Files, we were also introduced to time travel, parallel universes and mad scientists. Some of the incidents they investigated were truly nasty.

One episode in particular inspired Mrs PM to suggest a trip to Boston, where the series was based. It involved a monster in the sewers under the city. I worry about Mrs PM sometimes:

6. Star Trek: Voyager

While not being popular with Trekkies, I actually thought Voyager was quite good, mainly because the Borg appeared quite a few times. The series contained my least favourite Star Trek character (yes even worse than Wesley Crusher). I am talking about Neelix, the self-appointed morale officer. I hoped every week that he would be killed off; sadly he wasn’t.

My favourite episodes are Scorpion (I and II) for introducing a bad guy even worse than the Borg (Species 8472) – and bringing Seven of Nine into the series:

5. Space 1999

 At the time of its release, Space 1999 was fantastic. The moon is blown out of the earth’s orbit and the show follows the fortunes of the people living on the moon in Moonbase Alpha as they encounter aliens and monster in the galaxy.

My favourite episode is Space Brain, where the moon is threatened by a huge entity that protects itself by sending out a substance (that looks amazingly like foam) that can crush anything in its path.

4. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I fear this is a slightly controversial choice. Of all the Star Trek series, Mrs PM rates Deep Space Nine as the weakest. I disagree. In my opinion it is the strongest, mainly because the series covered the struggle between the Dominion and the Federation with a little mysticism and extremely good villains, most notably, the evil Cardassian Gul Dukat.

It’s difficult to select a favourite episode because the whole storyline of the last couple of series makes that difficult. Instead, here is an excerpt from the very last episode, the showdown between Gul Dukat and Captain Sisko:

3. Red Dwarf

Regular readers will know that Red Dwarf appears at number three in my list of British sitcoms, but from a science fiction perspective, it deserves a similar accolade. Dave Lister is the last surviving human and a complete space bum. If the human race depends on this curry eating, lager swigging slob then we are totally doomed.

There are so many great episodes so it’s difficult to pick a favourite, so I’ll pick one of my favourite scenes.

Meet the Vindaloovians:

2. Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is space opera at its finest. Wars, politics, treason, mutiny, religion and fantastic bad guys (the Shadows) make this my favourite ever American science fiction series. At the time the special effects were also way ahead of anything else I had ever seen on TV. The battle scenes in space were terrific.

The show ran for five series and while series one was good, it really took off in the next three seasons introducing a massive story arc that I loved. There were so many great characters all of whom had flaws making them nowhere near as squeaky clean as their Star Trek equivalents.

If you haven’t seen the show, I urge you to watch it. While it may look a bit dated now, the storyline should more than make up for it.

Here is a battle scene with the evil black Shadow ships:

1. Dr Who

The winner has to be Dr Who, the story of a time travelling alien, known as a time lord, who has a ship that can travel anywhere in time and space. Thankfully, this hero who has lived for hundreds of years, has a real soft spot for Earth and although alien is quintessentially British, with all that such a curse entails. He is eccentric, resourceful funny and highly intelligent. He also has the power to regenerate when fatally wounded, which means that the character has been played by twelve different actors spanning over fifty years.

The show is the longest running science fiction series. In the past, the monsters and sets reflected the meagre budget of the BBC but since its resurrection in 2005, the special effects have improved massively and now the show is worthy of its cult status.

And finally …

Do you agree with my list?

Have I missed anything?

What is your favourite science fiction show?

Saturday 29 November 2014

Japanese Delights

One of the many great things about travelling is the variety of food available to try. I like to consider myself as an adventurous person when it comes to trying the delicacies of foreign countries. There are some things that I will not try under any circumstances, things such as insects or snails (mainly because insects and snails make my skin crawl – even when they are alive), but just about anything else is fair game.

I thought I had seen it all on my travels, particularly in China where they eat just about anything. However, Japanese food proved to be just as challenging, and I found myself in a position where I had to pluck up a hidden wedge of courage from a cache that I didn’t know existed within me.

My first encounter with authentic Japanese cuisine came on my very first day in Tokyo. Mrs PM and I visited a small bar/snack bar in the early evening. We sat at the bar, along with everyone else, and watched the bar staff serving beer and cooking food in an open kitchen. The initial idea was to grab a beer and introduce ourselves, slowly to Japanese social culture and watch the people. Mrs PM is far more adventurous than I am and suggested that we try one of the snacks on offer. She signalled the barman who presented us with a small menu written in Japanese with English translations next to it.

Here is what we were given:

I stared at the menu in disbelief. In case you can’t read it, here’s what was on offer:

Trachea, spleen, large intestine, rectum, uterus, small intestine, spinal column, organ (whatever that was – my mind truly boggled), throat, testicles, choice uterus, brain, birth canal.

It looked to me like something out of a hospital or medical laboratory.

The barman offered us “his choice of three items” in broken English.

“NO!!!” we both wailed and opted for a couple of safe items (two lots of bacon and shoulder meat).

A few days later we had immersed ourselves in an authentic Japanese hotel in a place called Hakone, near Mount Fuji, where we enjoyed traditional Japanese experiences such as bathing in an onsen and walking around in kimonos.

We also had to eat in the hotel (it was half board) and we were subjected to a traditional set breakfast and evening meal.

This meant that we basically had to eat everything on offer, no matter how bizarre. Here were some of the choice things we were given for evening meal:

Steamed abalone, conger eel sushi, jellyfish, eel stew, seaweed, bamboo shoot, raw bream.

I had eaten eel stew before in China and I hated it. The Japanese variety was actually quite nice. The thought of eating jellyfish filled me with dread, particularly because these creatures make me shudder with revulsion. Nevertheless, I remembered a time in China when I accidentally ate jellyfish.

“How can you accidentally eat jellyfish?” I hear you cry.

The truth is, I had popped it into my mouth and was busy chewing it when one of my Chinese colleagues asked me what I thought of the fish I was eating.

“It’s a bit rubbery and tasteless,” I replied.

When he told me what it was, it was too late so I simply carried on eating it. Mrs PM wasn’t keen to try it in Japan but when I ate some, she gave it a go.

If I’m honest, had somebody told me it was jellyfish before I had it in my mouth I would have refused with a look of utter disgust.

For breakfast, we were offered things that we wouldn’t normally have considered eating as our first meal of the day. Here are some of the things we were presented with:

Sesame tofu with noodles, fried horse mackerel, miso soup with crab, sashimi squid, sea urchin.

As odd as those things are, nothing had prepared me for sea urchin. I dipped deeply into my reserves of courage and found something that enabled me to try it. I was pleasantly surprised; it wasn’t as bad as I had initially thought – quite tasteless really.

Having eaten in an authentic Japanese hotel restaurant, both Mrs PM and I were no longer worried about what to eat and what not to eat. We ate Japanese food for most of the remainder of our stay, in particular enjoying sushi.

In Kyoto, in a specialist sushi bar, we ordered mixed sushi for lunch. As we were eating, we noticed two older Japanese men next to us, both of whom were quite drunk. What followed was a brilliant exchange with me and Mrs PM speaking to them in English and them replying in Japanese. We had no clue what was being said – and neither did they.

However, the most talkative guy started pointing at the menu as if to say “try this” We politely refused because we had had enough, but before we knew it, he had ordered yet more sushi for us. We guessed it was his favourite fish – and very nice it was too.

Before we knew it, he had bought us a beer each. The one English word he knew was “American” so we spent the rest of our twenty minutes together trying to convince him that we were English. Finally, we bought them a beer back and they took this as a signal that we wanted to carry on drinking with them. They paid and signalled to us, with a variety of hand signals, that we should join them in a bar crawl of Kyoto.

We had to politely refuse because we had a bullet train to catch. I resorted to showing him a photograph of a train to push my point home.

As they wobbled out of the sushi bar, I remarked to Mrs PM that it was a good job he hadn’t bought us something less appetising than sushi. Japanese people are extremely polite and I would have struggled to eat it just to accept his hospitality.

Before I go again, I guess I need to learn the Japanese for:

 “I’m sorry I don’t like birth canal, uterus, brain, testicles and organ (whatever the hell that is)”

Sunday 23 November 2014

I Am Not A Doughnut

JFK famously said "Ich bin ein Berliner", which caused journalists in Berlin to have a little fun at his expense. He was trying to say "I am a Berliner", a man from Berlin. What he probably didn’t know was that a Berliner is a local doughnut.

I didn’t actually want to make the same mistake so, while speaking pigeon German on my recent trip, I opted not to repeat the words of Mr Kennedy. We did actually try a couple of local doughnuts and very nice they were too.

We arrived in Berlin on Monday 3rd November, with absolutely no idea that the following Sunday (9th November) would mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I would have loved to have been there for that but the chances are that we would probably have struggled to find a hotel room. By travelling a week earlier we could experience the atmosphere of the city as they prepared for this momentous occasion.

I had missed Germany.

My previous visit there was thirty years ago when I attended the Oktoberfest in Munich. As I walked out of the train station at Alexanderplatz, I recalled just how friendly Germans were.  When I asked locals if they spoke English (mainly so that I didn’t embarrass myself for with poor German) they usually tried to accommodate me ("Ja – I speak a little”).

Of course, if they said “Nein”, which some did, then it was up to me to trawl my memory for words placed there almost forty years ago by my German teacher at school.

Mostly it worked. I was able to make myself understood on the occasion that I had to (although grammatically it was probably totally incorrect).

I am also trying to incorporate a scary thing in my life and on this trip I saw an opportunity. I had vowed never to climb a high building again and when Mrs PM told me about the Fernsehtrum (TV tower) I reminded her of this promise. The Fernsehturm is in the heart of East Berlin and very close to where we were staying. Standing at 1207 feet, it dominates Berlin and is visible from most areas of the city.

You're going to climb that? Really?
When I saw it, I gulped and had an inner battle with myself. Could I briefly overcome my fear of heights to experience amazing views of the city? Or should I sit in a bar at the base while Mrs PM took the lift to the top and allowed me to experience the views second-hand via the camera?

I decided to scare myself and go for it.

And I’m glad I did because I discovered something about my fear. As long as I am indoors and protected from the outside by glass I can tolerate the fear. At the top of the tower, I smiled with relief when I realised that I could stand slightly back from the windows and see the city for myself. Of course, Mrs PM still had to take the photographs but at least I knew my limits.

After that, we spent the rest of the day and the following two days, strolling around the city visiting churches, monuments and the odd museum.

Highlights of the trip include:

We visited the Brandenburg Gate where they were preparing for a big concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall (Mauerfall). I discovered that in a major exercise of détente, the East and West sides of Berlin clubbed together and restored this magnificent arch after the serious damage that it sustained during World War 2. Sadly, this was before everything went pear-shaped, resulting in the Berlin Wall being constructed.

The Reichstag building is another masterpiece. Now home of the German government it is a very beautiful and imposing edifice.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall dominated our trip though and we were introduced to some very harrowing stories about people who had tried to cross the barrier from the East into the West. The one thing that struck me in particular was the sheer size of the wall. It’s hard for me to believe that all of this happened in my own lifetime.

As part of the celebrations of the demise of the wall, a “frontier of lights” (Lichgrenze) was erected consisting of thousands of illuminated lights marking a segment of the wall. We saw some of the preparations for this as we strolled along parts of East Berlin where the wall stood.

On a lighter note, of course, we sampled traditional German food, beer and wine, from Currywurst to homely German winter food, served in cosy restaurants that resembled fancy pubs in England, It was nice to wash it down with a reasonable amount of German beer. We even found a tiny German style market in Potsdamer Platz.

Berlin itself is constantly changing. We noticed lots of building work, roadworks etc. and once again I was struck by German hospitality and friendliness.

It was nice to visit them again  and I think I will be back soon.

In the meantime, here are some photos from our visit.

St Nickolai-Kirche - Two steeples for the price of one.

Berlin as seen from the Fernsehturm. Mrs PM took this - I couldn't.

Modern Berlin complete with skyscraper

A fantastic German restaurant

Brandenburg Gate being prepared for the anniversary

The Reichstag in all its glory

Berlin Cathedral and the river Spree

A section of the Berlin Wall that remains intact

Two unfortunate victims of the Cold War
Checkpoint Charlie

If you are going to have a Trabant, decorate it like this

Sunday 16 November 2014

The Best Toilet In The World - Ever

When travelling to a foreign country, most people look at practical things such as vaccinations, language, customs, money etc. I do that too, except that there is one thing I add to the list that most people ignore.

Yes, I am going to write about toilets again – I apologise in advance.

Regular readers will know that Chinese toilets make me quake with terror, for reasons, I won’t repeat here (if you really really want to know, try this link).

The good news is that last year I encountered the best toilets in the world.

That honour goes to Japan.

I know you are wondering why I have awarded this prize to Japan, so allow me to explain. The Japanese have done exactly what they do to most things – they have combined technology with a basic human function and come up with a world beater in my humble opinion.

My first experience of a Japanese toilet was memorable.

First, I had an initial shock, when I perched myself on the throne. The seat was warm.

Picture the scene (if you dare). It is a cold winter night in England and I wake up in a cold bedroom with an urge to go to the toilet. I cannot fight this urge so I have to go. I enter the bathroom and see my nemesis in front of me. I know what is going to happen; I am going to have to park my bare backside on a freezing cold toilet seat. I brace myself and just go for it. The seat is so cold that I struggle to stifle the scream of shock.

This did not happen in Japan because a heated toilet seat is completely normal, unlike the UK where they are rare.

Back in Japan, another thing happened when I perched myself on the warm toilet seat; the toilet flushed automatically. Adjacent to the toilet, was a remote control, pictured below.

These are simple things that make you toilet experience very pleasurable. After I had answered my call of nature, I decided to experiment with the remote control. As you can see, the images indicate the function of each button (and thankfully the English translation helped) so it was relatively easy to operate.

I pressed the button marked SPRAY and was so shocked at the outcome that I actually shrieked, prompting Mrs PM to run to the door and ask whether I was okay.

“Yes,” I laughed.

I explained to her what had happened. The button caused a continuous jet of warm water to be sprayed on my backside and my outburst was due to the initial shock of that. Even better you could adjust the water pressure and I spent a good five minutes pushing the + and buttons to achieve optimal pressure.

I won’t go into any more detail (in the name of good taste), but suffice it to say, I actually looked forward to my trips to the loo.

However, I have to say that not every toilet experience was enjoyable. I did had one potentially embarrassing experience in a café toilet.

I sat down and the first thing that struck me was that the remote control was more complicated, similar to:

I managed to decipher it and enjoyed my experience as usual. But when the time had come to flush, I suddenly realised that there was no handle. The very first toilet had an automatic flush when I sat down (although not a full one) and it also had a handle to use when the job was done.

Not this toilet. I stared at it, perplexed and scratching my head. Unlike my first toilet, there was no English on this one whatsoever. The spray and bidet icons were there but there was nothing that indicated FLUSH.

“Ah,” I thought. “I can sit down again and it will flush automatically.”

It didn’t. The toilet was so clever that it knew I might not have finished. It was TOO clever if you ask me.

I actually sat down again and pushed button after button but to no avail.

What was it looking for?

A combination of buttons?

Did it want me to jump up and down on the seat?

Believe me, I tried that. Anybody waiting outside must have wondered what the mad monster inside was actually doing.

I started to panic, aware that there may be another person waiting to use the loo. I had to solve this; I couldn’t bear the thought of running out of the loo and leaving a horror show in the toilet bowl (I have been on the receiving end of people’s disgusting toilet habits before and it is most unpleasant).

Eventually, more by luck than judgement, I managed to get the thing to flush. I actually whooped with joy and high-fived myself in the mirror – which is doubly embarrassing (a) because I don’t usually high five anybody and (b) because I am English not American.

Yes, that’s right. This stubborn toilet briefly turned me into an American tourist.

When I left the toilet there were two Japanese guys waiting to use it. They smiled politely at me (as Japanese people do) and I tried not to look embarrassed (I think I failed because although I struggled to flush the toilet my face was still flushed).

That aside, I cannot fault Japanese toilets. Yes, they still use the disgusting hole in the floor toilets in some places, but the vast majority are technological marvels.

When I left Japan and reflected on the trip, I decided that I would miss the toilets a lot – and that is something I have never felt when leaving a country.

And now, back in a British winter, I miss them even more.

I might just invest in a heated toilet seat.