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Sunday, 24 November 2013

An International Debut

England vs Chile

The first England International I watched in the flesh was against Chile, way back on 11th February 1998 - I remember it for all the wrong reasons. Not the fact that a certain Michael Owen made his England debut or that Marcelo Salas and his Chilean compatriots showed England a footballing masterclass. But because of the pre-match warm-up; being served at 17 years old and ‘aving it large with the England ‘massive’, singing ‘no surrender’ stood upon a bar stool because everyone else was and because it seemed the cool thing to do at the time. How times change.

Over the past few months Oliver has been getting into his football. He has been learning the rules and feeling the raw emotion of the beautiful game. A season ticket at the Gills has helped (strangely enough), but so has Sky and the often daily diet of Premier League or La Liga. He has also started to play too, joining a team on Saturday mornings for training and will make his league debut once his registration with the FA is complete. He’s been trying to emulate Wayne Rooney who is his favourite player, don’t know where that came from but it’s something to do with his obsession for England and the national team. “When are England and Wayne Rooney playing again Daddy?”

As luck would have it England qualified for the World Cup after beating Poland and so hastily arranged a couple of friendlies in place of the play-offs which were cautiously pencilled in. One against our old enemies Germany and the other against Chile. I wanted to take him to the Germany game - thought that the atmosphere would be better, but it fell on a Tuesday and not getting home until nearly midnight isn’t a great when you’ve school the next morning. So I got tickets for Chile instead. Olivers first England International would be against the same opposition as me, strangely coincidental, but that wasn’t the last coincidence of all.

My nephew Joshua came with us, it was his thirteenth birthday and he is massively into his football as well. He’d been to Wembley to watch Team GB during the Olympics, so he knew what to expect, Oliver didn’t. Oliver has been to two football grounds with me, Cresty Road and Priestfield. Neither hold more than 11,000 people, Wembley holds nine times more than that. It’s nine times bigger, nice times higher, quite a difference. Wembley is also nothing like it was back in 1998, with rivers of piss running around the crumbling concourse, wooden seats and sight-lines that made any enjoyment of the game a bit of lottery. Gone are the iconic Twin Towers, crumbled into fine dust and recycled as foundation material for the monolithic structure that now sits in it’s place. A shiny triumphant arch dominates instead. Whether it is better, or whether its as iconic only time will tell. But for the younger generation, the Joshuas and Olivers of the world they know no different, there simply is no argument.

The arch at night is lit up like a homing beacon and stands triumphantly for all to see. This is Wembley 2.0 and the first thing we saw from the window of the tube and offered the first signs of excitement from Oliver and the first visual clue from his that something was a little different to what he’s normally used to. From the tube station, down the steps onto Wembley Way the stadium stood ahead, Oliver looking tiny and insignificant amongst the throngs of people. It was far from being a sell out, but it was still the biggest crowd he’d ever been part of.

Joshua had been given some money for treats. He wanted to stop at the merchandise hut and buy a memento of his visit. Oliver decided that he did too. Joshua wanted a half-and-half scarf with the match date and opposition so that he could pin it up at home in his bedroom. Oliver wanted a foam finger. I tried to persuade him otherwise, it didn’t quite work.

So off we went, three of us became four with our new foamy appendage. Into the bowels of the stadium and upward into the God’s via escalator after escalator. One thing with Wembley 2.0, it comes at a price, extortionate food prices to pay for the shiny new seats and brains of engineering behind the arch. What should be a three pound hotdog costs six pounds fifty, times that by three and you’re looking at ever lighter pockets for not much reward.

The best thing about visiting any new ground, is seeing the pitch for the very first time. It doesn’t matter whether its Boundary Park or the Bernabeu, walking out from the concourse seeing the lush green of the pitch and the surrounding structure is different wherever you go, but invokes the same feeling of discovery. For Oliver it invoked a feeling of awe, a wide eyed look of surprise that unsettled him briefly as he tried to take in his surroundings and find something familiar to hold onto. I asked him if he liked it, he nodded. I asked him what was wrong and he shook his head but he didn’t say a word. Once we had found our seats, sat down and positioned the foam finger somewhere different from out of the side of my head he finally worked out what he wanted to say “But it’s just so big Daddy!”

Unfortunately that was as good as it got. The match, just like fifteen years earlier was pretty unforgettable. After a promising start and a few half-chances from England Chile went up the other end and scored from their first opportunity. Last time around Marcelo Salas scored a brace to see off England two goals to ni.l Alexis Sanchez repeated the feat to complete a hat-trick of coincidences and left England fans feeling rather dejected after the highs of qualifying for the World Cup only one month earlier.

Oliver spent ten minutes in each half watching the game on the big screens at either end of the pitch as opposed to the action on it. It was all a big adventure with new and unseen things for him. A small taste of the big time after being genetically punished into the harsh and unforgiving world of Gillingham Football Club super fandom. He said to Stephanie when we had got home and whilst I was out the room that he preferred watching football higher up, that he didn’t want to say in front of Daddy as it might hurt his feelings. Which it didn’t, not at all. Oliver may well be learning all the rules and taking the most from his lessons, but It takes a lot to hurt a Gillingham fans feelings, and that’s one lesson I’m hoping he doesn’t learn for while.

For the Record


Oliver's first England match


Date: 11th November 2013

Against: Chile, International Friendly

England lineup: 1 Fraser Forster, 2 Glen Johnson, 3 Leighton Baines, 4 James Milner (21 Jermain Defoe)'66, 5 Gary Cahill, 6 Phil Jones (12 Chris Smalling)'57, 7 Jack Wilshere (18 Tom Cleverley)'71, 8 Frank Lampard(C) (19 Jordan Henderson)'71, 9 Adam Lallana (17 Ross Barkley)'77), 10 Wayne Rooney, 11 Jay Rodriguez (20 Andros Townsend)'57. Subs not used: 13 John Ruddy, 14 Ashley Cole, 15 Kieran Gibbs, 16 Phil Jagielka, 22 Joe Hart.

Chile: 1 Claudio Bravo(C), 2 Eugenio Mena, 3 Marcos Gonzalez, 4 Mauricio Isla (18 Gonzalo Jara)'60, 7 Alexis Sanchez, 11 Eduardo Vargas (16 Carlos Munoz)'71, 14 Matias Fernandez (6 Carlos Carmona)'46, 15 Jean Beausejour (22 Jose Pedro Fuenzalida)'82, 17 Gary Medel, 20 Charles Aranguiz (9 Felipe Gutierrez)'46, 21 Marcelo Diaz, Subs not used: 5 Francisco Silva, 10 Jorge Valdivia, 12 Cristopher Toselli, 13 Jose Rojas, 19 Junior Fernandes, 23 Johnny Herrera.

Result: 0-2

Attendance: 62,953

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Time waits for no man

Blogging

Nor would it seem does it wait for the errant blogger! This little corner of cyberspace has been home for the past eight years to varying biographical accounts of entering fatherhood, married life and the odd look back at more innocent times. I’ve written travel diaries and the odd opinion piece and random thoughts that don’t make much sense. But so far, 2013 has only seen me hit the ‘Publish’ button hit three times in anger and it’s about time I got back on track.

I’d love to say that the void since April when I wrote about our trip to Disneyland Paris has been filled with adventure, the wild and the unpredictable. But the truth, as always is a much more grounded affair. Life has been lived, work has been done and not a huge amount has happened in between. Nothing different then to the past eight years, so what has changed? In fact, nothing has changed at all except one minor little thing - I’ve stopped reading.

Working in London afforded me two hours of the day in which was solely mine, it sounds selfish but I cherished those two hours. The commute to Gravesend to Charing Cross and from Charing Cross to Gravesend is not everyone’s cup of tea, but lost inside the pages of a paperback the commute becomes whatever you want it to be.

Reading inspires me to write, it really is that simple. I’d read something poetic I’d want to write something meaningful, I’d read something inspiring I’d want to write about how it made me feel. Writing this is so much harder for the loss of literature in my life, as my brain has started to forget how sentences are formed and how words when put in the right order and punctuation in the right places can be things of beauty.

The loss of a book a week has been damaging, but only sublimely. It’s only upon analysis when I think things through too deeply that I notice, but my life has been enriched in so many other ways. I spend more time with my children. Picking Phoebe up from nursery has been an unexpected pleasure that even if I never read another book again it would still be worthwhile. The excitement and joy in her face when she sees me arriving to collect her melts the heartstrings every time and it will be a sad day when she finally grows out of it.

Falling in and out of habits comes around in cycles, a change of routine or a change of lifestyle puts those habits out of sync. For eight years I only ever read on the train. I could read at home, but I’m not used to reading at home so I don’t it. It’s stupid I know! But it’s the same as my running. I got into the habit of running once a week, ended up really enjoying it and doing something that I was proud of. I even ran for ten whole miles without stopping which if you’d have asked me two years ago I would have laughed at you. But I didn’t go one week, I forgot the next and I reverted back to type. It was only when I looked down and couldn’t see my toes again that I thought ‘hmm, I need to hit the road again’. Which I did, but I couldn’t run a mile without stopping, dying on the spot or beating myself to death with the frustration of it all. Just like my brain forgets the construction of a well formed sentence, my muscles wither and forget how to function.

Now I’ve just realised the real reason why I have stopped publishing a blog. I keep setting myself challenges! Now not only do I need to recondition my mind, I’ve got to recondition my body, which I guess cannot be a bad thing I suppose.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Magic of Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris

It’s been a while since my last post, three months in fact since I wrote about leaving London and starting a new job. Much has happened in that intervening time, most of it work related, some of it home improvement, but mostly stuff too insignificant to warrant writing about. However, last weekend we spent valuable time together, the four of us for the first time on foreign shores as guests of Walt Disney in Paris - a place which for Stephanie and I holds such fond memories.

In recent years our breaks, holidays and time away have been spontaneous, unplanned affairs. Either we’ve been rewarded for work done for others or we’ve earned the right by winning inter-family competitions and our weekend this time around was equally the same. In return for our trip to Paris, Stephanie and I are looking after my parents foster children whilst they are away at Christmas, ironically to Florida, another home of Disney and all the magic it provides.

Which is exactly what we were looking forward to this time around. A blend of Disney magic that was ever more enticing sat at the docking bay at Dover port. The day previously events in Woolwich had cast a dark shadow over the country giving us an extra incentive in wanting to leave.

Much has changed since Stephanie and I last went to Disneyland Paris, Oliver of course is a whole five years older and we were now joined by Phoebe who was a distant wish come true. Oliver’s enthusiasm was typical of a boy his age, matched equally by his fathers. In the build up to the week ahead whenever Stephanie and I mentioned the holiday and what we’d be visiting his response was always ‘don’t tell me about it Daddy, I want it to be a surprise’, which was in stark contrast to my own approach. I’d borrowed a planning book from my sister and reread it from cover to cover making notes and printing out itineraries and researching meal plans which ultimately proved to be so useful. Phoebe even joined in, identifying ‘Minnie’ whenever she appeared on the television or cropped up on the back of a rucksack or item of clothing.

Disneyland Paris

Our ferry trip across the channel, was the first of Oliver’s new experiences and although it takes longer than the channel tunnel is much more of an occasion. Watching the lorries load onto the ship and the stream of cyclists was serious business for a six year old boy and waving goodbye to England gave more significance to our trip that the shuttle affords.

Despite the wind and rain the sailing was pretty calm - much to mine and Stephanie’s relief. Although the drive to Paris once we had disembarked wasn’t nearly as pleasant. On route we experienced varying changes of weather, light rain, torrential rain, hail stones, bright sunshine followed by varying degrees of rain again which didn’t exactly fill us with confidence for the days ahead.

Other than the weather, the drive to Paris was actually a rather pleasant affair. The French drivers seemed a lot more considerate on the road than their British counterparts. There was no middle lane hogging and the use of the indicator is excessive to the extreme. The only downside was the amount of HGV traffic and their sudden passing maneuvers which verged on the edge of lunacy most of the time.

Stephanie managed to get us lost as we approached the resort. You know you are going the wrong way when you can see the Sleeping Beauty Castle in your rear-view mirror getting smaller as opposed to looming into view. But after a few cross words, fueled by tiredness and a sharp u-turn we arrived at our destination and was hurriedly looking for the itinerary I’d drawn up as to where we were going first.

When we originally booked the holiday over the internet back in January for some reason I thought we had booked the Disney Hotel Cheyenne. I’d even done a months research finding out all about it before I carefully re-read my booking confirmation email for the fortieth time. Much to my concern I realised that somehow we had booked the Hotel Santa Fe instead - which caused me all sorts of distress as I hurriedly tried to forget everything I’d learnt and meant finding out everything important all over again about our new hotel. To be honest, there was absolutely no preference either way, both hotels carry the same star rating, are equal distance from the park and have the same amenities. Looking back now and seeing how our time was spent we could have stayed in the five star hotel and had exactly the same experience. We spent so little time within the hotel that it really didn’t matter where we slept.

After a brief check-in process where we were given our all important park tickets, meal vouchers and a small ream of paper allowing us this, that and the other we were off and on our search for magic!

I was a little torn at first as to which park to visit on our first day. I’d been to the Disneyland Park twice before and was desperate to visit the studios which were at that point unchartered territory. Common sense reminded me that we had more than enough time to do everything at a snails pace and unlike on our last visit I could relax, unwind and enjoy it for exactly what it is.

Disneyland Paris

With the studio visit postponed for another day we head up Main Street USA with overcast skies and the threat of rain doing nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. Oliver wasn’t exactly skipping around deliriously wanting to know which way to turn next, but as Stephanie and I ‘ooohhh’d’ and ‘aaaarrred’ at the castle and the memory of our ‘moment’ Oliver was growing ever more impatient and wanted ‘rides right now Daddy!’ - which is what the whole thing was about really... wasn’t it?

Of all of the things that I enjoyed over our five day stay, the one enduring thing for me was the experience that Oliver had. Everything was new, everything was unexpected and every emotion that he felt over the whole five days was drawn all over his face. Every ride that we queued up for that was inside and behind closed doors was met with the same enquiring mind, ‘what does this one do Daddy, is it a roller coaster?’.

Our first ride was the Buzz Lightyear Lazer Blast, a ride that he went on previously but was of course far too young to remember. The look of joy on his face as we walked past Buzz Lightyear barking instructions at him and the look of uncertainty in Phoebe’s eyes as the little character on the television came bursting into life right before her.

(I’d like to add at this point that my score on this ride was nothing short of awesome and I don’t think it will ever be beaten so nur!)

Being a Thursday, in May, during school time, whilst raining did have its benefits - queue times. We were literally walking straight on to most things which was a stark difference to our last visit. But it also meant that our leisurely snails pace exploration was going a lot quicker than anticipated. After a few more Discoveryland attractions and photographic opportunities the heavens opened and we ran for cover. It must be second nature for Stephanie and I, but the closest place we ran to was a burger joint and the first use of our pre-purchased meal vouchers.

The basic idea of a meal voucher is that we pay for everything upfront and exhange hard earned cash for pieces of paper that enable you to eat off a set menu for both lunch and dinner for the duration of your stay. The lunch menus we found were rather all very much the same, a choice of burger, sandwich or pizza with a side salad or fries, a soft drink and a desert, but it did mean we didn’t have to worry about watching what we were spending so that in itself outweighed the lack of choice.

After we were all fed and watered and suitably refreshed it was back to ‘more rides Daddy’ and the search for new things for Oliver to experience. Stephanie went off in search of a baby change area, whilst Oliver and I head towards a galaxy far, far away. Whilst queuing for Star Tours Oliver asked me once again what the ride was and feeling that the term ‘a multi-sensory simulator ride’ might be a term too advanced for a six year old mind I informed him quite correctly that we were going on a spaceship and taking a flight around the moon.

I was slightly concerned when we boarded our ‘shuttle’ and realised that as there were no more adjoining seats we were to ride apart. He was sat in the seat in front of me so there was no way that I could offer any reassurances if he got afraid or didn’t like the ride for any reason. I soon realised that my worries had been entirely in vain as the ride finished and he turned around saying ‘again Daddy, again!’ with a face like a thousand Christmas’s - oh for those moments we all wish for!

Having no real urgency for anything other than pleasing the little man, Oliver got his wish and re-rode Star Tours - this time with Stephanie who had returned with a fresh bottomed Phoebe. Needless to say his second time around was just as exciting as the first and had we allowed him to he would have gone on and on repeatedly for the duration of our stay.

Disneyland Paris

As time was of our leisure we made the most of the reduced queue’s. We rode everything we wanted to and took advantage of the open spaces by exploring the attraction free areas of the park. Two of the themed lands, Frontierland and Adventureland carry more visual appeal than white knuckle thrills. Adventureland has caves to explore, elevated walkways above the treetops and skulls made of rocks that you can peep out of and spent hours getting lost in.

It is in those areas, that as adults you can appreciate what the grand vision of Walt Disney was really all about. To create immersive areas for the entire family that people can get lost in and escape, where age doesn’t matter and everyone gets to be children again.

If Oliver’s earlier ride aboard Star Tours proved to be an early personal highlight for him, Phoebe achieved one of her own later that day. It’s a Small World is a ride system that is found all over the world and in the main is nothing remarkable at all. A boat carrying x amount of people travelling slowly around a circuit with models to look at and watch. The thing with Disney and most of their rides is that they take what is ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary by supplying a dose of fairydust. It’s all in the minute detail and use of every available space. It’s a Small World takes you around the globe through animated scenes of animated puppets dressed to identify a specific country. Phoebe was engrossed the whole way around and ‘ooohhh’d’ and ‘aaaarrred’ just as Stephanie and I had earlier at the castle. Her head and eyes were moving all over the place as she tried to take it all in. When the ride came to a stop, just as Oliver had early she said ‘again, again’ and so off we went once more, swapping positions so that she could see better the scenes on the opposite side of the boat.

It just goes to show - it doesn’t matter what age you are, there is something for everyone!

According to my expertly written itinerary our first day was to be short and sweet. We’d spend a couple of hours in the park before heading to bed at a reasonable hour after the very early morning and fatigue caused by driving. I have no idea then how we managed to crawl in at midnight with a still excitable Oliver and a wide awake Phoebe - although I suspect the lure of fireworks was too much for us to miss.

Disneyland Paris are celebrating their 20 year anniversary this year, or should that be, have extended it into this year based upon last years success. Part of the celebrations is a daily firework display entitled ‘Disney Dreams’, which consists of a twenty minute show just as the park closes for the evening. As with anything, the term’ firework display’ is used rather loosely. What it should actually be described as is a multi-sensory, multi-dimensional, technologically advanced water and laser extravaganza with a side helping of fireworks.

The iconic centerpiece; Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty castle is turned into a projection screen as a film is played out against it turning it into a blank canvas for whatever the Disney imagineers can conceive of next. An audio visual spectacular that can be seen on YouTube for a shadow of it’s real entertainment value and the best excuse for keeping the kids up late we’ve ever had.

Despite the rain and onset of a drop in temperature that sent us all shivering we still managed to watch in awe. The only blemish to spoil the entertainment was the lack of manners displayed by our cousins from across the channel. You spend twenty minutes finding the ideal location for you to stand and watch the performance, wait patiently for another twenty for the performance to start only for someone to stand in front of your child ten seconds before the first rocket goes bang. Stand in front of me if you really have to, but don’t block my child’s view!

In fact, that kind of behaviour was the only thing to spoil what was an amazing five days. Oliver would be waiting in line quite patiently for his turn at something only for someone else to either push in or take his place in the queue. It became quite difficult at certain times to keep a civil tongue, not at other children but at pushy parents whose only goal was to ensure that their own child was the first and only beneficiary of whatever it was everyone was waiting for.

After such a late night it was only inevitable that the following morning would require our attendance at the 7.30 am breakfast slot. Upon check-in at the hotel you are given times to arrive for breakfast each morning which may vary depending upon what slots are available. It just so happened that ours on our first morning was the early one. Needless to say we never made it!

It wasn’t by accident, Stephanie and I were rather good for a change! We set our alarm clock and when we woke up both children were fast asleep and not waking for anybody. We decided to forego our slot, let the kids rest as they’d be miserable all day otherwise. In the end it didn’t matter, breakfast ran until eleven, we strolled in at five minutes too and grabbed whatever was left available.

Disneyland Paris

One added surprise at breakfast was a meet and greet session with Mickey Mouse in the hotel foyer as we made our way to the restaurant. Phoebe had been pointing at pictures the whole day previously but this was the first chance of an upfront encounter. We queued as politely as us English do despite the ‘me first’ mentality around us. Phoebe was waving quite merrily in the queue line and blowing kisses right up until it was her turn to go forward where she turned into a shaking, screaming petrified wreck in Stephanie’s arms. Poor Phoebe was absolutely terrified of the poor Mouse who took it all in his stride, waving politely and hugging Oliver who proudly stood smiling at the camera.

With the parks being bigger, busier and probably due to a lack of manners from the locals, chance meet and greet encounters were not as frequent as Stephanie and I found them to be in Hong Kong. We had a couple of random encounters but most of them were at pre-arranged times and places which was no real hardship as the so called queues were perfectly reasonable.

After breakfast and after Phoebe had forgotten the horrors of Mickey in the flesh we head towards the Studios where I had a date with a long lost friend - the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! I first rode this when I was fourteen in Florida and however much I recounted the experience to Stephanie I could not convince her to ride along with me. She sat outside sipping a coffee under a canopy sheltering from the rain whilst Oliver and I went on ahead. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a drop ride with added Disney sparkle. A pre-show telling the back story and special effects really give the sensation that something supernatural is occurring and adds another dimension to the gut wrenching feeling of falling quite suddenly.

Oliver once again knew nothing about what to expect, but at least this time we were sat together so he was able to grab onto me if he wanted to and boy did he he want to! With not knowing what to expect you have no idea of what is happening next, or when something terrible is about to be over. When you are six years old time is immeasurable so whilst I was laughing and having a grand old time Oliver had his eyes closed and his head on my shoulders as we boing boinged up and down the innards of the faux Hollywood Tower. When we came off and I asked Oliver if he had enjoyed himself, for once he had no words. Just a shake of his head was all I needed to know and a stern look back when I laughed and said “we’ll go again then shall we?’

Disneyland Paris

It wasn’t all terror and fear, far from it in fact. Oliver and Stephanie queued up for Crush’s Coaster. A ride based on a character from the film Finding Nemo. Phoebe was asleep in her pushchair and the rain was holding off so I stood patiently watching the cars come out of the building so I could catch Stephanie and Oliver on film for the archive. I didn’t bank on them queuing for forty minutes which was the longest wait of our stay. True to form as they come hurtling out my reaction was too slow, but I have got the best picture of the back of Oliver and Stephanie's head I’ve seen!

Crush’s Coaster ended up being Olivers favourite ride in the whole wide world - ever and was our most repeated ride despite the longer than average queue. The studios park is a lot smaller than the Florida version but it still packs a punch with a collection of great shows and some impressive rides. Stephanie and I took advantage of the baby swap to ride the Aerosmith Rollercoaster, which had Oliver been a centimeter taller he’d have been a passenger too.

Of the whole break that second day was probably the worst for the weather. It didn’t help that we left Phoebe’s pushchair outside whilst we watched one of the shows and returned to an absolutely drenched stroller. The weather was that bad we all ended up buying the dreaded plastic poncho’s with an extra one for Phoebe to sit on so she didn’t soak through.

Overall though the day was a great success, we had one more highlight ahead of us, a booking at the Buffalo Bill Wild West show - or so we thought. We left the park early in order to make our reservation. We queued up patiently and gave our tickets to the checkout operator who paused for a moment ‘I’ll be right back Sir’, excellent, I thought, we’ve been upgraded or something. But no, we’d turned up twenty-four hours too early, our reservation was for Saturday not Friday!

My well formed itinerary was worthless now and had been pretty much since we arrived. One thing I’ve learnt, you cannot plan everything - there is absolutely no point!

Despite not knowing how our booking was changed, or how we got mixed up we decided to head back to Santa Fe, use a meal voucher and have an all you can eat buffet and a beer in the bar instead. Buffallo Bill could wait! If the lunchtime menus left little to chose from we didn’t find the same experience with the evening choices. We could choose from an a la carte restaurant, or a buffet. It proved to be a lot easier for us to let Oliver choose what he wanted to eat rather than select off a pre-defined menu, even if he did choose items from all the same food groups, chips, bread and tortilla chips being the main staple of his diet. I did subtly try to encourage him onto more adventurous things. Our first nights buffet theme was ‘International Cuisine’, one of the choices was snails. I’d never eaten snails before so I thought now would be as good a time as any. But as I sat down I had a better idea, put it onto Oliver’s plate whilst he wasn’t looking. He didn’t notice at first, playing with some chips and ketchup, but when he did he picked it up with a rather bemused look on his face. As if to say, ‘this should be in the garden, why is it on my plate?’ I told him to eat it knowing full well that he wouldn’t. I had every intention of taking it from him, removing the snail from the shell and eating it, but my fork got stuck and couldn’t get the slippery little sucker out. I took a big sniff and it didn’t smell too great so I didn’t make any effort to hunt down the correct utensil in which to extract it from its shell. My cruel trick was paid back by Oliver later in the week when he accused me of being 'man vs food' whenever we sat down at the buffet which I thought was rather unfair!

With such a great time had by all the previous day and our over familiarisation with the main Disneyland Park we decided to spend a the following day back at the studios. We wanted to re-ride our new found favourites and catch everything we missed the day before. Stephanie mentioned that we hadn’t seen a parade yet so that was high on our list of things to do.

A Disney parade is one of those things that I paid no attention to when we were in Florida, I was fourteen and wanted rides, rides, rides, but as I’ve mellowed slightly I’ve found the parades to be good wholesome fun. ‘It’s for the children’ I’m always told and it certainly didn’t disapoint Oliver. All his favourite characters driving by on a stream of cars waving wildly at him really made his day. Sadly Phoebe chose parade time to be her nap time so she missed out on all the fun!

One of the rides that we hadn’t made it to yet was the Armageddon special effects stage. Basically you are briefed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, as extras on a special effects shoot. We were to be actors on a set and pretend to be scared when a meteorite hits the space station that we were going to be standing on. Oliver would have won an oscar for his performance had it been properly recorded, the boy was absolutely terrified! Explosions, eruptions and collapsing scenery isn’t something he wishes to see again anytime soon! ‘It’s all pretend’ I said, but it didn’t wash!

With everything done and dusted we made our way once again to the the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where we queued patiently once again, gave our tickets once again and were waved through gladly to pick up our complimentary cowboy hats and order some wine if we wanted (we did want!).

I’d never seen a dinner show before so it was a new experience for all of us. I’d highly recommend it. We were fortunate in that we had such great seats. We were sat in the front row right in the middle so had a perfect view of the whole proceedings. What made our seats even better was the interaction we had with the cast of the show and our team jester who arm wrestled with Oliver and messed up Stephanie’s hair. As we dived into Cowboy Chilli, Ribs and Chicken drumsticks a series of equestrian shows and cowboy games was going on in front of us. The audience are encouraged to make as much noise and be as raucous as possible which went against everything we have ever tried teaching the kids about dinner time, but it was well worth the wait and a great nights entertainment.

One of the things that Stephanie and I spoke of beforehand was the possibility of taking a short trip into Paris and visiting the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t want to make any commitments beforehand as we didn’t know how much we’d get done in the parks or if the weather would be suitable.

When we woke up on Sunday morning the weather was quite promising and so we decided that after our character breakfast we’d catch the RER into Paris, take a trip up the Eiffel Tower and show Oliver and Phoebe something a little bit different. I went to buy some tickets online but you can only buy tickets two days in advance from the Internet, so we had to make a choice. Go into Paris, see the Eiffel Tower and not go up because the queue was too long, or go into Paris and queue for however long it might take. Before that though we had another date with Mickey and Friends.

Breakfast is part of the package when you stay at the Disneyland Resort, but there are little extras you can pay for to make the most of your stay. We choose to pay extra for a character breakfast which everyone recommended beforehand. It was one of those things that I expected to be a chaotic free for all, but it actually went rather smoothly. Phoebe was sat in her highchair getting on with breakfast when the first character introduced himself to our table. One half of Chip and Dale (don’t ask me which one!) popped a paw on her highchair and that was it, the poor girl burst into a fit of tears and the terrified, shaking Phoebe resurfaced much to our amusement! Oliver was in his element having photographs with Mickey, Pluto, Chip and Dale and Eeyore to name a few. It might have cost a few extra pounds on top of the budget but it was well worth every penny.

After breakfast and a few tentative enquiries in broken French at the tourist information box we secured train tickets and directions towards Paris for our first steps into the outside world since the beginning of our stay. Travelwise getting into Paris couldn’t be any simpler. Jump onto the train at the station within the resort and twenty minutes later you are in central Paris. We had to make a couple of changes to arrive at the Trocadero which was the station we were recommended, but from door-to-door our travel time was less than an hour.

Having seen a million and one images of the iconic Eiffel Tower I pretty much knew what to expect, but your eyes do take some adjustment when you view the tower for the first time. With the Trocadero being an elevated open platform the view of the tower is probably second to none from our that particular vantage point. We stopped, took photographs and discreetly changed Phoebe in the corner away from the madness that surrounded us. With no real plan and no real rush we took a leisurely walk towards the tower, crossing over the River Seine ever closer to the amazing piece of architecture ahead of us. What must the local Parisians have thought in the 1800's as Mr Eiffel started putting this thing together?

Disneyland Paris

As it was a Sunday the tourist scene was out in full crowd, which meant the queue for tickets was as long as we hoped it wouldn’t be. Ultimately we gave Oliver the choice, queue here for an hour or so, go to the top of the tower or go back to the parks and do some more rides. He wanted to head back so that was where we went. We were only in central Paris for just under two hours, but the impressive first view of the Eiffel Tower was well worth the journey and another experience Oliver added to his every growing list.

We only had twenty four hours left before we were due to leave, we had done everything we had set out to do so it was a case of filling in any blanks and covering the bits we loved the most. We also hadn’t seen the main Disney parade so we made sure we did that. Phoebe was awake this time and she joined in with the waving and clapping. She was a safe enough distance away from those wicked people who scared her so much so she was able to have as much fun as everyone else.

On our way back down the parade route Stephanie witnessed a little girl sitting atop her fathers shoulders. The little girl was in fits of tears, overjoyed with happiness at what she had just witnessed, it even made Stephanie choke up a little bit. We didn’t quite get that response from Oliver or Phoebe but what we got was enough to fill a hundred treasure boxes of memories. Ask Oliver now what Disneyland Paris was like and his face lights up with his recollections, ask Stephanie and she too will have a hundred stories to tell.

It may be gross commercialisation to some people, exploitation for the tourist dollar, but I still believe in the magic. All the time that there all places for escapism, where children can be children and adults can be children all over again the magic will always live on. Like our memories of the place and all the dreams we have, most of which come true.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Leaving London

London
In 2006 I made two life-defining decisions. One, was to agree with Stephanie’s request for a baby, the second was to seek new employment, to work in London and try and perfect the art of website development. Now, almost seven years later the tide has turned and I’m heading back to where I came from.

I had been working in Maidstone for a company called Qube Data Management, I was answering the phones and dealing with database queries as part of the Renault Trade Parts project. My boss asked me to build a website, something for a father-in-law about building your own home. “Okay”, I said “There is just one problem, I don’t know how to build websites...” He had already second guessed my answer and told me that I’d better start learning. He gave me a book on how to build websites using Microsoft Front Page and off I went.

That book ultimately proved to be a turning point in my career. In fact, it was the start of my career. I’d been presented with a unknown gift which opened a part of me that decided, yes, this is what I want to do now.

Sadly Qube Data Management wasn’t of sufficient size to allow me to fully grow at the rate in which I wanted, so with the blessing of the company behind me I head off to the bright lights of London, to Knightsbridge and a company called RMG Connect where I found myself immersed into the wonderful world of advertising and everything else that comes with it.

At first it was a huge culture shock. Going from a company which had five members of staff to a company of well over a hundred. Remembering names was a nightmare without having to pick up new methodologies and systems that were alien to me, let alone handing the responsibility of end content that was published to a worldwide audience. It’s times like that you learn about yourself and is ultimately more rewarding than the tasks you are paid to do.

I loved those four years and it was a wrench to leave. But with agency changes and uncertainty surrounding the future I decided to take my own destiny in my own hands and was rewarded with my current role at ais London.

ais London has been another adventure, filled with great work, great people and a working culture that has been a real privilege to have been a small part of. But with agency life comes one downside. All the time that you are in favour with your clients, the good times are many, but if the client fancies a change of scene or creative direction there isn’t much the current agency can do about it.

With work not being as plentiful as it was twelve months ago I felt that I had stagnated slightly and for a developer constant evolution is vitally important. Technology changes and its vital that we keep up. When I decided to look for a new role I had no real expectation in mind. I met and spoke with some fantastic companies and some great opportunities were there for the taking. In some ways I wasn’t suited to them or it wasn’t what I was looking for until I met with James Villa Holidays.

They are based in Maidstone, which takes me back full circle to where I started. I’ll be working for the first time ever directly for the client, helping shape their digital offerings and ensuring that their customers website experience is as good as their end product, namely holiday villa rentals across the world.

I’ve had nearly seven years in London and now seems as good a time as any to try something new and have a change of scenery, albeit somewhere slightly familiar. Before I say goodbye though, there are some things that I’ll miss and some that I won’t.

I’ll miss...

The People

Although this isn’t necessarily London centric, I’ll miss the people that I’ve been lucky to meet and to work with. I’ve worked with two teams of developers, the RMG Connect team and the team here at ais London. I consider myself very fortunate, to work alongside them and to know them as people. I’ve not met one ‘bad apple’, a guy with an attitude or anyone that has been unwilling to help. In fact, that goes across the board, account managers, creatives, planners - only the odd project manager would fulfill that negative criteria but they’ve never really lasted for very long.

The Shard

It sounds a bit sad and slightly ridiculous, but I’ll miss seeing the Shard everyday. I’ve literally watched it being built piece by piece over the last few years and just as it’s starting to open I won’t be around to visit it.

The Walk

I tend not to use the underground if I can help it, I don’t really need to. Whilst I worked at RMG Connect I used to walk from Charing Cross past Buckingham Palace and up Constitution Hill into Knightsbridge. It’s ideal for people watching and the sense of history surrounding you is something you can never grow tired of. I’ve continued to walk every day to the office at ais London. Walking through Soho offers the same mixture of people and reappearing characters added to the hustle and bustle of the tourist scene.

The Diversity

Maybe it is my background, coming from a company of five people, but the diversity of people that I’ve worked with will be missed. I’ve lost count of the various nationalities of people that I’ve met, they’ve come from all around the world. But diversity isn’t measured purely by culture, it’s the diversity of choice. Which pub to drink in, which sandwich shop to buy lunch from, where to go to eat. The choice and availability at a London workers disposal is endless.

I won’t miss...

The Newspaper Vendors

If I picked up a free newspaper from every vendor who has waved one at me during my walk home I would have a pile to the moon and back. I don’t want one. No. The aggressive waving a newspaper in front of my face does not, will it ever not make me change my mind.

The Tube

I don’t actually mind the tube that much, simply as I use it when I want to, not that I need to. But whenever I do I always find at least one person annoys the hell out of me. Standing on the left of the escalator. Standing on the right of the escalator with a bag parked on the right. Standing up against the central pole off the carriage when the train is relatively empty so there is no place for anyone else to hold on to. Bags with wheels. Men pulling bags with wheels. People getting on the train before letting people get off. If I really thought about it the list would be endless and I’ll only get further aggravated - so I won’t!

The Tourists

Okay, so I did say that I’ll miss the walk and people watching, which is true. But overall I won’t miss the annoying tourist. The ones that walk dead slow when I’m in a hurry to and from work. Especially when they are walking whilst looking at a map or reading a guide book and oblivious to anyone around them. Even more annoying are the ones the stop suddenly to take a photograph, of nothing more than a crack in the pavement more times than not. Or the look of incredulity I get from not being able to give directions. I work in London, I don’t live in London, please don’t expect me to know every street name and how the hell you get there because I simply don’t know!

If you had told me seven years ago what the next few years would bring I wouldn’t have believed you. So here’s to the next seven years wherever it may take me. I might well be back again one day, if I am, I just hope it was as good as this time around.





Tuesday, 29 January 2013

What on earth do we tell our children?

Marriage

My last blog post was way back at the end of last year in memory of my departed Grandmother. Writing something new would make that old news and I’ve not wanted to archive it just yet. Life however, moves on and barely at the end of the first month of the new year, there is so much that has happened and so much to look forward to.

Already this year we’ve had new babies, a wedding, a trip booked and for me personally a huge and exciting change with the promise of a new job. After three years at ais London, I decided to seek ventures new and have secured a new position at James Villa Holidays, which means not only am I going from agency to client-side, but it means that after seven years I’ll be leaving London and returning to the bright lights of Maidstone.

I’ll probably take a nostalgic look back at my time in London over the next few weeks, but for now I wanted to write something for myself, something therapeutic, something argumentative, a dear diary piece that helps channel some of my thoughts and opinions.

When someone dies as my Nan did last year, it forces you to reassess things, look at life slightly differently and appreciate it for what it is. A brief, unknown period of time where everyone needs to make the most of what they’ve been given. Maybe it’s coincidental, or it’s been happening for a while and I’ve not really noticed it until now, but recently I’ve felt disgruntled, annoyed at politicians for making bad decisions and feeling powerless that things happen and you have no control over them despite the priviledge of being able to vote.

One of the constant fights I always find myself battling is that of religion and my own views on what I perceive to be my own rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It’s always there, I can’t escape it, all my family are Christian’s and I’ve Christian friends and my Uncle is even a Pastor of a local church. Working with him last year and seeing the fantastic work that they do hasn’t softened my stance or made me think perhaps I am fighting a losing battle and that there might be a place for me afterall. In fact, I’d probably say that I’m further away from where my family would like me to be than I've probably ever been.

One of the hot topics in the press over the last few months has been a mixture of both of those things, that of allowing same-sex marriage. Religion by itself is a tough enough subject, as is politics, but when the two collide all sorts of ramifications and arguments both for and against occur. But what on earth has the rights of allowing homosexuals to marry got to do with me? Well the answer is nothing, absolutely nothing at all. But the Christian response purely highlights everything that I find wrong with the religion and everything that prevents me from reconciliation with any of my families views.

When Stephanie and I got married, we were married in a civil ceremony. There were no religious connotations, no promise to a heavenly father that we would unite as one flesh. We made our vows as a solemn promise and commitment to one another that will last us for the rest of our lives. If either of us had the imagination to write our own vows we would have done and we’d have meant each and every word. What difference then does it make if two men or two women make those same vows?

The Christian view is that marriage is a gift from God, between one man and one women. Various denominations have variations about what is and what isn’t acceptable, including views on divorce, same-sex marriage and those people who are happy to remain single and celibate. I can accept the more liberal views and I can accept that same-sex marriage isn’t the same act of marriage as described in scripture, but then once again, nor is mine and Steph’s, because we never married as scripture described and as yet have no intention to.

What I can’t accept is the discriminatory and hateful tones that are coming from some areas of the church. Views such as God hates Gays, and that being born homosexual is no different to being born a peodiphile which I find vile and extremely offensive. To compare the two scenarios is a measure of pure ignorance and damn right hurtful. But then the church has history for blatant discrimination. During the civil rights movements in 1950s-1960s America, church leaders would come out in support of the white race and use scripture to back up there poisoned arguments. Such views would cause outrage in today’s world - and rightfully so.

We are as people, human beings, with thoughts, feelings, desires and sexual preferences. Mine might not be the same as yours and vice versa, but as human beings we might one day be lucky enough to meet someone else who shares those very same things. Why then would I want to keep looking for someone else? I wouldn’t, I’d want to share my life with that person and enjoy those things together, which is why I married my wife, and why a man might want that with another man and a woman with another woman. It’s not for me to judge and say that it is unnatural or against human nature. It is what it is and each to their own. Love is, what love is, however much we fail to understand the flawed chemistry of same-sex appeal.

What’s the difference then in two women marrying and dying together of old age, living a long life of relative sinless existence vs a married Christian couple who sin repeatedly and ask God to forgive them for their sins? When the gates of heaven open and a couple are turned away, why should the gay couple be the ones that are condemned? If God really is such a discriminatory deity why the hell should I spend a lifetime worshipping Him?

It might seem like a lot of thought about nothing, why on earth put so much effort into thinking about something that has nothing to do with me at all? The answer for me lies solely as being a parent. I want my children to be brought up with the knowledge that they are who they are and to be comfortable within themselves. That people shouldn’t be discriminated against for any reason. When they ask me me why their grandparents go to church and their parents don’t - I can give them valid reasons why not. When they learn of Christians with discriminatory views what do I tell them? That it is okay, they are good people, they are Christians, they are allowed to discriminate because it is what their God does?

Can anyone blame me for feeling disgruntled?
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