Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I'm dreaming of an online Christmas

As the end of November quickly approaches, I can feel the pressure mounting to finish my Christmas shopping.

"But you've still got weeks until the big day", I hear you say.   

True, but I have not intention of being anywhere near a shopping centre in December.   

This is not only to protect my shins from wayward prams and my sanity from long cashier queues, but also to protect others from my irrational rage.

And the way things are heading, this might be the first Christmas where I don't even set foot inside a shop or shopping centre at all thanks to the wonderful world wide web.

While I don't mind shopping itself, I only really find it enjoyable in short bursts when I want to check out a particular store or I'm hunting for something in particular.   I'm not really into endless wandering around malls waiting for something amazing to just "pop" out at me.

This year I've full embraced online browsing to identify potential gifts and it's working a treat (well, the recipients may think otherwise).   Rather than having my choices confined to whatever stock is left on the shelves when I rock up, I'm discovering a broader and cheaper range on my laptop.  

If you're inclined to go online, time's a ticking to get it delivered before Christmas.   But it's not too late, and here's five tips to keep in mind.

1.  eBay, eBay, eBay
EBay isn't just the domain of second-hand goods.  So many Australian and international retailers have set up their stores on eBay offering brand new goods, particularly smaller, boutique retailers who don't have the resources to set up their own independent online store.   There's also the option to "buy it now" if you're not interested in the auction process, and make sure your searching "worldwide", not just "Australia" to really broaden your horizons.  In addition, it might be handy to have your eBay account up and running should you wish to offload any goods after Christmas!

2.  UK shipping is usually cheaper than the US
Whether it is on eBay or other online shops, for some strange reason shipping from the UK is fast (usually two weeks maximum) and cheap (or free), while shipping from the US can be really expensive.   

3.  You might get lucky
Keep an eye on, Cudo and a host of other sites that specialise in having a small but revolving selection of daily specials.   Most of the time they probably won't have what you're looking for, but you never ever know if you never ever go.

4.  Search for promotion codes
Once you've bought from an online store, they often encourage repeat business by sending out specials, with accompanying promotional codes, to their database.   Even if you haven't received these emails you can still take advantage of promotion codes.  There are a host of websites where people list the latest promotion codes for a whole range of online stores.  Pop them in before you go through the "checkout" and see if they're still current.

5.  Points needn't be pointless
You know all those loyalty schemes you joined, well now's the time to see if you can use those points for anything.  Let's face it, you're unlikely to ever accrue enough FlyBuys or Qantas points to actually fly anywhere, but you might be able to get a gift voucher or kettle with your point balance.  

Saturday, 23 November 2013

What the good doctor taught me

This weekend, my favourite TV show of all time - Doctor Who - celebrates 50 years since it was first screened in the UK in glorious black and white.

It's also made me realise that I've probably been watching the show on and off for about 30 of those years.

I can remember watching the 1983 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors at my grandparents house, and then throughout the 1980s from the comfort of the mission brown bean bag in our living room.

I used to write to the ABC begging them to screen episodes.  Thankfully, though probably not because of my letter writing campaigns, the Doctor was a regular feature on our television.   This was probably just as well as for the bulk of the 1980s in regional Australia we only had about three television stations.

It's hard to articulate what captivated me most about the show.  I think escapism was a big part of it.   When you're growing up in Warwick, the ability to escape somewhere else has significant appeal.  

But there was more to it than that.   To me it seemed creative, imaginative and exciting, and I think it may have even inspired my love of travel.

I liked that the Doctor combated evil with his brain, rather than machines guns and brute force.  He was clever, funny, compassionate and always fighting for the underdog.

The 1980s saw me dive headfirst into fandom, subscribing to Doctor Who magazines and fan club newsletters, photocopying favourite pictures and putting them on my wall, reading the novelisations, and even attempting to write a script (it was terrible).

I wanted to wear a scarf (though Australian summers don't really allow for this) and I would shut myself in cupboards pretending they really were bigger on the inside.

Before our family got a video player, I made my grandfather record episodes so that I could watch them when I visited.   And when we finally did get a video player, and they started releasing the early episodes on VHS, I thought life couldn't get any better.

To celebrate its 50th birthday, I'm remembering five funny things Doctor Who has taught me during the years:

1.  Everyone everywhere in the universe speaks English
This is extremely reassuring should I ever develop the ability to travel into space.

2.  If you're trapped or locked in a room or cave, escape through the ventilation shaft
I've seen enough episodes to know there's bound to be one in there somewhere.

3.  A lot of planets look like quarries
It seems mining doesn't just drive the Australian economy, but the universe's as well.

4.  Don't trust big corporations or big computers, they're probably trying to enslave you
A common theme throughout the series is the evil that comes from power-hungry companies and computers.

5.  If you're ever confronted, trapped or threatened, just scream
Don't run away or put up a fight, just stand there and scream.   The Doctor won't be too far away to rescue you.

Doctor Who has changed in so many ways since I first started watching.

For starters, the polystyrene sets and dodgy blue screen effects have been replaced by big-budget location shoots and CGI.  Yet, the show has managed remain true to its origins when an old man and his granddaughter went wandering the universe in the TARDIS.

When you think about it, there probably aren't too many things that can continue to bring fun, imagination and enjoyment into your life 50 years after it started (or 30 years in my case).

As I set my alarm to get up early tomorrow and watch the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, I hope there's a few more years of entertainment and adventure from the Doctor to come.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Anything you can do, I can do better

It's seems to have been the age-old game of one-upmanship that yielded one of Europe's, if not the world's, prettiest squares.

Brussels' Grand Place with City Hall on the left
Grand Place's Maison du Roi

Brussels' Grand Place makes an immediate and powerful impression from the moment you step into it.

What makes it more impressive is the way it sneaks up on you; none of the six narrow alleys that lead into it seem to give much of a hint of the grandeur that lies ahead.

Belgians, and others who have visited Brussels, tend to downplay the city's appeal.   And with the city playing host to many EU bureaucrats it's easy to think the place is probably just grey and bland.

The Grand Place's guild halls on a sunny afternoon
La Maison des Ducs de Brabant: a group of six guild halls
But the Grand Place is something else.  

While there are many fine squares in towns and cities across Europe, it is the way Brussels' Grand Place envelopes you on all four sides that makes it feel extra special.  

It also helps that there isn't a McDonald's or KFC crowding out a corner of the square, unlike in so many other cities.

The square's centrepiece is the 15th century City Hall, adorned with gargoyles and also slightly asymmetrical on closer inspection.
City Hall

Gargoyles on City Hall

Completing the 360 degree panorama is a series of guild halls for bakers, grease-makers, cabinet-makers, archers, boatmen, haberdashers, butchers, brewers, dressmakers and artists.  It reminds you of a place in time when those professions drove Europe's trade.

It was the rivalry among the different professions that also helped shape Europe's prettiest square.   With each group trying to make their building bigger and better than the others, the guild halls are laden with grand sculptures and intricate detailing.

I stumbled across the square on a sunny day, when the gilded statues added extra dazzle to the scene.

While I gawked, others ate gelato, sipped coffee, painted canvases or just soaked up the square's buzz - all of which you can imagine has been happening on this same spot for hundreds of years.

Maison du Roi

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Amsterdam's cutest ambassador

Just a dog?  

Or some sort of dog / pony cross breed?  (A "dony"?)

Hard to tell, but I can't stop thinking about this massive, shaggy dog my cousin and I stumbled across while wandering the streets of Amsterdam.

It was a sunny autumn afternoon when we saw this black figure hunched over a fence happily watching passers-by.  Given its size, from a distance you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a child or small man.

But on closer inspection, you realised it was 100% dog.

He seemed to have this tiny outdoor corridor to roam in, but his groomed coat told us he was well looked after.  What seemed most bizarre was that the owners bothered to install a gate and fence at all as this dog could easily have just stepped over them both.

And while he looked as though he could probably eat a small child for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in reality he was as placid and friendly as one of the Muppets he resembled.

We stopped and patted him for a while, prompting a torrent of slobber, much excited tail wagging, and a big showing of his pink little tongue.

After a while (and with heavy hearts), my cousin and I said goodbye to Amsterdam's friendliest ambassador, both secretly wondering how we could smuggle him back home to Australia.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Christmas wishlist

As decorations start to proliferate across my lounge room and everywhere else, it really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Well, an Australian Christmas at least.

I'm sure my northern hemisphere friends would scoff at the notion that blazing heat, blinding sun and scorched earth could in any way be remotely connected to Christmas.

While most carols laud snow flakes, trees blanketed in white, and lights twinkling through winter mist, not too many celebrate Aussie Christmas traditions of sweating it out over lunch, jumping in the pool or firing up the air conditioning.

I'd like to wake up to a Christmas morning with snow outside
Just like Bing Crosby, I often dream of a white Christmas (or at least a cool one) and hope to one day spend 25 December in a place that might warrant putting on a jumper.

Should Santa be interested, here's just six places I would love to wake up Christmas morning.

1.  Any Canadian ski resort

I've been to a few Canadian ski resorts in January when the Christmas lights are still up.  If you try really hard you can almost fool yourself into thinking it is Christmas time once more.  The problem is Aussies playing cricket in the snow to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January can ruin this illusion.  But with guaranteed snow and the promise of spending Christmas Day gliding down a slope, what's not to love about the idea of Christmas at a Canadian ski resort.   I don't really care which one, just as long as it snows.

Christmas lights twinkle in the snow

2.  Burton-on-the-Water, England

Each year, this pretty little Cotswolds village puts a giant Christmas tree in the middle of the river that flows through the town's main square.   Apparently sometimes it even snows.

Here my Christmas would entail getting up late on Christmas morning and having a roast lunch in the town's pub, maybe with some mulled wine by the fire!

Burton-on-the-water in Autumn

3.  Paris, France

The City of Lights seems to pretty much dazzle throughout the year, so it would be interesting to see the show it puts on for Christmas.  Surely it's the best place in the world if you're looking for festive food and wine?

4.  Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn's old town looks like it's been plucked from a fairytale, but I can imagine this is turned up a notch at Christmas time.  Each year, the main square is transformed into a Christmas market with a Christmas tree, handicrafts, snow sculptures, food and drink.   Even when I was there in autumn they were already roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

Tallinn cathedral

Insert Christmas into Tallinn's main square

5.   Heidelberg, Germany

It seems many of our Christmas traditions come from Germany anyway, so I'm sure it would be magical to spend the festive season here.   And what better place in Germany than Heidelberg with it's pretty and lively old town?   After a hearty Christmas Eve feast you could keep an eye out for St Nick in the sky as you stroll along the old bridge across the Neckar River.

Heidelberg in Autumn

6.  New York, America

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I haven't spent Christmas in New York.  Thanks to a solid diet of TV specials and movies set in the city I feel like I have already have - possibly with Ally McBeal or Macaulay Culkin in tow.  While there's always the danger that the real thing may not live up to expectations, I'm keen to check out New York at Christmas time... maybe with a cover of snow on Central Park?

Where in the world would you like to spend a Christmas?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Picture perfect ranting

I've often thought that if it ever came to the crunch I would rather lose my entire backpack than my camera when travelling.

You can buy new clothes, but if you don't have photos of your trip... how do you know you were ever there?

Once I foolishly packed my camera in my bag, which was then temporarily lost by an airline, leaving me to wander Vienna on a beautiful sunny day without any way to record the sights.

Sure, there's always my memory, but these days that's becoming as reliable as my 1998 Hyundai Excel.

One of the biggest milestones in my travels was the move from a film to digital camera.   Instead of rationing myself to eight rolls of 36 exposures per trip, suddenly I couldn't just take photos, but "paparazzi".

But there's a trend that's disturbing me: the death of the travel camera.

On my recent travels, I was shocked (appalled too strong?) to see sightseers taking their happy snaps with their iPads.

Picture this: a busload of tourists swarming in front of some amazing sight... all taking photos with their iPads (with the covers flapping limply in the breeze like undies on a clothes line).

It's happening.  It's real.  And it's alarming.

I have no doubt lots of clever tech folk have put some pretty decent cameras into smartphones and tablet computers.   But can the average person actually take good shots on these compared to a proper digital camera?

Having now been asked a few times to take someone's photo via their iPad, I don't think so.   There's nothing recognising the different focal points, lighting conditions, and generally no flash to fill in the shadows.

Don't get me wrong, I am in no way some amazing photographer.  I just use a simple digital camera, but sometimes play with the settings to try and maximise the shot.  And sure, some professional photographers have taken some great shots with smartphones and tablets.

But let's face it, most people adopting this approach to photography must be putting on some pretty crappy slide shows when they get home.

Rant over.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Bewitching Benelux

To be perfectly honest, when I first saw the word Benelux on a European rail website, I wondered why I had never heard of this country before.

Was my atlas that out of date?

Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg make up the union of Benelux (get it?).

While the three neighbouring countries sometimes share things in common, including history, food, language, currency and landscape, I was surprised to find they also have their own distinct characters.

Despite being able to train across the three countries in just a few hours, more than 28 million live here somewhere.

I didn't know much about the Benelux before heading there recently, except for the usual associations: Amsterdam equals drugs, Belgium equals chocolate, and Luxembourg equals... well, I had no idea.

Here's a few unusual things I discovered as I bopped around Benelux.

1.  You can get sex and pot in Amsterdam, but don't even think about asking for cold and flu tablets
If you want to feel like a real criminal, ask a pharmacist here for some day and night tablets with pseudoephedrine.   Having a cold with no decent medication... why it's enough to make you turn to pot.

2.  Should those visiting Amsterdam's red light district ever feel the need to confess, the Old Church is conveniently located next door
An urban planning mistake or a sign of Amsterdam's liberal ways?   At least the prostitutes have something nice to look at from their red-lit windows while they wait for customers.

3.  The Netherlands and Belgium have windmills for a reason; it gets windy!
The flat countryside is ideal for cycling... and cyclonic winds.

4.  No spirit levels were harmed in the building of Amsterdam
Being beside all those pretty canals means the city's buildings sometimes have that sinking feeling.

5.  Cheese is to The Netherlands as chocolate is to Belgium
Sometimes the clich├ęs are true... and tasty!  It seems the locals across Benelux also can't get enough of chips and aoli - quite the national dish!

6.  Luxembourg has hills!  
This fact is infinitely more interesting if you've just spent time roaming the flat landscapes of The Netherlands and Belgium.  

7.  In Luxembourg, a cheap day pass lets you travel on any public transport in the country
This sounds impressive until you realise how small the country is.   Still, I've been on train journeys in Brisbane that have cost more than a Luxembourg day pass.