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Saturday, June 22, 2013

An Indonesian in Europe, or alternatively titled "Bugger me, It's cold!" Part 1

It’s coming towards the end of our holiday and the prospect of returning to Indonesia has, for once, found me in something of a dilemma. In previous years I have been ready to return and it was only last  year when I said that a month was too long and two weeks would have been more than enough. This year though, the dynamic has been a lot different. I’ve had Uciel with me for one thing, and for another we’ve seen and done a lot more.  We’ve visited two capital cities and travelled enough miles to make Santa Claus tired just thinking about it. And then there’s my Dad too, but we’ll talk about him more on another occasion. Instead, let me take you through the highlights of this trip ......

Trying to take a month off work is easy for me. I just wait until the end of my contract and say “right, see you all in a month” and off I go. Of course there are exit visas to be processed and administrative stuff to do, but it’s all pretty painless as all of that paperwork is done by someone else. And then you need to forget that you’re also not being paid for a month. For Yohana however, it wasn’t that easy.

Indonesians are as entitled to holidays from work as anyone, but after all of the religious/political/religiously-politically correct (delete as applicable) holidays have been taken off, and we get quite a few public holidays in Indonesia such as Idul Adha and Weisak Day, plus enforced National holidays such as Idul Fitri at the end of Ramadan and Christmas, most Indonesians are usually left with about six days. Having had a lot of time off last year first with my parents, and then when Myles and Jon visited, not to mention the extended honeymoon at Christmas, I thought Yohana would struggle to take so long off work. This trip would probably also mean we wouldn’t be taking any more extended holidays this year either. This was the first hurdle we faced when planning our trip back to the UK.

As it happened we needn’t have worried so much. Yohana’s boss was really accommodating, but it did mean a lot of extra hours on her part prior to leaving to ensure that clients were looked after. (I should explain for those of you that don’t know, Yohana, or Uciel as I like to call her, is my wife and she’s a marketing consultant for a paper company.) This meant that by the time we were due to leave, we were both in need of relaxation.  We had both told our respective employers that we were available in case of emergencies. For me this meant by email, for Uciel this would be by Blackberry Messenger.

I mentioned that we had planned on going to the UK, but we would also be visiting France too. This came about following a request from me that Yohana produce a list of things that she wanted to do in the UK. I wanted to make sure that the days didn’t go by without something to make them memorable. Along with the classics of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, there was also horse racing and castles. And then there was the rather less English, Eiffel Tower. I wondered if I could get away with substituting Blackpool Tower, but that thought quickly disappeared. The logistics of obtaining two visas, as well as flights and ferry crossings, went far more smoothly than we had expected and I would advise everyone to go through an agent for visas and my mother for train and ferry tickets! Anyone who needs to know who we used has only to contact us as we were extremely happy with the service and the price.

 The main reason for returning to the UK was to allow Uciel to meet my friends, see where I come from and to spend time with my Mum and Dad. My parents had travelled to Indonesia twice before, the last time being for our wedding and, since I’ve lived in Indonesia for four and a half years and know the culture and customs there fairly well, it was now time to introduce Yohana to my background and culture. The ‘rents had planned a trip in mid June to Brittany in Western France to stay in their friends’ house, so , as our dates for taking our holiday had changed from the original ones, it would now be great tagging along with this at the end of our holiday. It also made it possible to fly into Paris and see the Eiffel Tower before heading over the water to see the UK. We would then complete the most audaciously planned trip since Hitler decided a winter in Russia would be nice for a change and get to spend alot more time with with Mum and Dad by returning with them by ferry, touring around Brittany, and finally flying back home to Indonesia from Paris. In the words of a famous meerkat friend of my Dad, “simples”!

That all of the plans came to pass were due in no short measure to the efforts of some amazing people,  people that you’ll read about a bit more in a moment. But for now, let us say our huge thanks to Myles and Karan, Russ and Michelle, Justin and Jemma, Vero and Sam, Sue and Arthur, Mandy and Tam, Chris and Pat, Dermot and Pauline, my brother Glen and last but not least, Beryl and Geoff. There were so many other people who helped make the trip so special. All of my old friends who we met down in the south of England, all of my family and friends who we met up in the North. We do also need to apologise to the vast number of people that we weren’t able to catch up with. A month sounds like a long time but let me tell you that time does in deed fly.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog about Paris, so let’s start on the Isle of Dogs, somewhere near the centre of London, where we were in the process of re-enacting The Blitz by flying along the Thames in a German made Fokker 50 propeller-powered airplane, courtesy of Air France.

We’d flown into the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on the previous Sunday and here we were now on Tuesday evening flying out of Orly airport, which for a small city aiport is pretty nice too, and into London’s city airport. The plan was to spend the next five or six days with one of my best mates, Mr Myles O’Neil and his partner of two years, Karan Murphy . I’ve known Myles for about fourteen years or so and over those years we’ve had lots of laughs in lots of different parts of the world. Last year, Myles and another friend of ours Jon had stayed with Uciel and I, visiting various parts of Indonesia and culminating in a trip to Bali. Offering us a place to stay was a way of returning that favour, but it was to prove so much more than that, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The beauty of the City Airport was that Karan works on the Isle of Dogs, the location of the city airport, so was able to pick us up without driving miles out of her way. Gatwick is way down in Surrey and Heathrow is out along the M4 nearly into Buckinghamshire and while both have a train access to major stations in London, this was by far the best choice.

As an aside, the Isle of Dogs is one of those great English place names, like Lower Drakes Bottom and Upper Drakes Bottom, and according to Wiki it dates back to 1588. Depending on what you believe it’s name comes from the place where Edward II kept his greyhounds, or over the years the name has altered from it’s original “Isle of Ducks”. Personally, I prefer the greyhound version.

One of my big concerns about our travels was immigration. Sure we had the visas, but they hadn’t been tested. In Indonesia, you’re never entirely sure you’ve got the genuine article. With DVD’s and CD’s, with furniture or electronics and especially with documentation. Driving licences are a case in point. I know not one Indonesian who has taken a driving test or one that has received ther licence through any other means than buying one, if they even have one at all! This naturally played on my mind, imagining ever more serious scenarios in which Uciel and I were thrown into dank cells with political prisoners, well, we were going to France after all and I’m sure the Chateau d’If is still working.

With this in mind, we had planned a pack of necessary information, well, we thought it may be necessary but you be the judge. In the pack were obvious things like copies of tickets, passports and an itinerary of what we were doing on different days (thanks Karan!). On top of this were copies of birth certificates, marriage licences, even my divorce certificate from my previous marriage. Uciel was leaving nothing to chance in casewere stopped and interrogated. We came through Indonesian emmigration and again in Qatar without a hitch. The French guy in CDG looked at Uciels passport for a few extra seconds, but that was it. At London City it was different. As I have a UK passport we were separated into different immigration lines. I sailed through mine and went to stand near to Uciel, to give her some moral support. “Would you mind waiting around the corner sir?”  said the Immigration official in a tone that immediately let me know it wasn’t really offering me a choice. “Er, that’s my wife, is it ok if I just wait here?” said I. “No.” He replied, “but we hopefully won’t keep her too long”, again in a tone of voice that left me confused as to if this were some kind of immigration joke that only immigration officers understand. Here, I decided,  was where our worst nightmares were about to come true. I thought I’d give it five minutes and then put on my best disgruntled face and ....oh, here was the wife walking round the corner with a beaming smile. The guy had been really pleasant. She’d been able to answer all of his questions as to where she was staying, who the guy was that she was travelling with, what she was looking forward to doing in the UK and, if she had the time, that she should check out the summer collection at Dorothy Perkins (I made that last part up, but I could imagine it happening. Uciel brings out the best in people). He’d then wished her a pleasant stay in the UK, stamped the passport and in she came. I get a harder time than that going back into Jakarta!

While on the subject of passports and documents, I want to flash forward a little to the ferry journey back to France. On the morning that we arrived from the ferry, we needed to clear customs. This meant stopping at a booth after disembarking the ship and showing our passports. I pulled up the car at the booth, within sight of Roscoff town centre, applied the handbrake for the formality I assumed this would be and strode over to the waiting immigration officer. For Mum, Dad and I this was indeed a formality but for Uciel? Well, the guy looked at the passport as he flicked through the pages. After a couple of minutes (seriously) he turned the passport the correct way up and found the page with the passport details. Then, pointing to a little white box, he asked for fingerprints. At first I thought he’d meant mine as I’d got out of the car with the passports but he waved Uciel’s green passport and indicated that I should get her to come out of the car. I walked back to the vehicle and jokingly told her that they weren’t letting her in and that she had to wait here until someone arrived to take her back to the UK. In hindsight that seemed a lot funnier at the time and had things gone worse I wouldn’t be writing this in such good humour. Anyway, Uciel nervously walked back to the booth, with me to act as translator. Now here is one of those moments when words do not do the situation enough justice. If only I’d had my camera I would be able to show you pictorial evidence of what happened next. The finger sensor in the booth was so high I had to lift Uciel up so she could swipe her index finger! This was pretty funny for anyone looking on, but on reflection also annoying to the fingerprint donor as anyone under 5’ 4” would have struggled and that would have included both Bonaparte and Tom Cruise (allegedly).

Anyway, back to the Isle of Dogs where we were about 10 minutes delayed into London and Karan was waiting to whisk us straight back to their house where Myles was waiting with a hearty meal of Bangers and Mash.
Bangers and Mash, now there’s a food that only the English could have come up with. When Myles asked what the first food was that we’d like to eat on arrival in the UK, the answer was simple. Bangers and Mash. It was the same when I landed the previous year and stayed a couple of days with Myles and Karan too. Why? Well a few reasons I guess. Bangers and Mash, as I said, is quintessentially English, so would be a good starter for Yohana’s culinary experiences and with the varieties of sausages now available you can make it as traditional or exotic as you could wish. Secondly, it’s pork and living in Indonesia means that, whilst we can buy pork, we can’t buy English sausages. Finally, as a welcome to the cold and wind of the UK, sausages, heaps of mashed potato and lashings of gravy is a meal that, as Dad used to say, puts hairs on your chest. We went to bed that night exhausted but content

The Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were all about London. Karan has an uncanny knack for finding great deals and this had allowed her and Myles to experience some amazing restaurants and hotels and we were about to receive the benefit of her exceptional hobby. Karan had been searching the internet for vouchers that would make our experiences memorable but also reasonable too. Along with her brother, who is Head Concierge at a major London hotel, they had sourced some unbelievable activities. It all began with an enquiry from Karan as to what Uciel and I would like to do during our trip to London. This was dutifully replied to, containing the usual sightseeing spots, but also some more eclectic forms of entertainment such as the possibility of seeing dog racing. On top of this, Myles and I share a penchent for good food, and I will never pass up the opportunity of visiting a special restaurant, but we never expected what came next.

A few days went by before, sat at my computer one day, I saw a facebook message ping in from Karan. In it she said she’d done some digging around and had found some stuff to do. If any of the stuff was too much or too expensive we should let her know but have a look and get back to her. Have a look at what, I thought to myself, scanning the rest of the message for information. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a Facebook addict. Foursquare, a little Twitter sometimes too but mainly Facebook. I share everything on there but never have I shared an excel spreadsheet. This was why I’d missed the small green ‘x’ symbol the first time I looked, I just didn’t know you could do it. Double clicking the icon led me to a day-by-day itinerary, split into daytime and evenings. Each column had been completed with what I can only say was the best selection of activities ever put together for a trip of this kind. Imagine for a moment if you will, a twenty-six day trip that included flying seven thousand miles around the world, twice, a flight connecting Europes two most major cities (sorry Berlin, Rome and Madrid), a ten-hour ferry ride and time spent with parents and friends, not to mention shopping and eating and sleeping. This is what we’d taken on. To open the spreadsheet to find that our five or six days in the South of England would include not only all of the things that we’d asked for, but also some luxuriously indulgent activities, and planned so as not to exhaust anyone, was incredible.

The two things that will always stand out on that spreadsheet for me were Lunch at The Ritz and Afternoon Tea at The Savoy. There was a whole spreadsheet full of activities that included dog racing in Romford, cocktails in Centre Point on Tottenham Court Road and a trip to theatreland to see The Bodyguard at the Adelphi. But here were two of London’s most iconic establishments and we’d be visiting them both!

The weather had certainly perked up since arriving from Paris. As Brits, we have something of a reputation for discussing the weather. If conversation ever dulls to the point of boredom, most residents of these islands can be reanimated with a reference to the weather, no matter how bad. As the eskimos reportedly have two million words for snow, we have many different words for rain and we were about to experience a few of them on this day. It had gone from being cold enough to freeze the balls from a brass monkey and occasional rain in the form of stair rods in Paris, to temperatures now nearly reaching double figures and clouds that had relaxed to just looking ominous. That was the Wednesday morning to which we awoke and after a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich (you can never have enough pork on a trip home), we headed for Cockfosters tube station with a plan to take the Northern Line of London’s famous Undergound train system into town and do the open top bus trip. This would take up most of the day before heading back home to get changed and then all of us out to Meet Spikey Steve and his girlfriend at Romford Greyhound Track.

On arriving in London we headed for the Mall with a plan to walk to The Palace (Buckingham, for those non Brits reading this). The first of many surprises came as we went through the arch. On our left was the ritual known as “The Changing of The Guard” where men in bright red uniforms and huge black Bearskin hats march up and down a square in tight formation. Due to recent terrorist activities including the daylight stabbing of an off duty soldier, we were unable to get into the seats placed around the square but our view from the mall was unobstructed and for the first time Uciel forgot about the cold driving through the layers of clothing she was wearing and her smile just beamed. This was the London she’d anticipated.

Weather is important to this post for a number of reasons. Firstly, Uciel and I live in a tropical country. Let me let that sink in for a moment..........Ok. So we live in a country where the average temperature is 25 degrees. At night. We live in a country that is so hot that it is possible to melt steel at the side of the road. Well, maybe not quite that hot but I wouldn’t recommend touching a car that’s been stood in direct sunlight, but let me tell you that arriving in France to a temperature of 6 degrees Centigrade was nearly enough to make Uciel get back on the plane and go straight back home. We knew it was going to be cold but this was ridiculous. Fortunately we’d come prepared.

Contrary to my mother’s advice against the idea, we’d packed for the equivalent of a Siberian winter. Or at least Uciel had. Having never been out of Asia before (she’s travelled to Malaysia, Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong) Uciel really only had annecdotal advice to go on. One of these advisers is an Indonesian friend called Veronika. Uciel knew Vero when she lived in Jakarta but last year Vero married Sam and now lives with him in Nottingham, England. Because of this, Vero had felt the full force of an extended English winter. I say Winter as it was still snowing after officially becoming British Summertime inMay. Armed with this experience, Vero was able to tell Uciel what to expect on arrival. Interestingly, the day she and Sam came up to Leyburn, Vero was dressed like many Indonesians I see in Jakarta, with skinny jeans and a sleeveless red lace top. Either she’d aclimatised well or really wasn’t learning very quickly.

Another friend of ours is Deby Sanjaya. Deby is engaged to Richard Owen, a teacher at EF Gading and my Best Man at our wedding. Richard decided that the best time to take Deby to the UK, and in particular Welsh Wales, was in December. Even in a mild winter Wales is notoriously bad and it wasn’t mild. Now admittedly that was also Richard’s contract break so he had little choice as to when they could go but still, if you’re going to take an Indonesian to the UK for the first time I can think of better times of the year than December and January.....Anyway, Deby was able to give Uciel lots of advice on what to wear.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Contract Breaks

One of the big differences between this job and others that I've done before is the basis on which I'm employed.
As a kid doing temporary summer jobs, it was cash in hand. But following that, it was continuous employment. By that I mean that you worked for a company until such time as you resigned or were fired. I've experienced both of those things.
One other variation is that you may stay with a compmany for your entire working life with the end being either retirement or redundancy. These, outside of government jobs, seem, to be much rarer situations these days, partly I suppose because of the benefits that are paid out.
With EF, I'm employed on a rolling contract. In this situation I'm given a one year contract as a standard and then each year an extension is negotiated. Last year I agreed a 2 year contract. The reason for this was that it allowed me to plan a little further ahead, but it also allowed me to not have to worry about the whole bargaining session. Frankly I find it boring and also a little unnecessary. I believe that if both parties are happy with each other, and neither one is asking for anything outrageous, then that meeting doesn't need to be a long drawn out affair.
One of the benefits, and I guess that depends on how you look at it, is that I can take a contract break. This is a period of time between one contract ending and another beginning where I can take unpaid leave. The maximum period of time is a month, but if you wanted to take a few days then that would be equally fine.
I have found this advantageous over the last couple of years as it has allowed me to return to the UK to spend time with my parents and friends. My father isn't in the best of health and my mum isn't getting any younger plus two weeks just doesn't seem to justify a seven thousand mile flight. As long as you prepare through the year for the unpaid part then it's a great extended holiday. I suppose you could just accrue your holidays, but the thought of going a whole year without any time off isn't something that I would like to consider.
Back in the days of continuous employment jobs, my work-life balance was definitely off balance. I threw myself into my work with little thought given to scheduling my work commitments with holiday or leisure time. These days, I like to think that the wisdom that comes through a mixture of age, friendly advice (thanks Penny!) and arthritis allows me to be more practical. I still work hard but I know when to say no to unfavourable requests for my time.
Anyway, back to contract breaks and my current situation is that I'm sat in the lounge of the North Staffordshire Hotel at six o'clock in the morning writing this. My wife Yohana and I are here with my parents visiting my brother Glen who has just completed his second degree. We've spent the last two weeks in Paris, London, Hertfordshire, Cambridge, Durham and Yorkshire and we're about to head for the cross channel ferry to spend another eight days touring Brittany. Now that's what a holiday is really about!