The Christmas Elf

A few weeks ago a colleague of ours at work died. I cannot claim to have worked with her on a regular basis, but I knew her and I was saddened by her death. The weirdest thing was that she wasn’t, on the face of it, ill in any way. She didn’t have a car crash, or get murdered, or have a piano fall on her whilst walking through the street. She simply died. She went home from work one evening, went to bed and died.

Something about this seems grossly unfair. People don’t just die, something has to happen first right? No, apparently not, people can just die – for no good reason at all.

This is called Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. We’re doing some bits and pieces at work for fun and for charity this Christmas, and we picked the charity that researches this phenomenon as the one to donate the money to. It’s here if you fancy making a donation.

I’m going to work dressed a bit like a elf for the day – I’ve roped Ros into making me a massive Elf hat… but the outfit so far is….

Now this has got to be worth a couple of quid?


The Big Moldova Blog – Part 8: Two Days for the Price of One [Warning: contains pictures of butchered pigs]

Because I’m a sucker for a bit of adventure – I met Alex at half 5 in the morning outside the school to head for the meat market in Chisinau. I like the mornings but because of my chronic laziness I rarely get to experience a sunrise – so as the bus climbed out of the valley I saw the sun rise over the hills and it was beautiful.

Regretfully I only had my iPhone to rely on for imaging – drat.

Sunrise over Trebujeni

The bus ride cost about 19 LEI, just over £1 – for a journey of over an hour. A return from Norwich Railways Station to the University of East Anglia cost me £4.40 for a return journey of about 2 miles – it makes me spit. Spit.

Alex and I talked at length about a bunch of stuff in a desperate attempt to stay awake – sitting is a bad policy when you’ve only had like 4 hours sleep.

We arrived in the capital and headed for the Piața (market). There were several meat markets in the complex of stalls and buildings and we went into one recommended by the school principal (who had some shopping to do herself). Now the butchers is rather unlike the butchers back home, people were slinging pig and other carcasses around. It was clean and the meat was fresh, but I don’t think I’d really want to touch the banknotes that were moist with pig ‘juice’ again. Hand sanitiser to the rescue – Alex was well prepared.

Not quite the same at my local butchers, but interesting nevertheless

Our pork legs are prepared

Now the cook had given us a list of the meat she wanted – as we (i.e Alex) ordered it we started to think that perhaps we were ordering rather a large and unaffordable quantity – 45 pork chops, 2 entire pork legs, 4 kilos of diced pork and 4 kilos of minced beef. The total wasn’t shy of a hundred pounds (sterling) and we had to hurriedly go to a bureau-de-change so I could convert a few more Euros to LEI. Even then we couldn’t afford the bill and Alex had to fess up to the butcher that we would only be taking 23 pork chops. The butcher was not best pleased.

Alex preparing to talk to the butcher.

Once we’d paid and were handed the meat we were then definitely sure that the cook had over-ordered – perhaps confusing lbs with kilos. In any case it was f**cking heavy and contained only in plastic bags which meant more delightful pig juice on our hands, tshirts, shorts etc. Delightful.

Loaded all the meat onto the back of the bus and we went back to Trebujeni, not forgetting an enormous hill to carry the pretty much whole dead pig up – I promptly had a nap – and it was only 10 in the morning!

There was still a fair amount of work to be done including the grand moving of the septic tank into the hole.

Many hands make light work...

John created an enormous lever contraption to lower the septic tank into the 35 foot hole – pretty impressive!

Daring trapeze artist...

The Big Moldova Blog – Part 7: The Real Work Begins

So to recap.

We drove along way. We’re in Moldova, the coach full of everyone else got lost but was rescued by the Peace Corps.

Anyway – after staying up late to wait for the coach I was completely knackered I decided to have a lay in. For this I was roundly ridiculed as everyone was up at about 6 or something absurd like that. Masochists.

The task that awaited me was digging and shovelling – lots and lots of digging and shovelling. Why? Well because the drainage ditch that we’d filled with large stones earlier needed to be levelled off at a constant 1 in 40 downhill gradient.

Engineers Level

I hung around John (the architect/engineer) and tried to figure out how to use this neat looking contraption. When I finally figured out what he was doing I was quite pleased with myself.

The result of careful measurements... my beautiful pea-grit ditch

During the day Alex sidled up and asked me if I wanted to go on an adventure – I did, so she explained that I was required to meet her at 5.30am to go to Chisinau on the bus for meat. Buying meat is not usually an adventure, but I thought it would be cool to tag along as I’m really keen to see more of this amazing country than just a school, which, frankly could be anywhere.

In the evening I led a raiding party to the local shop for beer and snacks, pleased with myself for being the guy in-the-know 🙂 A little bit of status at last!

The Big Moldova Blog – Part 6: Day Number One

Right I’m back on the Moldova blogging wagon.

Turns out that the lovely ditch needed filling with rather large and heavy stones – so we cracked on with that – oh and by the way the stones that the mayor kindly donated were both too large and too small and needed to be separated, Andy helped out and we invented a system of shaking the larger stones to the bottom thus making the entire task much easier and felt particularly pleased with our ingenuity (I think it might be a man thing, but we feel very pleased with ourselves when we solve simple caveman like practical problems) – didn’t make it any cooler though at well over 35 degrees.

Piles of sand and stones to be moved. Hurray.

When we got bored of that we went inside and tried to strip out the vile communistical (that’s not actually a word, but I like the way it sounds) flooring in the to-be community room. The ground underneath was covered in mould – that was actually quite pretty – and the flooring was extremely heavy. Like totally unreasonably heavy, Lord knows what it was made of.

By this point I appear to have made friends with Alex and Andy, which is good for bilateral relations. Either this or, in a stunningly apt allegory of reality, I’ve imprinted onto them like a baby duck (who doesn’t have an empire anymore and isn’t sure what to do). Anyway – they’re super-nice, and they’re willing to use their brains and brawn for the benefit of the project. Their translation skills saved our bacon during the first day. Not only that but they led a rescue mission to find the coach that had gotten hopelessly lost in the dark. Americans to the rescue – another allegory.

Andy and Alex on the left. Painting the community room (Amy and Micheala are on the right).

The Big Moldova Blog – Part 5: Arriving at the School

We arrived at the site and it turned out that US Aid have already installed some fancy new double glazed windows – that’ll probably really help with insulation during the harsh winter months where the temperature can drop below -25c. Alan and John arrived a day or so early in Alan’s camper-van so work has already begun. They’d arranged for a concrete plinth to be poured to form a base where the showers are to be installed and a digger had dug a trench from the side of the building to the area where the septic pit and grey-water soak-away will be installed.

The trench had been dug by a digger before we'd arrived which was very handy

We spent the first evening tearing out the rotten skirting boards in the two bathrooms and coating the walls with unibond to prepare them for tiling later on. Afterwards we met up with four Americans; Hayley (which must be a boy’s name in America), Jessica, Andy and Alex from the Peace Corps who were living in Moldova for a couple of years to do things like health education and business development. They were a really nice bunch who helped us to settle down on the first evening and we went down to one of the local shops (magazine) to buy some beer called White Bear, as it had a picture of a polar bear on the front the drinking was referred to a slaughtering a polar bear. Nice.

A corridor.

The ablution facilities - oddly, they didn't really smell. Which was a relief.

The shower room to be


The Big Moldova Blog – Part 4: Moldova at last

The following morning we made our way south to the freight border and got really rather low on fuel – there were plenty of filling stations but BT pay for our fuel via DKV card and we didn’t want to buy 600 litres of fuel on our own credit cards. The fuel situation got so bad that we had to stop in a little village and barter for a piece of hose to syphon some diesel from lorry to get the van at least to the Moldovan border.

Job complete, but filthy with diesel we headed for the border, we crossed out of Romania and into no mans land, we saw a border sign that signified the end of the EU – here there be dragons!

Entering no mans land between Romania and Moldova

Immigration control in Moldova

As the lorry needed to clear freight again we waited just outside the Moldovan border checkpoint. NB do not hang around in a white van near a customs checkpoint – it looks incredibly suspicious. Inevitably we attached the attention of some Moldovan guards with disproportionately large hats and particularly rigid gold epaulettes.

You drive 2000 miles and the mobile phone company is exactly the same

As the driver, Kelvin had to go and pay a ‘fee’ to the customs officials and we were through! This was good because I have no desire to be banged up in some Moldovan jail somewhere for the next 50 years.

The lorries weren’t through though and so I slept in cab for a couple of hours. The large lorry was eventually cleared and so we drove to the nearest petrol station. We then went back to the border as we’d gotten out of radio range with the small lorry, oddly we managed to cross back across the border on foot because the customs office had an open door, we wondered across a few times for fun, then found a small bureau-de-change, got some Lei and went back to the petrol station – leaving the little lorry there to wait. It would be waiting for some time!

We headed for Chisinau and were treated to a nice communist looking sign on the M1, and some rather nice scenery.

The roadmap of Moldova - Trebujeni is on the top left circled

A really nice long straight road. I think this is the M2.

Nice communistical style sign.

The Big Moldova Blog – Part 2: The 39 hour haul

So we’re on the road on the continent and thus begins the great 40 hour sleepless haul to Romania where we are promised food and a cold beer – and even the possibility of Wi-Fi. This means traversing Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary and about 5 miles of Romania.

This is a long way.

At around 17:30 we got stuck in a traffic jam on the Brussels ring road and viaduct and then again near Luiz – turns out that they have the same problems that we do, just on the other side of the road! They also have potholes and endless roadworks – another myth dispelled.

Workers in the Road - bad news is obvious in any language - the birdshit stain is on the windscreen and was not and 5 foot lump of poo on the roadsign produce by a 54 foot wide seagull. I hate seagulls anyway though.

I look took over the driving again at around 8pm just before Aachen and the German border. Drove my shift of about 250km to Warzberg. Saw Frankfurt airport and the new KPMG building which was pretty amazing.

The German border - again, no stopping and no stamp

Whilst driving on the autobahn couldn’t get away from a town called Ausfart, every few kilometres (yes kilometres – when in Rome etc) there was an arrow with ‘Ausfart’ printed next to it. Bloody big place Ausfart we thought – but this turned out to be the german word for ‘exit’. Stopped at the worst smelling truck stop where the ground was covered in piss and a couple of inches of shit – owing to a 0.70c charge to use the toilet. Decided that I’d pay the charge and had a nice wee.

Just after 07:00 I continued driving and entered Austria, stopped off for a €7 road tax disc, the lorry had to pay over €200 for something called a go-box- the heavens opened and it rained all the way through Austria – ruining our view of what was probably a really pretty looking country. I was extremely tired and so we switched drivers just after Wein in the afternoon.

The Austrian border. No stopping and no stamp

I had a nap and woke up on the Hungarian border. Stopped off at a really nice looking service station that didn’t stink of piss. Resisted the temptation to buy some rather tasty looking salami and salad sandwiches – paid 0.50c for the toilet -it seems that they’re getting cheaper after peaking in Austria. The quality was outstanding, automatic sliding doors, mood lighting, fresh cut flowers and relaxing music. Weird. Turns out that they have Dyson hand dryers in Hungary. Good tech travels far.

Incidentally, when we passed through the Hungarian border the sign said ‘Magyar’ as we were all a bit delirious by this point there was a small debate about exactly what country Magyar might be. My geography skills are pretty reasonable and I know my EU countries and I was damn sure Magyar wasn’t one of them. Turns out of course that Magyar is the Hungarian word for Hungary? I wonder if it annoys them that everyone else calls their country something completely different to its actual name?

The Magyar (aka Hungarian) border. No stopping. No stamp.

The Big Moldova Blog – Part 1: The Journey Out

Day one – Kelvin gave me a lift to Colchester, collected me from the station at 05:33 – worry had only just begun to set in as the prearranged time was 5:30!

Arrived at the BT fleet depot in Colchester at about 6:30. Loaded up the stuff in the back of the van and drove to Witham to pick up the other lorry.

View of the BT depot at a godforsaken hour of the morning

From there I drove the van directly to Dover – made extremely good time arriving at Lord Warden House to collect the export paperwork for the two lorries in an attempt to expedite the boarding process and drove the van straight into a height restrictor over the entrance to a car park – turns out that the van is somewhat taller than my Fiat 500. Customs wouldn’t allow us to collect the export licences so we had to wait for the two other lorries.

I’m sure that the town of Dover is lovely, however the port is a vial place. Messy and disorganised, lots of traffic, and smells funny. Think Mos Eisley Spaceport from Star Wars but a little wetter and you have the idea.

Lord Warden House - The customs office in the Port of Dover

Unfortunately the 7.5 tonne lorry was then subject to a random customs check which delayed the convoy and we missed the 10:30 ferry. As the three vehicles had to use separate customs channels (and the coach was following a day behind) we weren’t able to present the 3 vehicles in context -the articulated lorry carried 35 tonnes of aid, the 2 axle lorry carried the tools and equipment and the van carried personal possessions (tents, water etc) – so any official looking at any one of the vehicles in isolation couldn’t be blamed for thinking their contents a little odd. This would haunt us at the Moldovan border in 3 days time!

There was then a problem with the van’s ferry ticket – as it was booked as a tourist vehicle and not freight it couldn’t be easily transferred onto a later ferry. Then we found out that the DKV card (like a fuel card for buying travel related stuff – kindly provided by BT who meet the charities transport costs) was incorrectly restricted to fuel and tolls only. Rob paid over £400 in ferry charges on his own credit card and we got on the 12:40 ferry – with only 10 minutes to spare.

Got into the Routemaster Lounge on the ferry so no screaming kids (reserved for commercial drivers only) and free drinks! Bought the most expensive batteries known to man (£7.99 for 4AA) because my rechargeable camera batteries mysteriously became discharged.

The cars are on the wrong side of the road. This feels very wrong. Signs to Dunkerque, Lille, Arras (went there on a school trip) and Paris.

I then got a chance to do my first driving on the wrong side of the road – several port roads and a customs booth and then a whole bunch of bastard anticlockwise roundabouts to a service station and my shift was over. At the time of writing have just entered Oostend in Belgium.

The Belgian border, the Schengen Agreement means that I can cross this and every other border without even slowing down. No stamps though.

The Big Moldova Blog

So strictly, and indeed not so strictly speaking, the following series of posts have nothing to do with design whatsoever, however this blog seems like a decent place to stick my thoughts and feelings regarding my recently charity trip to Moldova.

Stick around for an interesting story…..coming soon.