Sunday, February 28, 2010

Half-term holiday

Last week was the girls' half-term holiday and, given that the weather in England has been a) grey, b) cold and c) rainy, we wanted to take a trip to someplace warmer and sunnier. After doing a bit of research on average temperatures in places like Greece and Spain, we decided to head to a new continent and spend our holiday in Tunisia.

Why Tunisia? The easiest answer was why not? Neither Himself nor I had ever been to Africa, and it was a fairly short plane ride (~3 hrs) direct from London to Tunis. We had a guidebook (love this series) that indicated a bunch of cool stuff, and a culture that was amenable to small kids, so we took the plunge.

We arrived in Tunis on Monday afternoon, and took a quick tour of the city's medina, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also crowded, dirty, loud, colorful, completely confusing and hectic.

We had some fun wandering around in there, went the the obligatory carpet store and bought a rug (Himself is quite good at bargaining - easier when you weren't planning on buying in the first place - and we ended up with a lovely rug for 40% of the inital price), got some little doughnut type things that we called grease bombs for the rest of the day. Our hotel was on the main thoroughfare, so it was easy to get to most things.

The next day we took it easy and went up the the main park in the city, Belvedere Park. We wandered around for a bit, and the girls took advantage of the good weather to gather up some wildflowers.

We then wandered over to the Zoo, where Himself and Boo saw some good animals, and Devil and I sat outside and colored.

The next day we hopped on the local commuter train and went out to Carthage. There was too much to go into in great detail, but here are the highlights:

The Oceanographic Institute.

An incredible spa that was sacked by the Vandals in AD 439. Our own versions of the Vandals played hide-and-seek, which seemed like the perfect activity for such a place.

After the baths, we hit the Roman Amphitheater (still in use!) and then to Byrsa Hill for a brief stop.

The trip back to Tunis was made all the more bearable by the combination of crunchy breadsticks and generic nutella at the train station.

Given the number of pictures already included, and the number left, I think your bandwith will appreciate it if I save the second half of the trip for another post. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympic benefits

Tonight I realized one of the great benefits of living at GMT when the Winter Olympics are at PST:

Figure skating is on at two o'clock in the morning.

Skiing is on at seven o'clock in the evening.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Driving test

We (Himself and I) are getting to experience British bureaucracy in all its glory as we attempt to get UK drivers licenses. UK regulations state that we can only drive on our US licenses for a year from the date we arrived, and since the UK license-getting process can take two years, we're trying to push ahead and get it taken care of.

I had no idea how complicated this was until we started. In October. The first step is to get a provisional license, which involved filling out a form and sending it off with my passport ("Please don't plan to leave the country for 4 weeks after you send in your application...") to Swansea. Thankfully the passports came back quite promptly, to be followed in short order by a provisional license. Which looks a lot like any other license, but means that I have to put a big red L on my car (learner, not loser people) (a requirement we have totally ignored, seeing as we have 40+ years of driving experience between the two of us) (and we have US licenses that are still useful), and I can't drive on the motorway (that's highway to all y'all).

Once you have your provisional license, you can apply for a date to take your theory test. Now, I got my driver's license in 1989, and my memory may be fading a bit, but I'm pretty sure I had to take the test first before I got my permit. In any event, the UK theory test has two parts: 50 multiple choice questions taken from a pool of almost 1000, and a hazard perception test, which requires that you watch 14 video clips from the vantage point of a driver, and click a mouse button to identify developing hazards. You have to get 43 out of 50 right on the multiple choice, and 44 out of 75 possible points on the hazard perception test to pass. Once you've passed, you have two years to take your practical (driving) test.

Two years. Which is because, rumor has it, UK driving tests are second to none for nit-picking, exacting and thoroughly entertaining requirements. For example, if you are stopped on the road, you must put the car in neutral, engage the handbrake and take your foot off of the brake pedal. Ummmm...hunh? The reasoning behind this apparently is that the brake lights might dazzle drivers behind you. My interpretation (in retrospect) while driving around has been "I wonder why they don't have their brakes on?" Most people spend exorbitant amounts of money on driving lessons to be sure they pass their practical. I am thoroughly relieved that The Company will cover the cost of 5 driving lessons, because 10 hours of behind the wheel training runs about £300.

Today was my theory test. I must admit that I had the advantage here: Himself took the theory test a few weeks ago, and I got the benefit of his experience in my preparations. You can go to any newsstand and actually buy a book containing all 963 questions and answers that might be on the theory test. I did. This weekend, I answered every single question. Somewhere around #700 and 10:30 on Sunday night, I decided it would all be much more fun if I came up with my own answers.

You are preparing to turn left on to a side street. An elderly person is already in the crossing. Do you:

A. Sound your horn loudly in case they didn't hear you
B. Inch forward to encourage them to go fast
C. Wait patiently
D. Rev your engine and wave them across

My addition to this was:
E. Mow them down in a crack-induced bloodbath and drive off into the sunset cackling maniacally

Himself had nothing good to say about the hazard perception test, and the directions for said test are not terribly clear. You're supposed to click the left or right mouse button when you see a potential hazard (pedestrians, car approaching from side street, lorry pulling out from a parking space), and click again as the hazard develops. However, they never say whether you need to click on the side of the hazard, or how many clicks you should make per hazard. If you click too many times, you get no points. So let's just say his score did not reflect his actual level of awareness and observation. Having heard about his experience, I was a bit more prepared.

My test was this morning, and I'm enjoying the aftermath because it is the first (and most likely the last) time I've ever done better on anything involving driving or perception of hazards (or anything else except signal transduction cascades maybe). 50 out of 50, 62 out of 75.

Thanks for going first dear!