Sunday, 27 November 2011

Postcards From Venice - Our Feathered Enemies

Dear Reader, 

Whilst wandering around the streets and piazzas of Venice I noticed something interesting about the feathered inhabitants of the city. There were a lot of pigeons and also quite a few seagulls wandering about and generally making a nuisance of themselves. They nearly all had one thing in common. They were fat. 

Venetian Pigeon - Chubby

London Pigeon - The Lighter Variety
Being a regular to visitor to London I get to see a lot of pigeons on my travels. London pigeons are straggly little beasts in comparison to their Venetian counterparts. I wondered why this would be and I think I have an answer: the motor car. London pigeons are constantly being harassed by the motor car. Being rather foolish animals you will often find pigeons wandering about in the road looking for little tidbits of food. If the London pigeon wishes to live a full and rewarding life then he better be able to move quickly to get out of the way of cars. Cars do not stop for pigeons. Well, not in London anyway.

The life of the Venetian pigeon is conducted at a far more relaxed pace. The Venetian pigeon has to avoid the feet of tourists and the occasional over enthusiastic dog but that is about it. For a Venetian pigeon to reach a ripe old age, he really needs to go to the gym.

The slower paced life of the Venetian pigeon has other consequences as well. Not for the pigeons themselves but for the many people who visit Venice, including us. In a previous post I related some of the issues my dear lady wife Smiffy had with flying insects whilst in Thailand. A variation of this behavior was exhibited whilst in Venice. The problem here was that as the pigeons were a little overweight they didn't seem too bothered about flying at high altitude. No, they seemed quite happy to cruise along at tourist head height.

Another problem also manifested itself whilst wandering the narrow Venetian lanes. Pigeons on the ground. When on the ground the Venetian pigeon will attempt to walk (waddle, actually) very slowly out of your way. This evasive maneuver would occasionally put itself in the way of another threat which it hadn't spotted previously. A form of panic then sets in which the pigeon will attempt to escape by taking off, without any great consideration of direction as it is (quite literally) in a bit of a flap.

The consequence of all this is that Smiffys' progress through the streets of Venice was erratic to say the least. There would be backwards walking, walking behind me, stopping, running, diagonal darting and all manner of other tactics to avoid the Venetian pigeon. A soundtrack consisting of screeches, sighs, cries of 'Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee kamikaze bloody thing!', instructions to stop, duck or run would also emanate from my much harassed wife.

Venetian seagulls are also worth mentioning. They are also fat and prone to flying at tourist eye-level. Not only are they fat, they are large, about the same size as an Alsatian. They are also insane. I saw one fly off with a small child whilst her mother was buying an ice cream. Having been liberated of several hundred Euros for the ice cream, she turns to find Penelope gone. This sort of thing is so common in Venice that it didn't even make the papers. By this sort of thing, I mean the kidnap of a small child by a seagull, not the cost of the ice cream. Both incidents would have made front page news in the UK.

It occurs to me that I may have made that last bit up.

Venetian Seagulls Larking About.
Or did I?

More soon Dear Reader. xx

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Postcards From Venice - Bread Basket Politics

Dear Reader,

I have been away, sampling the delights of Venice, former power player in European trade, now a tourist destination unlike any other. This is a truly magical city, characterised by it's waterways, museums, ancient buildings and absence of cars. It is a wonder to behold. I could go on, but I am not a travel writer and this is not a travel blog.

Anyhoo, myself and the dear lady wife Smiffy were sitting down for dinner. It should be noted that we have not researched this restaurant in advance, we have just stumbled in because it is a little chilly and there maybe something on the menu that doesn’t instantly offend Smiffy's delicate palate.

We are seated and wait for the first bizarre inevitability of Venetian dining, the bread basket. An example, (not taken from our own experience) below.

Lovely, Crunchy Bread
A Typical  Venetian Breadbasket.
The breadbasket is a staple of Italian dining. Served with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar suspension for dipping purposes, lovely. The Venetian version is slightly different. Breadbasket arrives, olive oil and balsamic vinegar are present, however not currently combined. So, a DIY job is required, which would be fine if there was a side plate. There is not. What I was actually presented with is presented below.

This is one of my own pictures, sneakily shot whilst none of the staff or patrons were watching, hence the distortion. My “plate” appears to be adorned by something called a Doily, which I only recognise as a weird object draped across the head of the sofa at my long deceased Grandparents. This is an object so obscure to me I have only with the help of Mr Google learned how to spell it. I was not expecting this object to appear in a restaurant thirty years later. The plate itself (apologies again for the photography) is a round metal disc modelled on a shield perhaps wielded by Venetian warriors in old times. It is (mercifully) flat. I have a quandary, is this a side plate? Am I expected to throw olive oil and balsamic vinegar on this thing to create the perfect bread basket experience?

I and my dear wife take the safe option, which is to munch upon some breadsticks. A helpful tip here, THIS IS NOT A SAFE OPTION! We are in a restaurant where about five tables of couples are happily chatting until we start munching breadsticks. They are hard, really hard. They are also very loud. Conversation seems to slow on the tables around us. The room seems to have some clever acoustic qualities as now all that seems to be audible is the sound of us getting through the first mouthfuls of breadstick. MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH MUNCH.

There is another problem. Our MUNCHING attracted the attention of some other diners, specifically, the couple on our right side. They are an elderly couple, which presents no problem in itself. They are French, this also is not the problem. The male of the party has turned to look at us. This is a problem but the main problem is far more specific. I don’t know how to put this, but he has a wandering eye. Not the wandering eye of a pervert, no, this is the wandering eye of the mad. I mean mad in the horror sense of the word. Like Professor Frankenstein’s bulging eyed servant, so fittingly rendered by Marty Feldman in the Mel Brookes classic Young Frankenstein. A picture may help.


Have you ever been placed in a restaurant and realised that, on reflection, a different table, or maybe even a different universe was required? This was that day. However, how do you make this happen?
Waiter arriving for drinks:
  • What would you like to order?
  • Oh a different table please. On a different planet from the freak sat next to me, thanks.
This sounds a little harsh, especially as the issue is about a metre away. There is also another worry. Had I gone through with the brave statement above I would be directly behind Igor, as this was the only table available, that was not already occupied. What if, after moving, we settle in our new table, only to find that Igor has a revolving head, a la The Exorcist and swivels through 180 degrees to stare at us again? I cannot handle this much stress.

We stay where we are feeling uncomfortable. Eventually Igor leaves, the dolies are never explained and the food is eatable (ish).

More soon about eatable food. Any assistance regarding the correct use of Venetian breadbaskets would be greatly appreciated.

More soon dear reader xx

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Why did I go to Ikea, Why? The Sequel

Dear Reader, 

I recently (last post actually) blogged about a visit to Ikea to purchase a sofa and chaise lounge. This post covered the horrors of a visit to Ikea right up to eventually escaping to the car park with your portable purchases stowed and deliveries organised. This should have been the end of the story. Regrettably, that is not the case, hence this second post on the subject.

A timeline is required I feel.

06-11-11:  Purchases made, already been covered previously, I won't go on about this again.

08-11-11: Delivery day. When delivery was arranged it was made clear that the delivery person(s) would be in contact by phone approximately one hour before the delivery was due to arrive. This did not happen. My delivery was first on their run hence it was early. I was on holiday, so I was asleep. A rude awakening by a knock on the door forces me to throw on a motley collection of clothing which was to hand and run to the door. So, clad in a paint covered t-shirt (I have been decorating) and equally paint covered jeans I answer the door.

Packages are transported into my lounge. The first large package is clearly a sofa. Followed by boxes that contains sofa and chaise lounge covers. A long rectangular, but rather skinny package arrives, then nothing. I explain to the driver that this does not look like my complete order. He looks at me in a manner that suggests I am from another planet. Apparently he is not used to such customer facing situations. He waves a delivery note at me, explaining that they have delivered everything on the delivery note. Usefully the Ikea Customer Services number is also on this note.

Before contacting Customer Services we thought it would be a good idea to work out what we had got. The assembly process begins. After much swearing, grunting and incredulous looks at some of the most ridiculous instructions ever written, a sofa appears, fully functional and surprisingly comfortable. 

What remains is a rectangular wooden frame and some cloth. Perhaps this is a minimalist interpretation of a piece of furniture? Well whatever it is, it's time to call Customer Services. To be fair this was less painful than expected, surprisingly few choices were offered on the phone number when dialed, which suggests the number in question had a single purpose which is good. Although initially eighth in the queue I rapidly progressed to a human voice. The human voice assessed that this was a picking error, everything was OK with the original order, but unfortunately all the elements of the order had not been grabbed from the warehouse. The human voice apologised and said the remaining items would be with us on 11-11-11, an auspicious day as the figures attest.

11-11-11:  Another delivery day. On this day I was not awakened by a knock on the door, or a phone call. I am still on holiday and slept in again. I was awakened by a hungry cat licking my nose. Time passes...

At approximately 2pm I am phoned by Ikea Customer Services again. The lady sounded a little confused. "Have I phoned you already?". "Erm, no" I reply. I am now a little off guard. I am speculating she may have been to the pub at lunchtime. "I've had so much going on I couldn't remember if I had phoned you or not.". Yep, definitely been to the pub. "Your delivery will not be arriving until tomorrow." Ah.

Apparently 11-11-11 is not an auspicious day for us after all. The doomsayers will be devastated.

12-11-11: Yet another delivery day. This time a new phenomenon is observed - the prior to delivery phone call. Only because they are lost. Never mind, at least they are coming. Within forty five minutes come they do. Complete with packages. The packages look suspiciously similar to the packages delivered the first time round. On closer inspection they are PRECISELY the same stock items delivered the first time round. Thankfully there was a shortage of blunt instruments and shotguns in the near vicinity. I merely sent the minions of Ikea on their way with their packages.

Back to Customer Services. The dear lady wife Smiffy had to step in at this point. I was a little emotional . So I went into the garden and spent a little bit of quality time with an Ikea catalogue and a crossbow. Meanwhile Smiffy dealt with the second call. Apparently getting in contact was a little bit more painful than my first experience. A queue was encountered, which Smiffy began at 20th. This news was delivered quietly, in a measured voice. Hold music, in the interim, was delivered at a volume that made the house shake. That music was Abba, Dancing Queen. 20 seconds of DANCING QUEEN, followed by "you are 20th in the queue". 20 seconds of DANCING QUEEN followed by followed by "you are 19th in the queue". Then the music changed. 20 seconds of WATERLOO followed by followed by "you are 19th in the queue". Oh you appear to be stuck in a Swedish music/on-hold hell. But then a ray of hope...  20 seconds of WATERLOO followed by followed by "you are 12th in the queue". Eventually, at some point during MAMMA MIA Smiffy gets to speak to someone. A transcript is required...
  • IK: Hello, Ikea Cutsomer Services.
  • S: Hello. I had a piece of furniture delivered, it was not complete. We phoned your good selves, who told us the error was clear, a warehouse error. 
  • IK: Oh, ohhhhh, that is very unfortunate.
  • S: Yes it is.
  • IK: Erm.
  • S: So what are you going to do about it?
  • IK: Can I put you on hold for a moment. I just need to double check this situation.
  • IK: Hello, Mrs Smiffy, are you still there?
  • S: Yes
  • IK: OK, I see what has happened here. You haven't actually bought the piece of furniture that you were expecting to be delivered. That is why it was not delivered.
  • S:. WHAT?
  • IK: Yes, I am afraid that appears to be the case. If you want this piece of furniture then the cost will be xxx
  • S: I wanted it, I ordered it, I was told I would get it, I still want it, I will pay for it.
  • IK: Great! We can certainly arrange this for you. 
  • S: When?
  • IK: Ooooh, not for ages. We can have someone call you at some point next week and take payment. Then we need to organise delivery.
  • S: Oh dear god, NO! Give me the product code and I will send my husband to you.
  • IK: There is the small matter of the piece of frame you have, which is of no use to you and should never have been delivered. When will you be returning this?
  • S: Never.
  • IK: Right. Shall we pick that up then when we are next with you?
  • S: I would advise that. It's the only way you are ever going to get it back. By the way, we threw away the box, instructions and all the packaging and put the thing together. I even peeled off the un-removable price labels. I hope that doesn't affect my consumer rights?
  • IK: Not at all Mrs Smiffy. We value your custom and hope we have provided a quality purchasing experience.
  • S: *hollow crazed laugh*
Didn't think I would be back so soon.
So after all that I return to IKEA to make the amended purchase and sort out the chaos that has occurred, thinking this should be straight-forward. How wrong could I be. First I return to the Sofa department to explain the situation. They, like the delivery people before them, look at me like I was from another planet.  At least five members of this team have different and conflicting views as to what the solution to this conundrum should be. There is much hammering of computer screens, head-scratching, wringing of hands and general confusion. Eventually a consensus is reached, which can be summarised thus: "We don't know, go to Customer Services". 

My heart sinks, as Customer Services is also Customer Returns. Some people never come back from Customer Returns. I am sure I saw Lord Lucan there once.   

Missing, presumed in Ikea.
I do not have three days drinking water and energy snacks. I do not have a torch, a blanket or a tent, prerequisites for such an ordeal.  I go there anyway, with heavy heart to begin what could be a very long wait. Upon arrival, much as you would at the deli counter at your local supermarket, you collect a ticket. Mine says 69, they have just called 59, this can't be so bad can it? I spot a drinks machine, thinking at least I could get some water so I head over. It won't take my money. If there is such a thing as karma I must have annoyed a Swedish furniture maker in a previous life. I return to my seat to wait. A couple of life-times elapse. My number is called! Deep breath, here we go.

I relate again my sorry tale, again I am met with the alien from another planet look. Do they teach that look in staff training? Computer keyboards are hammered again, heads are scratched again. After some deliberation a member of the sofa department is summoned. More wringing of hands and puzzled looks.

Having seen what is going on with the computer I am beginning to have some sympathy with the staff in question. My stock item is not a single thing, it is an umbrella name for a line items of which there are 557 of in total. Sofas, chairs, chaise lounges, cushions, cushion covers, sofa covers, bizarre wooden frames and a small breed of dog all in different colours and fabrics.
Eventually a solution is found, as identified by the previous phone conversation. I have indeed been sold the wrong item. An order for the right item is processed, which I can pick from another warehouse a short distance away from the store. I emerge from the store older and greyer but triumphant.

Hopefully this is the end of the saga.

More soon dear reader xx

PS, whilst searching for images for this post I stumbled across this video, allowing me to tenuously link cats to my post. Hope you don't mind...

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Why did I go to Ikea, Why?

Dear Reader,

I am a tolerant soul, who can generally cope with all that the world has to throw at me and come through smiling. This all changes when I visit Ikea with my good lady wife. Ikea; those purveyors of flat-pack furniture and human misery in equal doses.

Paradise, not.
If you are in a relationship that is under strain and needs a good argument, go to Ikea. You can guarantee that the special atmosphere engineered in this flat-pack furniture emporium well make it happen. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that marriage guidance counsellors recommend a trip to Ikea to get those issues out. I am slightly surprised that rolling pins are not supplied at the front door.

I have, on this visit made some of the worst mistakes that an Ikea visitor can make. I am looking for an item which I may need some assistance/advice with. I am also looking for a bulky item which will need delivering. My last mistake was to visit on a Sunday.

Every Ikea I have visited appears to be modelled on Dante’s seven circles of Hell. There is a slight deviation from the traditional model as you start at the bottom, move to the top and then gradually work your way through a number of tortures before eventually reaching the bottom again. This is how the circles work…
  1. The Car Park, which is huge. You know before you arrive that you will end up purchasing something. Stuff that does not require delivery will need to be transported to your vehicle. This form of transport will be a trolley. If you are lucky only three of the four wheels on this trolley will want to go in different directions all the time. If you are really lucky none of the wheels of the trolley will have an unexplained lump on it which will rattle all of your fragile china on the way back to the car. Because of this you need to park near the exit. Fat fucking chance, unless you want to spend three weeks patrolling the car park. I normally end up in a different time zone and have to adjust my watch as I get closer to shop.
  2. The Showroom. At this point you are at the top of Hell. You gaze longingly at those that are leaving as you ascend through four thousand slowly moving escalators to reach the heights of Hell. It is a nightmare, full of small children who have as yet not realised what they are getting themselves into. They have not picked up on the homicidal vibes emanating from their parents. The exhibits in the showroom appear to be aimed at homeowners who have approximately four cubic inches of space to live in. It is claustrophobic and irritating. I head for the sofa department, where I need some guidance. Guidance from a member of staff is like gold dust. First I need a catalogue, which I need to return to the bottom of the escalators to acquire. Having acquired the catalogue we talk about the sofa which needs delivery. Our guide is deeply unhappy about her lip piercing because she has lost the ball which keeps it together, and we are not entirely convinced that our sofa is more important than that to her. Eventually we leave with a magic piece of paper with a bar code which will allow us to arrange delivery.
  3. The Market Hall (upper level). You cannot escape Ikea without going through the market. At this point you need to acquire one of the aforementioned trolleys. The market is designed in a special way. Head down an aisle and you are guaranteed to be blocked by a couple talking about the relative merits of a specific type of cutlery, or a certain type of light bulb. There are no overtaking points. You find yourself drawn to an area, only to have to reverse out and find another route in. Unless you want to die of old age in pots and pans.
  4. The Market Hall (lower level). Probably the only highlight of my Ikea visit is the descent to the lower market hall level. The trolleys stick to the escalator. This pleases me. At the bottom however is more of the same. An observation about display items is in order. We see a lamp which is quite nice. We wish to add this lamp to our purchases. It has a suitably Swedish name. We search the piles of boxes looking an item called Smorgasbord (or something similar) and come up with nothing. We eventually find the item about four miles away from the display. Bulbs, we say, need bulbs. Head eight nautical miles in the opposite direction and there they are. Anger levels are starting to red line.
  5. The Self-Service Area. Otherwise known as the warehouse. We had spotted a full length mirror which we quite liked. It was located in aisle 43, bay 13. Magically, this location is about as far from humanity as Pluto. When we reach the location we find that the object has grown in size. It is now an object so large, that it will not fit in the car. After a short argument we abandon the purchase, as it would involve finding another trolley and a back injury.
  6. The Tills. There are many aisles of tills but strangely never enough. They are largely manned by ill-mannered cretins who failed the test at McDonalds. There always seems to be an issue when items are scanned. On this occasion there were two. We bought a knife, which required an older member of staff to verify that we were over 21 (flattering but unnecassary). A more thought out test would have been to assess whether the customers where so fucked off by this stage that they might have been a danger to themselves or others. Oh, and you can guarantee that at least one of your items will arrive at the counter without a bar code. Bizarrely, the same item will arrive at the counter with instructions in 294 languages. Clearly this will cause a problem for your pre-pubescent Neanderthal; another ten minutes elapse.
  7. The Home Delivery Area. I am immediately worried because seats are provided, along with vending machines dispensing food and drinks. How hard can this be? Collect a postcode, tell the customer what time it is arriving, get a contact number, job done. Not in Ikea world. We have two people in front of us, both filled with purchases from the Self-Service Area. It took approximately 15 minutes to deal with each. When we eventually arrive I am dying (literally) to know what takes so long. So the issue appears to be a printer which has run out of ink. As a result, the important bits of the delivery note have to be hand-written after the event. Another Neanderthal appears to explain there is nothing that can be done about this. I find this statement interesting, considering that Ikea is located less than a mile from a purveyor of printer cartridges.
There is a worse place though, which I would never visit. Next to the Hell that was the Home Delivery Area lurks a limbo that one may never return from. The Hell that I refer to is the Returns Department. I spent 30 minutes in the Home Delivery Area, which is a long time. In that entire period nobody left the Returns Department. In the unfortunate event of you losing a loved one, before you phone the police, check the Returns Department of your local Ikea. Based on my observations they could be there for days.

So, in summary, Ikea: assisting domestic discord for 25 years.

More soon dear reader.