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I've been in Bulgaria for the past couple of days, for a project meeting for my EU project. Generally pleasant although not entirely eventful trip out; rather than take the Air France to CDG from Southampton, I decided to travel up to Heathrow and take Austrian Airlines via Vienna. This was partly because of my experience travelling to Luxembourg via Paris CDG a couple of months ago; the Southampton flight now arrives at and leaves from the loathsome terminal 2E (reopened after the ceiling collapse a few years ago) rather than the nicer 2F. Moreover, CDG managed to lose my hold luggage on the outbound flight, which was a bit of a pain.

Anyway, it turns out that the fastest way to get from Southampton to Heathrow (bar a taxi) is the National Express service that calls at the university. All well and good, arrived at LHR with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, the weather in London on Wednesday was dreadful, and my outgoing flight was delayed by 46 minutes, which meant I missed my (35 minute) connection in Vienna. This is just one of those things; Vienna is a well-designed airport, and they guarantee transits as short as 25 minutes, so I would have otherwise been fine. As it was, getting the later flight from VIE to Sofia was fortuitous, because it meant I had less time to wait for my lift at the far end. Austrian Airlines were also pretty good, and I could be persuaded to travel with them in future.

The meeting was not in Sofia, for which I am extremely thankful; daytime temperatures in the latter half of the week were peaking at about 35C, which is Too Hot. We were up in the mountain resort of Borovets, which was about ten degrees cooler. Not much to say about Borovets, sadly; it's an off-season ski resort which seems to cater heavily to Britons buying second homes (a datapoint: consider a two floor building containing: a one bedroom flat, a three bedroom maisonette, two retail units, one storage unit and a large basement. Total combined floor area of about 500m^2, located 6km from Borovets. The price? £75k).

My problems really began when I got off the plane in LHR on the return journey. I purposely haven't used National Express in the past fifteen years. My last experience was travelling down from Coventry to Exeter in 1991 for a weekend with [livejournal.com profile] martine_uk; a five hour journey ended up taking nine hours due to missing coaches and a complete disinterest in customer service on the part of National Express. Sadly, this time was little different.

I'd booked on the 1945 to Southampton, which didn't show up. Actually, that's not quite true; it arrived at 1930 and left immediately without picking passengers up. The dispatch staff in the bus terminal didn't know that it had been in, so there hadn't been an announcement in the waiting room on on the departure boards to say which stand it was arriving at. By the time we'd managed to get any member of staff to take an interest, the 2045 had arrived. I wasn't allowed to get on this because I'd booked for the missing 1945. I could, however, rebook for the 2130 bus. Actually, that turned out to be the 2145 bus; the staff were completely ignorant of the timetable. The 2145 bus was running 25 minutes late. At 2210, a bus for Southampton pulled onto the right stand. I wasn't allowed to get on that bus because that was actually the 2210 bus running on time, and I'd be rebooked on the late-running 2145. The delayed 2145 turned up at about 2215.

They finally deigned to get us a cup of tea at 2200. My requests to talk to a supervisor were ignored. They weren't prepared to offer us any other form of transportation. I finally got to Southampton at 2355; a 100 minute journey took closer to 250 minutes.

Never again am I travelling by National Express.

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It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegonethe Gark household.

Actually, that's a lie. Got back from Luxembourg on Tuesday night, fortunately with my luggage this time (made sure that I was checked in for both legs, and that my luggage was marked as priority). Also, to those folk who suggested that I carry everything as hand luggage, I checked the maximum size for carry-on on the LUX->CDG leg, and it was barely large enough for my not-overly-big laptop bag.

As it turns out, losing my luggage was a blessing in disguise. My case turned up while I was at Monday's meeting, so I had clean clothes for Tuesday. Lux Air gave me a nifty overnight bag with such practised ease that I suspect that lost luggage at CDG is commonplace. The bag had pretty much everything you'd need if you'd lost your luggage: shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shaving cream, deodorant, eau de toilette, razor, hairbrush, cotton buds, cotton wool pads, sanitary towels, spare socks, a t-shirt, laundry powder and an LED keyring. My soon-to-be-departed colleague gave me a bit of a ribbing, and pointed out that he travels light with only carry-on, containing a fresh shirt and clean underwear, the necessary toiletries, and his laptop. Of course, he wasn't laughing quite as heartily when he managed to throw a glass of red wine down his only trousers the night before the formal review. Fortunately, due to my foresight in losing my luggage, I had a convenient sachet of laundry powder...

Realised too late that the terminal at CDG that I like is 2F, not 2E (which is hateful), and that the SOU->CDG flights now go into 2E. I may need to rethink my preferred flights from Southampton, especially since the catering in 2E is abysmal (€3 for a 250ml bottle of water and €6,70 for a sandwich is extortionate, even by airport prices).

Wednesday night was out for drinkies and a rather good Keralan curry with [livejournal.com profile] elseware and ex-workmate Jon., who now lives in Bristol. Thursday night saw a flying visit from Neil (who we're seeing quite regularly now that he works in ECS, even if he still lives in Edinburgh), who left us a rather nice-looking bottle of a 14yo single malt from Scapa - I never knew that Scapa had a distillery.

Friday was rather more sombre; Adam Rutherford, one of our first year computer science undergraduates, died suddenly this week, and I attended the funeral with my course leader hat on. Good turn-out from the students which rather overwhelmed his family, who I think were worried that he didn't have any friends at uni (he did - lots of them). Very touching eulogy from his elder sister Claire, also a student at Southampton, and a message from the SOWN folk.

Today was supposed to be productive, but the [livejournal.com profile] garklet is down with a stomach bug. Still cheery, except for the bit when he toddled into the kitchen and threw up over my shoes. Hopefully he'll be able to keep some food down today, but it looks likely that we'll have to juggle childcare on Monday rather than send him into the nursery.

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The kick-off meeting for one of the European projects that I'm involved with is going to be in Sofia next month (23rd-24th March, for [livejournal.com profile] ias's benefit). [livejournal.com profile] ias and I are planning to stretch my visit into a short break for both of us, since we haven't had a proper holiday for a while.

Being a very well-travelled bunch of people, I'm sure that some of you have been to Bulgaria before, and being an opinionated bunch, I'm sure you'll have suggestions too. What should be on our must-see list, and what should we steer well clear of?

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Nick Gibbins

August 2010

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