London 2012

We timed our gap year to end at the start of the Olympics – we wanted to be back in London to enjoy the fun. We landed at Heathrow on the day of the Opening Ceremony. Our plane had been made to wait for about half an hour, so we’d been circling over London and we could see the stadium. What a sight for sore eyes!

I think everyone was slightly apprehensive about the Opening Ceremony, after Beijing’s was so impressive. But even before it properly kicked off, I knew it was going to be wonderful. Some not-very-famous guy in an old t-shirt playing some not-very-famous but great songs, everyone looking relaxed and happy, and people just milling around. There was no milling in Beijing.

Loved the steel Olympic rings, loved Mr Bean, loved Bond and the Queen, loved Tim Berners-Lee helping two teenagers get it on, loved that there were actual NHS patients and staff dancing up a storm (would have been good to see Daniel Radcliffe et al making a personal appearance to defeat Voldemort since they are recognisable worldwide like Bean and Bond), loved Dizzee, loved the Arctic Monkeys, loved the youngsters lighting the flame.  When the theme was youth and inspiring the next generation, why they had to wheel on Paul McCartney I don’t know.  My vote would have been for Florence belting out You’ve Got the Love.  But my favourite bit was still the start; it reminded me of Glastonbury and set the tone for the whole Opening Ceremony and the whole Olympics.

For the first time, the Paralympics has got nearly as much coverage as the Olympics and their opening ceremony was also a show-stopper.  Once the production team had written “Stephen Hawking” and “Orbital” on a flipchart, then they were always going to be onto a winner. Then someone came up with portraying the Higgs Boson through the medium of the umbrella and the whole thing moved to a new level of brilliance.

So we were off to a good start – now to watch as much sport as was humanly possible. This goal was helped by the fact that, having just returned from travelling I am unemployed and therefore it was my privilege, right and duty to be sat on my sofa for twelve hours a day watching sport. Events I’d never watched before and knew nothing about, events where there was no British interest, events where it was just qualifying and there were no medals to be decided – I watched them all and was utterly absorbed by the most unlikely things. Russia v China in the women’s team archery, Sweden v Hungary in the handball – I was on the edge of my seat shouting at the telly for both.

Sometimes I had to prise myself off the sofa to go and watch some live events.

The women’s road race as it passed by my friend Alastair’s house in Leatherhead. I think you can see the eventual winner in third place here.

Para-dressage at Greenwich Park. It was just the qualifying rounds, so no medals won when we were there, but we did see Natasha Baker, who went on to win gold. The dressage horses are so highly-strung that there are special measures in place to help keep them calm. The best one of these is that they are allowed to have another horse standing just outside the arena as moral support. This is called “the Friendly Horse” and I presume it has a particularly mellow vibe. The equestrian venue at Greenwich Park was one of the many venues that I thought really showcased London and made the park and the view across the river look gorgeous. If I had still been on my travels I would have been so homesick watching it on TV from another country.

We lined the route for the men’s marathon. The highlight wasn’t the athletes, but watching three of our friends from parkrun in volunteer mode at one of the water stations.

Goalball in the Copperbox in the Olympic Park. Teams of three blind athletes roll a ball with a bell in to try to score into big goals. The crowd had to be dead silent, which we weren’t very good at. One goal was disallowed because the crowd’s collective intake of breath was too loud for the keepers to hear the bell. Anyone who thinks that the Paralympic Games is the last bastion of sportsmanlike behaviour would have been sorely disappointed watching Turkey running down the clock with three minutes left to go.

Canoeing and kayaking at Eton Dorney – the best seats we had in the whole games, right at the front on the finish line.

Wheelchair basketball at the O2 – in my opinion there are several sports where the Paralympic version is more entertaining than the Olympic and this is the case with basketball. I’ve never had a high opinion of regular basketball as a spectator sport, but wheelchair basketball is much more exciting.

Swimming in the beautiful (will be even more so once they take the wings off) aquatic centre. We were off to a cracking start, with Oliver Hynd taking the gold medal in the men’s 200m medley, and lots of British interest in an evening full of finals. There was a world record or paralympic record virtually every race.

Of course, I had to get some taekwondo tickets and although I was slightly disappointed not to get the evening when Sarah Stevenson and Aaron Cook (as I thought it would be when I applied for the tickets) were fighting, instead we got a little-known teenager called Jade Jones.

Wheelchair rugby aka Murderball in the basketball arena – exciting enough although I don’t like the fact that (a) they have rolling substitutions, which I don’t approve of in any sport and (b) they have “time-outs” to use even though the quarter is only eight minutes long, they use the time-outs whenever they get a bit stuck i.e. if the other team has done a really good job marking them.

So many great moments, but picking a favourite is actually quite easy. I was lucky enough to get tickets for Super Saturday aka the greatest night for British sport ever. The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible. By the time we arrived for the evening session, we already knew that Jessica Ennis was pretty much nailed on for a gold medal in the heptathlon. The fact that she won the 800m and did it in style gave everyone something to scream our heads off for. Meanwhile, the long jump final was going on, with two Brits participating, so we kept looking backward and forward between that and the action on the track. By the time Mo Farah started his 10,000m race, Greg Rutherford was in first place, but with more jumps still to come. As the 10,000m race was coming to a climax, so was the long jump. We didn’t know where to look. A gold medal for Greg Rutherford and we could give our full attention to Mo. With 600m to go he moved into the lead, accompanied by a surge of noise from the crowd. Everyone was screaming at him to hold on and when he crossed the line we were all jumping up and down, kissing each other – it was lunacy. We watched Jessica Ennis receive her gold medal, sang God Save the Queen even though we were losing our voices from all the screaming and went home in a glorious daze, still not quite believing what we’d just seeen.

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Nara

After our few days in Kyoto, we headed out to the nearby town of Nara, which used to be the capital of Japan once upon a time and, after Kyoto, is the second biggest place for Japanese historical monuments.  We’d timed our two days here to coincide with the O-Bon Festival, which is a festival to remember the dead and is celebrated with lights and bonfires.  We arrived late afternoon, and after settling in and getting some dinner, it was getting dark and the festival of lights was well underway and looked really spectacular.  Unfortunately, neither of us are sufficiently adept with the camera to properly capture the spectacularness of it, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.

Nara Park is also home to hundreds of deer, who are far from the shy creatures that we are used to in the UK, and generally mingle with the crowd, pestering people for food and terrorising small children. 

This festival seemed to be like our bonfire night, and certainly didn’t feel sombre.  There were lots of interesting food stalls and we made a mental note not to have any dinner the following night, so that we could try some of the street food. 

The next day, we went out and did more or less the same sights by day.  Nara’s piece de resistance is a properly massive golden Buddha, which is kept inside the “Daibutsu-don” which I thing more or less translates as “Buddha Shed”, which claims to be the largest wooden building in the world, although I seem to remember somewhere in Kyoto making the same claim so I am dubious.  One of the wooden pillars inside has a hole in it which is meant to be the same size as the Buddha’s nostril.  If you can squeeze through you are assured of enlightenment, so the kids all line up to have a go.  Plus, there was one fully-grown (and rather chubby) tourist trying his luck when we were there.  We watched him huff and puff for a few minutes, but later on while we further away we heard a big cheer, so we think he made it. 

We saw all the shrines with their lanterns ready to be lit again that night.

 

We came back at night time and took our pick from the food stalls.  A lot was similar to what we had at home; candyfloss, sausages, chips.  Neither of us fancied octopus tentacle on a stick, so Mr Beet had a sausage and I had a cabbage – egg -bacon fritter thing, which was a bit like bubble and squeak. 

We watched some monks conduct some kind of religious service, then a dignitary of some sort carried a big burning stick over to light a bonfire.  When the moon rose over the hill, that was his cue to light his bonfire, which in turn was the cue for people on the hillside to light a big fire in the shape of the Japanese character meaning “big”. 

Even though there were no fireworks (I am a huge fan of fireworks), Mr Beet and I agreed that this was one of our favourite things in Japan.  It was also our last night in Japan.  The next morning we had to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get the train to Kobe, and then the boat to Shanghai.

Good Grub

I went to a fancy hotel restaurant for a farewell dinner with some friends last night.  They were kind enough to prepare me for the vagaries of international cuisine by putting a tiny caterpillar in my veggies.

I wasn’t overly concerned (I’m sure I eat worse things on a daily basis without realising it) but they were very apologetic and we got free drinks and I got some little presents from the gift shop.

Holiday Haircut

In preparation for my trip, I went to the hairdresser to get my hair chopped to a more manageable length.  It’s still quite long though – just above shoulder length – so nothing drastic.  Obviously I could get my hair cut en route.  There would be a language barrier, but to be honest there’s a bit of a language barrier between me and English-speaking hairdressers.  They always seem to be asking questions I don’t understand, so provided I can master “ummm, well, whatever you think really” in the local language, I’ll be all set.

Hairdresser: “So the first thing we’re going to do is to wash your hair in a softening shampoo.”

Me: “Yeah, it needs a wash because I’ve been swimming in a lake* all day.”

Hairdresser: “………………….Right.”

Once I’d said it, I realised how grim that was.  I tipped generously.

*I’d been doing the open water bit of my scuba qualification.

Greenwich Summer Sessions

Over the past couple of nights I’ve been to see the Divine Comedy, Noisettes and Mark Ronson and the Business International at Greenwich.

I loved the Divine Comedy when I was in university so that was really nostalgic for me and Neil Hannon was charmingly shambolic.

Noisettes were really good at Glastonbury, and very good here – although there was a disappointing lack of climbing on stuff.

Mark Ronson was overall very good, but patchy as it featured a lot of different vocalists, not all of whom I was very keen on.  Lots of lovely tributes to Amy Winehouse as well.  Mr Beet got hit by a drum stick thrown into the crowd at the end.