A Green Day in Amsterdam

“Ah, tea time for you?”

The man behind the counter of Paradox, a very well recommended coffee shop in Amsterdam, spoke to my girlfriend from his lofty height as she chose from a pile of exotic teabags. He must have been about 6′ 10″. Black hair spewed from his head and was caught up in a scraggly ponytail. A bulging belly was ill-hidden behind a loose, grey T-shirt with something oddly phallic printed on it. Clearly a friendly chap, and with no qualms over selling one of several potent space cakes to two clueless tourists, “Tea Time For You” man helped make the whole experience memorable.

View of Westerkerk and canal

And what an experience.

From the outside, Paradox is partially obscured by a thick layer of creeper. It finds itself tucked away down Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat, seconds from the bustle of the city’s north-westerly quarter. In our haste and with swimmy vision from a semi-liquid lunch, my girlfriend and I – both with a bike between our legs – peddled the warren of back alleys and dead ends for ten minutes before realising that Paradox had been under our noses the whole time. An excited, “there it is!” from my better half ended our search; we parked up and nervously wandered over.

“You first.” She ushered me towards the door. The building’s navy-fronted framework displayed the shop’s name in quickly-written, graffiti-ish letters. Someone walked out as we walked in.

CanalsCrossing the threshold was like stepping into a room filled with cotton wool. The thick air, green and hazy, gave us a warm hug. We received stares from patrons. Not unfriendly. Unfamiliar. In one corner, a man sat on his own with a newspaper spread across the table, pipe in hand. In the middle, two younger guys were chatting in Dutch. In the other corner, a man and his girlfriend.

At the counter (it was kind of a counter and a bar at the same time), the friendly giant with the dodgy T-shirt. Three elderly chaps sat on stools smoking and laughing. We approached hesitantly.

IMG_2597Before we arrived in Amsterdam we’d heard rumours that coffee shops weren’t allowed to serve foreigners. With this in mind, I braced for a shameful rejection and jeers from the locals. Not the case. Our eyes fell on a plate of space cakes covered with a glass cloche. They were sprinkled with icing sugar, wrapped in cling film, and each displayed a note describing the effects, recommended dosage, and the amount of weed in each €6 slice: 1.25g.

“You’re only small; just have about a quarter” my girlfriend was told. We had half each.

We were told to wait two hours before the effects kicked in. It was 3:30pm when the last nibble past our lips and we headed off. The missus had already had two giggle fits in the space of fifteen minutes. I wasn’t feeling a thing.

IMG_2604The ride back to the hotel was fun. We were going out for dinner that night but needed to get back to hand our bikes in at reception. The small matter of having spent an hour in Paradox was yet to be dealt with.

We spent the entire bike ride giggling like schoolchildren with me dinging my bell unnecessarily loud and often at no one and everyone. I hate to think what the people walking and jogging round Vondelpark thought of us. We raced, weaving in and out of dog walkers and other cyclists, shouting and, basically, living up to the ‘Brits abroad’ stereotype.


By half past five, precisely two hours after we’d left Paradox, my eyelids felt like someone was hanging onto them and my vision was lagging when I turned my head. The missus could barely breathe for laughing at the merest thing. I could’ve handed her a cardboard box and she’d have been in stitches.

Needless to say, dinner and subsequent cocktails flashed past in a sea of giggles, rocking back and fourth in our seats, lots of delicious food, and ended with a couple of free tram rides – go figure! Amsterdam, we love you. And we’re coming back for more.


The Jingle Bell Jog 2012

“And how much are you going to donate?”

“I don’t know. A tenner?” I offered the woman filling out the form allowing me to collect my Santa costume. I was only saying that, though. I’d already paid £15 for the oversized piece of red felt with cotton-wool trim.

Together with tens of other Santas, my group and I suited up in a pub decked out to the eyeballs in gold fairy lights and a real fire blazing at the far end. We loitered for a bit, joked about how strands of our strap-on Santa beards caught like spinach between our teeth, and made our way out front in time for the warm-up where hundreds more Santas had gathered for the St. Albans 5k Jingle Bell Jog.

Five Santas ready to race

The warm-up was really a set of simple dance moves performed by some nobody on a small stage. Mariah Carey’s “All I want For Christmas Is You” bounced out of the speakers and we flung our arms up, slid to the left and right, clapped, marched, and jumped in time to the tune for a couple of minutes before setting off. I’ve had better warm ups on the toilet.

Seconds later the streets were overrun with short, tall, fat, thin, manly, girly Santas, beards flailing like scarves in the wintry breeze and Santa hats bobbing with every footstep.

I was going okay for about one-and-a-half-kilometres; the start was downhill and all the traffic was honking and hooting encouragement (or so I like to think). Then the backside of my trousers started to sag.

At first this wasn’t really an issue because I’d safety-pinned the front of them to my T-shirt and Santa jacket so, ultimately, they weren’t going anywhere. But eventually I felt like (and probably resembled) Clucky from Disney’s “Robin Hood”, the way she’s constantly clutching her habit to stop it from slipping. I feel your pain, Clucky, you poor, formidable chicken.

Yep, it's real!

Having said that, the rest of the race flew by without fault. I was chasing the leading pack pretty much the whole way as smaller, more light-footed people skipped away from the off. One girl tried to clinch me at the end but the afterburners kicked in on the final straight to leave her a few feet behind. I grabbed my medal from an outstretched volunteer’s hand and stood waiting for the others. Jess Ennis and Mo Farrah who? I say. They haven’t got a patch on my medal.

I can’t say the same about the Santa suit, though. Mine ended up in a nearby bin. A gaping hole in the “crotchal region” – which happened getting dressed – had developed to reveal leg flesh and under-garmentary; safe to say I’d never wear it again.

Seven Years Later, Single Again, and it’s Christmas!

Winter, and Christmas is on the horizon. The temperature’s plummeted, frost sugar coats the morning, and rumours of snow float around like high-school gossip. All a bit cliché, right? Pretty much, but there’s a twist: for the first time since 2005 I’m celebrating Christmas on my own.Snowy farm fieldsAnd what a relief! The bank balance is well within a reasonable amount and my festive shopping list has been severely reduced. No more hunting round WH Smiths for an overpriced piece of cardboard designed to express love and jubilation. There’s about £3.50 saved already. I can buy myself an extra pint with that!

Parkland pathwaysFrantic phone calls to a girlfriend’s friends and family are merely a ghost of Christmas past; the only calls I’ll be making are to make sure I’m heading to the right imbibing establishment, or to phone for a lift home.

This year all the hallmarks of a Christmas round my house will be there: a chaotic morning on the 25th broken up solely by croissants, cream cheese, smoked salmon, and champagne; family descending on the property just before lunch; wrapping paper piled up around the living room; and my dad checking if the turkey’s cooked properly, the oven’s on at the right temperature, asking why the carrots are ‘boiling their heads off’, and demanding spoonful on spoonful of sprouts.

Parkland pathways2Can’t ignore a bracing jaunt in the snow if the rumours are true, though. With gorgeous scenery on my doorstep, made all the more alluring after a heavy snowfall, walking round the fields and footpaths is a classic Christmas treat (even if last year the bucolic romp was replaced by urban creeping, drinks in hand, searching for houses to ring the doorbell and run away from…).

My Beef With Today’s Earphones

There are several things I can’t live without on a daily basis. Music is one of them. It’s either iTunes, my PS3, or my iPod dock playing something folky/rocky/metal-y/classical-y in the background. Failing that, a set of earphones is never out of reach.

There are three reasons why I choose in-ear earphones over any other sort:

  • I look like an idiot with over-ear headphones
  • Wrap-around earphones are painful
  • In-ear earphones are subtle and easily portable

But this keeps befalling every set I’ve purchased in the last couple of years:

I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Maybe I’ve just been making poor choices. When I saw these JVCs on Amazon, read the reviews (of which there are hundreds of 5-star rated), I was pretty much sold.

Contrary to all the hype, the JVC Extreme Explosives were disappointing from the off. Wearing them makes you look like you’re playing a joke with the breadsticks at a restaurant. Using them in bed? Don’t lie on your side if you want to keep them in place. Oh and don’t even think about turning your head to cross the road; one of them’s guaranteed to slip out.

But aside from all that, the fact the inner wires become exposed leading to the eventual death of one or both earbuds, it’s as irritating as it is consistent. Maybe it’s the way I wrap them around my iPod when I’m done listening. I plug them in and out of various ports, maybe that’s it. I might be pulling on that plasticy casing that holds the jack in place too hard. But these reasons should all have been accounted for in the R&D production process, for god’s sake.

It’s obviously too much for me to expect these things to last longer than twelve months. Clearly they’re not meant to, especially when a pair of £90 Bose and some £40 Sennheisers suffer the same fate as my latest JVCs,

Say Hello To My Little Friend: Part II

I’ve written before about the start of a fantastical dagger collection that I’ve undertaken. Well that collection’s grown by one. Meet “Pitch Black”, the second of my swirly-shaped knives to form up rank on my windowsill (it’s the only feasible place to keep them, all right? That, and it wards off burglars because I face the street…).

As the name suggests, this dagger’s as black as night. I keep it well sharpened too, you know, just in case. But, besides its irresistible allure and obvious ability to slay any beast that stands in my way, the gosh-darned blighter’s about as comfortable to grip as a nail board for a skiing pole!

Unlike my other beloved dragon-forged slasher, Pitch Black definitely belongs on the mantlepiece. There’s no defined hilt and, god forbid, if it was your only available resource for disposing of an advancing foe, you’d do your stabby hand in quicker than you would the offender thanks to the clumsily-designed blade shaft. As menacing as this futuristic shank looks, it wouldn’t do you much use in a street fight, unless you were wearing chainmail gloves.

Pitch Black was also purchased from Barringtons Swords, but is recently out of stock.

10 Reasons I Want to Quit Reddit But Can’t

For the uninitiated, Reddit is a forum populated by a community of hundreds of thousands. Reddit is a place where people post stuff. Anything. Pictures, videos, questions, observations. For me and most, it’s a time-void. I can spend hours on Reddit, and do so regularly. It’s become an addiction just like Facebook did, but I managed to kick that habit months ago. Maybe it’s time to do the same with Reddit. Here’s why I can’t:

  1. The pleasure of seeing page after page of blue links: stuff you haven’t looked at yet displays a blue hyperlink. They’re purple if you’ve clicked them already.
  2. Discussions: okay so they’re not quite as prominent as they were back in the mid-00s when Reddit was relatively unheard of. But you can come across some pretty heated and entertaining thread arguments.
  3. Where Did The Soda Go
  4. This guy: something of a Reddit celebrity, Shitty Watercolour pops up in comment threads and produces a Quentin Blake-esque watercolour painting of the scenario in question. He once did a 12-hour watercolour painting marathon for charity.
  5. Talking points: I’ve a couple friends who’re also ‘Redditors’. Conversations pretty much revolve around Reddit content, and often start with, “So did you see that thing on-” “Yep!”
  6. I’ve actually learned a lot from Reddit thanks to subreddits like explainlikeimfive and TIL.
  7. You can become involved with popular internet trends.
  8. Someone might send you pizza.
  9. Whether they’re true or not, there are some pretty juicy stories out there.
  10. The karma (just kidding).

Say Hello To My Little Friend: Part I

Until last year I’d never owned a weapon before. Okay, my brother’s air rifle sits in a cupboard gathering dust, complete with a few hundred pellets and stacks of paper targets. But – alas – it was never mine.

This changed the day a man knocked at the door and handed me a long, heavily wrapped parcel about the size of a two-by-four. What now takes pride and place on my windowsill was my first of two fantasy daggers. Think of me what you will, but it’s beautiful; sleek curves, sharp edges, the dragon’s head handle design, a six inch stainless steel blade. Holding it feels like restoring part of my arm back to normal.

“But that’s a dangerous weapon”, my dad incredulously exclaimed when he first saw it. I like to think of it more of an ornamental work of art; the start of a collection to satisfy my fascination. One day I’d like to have an armoury behind a hidden door in the wall of my basement.

In case you’re wondering, I purchased this product from Barringtons Swords.