So I went away for a week. As usual, work was *chaos* as I left, for some reason, whenever I take time off, things go chaotic at work without enough hours in the day to get everything done...fortunately, no real problems while I was away. I think it's the first time I've gone away and not been phoned by work!
Off to Spain.
Where I wanted to actually be was Bilbao for RetroEuskal 2009 organized by RetroAcción. But it's a real pain to get to Bilbao by air from where I live - you have to leave from Stanstead at some ungodly hour which is basically impossible, unless you stay within a mile of Stanstead airport. So instead, I decided to go to Madrid, and get the train to Bilbao from Madrid... as well as spend a couple of days doing touristy things in Madrid.
Arriving in Madrid, I was instantly befuddled by the metro system. The Metro is actually very good, but the signage is nowhere near as clear as the London Underground (on the Tube, there's complete system maps all over the place, but the Madrid Metro only seems to have them, for the most part, in the station concourses). Also the tickets from the airport are a bit confusing, for reasons I can't fathom there's an extra charge if you get on or off the metro at the airport, an extra euro, and the ticket conditions too were a bit confusing at first. I wasn't the only person confused, a Madrileño couple came up to me and told me they'd bought too many tickets and did I want to buy one of theirs...except at that point I had no idea how many tickets I needed, and what suppliments I needed, nor could I think of how to adequately answer them! A very confused conversation ensued, but eventually there was some mutual understanding, but my first attempts at the Spanish language for real hadn't really got off to a very good start. Oh well.
Finally I managed to get the right ticket, and off I went. Only to find the trains, unlike the London Underground, don't say inside which route they run on, they list about 5 routes, so I wasn't even sure I was on the right train. But once I realised that this was the case, the confusion went away. After a couple of trips, I got to grips with the Metro, and All Was Good (although Nuevos Ministerios station was a bit of a nightmare - a big interchange, but when you get on the big bit in the middle, you have to wander around aimlessly a bit until you finally get within visual range of a sign telling you where you need to go next).
Finally, at Chamartin, I found my hotel (I consulted the GPS on my phone, and then realised the hotel was *right in front of me* after fiddling around for 5 minutes trying to find the hotel's address and put it in the search box... ho hum)
I was determined not to speak English in the hotel, but the receptionist wasn't having any of it.
Me: Buenas tardes, tengo una reserva, aquí están mis detalles... (hand over paper)
Him: Could I see your passport and credit card please?
The hotel was great though. 60 euros for the night and I got a *suite*. I had a living room. I've never had a hotel where I've had a living room before. And a separate sun room thing (a smallish room with a sofa and a big window you could open). Plus a bedroom and large separate bathroom.
First things first. Due to the idiotic liquids rule on airlines, and the high extra charges for checking luggage, all I had was a backpack and no personal hygiene stuff... I discovered the nearest supermarket to Chamartin was 4km or so away, so another foray on the Metro. Then off into the centre of the city to have a look around. I thought La Plaza de España would be a good place to stop for a while, so I got off there, and discovered some live music event going on (a free one, too). So that filled the night. After all that, too tired to make a proper food decision, I decided (disgracefully) a quick stop in Ronnie's Burger Bar (McDonald's) would have to do. I went back to the hotel and watched a really terrible film that was on Telemadrid, about a subway hijacking in New York. On the sofa, in my living room :-)
There shouldn't really be two 7 o'clocks in one day, but I had to get the 8am train to Bilbao, so unfortunately I had to get up, and have my first experience with Renfe, the Spanish train operator. Bizarrely, they X-ray your bags. It's not the huge invasive checks you get at the airport, it was a bit sort of "well, I suppose we better make a token effort that you're not from ETA".
The train itself was quite an interesting beast. The locomotive looked a bit like a duck (and indeed, that's its nickname, the front aerodynamic fairings look like, well, the front of a duck). The coaches were also notably lower than the locomotive. (I'd learn all about Talgo later - more on that in a while). There has been a great deal of investment in the railways in Spain in the last few years, and this was one of the results - the inter-city Alvia service. It's not high speed all the way to Bilbao - it slows down a lot after Valladolid, and gets really quite slow approaching the Basque Country as you end up in more mountainous terrain (the tracks get very curvaceous) - although at the moment a high speed rail line is being built to provide high speed service from Bilbao to Madrid. The high speed part of it is very good - fast and amazingly smooth.
Arriving in Bilbao, one of the guys, Josetxu, from RetroAcción met me at the station. The first thing I noted about Bilbao was how much nicer the temperature was than Madrid. It was just too hot in Madrid, but Bilbao in the shade was only around 20 celcius. We had a wander around town, and went for lunch. My level of Spanish improved notably halfway through the second beer too :-) Also, the people of Bilbao were far easier to understand than those of Madrid - the Madrileños spoke with a sort of very staccato tempo that I just wasn't expecting. It wasn't that they spoke any faster, it was just the way the syllables came out. The people in Bilbao spoke more, well, smoothly. I had expected the difficulties to be the other way around. After lunch, we met up with the rest of RetroAcción at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre (after a little trouble getting in - we needed ideally to get the car around the back of the BEC, but there's this security guard, and she's sort of like the bridge troll of the BEC. She's nicknamed "la matafrikis" (literally, the geek killer) by the organizers... that probably tells you all you need to know. So we couldn't get the car in and had to lug everything around the long way. Oh well.
RetroEuskal itself is held inside an event called Euskal Encounter. This event takes over a cavernous hall in the BEC. It's a LAN party of simply epic proportions. There are 4096 network ports, and as far as I could tell, virtually all of them were occupied. There's just a sea of computers filling this giant hall about twice the size of a football pitch. At night when the lights are turned out, it looks like a city from the air - thousands of rectangular lights stretching off into the distance - the computer displays. Somewhere in the far corner is the RetroEuskal stand, made up of a decent sized exhibition room plus an adjacent area for showing videos/giving talks/workshops etc.
Friday, my date with destiny...
I was to give a talk, on this ethernet card I've made for the Sinclair Spectrum. In Spanish.
Of course I'd prepared, I'd written down what I wanted to say, prepared some video and tested what I wanted to demonstrate. I was gratified to see my DHCP client faced the Euskal Encounter LAN with aplomb, effortlessly obtaining a lease. And then the announcement came, across the tannoy to the whole event that I was giving this talk, and people started showing up... Before I knew it, Albert Valls (who speaks English rather well and said he'd help me with any questions I didn't understand) was introducing me and there I was, on... gulp.
So I just had to go and do it. Of course, when it got to the point of demonstrating stuff, I had my own Bill Gates moment. Stuff that had functioned perfectly half an hour earlier decided to give time out errors. Gah! The fact the audience laughed when I compared it to Bill Gates's blue screen of death moment at least confirmed that my accent wasn't so strong that no one could understand and they'd all been politely nodding all this time. After some frantic prodding of my PowerBook (which happened to be the file server), things started working again, and I could demo things like the file system, and how to write networked programs in ZX BASIC etc. As usual with any talk like this I forgot to say half the things I wanted despite having written it all down, but fortunately people asked the right questions and I got to say them anyway.
After that was over, I could just relax and enjoy the rest of the event :-) I particularly enjoyed trying out all the different consoles and 8 bit systems that were in the gaming area, and also the talk that was given on how to make a MAME cabinet. Other curiosities were the giant game of stop-motion Galaxians (visitors to RetroEuskal could all have a go at moving the ship, or firing, or both, and all the aliens etc. were moved on a large magnetic "screen" by hand then photographed). There was also the 8 bit gaming competition with prizes on offer (a timed game competition, score as many points as you can within a minute on several different games on several different platforms). Somewhere in the corner came drifting the smell of hot flux as a couple of guys seemed to spend endless hours manufacturing RGB cables for consoles and computers. Then I got ambushed by the Basque Country television station and had a little Andy Warhol moment. Yes, I've been on the tv in northern Spain, showing off my Speccy ethernet card. I'm such a geek.
We also ate vast quantities of food. Next time I'll not eat for 3 days before arriving. Good food, too. They really eat well there.
Everyone involved with RetroAcción made me feel very welcome - I had a fantastic time in Bilbao.
So Monday morning - back to Madrid to do touristy stuff.
I spent a lot of time staying in the shade. The temperature wasn't too bad there, a little wind, and not too much humidity (without the parching dryness you get in places like Salt Lake City, which absolutely kills me). First things first - lunch. 10 euros got me a 3 course lunch (!) with a beer, which got me off to a good start. The chicken and chips (tr. US: french fries) turned out to be what looked like half a chicken. I had to walk several miles in the park to burn all that lot off.
The next day, I went to do museums during the heat of the day. First stop, the Telefónica Museum, which sadly seemed to have a really terrible modern art exhibition rather than telephones (I'm sure some people appreciate the work of this guy, but it did absolutely nothing for me). So I headed down to the Museo de Ferrocarriles (railway museum), where I got to see possibly the ugliest electric locomotive ever built, along with probably the best bit of train technology in use today.
I mentioned Talgo earlier. It's an acronym, and it means "Tren articulado ligero Goicoechea Oriol", meaning lightweight articulated train, by Goicoechea Oriol. The fundamental difference between the conventional trains, like we have in Britain, and the Talgo is this. To make a high speed train, what they have done is make the passenger coaches low to give good stability with a low CofG, and lightweight - but not just that, each coach is quite short with an articulation the width of the coach (not just a connecting door). Instead of bogies with two axles at the end of each coach, a single axle is shared by the ends of each coach. Or rather, a single wheel set, there's no axle between the two. Talgo has been in use for a long time - the first revenue service from this type of train was the Talgo II in 1950 - the museum had this as their exhibit. Today, the 330 km/h AVE is a Talgo train, Unlike the modern "Pendolino" trains running in Britain, which are heavy, relatively inefficient, and need a complex gyroscopic tilting mechanism, the modern Talgo trains can tilt in the curves completely passively due to the design of the wheelsets, and is lighter and more efficient. And I never knew this existed.
I also went to the science and technology museum, but while it's interesting, it's fairly small - perhaps as big as just one of the exhibit halls of the London Science Museum.
My Dad had told me that Madrid's a great place to eat fish and he's not wrong. The furthest you can get from the sea in the whole country, and the fish is amazing. I had a very enjoyable meal (albeit a little pricey) in La Plaza Mayor, which is also a great place to people watch.
Wednesday, regrettably, it was time to come home - I wish I could have spent a bit more time there. Although I think I'd probably have to spend a month there to even start to understand people in Madrid!