More technology grunts

I suspect that starting to write in a seething, technology-induced rage is probably not such a good idea. It might, however, be therapeutic and cause my boiling adrenalin to cool off a bit and to discover the silver lining in an otherwise frustratingly black technology-malfunction-induced cloud. I emphasise the technology bit, as malfunction of electronics, especially brand new electronics, especially brand new electronics, that I was really looking forward to playing with and taking on the trail, is about the only generic object instantly capable of accelerating me from a mood of zen calm to Captain Haddock rage.

I suppose the main problem, if I am being forensic about the whole episode, is designing the space between deciding to go and actually setting off, inhumanly short. 10% of the fun of going on an expedition is updating kit and getting around to buying the bits and bobs, that I have been saving up to purchase for the next trip. I have been wandering around outdoor equipment shops over the last two days, working through my list of new and replacement items (and a big thank you to Snow & Rock, Dundrum, who were more than helpful and to the team at Great Outdoors, Chatham St. Dublin,, who although they didn’t have what I was looking for, were, as usual, outstandingly friendly and competent). And very enjoyable it is too. I am getting better at avoiding purchasing stuff that looks really useful in the shop, but which both isn’t actually and takes up valuable space whilst adding unnecessarily to pack weight: the knowledge that every single item is going to have to be personally transported over 500km makes one highly selective on which items to confer that privilege.

However: No jacket, no pair of hiking boots, no water bottle can ever conspire to produce the levels of frustration that a piece of electronic equipment, more specifically the unavoidable software without which even the most mono-functional gadget seems unable to be operated, can. (As an aside – I even have a headlamp that comes with its own unique software program, that needs to be installed and worked through, before I can switch the wretched thing on. I joke not). My largest purchase this time round was an Canon EOS 100 D SLR camera, light as a feather, beautifully crafted to sit in my hand and, according to Nigel at Conns Cameras, easy to operate. I am always slightly trepidous about digital cameras, as in my limited experience, the software required to communicate with them, is fiendishly complex and the distance between a happy snap and embedding said snap in my blog, is a long and arduous one, fraught with booby traps and labyrinthine strings of instructions. I approached the task with all the equanimity I could muster, carefully unwrapped the disks (all four of them), read the instruction manual beforehand (a relatively new and refreshingly positive experience for me) and ensured an uncluttered desk, free of precariously placed tea cups and glasses of water. The installation worked like a treat and I was in the process of patting myself on the back, whilst downloading my test photograph, when the EOS Utility program (without which the transfer of photos from camera to Mac is impossible) informed me that the programm would not work with this operating system. Irritated, but not yet dismayed, I checked back with the manual and was a little surprised to find that the program (which, remember, I had only purchased with the camera this afternoon) was designed to run on OS X versions 6 – 8. My Macbook currently runs on OSX 10.10 (not that this is at all interesting to anyone, other than to highlight the fact, that if I am working on 10.10, you can bet that everybody else in the Apple community stopped working with version 8.0 at least two years ago.) So, this brand new software was unable to function with my infrastructure, despite my having explicitly noted my requirement in the shop. I was still unruffled, because I was sure that there would be an update available on line and given my good mood and general state of equanimity, I was sure that the patch would be quickly located and would not prove to contain such a vast amount of data that our prehistoric internet connection would collapse under the burden of transporting it to my Macbook. Fifteen minutes later my equanimity had gone up in smoke, leaving a raging shell in its place, as after a few well-placed searches of the Canon website(s), it had become more than apparent that – having identified my OS accurately all by itself, the message was returned that there was ‘no update available for this operating system’. So there.

The thought of spending my last day at home before I leave, not at home, but arguing with Nigel at Canns Cameras in the middle of Dublin, is heartbreaking (especially as it is my wedding anniversary and I REALLY have much, much better things to be doing than figuring out which Canon Utility will work with which OSX, a task which would be unbearable on any ordinary day, but which, tomorrow, is beyond words). But that, it would appear, is to be my fate.

My back pack is packed though and weighs in at 11,8kg, a smidgeon under my goal of 12kgs. The bulk of the weight is apportioned to my electronics: Macbook, ridiculously long, heavy cable for Macbook, charger, sundry other cables, adapter and plugs. Without all the techno-guff, I would be weighing in well under 10kgs, which I wouldn’t even notice. I suppose I could ditch it all in favour of an iPad with detachable keyboard, but I don’t really trust that option and publishing this blog and inputting the photos in wordpress on the ipad is a nightmare.

If nobody has read this little rant through to the end, I would not be at all surprised – rants are never very interesting or entertaining. It has, however, produced the hoped-for benefit of taking the edge of my rage, so that I can probably confront Nigel with a pleasant smile and any thoughts of murder as suitable retribution for wasting my precious time, banished into the ether, transported thence by my muse, bless her.

Oggi parleremo italiano

Apart, of course, from reaching Rome in one piece, my secondary objective on this trail, is to take my command of the italian language to somewhere between competent and proficient, from its present state of conscious incompetence. Britta tells me that I am a highly accomplished linguistic bullshitter, in as much as I can quickly master the pronunciation and just enough vocabulary to give the impression of great fluency in the first utterings in most languages. This is usually sufficient to allow me to order a bottle of water or to direct a taxi driver to the hotel, but thereafter we start to move on to pretty thin ice. Thus it is with my italian. Over the years, strapped on to a decent grounding in the classics, I have accumulated a reasonable vocabulary of usable italian, but no grammar, no declinations, no tenses and plenty of potholes, in terms of adjectives and prepositions, for me to fall into.

So yesterday, I decided to dive in at the deep end and phone through to the first hotel en route in Consuma, to at least secure a bed for Sunday night, wielding my best italian, in the hope of impressing both myself and my host.

“Vorrei una camera per la domenica prossima, le quindici maggio, per favore” I sung mellifluously into the telephone.
“Buona sera signore, aspetta una minuta”.

This was followed by an exchange in the background, in which he was checking with her (presumably Signora Hotelliere) on availabilities and rooms and prices and so on. I could hear this exchange quite clearly. Whilst I was only managing to actually recognise about 50% of the words, I still felt reasonably confident that I would master this early skirmish and account myself quite well. Back he came, having satisfied himself on all the necessary data for the conclusion of our converstaion, at which point it all came unstuck: obviously assuming that I was a fluent italian speaker (chalk up 10 points for pronunciation), he launched into a full and voluble explanation of the current situation, taking me completely by surprise, my having expected nothing more than a “Perfetto signore” followed by something which I would probably have recognised as “We are so looking forward to seeing you next week”. As it was, my pigeons were well and truly scattered by the time he drew breath, leaving me with the classic bullshitter’s dilemma (a lesser-known game theory conundrum) of whether to maintain the pretence or collapse my defences and surrender.

Given the fact that having a decent bed at the end of a long day’s hiking is high up on my list of priorities and also, given the fact, that I could not be sure that my host had not told me, that, yes they did have a bed, but it was in an eight bed dormitory which I would be sharing with the hungarian olympic shot-putters team, who were staying for a training session, I felt that the risks of replying with a “Perfetto! Grazie.” were just too high. I meekly switched to english, apologising that my italian had already broached its feeble limits and would he mind continuing in my language. This he did, rubbing salt in my wounded pride by seamlessly conducting the rest of our conversation in flawless english.

This initial skirmish had, at least, the positive effect of spurring me on in my quest to improve my italian language skills. I have now downloaded the “Learn Italian with Paul Noble” audio book on Audible. Paul (we’re all on first name terms here)  informs me that he is now my personal language coach. He has garnered 5 stars in Amazon and many rave reviews from happy students, who have presumably found freedom and their italian voices under his tutelage. My plan is to execute a chapter a day, in the morning whilst walking, which will make for interesting spectacle, as I peregrinate, talking loudly to myself, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Part One, I note, will provide me with “essential vocabulary to use when booking into a hotel”, which I am sure will be very helpful. I may also brush up on a few hungarian phrases such as “stop snoring” (megállítani horkolás, if you must know). Just in case.

Maps, waypoints & Garmin

I can’t quite decide whether I love or hate this part of the preparation and I have, over the last two years, cultivated, what I can best describe as a love-hate relationship with Garmin. I love my Montana 650T GPS navigation device most of all my kit, except perhaps for my trusted, battle-tested Salewa thermos flask. It would, I think, be fair to describe my affinity to technology, as impatient at best and at worst bordering on psychotic aggression. The stuff has to work. And it musn’t be too complicated to operate and it must interact with me on the assumption that I don’t care why it works. Just to give you a few examples of my attitude to technology: I don’t know or care what sort of an engine I have in my car – in fact I don’t even know if it really has one, I just assume that it does. I don’t care whether it runs on petrol or diesel and don’t know the difference anyway (the only way I know with which substance I am supposed to fill it up, is because of a large label on the fuel cap which says “Diesel Only” in red, which leads me to believe, that I am not the only person on the planet with a car who neither knows nor cares); I don’t know what operating system my Mac runs on (how I love my Mac – it never makes me feel like a dwork, because I don’t know these things. That’s why I divorced from Microsoft so many years ago). You get the gist.

With my Garmin, I am not allowed to interact with the same level of detached insousiance, that I habitually bring to the relationship with my electronic slaves. This wretched instrument demands my attention. It insists on my studying its tortuous manuals and has me scurrying into the deepest recesses of YouTube, looking for tutorial videos, fronted hopefully by friendly outdoor types with beards and gentle, midwestern drawls, to guide me through the forest of menues and gorges of options and settings and synchronisation techniques and lead me to believe, if only in my desparation, that other human beings have indeed navigated through the verbiage and the technical terms and actually, eventually, got the damn thing to do what it was supposed to do.

And it is not just the Garmin technology that requires a dedication of study last encountered in my early twenties whilst cramming for exams. The websites Garmin has artfully constructed for our interaction, feel as if they were designed by Escher with help from the people who devised Matrix. I wont bore you with the details, but there are at least three different sites, you need to register with, the sites work differently depending on which your country of origin is (and I need hardly add, that doing anything from Ireland gives any interaction an extra layer of sophistication), the sites don’t work with Google Chrome (but you don’t find that out until you have tried to download, synchronise or otherwise hook up your device, by which time you have wasted another 20 minutes) and woe betide you should dare to want to talk to another human being from support, effectively hoisting your little white flag in surrender. You are presumably routed to the call centre from hell, to which all support calls in the world are eventually dispatched, and there, caught in an endless cycle of oral waterboarding, menu options and genuinely concerned young female voices ensuring me that “an agent will soon be free”.

Unfortunately, it is all worth it in the end, as the little hand-held gadget proves to be worth its weight in gold, once properly loaded up with OS maps, waypoints and route plans, saving hours of time and energy, usually at critical junctions on the trail and allowing for accuracy of up to 5m on a 1:10.000 scale map. Added to which, if you handle the thing properly, it will allow you hours no years, of pleasure after each section, by capturing every footfall, every twist and turn of the journey, so as to form a perfect multi-dimensional record of the whole adventure.

I write all this today, having tried since last Wednesday to purchase (successfully) and to download (horriby unsuccessfully) a high resolution map of middle Italy, upon which to plot and plan my Francis Trail route. I have been nursing a little book which describes the route in detail, along with providing excellent vade mecum-like tips and inspirations for the would-be pilgrim and found, at the back of the book, to my delight, a code coupon to redeem a complete GPS track catalogue of the entire route, replete with waypoints for shops, B&Bs and POI. Downloading those was a doddle and I even managed to import them into my Garmin and have, during the process, discovered a range of new things that my little device can do, but for which I am not yet qualified to fully reap the benefits. At least not until I have slogged my way through another hour or two of tutorials.