Gerry’s Diary 173: The land of fire and ice and an electricity bill (17th June, 2016)
Hi, this is Gerry and this is my Diary for Friday 17th June 2016. We’ve just had nearly two weeks of really hot, sunny weather. Better weather than we had all summer last year. But I think that you’ve not been so lucky in Switzerland. And the weather wasn’t so good on my annual trip with my friends, Reinhardt and Luciano. Last year we went to Romania, if you remember. This year we went to the north, and I’m going to tell you a bit about this trip. After that, there’s a story about my daughter and her electricity bill .
My pub quiz question last time was about the opera house in Palermo. I asked about a very famous movie scene which was filmed there. The answer was The Godfather Part III, with Al Pacino. Congratulations to Armin on Twitter, to Käthi, Sister Raphaela, Dani and Corinne who used the website and to Tobias (or Tobias in English) who wrote an email. You all got the right answer. Thanks for your messages. I learnt that Dani is a biker. He takes part in a sport called Supermoto where special motorbikes race on three different kinds of surface  – a bit like a triathlon perhaps for motorbikes? I enjoyed looking at this sport on YouTube. Peter, my sound engineer here, was on the Isle of Man last week at the TT races there. That’s road racing. Over 40,000 fans go to watch the racing there and a lot of them bring their bikes to try the roads for themselves.
After my holiday on the island in the sun, Sicily, in April, I had another trip at the end of May. I went to another island. Like Sicily, this island has volcanoes , but it also has glaciers . They call it the land of ice and fire. It’s not as old as Sicily – if we think about human history - but it’s much bigger. For Sicily I packed tee-shirts and sandals. For this other island, I packed my anorak and a woolly hat. So can you guess which island I went to?
It was Iceland, and I went there with my friends Reinhardt and Luciano. Reinhardt wanted to climb the highest mountain there. It’s called Hvannadalshnjúkur, or something like that. It’s difficult to say and difficult to climb. Too difficult for Luciano and me, so Reinhardt invited another friend from Switzerland to climb with him. They had to climb with a guide, and the route went across one of Iceland’s big glaciers. The weather is always a problem for climbers in Iceland. This time the weather wasn’t good, so they couldn’t see anything when they were on the top, but it was good enough for them to climb. While Reinhardt was on the mountain, Luciano and I took the car and had a very good lunch. We ate lobster .
So what did I think of Iceland? Here are some of my impressions. Iceland is an independent country with its own language, and a great literature. One of their writers won the Nobel prize. Björk is a global star of the music world. And their football team qualified for the European Championships this year. But there are only 330,000 people there. That’s smaller than the population of the canton of Lucerne. Nearly half the Icelanders live in Reykjavik, their capital city. That means that the rest of the country is almost empty. There’s one road that goes all round the island. It follows the coast, and there are small villages along the road. The interior of the island is even emptier, and there are no roads for normal cars that cross the middle of the island. All the electricity in Iceland comes either from hydroelectric power (electricity from their rivers) or geothermal power. Iceland is full of hot springs  – boiling water coming out of the ground. The natural beauty of the island, the hot springs, the volcanoes, the glaciers, the seabirds, the whales  and so on all make Iceland very popular with tourists. We met people from all over the world. Tourism is now a bigger industry than fishing for Iceland. And the people of Iceland are very friendly and welcoming.
We had a good week there – even if the weather was cold, wet and windy most days. But the funny thing was that we could never find our hotel. We spent two nights in Reykjavik, and we couldn’t find our hotel. That was because of the traffic system – we couldn’t find the way by car into the street that we needed. Then Reinhardt didn’t remember the number of the house we wanted and the sign  with the name of the hotel was very small. After that we had a reservation for a hotel on the south coast near the big mountain. We had the name of the town and the name of the hotel. The town had about six buildings – two of the buildings were hotels, but not our hotel. We asked. “Oh, yes,” they said. “Your hotel is 35 kilometers from here – just down the road .” In Iceland, it seems, a very small town can be a very large area. Then our last hotel was north of Reykjavik. And this was the worst to find. Everything went wrong. Luciano had booked this hotel, but he forgot the exact name of the place. So first of all, we went to a small village, but the wrong one. Then Reinhardt checked it on Google maps on his phone. Our hotel, said Google, was 50 kilometers away. Reinhardt was driving and I had a road map, so Reinhardt showed me his phone. I checked it with my map, but Reinhardt said: “I know where it is” - but he was wrong. And my problem was that when I looked at his phone I looked at the map upside down . I confused the location  of the hotel with our location. So I couldn’t understand where Reinhardt wanted to go. We drove for an hour and a half before we found the right road, and then we drove right past the hotel because it had no name on it. Hopeless!
Here’s a little story about my daughter and a nasty shock. One morning she opened a letter from her electricity company. In the letter she read the following: “We’re going to increase your quarterly  standing order  from £40 to £250.” In Britain, as in Switzerland, most people pay a fixed amount of money during the year and then, at the end of the year, either you have to pay the electricity company a bit more or they have to pay you. In this case my daughter was paying £40 four times a year, every three months in other words, but for the next 12 months the electricity company wanted £250 – that more than six times more. That was bad, but then she continued to read the letter and it said: “And you also owe  us £18,000.” So normally she had to pay about £160 per year for her power, but last year it seems she had used an extra £18,000 pounds worth of electricity. “Wow,” she thought. “My children are very expensive!” Because that was the only difference between last year and this year.
Now before I continue with the story, let me give you the English words for how electricity is measured. We have to pay for units  of electricity, and the unit is a kilowatt hour. Sometimes daytime electricity is more expensive than night-time electricity, but every house has a meter  which shows you how much electricity you have used. The electricity company has people who come and read the meter . Sometimes the company estimates  how much electricity they think you’ve used, but sometimes you can also read the meter yourself. You write down the number and send it to the electricity company. In the spring last year, the electricity company came to read my daughter’s meter. Then in the autumn, my daughter read it. And then this spring the electricity company came again.
Now, on with the story. My daughter phoned the company and explained the situation. “Well,” the woman said, “that’s a very high bill. Is your house very big?” “No, it’s very small,” my daughter said, “it’s a small, three-bedroomed terraced house .” So the woman from the electricity company checked everything. “Did you read the meter last year?” she asked. “Yes, I read it in the autumn,” my daughter answered. “Ah, I think I can see what happened,” said the woman. “Spring last year, your reading  was …” And she read out  a six-digit number  beginning with an 8, for example 865432. “Then in the autumn your reading was …” and she read out a number beginning with a 9. “Then this spring,” the woman continued, “your reading was…” and this was another number beginning with 8. The woman explained: “I think that when you read the number in the autumn you read it wrong. Our computer thinks that after the reading in the autumn your meter went to 999999, and then to 000000 and then on to a number beginning with an 8. So you see the computer thinks that you used more than 100,000 extra units this year. But we can correct it. Don’t worry.”
What can we learn from this story? I think we can say that my daughter has two problems. Her first problem is that she’s stressed with her two little children. She tried to read the meter too quickly. And her second problem is that she’s too short. The meter is above the door in her house. She has to stand on a chair to read it, but she’s still too small: she can only see the top half of the numbers, and the top half of an 8 can look the same as the top half of a 9.
Nearly time to go, but first I have to give you your pub quiz question. It’s a question about Iceland. How big is the island of Iceland? I’m going to give you four other European countries and you have to tell me which country is closest in size to Iceland. So which of these countries is more or less as big as Iceland? Is it a) Norway b) Austria c) Portugal or d) Switzerland? You can write to the website www.podclub.ch or you can use Twitter. My Twitter address is @gerrypod. And have you noticed? My colleagues have improved the PodClub app. The Vocabulary Trainer is also easier to use. Go and try it! This is my last Diary before the summer break. In two weeks you can hear the latest stories from Owen in China, and then I’ll be back on August 26th. Until then, I wish you a great summer. Thanks for listening and take care!
 bill: a piece of paper that tells you how much you have to pay for something (In business it’s called an invoice.)
 surface: here: what’s on top of the earth, e.g. sand, concrete, grass, etc.
 volcano: a mountain with fire inside!
 glacier: a river of ice (NB In Britain most people pronounce the “a” as in “hat” but in American English it’s usually pronounced as in “hate”.)
 lobster: a big kind of shellfish (NB In Iceland they call it this, but in fact it’s langouste that they have.)
 spring: a place where water comes out of the ground, for example at the beginning of a river
 whale: a big (usually) animal that lives in the sea
 sign: a piece of wood, etc. with writing or a picture on it to give you information (for example, the name of a building)
 just down the road: a short distance from here
 upside down: the wrong way up, i.e. the top was where the bottom should be
 location: place, where something is (NB a false friend in French!)
 quarterly: every three months, four times a year
 standing order: (British English) an instruction to your bank to pay money every month or year, etc. to somebody else
 to owe (£100): to have a debt (of £100)
 unit: a quantity for measuring
 meter: a machine that measures something, for example how much electricity you have used
 read the meter: here: check to see how much electricity you have used
 to estimate: to calculate (and not to measure)
 terraced house: a house in a row of houses, joined to other houses on both sides
 reading: here: what the person read on the meter
 to read out: to read aloud
 a six-digit number: a number with six other numbers in it, for example 100000.