Travel

Dependence

I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.

I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.

This was mostly fine.  Mostly.

Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery.  As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”

Reader, that was a lie.  What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.

Except that day I couldn’t.

We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off.  What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment.  But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.

(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going.  Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)

So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.

It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end.  I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square.  (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.)  After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s.  (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.)  Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.

But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take.  When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me.  I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness.  Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.

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Ports

When my imagination first gets captured, when I get that first spark of an idea that there’s a story here I want to tell, it almost always has to do with setting.  Characters and plot follow on later.

There’s a lot of things that can fascinate me about a setting.  Social class, nationalities, history (particularly its influence on the present), politics and diplomacy, custom and tradition, criminal underworlds.  Usually what I find myself wanting to explore is the dichotomy all these factors create between how the rules of how things should be and the realities of how they are, between people’s public virtues and private corruptions.  Almost always, my settings are urban.

And one type of setting that I’m particularly fascinated by is the port city.  Ports are gateways (porta is the Latin word for gate), the portals that allow for the interaction between a specific country or land and the outside world.  They’re crossroads (crossroadses?), the endpoints for routes of communication, commerce, invasion, diplomacy, intrigue, espionage.

But it’s a specific type of port I love.  It’s one that is just as alien to the country it serves as it is to its foreign arrivals.  Liverpool and London, for instance, have their own unique identities within England, but they are English identities.  Ditto the relationship between many of the world’s other historically great ports and their hinterlands—New York, Charleston, San Francisco, Hamburg, Veracruz, Buenos Aires.

But there are other ports that are not—or historically were not—of their lands.  Singapore.  Istanbul.  Alexandria.  Shanghai.  Often this is because of the mixing of locals and foreigners, whose national identities fuse and overlap and create something divorced from its origins.  Shanghai and Hong Kong, by being both Chinese and European, became something neither Chinese nor European.  Alexandria, by being both Greek and Egyptian (and later, Roman), became something neither Greek nor Egyptian nor Roman—indeed, the ancient Egyptians never considered Alexandria a part of Egypt, and the Ptolemaic pharaohs bore the title “Pharaoh of Egypt and King of Alexandria”.  New Orleans, from its purchase by the United States in 1803 until after the American Civil War, was something that was neither properly French nor properly Spanish nor properly American.

(Related to this would no doubt be my fascination with city-states, especially imperial ones.)

So I like ports where all of those inhabitants who come from elsewhere—as most of the populations of great entrepôts do—can never be truly native; only those who happened to have been born and spent their lives there can, and they, in turn, can never be truly native anywhere else.

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Don’t know when I’ll be back again

There are, of course, people whose travel horror stories are much worse than what I’ve had to endure. People who were stranded in foreign countries for weeks because of the Icelandic volcano. The people with whom I’m staying now, my aunt and uncle, have been stranded for days in the past in Cuba and Turkey.

I, essentially, have the luxury of being stranded in a first-world, technologically advanced democracy of whose language I am a native speaker. And critically, I have a support network here. I don’t have to worry about finding the funds for somewhere to stay for an extra two nights; I don’t have to worry about it turning out that my aunt and uncle’s house has already been booked up by some of the other stranded tourists suddenly in need of accommodation.

And yet. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a trip where every single element of planning has encountered such sustained, unrelenting disruption. The refusal of the East Coast website to accept my credit card, thereby preventing me from booking train tickets in advance and costing me an extra sixty pounds. The failure of my flight itinerary on the way out here. And now, the cancellation of my flight back–a cancellation, I really do feel, that’s premature and an overreaction. JFK will be perfectly happily receiving flights by seven o’clock tomorrow night.

But my flight won’t be amongst them. I’ve now been rebooked for an itinerary on Tuesday. In addition to getting me home two days late, it also requires me to go through Chicago, added two hours to the time I’ll be spending in the air.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that now L has to find somewhere to stow the children during an additional two work days, I’d be ecstatic at the extra couple of days here. But she does, and that’s pretty stressful.

And it means that I can now go to the League match tomorrow between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. Er, not that I finagled an itinerary change to make that happen.

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Leaving on a jet plane

For family reasons, I found out on Monday that I needed to be in Sunderland, in the North East of England, this morning (Friday), so I booked a flight. That’s when the problems started.

First, of course, there was the earthquake. This might not seem directly connected to my flight, but it was certainly the start of a whole lot of weirdness around my efforts to get to Sunderland.

Then there was the attempt to book a train from London to Durham (the city where my aunt and uncle were staying, just south of Sunderland). For whatever reason, the East Coast train service website flat out refused to accept my credit card. I don’t know why. But the misunderstand cost a serious amount of money–it meant that instead of an advance ticket at £49, I was going to have to wait till I actually got to the train station, when I’d have to purchase a same-day ticket at £109.

My outward-bound itinerary Wednesday night involved a flight from Reagan National in Washington to Chicago, then forty-five minutes later a flight from Chicago to Heathrow in London. Both flights were with American Airlines, but the second one was “purchased through” Iberia Airlines. (Both American and Iberia are part of One World, British Airways’ airline empire. The sun never sets.) The package as a whole was purchased through Expedia, so I’m not sure why I was divided between two airlines when I was only flying on one.

By the time I’d got to Reagan National, I’d actually already been on mass transit for three hours–the trip to Lisa’s work (to drop the kids off) involves two bus rides and a Metro train ride. And then at the airport, I discovered I could only check in for the first leg of my journey. American couldn’t check me into the second (American) flight, because it went through Iberia (who are, once again, part of the same company as American). I had to check in at the gate once we’d arrived in Chicago.

Plane arrives; we board. The plane was less than a third full–probably substantially less than a third full, which was empty enough for the flight attendants to be laughing and joking about it. We pulled away from the gate bang on time.

And sat there. For half hour. Waiting. At which point the pilot informed us that our flight plan had changed; we’d have to make a detour around some weather between us and Chicago, and we did not have enough fuel for this longer journey. So we had to return to the gate to refuel, and we’d be “a little late into Chicago.”

If I’d checked into my second flight, I wouldn’t have worried. I’d have assumed that, with our flight delayed 45 minutes, my second flight would have been held up fifteen minutes so I could get to it. I now suspect that’s somewhat naïve of me.

But it didn’t matter at the time, as I hadn’t checked into my second flight. I was going to be late to Chicago, and there wasn’t even a record in the system that I was en route to get to the Iberia plane. So I spoke to the ticketing agent when we got back to the gate.

She couldn’t help me. My choices were to fly to Chicago and get booked on a new London flight once I got there, or get off the plane at Reagan then and there, and get rebooked for the morning. Either way, I wasn’t arriving in London until 10.45pm Thursday night. Then I’d still have to get from Heathrow to King’s Cross (which are on diametrically opposite sides of London), then catch a three-hour train to Durham.

That really wasn’t acceptable. If I hadn’t already spent nine hundred nonrefundable dollars on the airfare for this trip, I’d have given up then and there.

Then the agent offered me a lifeline. In an hour and twenty minutes, a direct British Airways flight was leaving from Dulles Airport, on the far side of Washington from Reagan National, for Heathrow. She booked me onto that flight.

What followed was a desperate dash across Northern Virginia, with times of frenzied racing punctuated by frustrating, interminable waits. I ran through Reagan National down to the taxi stand, where I found what was pretty much the longest line for cabs I’ve ever seen, which inched slowly forward over the course of about ten minutes.

Finally I had a taxi. I told the driver I was trying to make a 10.10 flight from Dulles, and he took off. He should have seriously been pulled over. (At one point a police car briefly flashed its blue lights ahead of us, at something unconnected to do with us, and the cabbie, alerted to the police presence, slammed on his breaks.) But we made the trip from Reagan to Dulles–a forty-five-minute to one-hour trip–in half an hour.

That trip cost me $80 (including the thirty per cent tip). It was a reminder that I was heading for a few days in a country where the cabs actually charge reasonable rates–seriously, about one tenth to one fifth what they charge in the United States.

So I ran inside the Dulles departure terminal. And found the British Airways and American Airlines counters dark and abandoned. I approached a security guard–I knew he wouldn’t be able to help me, but he was the only authority figure I could see. He suggested trying the British Airways lost luggage office on the floor below.

I went downstairs. The lost luggage office, also, was closed. I headed back upstairs, where I found the BA and AA ticketing agents leaving for the night. I told them I needed to check-in, and was told I was too late.

“A half-hour ago, I was at Reagan,” I said. “They just sent me over here because of a cancelled flight.”

The BA ticketing agent regarded me thoughtfully. The two American Airlines agents with her would clearly have said no.

“You don’t have any baggage to check?”

“Not a thing.”

And she checked me in. Bless her.

Then I headed over to the security checkpoint. It was now 9.35. My boarding pass said the gate closed at 9.55. The TSA agent checking IDs realised how little time I had and wished me luck. The TSA agent who then popped up out of nowhere as I headed toward the baggage inspection line, on the other hand, and insisting on “double-checking” my pass and ID, seemed genuinely amused at inconveniencing me.

I’m serious about that. This isn’t me feeling frustrated and desperate to get to my plane and ascribing malice to someone who just doing their job. It amused her to delay me.

Then I got into my second baggage-scan line of the evening, which took a damn long time but, of course, had no way of doing anything else. It was 9.46 by the time I cleared security and headed down to the shuttle taking people from the Arrivals and Departures building to the departure terminals.

A shuttle was just leaving. I didn’t managed to catch it, and I had to wait for the next one. It was 9.51 by the time I got off the shuttle at the Dulles departure terminal. I ran up the four flights of escalators to the departure gates, though I was so tired by the time I reached the third one that I almost rode the last two on my hands and knees.

(Try running up a flight of escalators the next time you’re at the bottom of one. They’re considerably steeper than normal stairs. Then try it while carrying two fully-packed pieces of luggage.)

As I shuffled, heavily winded, along the terminal towards my gate, the wall clock read 9.52. But I was certain I wasn’t going to make it. I had been sure I wouldn’t make it when I arrived at Dulles to find the BA and AA desks shut down for the night, and I was sure again now.

And, indeed, when I got to the gate, I found its doors shut. But I also found all the flight’s passengers sat at the gate waiting to board–prepping the plane had been delayed, and it hadn’t started boarding yet. Never had I been so happy to see a flight delayed.

So I made my flight. And, having found a ridiculously cheap two-legged, American flight at such short notice, I was essentially upgraded for free (well, for $80, paid to the cab driver) to a nonstop British Airways flight. Instead of sitting at O’Hare waiting for my eight-hour second flight to lift off, I was receiving a free glass of wine with dinner on my six-hour flight. We landed at 10.20, over an hour before my original flight had been due to land.

Which meant that I was on a train to Durham by 1.30, though it did still cost me £109. (Two days ago, when an advanced standard ticket was £49, an advanced first-class ticket was only £112.)

(I had actually brooked with Lisa the idea of travelling first-class on the train when still trying to book in advance. “No,” she said.

“But I get free food,” I said.

“No.”

“But I get free alcohol,” I said.

“Hmm … well, maybe.”)

And here I am, Friday night (actually now early Saturday morning, at least here in England, if not in the United States), with my family duties fulfilled. Of course, I’m supposed to fly back Sunday afternoon, this time on bloody Iberia for both legs. So there’s a pretty decent chance either my first leg, into New York, or my second, into Washington, will be cancelled.

Though, come on, Mother Nature, a hurricane? I’m a Floridian. You can’t scare me with a hurricane. But you threw an earthquake at me, and then bad weather over Chicago. Neither one of those stopped me from travelling intercontinentally. I’m pretty much laughing at you right now. Wouldn’t you really like to show me who’s boss? Like, say, Icelandic volcano levels of wanting to show me who’s boss? That Icelandic volcano erupts Saturday night, I could be stuck in London for days. Weeks.

Wouldn’t that show me?

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The Marrakesh Express

Boy and the trainIn England, we spent a lot of time travelling by train, across much of the country, and we loved it. We loved it so much that when we got back to the States, the first thing we did when we needed to travel again was look up train fares and timetables.

And then promptly booked ourselves some aeroplane tickets. The steep prices and the slow travel times–a round trip between DC and Tampa sits you on the train for 42 hours–immediately put paid to any plans to travel by train on this side of the Atlantic.*

Last week, we made a quick trip to Florida, since my sister Claire graduated from the University of Florida on Saturday and then had her engagement party on Friday night, and we elected to travel by train. Reserved early enough, the train looks expensive, but it does have the advantage that unlike the airlines, its prices don’t skyrocket as you get closer to departure date.

I think there’s a real romance to train travel. I love sitting by the window, watching the countryside roll by. As a parent, I love the relative freedom of being able to get up and move around in a way that you can’t on an aeroplane. If I’m able to travel without children, I love travelling generally, whether by plane or train–but I love it more by train.

Alexandria train stationLisa was full of that romance before we’d even boarded the train–she felt it as soon as we entered the train station in Alexandria, Virginia, because this sixty-year-old lobby looked to her like just what a train station should, with its rows of back-to-back wooden benches, its linoleum floors and its sparse interior overlooked by a clock set high on the wall. I’d had much the same sensation at several of the smaller stations in England, but of course Lisa doesn’t have the same associations with sleepy English country village train stations that I do.

Of course, once on the train, we couldn’t help but compare the experience to the trains in England. One area where the American trains definitely have the edge is in spaciousness. Sleeper cars; the coach class seats whose footrests and seat backs flattened out so that they practically turned into beds; the lounge car and the dining car–American trains are designed for overnight trips, not for the daytime trips in England that, even if you’re travelling the length of the country (as we did from London to Newcastle), won’t exceed three hours. The bed-seats did mean that none of the seats faced each other, but it was a tradeoff worth making.

Bearsted train station, Kent, near Leeds CastleIt was also a relief to be able to check luggage on the American trains, so we didn’t have to be responsible for it ourselves, and to know that we’d have enough time to make it off the train comfortably at our stop. In Britain, we’d (by which I mean, I’d) be desperately hauling our suitcases (and a family of three on a four-week holiday have a lot of luggage) off the train in the minute or two we had before the train pulled away again on the way to its next trip.

We definitely found British train travel superior in efficiency, though. Despite the fact that we were assigned to seats when we boarded, on neither train were we actually sat together. So not only did the American trains need a separate porter for every car–to assign people to seats–but the effect achieved seemed to be the bureaucracy of assigned seating minus the comfort of good seating arrangements. After we got shuttled into four adjacent seats a few hours into the trip–when those seats became available–I asked Lisa what she thought so far. “It certainly makes me appreciate England,” she said.

The American trains also seemed much more laid back about actually getting anywhere. For large portions of the trip–mostly in suburban or urban areas, it seemed–they were content to stroll along at 25 or thirty miles per hour. They also felt the need to stop at almost every single station on our route, though I’m guessing that’s an unavoidable consequence of how much less popular train travel is in American than in Britain: less service means that each time the train does run, it has to stop almost everywhere.

All in all we had a lot of fun. I don’t know that, without significant savings, it would be enough to justify taking what amounted to two days out of our holiday for travel time, but we’d certainly be sympathetic to travelling by train again.

Theoretically the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor is supposed to open within the next decade, and when it does, I’ll be really interested in checking it out. One thing I look forward to a lot is travelling without small kids. I got a taste of that in the evenings, when Lisa, Boy and Girl all went to sleep and I was left alone with my laptop. Free of the distractions both of children and the Internet, in both cases I got a thousand words–a day’s work, essentially–in about an hour.

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*In Britain the base prices are also fairly steep, but there are so many different discounts that the only people who are going to end up paying full price are basically single adults (or couples of adults) who don’t travel by train very often. The presence of a small child in our party reduced our fares by over half. Traveling parties of at least four also get their fares reduced by half.

Shanghai
Words last two days: 1175
Words total: 24,433

Time spent writing: Noon-6pm, on and off
Reason for stopping: Quota; Lisa got home
Darling: The Chinese policeman turned and fired a rant at me of which I could not understand a single word but took his meaning perfectly.
Words that boggled Word: must’ve
Tyop: I felt a pull at my angle and spun round.
New words today: charred, bombardment, cadre

Go where you wanna go

Gondoliers plying the lagoon before San Marco Basilica, VeniceA while back I talked about six things I’d like to be, and one of them was a world traveller. Since then, I’ve been thinking more about exactly where I’d like to travel.

The list of places I’d like to see is extensive–the Saalburg Museum, Caernarfon Castle, Rome, Jerusalem, Egypt. But the more I think about it, the more the four sites I cited (hehe) back then are the four places I would most like to visit before–and it kills me to use such a hackneyed phrase here–I die.

Venice. Not uniquely amongst these four places, I’ve talked about my fascination with Venice before on this blog. Something about it captures my imagination, fully and completely, and won’t let go. Venice, of course, appeals to a lot of people, but it seems particularly to appeal to British historians. Perhaps it’s because Venice had the same relationship with Italy that Britain had with Europe: culturally alike, but always separate; a stability that made it the leading Italian city-state, even while never really being a truly Italian city-state; and an orientation that caused it to look across the sea rather than to its neighbours on the Italian mainland.

SantoriniSantorini. Until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries BC (radiocarbon dating and archaeological evidence differ by about century on the exact date), the Aegean island of Santorini was a thriving centre of the Minoans, Europe’s first advanced civilisation. At that time, though, it suffered one of the worst earthquakes in all of human history (so bad that the climatic changes it caused were recorded by the ancient Chinese) when the island literally exploded, leaving behind only the crescent-shaped husk of the original landmass that exists today.

The sudden destruction of the Minoan settlement (named Akrotiri) is often cited as the source from which Plato derived the myth of Atlantis. The eruption encased Akrotiri in a layer of pumice, entombing everyone who lived there but also preserving the city in the same manner that the Vesuvian eruption preserved Pompeii. In recent decades the settlement has been excavated, unearthing a treasurehouse of Minoan frescoes and artefacts. For a time Akrotiri was open to the public, though a fatal roof collapse in 2005 led to its closure until at least 2010. I do hope it reopens, because I’d very much like to see it myself someday–a window into a people who lived roughly as long before Pompeii as the Pompeiians lived before ourselves.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Minoans–also their successors, the Mycenaeans, but particularly by the Minoans. Their society is the first glimmerings of what later became Ancient Greece, and then the Hellenistic East; they’ve left us art and iconography and even writing, showing us tantalising glimpses of their culture, and yet we know so little about them–we can’t even read their writing because we have, as yet, failed to decipher their alphabet, a script known as Linear A.

Hagia Sophia overlooking the BosphorusIstanbul. I confess I’m going to be a little nervous when it comes time to visit Istanbul. It’s one of the great cities of the world, of course, and one where its history is visible on every street corner. And I’d be fascinated by it–quite apart from the fact I’d be fascinated anyway, I’ve recently become interested in the Ottoman Empire and am looking forward to learning more about it.

But the Istanbul I want to see is harder to find, buried beneath six hundred years of Ottoman and Turkish history–in fact, it’s not Istanbul, it’s Constantinople, the New Rome. I know this is now something of a running theme, but the Byzantine Empire is one of my favourite topics in history–the Greek, Christian rump state that lasted into the Middle Ages and even the Renaissance, ultimately only dying its final death when Constantinople fell to the Turk in 1453.

The Bund, ShanghaiShanghai. I’m worried that six centuries has vastly reduced Byzantium’s visibility in Istanbul. But by all accounts it’s taking just a few short decades for the New China to wipe away all but a few vestiges of the century that Shanghai spent as the Paris of the Orient, the Wickedest City in the World, the de facto centre of the European presence in Asia. A session on Google Earth will reveal that even sites that articles written only two or three years ago will say are still there have now been flattened into a bleak, featureless building sites. So since I’m not going to get there anytime soon, there probably won’t be much to see by the time I do visit.

But I’d still like to. The idea of what Shanghai was is an enthralling one–all things to all men. A pot of gold waiting to bestow fortune on any impoverished European new arrival; a den of sin and iniquity for sailors from all over the world; the world’s only safe refuge for émigrés fleeing the Russian Revolution and the first Jews to flee Hitler’s Germany; a symbol everything to be hated about what the Europeans and Americans had done to their country for Chinese nationalists.

So. Where does everyone else want to see before they die?

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I’ve got mad skilz

A group photo of the Raceys at Jean's partyThe weekend my parents arrived in England, my aunt Jean–at whose house we were all staying–invited all his brothers and their families over for a family gathering. My cousin James brought his girlfriend and her two sons, one seven, one fourteen.

In Jean’s garden was the foam football Boy had had so much fun playing with, and the two boys started kicking it around. Soon the fourteen-year-old started doing tricks with the ball, flicking it up in the air and then keeping it aloft by catching it on the top of his foot, over and over again.

“Hey!” Boy shouted, running over to the whole group sitting out on Jean’s patio, “My dad can do that! My dad can do that!” Soon I was being asked to demonstrate, and I had to aver because, you know, I didn’t want to show anyone else up with my mad ball control skilz.

What exactly is it I can do that a three-year-old finds as impressive as the ability to keep the ball airborne indefinitely with the right foot? I can keep the ball up by heading it, and I can keep it up through two–maybe even three–contacts with the ball.

Dads are awesome.

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So what about this candidate made you say, "He’s the perfect fit!"?

Ian outside Valley Parade stadium, BradfordBesides the Yorkshire Ripper and the Black Panther, Bradford–where I’m from–is famous for really only one thing: its massive South Asian population has made it the curry capital of the world. So I was a bit disappointed when we spent 24 hours there last weekend and didn’t have a single curry.

A few days later, though, we planned to drive from Sunderland to Manchester, and since Bradford lies on the route between the two, less than an hour northwest of Manchester, my parents conceived the idea of stopping there and having a curry for lunch. On the way down, I suggested we also stop by Valley Parade–the home stadium of Bradford City Association Football Club–and head into the club shop.

We headed to the stadium before lunch. Only one employee was present, and my dad asked him about any decent curry places located nearby.

“I’m not actually from Bradford,” he said. “I have to ask directions whenever I go somewhere.”

Bradford City being such a small club–currently they play in League Two, the fourth and lowest tier of English professional football–there’s only so much space that the club shop can fill with jerseys and with a handful of t-shirts about how awful Leeds United are. The remaining floor space is given over to other, non-Bradford City items manufactured by City’s kit manufacturer, Surridge.

Surridge, it turns out, is principally a cricket outfitter, and in the back of the club shop I found a rack with the caps from all the various cricket clubs Surridge is the manufacturer for; I would guess over half the counties were represented. Neither my dad nor I particularly follow cricket–not least because it’s so impossible to find in the States–but we figured that, with the caps priced at only two quid apiece, we’d pick up a Yorkshire cap if we could find one.

We’d have expected Yorkshire’s emblem to be a White Rose, but none of the caps had a White Rose. There were, however, several emblems that we couldn’t identify, so in the hopes that one of them was Yorkshire, I took them over to the store clerk and asked if he knew what teams they belong to, or if he knew if he had a Yorkshire cap in stock.

“Search me, mate,” he said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

So … the only employee in Bradford City’s club shop is neither from Bradford, nor, apparently, much into sport.

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PS Yorkshire’s emblem is indeed the White Rose, and their kit manufacturer is Canterbury, not Surridge.

Two days in Paris

Ian,Lisa and the Eiffel TowerParis Syndrome is a real, documented phenomenon, especially amongst the Japanese, of tourists who, upon arrival in the world’s centre of fashion and sophistication, find the reality so disappointing that they have a nervous breakdown and have to be very expensively repatriated back to their home countries.

Now, neither Lisa nor I had any sort of incidence of Paris Syndrome during our 32 hours in the French capital, but I can understand where it comes from. One of the things I immediately noticed about Paris is how dirty a city it is–to the touch, to the nose, full of an organised syndicate of gypsy beggars and of men who happily stand behind a waist-high bush and relieve themselves whilst still making eye contact with you.

That said, we also had a great time. Our first afternoon was spent at Versailles. Two days later, we went to Hampton Court in West London, the palace that William and Mary apparently attempted to rebuild in an effort to eclipse Louis XIV’s achievement at Versailles–and, having seen the original the day before yesterday, I’ve got to say they failled. Versailles was a stunningly beautiful place, not just the palace itself but the hugely expansive grounds. And Versailles is also the location of the McDonald’s where Lisa and I ordered a Royale with cheese (actually, a “Royal Cheese”, paired on the menu with a Royal Bacon).

Getting to our hotel was an adventure. It was located on the Boulevard de Grenelle, a few streets south of the Eiffel Tower. The Bd de Grenelle has three Metro stops, and I had no idea which one was closest to our hotel. One of those stops lay on the line we were riding back into the city from Versailles, so we chose that one.

It disgorged us at No. 1 Bd de Grenelle; our hotel was at No. 140. So we decided to walk. Turned out to be a mile. In the 85-degree Parisian summer, with a six-month pregnant woman.

Then when we arrived, we were informed our room had been subject to massive water damage, but they’d booked us a room at another, nicer hotel. Fair enough. The desk clerk whipped out a map and told us our new hotel was on the Rue de Vaugirard. He Xed the intersection of the Bd de Grenelle and the Rue de Vaugirard and said, “Is a five-meenut walk. Maybe seven.”

The gardens at VersaillesSo we decided to walk. Turned out to be another mile. But then we arrived at the intersection of Rue de Vaugirard and what had been the Boulevard de Grenelle, though by that point was the Boulevard Pasteur. And it turns out the intersection was at No. 185 Rue de Vaugirard, but our hotel was at No. 403. At that point we hailed a taxi.

The following day was spent on trips to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame, where we attended Mass and Lisa took Communion.

Lisa mentioned how the girls in England always go to such trouble to make themselves attractive–seemingly always very stylishly dressed and nicely put together. I can’t comment on that for Parisian girls, because honestly, any individual person you pass on the streets in Paris is apparently more likely to be foreign than they are to be French. But I can say that French girls are, simply put, pretty–they just all seem to be beautiful girls.

Lisa would like me to add to that, that Parisian men, on the other hand, are always sleek and well-groomed, and that they know just how to dress to accentuate that.

I

A guest blog from Elizabeth Racey

Lisa and Boy in front of a red public call boxLisa wrote up this recap of her first week in England:

The girls here are so pretty. Not in a fresh off the farm sort of way, but in a “I spent hours getting ready to go to the grocery store” sort of way. Everyone is so stylish (and I don’t usually pick up on style). I would never be able to manage the ongoing effort this must take.

Once the girls get married and have kids, the beauty collapse seems to be exponential. Don’t get me wrong: they are still nice looking, they’re just not breathtaking anymore.

People drive funny. I am grateful that I live in DC and am at least more aggressive than I was in Florida. Obviously there is the whole other side of the road thing, but there are no street markings on these roads–the ones that have markings have the same markings for different lanes as different sides of the road.

Everyone here drives very small cars, which I love, and these cars get 48mpg. Crazy. There seems to come a whole new ability to judge distance with these cars. I am constantly thinking, “No, you cannot fit through there, please don’t try, oh, well just barely.”

I don’t know who said the English would be reserved; just to welcome me, they have put my initials everywhere–and have certainly spared no expense doing so. ER is on signposts, pillar boxes (mailboxes), and especially in London. I think this quite considerate of them, but certainly over the top.

People say “toilet”. Signs say “toilet”. You are supposed to ask where the toilets are, not the bathroom, washroom, potty, restroom, or any of the hundreds of other less crude words. If you don’t think this is weird, next time you are out in public ask someone where the toilet is.

The toilets are the double flush kind I believe, which until you get used to it makes you feel like a moron for not being able to flush the toilet. I just learned what a double flush toilet is last month, so at least I was a little prepared.

All the food is soaked in oil. If oil is inappropriate, they use butter. Scrambled eggs are routinely very, very runny. I like mine very, very dry. The food is good, but I can see why they walk so much.

“Pet” is an acceptable diminutive, like “darlin'” is in the American South. Old men can publicly call young women pet, and no one but me took offense. I stand corrected.

On to my adventures:

Day one: We arrive in London. I meet Ian’s Uncle Ed and harass the poor man with an hour’s worth of questions about how road signs work, how he knows where to go, and what street markings mean, and Boy does the same. He is a very patient man. We get to Kings Cross, where I announce I have to go to the “toilet” and head off. The toilet costs 30p–about fifty cents. I am not only horrified at this (anyone who knows me well, knows that you do not mess around with my ability to get to a toilet); I also have no British money at all. I break into the toilets and decide that I am getting deported. This is not the best first impression. Afterwards, I immediately ask Ian for money. Since then I have only seen one other toilet that required me to pay–and I was prepared. We took the train to Newcastle, and I slept most of the way. Boy did too.

Day two: Beamish is a living history museum. I like living history. We spent a long time at Beamish, mostly walking. I couldn’t feel my legs for about three days.

Day three: We met Ian’s grandparents. Boy spent most of his time wooing his great-grandmother with acrobatics and the appetite of a horse. We had a wonderful visit, and they are very lovely people.

Day four: While Ian went to the bank, Boy and I were supposed to take a nap. I spent the entire time in a very odd mood and accomplished nothing. This meant when Ian got back there were two tired, bored people who were not in very good moods. We slept a lot that night. We only went to the mall, where Boy discovered cookie pops.

Day five: We checked out of the hotel and took the train to Uncle Ed and Aunt Colleen’s house. They live in a very nice village where you can actually walk to stuff.

Day six: We went into London and saw Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park, Horse Guards Parade, Wellington Barracks, Buckingham Palace and Harrods. Boy is best friends with Big Ben. He says that you can’t say Westminster Abbey–you have to say Westminster Abigail. I got to see the Household Cavalry parade around, the shift change at Wellington Barracks (a changing of the guard–but only literally). The Queen was not home. At Harrods I touched a $2200 purse and visited a “luxury toilet”.

Day seven: We had a nice easy day where we visited Covent Garden–which is a marketplace with shops and street performers and the London Transport Museum. Boy was ecstatic at the Transport Museum. This is a hands-on museum of train and buses, and engines and gears. He got overly excited several times, until we ended up going home.

Day eight: We went on the London Eye (the largest Ferris wheel outside Asia). We took a river taxi down the Thames. We visited the Tower of London. I saw where Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were beheaded and where they are buried. I saw the Crown Jewels. Boy loved looking at the ravens.

Notes:

–Every day on the Tube (subway) going home, Boy and I were asleep before the third stop, leaving Ian to watch not only our stuff, but also two sleeping people.

–Ian’s Aunt Colleen is an excellent cook, and even though the country as a whole uses way more butter/oil than I am accustomed to, she does it perfectly.

–Taxis are relatively cheap, and quicker than I would have thought. Though speedwise, they obviously only charge by distance–superfast is the word Boy would use.

I

(well, L, I suppose)

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