Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Tuesday 28th April 2009 – I never could fit in, could I?

It's a lovely day today, but I am closeted in a darkened room, behind drawn shades, preparing myself for the big encounter.  On Thursday, I have an appointment to see someone at the local field office of the Immigration Service.

I'm now pretty clear what the problem is: it's the love-hate relationship the whole planet has with Americans.  Everybody on the planet hates Americans, but they would all love to be one: they all want to come and work in America.  If they can't work, they want to come as a dependent relative, so they can then change their status and get a job.  Or they come illegally, and then find a way to change their status and get a job.  Or they come on a visit, then find a way to change their status and get a job. 

There are some people who just want to come and have a look, and they're allowed up to three months.  And there are some who want to do a bit of business, and they're allowed six months.

Right! So that's everybody, OK? 

No, sir, please sir, there's me, sir, please sir. 

What do you want, then? 


The first requirement of any American visit is the visa.  If you're a Brit, and you have a machine-readable passport (We nearly all do, now.  They're the ones with all the chevrons along the edge of the page with your picture on it.) then the Americans will waive the visa requirement if you're trip is for less than 90 days.  I was hoping to stay much longer, maybe a year.

Which saw me, late last October, on the 11.41 to London Victoria, the first step on my great journey.  The step I thought would determine whether it was a journey at all.  I was heading for the US Embassy to get my visa organised.

I'd followed the instructions  at www.usembassy.org.uk to schedule (they say skedule) a Visa Interview.  I'd filled out the Electronic Visa Application Form, and printed it out.  I'd printed out my appointment letter and fee receipt.  I'd gathered all the suggested information to prove I could support myself while I'm there, that I had no intention of working, and that I had a home and family in Britain to which I would be returning.  There was such a lot of stuff that I was fatalistic about having forgotten something and having to do it all again (including paying).  I remember checking and rechecking, although it was too late, since I was on the train.

As we got past Lewisham, I remembered the stories of a family from there who got thrown off a Spanish plane for excessive drunkenness.  I guessed excessive drunkenness was pretty normal on Spanish planes.  In fact, I remembered all those business flights to the US, and recalled that drunkenness seemed pretty normal on all planes.  So I thanked my lucky stars Iwas going on the Queen Mary.  I was already committed to that bit.

Then we passed Brixton, and I remembered lodging there with a colleague when I first came to London.  Her partner (we rather primly said 'boyfriend' in those days) was an American, and the curtains in my room were an American flag, cut in two, so they only made the flag when you closed them.

I walked up through Mayfair to Grosvenor Square.  On South Audley Street, I spotted a Blue Plaque with the name 'Charles X'.  I thought it odd that an American Black Power leader would live in South Audley Street, and so it proved, because when I got closer, the plaque said 'Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France': probably not even related to Malcolm X at all.


The first sight of the American Embassy showed how fortified it now is.  And there was the unsettling sight of London 'bobbies' (dressed in their 'tourist' outfits, with helmets) carrying side-arms and machine guns.  There was a long queue waiting to get in.  When I got inside, there was a long queue waiting to have their documentation checked so they could join the queue.  My documents passed muster.  They took my finger prints.  And finally, I got in the queue. 

After all that dispassionate, brutal systemisation, I finally got to meet a real flesh-and-blood American.  The consular officer was a nice bright young woman, who was very interested in my trip, and hoped I enjoyed it.  We had a very pleasant conversation, as I almost always do with Americans, and she told me that, of course, I could have the appropriate visa.  This would be secure-couriered back to me in a week or so.  Then she handed me back to their brutal system again: "Of course, the Immigration Officer where you land will have the final word on how long you can stay." she said, "They usually allow six months with this kind of visa.  Be sure to have your plans and things ready to show him, so he knows it will take longer.  But don't be tempted to ignore the limit he sets, because, if they find out, you will be deported and never allowed back in again."  This effectively meant I wouldn't know if I could make the trip until I stepped off the boat in Brooklyn; which was not good news. 


The variety of passports on show through all the queuing added weight to the view that everyone in the world wants to go to America.  I suppose, given the huge numbers, and security risks they suffer, they don't do so bad dealing with it.  But they do it, as you would expect any government to do it, by categorising everyone, and issuing the front line officers with a set of rules to follow.  And at Brooklyn, a rule was duly followed: "port policy", he said, gruffly, and I got the allotted six months for the category into which I had been squeezed.  My pleas were lost in the tide of people pushing me swiftly downstream from the immigration desk.

Now I've stopped for a week, and have the support of some real, live Americans.  We've found the local Immigration Service "field office", and we've made an appointment.  Now it's the darkened room and the cold compresses.


If this doesn't sort it out, the next step is to appeal for help to the local Senator.  I hope we avoid this, because Minnesota is presently unique in having only one Senator (all states are supposed to have two).  This is because they failed to elect one at the last election.  The election here was so close, that it's still going on!  The process of recounting, and the admissibility of some votes, is going from court to court to court, as the process here requires.  In a result reminiscent of Formula One qualifying, the sitting Republican got 41.9841% of the poll, trailing to the Democratic challenger's 41.991%.  In actual numbers, the difference is about 200 votes in a total of about 3 million.  The Democratic majority in the Senate is still two votes short of preventing filibusters, one of the most powerful weapons the minority has, so the Republicans are, not, surprisingly, dragging their heels every inch of the way.

All of which means Senator Amy Klobuchar must be a bit busy right now.  But who knows: maybe she could do with a bit of light relief.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Monday 27th April 2009 – It’s not What You Know, … (I Hope)

After a good breakfast, and a serious health check, we feel able to tackle the Immigration Service again.  Once again, men with guns strip us naked and look up our bottoms.  They tell us our Swiss Army knives are considered weapons, which must please the Swiss Army.  The men with guns have specific instructions to exclude my voice recorder.  Given we are about to joust with government bureaucrats, they probably see it as the more dangerous weapon.  We skip naked into the car park to put them back in the car.  The receptionist, who is clearly herself a recent immigrant, and (perhaps therefore) extremely helpful, tells us how we can make an appointment.  It involves going home and using the internet.

The next stop is the bank.  It is actually a 'credit union', and savings are backed, as it quaintly puts it, by the "faith and credit" of the US government.  We know the bank president, so we know this is not going to be a problem.  But even the bank president can't open a bank account for someone who doesn't have a Social Security Number.

We have a break to gatecrash the local Rotary Club: you can get a free lunch, and a lot of entertainment there.  We meet a number of other local bankers, who assure us that the Social Security Rule in inviolable.  My uncle died recently.  I regret not having had the foresight to steal his identity.  I don't really know how to steal identities, but it must be particularly easy if it's the identity you were named after.  We also meet the local Police Chief.  Rotary Clubs here clearly have bigger guns (literally) than they do back home.  And we meet some good old boys (I have to check the use of that phrase:  I think it is both a big compliment, and a big insult, depending on the context).

The insurance agent is ex-rotary, and wants to be updated on the lunch.  He also has a large box of lollipops on his desk, and know I am about to go through one of those zen tests, where I have to concentrate on a curious mixture of insurance interrogation and local gossip, when all I really want to do it grab a lollipop.  I wonder, ungraciously, if this is a business ploy, and concentrate hard on the questions.  I doesn't matter too much, because only one of his companies offers insurance to foreign drivers.  It's not too expensive, but apparently a local licence would make it considerably cheaper.


When we get back, and set up our Immigration Service appointment, we discover that, as is often the case these days, Microsoft decides to make its presence felt.  The Immigration Service wants us to print out the appointment letter, and puts a bar code in it, no doubt to simplify the admission process.  We have used our Vista-based laptop to make the appointment.  It refuses to talk to the house printer, which is not cleared for conversations with Vista.  I spend the rest of the afternoon cutting and pasting bits and pieces, and using 'sneaker net' (data transfer on foot) to get it to the printer.  The piece-de-resistance tomorrow will turn out to be the hand-painted bar code.  I wonder if the Immigration Service will ask me to sign it.

Sunday 26th April 2009 – A Day of Rest

Sunday is a family day.  Everybody goes to church: well, nearly everybody.  Then they cook vast turkeys, and everybody comes to dinner.  It also rains very, very heavily.  The TV news tells us someone went into a storm sewer to take photographs: he was washed away and drowned.


Tomorrow we are going to see the Immigration service, the bank, and the auto insurance broker.  I hope it is all going to be straightforward, but I know it will only be a series of first steps.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Saturday, 25th April 2009 – Up the Mississippi, up to M/SP

I'm spending most of the day on the train.  The train is called the 'Empire Builder', in honour of the man who put the northern railroads together into the entity which got it to the Pacific.  James J Hills put together the first railroad company to build a transcontinental route without public subsidy.  It was also the first such company not to go bankrupt in the process.

[The train name reminds me, apropos of nothing at all, that Chicago has honorary street names. For example, the bit if Jackson at the Symphony Center is called 'Bernard Haitink something' (it doesn't really matter whether it's street or avenue or boulevard, because nobody uses that bit anyway: Jackson is a 'boulevard' but over the freeway, the plaque says the 'Jackson Street bridge').  These 'honorary' street names are in brown and white, and sit on the street furniture just above the 'real' name.  Isn't that a good idea?  The good citizens of Acacia Avenue could happily honour Nelson Mandela (or Garibaldi, for that matter) without confusing their postman or friends.]

Chicago has cooled down a bit, but I'm still dressed too lightly.  The train is too cold: consequently, so am I.  I have to descend into the baggage compartment to raid my luggage for extra layers.  I say 'descend' because the 'Empire Builder' is a double-decker train.  There is plenty of space.  The conductor is keen to give us all as much room as possible.  'Seniors' are allowed to board first, so I get an early place.  Since we're all so spread out, there is little chance of meeting any of my fellow passengers.  The young man behind me wants to use 'my' power outlet to charge his phone, but his charger won't go in the space.

The buffet car conductor announces that he's open for business, so I wander off in search of warmth.  I walk through the 'Sightseer Lounge' and then along almost half the train looking for the buffet before it dawns on me that it must be downstairs.  Having got back to the sightseer lounge and armed myself with a beer from downstairs, I go looking for company.  The seats are arranged in half-circles facing out to large windows.  I fall in with a bunch of ladies who have been down in Chicago for a hen weekend.  They are very entertaining.  As soon as I settle down to look at the scenery, the train pulls into Milwaukee, and stops in front of a large concrete wall: some scenery.  It is categorised as a 'smoking' stop, so the scene stays like this for some time.

The Dining car conductor announces that she will be coming through the train accepting reservations for dinner.  Actually, she calls it 'Dinner in the Diner', and I can' resist thinking, despite going nowhere near any Carolinas, that nothing could be finer.

Dinner introduces me to a lady of about my own age who tells me she's been 'down in Madison doing an 8K'.  I deduce from her figure that this is some kind of race.  I also meet a young couple heading for Spokane, WA.  He works for the London buses: well, that's stretching it a bit: he works for First, who now own most of the yellow school buses in America.  She is a Social Worker, looking after children in Milwaukee: she smokes, and has that haunted, trapped look of someone who desperately wants a cigarette (or perhaps it's just the look of someone who tries to care for abused children in Milwaukee).  The conductor is sadistic, and likes to announce as we approach each stop "this is not a smoking stop".  When we get to the next smoking stop, she is off like she's doing an 8K in Madison.  She has her cigarette; we have her pudding.

As the sun begins to set, we cross the mighty Mississippi and turn right into Minnesota: even the natives are excited by the river.  We follow it, roughly, into the gathering darkness, all the way to Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the 'Twin Cities'.  Amtrak conductors stick your check-in ticket into the rack above your seat.  They write a code for your destination on it, so you don't sleep past your stop.  Mine says 'M/SP'.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Friday April 24th 2009 – Buddy You Can Stick Your Dime

It's 80+ and sunny in Chicago.  It's still just as windy.  I think with Chicago there is always wind, if the weather is coming from the South or West, it's a warm wind, if it's from the North or East, it's cold.  But it's shirtsleeves and watch how long I'm outside today.

I visited the 'Old Town' today, up in the north, to see if I could get some tickets for the 'Second City' revue, but they were sold out, with a waiting list for the late show.  It finishes at one, and the 'L' Brown Line, which would get me back from there, stops long before that.  Because I can't stay out in the sun too long, I find a bar to console myself.  It is, of course, an Irish bar.  There seems to be only one class of bar I like here, and they're all 'Irish'.  This one does have a su'th'n belle behind the bar.  Her voice tells me she has long relied on the kindness of strangers.  She is truly, in the nicest possible sense of the words, slow and voluptuous.

Back in Greek town, I slip into an empty air-conditioned bar, to get cool, and out of the sun.  The beer was 2.25, so I left a quarter extra as a tip.  The barmaid refused it, saying perhaps I needed it more than her.  I quickly agreed, and trousered it.  She asked me what I expected her to do with a quarter, and I told her the usual process was to add it to all the others at the end of the day.  It was, after all, I pointed out, 11% of the bill.  She said I was a foreigner (clearly, from her accent, so was she) and perhaps didn't know local customs.  I said I was always willing to learn.  She said 20% percent was more usual.  I didn't believe her.  I said she would just have to make do with a "thank you", and, rather painfully, we shook on that.  I shan't go back.  I hope that doesn't disappoint her too much.  2.25 was rather cheap for a beer, but it was a small beer, and it was Foster's (well, Millar, actually, but you know what I mean).

Change is a bit of a social problem here.  There are noticeable number of 'panhandlers' on the street, soliciting "change", with paper cups.  This is clearly the fault of the various local governments, which add 'sales' tax to almost everything you buy.  You never pay what you expect.  You buy something for $3, and when you get to the till, they want, say, 3.18, so your pockets gradually fill up with change.  And it's not just the pathetically poor: where London has all those charities panhandling on the streets for direct debits, here they don their tabards and circulate among the cars at traffic lights with buckets, asking for change.

I repair, at the end of the day, to what is becoming my local.  I ask the barmaid for advice about the 'quarter' problem.  It comes back into my mind because they want 4.50 for a beer, and I'm about to leave the two quarters change on the bar (the more arithmetical among you will have worked out that that is exactly the same percentage as before, 11).  She says that's perfectly reasonable.  I tell her about the Greek refusing gifts, and she says, quite sternly "very unprofessional": Americans think of bartending as a profession.  The entire bar is watching 'Jeopardy' on the TV.  The question is "Which Shakespearean hero has more lines in the play than he had days in office" (that wasn't quite the phrasing, but never mind) the entire bar including this very professional barmaid, know the answer (Richard III).  So do all the contestants.  I'm impressed.

The bar has a machine which foams with a constant supply of free popcorn.  You just grab a bowl and dig in.  Americans are not all as fastidious about cleanliness as I thought they were.  The popcorn is delicious, and salted to go with beer.

At the end of the evening, finishing her shift, the barmaid hits on me.  I think she was just looking for a free drink, but it leaves me slightly confused about what she meant by 'professional'.


Tomorrow, I board the 'Empire Builder' to head out West; well, Minneapolis, actually.  But this is where the story should really begin.  After Mineapolis (quite a long way after Minneapolis, actually) the 'Empire Builder', on its way to Seattle, stops in Glasgow Montana.  I may actually meet a Glaswegian on the train.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Thursday 23rd April 2009 – From Breakfast to Shubert on Route 66

Bernard Haitink heard I was in town, and promised to get the lads together for a memorable performance of Schubert's Great C Major symphony, his ninth (or eighth, or seventh, depending on who you believe.  Bernard says everybody just calls it the 'Great' to avoid this academic dispute, although that's really to distinguish it from the sixth, the Little C Major).  "We'll be at the Symphony Center", he says, "right at the end of Route 66".  "The end of Route 66?  That's in California"!  "Not that end, you fool, this end, corner of Jackson and Michigan".  Symphony Hall, it turns out, is right where Route 66 begins (nobody really thinks of this as an end, although, of course, it is).

My hotel is almost on Jackson, so I'm practically staying on Route 66.  Bernie and the boys having organised my evening entertainment for me, and given me a geography lesson, I head out onto Route 66 to find breakfast.  Lou Mitchell is more into history than geography: he's been doing breakfast on Route 66 since 1923 (I think, basically, everything started in Chicago in 1923).  He does a hum-dinger of a breakfast, served in the frying pan; with a terrific marmalade that looks and tastes like it was made from yesterday's oranges.  No matter what you ask for in the US, you always get a glass of water: in Lou Mitchell's, you also get a slice of orange and a prune.

Struggling under the weight of breakfast, I totter off to the Loop to play on the 'L'.  The elevated railway comes into the center of Chicago and goes round in a loop and out again.  This part of town is actually known as 'The Loop'.  The railway is elevated over the street, and was built not in 1923, but in the 1890's.  It must make downtown Chicago the noisiest place on earth.  I've bought a three-day unlimited-use pass, so I have myself hours of fun imagining I'm in all those films where goodies chase baddies over, under, along, and through the 'L'.

Then it's back to the hotel to tart myself up for Bernie's little do.  As a pointer to budding maestros the world over, Bernie has come up with a great stunt for milking the applause: he totters onto the stage like an old man (he's only 80), aided by a stick, and takes what-seems-like hours to get to the rostrum.  Of course the audience burst into applause the moment he appears, and are then committed to keeping going till he gets his stick and himself organised and raises the baton.

This tottering back and forth is obviously a trade mark, and happens at the end of every piece.  This being Chicago, and it being necessary to pour a heavy layer of culture over us, We get a bit of Webern and some Dutch totty giving us an eyeful and a splendid interpretation of Mahler's Rückert Lieder.  The only fault here was a rather prosaic translation in the program.   It spoils poetry if you turn it into prose, doesn't it?

And that, apart from a startling  bagpipe rendition of 'Amazing Grace' on the Jukebox of the Irish pub on the way back (I asked who had paid good money for that, but nobody would own up), was Route 66 for now. I shall return to it in a month or two, but this time at nearly the other end, in the Mohave Desert in California, when I visit Glasgow CA.  (Glasgow? How did Glasgow get into this?)

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Wednesday 22nd April 2009 – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

One of the drawbacks of a life in computer programming is a well-developed and very precise sense of unreality.  Computer programs live in what is now commonly called a virtual world.  Computer programmers, on the other hand, don't.  But they can get confused about this.  Having carefully planned something, they may then feel no need to actually do it.  Indeed, they may feel that, having planned it so carefully, they have actually done it.

I am now finding a million things about my trip where virtual and real worlds don't coincide.  Take, as an example, my nice new watch.  For years I had a watch which, if you'll pardon the pun, clocked in with the National Physical Laboratory every night to set itself right.  Then I discovered that there was a new model which not only did that, it figured out where it was in the world and checked in with the equivalent institution in Germany, Japan and the USA.  I hope you can see how attractive and, indeed necessary, such a gadget would be to a computer programmer going on a trip to the United States.  The American Institution is based in the University of Colorado, at Fort Collins.  Fort Collins is pretty near the geographical centre of the United States.  The watch itself knows which of the four US time zones it's in.  So that was knowing-the-right-time sorted out.  You might think that is an excessive attention to detail, but then you're not a computer programmer (or if you are you don't, if you see what I mean).

Crossing the Atlantic from east to west by liner gives one the luxury of a week of twenty-five hour days.  But that's only in the real world.  In the virtual world inside my flashy new watch, however, there was nothing in the Atlantic to synchronise it with reality.  It had to be done manually.

Naturally, I turned to the Standard Operating Procedures manual for the trip.  And under 'Flashy new watch, Adjusting to reality, Manual', what do you think I found?  Nothing; not a dicky bird; there wasn't even a blank page.  Not even computer programmers carry the instruction manual for their watch around with them.  When I was packing my equipment, and wondering which manuals I was going to need, I didn't even consider the only one I've actually needed so far.

But not to worry: I'll pretend I'm a teenage boy and figure it out heuristically, by trial and error.  The watch possesses only two buttons for communicating with the program inside it.  Now consider: how many different ways do you think you can press two buttons?  Most of you will be aware that the ultimate sanction against a catatonic computer sulk is to press and hold the power button for ten seconds.  So you will be able to deduce that pressing a button is likely to be two separate events to a computer, namely 'press' and 'release'.  And the length of time between these two events is likely to be significant, particularly to a watch.  So, to cut an already too-long story a bit shorter, the answer to the question about how many ways is actually an infinite number.  But which of these infinite combinations are going to be significant to the watch?  There is then the added difficulty of figuring out the watch's responses on its two-character screen, which it normally uses to tell me the date and the day-of-the-week.

So, for idle moments on the crossing, I had myself a mind-exercise at least as stimulating  as sudoku, and much more practical.  And it turned out to be fascinating, because the programmers of the watch have clearly left any number of test and check routines inside the watch.  I now know, for instance, how to make the second-hand tick completely round the dial once without moving the minute hand.  I can move all the hands to precisely twelve o'clock.  I can make the hands move to another time which varies according to a set of rules I have not yet deduced.

Of course, time was relatively short (sorry about that), because I was assuming that when the watch reached New York, it would wake up to Fort Collins and set itself right. But it didn't.  New York came and went, and the watch continued in its sulk.  The I noticed that a set of button pressings got me to the point where one button took me through a sequence of numbers that went from +11 to –11, but instead of –9, -8, -7, -6, -5, -4, it went –9, P, M, C, E, -4, which gave the game away.  That's just got to be 'Pacific', Mountain', 'Central' and 'Eastern' hasn't it?  Maybe that was how to tell it it was in New York.  Except by this time it was in Chicago.  So I set it to 'C' (because Chicago's on Central Time) and then put it back into telling-the-time mode.

And this morning, when I looked, it shyly told me that, at six minutes past two, it had had a little chat by radio with a computer at Fort Collins Colorado, which is its way of telling me it knew the time in Chicago: and now, therefore, at long last, so did I.

Of course, as is common with these heuristic processes, I can't remember how I did it.  So when I move on to Mountain Time, I'll have the same problem all over again

Wednesday 22nd April 2009 – Irish Pubs and Catholic Boys and Drinking Heavily

Chicago isn't just called the 'Windy City', it's also called the 'Second City'.  Like all 'second' cities, it nurtures, nurses and flaunts its culture at you.  There are huge sculptures everywhere.  There is a Culture Centre, an Arts Centre, an Opera Centre and a Symphony Hall.  I was told by a lady truck driver on the train coming here that there is also a thriving fringe theatre scene.  One of its most famous creations is the Second City comedy theatre company, now spread to many other cities. 

It's architecture is quite distinctive.  One sees echoes of it all over Canary Wharf in London.  I was struggling to find a way of describing it, but it turns out it's mostly described as 'Chicago School'.  There are almost no old buildings in Chicago, since it was burned down in a great fire in 1871.  It is therefore pleasingly harmonious.

Union Station is one such neo-classical rectangular boxes.  It comes in two halves: the even tracks point south, and the odd tracks point north.  The track entrances, no doubt for the benefit of the blind, shout their numbers at you constantly.  Since there is a single entrance for each pair of tracks, the effect is an odd cacophony of ladies shouting, variously, "Track Nine", "Track Eleven", "Track Thirteen", "Track Fifteen" (all of which you can hear at the same time), as though they were ladies of the night, vying for our favours.  If my memory serves me right, and it often doesn't, this form of trading is known as 'Open Outcry' and originated in the Chicago commodity markets.  So perhaps the natives think it's quite normal.

Talking of cacophony, I had settled in a nice quiet local bar with my book and a beer when a new member of staff turned up and decided that the music and its volume were not to her liking.  So it suddenly got loud and throbbing, like a disco; all the customers fled; an odd way to run a pub.  So, although this is a heavily Greek neighborhood, I ended up in a nearby Irish pub watching the Calgary Flames beating the Chicago Nighthawks (Ice Hockey).  I fell in with a couple of recent graduates of the local posh catholic high school, who were clearly having a drinking lesson (it's something catholics have to do, and is definitely better done in the more understanding Irish setting).  They insisted on listening to my Glasgow story, and insisted on buying me beer after beer after beer. I got my own back by instructing them on their responsibilities in life.  As the beer flowed, I distinctly remember the barmaid, who was called 'Jen', falling deeply in love with me and wanting to take me home.  I had a bit of a head this morning.  I hope the boys were suffering too.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Wednesday 22nd April 2009 – Listening to that Lonesome Whistle Blow

The Amtrak train is not packed. The seats are large, comfortable, and well-spaced. They recline, and have leg-rests which come out from underneath. I get a double seat to myself, so I'm set for a bed-sized space for the night. In fact, one of the seats would be a comfy enough.

Amtrak is very badly named, since the one thing it doesn't own is the track, and most of it's problems stem from that. It's like the British rail we used to know and love to hate. It has friendly staff, who tell us they're going to turn the announcements off so we can all get to sleep, but not to worry, because they know what stops we want to get off at and they'll come and check at each stop. It also has an amazingly cheerful buffet-car conductor, who cheerfully tells us, half-an-hour into the journey that he's off for his meal break and will be back in an hour.

But freight drives the system. I think that's why we got a bus yesterday: they were fixing the track, and Amtrak doesn't count. In all honesty, that's true, because there were only about thirty people booked through to Albany from Boston. As we travel through the night, we are constantly passed by great long freight trains. From time-to-time we pass through huge marshalling yards. And we sometimes have to wait for quite long periods to let a freight train clear.

But the dominant memory of the night (the journey took about 15 hours) was that classic American train whistle. I think they are required to blow it for level crossings, and there are level crossings everywhere. So the whistle is going more-or-less continuously. I find it very soothing, and seem to have got a good night's sleep. Which means I missed almost all the sights, the Hudson River Valley, Lake Erie, the Berkshire Mountains, the Mohawk River Valley and the Erie Canal. But since it got dark almost as soon as the train started, I would have missed them anyway.

I wake briefly to find myself in Toledo, which means I missed all of New York, the little bit of Pennsylvania the sticks up onto Lake Erie (the town or Erie itself, the train schedule tells me, is actually in PA), and all of Ohio. The name 'Toledo' has me drifting back to sleep to the jangle of my spurs on the dusty sidewalk.

I wake up for breakfast in the middle of Indiana. There is a proper dining car, with white table cloths, and the waiter introduces me to a lady truck driver as a breakfast companion. When I say 'truck driver' I mean, as she put it, '18-wheelers', those monsters of the freeway. Surprisingly, she is only twenty-seven, but she has lived all over the US, and proves a most stimulating table companion. She is part Japanese, and we share some experiences of Tokyo.

We trundle through the freight yards of Elkhart IN, where there is clearly a railroad museum. Actually, it looked more like a graveyard than a museum, but there was one huge steam locomotive in good condition.

Then we got into Chicago's Union Station with one last ten-minute wait to clear a freight train. Chicago's commuters have double-decker trains. It is a beautiful, sunny day, so I have no problem figuring north from south and navigating to my hotel, which is only a few blocks away. They want to put me on the third floor so I can check in straight away, but I'm now in the price range of no elevators, so I elect to check my bags and go for a wander and wait for a first floor room to be cleaned.

I have lunch in Berkoff's, at the bar. The man next to me and the barmaid are clearly both natives of the city, and bona-fide US citizens, but he suddenly asks her what nationality she is, and she immediately replies "Italian". I am reminded that Americans don't consider 'American' to be a nationality. Of course, they're American, but they also have to have a nationality, where their ethnicity, their looks, and that sort of thing, came from.

Tuesday, 21st April 2009 – A Memorable Four Hours in Albany

At South Station, the station announcer asked us to assemble at the information desk, and from there we were led out to a bus: yes, a bus; the grandly-named 'Lake Shore Limited' is a bus on Tuesdays; sic transit gloria mundi (I usually just say 'stgm'). There are redeeming virtues, however: the bus is modern, gets there in half the time (Amtrak has to use the freight lines, so operates at very restricted speeds), and has on-board WiFi. I'm checking my emails out on the Massachusetts Turnpike when I get a phone call from London: I feel like a true international jet-setter. And I am somewhat mollified by the presence of a genuine American train conductor in a genuine American train conductor's hat. The bus is taking us to Albany, the capital of New York, where the real 'Lake Shore Limited' will start today. I guess it's called the 'Lake Shore Limited' because it runs along the banks of Lake Eyrie, through New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio before turning north through Illinois to Chicago; and because it doesn't stop very often.

Actually, it turns out, it's not taking us to Albany at all, it's taking us to a place just across the Hudson River, called Rensselaer. Because it's so fast, we have a lot of time to sit in Rensselaer station. The slim grey-haired lady who sat opposite me on the bus sits opposite me in the coffee shop. I decide I am either going to get my face slapped or take a walk. Since I have already deduced, from a sneak-peak at her reading material, that she is a nun in mufti, I check my bags and opt for the walk.

The Albany skyline is quite attractive, so I walk towards the river for a better look. I spot a big navy ship moored on the other side, and head towards that.

And then the most magic thing happens. I spot a sailing boat moored on this side of the river, and, as I get closer, I notice its name: it's the 'Clearwater'. Could it possibly be …

I had this friend in New York thirty-odd years ago; more of a colleague, really. We got on famously. She even visited us in London from time-to-time. She lived on the Upper-Westside of Manhattan, and one weekend she insisted on taking me off to save the planet (it may actually have been one of the very first trendy, middle-class planet-saving events in history, or at least my history). By way of compensation, she promised I would meet Pete Seeger, one of my heroes. We were to go on board his sailing boat, by name the 'Clearwater', moored on the Hudson, near where she lived, and sign up to join the 'Clearwater crew', tasked with saving, if not the planet, at least the little bit of water on it which flowed down the Hudson. And we did, and I, briefly, got to shake hands with the great man.

Could it possibly be … ? Amazingly, yes it was. A boat I had actually been on, with a great friend, half-a-life ago. The crew member I spoke to told me it now mostly did educational work with middle school children. He also told me that this May is not only its fortieth anniversary, it's Pete Seegar's nintieth birthday. I wonder if, when this is publicised, anyone in New York will pause and think of me.

The other ship was a destroyer, DE766, the USS Slater. It appears to be a museum.

When I got back to the station, I just had to share my excitement with someone, so I did a bit of eye-contact stuff and got into conversation with a couple of brothers from Chicago, who had come to Boston for the Marathon (their modesty forced me to drag it out of them, but they did a creditable 3:37). I told them I had joined in at Heartbreak Hill; just to keep my end up. They helped me quite a bit with Chicago. The coffee shop also had free WiFi, so I brought up Google maps of Chicago, and they showed me the sort of places I would enjoy. There is a place with a genuine U-boat on display. I hope I can find it.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Monday, 20th April 2009 – Patriots’ Day, But Not a Scoundrel in Sight

I was in New York at the beginning of July 1977, just about half-a-life ago.  The natives were preparing to celebrate 200 years of independence from you-know-who.  A small band of Brit ex-pats met in a First Avenue bar to decide whether to skip across the border to Canada, where the money still had the Queen's head on it, or to go to Washington and show there were no hard feelings by joining in the celebrations.  Naturally, the celebrations won.  In at least one respect, it was a bad decision: from a heat and humidity point-of-view, there can be few less pleasant places than Washington in July.  But we woz there, and we all got the badge, and the T-shirt.

Now here I am, half-a-life later, in Boston, where it all started, celebrating the early victories in what they call the Revolutionary War.  The battles of Concord and Lexington took place just outside Boston, and Massachusetts has a public holiday on the third Monday in April to commemorate the victories.  Once again, I am determined to join in the fun, show there are no hard feelings.

The big event on Monday is the Marathon.  I must say this came as a bit of a surprise to me, because, being a rowing man, I thought the Boston Marathon was a rowing race from Lincoln to Boston in England, a race I once planned to take part in.  But that only started in 1946, whereas this running race started 112 years ago, in 1897.

I decide I should take part.  There is quite a tough qualification requirement, but I am going to overlook that.  Of course, I'm not going to run the whole race: I shall just do the hard bit.  The Boston Marathon is notorious for the Newton Hills, a set of four hills which occur about twenty miles into the race.  In 1936 the current champion, who was in second place, overtook the leader on the last of these hills, and gave him a consoling pat on the back as he did so.  This so upset his opponent that he rallied and retook the lead, going on to win.  The Boston Globe reported this as breaking the retiring champions heart.  Ever since, the fourth hill has been known as 'Heartbreak Hill".  I decide a trip out on the 'D' trolley to share the anguish would be a suitable celebration.  Of course, I didn't run all the way up, a dignified walk was sufficient.  But I did run a little bit of the way.  So I've run up Heartbreak Hill.

There are two kinds of people on Heartbreak Hill today: sadists and masochists.  The sadists are the spectators, and the masochists are the runners.  Some of the masochists, rather touchingly, emblazon their name on their bodies or shirts, thereby encouraging the sadists to personalise the sadistic messages they are shouting.  "come on, Mary-Lou", they shout, "only six miles to go".  One particularly sadistic member of the traffic police has nailed a sign on every tree saying "No Stopping".  I noted one particular lady, of about my age, looking determined to finish if it was the last thing she did, and looking as though it well might be.

Going back to town, this lunatic arrangement whereby the ball game ends at the same time as the race ensures that the trolley takes an hour.  But there are plenty of cheerful people bedecked in their silver blankets and medals to make it all seem worthwhile.


Tomorrow, it's "all aboard" the Lake Shore Limited and off to the Windy City.

Saturday 18th April 2009 – Looking Round Logan Field

I came to Boston by car, and I'm leaving by train.  Rather oddly, I'm staying at the airport.  It's the cheapest I could find, and it's actually very convenient.  I have to get the tube, sorry, 'subway', into town, but it's indoors all the way.  There are walkways everywhere, and free shuttle buses to the station. 

There is a considerable mount of automation, with its usual slightly sinister overtones.  Some of the walkways move, and a young lady always tells me at the end to watch my step.  I can get on and off the walkways without altering my gait, so she must be referring to some less obvious failing: but I can't figure out what it is.  She also tells me to attend to children, although I'm the only person in sight.  She remains calm, and repeats the message at the end of every walkway.

The automation becomes more sinister at the subway.  Here the voice is definitely shades of HAL, telling me the train is "approaching", then "arriving".  Reality does not quite coincide with this choice of vocabulary, so when he tells me the doors will open on the right side, I start to get nervous.  One of the trains I was on had a broken door, so only one of the pair opened.  I was standing in front of the other.  For a moment I thought of saying let me out, wondering if he would respond with I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave.

On the way back, as I stride onto the first walkway, I am greeted by no less a personage than Senator Kennedy.   I recognise his voice.  He tells me how wonderful Boston is.  Since he is a politician, I feel at liberty to tell him to watch his step.  He is a very senior politician, so he doesn't really need this advice, but he accepts it with good grace, and it makes me feel better.  Then it's HAL's cousin, telling me what to do with my parking ticket.  I tell him what to do with his.

You might think that all this banter with the disembodied computers would have people giving me a wide berth, but almost always, I'm the only person there. 

I bought myself a bagel at one of the terminal fast-food stands.  I hadn't quite finished it when I got to the hotel walkway, so I thought I would do a round trip on the walkways to the next terminal and back.  After all, wandering into a hotel eating a bagel is bad manners, and there was, as usual, nobody about on the walkways.  I had no sooner launched myself onto the walkway when, in the distance, at the far end of it, someone appeared out of nowhere and stopped the return walkway.  As I reached the end, he was striding away.  I shouted for him to start it up again till I got back to the hotel walkway, and he said I'm sorry I can't do that, Dave.

At this point, I notice that I'm half way between terminals C and E, where you might expect to find terminal D.  But there is no terminal D: the terminal directions refer only to A, B, C, and E.  I panic: does HAL have plans for me?  I drop the remains of the bagel and run for the hotel.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Friday 17th April 2009 – Blue Stockings and Red Socks

My trip is now gradually getting into gear.  I suppose this is a roundabout way of saying the gross mistakes are beginning to show up and be straightened out.  Like somehow having brought European plug converters instead of US.  I have to find an electrical shop with only minutes left on the computer battery.  In the old days, I would simply have stripped the cables and connected things up with a couple of matches, but I'm older and wiser now.  But I can't bring myself to sign up for a day's WiFi with no guarantee of being able to use more than aforesaid minutes.

I give a bit of ground and accept that staying a few more days in the expensive hotel solves some immediate problems.  At least I won't have to trek round Boston with all my worldly goods.  And I can use the hotel's computers to locate electrical suppliers.  I find a Radio Shack near the Red Socks stadium.  So the electrical problems will soon be solved. 

It turns out that staying in Boston was a good idea, because it's coming up Patriots' Day (note the punctuation, they're very particular about that), which is not only a long weekend in this part of the world, it's the Monday they run the Boston Marathon, the original city marathon.  This weekend sees the 113th year of the event.

Out at Fenway Park, the Red Socks are slogging it out with the Baltimore Orioles.  It turns out to be a bit like the film 'Groundhog Day', because every time I look at a television, the game is on.  I think I'm seeing replays, or highlights, but the game is live, and they seem to have been playing for a week.  In fact, it's a playoff series.  I think it's nine games, but I'm not sure.  I don't know what trophy they're playing off for either. But it doesn't matter: I really enjoy watching baseball.  I have to find a bar to watch it in.  I contemplated going to a game, but it's impossible to get tickets, and, anyway, it's too difficult to follow without the aid of the television graphics (unless you learned it at school).  The Red Socks will actually play a game on Monday morning so as to end while the Marathon is finishing.  Sounds like a crowd-control nightmare; I can't imagine the Met Police going along with that.

I find a bar close to the Fenway Park to watch tonight's game.  It has a star lady cocktail barman, who works frenetically the whole night.  I suggest she takes Monday off, and runs the marathon, just for the rest.  I missed the last out of the game watching her perform a particularly daring shake. She even gets the boys to eat their greens, by pulping them into their drinks.


As soon as the game is over, the TVs all go off and get shut away behind cupboard doors.  This is obviously a classy bar. 


[I was going to work all the smart young ladies at these fancy Boston colleges into the story, with the barmaid as the star, but I'm getting hopelessly behind, and I don't have time.  That will have to wait for the rewrite.  But it's such a good title, I refuse to change it.]

Wednesday 15th April 2009 – “Mary-Lou, Are You Ready?”

Newport still has its Folk Festival.  But it's not Bob Dylan now, it's son-of-Bob-Dylan.  Let's just hope he doesn't meet daughter-of-Joan-Baez and take to caterwauling duets.  I'm not aware I've ever heard Jakob Dylan singing.  In fact, until today, I hadn't heard of him at all.  But he featured at last year's festival, along with the sons of Bob Marley.  Children are clearly not rebelling the way they did in the 60's.

I found this out at the bar of the Brick Alley, Newport, where I am studying Sam Adams Boston Lager.  I am also studying the barmaid, who is clearly hopelessly attracted to me.  I ask her name several times, but it's too difficult to remember.  Ah, well, she'll just have to live without me.

The tannoy announces that the restaurant is ready for us.  I toddle off to the loo to finish of the processing of the Sam Adams.  While I'm doing that, a female voice asks me, clearly, if Mary-Lou is ready.  I panic: momentarily, I think I must be in the Ladies.  This, despite the fact that not only is there a row of urinals in front of me, I'm actually using one.  On my way to the table, I share this moment with the owner of the voice, the young lady maitre d' by the microphone.  She falls into paroxysms of mirth.  Women are putty in my hands tonight.

The waitress at the table eyes me nervously.  Her colleagues have clearly warned her of my powers.  But she has no need to worry: I demonstrate my disinterest by momentarily falling asleep.

I take a walk in the cold night air to help calm the women down, and meet a large group of midshipmen in their 'walking-out' uniforms (I asked them).  They are graduating in two days.  They practice their navigation skills getting me back to the restaurant.

Later that same night, back at the hotel, a group of fishermen teach me the ancient game of 'quarters', which is a bit like tiddly-winks, except for the drinking.  They also tell me a long, rambling joke of the same calibre as 'The Aristocrats', involving, among other things, a stolen wallet, a toll booth and a burst condom. 


It's no wonder we chaps are so attractive to women. 

Wednesday 15th April 2009 – An Old Lady Reveals a Racy Past

The Eastern Point of Long Island is rather like being on the Queen Mary again: the wind, the waves, the overwhelming sounds and smell; but most of all, the sense of peace.  Nobody here is in a hurry.  The man at the gate is unconcerned by the lack of booking.  And he advises against parking up and having a look around: "next boat's got some kinda trouble, she's gonna be late – I'd take this one".  So this one it was.

'This one' is a ship called the Cape Henlopen, which, it turns out, has been around.  It is a bit of an understatement to say she's seen a bit of action: on June 6th 1944, she rolled up Omaha beach with 30 tanks on board; and then did the same on every Pacific Island John Wayne ever conquered; and still gainfully employed wallowing across the Sound full of cars and trucks.  One or two of the trucks are those enormous 18-wheelers more at home on the freeways.  Various plaques indicate that veterans still come by to remember their past and their comrades.  The Cape Henlopen, when she was young, was known simply as 'LST 510', a 'Landing Ship, Tanks'.  The '510' is probably some indicator of the enormous power of the United States, even back then.  Her survival, and new name and job are a compliment to her designers.

[If you look up the ships on the Cross-sound Ferries company web-site, you will find there is one fast passenger ferry, the Sea Jet, which is illustrated in her old livery, with a huge Union Jack painted down the side.  This is because she used to operate in Hawai.  Hawai has a Union Jack in the corner of its state flag, to commemorate Captain Cook.]


The old LST510, as I shall now always remember her, took us to New London, Connecticut.  From there, it was a short, but slow drive to Newport, Rhode Island. 

As I write this, on a Sunday morning, NPR (National Public Radio) is broadcasting a 'Folk' programme.  The current item is a recording of a live performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez what-can-only-be-described-as-'murdering' 'With God on Our Side'.  It's excruciating!  How did they get away with it?  We used to think it was wonderful.  Does Newport still have a 'Folk' festival?  If it does, are the performers any better?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Wednesday 15th April 2009 – To Rhode Island, by the Scenic Route

Way out  at the eastern end of Long Island, nearly a hundred miles from New York City, there is a small ferry service running from Orient Point to New London in Connecticut, across the Long Island Sound, skirting past the dreaded Plum Island.  The Expressway runs out most of the way, but by the end, it is a single-carriageway road, with the ocean visible on either side.  As a means of getting out of the Big Apple, it has much to recommend it.

The expressway has nothing much to offer.  In fact, the first thing I did on emerging from the Midtown Tunnel was to race off up the wrong ramp.  But no sooner had I done this, than one of New York's finest popped out of the ground to offer sound advice to get me back on track.  The boredom of the turnpike offered the opportunity to investigate that new wonder of automotive technology, the satellite radio.  This has the merit of not having to retune constantly as one moves from the range of one transmitter to the next.

The end of the expressway revealed a succession of shopping malls, and the opportunity for pee and coffee.  The coffee shop was full of High School students (that's a particular age group in American), equal numbers of boys and girls, sitting at separate tables, furiously ignoring each other.  I wanted some reassurance that I was still on the right road, so I took my atlas to the group of boys and asked them where I was.  A long discussion ensued, during which the girls made their escape.  The boys may never forgive me.

Beyond Riverhead, one is in wine country: lots of vineyards, lots of wineries, lots of invitations to taste.  This came as quite a surprise.  I'm not much of a one for wine, but I made a note to try to find out something about it. 

Then the wine country breaks up into little coves and sandy beaches.  The whole place seemed an ideal spot for wine-loving grandparents to take grandchildren for a wildlife holiday.  (It would have to be grandparents, it looked too expensive for parents).  It was rather reminiscent of the Ile de Re in western France.  I wished I had found out a place to stay.


But it was onward to the charms of the Cross-Sound Ferry at Orient Point.

Wednesday 15th April 2009 – A New York Breakfast

The hotel was on the lower west side of Manhattan, in an area known as Chelsea.  It is a hotbed of Irish bars. But there may be less than there were.  The beer has much improved in the twenty years since I was last here.  Once the CO2 has been swizzled out of it, there are discernable hops and malt.  I think American palates must like the acrid taste of the gas (Or, perhaps like most people nowadays, they have not acquired a taste for hops and malt, but have acquired a taste for CO2).  Of course the swizzling attracts much attention, even though I am now sufficiently practiced at it not to cover the neighbourhood in foam.  By the end of the evening, I am even more practiced.  The beer now comes in pints, or at least what Americans call a pint, which is much smaller (by about a fifth) than I am used to.  But it comes in 'nonic' glasses, which don't slip out of the hand when the swizzle-foam lubricates the sides. 

The hotel exhibits much faded glory.  It has been refurbished in a style I don't recognise, but must include in its title the word 'bizarre'.  The doors are metal, and have been given that patterned-turning finish which fifties sports car enthusiasts loved to see on their engines.  What it didn't include was double-glazing.  So the night was noisy.  I spent it with a demon gang of garbage men, collecting dumpsters (which is what Americans call those large commercial waste bins).  Morning investigation revealed that there was a large manhole cover in the middle of Eighth Avenue which was rocked noisily by large vehicles.  But the demon dustmen were better company in the night.

The rental car for the next part of the journey was waiting only a few blocks away, so there was time for that great indulgence of a New York stay, the Great American Breakfast.  Breakfast in a New York coffee shop is the most enduring of my memories of New York.  I always made a point, when going to start work in New York on a Monday morning, to arrive on the Saturday night, and give myself a whole Sunday to recover.  I remember a particular event on an early, perhaps even the first, visit.  I had settled down at the counter with a vast plate of breakfast when a young woman came in obviously selling newspapers.  She was quite irate when I asked her for one: she only had one; to my untutored eye, and, would venture to suggest, to any untutored eye, one copy of the New York Sunday Times looked like a holepaperboy's round.  Thereafter, these Sundays were spent in a leisurely consumption of breakfast and the Sunday Times.

            The coffee shop this time, opposite Penn Station, didn't run to a counter, but breakfast was just as good, and just as vast.  The waitresses still exhibited that curious mix of maternal solicitousness, and peremptory rudeness that is forever the hallmark of New York. 

There was no New York Times this time, but the government, perhaps a little guilty about the doings of its immigration service, laid on a special entertainment.  The coffee shop was just opposite the main New York Post Office, a vast Edwardian pile, occupying a whole block to itself.  And it was 'Tax Day'.  This is the day when all Americans have to submit their income tax return to the Government.  And the rule is that they must get it post-marked on Tax Day.  So the Post Office figures large in the ritual.  It stays open till midnight, and the New York one had a whole row of mobile post offices parked outside.  Of course, anyone wanting to demonstrate on anything remotely connected to tax, knows the main post office is the place to be.  And every television station knows this is where the oddball stories of the day are going to be.  So we had a circus.


Then it was into the car, straight along 34th Street, through the Midtown Tunnel and out onto the Long Island Expressway: with another New York Breakfast to remember.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Tuesday 14th April 2009 – Goodbye QM2, Hello World

If you're going to have a big adventure, it's best not to rush into it.  The QM2 must be just about the best way in the world to approach an American adventure slowly.  A week of 25-hour days with no escape; an ocean to contemplate; dressing up for dinner in good company; regular exercise; and a bit of boozing.  It lulled me, it definitely lulled me.

Then I had to meet the Department of Homeland Security.  The nice young lady at the American Embassy in London had told me it would be the DHS at the port of entry who decided how long I could stay.  She said I had to have my itinerary prepared, clear evidence of how long my big adventure would take.   This I did: in spades; but to no avail.  If the system is as it was explained to me, it is simply not possible to do what I want.  Except by rolling with the punches.

The DHS officer had a Spanish name; and, of course, a gun.  But it could have been government anywhere: "naw, mate, six mumfs, port policy, init."  And disinterested in any variation, or any reason for any variation.  "You can apply to extend it.  Go to 26 Federal Plaza."  26 Federal Plaza made me take most of my clothes off and pushed me through a x-ray machine.  They poured my emergency flask of whisky down the drain.  Then they gave me the extension application form and told me I had to send it with a cheque for $300 dollars.  That's not to buy an extension, of course, that's to get the application processed.

So either I do it in their timescale, or I find a way round their rules.  It's just how you have to deal with government, isn't it?  There can never be a meeting of minds:  there is no mind to meet.  I vowed I would be positive about all the people I met, but already I have an exception.  And not just the people I met: the whole class of people they represent.

Tomorrow I must start to formulate plan B.  I'll show them!  Tonight, a few beers and some jazz: pretend I'm still on the Mary.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Easter Monday, April 13th 2009 – Tea for Two

41°13'N, 63°07'W, 2500 miles gone, 500 to go.


My exotic Spanish dance instructor has inspired me to new heights: I have been visiting the Tea Dance.  I had thought, dimly, when I thought about it at all, that the Tea Dance was an arcane device invented by the Woolwich Borough Council to give old ladies something to do in the afternoon other than feed their cats.  How wrong I was.  Cunard have elevated it to a pinnacle of commercial success.  There are a whole phalanx of gentlemen hosts on board, to see to the needs of the even larger phalanx of single ladies poised, cat-like at the edge of the dance floor.  When I said 'needs', I hope nothing tawdry flitted through your mind: these are elegant, stylish, well-dressed needs; the ladies, and, indeed the gentlemen, have spent considerable time and effort scrubbing-up for the occasion.

I, needless to say, am not elegible to participate in the needs-satisfaction department, since even a week of packing has not provided me with any outfit suitable for this occasion.  The props department of the Ealing Comedies would have readily provided me with an RAF blazer and a pencil moustache, but that would have stood out like a sore thumb among the faded elegance here.  (Curiously, there was, in fact, a sore thumb present on the occasion of my visit.  One of the gentlemen ushers was perambulating the floor with an injured thumb propped up in front of him.  And it stuck out: in both senses of the word).  It is clear that a proper dress code is operating.

Non-combatants are tolerated, but they are required to bring their own partners.  They don't have to follow the dress code.  They don't even have to be able to dance very well.  But they have to stay out of the shipping lanes during combat.  It looks a little like the radar screen you can see on the cross-channel ferries, with little dots negotiating passage here and there, and large blobs cruising elegantly through their midst.  Perhaps, more topically, it's like watching the Masters golf and finding they've allowed weekend players on the course at the same time. 

I had just settled into watching a bit of golf in the afternoon when it went off the air.  Golf is so restful to watch.  The sports channels have now reappeared, so I guess the satellites aren't visible mid-Atlantic.  Tea Dancing is a suitable substitute.  One can enjoy the effortless economy of the good players, while keeping an eye on the strategic outcome.  There is a bit of competition going on.  The gentlemen are looking for points to be awarded by the ladies.  The ladies appear to take their judging role very seriously.  Points are awarded in the form of smiles, laughs and sometimes even squeezes.  The gentlemen all notice.  The ultimate accolade is a wistful reluctance to admit a dance is over.   The gentlemen handle this situation very well.

On first viewing this event, I thought it was simply exploitation of the single women, but further observation, and a little participant polling, now leads me to the view that it may be nearer to the opposite.

Ah, life's rich tapestry!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Easter Sunday, April 12th 2009 – German Gas


41°30'N, 49°05'W, 2000 miles gone, 1000 to go.


There is a pub on board.  It is, as you would expect from Cunard, very civilised.  In fact, it's so civilised, smoking is permitted.  It is surprising how quickly we forgot the charms of a smoke-filled atmosphere.  I suspect there are people who do this trip regularly just for the joy of an old-fashioned pub.  Since we are gathered for the purpose of drinking beer and staring at the mesmerising ocean foaming past just outside the window ( the pub is down at low-level) it would be quite uncivilised to send them outside to smoke, although it might add considerably to the entertainment.  I manage a few enlightening discussions about lung cancer, and the excruciatingly painful death it usually causes.  The smokers don't seem to want to stay long.  One German pair were really quite unfriendly, and refused to tell me the German for 'lung cancer'.  They moved to another table in a huff, delivering a long stream of German at me as they departed, of which I could only follow the general gist.  I like to do my bit to cement international relations.

The pub only sells pasteurised, frozen, carbonated beer.  So the atmosphere is helped further by traditional pub farting and burping.  If we don't get to New York soon, I may float away in a bubble of Carbon Dioxide.  (Is Carbon Dioxide lighter than air?  Nobody warned me in school chemistry that one day I would be writing about this and too mean to pay the exorbitant internet access rates obtaining on the QM2.  Problem is: I can't remember whether carbon is lighter than oxygen, or vice-versa.  I seem to remember that one is 14 and the other is 16.  I guess if carbon is 14, CO2  will be lighter than air.  No, wait a minute, isn't there a lot of nitrogen involved in this question as well?  I will just have to ask the Germans next time I see them.).  In the mean time, I buy my beer with a spare glass and a swizzle stick.  Decanting half and swizzling vigorously has the desired effect.  Actually, the need for two glasses only became apparent during an early experiment, which resulted in covering the table and a considerable area of carpet in beer.  The staff, who obviously like to take part in chemistry experiments, insisted on doing the clearing up.  The general conclusion was that there was far too much carbon dioxide in the beer, although some held to the ridiculous conclusion that there was far too much beer in me.


I retired to the Winter Garden to read and snore.  They were having a cocktail party for the "World Cruisers".  Some passengers have been on the ship for months: probably heavy smokers.  I notice a waiter restacking all the plates.  Why would he risk touching all the crockery (public health is a big issue on ocean liners).  Then I notice the curious way he is doing it, and work out he's putting all the crests in the same position.  Class will always outrank health.  Anyway, he's wearing latex gloves.


My jive lesson was everything I expected of it.  I was provided with a sparrow-sized partner, so I was able to perform my part of the figures without any noticeable resistance.  Our Spanish instructors showed us some of the basics, made us feel quite good, than, as usual, soared away to perfection at the end.  They did an exhibition in the ballroom after dinner.  I don't know if this was as good, because the young lady was wearing practically no clothes, so I didn't get to see their feet: or, indeed, him.