Monday, November 17, 2008

Travel 21/7/08 – Nice Return

Today was the first day I managed a swim before breakfast. I think a definition of the active luxury lifestyle I aspire to is that of swimming before breakfast. Every time I do it, I think, I want to do this everyday. Then I forget about it for about 2 years before having the chance to think it again.

After a quiet day by the pool and a quick barbecue during which the next tenants arrived, several of us had to rush to the airport to wait for the Transavia (Latin for "late arrival") flight. Others were leaving in a few days, and Jochem and Claire were going off into the wilds of France to live in a tent.

The rich life in the Riviera hills is definitely a life I could get used to. It can be pleasant even when being clamoured all over by scores of children, which is saying quite a lot.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Travel 20/7/08 – Nice Painting

It was another peaceful day high on the hills above the French Riviera. Even the noises that broke the silence, actually seemed to add to the peace. The constant cricket, the bird with a chirp that sounded like it was sneezing, the occasional jet and the odd child.

First and only port of call was St. Paul de Vence, a village on and almost behind the next hill, famed for being a haunt of artists. Nowadays it's a place for tourists and all the artists who live there, and plenty of others, have little shops. There are certainly some great places there for perusing art. And the town itself is a beautiful, old, walled affair and is particularly enchanting in the streets off the main tourist arteries. The latter are quite choked with international cholesterol.

After wandering around, we all met up for bieres et Oranginas at a large café next to a boules-playing area (pétanquerie?). Here we watched local characters demonstrate their skill at France's national sport. Chuck Norris and Deadly Pipe-Smoking Woman seemed to be thrashing the local mafia.

The trip inspired even more of us to do paintings. Our unimaginably generous host had bought a huge order of canvases of various sizes and invited us to perform art on them. It was one of those exercises that really shows you that putting paint on something and getting a pleasing result is not so difficult. Getting something great, is another matter, of course, but some of us succeeded. Us, not meaning me. Although I was pleased with my red background, that became a Rothko hommage.

Final game of the day was the name game, where names of famous people have to be described to members of your team.

For pictures see: Flickr

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Travel 19/7/08 – Nice Sailing

We all got off to an early start, although nobody as early as Ben who had slept in the treehouse and was awoken by the cracking of dawn which seems to crack in the treehouse long before it cracks anywhere else. Coffee was nabbed and then a taxi arrived to ferry us to the harbour town of Antibes.

French taxi drivers are consistent in that every single one will try to rip you off. It's part of their code. Like the code of black cabs in London which is to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and political views somewhere to the right of Goebbels; and the code of mini cabs everywhere which is to only rob and murder you when absolutely necessary.

At Antibes, we hired two boats, as one wasn't enough for all of us. We even hired a captain. The larger boat left first and made its way to the bay of billionaires. Here, and elsewhere along the coast, were the houses of the very rich and the very famous. Many of these houses are surprisingly ugly, but all had a great view of the sea. These were the houses of the Heinekens and the BMW's of this world. Further along there were the houses of the Abramovich's and the Madonna.

The bay was a calm, clear area and a few of us jumped in to swim, watching out for the jellyfish that were then plaguing certain areas. In fact there was a lot of talk of these jellyfish, and their status had grown to that of some kind of alien invasion force. In the end a couple of loose ones were spotted, but not the floating mass many were expecting and certainly not the giant, laser-squirting mother-jellyfish I had been expecting.

We had quite a wait for the other, smaller boat as the first one didn't work and they had to get a second. When they eventually arrived, beer and champagne were ferried across by swimmer. After we'd had enough of being surrounded by the houses of the filthy rich, we moved along the coast past the mock Roman pile of Roman Abramovich. The house was the first one we saw with obvious security guards around. According to our captain, who has a story for every boat and building, Abramovich has a policy of only employing security guards who do not speak Russian. Which says a lot about who his enemies are. Our captain also had a Naomi Campbell story, and apparently she really is a bitchy diva, which was a little disappointing.

We passed other harbour towns and then sailed to a small bay between two islands where there is no current and the water awesomely clear. It's basically a parking lot for yachts. Million-, billion- and squillionaires park their boats in a small crowded area of water and show off their engineeringly-enhanced craft and cosmetically-enhanced wives. It's the ultra-rich equivalent of the car park on Skegness seafront. If your boat is not quite up to scratch, the water police come by and tell you it's too crowded and you have to move on. However, even if you have a huge yacht the size of Malta, if it looks okay, there will always be space.

After a little bit of sun bathing amongst the big boats, swimming in the Elysian waters and ogling the bellies of the rich, we moved on. The smaller boat went off for a bit of water skiing and we went to go round a couple of old sailing boats and the dock in another bay for more swimming.

The waters were pretty calm that day, which is good as I am not a great sailor, despite what some people might say. I was only a little queasy a couple of times. The kids faired a little worse.

After returning the boats, we grabbed ice creams and then a couple of taxis to rip us off back home. That night we played Werewolf until fatigue took us all to our various beds.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Travel 18/7/08 – Nice Rest

The "dungeon" area where I was sleeping was devoid of windows and had nothing that could tell you what time it was. At the height of the day it gets no light or heat from outside and it is just as dark as it is in the middle of the night. It would be easy to spend half the day there thinking it was the wee small hours and emerge for breakfast only to find that dinner was being served. Fortunately, my body clock doesn't really like too much sleep and if I get more than I need I tend to feel worse than if I had got much less than I need. So I didn't emerge too late at all.

Mornings for me are pretty much as they were for my prehistoric cousins – who I am convinced lived in either Kenya or Columbia – foraging for coffee. Fortunately for me, things are easier now and I don't have to fight off caffeine-addicted monkeys to be able to pick, crush the beans and then spend four hours fetching water and building a fire. There are machines. Machines that not only, at the press of a button, crush the beans and find and boil the water, but also, I suspect, would fight off caffeine-addicted monkeys, if needed. And what's more I didn't even have to go and find and milk a cow – there was milk in the fridge.

It was a day for taking things easy. In fact, it wouldn't have mattered if I had had to do the monkey fighting, bean crushing and cow milking myself, there was time. And it was remarkable how in the warm bits of France breakfast almost merges into lunch into mid afternoon snack and into dinner. Between food and wine, people swam, painted, read and consumed sun. There was much getting to know our host's kids who are very hands-on and enjoy nothing better than climbing all over you or becoming a fast-flying "bommetje" heading for the water near you.

Soon it was time for a barbeque – one of the best ways to feed lots of people. In fact barbeques can always feed lots more people than you have. Once again the last event of the day was a game. Tonight, Apples to Apples in the palatial treehouse.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Travel 17/7/08 – Nice Trip

For the last few years, there has been an abundance of cheap flights to the south and middle of France from the UK. Recently the Netherlands has been starting down that route with its own cut-rate airline, Transavia. Transavia is very much in the easyjet vein, where the stewards and stewardesses are less and less waiters and waitresses but check-out assistants using the flight not to throw you a cubist meal, but to sell you train-station snacks.

There were five of us travelling together and we met up with two more at the airport. Two cars arrived to pick us up, driven by our hostess and an early-arriver. We were whisked out of Nice and into the nearby hills. Well, some people were whisked there. The sportscar went ahead with Jochem's hair blowing in the wind like a millionaire's moll, but the people carrier the rest of us were in decided to over take the sports car just as it turned off the motorway. Consequence was we missed the turning. We went on and on and on until the next turning. We paid the toll and came off; decided it was too complex to try to get there from this exit and got back on in the other direction. After driving all the way back to where the previous exit was, we discovered that due to one of those quirks that the French love to throw into their road systems, there was no exit on the other side of the payage (tolled motorway), so we had to go on to the next exit - pretty much just before the airport. We paid the toll drove round and came back on the other side. This time we drove somewhat less impatiently and took the right turning, paid the toll, and headed off towards the hills.

Obviously, we arrived much later than the occupants of the sports car, and they were already on the champagne, laid on for our arrival by our insanely generous host. Said host is the owner of said villa in said hill, which is a prime piece of real estate overlooking the coast and St. Paul de Vence. Even in the dark, the clear sky allowed us to look down and see the twinkles of lights that hinted of the playground of the rich and famous that is Nice.

As a side note, our flabbergastingly generous host had just been in Paris a day after Cath and I had (see previous entries). He had been there for the Bastille Day celebrations. The ones that we hadn't known about until we'd arrived and consequently missed.

Once the diffusion off to bed had started, a select few climbed up through the vineyard to the treehouse, which was larger than several flats I've lived in, to play perudo. The night was pleasant and there was talk of sleeping up there. But in the end everyone slept in their allotted places – including Ben and I in the "dungeon" in the bowels of the house - mainly because it involved only one trip.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Travel: 13/7/08 – from Paris

Between checking out and catching our metro, we had time for a brief wander about and to grab a perfect pain au chocolat and a santé which is a tasty almond cookie. The metro took us back to the Gard du Nord where we connected with the Thalys. On the metro, two tramps were discussing the state of they world and giving their view on national politics. The main thrust of their debate was summed up by one of them by saying, "Sarkozy merde."

The trip back was uneventful, except for the fact the whole train seemed to be filled with kids. As you may know I am a strong proponent of there being separate compartments in planes for families with children (or for just the children) and I am now going to add international trains to the remit. I have nothing against children, I just think they should have their own compartment, like smokers and plague victims used to have.

Despite being one of the shortest trips ever, it was great to get away and see one of the world's great cities again. Plus to speak some of my appalling French. Or Revwah, mez anfants.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Travel: 12/7/08 – in Paris

Saturday late morning, we arrived in Paris having had a very pleasant journey. We were fed and able to read, write and perform complex arithmetic. The reason we had decided last minute to wobble off to Paris was that Cath had relatives holidaying there. I'd met them the first time I went to Texas. They live in a huge house and their two kids have the whole basement as their play area. I'm seldom jealous of kids these days, but in this case I made an exception. We checked into our hotel and then soon arranged to meet them.

They were staying reasonably close by, but when you have kids, you don't just pop places, every trip is an exercise in logistics. Cath and I being unencumbered with offspring had just jumped on a train to have a mere 24 hours in Paris. Had we had kids, we would have had to tied them down so that they couldn't fall off things; and make sure there was enough food in their bowls.

We met them at the Bastille and immediately went to eat. Kids need a constant supply of food because as soon as they stop eating they start running around and burning it all up. We found a nicely placed but somewhat touristy café on the side of the square (which is actually more of a roundabout). A constant supply of ham sandwiches came in and various kids and adults had bits of them.

On the island at the centre of the traffic, a stage was being erected. This is because Monday was Bastille Day, when France celebrates the storming of the prison once held in the roundabout in front of us and the freeing of prisoners because they weren't rich. It's a great day to be in France, except we were leaving on Sunday.

Upon leaving the café, the traffic was stopped. Not for us, but because a large precession of people was coming down the street. Not anything to do with the Bastille, but as a protest against nuclear weapons and nuclear things in general, pretty much as all those years ago, gangs of people had marched by the very spot holding up placards stating "Ban The Guillotine," and "No Weapons of Mass Decapitation."

We had been given one recommendation by Claire the super-helpful, French girl from work, and that was the Promenade Planté. It's a raised walkway lined with flowers, bushes and the occasional pond. It's amazingly peaceful for aomewhere in such a big city. It was also a place the kids could run around and be relatively safe, apart from the risk of annoying a few Parisians.

After the walk to and along the Promenade Planté, it was time to refuel the kids. Nearby was a chain of Child-friendly cafes called Hippopotamus. In the end we only had a few Oranginas as time was pressing on. We had a date that evening with Alicia Keyes. Yes, Alicia Keyes. It hadn't been a plan to come all the way to Paris to see this wholesome, young arranbeer, but that's what happened. Or rather, what happened was that our kind hosts were already going to see her and bought us tickets.

The venue is a huge arena-style venue, and was packed to the rafters with enthusiastic French youth. The crowd was got into the mood by one of the Marleys. Old Bob stirred it up with quite a few little darlings and there are Marleys for every day of a fortnight. This one was Stephen and he certainly had his daddy's moves and voice. He had quite a lot of his songs, as well. And why shouldn't he? They'd otherwise only go to waste. Also running around the stage was a little kid waving the Jamaican flag for all he was worth. He seemed a natural on stage and was quite possibly a mini-Marley. It's comforting to know the world will never run out of Marleys.

Before the main act, there was a short film somewhere between the Blues Brothers and wholesome Disney comedy. It's purpose was to show that Alicia wasn't just another off-the-shelf R'n'B singer; She was on a mission, possibly from God. The video also plugged her charity, which does put her above most singers.

After the film came the girl herself with a show that had a lot of pizzaz in the modern R'n'B style. In fact the show often resembled a music video it was so slick and well-choreographed. From time-to-time one of Alicia's pianos popped up or in and she played along. Half way through, she declared that all she wanted to do was play her piano. This she did for three songs then it was back to the pizzaz.

We slipped out early to avoid the rush; waited for a taxi; and then went to a nearby hotel to have them call for one. As we were 6 people they had to call a people carrier, and for that they said they needed to collect 5 euros. It was clearly some rip-off she had just made up, but we were in no position to know that for sure and so handed over the cash. It must be quite sad to spend your day finding petty ways to con people out of piddling bits of money. We headed back to the area of the hotels. It was time for a late-night steak with onion soup. And to introduce the kids to snails.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Travel: 12/7/08 – to Paris

SNCF is the French national train service. It is run, as far as I can see, for the benefit of its employees and as a cover for various fraudulent operations. One of its scams is the international ticket swindle and it works thus:
1. The website only allows you to order tickets for Thalys international trains, in this instance from Amsterdam to Paris.
2. The website gives you no option but to pick the ticket up before travel.
3. The only place to pick up a ticket bought via the SNCF is from the SNCF kiosk.
4. Whilst happily selling you a ticket from Amsterdam, the nearest SNCF kiosk is... in Brussels.
5. The con really kicks in here: Any form of cancellation only gives you a 50% refund.

So having ordered my ticket online via my slow work computer, and having tried to pick it up at Amsterdam station the day before, I found that I couldn't pick it up. I had to cancel it and order a new ticket from a reputable source. Believe me I had help to try and sort this out properly. The mother of a super-helpful French girl at work even went into a station in France on my behalf to argue it. It was a like a scene from "La Petite France," the French "Little Britain."

MOTHER He wants to cancel this ticket.
MOTHER Because he can't pick it up, because he is in Amsterdam and there is no Kiosk there.
VGBD I can give you the ticket.
MOTHER But he needs to have it in Amsterdam tomorrow.
VGBD He can go to the SNCF Kiosk.
MOTHER Do they have one in Amsterdam.
VGBD Oh, no. So what does he want to do?
MOTHER He wants to cancel this ticket.

In other words:
VGBD Ordinateur dit "Non!"

Anyway, despite the wonderful help from the most helpful French mother in the world, all she was able to do in the face of such faceless, circular bureaucracy was cancel the ticket (redeeming half the price) and give me the details to complain. I sent a complaint off, and have heard Sweet SNCFA. Next step is to use cyber-complaint techniques. More on this soon.

Anyway, with our new ticket we obtained entrance to one of the sleek Thalys trains. We were going first class because "first class" on Thalys trains is not much more expensive than "second class." This is because "first class" isn't really that much better than "second class" except they throw food at you and there are (sometimes) electrical sockets.

The staff are possibly the best in the world, except for perhaps Middle-Eastern market traders, at instantly determining someone's nationality and switching to it. They all speak French, Dutch, English and often German.

The train goes from Amsterdam to France via Belgium, which is the country in between in every way possible. To cater for tastes on both sides, breakfast included both hagelslag (chocolate sugar strands beloved by the Dutch on bread) and Laughing Cow (creamy processed cheese associated with the French, but actually seeming somehow more American).

Saturday, November 01, 2008


I have just cycled home in the rain and overtook a man on a unicycle. It's moments like these that make me happy to live in Amsterdam.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Travel: 26/6/08: Den Haag: Bonding with the city

Despite its proximity and importance, I have rarely found myself in the city of Den Haag (The Hague). Den Haag is the seat of Government and home of the Queen. It isn't the capital and main tourist centre; that's Amsterdam. In between them is a large swathe of nothing much. Only an airport, Leiden (the town I worked in for about 6 years, on and off) and a lot of cows.

From the tram I got on at Den Haag central station, the first thing of note I saw was a building with a high fence and military-style policemen. It was obviously the US embassy as no other building in the Netherlands is as protected as this. In fact, nothing is ever as well protected as a US embassy. Even Bond-villain bases are easier to slip into.

Adoring Amsterdam, as one does, one forgets that other cities in the country are also beautiful; also have great architecture; also could be lived in.

Today's piece of employment was to have my voice recorded for a forthcoming animation. I play a guitarist in a punk band (which is one dream come true) and a nerdy keyboardist in an electro-synth band (another dream, obviously).

I walked back because it was a nice day and I'd had so much fun recording the voices no tram could contain it. I passed great music shops, some very impressive sand sculptures and, once again, the US embassy. Of the two guards behind the fence, one was on the phone and the other engrossed in sending an SMS. Guards are so easy to distract these days. They weren't this slack in James Bond's day.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Friday 13 June: Portland, Oregon - Slowing

We landed in Portland International Airport, which is one of the best organised airports I've seen in the US. It helps that it's not so big. The thing I am still not used to is the American system whereby all of the shops are before you go through security. Therefore after you have checked in, you still mingle with thieves, drug smugglers and terrorists for a long time before you get on the flight. But I guess I'm used to security-conscious Europe rather than the commercially-minded US.

One thing I did touch upon was the problem we were having with NWA, the Network With Additional Costs. When we came to check in online, we were allocated seats. Two people who booked tickets together paid for in the same payment were allocated seats at two different ends of the plane. Why would any company do that? There is a 100% chance we would want to sit together in those situations. The reason is, NWA wanted to grab more money from us. It allowed us to change these seats, but most of the available seats were only available at a 50 dollar upgrade charge. So basically, they stick you in unacceptable seats and charge you to sit somewhere reasonable. We picked the last two free seats together that weren't charged for (right up near the back of the plane) because we didn't want to give these crooks any more money. We should have remembered their 1988 hit, "F**k tha Passengas."

On top of that the site wouldn't let us fully check in after we selected seats because we'd booked via KLM. It suggested trying then booking airline's site. We tried KLM's website told us "why not check in online at" Believe me, baby, we tried.

I am currently trying to complain but because of the fact we booked through KLM, they can't seem to find details. Criminal AND badly organised. Sounds like a bad combination.

We had a lot of time before the flight. I ate a huge mushroom burger while Cath napped. For some reason Americans think there is nothing better than putting a pickled gherkin in a bun otherwise filled with good things. They must either like them or think that it is good to do some penance with something that is otherwise enjoyable. Maybe they think it will help them get into heaven. Not with gherkin-breath, you won't.

Going through security, it was shown that my ticket had a random "S" on it. This random letter is added to the card based on criteria unknown and means extra security check required. It meant that I had to go through the "puffer." This is a glass box the size of a small elevator that blows air at you in order to dislodge particles. It then sniffs the air for whatever they are looking for: pesticides, drugs or explosives. Then a chatty woman swabbed my new bag and put the swabs into a machine. It was my new laptop bag and she swabbed pockets I hadn't even known were there. If the machine was calibrated for "new bag smell" alarms would have gone off all over the building. But whatever they were looking for, I didn't have any. They funny thing is, this extra security took me outside of the normal queue and I was all done before Catherine with her standard security was through. Evidently potential terrorists get fast-tracked onto the plane. The Americans have never really understood security. But I guess it protects the airport itself more.

We still had plenty of time and so nabbed some coffee and used the airport's power to laptoptify. Portland is a fun, small airport and huge jumbo planes have to line up with tiny little things that are barely bigger than the cockpit of the former.

Our flight was full and our seats at the back were not bad in that they had a little more room as there were only three of them instead of the four earlier on in the plane as it was starting to taper in there. And we weren't right at the back where the seats don't go back. However the flight was popular with people with children who I still insist should have a class of their own.

The safety instructions were given via a video with what seemed to be real aircrew carefully picked to be completely across the board racially. There was a Dutch translation after every explanation, but it was done quickly and only covered some of the topics. For example none of the first class apparatus was explained suggesting the cost-conscious Dutch don't travel first class.

Soon after take off we were offered a last glimpse of the magnificent Mount St. Helens, sitting there, biding its time.

It was a long ten-hour flight which Cath cleverly slept through. She part-fasted whilst I ate everything that came my way and completely failed to sleep whatsoever. My method was actually the more successful at getting back on the new time zone but only because I have the more flexible body clock that sorts itself out pretty quickly at the expense of being a zombie for the first few days back. I even managed to do a short improv gig the afternoon I arrived. I have no idea how it went, but I certainly wasn't in my head, which is a good thing.

It was nice to visit new places in the US. San Francisco and Portland I could definitely do again. In fact I suspect I could live in both places, and not many cities in the US make me feel like that.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Friday 13 June: San Francisco - Fasting

The latest scientific wisdom is that the way to beat jetlag is through fasting. Apparently if you don't eat for 14 hours before you land, you reset your internal clock the moment you eat, your body deciding this must be breakfast. All well and good for flights landing around breakfast time. If you land in the evening, what do you do then? Perhaps I should do some research rather than rely on second-hand hearsay. I remain unconvinced as to the scientific fact of this and will continue to eat and carry my magic time sticks with me.

We awoke at seven, grabbed a quick breakfast, packed and hopped on the shuttle-bus for the airport. It was all very easy, although our German driver was a tad grumpy that we were not ready when he turned up a couple of minutes early. We took a tiny little Alaskan Airline plane to Portland. 18 rows of seats it had. I was rather disappointed there were no Inuit on the flight. Maybe they were in Frost Class. (I know it's a bad joke but I woke up at 7, so what do you expect.)

I liked Alaska Airlines. They had a big picture of an Eskimo on the tail fin and served Starbucks coffee. However, even this managed to taste like mud as all airline coffee does. I think it is something to do with altitude.

Up in the air, we had some awesome views. A great snow-capped mountain drifted past some 45 minutes in. This was almost certainly Mount Shasta. Sometime later appeared a giant crater filled with water called Crater Lake. This was Oregon and more mountains followed many with snowy peaks, without which mountains don't really seem like mountains. Around that area there seemed many paths (they must have been roads/tracks from this height) but otherwise the area seemed very unspoilt woodland.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Thursday 12 June: San Francisco – Sway

Following yesterday's Japanese Tea Garden disappointment, we decided to take no chances. Once we had dispensed with breakfast, we headed that way on the number 71 bus. The Japanese Tea Garden is an island of peace and serenity and expensive tea in the middle of a moderately relaxed city by US standards. It's only spoilt by occasional throngs of tourists of all nationalities. And the tea isn't really that expensive given the peaceful surroundings and the great snacks you get with it. There is even some tamelife (it can't be called wildlife when it's so placid) including fat koi, some happy crayfish (or crawfish, or crawdaddies if you're Texan), a myriad of pond skaters and even an oddly marked bumble bee that could only walk. What was great to learn was that in the Eastern European language of the two very Boratian gentlemen with 4 English-speaking kids "crawfish" is the word for crawfish. Maybe it was originally an Uzbek, Kazik or Tjerkminik word in the first place, but I doubt it.

Cath and I spent many hours discussing the way of dealing with homelessness. There is a lot of it. Many places have different ways of dealing with it. Most with some success, but the problems seem to be a) not too much is done, and often it's not initiated by the city but individuals who may or may not be able to get city funds; and b) the policy in each area is quite rigid and often somewhat different. And the fact is different people are on the street for different reasons and the best method to help them out is not the same for each person. Variable measures is even more expensive than a fixed, one-size fits all solution. I think it fair to say we failed to come up with the perfect solution.

On the way out of the park, curiosity took hold and we looked in to see the Shakespeare Garden. Fortunately, a pair of elderly cyclists were being told all about it by one of the park-keepers. It's a recreation of an Elizabethan garden. What was even more interesting to learn was the fact that whole park (Japanese Tea, Shakespeare and other gardens) is "built" on sand. (If you look on the (Golden Gate) park on the map, it goes right up to the sea). It apparently requires almost constant watering for it to remain a park and not become a huge dune.

We caught the bus to Haight (pronounced, The Bus to Hate - a great title for a terrible 1950s drama; although not as good as the sign on the tram "Haight-Casto" or Hate Castro! - great title for terrible propaganda movie).

San Francisco prides itself on its coffee. It considers itself the real home of coffee in the US and that Seattle is just the pretender who just gave us a lot of chains. In a minimarket (grocery store a few blocks off Haight, there was a selection of 5 coffees in flasks. People on the go can squirt out any one of these into a beaker, pay and continue to go. Five types of coffee is more than most bars offer. We had our coffee (okay, my coffee) over the street in The Sacred Grounds Café <>, a suitably hippy sounding name for an established but still somewhat disorganised eatery. There was a Hillary Clinton poster in the window which was now just ironic since she was out of the race. (That is at least until her assassins get to Obama.) The food was great. I had a sandwich with some great Sudanese chicken thing and Cath had falafel. On another table (the only other filled one for most of the time) a woman talked with a loud penetrating voice about the peace of meditation. She might have been ironic too.

The bathroom proved to be an adventure. To do it properly, you walked through the kitchen and on your left was a door unclearly marked Toilet. However, go through the kitchen and turn right, ignoring the scruffy barely-marked door on the left, and you end up in a cavernous area that leads down many paths. Some to stairs, another to an exit and a another one to a toilet marked "For pizza patrons only." This was locked. And anyway, we were in a cafe, not a pizza restaurant. I followed the thread of my jeans back and found the entrance to the lair. I fancied I heard what could have been screams far off in the distance. Presumably from the pizza place. Back in the kitchen I asked where the bathroom was. It was immediately on the left out of the kitchen. I would have felt stupid had not a girl appeared in the kitchen for the same purpose I appeared there a few minutes earlier. I let her go first and she immediately turned right. It wasn't me. The door was invisible.

We took 2 buses to the Golden Gate Bridge. (That is we changed, rather than went on separate buses.) The Golden Gate Bridge was once the longest suspension bridge in the world, and it is certainly one of the most famous. It's mainly recognisable because 90% of suspension bridges all look the same. From the look-out point, just before you get on the bridge by foot, you can look down and see an historic army fort. It's not obviously reachable from there, although it is clearly reachable by many people.

We walked about 1/3 of the way across the bridge and back mainly to say we'd done that. We had been expecting it to sway in the reasonably strong winds, as some guide books had suggested, but it didn't. Sometime around Portland we'd been past the bridge that sometime in the 50s or 60s swayed so violently in the wind it fell down. It's one of those piece of footages you never forget. And so when we read that the Golden Gate Bridge can sway in the wind, this is the image we had. We were both relieved and disappointed. Even so, without the swaying it was still not a casual experience for someone who is scared of heights.

I wasn't scared a bit.

We then took two buses to the coast to go visit the Seal Rocks. These are rocks where seals are known to hang out. At that time they were all rock and no seal. I guess the seals don't work after 5 pm. They must go to their night home and eat their fish suppers. Mind you, they're probably sick of fish.

We took another bus back to our hotel and steeled ourselves for dealing with nwa - navigators with attitude. Airlines, once companies of apparent generosity, are becoming very miserly and grasping. We booked two seats at the same time and when we came to check in, we were allocated seats miles apart from each other at different ends of the plane. Most available seats were in the aisle, but were "premium" seats, i.e. you had to pay to sit there. So they give you unacceptable seats and then make you pay to sit with the people you booked the tickets with. It was just a cynical, penny-pinching way of grabbing more cash off you. A complaint has been made.

We had dinner in a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant not far from the hotel. The best thing about it was the aquarium display of potential dishes in the front. Of all the creatures only a couple of the shrimp showed any enthusiasm and were trying hard to get out of their tank.

On the way back, we encountered a chatty woman who was begging. That is she was sitting by the side of the sidewalk talking to passers-by in a friendly and kindly way. We spoke for a bit until she brought up the subject of kids. She explained she had 5, and that they were the greatest thing that had happened to her, but due to some mistake she could no longer see them. She burst into tears and it was clear she preferred us to leave her be. There was a story there and we were both curious to know and to help if at all possible. She was well dressed, well-groomed, and had she been walking along we wouldn't have thought beggar except that her shoes had seen better days. Sitting on a blanket on a city street is all you need to say beggar, it seems.

AAfter putting much thought into solving or alleviating the problem of homelessness, we came to few concrete conclusions, packed and went to bed. All we know is that there are people without any home and there are seals with two.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Wednesday 11 June: San Francisco – My new favourite Asian city

Notice the UFO in the above picture. Is any more proof needed?

We grabbed our breakfast from the hall and then headed out. There was a whole saga in searching for a stamp. We gave up for then, but eventually had word that there was a post office beneath Macy's. We wandered down to Market Street via a somewhat dodgy area. There were many beggars and at one point a guy had fallen out of his wheelchair. Two motorcycle cops were already on the scene and taking charge firmly but friendlily. We caught the historic Tram Line F where old trams (not just from San Francisco but also from other cities are run for the use of locals and the joy of tourists. We caught it in a bad part of Market Street but it meant the tram was not too busy before the stop where all the tourists get on it. The line goes to the end of Market Street and then heads up along the harbour. We went to Pier 33 as the night before we'd booked tickets to go to Alcatraz.

Once the last place you might want to be sent, now huge queues of people wait to get on the boat to go there. The island is prime real estate; plumb in the middle of the bay with great views of both bridges and of the city itself. The trip over is quick, and the boats are large but full. You need a couple of hours to really do the island properly, even though there is much of the island you can't get to, either due to renovation / dilapidation or because birds are nesting. The island is prime nest site for gulls, guillemots and other sea-faring birds.

Most people start with the short film giving an overview of the history. It was originally made by or for the Discovery Channel and I had seen it before as it was somewhat familiar. So I even knew vaguely about the Indian Occupation which Catherine didn't. This, for those of you who didn't know was in 1969 when a group of Native American activists took over the island as a protest about the generally dreadful treatment they were receiving and had been receiving since the first boat load of immigrants piled into the country. In particular it was against a kind of forced integration that was in action at the time.

Wandering around the island is pleasant and no doubt good for you. But the most interesting part is the audio tour of the prison itself. Ex wardens and former prisoners tell you what was where, what it was like to be there, and about the various escape attempts. Some of the latter were studies in patience and ingenuity.

We took the ferry back. This is the only way if you discount swimming which is ill-advised because the waters have treacherous currents and sharks. The sharks however are only vegetarian, which means they kill you by boring you to death about how they don't eat meat. (Only kidding. Smiley face.)

San Francisco is one of the few major cities that still have abandoned harbour warehouses. In many other cities these have all been converted from crummy, rat-infested eye-sores to some of the most expensive places to live in the city.

We headed over to Chinatown. Actually half the city could be called Chinatown, but we were heading to the bit that has most of the restaurants. It was curious to hear the children on the bus all speaking Chinese to each other. It's not what I would have expected, but it was nice to hear. I don't hear enough Chinese these days except from random conversations on the train via the airport and from my Shanghai neighbour at work.

We ate in a Vietnamese restaurant that we think was called Pho or Golden Flower. I know, go to Chinatown to eat Vietnamese is a bit like getting French food in a Tapas bar, but Amsterdam is short of Vietnamese places. Keeping with the Asian theme, we went on to the famed Japanese Tea Garden. However it was shut.

That evening we decided to check out the real nightlife of the city. We took the old-fashioned tram to Castro, the lively gay side of town. Even for a Wednesday it was pretty happening. A few restaurants were open but we decided to look for our light supper in another part of town, supposed to be the main going-out centre, the Mission District. We walked there, avoiding dark streets, and for those of used to the scale of Amsterdam maps, it was a touch further than anticipated. The Mission District is a going-out sort of place, but it's also a bit down-at-heel. It's supposed to be good for bar hopping, but it's not like there is a line of bars, you have to know where the next one is. Most bars and restaurants were closing as we were arriving. The only clearly open eatery was a Mexican fast-food 'restaurant' (it had a counter and no chairs as far as I could see) which was packed and needed a security guard. The two guys who went in as we passed smelt like they had come from a cannabis sauna. They seemed to be in good spirits.

We also passed a guy who was dressed a pimp. The very stereotype of a pimp. If you'd have seen him in a movie or gangsta rap video you'd have said how clichéd surely pimps don't dress like that any more. I'm not saying he was a pimp, I'm only saying he dressed like one. And the girl on his arm dressed like a ho.

We realised a snack would not be forthcoming without queuing for a long time behind two guy who could be classed as a class-C narcotic. We bought some nuts and hailed a taxi. The taxi sped through the city and afforded us our first Bullitt moment. A Bullitt moment can only happen in San Francisco on those streets where the roads slope up or down but are level for an intersection. It's when you go too fast on the up or down and it causes a bit of a suspension crunch you hit the flat. I was so happy to have had this experience. Someone should start a Bullitt tour, so that any tourist can experience this (as well as a few key sites from the movie).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tuesday 10 June: San Francisco – Flowers in your hair

Our hotel was one of the many quirky hotels which San Francisco is famous for. It sits amongst many other hotels (both quirky and chain) in an area not far from Union square a focus of much tourism and shopping. Breakfast is provided in the hall of each floor and so you can go out and pick up what you want without too much preparation. I hardly met anybody going to get my coffee and pastries so could have worn almost nothing had I wanted. I did. That is I did wear something. It was small scale and there were no waffle making machines and no Spanish ladies making omelettes. Which is odd because the room was costing us more than the hotel in Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills! Not round the corner from two massage parlours and within the shouting range of drunks. But the novelty of it being almost outside your door was something.

The day was Sunny but windy. One of those days where I wondered if it might get too hot and Catherine was freezing. We wondered down to the end of Powell Street where the Powell-Hyde cable car is manually turned round and sent up again. San Francisco is blessed with an abundance of public transport. Where as in LA it is invisible and unused, in San Francisco you are never far away from a bus, cable car, vintage tram or other form of mass transport. And if you like the underground form of transport, you can always do the Bart, man. A vintage trolley/tram travels up and down the divisive Market Street and then up the coast. Hundreds of buses and electro-buses cross the city in a variety of ways. And there are two cable car lines. These go north-south and seem to only ever be filled with tourists. They cost 5 dollars a pop, where as all the other forms are $1.50. $1.50 to go anywhere in a big city. It makes most other cities, London especially, look ridiculous. At the terminus for the Powell-Hyde line there was a large line of tourists waiting to buy tickets and passes. And an even longer one to get on the cable car. We queued and got 3-day passes (aka Muni Passport) which give unlimited travel for $18 and then walked up the street. At the terminus they only let enough people on to fill the seats. This is because they know from then on people will jump on at the next few stops. We did so, and followed the line to its end.

Whilst we had been in the queue for tickets, we nabbed a huge folder that was being touted about for free Starbucks coffee. The huge folder contained a tiny little business card thing that was the actual offer (you can have a free iced coffee or iced mochaholic (or something like that) on Wednesdays). The rest of the packaging was useless. The guy giving them out even said, don't throw them on the floor. Guy, tell Starbucks to just give you the card rather than a folder that is instant rubbish.

How the cable cars work is quite fascinating. All along the route under the street is a cable. It moves constantly - you can hear it. The cable car, when it wants to go forward, grabs onto the cable and releases the brakes, when it wants to stop, it releases the cable and on go the brakes. The cable car goes up and down the hills and when going down the two conductors have to literally jump on the breaks. It goes down streets with elderly Japanese tourists holding on the side for dear life; streets that sometimes are just wide enough for two parked cars, and two cable cars and 4 elderly Japanese tourists.

We took the cable car to the end: the marina. Here we wandered around. In the bay was a nice old sailing clipper. After the bay there was the maritime museum. It was not that old a building but it was dilapidated. If it were a ship it would have sunk with all hands. It WAS ship-shaped although certainly not ship-shape.

Our wandering morphed into a search for food. We found a fascinating looking nouveau-Vietnamese. Nouveau but not ouvert. It turned out to be part of the Ghirardelli Square. History bit: Ghirardelli was an Italian who came to California via Venezuela hoping to strike gold, but instead formed a very successful chocolate company. What seemed to be the old factory is now being turned into an up-market plaza with a tourist and chocolate bent. Although it is not finished, many businesses are already open including a McCormick and Kuleto's (this guy teams up with anybody). We went for Lori's Diner as it had outside seating and courting pigeons. Cath had something semi-healthy and I went for a Hot Rod Burger, because you can't get any more American than a Hot Rod Burger. It's a burger smothered in chilli. The burger itself was fine but the chilli was somewhat effeminate and the onion rings were sugary.

After this we partook of coffee and one of Kara's Cupcakes < > before checking out the chocolate store. It was full of chocolate. A girl at the door gave out small free samples of something filled peanut butter that would kill me if I ate 5. I had 2.

After that we walked to catch another bus, this time to Haight-Ashbury. Haight-Ashbury (pronounced Hate-Ashbree) is an area of town named after two streets that was once an area frequented by hippies. I'd only just heard of it, but to Cath it evoked all of the romance of hippidom. That is free spirited living outside of the system as opposed to being stoned and unwashed. This all happened 40 years ago. Now Haight Ashbury is a tourist street with some hippy-themed stores. There is very little evidence of real hippies living there. The odd street hawker and particularly hairy old man was all we saw. Off the main street are some great houses. Some have been painted in striking but pleasing ways. The odd one has hints of psychodaelia. We wandered round trying to find vestiges of hippiedom and then walked further down Haight to a more grungy/rock part of town. An empty bar played Ministry in the mid afternoon. I know I'm getting old as now I believe there is a time of the day that is too early for Ministry.

We struck off and found a nice local café – Café du Soleil (formerly called Boulange de Cole Valley). There we had beer and wine and observed local life. It was a definite neighbourhood, with allegiances and conflicts. One person tried to move her chair into the sun slightly further away from the café. She was very jovially told that some do-goody curtain-twitcher complains every time a chair moves too far into the sidewalk. There was even what I thought was a drug den: a house outside of which a gang of motorcyclists made lots of noise and at one point a couple of young kids sloped into for a ridiculously short amount of time, trying to look cool and not scared or suspicious.

In American Apparel, amongst the usual array of slinky clothes for skinny teens, were tiny t-shirts for tiny dogs. This is where people buy them. (We'd seen a couple on the beach already.) There was quite a selection but I didn't see any of their skinny jeans or sheer, see-through underwear for dogs.

We took a bus back that took us along Market Street to somewhere near where we got on the cable car that morning. The length of the queue for the cable car was actually only about the volume of one cable car for once. Soon after, it was back up to former length. Cath waited outside the public autotoilet but because of some clearly dodgy deals going on. She never got in. When the time was up for the person in there, someone waiting outside, handed him something and the door closed again. I'm still clueless as to what could have been going on. I can only suppose drugs or criminal stomach trouble.

We went to Chinatown to look for a snack for supper. It was a bit late, about 10, but we were surprised to find nothing whatsoever opened. Chinatown is somewhere I expect to have some late night places. But given that about 3/4 of San Francisco seems to be Chinatown, I can't say we explored much of it. To make sure we didn't die of the munchies, we popped in to witness the sort of crazies that frequent late-night pharmacies.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Monday 9 June: San Francisco – Tipping

The US is a tipping culture. That is not to say it is a culture on the edge of a precipice, although in some ways that is true. I mean that tipping is a necessary part of social interaction. Much of the business you do will have some sort of tip/reward. It is different in the UK and other parts of Europe where tipping is limited to restaurants and cafes (and is roughly around an accepted mark but variable according to service, and often optional) and for bin men (who get a Christmas gift or else you rubbish isn't cleaned up so well in January). In the US it is customary to leave a gratuity for hotel room cleaners, give bellboys and door persons cash in their hand and even to tip taxi drivers. As a European it feels condescending and unnecessary to tip someone for doing their job, but Catherine assures me it is as part of the culture as haggling is in other cultures. It should be noted that wait staff in the US are often not even paid and rely on the tips which in most of Europe would be illegal.

Despite being one of the shortest flights since the Wright brothers flew for about 10 seconds, Catherine still managed to sleep. She is an inspiration to us all. We nabbed a fixed-price airport shuttle bus (plus tip, of course) to our hotel. The driver didn't speak a great deal of English and my Mandarin is not what it was, but we punched the address in the GPS and strapped ourselves in. On the way, a local also taking the shuttle bus warned us about dodgy areas. Don't go straight on or right out of the hotel, otherwise it was fine. The bus drove via the "straight on" route so we could see it wasn't the most salubrious sections of town. We vowed to avoid it during the small hours of night.

Having dumped our bags and freshened up, we decided to sample some nearby nightlife. We had two bars that seemed close in mind. The first, a blues bar had a Southern Swing band playing. But the $15 cover seemed a bit much for the one drink we were after.

The second place was further than it had seemed on the tiny map. It was closing up as we arrived. It was 10:30. Somehow we had expected better of somewhere of San Francisco's repute. As we wandered back, we saw that many restaurants and bars were closed by 11. It's not quite what we had expected. What WAS open was Borders bookstore and the Virgin record store (which I thought had gone out of business). So you can't get a beer at 10:30, but you can buy a book or classical CD. Is this really the message we want to give our kids?

So instead we grabbed a local beer from the late-night liquor store and partied in the hotel. Well, when I say partied, I mean Cath slept and I wrote jokes. Not being the cleverest of lambs, I had bought a bottle of beer, but had no opener. A sensible man with more attire on would have gone down and asked the porter, instead I used several coins and suffered a few lacerations to my fingers before I was able to get into the well-earned beer. Early settlers who had to wrestle bears for their beer would empathise.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Monday 9 June: LA – What we missed

There were a couple of touristy and very American things we did not do during this short trip.

First was renting Harley Davidsons and riding off into the desert in the style of The Wild Angels, Easy Rider and every other US 60's counter-culture movie starring Peter Fonda.

The other thing was visiting the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. Richard Nixon is famous for embodying everything US presidents are renowned for, except he was the one who got caught. Things they should have there are the incriminating White House tapes, a balaclava used in the Watergate hotel break-in and a packet of cigarettes smoked by Deep Throat.

I'm still waiting for the Clinton museum to open.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monday 9 June: LA – Tar not very much

We broke our fast but were unable to get to the waffle maker again because of a throng of children and their parents. However, today there was a little Spanish lady who made omelettes how you like them. I like them warm, full of mushrooms and made by Spanish ladies.

After this we checked out and drove to the La Brea Tar Pits. The tar pits are several patches of tarry water that are filled with animal bones and surrounded by school children. Over thousands of years many creatures have found themselves trapped in the sticky pools, sunk to their deaths and been preserved as bones. For the last 100 years or so, humans have peering into the pools and recreating the creatures from their bones. There are thousands of wolves, sabre-tooths (which are no longer called sabre-tooth tigers because they ain't tigers) and American mastodons, which are like mammoths, which are like hairy elephants. (You didn't know America had elephants, did you.) Many of the creatures whose bones were found in the pits are now extinct. This could be due to the fact they kept falling in the pits, but that doesn't seem to be the most popular theory. Only one human skeleton has been found which is surprising considering how many kids there are running and screaming all around.

If you have trouble imagining how these creatures could get trapped in the tar, models of mammoths illustrate. On one side of the largest pit, a female sinks as her mate and child look on helplessly. On the other side, a happy little mammoth strides merrily off the edge unwittingly into the black goo. The human kids all run around merrily in what is essentially a place of death.

In the cheap museum, you can see many reconstructed skeletons, some life-like models and some awkward animated ones for kids still young enough to like that sort of thing. There are some facts, but possibly the best bit is the quiet arboretum in the middle (which is forbidden to groups of children). It has plants and a pool containing big koi and an abundance of turtles. The turtles swim about lazily or sun themselves. They were all relaxed except for one little one, who enjoyed aggravating the others by swimming in front of them and waggling its paws in their faces. A teenage brat turtle. Awesome.

On the way back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, we drove up Rodeo Drive, famed shopping haunt for stars. The street was mostly full of tourists looking for stars, just like we were. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. The trouble with LA is at one time the roads are fast moving and you can fly anywhere, but a few minutes later, it all grinds to a halt. There wasn't a great deal of choice at the airport, so we had to eat at Chili's a chain that is a kind of prefab Texas. I had fajitas that were adequate if you ignored fact that everything had been sweetened.