Category Archives: disaster

Snowmageddon 2012

It snowed last night in England. The sort of snow that I actually quite like, because it takes place at temperatures not too far from freezing, and is thus fun to build snow-people with. And the temperatures not too far from freezing means that while it’s happening, a girl can go outside and enjoy the experience of catching snowflakes on the tongue, a la the Peanuts characters in the Christmas cartoon special. No big deal, right?

Wrong. This is England, so snow is treated as the Snowpocalypse. As of yesterday afternoon, before it was actually snowing, 1/3 of today’s flights at Heathrow airport were cancelled. Warnings were issued. Grocery stores took on that air of menace whereas people were cleaning the shelves.

I am familiar with this phenomenon, because I have also experienced snow in Virginia and in Washington DC, where it is as infrequent and as difficult to manage as in England. There is a lack of infrastructure for dealing with such things that causes any flakes that fall to turn into a major incident. And this amuses me, as a girl from Minnesota where we are far more accustomed to such things.

I have these flashbacks to Minnesota days, in which a prediction of snow came with a great deal of organizing. For one, a “Snow Emergency” was likely to be declared, which meant concerns over which side of the city street on which to park for days after the event. None of which was helped by the requirement that my car be not in my apartment’s car park over an eight hour stretch in order for that to be cleared. The logistical challenge of parking one’s car in three different places after a snow-storm was always taxing. But it reminded me that at least in Minnesota we did something about the snow. As far as I can tell, in England it is just something to talk about.

It stopped snowing overnight, and as such by this evening was a thing of the past. Except for the fact that it all, at this point, is sitting largely where it fell. No effort has been made to clear the car park at my flat, nor has anyone even bothered to shovel the walkways leading into my flat. I can see now that walking to work tomorrow will be a slippery and dangerous challenge.

And here we have the great irony of snow in England. Much talked about, but little acted on. The BBC website this morning was full of stories of people trapped in cars on the major freeways at a dead standstill for hours, and even overnight. But we all knew it was coming, the forecasts were quite clear. Why was anyone out in a car on a motorway, knowing full well that it was coming? And having happened, exactly as predicted, why has no one made any effort to remove the snow? Shovels are not exactly expensive. Ice in the coming days will only be a hazard because no one bothered to move the snow that did fall.

And really, it was not that much. A few inches here, and in temperatures, as noted above, not too far from freezing. As far as I can tell, England collectively loves the drama of the “chaos” caused by a few inches of semi-frozen precipitation. Twitter was, this morning, full of photos of back yards with a light dusting and snow-people having been constructed in public places. But in the grand scheme of things, it was only a hugely dramatic event because people wanted it to be that way. In England, people love to talk about the weather. And the joke is that normally the weather is quite unremarkable. Apparently when it is ever-so-slightly remarkable, the taste for hyperbole overwhelms even the most sensible of persons.

My evidence: the result of “heavy snow” in my neighborhood. It apparently paralyzed all but the mouths and typing fingers of the locals.

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The Thanksgiving aftermath

I was so excited about Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was the event that was going to kick off a long weekend filled with some fun adventures, not to mention starting off the holiday season proper. I am a true American, and I refuse to break out the Christmas music or decorations until Thanksgiving dinner is done. I spent Tofurkey day at work, as one does when living in a country where this is not a national holiday, and rushed out of the office and off to the dinner, organized by a mixed couple (he’s British, she’s American) who happen to be good friends of mine here. They also happen to have a little one, a bouncing baby boy who is about to turn toddler by hitting a year old this week. This might prove important in this mixed up tale.

Thanksgiving dinner was decent, it was catered by a local outfit and there were twenty-some people there, perhaps ten or so Americans and the people who tolerate them and their funny holiday traditions. The main dishes were better than the attempt at pumpkin pie, which was sweet, creamy, and served with berries and mango puree. And thus completely disgusting. The non-turkey main dish was a nut roast which was dry and uninspiring, but I decided to use my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and assume that the gravy in boats was only onion gravy and thus would be good on my nut roast and mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes and green beans were additional accompaniments, and all was well. So we had a Thursday night success.

Friday morning I was off to central London, where I was meeting up with a number of friends for some foodie weekend events and some culture. The plan, which went well on the Friday, was for a pub lunch, shopping on Oxford Street, and dinner at a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. (There are five Indian restaurants with one Michelin star in London, and I have now been to three, so only two more to go. Delicious every one so far.) So a Friday success as well. Now we take a turn for the worse.

Saturday morning I awoke at about 9 am and ran to the bathroom to evacuate the contents of my stomach. (I know, TMI, apologies for the mental image.) I then spent the next 6 hours unable to swallow even a sip of plain water. Mid-afternoon I managed to get my hands on a bottle of that British cure-all, Lucozade, which I think of as Pedialyte for grown-ups and I managed to get a few sips into my system. By nightfall, I had also eaten four plain biscuits. As an expat, I was musing that evening on the fact that instead of ginger ale and saltine crackers, I was on Lucozade and water crackers, but in the end as it all worked, it was as good as could be. I will never know what caused my illness, whether it was a bug contracted from the baby who functions as a germ incubator given that he spends days at nursery, or some sort of food-borne illness from the Tofurkey day dinner. What I do know is that it was not anything I ate on Friday, as my dining companion ate every single thing I did over the entire day and never showed any signs of illness. Thursday night was the culprit, for certain–three other diners from that evening ended up in the same place as me on the weekend.

Saturday was thus a complete disaster. I had to cancel all planned cultural and dining events, including something I had been looking forward to for several months– a planned expat meet up for dinner. I was, in the end, paying the princely sums associated with a hotel in central London in order to spend the day entirely indoors and miserable. The weather was appropriately grey and gloomy, but it was still extremely disappointing.

Sunday morning dawned, and I was intending to head back to my town earlier rather than later. But I managed to convince one of my friends to help me try and salvage the weekend by doing something cultural, and we headed for the British Museum. I had never managed to visit, and it was amazing. I was a bit weak, having not managed to eat much in over 36 hours, but it was quite enjoyable in the end.

So I headed back to my town after a really mixed long weekend. There were a few glimmers of greatness and a few moments of pure hell all wrapped into a few short days. On returning home, I set about putting out the fairy lights and Christmas decorations, and put the Christmas music on constant replay. The only way forward is to stop worrying about Thanksgiving and the aftermath, and to focus on the next few weeks of holiday magic. What can I say? You win some, you lose some. This was certainly a mixed weekend.

Vacation, Interrupted

I know I have been quite quiet lately. There is, of course, a good reason. And regular readers of this blog will have been able to guess what happened.

I went to the US for my usual August holiday, to see my friends and family in Minnesota and to go to the beach for the only proper holiday I take in any given year. (And even then I typically work at least 1.5 days per week because, well, that’s the nature of my job, it never stops, not even in a European August.) I managed to completely ruin all of my Minnesota plans by losing my wallet in the Milwaukee airport en route, and thus did not have a car and completely changed where I was staying and what I was doing. This was not all bad, I might add, as it contributed to the great vacation skill acquired on this trip: I learned to knit. But that is a story for another day. What is important for this story is that I was heading to the beach for two weeks of idyllic paradise and relaxation after what had been a somewhat discombobulating Minnesota experience.

Beach day 0: Pack my beach things into my beach friends’ car and drive from the DC area down to the North Carolina Outer Banks. Arrive late morning after an ungodly early start, have a nice beach arrival lunch, pick up the beach house keys and pack in to the beach house. After unloading and settling in, head for a walk (just a mile up the beach and back) and cook dinner.

Beach day 1: Have a nice long walk on the beach (3 miles up the beach and back) and food and etc.

Beach day 2: Have a long day on the beach, swim, surf. Happen to be sitting on the beach when an earthquake happens not far away, and totally feel it. Start to become aware that in addition to the earthquake, there might be hurricane trouble coming.

Beach day 3: Obsessively read weather.com and outer banks websites, knowing that the hurricane is coming. Try to enjoy the beach regardless, have another 6 mile beach walk. Total beach miles to date: 14.

Beach day 4: Awake to an impending sense of doom with regards to the hurricane. Read weather.com obsessively over coffee. Happen to be on the local website the moment the mandatory evacuation order is posted. Change out of PJs and pack out of beach house. Arrive back in DC area in early evening to prepare for hurricane.

(non)Beach day 5: Hurricane preparedness. Buy bottled water and canned goods.

(non)Beach day 6: Hurricane. Play board games and wait out the storm.

(non)Beach day 7: post-Hurricane. Go for a long walk in the sunshine, see many downed tree branches but otherwise feel as though the whole thing had not happened.

(non)Beach day 8: Waiting day. Spend the day working and regularly refreshing the Outer Banks news to see if there would be a resumption to beach 2011. Find out at 3 pm that vacationers will be allowed back at 10 am the following morning.

Beach day 9: Groundhog day. Take beach day 0 and repeat. Pack the car, drive 300 miles, have lunch while waiting for the all-clear to re-enter the beach house, pack in and settle in for a nice evening.

Beach day 10: Back to paradise, right? Except the beaches were closed to swimming due to trees and other debris. Long walk (6 miles) and dinner.

Beach day 11: repeat of beach day 10. Still no swimming, but lots of impressive driftwood, if by driftwood you mean entire trees littered along the beach. Another 6 miles of walking and documenting.

Beach day 12: Finally, some swimming.

Beach day 13: Swimming and another 6 mile walk. BUT time to start packing, as it’s over.

Beach day 14: Pack up and move out.

Total beach miles walked: 32. Not bad given the circumstances. Number of days spent in the Atlantic surf: 3. Pathetic for a two week holiday. Books read: 2. Far below the usual standard, but that’s because I spent four days transiting between DC and North Carolina. Not to mention all of the packing.

Silver lining: I had an adventure and have a story to tell. The beach where I was, in the northern Outer Banks near the Virginia border, was virtually unscathed. We had power at the beach when friends in Baltimore and Boston had none. I worked on my new-found knitting skill, which is, as I mentioned, a story for another day.

Moral of the story: Do not vacation in the outer banks if you are averse to hurricane evacuations. That’s two years in a row for me, Earl in 2010 and Irene in 2011. Earl was better timed, in that it was at the end of my two weeks, while Irene was as inconvenient as possible. But, she says as a scientist can only do, statistically I am unlikely to be this unlucky next year, after two forced evacuations in a row. Yes, the Outer Banks are totally worth the effort, and I will continue to take my holidays there. Hurricanes are just part of the adventure.

I’m back in England now, and the paperwork battles for my visa are now in full swing. This holiday was supposed to be the stress-free vacation before the paperwork storm, and it did not end up like that. First Milwaukee, then Irene. But I’m stuck with the mantra “anything that does not kill you can only make you stronger” and so here I go into the next phase of life. Wish me luck with the paperwork and hopefully my next beach vacation will involve 14 full days of beach bliss.

Milwaukee

At 9:53 am this morning, the Fedex man arrived at the door to my parents’ house and handed me a box, thus ending the nearly 48-hour saga that has completely dominated my life this week. Let’s step back to Saturday, which was the day I flew from London to the east cost of the US. I stayed overnight and caught a morning flight to Milwaukee, where I had a 90 minute layover before flying on to Minneapolis for my annual August pilgrimage to the land of my youth. I had plans, I had a car to rent, people to see, things to do. But I managed to completely cock it up in Milwaukee.

I have never been to Milwaukee, and I had never flown through Milwaukee either. I took the flight because I could not get a reasonably priced direct flight into Minneapolis (always a problem when Northwest was running the hub there, now near impossible in the age of Delta domination). I could not even get a somewhat unreasonably priced direct into MSP, a direct was going to cost me about the same as my flight to the US from Heathrow. So Milwaukee it was. I stepped off the plane in Milwaukee, headed towards my gate for the transfer to MSP, and saw a cute little sandwich and coffee shop. This being Wisconsin, they were offering grilled cheese sandwiches and I could not resist. I took my wallet out of my laptop bag to pay for the sandwich and an iced coffee, and I sat at a little table to eat. I then walked down to my gate and waited for boarding to be called. When it was, I opened my laptop bag to get my boarding pass out and realized to my absolute horror that my wallet was not there.

Somewhere between buying my grilled cheese an hour earlier and that precise moment, my wallet–containing my drivers license, credit and cash cards, and all my cash money–had gone walkabout in the Milwaukee airport. And I had absolutely no recollection of how it had happened.

I approached the gate agent for the lovely Frontier airlines and expressed my panic, and asked hopefully about a lost-and-found. He was adamant that he could not leave the door because the flight was boarding, but that I should talk to someone at the next gate over. That guy just said he hadn’t seen anything and had I tried the sandwich shop. I walked back down there and looked around, but saw nothing, and had the sinking realization that one potential scenario involved me throwing out the wallet with the remains of the sandwich, which turned out to be not that good. (Seriously, why take a perfect thing like a grilled cheese sandwich and put tomato AND chipotle mayo on it? Ruinous!) By this point it was 20 minutes until my flight was due to leave, so numbly I walked back to the gate, handed my boarding pass to the agent, and got on the plane. If I was going to be anywhere without any money, ID, or cards, better to be in Minneapolis than in Milwaukee, where I know not a soul.

The flight was mercifully short, and I made lists about who to call (credit card companies and bank) and what to do (investigate how to get a replacement drivers license when you have no picture ID on you). Wait, you might ask, where was your passport? I had quite smugly left it on the east coast, locked in a drawer for safekeeping. No need to bring it to Minneapolis where I could lose it. And thus it dawned on me, I would have to get my passport Fedexed to me because I would not be able to board the return flight from Minneapolis back east for my beach holiday with no picture ID. This was getting very messy.

We landed at Minneapolis and I turned on my phone, to see that I had a voicemail message. It was someone from the baggage handling department for Frontier airlines at the Milwaukee airport, and they had something of mine. I started shaking. I got off the plane, sat down at the gate and called him back. And here’s where the story becomes completely incredible. He had my wallet, all credit cards, and he had counted the money: “78 dollars, and oh also some pounds, you’ve been in England lately, have you?” Not a penny was missing. Someone had found my wallet and turned it in to the airport people without even taking a finders fee, which at that point I would have gladly relinquished.

The lovely boy in Milwaukee then arranged to Fedex me the wallet, in a conversation that was more than a little amusing: address? Just look at the drivers license (like all expats, I used my parents’ house as my home base). Payment for the Fedex charge? (since it was clearly my fault and not the airline’s) Dude, you’re holding my credit cards in your hand.

Relieved I started off towards the baggage claim, only to realize that at that moment I was still stuck. With no drivers license and no credit cards, I could not rent a car, and with no cash I could not get a taxi. Dang. But as I said, if you are going to be marooned anywhere and with nothing of importance, do it in your hometown. I was supposed to have dinner with a friend that night and he came and gathered me, bought me dinner, even bought the beers so I would not get carded, and then brought my back to my parents’ house that night, where I have spent the last 48 hours anxiously tracking my Fedex parcel.

I have travelled all over the world, and I have always joked that as long as you have your ID, credit card, and mobile phone nothing can go wrong. This is the first time in all my years that I have blown it with that mantra. And I’m still terribly disturbed that I have no idea how I actually lost my wallet in the first place. My sister, who has joined me in Minneapolis as of last night, thinks the whole thing is hilarious and keeps posting “Milwaukee!” as her status update on facebook. Now that I actually have my wallet back, I can finally chuckle a bit at that one.

But what an ending to the story: in a week that started with riots in London, complete with lots of looting and opportunistic theft, some good Samaritan in the Milwaukee airport was completely and utterly honest and returned my wallet completely intact. I’m utterly Gobsmacked, completely relieved, and more than just a little bit sheepish. Of course, my carefully crafted plans for the week have gone completely awry, as my trip home is already 40% over, I have no car, and did not do any of the things I planned to do yesterday. But oh well. I consider that a small thing in light of what could have been a very messy week. God bless the Midwestern USA!!!

Greetings from remote western Germany

I never learn. Twice now I’ve had to come to a workshop in Germany immediately after having spent a weekend in Paris. At least last time it was Munich and an easy and familiar trip; I’m in the middle of nowhere right now. Which means this is the second time I’ve agreed to speak at a workshop in Germany in the middle of nowhere (the other time there was no recent Paris trip, though). And random middle of nowhere Germany adventures present me with the rare opportunity to drive in Europe, which is truly a silver lining for me. This one was actually worse than the last one, in that I had to drive about 250 km (see, I really meant REMOTE Germany) instead of 120 km. But it was better because I had miss bossy pants to tell me where to go, so the driving stress was relatively low. (Relatively but not totally, more on that in a minute.) That’s right, for the first time ever I rented a talking GPS unit along with the car, and left myself completely at its mercy to find my hotel.

This only really occurred to me about half way through the trip–the fact that I was being perhaps a bit too trusting. The roads seemed awfully narrow and windy and everything was so very dark around me. Now that I look at the map I can see what must have happened: miss bossy pants took me on the most direct route, which happened to be through the middle of a “Naturpark” instead of staying on the main roads and going way out of my way but on big, well-lit and well-traveled 4+ lane roads, the way Google maps would have had me do. Which is all well and good except that somewhere in the middle of said “Naturpark” it started pouring. So it was winding and dark and hilly and narrow and pissing down. And my rental car was a Citroen, which I had never driven before. And oh yes right in the middle of all of this miss bossy pants started complaining that her batteries were low. I actually had to pull over into a trucker rest stop parking area to sort that one out. Finding (a) the cable, (b) the port to plug the cable in on the GPS unit, and (c) the whatever-you-now-call-the-thing-that-used-to-be-the-cigarette-lighter in the car proved to be too much to do while driving. And of course prior to those three one had to locate the car’s dome light switch. Exciting times. I had a flashback to my Aussie adventure of just over a year ago, when we were out on dirt tracks in the bush in a Hyundai with no extra water and I was sure we were going to end up in some Blair Witch Project-like hopeless situation and be found dead years later. It occurred to me today in said “Naturpark” that perhaps I should not have been doing this drive solo especially at night. But then again, it’s all just part of life’s adventure. And miss bossy pants did do a great job, got me right up to the door of my hotel in 3 hours total, even if I have issues with her route selection given the conditions.

And why was I doing this in the dark, one might reasonably ask. And the answer is that I have a headcold and managed to sleep through my alarm this morning, thus missing my 8 am flight. I was awoken by the car service who normally take me to the airport. But this was 6:30 am, and I was supposed to be picked up at 6. I’ll never know why they waited 30 minutes to ring, as if they had rung earlier I might have made the flight. As it was, even with 10 minutes only to jump into some clothes and grab my previously-packed (thank goodness!) bag, when I got down to the car the driver gave me a less than 10% chance of making it and I gave him some money for his troubles and went back upstairs to try and decide what to do. As tempted as I was to listen to the little shoulder devil and just bag the trip entirely (and not tell anyone, such that I would have three whole days to myself to get work done with no meetings!), the little angel sitting on the other shoulder reminded me that doing things like this was actually my JOB and I should probably get my act together and figure out another way to Germany. A quick browse on travelocity.com showed that there was a direct BA flight from Heathrow at 1:40, which left me about an hour to get organized to leave for the much longer trip (8 am would have been from a much closer airport). Fortunately I was able to use my BA silver status to buy the flight with mostly miles instead of cash, so it was not a huge financial hit and of course I can sail through priority check-in and security for that reason too. So I left London about 6 hours later than planned, which led to me driving through the “Naturpark” in the dark. Not exactly ideal. But fortunately for my return trip on Friday afternoon that should not be necessary. I doubt even I could miss a flight at 7 pm.

Which brings me to my next realization. I wonder if the stress dreams about missing flights will stop now that it’s actually happened? For years I’ve had anxiety dreams tied to running through airports and being stressed out about timing. Once at Gatwick my name was paged on the overhead system to “please report to the gate immediately” but that had been the closest thing to actually missing a flight as I had ever experienced. So maybe the fact that I did miss a flight — and yet the world still went on and things were more or less okay but I recovered — will allow me to stop having those dreams? I used to dream about car crashes quite often, but almost ten years ago I lost loved ones in a crash and I’ve never had the dream since. I guess that’s the thing about anxiety, once something happens you know what to do and how to react and you realize that you can move on. We’ll see about this one. It would be great to stop having airport dreams. I spend enough time in airports awake! But none of this alters the fact that I have been having a harder and harder time waking up in the morning lately, and I need to put some sort of solution in place. The cell phone alarm clocks are proving too easy to ignore. And one of these days there will be more serious consequences to my not having awoken in the morning when I was supposed to. For now, to bed to nurse my head cold, a talk to give tomorrow and a return trip adventure for Friday. Then a blissfully quiet weekend to do as I please, which let’s just guess is going to involve sleeping in…

Road construction can be quick…

…but only when it needs to be. A mere 13.5 months after the 35W bridge sank into the Mississippi river in Minneapolis, claiming 13 lives and raising much discussion (engineering and otherwise) about the causes and realities of maintenance, the new bridge is about to open in Minneapolis, a full three months ahead of schedule. The debris of the old bridge was not even removed last year when I was in town late August for the State Fair, but the new bridge is already in place. The construction crew had a financial incentive to open the bridge early, and they have come through. It makes you wonder, however, why the rest of projects going on in an average construction year can take so long. The crosstown project? Need not be dragging out for all of this time. You need something done fast? Show me the money!

Rant from ‘home’

I’m back in the UK now, having survived a mildly unpleasant flight back from the US (I just could not sleep, something was odd with the normally quite good Indian vegetarian food, and it was one of the old fashioned, not-on-demand movie systems that plays a movie every 2.5 hours thus making it difficult to catch an entire film once).  I then had the far more unpleasant experience of coming into Heathrow on the long-haul overnight flight only to have them park the plane in the middle of a tarmac, make us walk down stairs and onto buses, and then get transported back to the terminal building.  I know Heathrow is undergoing major renovations right now, but I still find this outrageous.  Yes it’s expected behavior when you get off an EasyJet flight from Munich at Stansted, but not coming off a long-haul flight at the “flagship” London airport with the “flagship” national carrier, BA.  Sigh.

Furthermore, I ran out of reading material once they turned the dumb movies off, and was glancing at the continual bleating about climate change and carbon burdens in the back of the BA magazine.  Here’s an idea: reduce your carbon burden by not making every single flight circle London for 20 minutes before landing at Heathrow!  Just think of the fuel saved.  It’s not just me, right?  I may do a bit more long-haul flying than the average consumer, but in the years since I have been travelling between London and the US regularly, I don’t know that I have EVER been on a flight that did not circle over London for a significant period of time before landing.  Sometimes you can even watch the loops on the moving map image.  Always the pilot comes on with the same droning voice about how we’re in a holding pattern for landing at Heathrow.  It actually makes me start to wonder if the additional runway might be justifiable on environmental grounds–not exactly an argument I’ve heard before.   (For an interesting take on current environmental politics and policy see this from Slate on Friedman’s new book.  Why IS it that the environmental crusaders live in palaces_ALGORE_?)

That’s the news from UK-home, which is that I have arrived, I’m cranky, the movies I saw in both directions on this trip had only some mildly redeeming qualities, one more than the other, and my nose is still sniffly which might indicate the start of a cold instead of allergies.  And of course, with the CERN beast launching tomorrow, in search of the likely non-existent Higgs boson, there is at least some possibility that we are all going to go up in a puff of smoke.  In which case, why did I leave America yesterday?  I could have lived out my last 48 hours in peace and happiness without long-haul air misery or the need to open two weeks worth of mail and buy all new groceries…