Category Archives: transportation

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!!!

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A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

Dear so-and-so, Rant-y English edition

I’m behind in voicing my rants against the locals…. I love my life in England but I must say there are a few things that make me want to scream…


Dear person in my flat building or visiting my flat building,

That thing where you insist on obstructing access to my front door, by parking with two wheels on the pavement/sidewalk directly in front of my building when there are plenty of spaces available in the actual building car park, is getting rather old. I would do something radical but as a person about to apply for residency in the UK I cannot afford to “key” your car or the like. Which is too bad, because it’s what you deserve.

You drive a Ford Zetec, it’s not actually a fancy car, NFAH


Dear work person visiting my turf who happens to be a “Sir”:

Congratulations to you for having been knighted. That must be nice. But hi-jacking my meeting with your own agenda, and sending me (the only woman in the room and the person who was supposed to be running the meeting) out to make photocopies for you just really sucked rocks and did not actually help the meeting to accomplish anything.

Yours, NFAH


Dear local buses on my number x route,

You advertise quite clearly that you operate “Every ten minutes into the City Centre” so I thought you actually meant that. When I waited at the bus-stop for 30 minutes this morning, I was confused. When the bus number xy that eventually did stop at my stop was a different number and decided to pick us all up at a stop that was not on your route I was confused. When you stopped at all of the normal route x bus stops it became clear that it had adapted the route of the never-was-going-to-come bus. This was confusing.

This is why public transport in England has a bad reputation, NFAH


Dear England,

the daffodils are blooming. The world is ready for spring. Normally in my last few years here you were very nice in April. Why are you persisting with this below freezing thing so late in March?

Would really like to turn the heat off now, NFAH


On Roads

This is the side of the road directly outside my office in England:

This is instead of some sort of covered sewer or drain; the reason it amuses me is that people parallel park along this road as there are several restaurants just up the street. So on any given day, I walk by and witness clueless drivers whose wheels fall into the trench during an attempt at entering or leaving a parking space that may or may not suit the size of their car. I’ve never seen someone truly stuck, so I assume if one wheel goes down the trench the other three can compensate.

This is, of course, the same road where I’ve seen another real parking crime that I still can’t quite get used to: that of nose-to-nose parking, where someone had to be driving on the wrong side of the street in order to enter the space. Of course, I was coming home from a work dinner last night and my taxi encountered a car coming at us and thus driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction. And people wonder why I’ve hesitated to get a British driving license?

It’s a fact, the roads here are too narrow to accommodate all of the car travel and car parking that take place on them, and thus a bit of anarchy plays out on a regular basis. Cars driving in reverse to make way for oncoming traffic. Cars pulling in to strange driveways to make way for oncoming traffic. That sort of thing.

In order to protect a few narrow roads from regular traffic (and parking, I’d guess), the local council has installed “rising bollards” on one of the streets in town, in both directions. In brief, a bus or taxi who is allowed access through the barrier has to pull up to a card reader and wait for the bollards to descend into the road. I was walking home one night recently when I saw police cars, lights on and sirens going, pull up to the access points in both directions and then have to stop and sit there waiting for the bollards to descend into the road. I don’t know why they had to stop–surely the technology is available to signal the bollards from emergency vehicles from afar. I seem to recall that in the US emergency vehicles can often make stop lights change in order to allow them to pass more quickly. But I digress–availability and deployment of technology not being the same thing, my local council has a situation where police cars have to stop in order to prevent the hoi polloi from driving on a road.

In a final note about my continuing refusal to join the cars on the roads of Britain, I watched the movie “Happy-Go-Lucky” last weekend. If Britain’s road rules weren’t enough to scare me off driving here, the driving instructor in that movie most certainly was.

I’m off to walk to work, and during my work day to book my next flight to the US, where I will happily rent a car and drive along freely on roads that are big enough for cars to drive and park and where the rules of the road make complete sense to me!!!

The perfect storm

Last weekend there was a huge snowstorm in my home town of Minneapolis. This was newsworthy mostly for the fact that the Metrodome roof caved in, causing all of my friends in the UK to think of Minneapolis, which they had never really heard of before, as the place where large engineering objects fall apart unexpectedly–first the bridge, now the dome. (If you haven’t seen the snow-dome-collapse viral video on youtube it’s highly recommended…) The Minnesota Vikings had to play a “home” game in Detroit last Monday, and they are playing their final home game of the year tomorrow at the University of Minnesota football stadium, which is open-air and thus had to be shoveled out this week by an army of volunteers.

Yesterday, there was a snowstorm in Britain. NB I did not say a “huge” snowstorm. Where I am we only saw an inch, maybe an inch and a half. The official snow total at Heathrow airport was 9 cm. So a few inches. Minnesota, in contrast, got 17 inches in their storm. At Heathrow, temperatures after the snowfall “plummeted” to -5C/23F. In Minnesota, temperatures really did plummet as windchills got down to -40F (I can’t find the actual low temperature but you get the point). The airport serving the Twin Cities, MSP, actually closed for a few hours for one of the few times in recent memory. British airports mostly all closed down, including Heathrow and Gatwick. But that was yesterday. This morning I woke up to the news that Heathrow was still closed. And in the last few hours it’s become clear that this might take quite some time to sort out. Gatwick is apparently up and running, but Heathrow–the British Airways flagship airport with the brand new 5th Terminal–is not. Hmmm.

As a frequent traveller, and someone who takes frequent trips on BA out of Heathrow, I’ve been watching this with a great deal of interest. As of yesterday it was clear that the actual runway was not the problem, which is in stark contrast to the MSP closure. The Heathrow website has had variations on this message posted all day:

This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires parts of the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.

So let’s recap, the snow cleared out late yesterday afternoon, the runway is clear, but not a single gate at Heathrow is in use or can be used. Heathrow now seems to be saying that delays and cancellations will last well into the week. Apparently 200,000 people were due to go through Heathrow today. Via Twitter I just saw that over a hundred flights have landed at Gatwick and over a hundred flights have departed Gatwick. Wait a minute….

I admit it: I simply find it implausible that they could not have cleared out even a single gate at Heathrow and started to try and move a few flights in and out, assuming what they say about the runway is correct. (And I believe it is: why would Gatwick’s runway be able to function when Heathrow a mere 44 miles away could not?) Something else is going on. And I want to know what it is. Did BAA and/or BA decide that the only way to avoid melee was to make everyone suffer equally by canceling all flights? Do they really not have the equipment and know-how to resume partial operations more than 24 hours after a relatively minor snow storm? I’ve seen excuses flying around all day on Twitter about how the UK does not normally get weather like this and thus is not prepared when it comes, but that sounds a little hollow in my ears since the last major snowstorm here was… two weeks ago. And last year the country was crippled for weeks by snow. You can say what you like about this being unusual, but apparently this is the third year in a row of this type of weather, are the bosses running operations at Heathrow just hoping after each storm that it’s the last for a while, so they don’t have to get the proper equipment for dealing with snow and cold weather? Weather patterns shift. There was a time (Victorian times, to be precise) when you could ice skate on the Thames. Perhaps this IS normal English winter weather and the previous mild years were the anomaly. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the climate here is tropical and to work on snow and winter preparedness, which are clearly things that can be done because of the simple proof-by-existence of airports that function in the winter in places like Minnesota. Yes, that might cost money. But so too must being one of the world’s busiest airports and being closed for several days the week of Christmas.

It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next few days. I have several friends due to travel trans-Atlantically tomorrow, and my fingers are crossed for them. I’ve been watching travel sagas playing out on Twitter today, where a popular move appeared to be taking the Eurostar to Paris for much better odds of taking off from there. Should we take bets on whether they get a reasonable set of Heathrow flights back to normal before Christmas? (I’m guessing not, if they could not do anything at all today.) Do we find BA to be the most beleaguered airline of 2010? (Most definitely: between the cabin crew strikes, the volcano and this…) Do we have serious qualms about a country in which the flagship airport housing the flagship national carrier in a flagship brand-new terminal has such problems with a few inches of snow and temperatures barely below freezing? (Yes, duh.) Do we wonder what’s really going on here? (Super-duh.) Stay tuned for updates in the soap opera saga that is winter in Britain, where apparently after each snowfall clears up, amnesia sets in such that no lessons are learned for the next time the white stuff starts coming out of the sky.

Boston, TSA pat-downs and missing Thanksgiving, oh my

I’m getting ready to fly to the US for a work conference to take place all of next week, plus bunches of additional meetings as long as I’m in the general area of “America”. Something about this feels wrong. I’m completely not focussed on Thanksgiving (tomorrow). I’m being all British and ignoring its existence. I’m worrying about the US’s invasive screening procedures, a subject in which I have taken a great deal of interest because of the fact that I’m actually skilled in the area of calculations of radiation dose in x-rays and things. See, for a period of time, I thought that I would become a hospital physicist, and I did courses in medical imaging and radiation therapy. Some days I think I made a mistake by not following that route, but regardless it does provide me with some unique insight on the questions of what people should be worried about regarding radiation doses in backscattered scanners in airports. (Most people should be more worried about the naked pictures than the radiation. A few people should be worried about both but it’s a big statistical mess and not clear yet.) I’m not a fan of the pat-down procedures as this is not necessarily anything but a defensive move and a PR objective. I’ve been all involved in this discussion on Twitter in the few minutes I’ve had to be anywhere but in my office working my tail off in anticipation of my trip–for the last two weeks. Work has been all-consuming lately… It’s been nutso.

So let’s check the current state of NFAH as concerns life in the UK. Laundry? Largely un-done. Shall be traveling to the US with laundry that will be sent out for cleaning in the hotel system. Preparation for the conference I’m attending? 0%. There’s some work to do there. Getting things done here before I go? No more than 50%. Many things will be left until after the week’s trip abroad (where “abroad” means “home but not home” as in “the US but not my part of the US.”) Holidays i.e. Christmas? Not even thought about except for the part where I’ve scheduled my annual group/team party for my return. (For the record, I’m getting all geeky and setting up who-will-bring-what details via http://www.punchbowl.com and they are not paying me to sell them, I just think this website is great and we are using it to organize the party!) OK Where was I? Things are not done. There are things to do. I will be struggling to keep up with them in the next week – to – ten days. Such is life.

I’m excited to go to Boston in the Christmas season. I find this meeting to be really fun in that the decorations, the weather, the whole thing feels like Christmas to me. Once upon a time, I really loved Christmas and these days I’ve been trying to recapture the magic. I love having a breakfast sandwich of Bagel-Egg-Cheese + Coffee at Au Bon Pain in Boston. I’m heading home without really being home, in that I’ve never lived in Boston so it’s a home-away-from-home at best. But I’m happy to go. Too bad about that Thanksgiving thing. It just fell in the wrong week for my work schedule (sad). But maybe I’ll capture some Christmas spirit on this trip, and be able to return to work in early December with a spring in my step and a carol in my heart.

Walk on…

I live North and a bit East of London. Today I had a work thing in Southampton, which is South and West of London (for the uninitiated). I looked at the train details last week, all looked sensible: 45 minute train into London, cross London on the Tube, 70 minutes from London on the train to Southampton. A perfect day trip. Except there was a little warning sign on the details on the National Rail website. I clicked on it. “Notice of possible industrial action affecting tube service on November 2-3” Oh Crap. I normally don’t have to go through London central all that often, especially since I take a car service to Heathrow these days. So maybe I go into London or cross it every month or two. And this time, I was going to get to witness a totally European public services strike.

Not a thing I could do; this meeting had been planned back at the beginning of the year, more than six months ago. I spoke to one of my colleagues who insisted that it wouldn’t be too bad to catch a taxi across town, especially mid-day when most people were at work. For the record, she was wrong. I made it into north London and went to stand in the taxi queue. Where I was still standing, 35 minutes later, chatting with the nice bloke in front of me who was in the same predicament–we both needed to get to other rail stations in the city. When it was finally my turn, I got into the taxi… where the traffic then caused the trip to be almost another 25 minutes. I made a train heading south, texted my meeting person to say I was indeed on the way, if a little later than I had hoped. And I took out my trusty iPhone and checked how far it actually had been between the two stations.

It was only 2.4 miles. I was gutted. I don’t know central London all that well, and it hadn’t really occurred to me until then that it would have been much faster for me to walk. Lesson learned for the return trip. So after my 3.5 lovely and hopefully useful hours in Southampton, it was back on the train to London. I arrived just before 7 pm, and the place was absolutely teeming with pedestrians. Apparently we all had the same idea. Fortunately it was neither raining nor freezing, and further fortunately I just had my small computer bag with my light-weight laptop in it so it was not too much extra effort to carry. Fortunately also, I walk to work most of the time and so I was wearing, as I normally am, flat shoes with rubber soles even though I was dressed up for the meeting.

In the end it was not a bad walk, and in fact was about the distance between my flat and work so I’m quite happy to travel that far by foot. I am gradually learning that if I need to get somewhere within England and it’s less than 3 or 4 miles, the only way to guarantee you will actually arrive on time is to walk. (I called for a taxi from my flat one morning, after moving to my lovely place 2.3 miles from work, and ended up getting out half-way and walking.) Important lesson. Buses get stuck in traffic. Taxis get stuck in traffic. I am not in London, but the vagaries of the public transport and Tube systems mean that you cannot guarantee an arrival time no matter where in England you are unless you have total control of the situation.

In the midst of my cross-London hike this evening, I got to witness some European-style pedestrian “road rage”, once when a man was beating the side of an empty, out of service, bus and screaming profanities, and once when a man was beating the side of an empty, out of service, taxi cab who was blocking the road at the pedestrian crossing. Good times.

I made it home. Today. A mere 12 hours after I left. Four and a bit hours to travel what Google tells me is 150 miles (so in an American Interstate mindset 2.5 hours), 3.5 hours at my meetings in Southampton and another four and a bit hours to get home. It was a long day. And I’ve learned an important lesson.