Category Archives: transportation

You can take the girls out of America…

but you can’t take the American out of the girls. I had been i-chatting with Kat this week and we realized that we both had some shopping to do on the weekend–she for shoes for her girls, and me for fall/winter clothes for work. So we made up a plan for her to come gather me, from the outskirts of my market town, and to go into town and do our shopping. I thus got to catch up with Kat in between our shopping missions, which was great because it had been ages since I’d seen her. The funny thing about friends made via blogs and Twitter and the like is that even though I had not seen her in a while, we were not exactly out of date. So hanging out is just fun, not about catching up with details. She also brought her lovely daughters, who are my adopted nieces.

Navigating the English shopping mall’s multi-story car park in Kat’s vehicle is an adventure in and of itself. She has a very brightly colored SUV brought over from America, which means it has the driver on the left (as it bloody well should be!) But this is England so the ticket machines to get into and out of the parking deck are on the right-hand side of the car. This means that I have a little job to do when sitting in the passenger seat, one that prevents Kat from having to crawl across or even around the car to deal with the ticket machines. And that challenge surmounted, we go on to attempt to park an American SUV in a car park optimized for tiny little VW Polos and the like. Amusement all around.

Having finished our shopping, we decided to go to McDonald’s for an early dinner. I know, I know, I already said you can’t take the American out of the girls. And her daughters are particularly big fans. We had intended to go in to eat, but the parking lot was inexplicably full. We thus decided to go through the drive-through and go back to my flat, which is about two blocks from McD’s. (And although I’ve in this strategically located flat since July, I had not been there even once yet, I swear!) And here’s where I become amused: at the McD’s drive-through here in England they did not have one of those microphone things into which you yell your order. No siree. They had two boys, standing outside in the pouring rain in fluorescent jackets, taking your order by walking up to your car window, asking what you wished for and then punching it into one of those little hand-held computers with a stylus. I for one was relieved, because I thought at first that as the passenger person on the right, I would have to relate the entire order into the microphone thingy myself, thus potentially making myself responsible if there was a slight cheeseburger disaster with one of Kat’s girls. In the end, we got back to my place after collecting all the food and the jerks got the kids’ cheeseburgers right and shorted us adults one of our packets of fries. Oh well. All in a fun day out being super American and all of that.

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Running up the Eastern Seaboard

Let’s see, when last I wrote here I was blissfully in North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, having a beach holiday. And then along came Hurricane Earl. The first week of the holiday, Hurricane Danielle had been a threat. But that threat had diminished and aside from some rough surf leading to a few “no swimming” red flag days along the beaches, there was really nothing interesting there. But Earl decided to head straight for the Outer Banks and with a vengeance. I stayed at the same beach house this year as I had the last two years, but this year brought new owners since last summer, and with them, many improvements to what was already a great house. Internet access proved to be the most important one (a gas grill was also appreciated, as was a huge flat screen TV). I started obsessing over weather.com’s Hurricane Central site, checking it every few hours, as it became clear that this was NOT GOOD. On Wednesday morning of beach week 2, with the news looking bad, I decided to evacuate on Thursday morning. This was a mere 48 hours before I would have had to leave as per my planned end of two weeks beach holiday (check-out by 10 am Saturday morning), so not too disappointing really. My view was that by the time the hurricane was due to pass (Friday mid-day) I would have been done beach-ing anyways, and would have been packing up with no more fun to be had. So I spent Wednesday alternating between beach things and packing/cleaning things, and readied myself for the trip northwards and inland into Virginia leaving early Thursday morning.

This was the beach Wednesday, at which point you could see how the phrase “the calm before the storm” originated: there was absolutely NO sign of a hurricane barreling straight at us in this photo!

The self-imposed evacuation all went smoothly and by mid-day Thursday I was having lunch and a glass of wine safely away from OBX, at which point I checked weather.com for an update and found that they had called a mandatory evacuation that morning, three hours after my departure. I felt vindicated. My ruthless plan had resulted in my not being stuck in epic traffic once the evacuation was called, starting from three hours after I left the islands.

I now had an extra forty-eight hours before my planned departure for Minnesota and my near-annual visit to the State Fair. I did now have time for some very useful and much needed errands, including such painful things like dealing with an American Bank Account that was every bit as frustrating as the experiences I had with my British Bankers on first moving to the UK. Side-note-story: Basically, when I moved abroad I left small balances (~$100) in both checking and savings accounts in the US at two different banks (from the two parts of the country that I lived before moving abroad, since there were not banks in common in the two places at the time), and apparently one of them (Bank of America) was deducting regular fees for “account maintenance” even though the account was dormant (my other bank, Wells Fargo, has not done this) and kept doing so until the count was just over $30 in deficit, at which point they contacted me to threaten collection. I only received notice of this earlier this year, when my dad brought a pile of American mail over when he visited me, and frankly I don’t get much in the way of useful American mail at the folks’ house any more. So I had to clear the accounts and sort out the deficit balance, which it turns out was more than covered by the savings partition OF THE SAME ACCOUNT so I ended up with cash in hand but no longer have an existing account in case I ever move back to the US (which was why I left the account in the first place, thinking I might be back some day and it was silly to close them and then disappear). SIGH. Other expats be warned, be careful what the fine print on your bank accounts sayeth and do not expect the bank to do anything sensible!!! /endrant

Where was I? Oh yes, moving up the Eastern Seaboard with extra time on my hands. With the free Saturday (during which I should have been just leaving the beach, and after spending Friday with the Very Fun Bankers et al.) I got to go up to Baltimore to visit my newly-repatriated sister who is just settling in to her new job there. She has a fabulous new place not far off the waterfront in a funky-cool part of town with lots of little indy shops and restaurants and jazz bars and the like. I spent a great day with her walking around and taking in the sites, without having remembered to bring my camera up for the day so I shall have to return for photos at another time. But certainly a day of sister time in Baltimore was worth the pain of the hurricane, right?

Sunday I awoke and flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the “family time” leg of my trip. Having dinner with my folks Sunday night was sort of odd, after having had lunch with my sister the previous day in Baltimore. But hey, it’s all part of the wonderful modern world. But I started to fade during dinner, perhaps as a result of having just done the North Carolina-Virginia-Maryland-Virginia-Minnesota dance over the course of only four days. I had a good night’s sleep and awoke early this morning full of excitement over today’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair, but that is truly a subject for another post.

Ten years ago

It was, as of a few weeks ago, ten years ago that my grandparents died in a car crash. Ten years ago, that my world ended but didn’t. Ten years ago that I stopped getting phone messages from my beloved grandmother even though we were technically not in the same area code and thus long-distance. I last heard her living voice right before the trip they went on, that ended badly. I went on and kept living, but some of the most important people in my life didn’t continue to be after some date approximately ten years ago. I managed to stay busy in the anniversary of this accident, and I was working and attending conferences in Newcastle and Singapore. And I didn’t let loose and feel the grief until tonight, when it suddenly hit me, without warning. So if I’ve ignored you when I should have been your friend, please forgive me. I’ve been dealing with my own pent-up grief. I can’t believe it’s been ten years, in some ways. And I can’t believe it’s only been ten years in others. I miss them so much. At the time, one of my aunts mentioned that I should keep track, that I would be unlikely to attend a double funeral again in my lifetime. I can be happy that this has not happened again, without wanting to ever be in a place where two people that you love are in coffins at the same time.

Singapore, Qantas and Indian Food, Oh My!

Greetings from Singapore, where I arrived just over 12 hours ago after a long night not sleeping very well on a Qantas flight due for Sydney. This was entirely the fault of me, who did not remember to bring my travel pillow (that U-shaped thing that goes around your neck and works amazingly well) because of the fact that I was packing from my new place, where most of my things are not. Said pillow was at the old flat. An additional thing that did not make the trip, most frustratingly, was the mobile phone charger for my American phone. It’s back at the old flat also, I know exactly where it is. So I had to, yet again, head off on my first day in a foreign city in search of a mobile phone store to find an appropriate charger. Admittedly, I did not have a second charger for this phone, nor did I have one for the UK (just an American one with an adaptor, since it is my American phone) so it was not an entirely huge waste of money or time (unlike the trip last month in which I bought my umpteenth USB-to-iPod/iPhone adaptor, when I have a drawer full of them).

First things first, I love Singapore. I love that it costs only S$1.90 to get from the airport to the center of town if you know the awesomeness that is the Singapore subway system. I love that there are three different chain restaurants devoted to coffee and toast on my way from my hotel to the convention center. (And admittedly, I love that I have stayed in this hotel before, for a conference in the same convention center, such that I know my way around. This is true in Boston as well, and I admit that I prefer these conferences when I get to be in “familiar” surroundings compared with the stress of going somewhere new and needing to start over.) I love the convergence of cultures here, and the huge variety of food available. I had a local speciality kaya toast for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch and Indian food for dinner, and I have a bag of Aussie snacks (cheese Twisties) in my hotel room. After having been in China a few months ago, I’m feeling much more interested in the local food, and much more bold in trying it on my own, so today on my explorations I found both a Taiwanese restaurant (perhaps of the same chain I visited with my sister in China?) and a hot pot place that I have to try (although I might stick with vegetables…). This year I doubt I’ll repeat my performance from my last trip to Singapore, where I obsessively hung out in a local (i.e. close to the hotel) restaurant with an Italian/Aussie-ish vibe. So far I have not been able to ascertain whether said restaurant still exists, as it was boarded up today–but also much of Singapore was, given the Sunday-ness.

I’m happy to be here, because it’s fun to come back to a place that you’ve visited before. I find this is true the more I travel: I’m happiest to return to Boston, Orlando, Munich, Singapore, the places that I’ve been to on three or more occasions, because these places start to feel like a home-away-from-home. If you are going to have my life, and live out of a suitcase and spend no more than three weeks at “home” at any given time (which is my new calculation for how silly 2010 has been for me–I think this is true and shows how dumb I’ve been!) you should at least enjoy the places where you are spending your time.

The work starts tomorrow, and I should probably have been prepping today instead of dining out and napping, so the next few days will certainly be interesting. I have meetings and talks to give flat out for the next four days, at which point I hit a flight back to the UK at midnight Thursday and have meetings in the UK office planned for Friday. The weekend can not come soon enough…

Flying Qantas to get here made me both happy and sad. I love flying on Qantas, but it was the first time that I had flown with them to get to someplace that was not Australia. So I indulged in my minor Aussie obsession while travelling, reading about interesting Australian art exhibits in the in-plane magazine and listening to the best of modern Aussie music on the headphones on the trip, but I knew full well that I would not quite make it far enough on this trip to actually get to the sunburnt country itself. I don’t know when I’ll be back to visit Australia either, which made for a sad moment or two in transit. Last time I was in Singapore, I was heading to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney for an adventure of a lifetime (aside from the previous adventure of a lifetime, when I had been there six months earlier).

Travels are funny, that way. This blog makes for a great record of these trips, and when I look back at the archives from my visit to Singapore (and then Australia) a year and a month ago, I have mixed feelings. I’m glad I did what I did then, and on this trip I’m sort of glad that I’m going home to England after a mere four nights in Singapore. Especially with the new flat to settle in to, my wanderlust is perhaps damped a bit at the moment. There are many places I’d like to see, in Asia, Australia, and beyond, but on this trip my overwhelming feeling is one of a desire for home, and in this funny case home is my new flat in the UK, not something in the US at all. Confusing, yet comforting, that my existence has settled down a bit to be based in one country only. The confusing part comes because that home is in England, which is not what I would have expected five years ago.

Swiss Cheese

Written from the Basel airport before I got ‘home’ to the UK, thankfully, a few hours ago…

After all of the travel eventfulness of the last few weeks (volcanic ash cloud, BA strike) I was looking forward to a mostly uneventful and brief trip to Switzerland for work. The trip was supposed to happen last month but fell right in the edge of the volcanic ash cloud adventure: it turned out that my flight would have been amongst the first European flights out of the UK if I had taken it, so perhaps I should have just taken the trip last month. But I didn’t, and here I was, hoping for a miracle…

As for my uneventful trip? It sort of happened. The most eventful part, in the end, was the flight out of the UK. I had been scheduled on a 2 pm flight to Geneva, but it (and my return flight) were cancelled. Then the BA strikes were called off, and BA called ME to offer to reinstate my trip. Sure, no problem. They put me on an 11:40 am flight. NB this was Tuesday, the trip was due to be Wed. (the strike was due to start Tuesday before it was called off late Monday). Trek to Heathrow Wed. morning to find that they had overbooked the 11:40 and they wanted me to just wait and see. I was more than mildly annoyed. I called their hotline (the BA toll-free number is now burned on my brain) and they told me to go back up and try again, that there was a snafu in the system. No such luck, actually, but when I asked about the 2 pm flight they said it was not full. I asked if I could just offer to take that one instead of hanging around the Heathrow main doors (outside security, since i had no boarding pass) and it turned out that was not as straightforward as I would have thought. They did, eventually, relent and gave me a boarding pass for 2 pm. I popped through security and went into the lounge to wait a few hours. Now I was on my way, but perhaps understandably nervous about the return flight. They had not been able to get me on anything out of Geneva, so I was due to leave Basel (from where I write this now). They said I should call back on Thursday to see if I could get anything from Geneva, as they were reinstating flights now that the strike was called off.

That would have been fine, except as anyone following this story would know, the courts in Britain upheld a union appeal and the strike was allowed to continue. Fortunately for me, not with immediate effect: it will start Monday. But as a result, no extra Friday evening Geneva flights, although at least they promised me I did have a seat from Basel. I was skeptical, after my arrival at Heathrow Wed. morning but what choice did I have? Regardless, it took over 20 minutes on hold with BA on Thursday night to ascertain all of this, the lines being clogged with the people whose plans for next week were now derailed due to the re-instated strike.

Now I should have known there was a problem with Wednesday’s flight on Tuesday night, when I could not do BA online check-in. Fortunately for me, this morning the online check-in for the Basel flight did work, which gave me confidence to spend two and a bit hours in transit to Basel (instead of the much-closer Geneva). I got to see more of the Swiss countryside from their fabulous, silent, and extremely smooth and comfortable trains, and as far as I can tell a flight intends to take off from here with me on it, in just over an hour.

In the midst of all of this travel chaos, I managed to have a fantastic trip to Switzerland. This country might well, and quickly, take over from Germany as my favorite work travel destination within the continent. As far as I can tell, both have largely excellent public transport and fantastic people working in my field. This was only my second Swiss trip, while I’ve been to Germany on more occasions than I can currently remember. It’s interesting, too–work has never taken me to France, Spain, Belgium, or any part of Scandinavia. Work has once taken me to the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece (Crete), Hungary, Austria and Ireland. (And Scotland, but I never know if that counts.) But work looks likely to take me back to Switzerland again in the future, and I will go enthusiastically.

Part of this enthusiasm can be attributed to my work colleagues here, both of whom worked with me in England for various times (2 years and 6 months) and who returned to Switzerland, where they were before they worked with me. (For completeness, one is Italian, the other is Swiss.) So work with people you know that well (and thus consider ‘professional friends’ as opposed to just colleagues) is always more interesting than work with total strangers or casual work acquaintances. And in this particular case, we’re all close to the same age and stage of career, and thus we have even more in common. This dynamic also means that the work-related socializing is much more fun and relaxing than it would otherwise be when traveling.

So last night we relaxed over a fantastic pot of Gruyere fondue:

and a few interesting beverages, including one that I had never tried before:

We talked about life and careers and immigration and politics and England and Europe and the future and everything else. It was great. These trips, when done right, always leave me with a sense of the possible and of hope for the future. I need this badly, especially when the daily grind is making me lose my perspective on such things. The meetings during the day were extremely productive, my next few weeks are amazingly quiet and I should be able to follow through with the promises I made to get some things done. Which is good for all of us.

So in the end, I leave Basel on a note of great optimism and enthusiasm and with hopes for a return trip to Switzerland in the not-too-distant-future. It was a trip that was good for my soul. But next time, it’s Eurostar and TGV all the way. No more flying to places I can get to by rail. This is supposed to be the beauty of Europe, and I’m not taking advantage of it. It was a close call for a trip this short, but next time I’ll stay a few extra days and see more of this beautiful country.

Silly o’clock

I’m up at 4:30 am, and it’s absolutely light out. Like middle of the morning light out. This is not an hour I normally see. And apparently in England, silly o’clock is associated with total daylight. Who knew. I realized long ago that the far north location here was associated with long daylight hours. It’s sometimes light until 11 pm here, which is quite a bit later than I was accustomed to, even in the far north reaches of Minnesota. But this early morning daylight thing is truly new, especially since I normally work slightly shifted hours, starting at 10 or so am and not leaving the office until 7 or 8 pm, instead of ‘first thing in the morning’ to 5 pm in the truly midwestern sense.

So why am I up today at silly o’clock, you ask? Blame the lethal combination of the volcano gods, who close British airspace periodically these days, and the BA on-again, off-again strike. In this instance, the strike is the culprit for my particular pain. And it’s a hard one to take. There is a quote on the BBC website, from a member of the cabin crew, who says,

“BA is now run by accountants.”

Um, yes, that is because BA is a business. Not a charity, not a social welfare programme, but a business. So when this flight attendant says,

“But we have families, mortgages and bills to pay – we cannot afford to lose £7,000 a year.”

It’s a bit tough for me to take. The British economy is a mess right now. We’re all just holding on by the skin of our teeth. I feel lucky to still have a job, and I can’t guarantee that that will be the case in a few months’ time.

But for the moment, I have a job, and my job involves travel. I have to go places and talk to people about my work in order for me to be viable in my field. I need to fly off to Geneva for an extremely brief but critical visit with a former colleague who is trying to find a permanent job after having worked with me for two years in a non-permanent situation. I will be giving a lecture in exchange for the visit, and I will be spending some time discussing our mutual interests while I’m there. It’s the sort of visit that is de rigueur for my profession, but it’s not always easy or fun.

So here I am at silly o’clock getting ready to leave for the airport. I had a flight booked for mid-afternoon today, but it was cancelled in the prelude to the BA strike. The strike was halted by a court order, and I was re-booked on a flight for the morning instead of mid-afternoon. I have no idea how that works, since my original flight is going still this afternoon. But I’m going early and so I’m up at silly o’clock.

My return flight is not guaranteed. I’m currently booked for a different departure city in Switzerland than the one in which I will arrive, because the availability is limited until the BA schedule is fully announced for the rest of the week. BA is in court with the unions, and a decision is due tomorrow morning and so who knows what will happen when the court decision comes through. I could be stranded on the continent, and I’ve been researching the possibilities in case the flight does not go. The trains will be expensive and take ages, but might be an option. There may be other flights on other airlines but anything I do will be expensive and painful. But perhaps necessary. So we’ll see. It’s a bit of a gamble to go at all, but I’m going. Here goes the adventure.

The worst part of this is that we have a fantastic expat meet-up scheduled for Saturday mid-day, and so if I get stranded I will miss something more important than my usual Saturday deep and intense lie-in (I’m capable of sleeping past 1 pm, which probably seems shocking to the early morning types in the readership of this blog). I can only hope that does not happen, and my weekend will get off to a truly good start with an easy trip back from the continent and a fun gathering with friends.

Scenes from China, part 1

I returned last night, feeling a bit sick after the very long day (flight plus trip back from Heathrow landed me at home at 2:30 am China time after having been up since 6 am China time). The trip was amazing and I don’t really know where to begin. I have over 1500 digital photographs to sort through, not to mention souvenirs, laundry, and oh yes a full-time job to return to. There are so many stories I could fill pages and pages, but I’m going to skip the blow-by-blow travelogue and try and report a few snippets in the form of scenes that captured for me the essence of my China experience.

The scene: The back of a Beijing taxi-cab. My sister and I had just left our hotel for the night (sleeper) train from Beijing to Nanjing. The cab driver spoke no English, but my sister was chatting with him in Chinese. He seemed to like her, given the views I had of his crinkled up smiling eyes in the rearview mirror. (NB this was about a 50-50 crapshoot with cab drivers, some seemed happy to have us in their vehicles and chatted with my sister in Chinese in a very friendly fashion, and some seemed very resentful–perhaps at us being foreigners? Hard to tell.) After some small talk he asked if we minded if he put some music on. My sister said “no, of course not” and some Italian opera started to play. The cab driver sang along a bit, and asked my sister why she was not singing and she responded that she didn’t know the words. The song ended and “Unchained Melody” came on. Bingo. This one we could do, and we started to sing along, timidly at first but growing in volume as we heard the driver singing along too. At one point, we were stopped at a red light and my sister and I looked over into the cab sitting at the light next to us, and we were being stared at by the driver and passengers alike. Music, the universal language, had brought together three people with no single common spoken language, and we were all animatedly singing at the top of our lungs. I could not look at my sister or I would have busted out laughing. I will also never be able to hear that song again with a straight face. The song ended and the three of us–my sister, me and the Chinese cab driver–burst into a round of spontaneous applause. He turned to my sister and said “Our time together is too short, we are nearly at the station.” We arrived at the station all singing Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On” from Titanic.