Friday, October 9, 2015

Travel Weary on a Small Island

Sitting in a hotel room in Newcastle, looking out over the Tyne River, exhausted and generally unenthusiastic. I feel like I've been gone too long.

I knew that I tend to hit the wall at two weeks of travel, but figured Jody's presence would help. And the part with him did just fly by. But because he is his company, he doesn't have the luxury I do of skipping work to traipse around England for a week, while still receiving full pay. So I knew I'd have a few days on my own while he kept up his quizzing, then could look forward to him being back with me in Newcastle on the weekend. Only he isn't. Because this weekend is also the Scottish Green Conference in Glasgow, so he's going there instead. Internally I threw a tantrum at his decision, but it's a one-time only political event that I'd hate for him to miss. Newcastle and I can be seen anytime. But that doesn't help me feel any less fed up with travel today.

Anyway. Newcastle is my last stop on the rugby tour. I was coming to see Scotland's last game in the pool tomorrow, but last week I noticed (relatively) cheap tickets were still available for the All Blacks and Tonga  tonight, so I'm going to both while I'm here.

In between RWC stops, I spent a couple of days in London. I arrived at St Pancras on Wednesday afternoon, dragged all my luggage on the Tube to the hotel, went right back out shopping, and within minutes was lying flat on the pavement. I tripped while walking too fast to stop the forward momentum and went right down. Apart from bruised and scraped knees, I walked away fine... But once a klutz, always a klutz, and it did remind me to watch where I'm going. It's shocking how many times I can fall over or crash into things without learning that lesson for good. Shrug.

The rest of the day passed without incident, and I started Thursday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was incredible. It's massive, and there's so much to see. I spent about an hour wandering through and then, as Karl Pilkington might say, my eyes were full. I think I missed 2 full floors and most of Asia, but I couldn't take in any more. I guess I'll need to go back next time. The rest of the day was spent shopping, although sadly not buying, because I couldn't find anything I wanted.

So now another busy train ride later, I'm on my last stop of the tour, trying to muster some energy. Really hope it works, because I have two games to cheer for and won't get to do this again for another 4 years...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Leicester

Because I'm spending a bit of time in new English cities for this tournament, I brought along my England guidebook. When I dumped off the book I'd finished reading at the Edinburgh flat, Jody thought I was also leaving the guide behind.

I said, "No, I'm taking it with me. There might be something I need to see in Leicester."

Jody replied, "As someone who's lived there, trust me, there isn't."

But he did add later that it's "not a shithole like Leeds." So I guess that's something.

As it turned out, I haven't seen much of Leicester after all, but it's not the city's fault. I came down with a cold on the way back from football in Aberdeen on Saturday, spent Sunday feeling like complete ass, and hadn't improved terribly by the time I boarded the train here Monday. The weather also turned when I left Scotland, so seeing Leicester meant trudging around in the pouring rain, coughing up a lung. Fun! Even so, I can attest to the fact that Jody's correct, and Leicester is not a shithole.

I spent Monday evening in bed, watching TV and trying to get over my virus, but I did check out the guidebook and found the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, which was actually on my way to the rugby stadium, and decided I'd leave early on Tuesday afternoon to stop in there before the game. So I slept in late, lazed around drinking coffee, then gathered up all my stuff to take the 10 minute walk to the museum.

After about 5 minutes it started raining. Pouring. No, those aren't strong enough words... Dumping water from every direction, I guess. By the time I got to New Walk, every part of me was completely soaked through and dripping, aside from a small area around my head that the umbrella covered, and my feet/ankles under the protection of rubber boots. That's exactly why I bought the wellies -- the first pair I've owned since I was probably 6 years old. There's nothing worse than sitting through a sporting event with soaked shoes and socks, toes pruning up and making you miserable.

The museum and art gallery was nice enough, a bit small and kid-oriented for me, but not bad. I definitely would have enjoyed it more had I not been so cold and damp during my wander through.

By the time I emerged to head to the game, the sun had come out, and it did a good job of drying me out on my walk to the stadium. The game itself was a pretty good one, if you had no affiliation with either of the teams. Canada went up 15-0, only to have Romania come back to win 17-15 in about the last 25 minutes. The jubilant Canadians putting back bucketfuls of beer turned angry drunk toward the end, and I was happy to get out of there before a fight broke out when one threw his full beverage at the field, meaning mostly all over the fans in front of him.

Along those lines, the drunken fans around me spilled more beer than I've ever seen at any sporting event. My handbag was on the ground, so I was keeping an eye out to ensure it stayed in a dry spot. As I got up to leave, though, I found that the booze had seeped under from behind and there was a rectangular puddle where it had collected under my bag. I dried it with napkins from the snack bar, then cleaned it when I got back to the hotel, and thought that was it sorted. However, picking it up this morning to leave, the bottom was still damp inside and out, and it's clear that the beer was absorbed into the leather. I'm not sure it can be cleaned, especially in a hotel room, so I may need to spend some time this week purse shopping. Damn Canadians!

Anyway, today I'm off to London. No rugby tickets for me, just a detour because it's there. London is its own reason to visit. Obviously.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Leeds

Where do I begin? I mean, what is there to say about the least interesting city I've ever visited a place where I couldn't find anything to do but watch rugby?

When they announced all of the game venues for England's 2015 Rugby World Cup, I was initially annoyed that Scotland wasn't getting a game at home in Murrayfield. I mean, if they were bending the definition of 'England' to include Wales, they should bring Scotland in as well. Of course, I now realise that the referendum made that a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for the organisers. Had Scotland voted for independence, claiming Edinburgh under the England umbrella would have been pretty politically challenging. On the other side, with Scotland remaining in the UK, calling their stadiums English would have been rubbing salt in the wound for many. Either way, Scots would've kicked off, so it was really the only sensible option for them to stay away.

Regardless, when the game lottery started a year ago, I assumed I'd be living in Scotland and picked 3 random games that I wanted to see, paying no attention to date or location. Given that I'm not living here at game time, it means an extra long trip, only half of which can be spent with Jody. And it all started with me flying into Leeds.

Supposedly Leeds is the UK's third largest city, its second biggest business hub, and its top destination for shopping. You'd never be able to tell any of that from the airport, which was small, dismal, and incredibly slow. I had to settle for the best hotel I could get in the RWC craziness, which claimed to be 10 minutes' walk from the city centre with lots to do nearby, but all we found within 10 minutes' walk was rundown old buildings. In actuality, it took at least a quarter of an hour to trek to the closest hole-in-the-wall takeaway places, with no sign of a city centre nearby. In addition, Leeds is in one of the highest pollen areas of all Great Britain, so within a few hours, Jody and I were both miserable and feeling like our faces were going to explode.

Determined to make the best of my visit to a new place, though, I opened my England guidebook to the West Yorkshire section and tried to find us something to do. There were 8 sightseeing options listed. Eight. That included two art galleries, three museums, and three historic sites, alongside mentions of "lively nightlife" and shopping that we weren't particularly keen on. So our Saturday night abroad was spent in our hotel room, downing decongestants and watching sports on TV.

On Sunday, I woke up early, stuck on a cap to shade me from the unseasonably warm and sunny weather, and left Jody behind to trudge the miles across town to my first Rugby World Cup game of 2015: Scotland versus USA.

Despite being confused by the signage and initially going in the wrong entrance, I eventually made it to my seat at Elland Road Stadium. I was in a very nice suite area of the ground so that the bar and such indoors were great, but the seat itself was so tiny that I had to keep my elbows glued to my sides all game and despite my medium-length legs, had my knees jammed into the back of the seat in front of me.

But it was worth it. The World Cup atmosphere is completely unlike anything else. There were roughly 33,500 people in the stadium. The majority were Scotland fans, there were a large number supporting the Americans, and some local folk just there to take it all in; all categories of fan were chatting across team lines, laughing, cheering, and generally loving rugby, together.

The game itself was a great one. The US team came out to play, while the Scots made mistake after mistake, which kept it close and had the Americans leading at halftime. In the second 40 minutes, though, things sort of reversed and Scotland came back to win 39-16, including 5 tries to get them a bonus point in the tournament. They're currently leading the pool with 2 tough games to go, so I can only hope they'll fight their natural predilection to pull defeat from the jaws of victory and get to the next stage.

After spending another night in with our allergy medication, Jody and I caught the train back to  Edinburgh Monday, where I'm now working and living normal life until it's time to venture out for more of the World Cup next week. Despite how quickly 4 years went by between games last time, the next one seems like ages from now. I can't wait!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The End of the Road... Trips

As I've planned more road trips this year, I've increased the mileage I needed to cover in a day each time to the point that I barely see the places I stop or write anything down about it; I'm just too exhausted. This was never more true than this last big drive across 5 states, particularly since it happened only 5 days after I came back from abroad (3 days of which found me in bed sick). I've been home from the last big road trip since Wednesday afternoon, and am only now starting to get my energy back.

So where did I leave you? Ah, yes, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I had planned to spend my Labour Day driving around the bottom of Lake Michigan, from Ann Arbor to Madison, Wisconsin, with a stop at Notre Dame. But I've never had any particular feelings toward the University of Notre Dame, except occasionally being annoyed with their football team's ubiquity and liking the movie Rudy; it was just an arbitrary place to stop in Indiana. So I woke up Monday morning with a strong desire to skip the detour and stay on I-94 westbound instead.

In preparation for my day, I stopped at the famous Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor and picked up a corned beef/pastrami combination sandwich, because OBVIOUSLY. I got it packed to go so that I could find a nice park for a picnic lunch as an alternate stop in Indiana. From there, I drove off across Michigan, entertaining myself with various quotes from Freaks and Geeks when I saw signs for exits to [Some Number] Mile Road or Benton Harbor. I approach the world through popular culture; this is just how my brain works. Just after I crossed into Indiana, I hit stop and go (mostly stop) holiday traffic bottlenecked by the reduced lanes due to highway construction. Crossing Indiana at that point is about a 50 mile drive, but it took me nearly 2 hours to do so, never leaving the highway (since most of the exits were closed anyway). By the time I reached Illinois and exited to avoid the tollways, I couldn't have been happier to spend my time on wide open, lower speed limit back roads, surrounded by cornfields. At one point, I missed a turn and stayed off the Interstate for tens of extra miles, but I still ultimately got to the same place, and really didn't mind at all.

I had originally planned to visit Milwaukee as my city in Wisconsin, but when I re-planned my trip* I chose Madison instead. Way back when I was looking into graduate schools, the University of Wisconsin - Madison had one of my top two programs. I desperately wanted to go there, but then I allowed myself to be manipulated into staying close to Washington state instead. It all worked out, because I still got a fantastic education and it gave me the chance to live in Canada, but I still wanted to see what I missed by becoming a Highlander instead of a Badger. By the time I reached my hotel for the night, however, I'd been driving for over 9 hours with only stops to fill the car's tank or empty my own, so I ate my slightly worse for wear Zingerman's sandwich and went to bed.

On Tuesday, I had a much more reasonable distance to go to Chicago, so had a leisurely morning and then stopped in downtown Madison and parked to take a walk around. It seemed like a cool town, but it was raining pretty heavily, while still remaining disgustingly hot and humid out, so I lost the desire to be outside the car after about 10 minutes and hit the road.

In my effort to avoid paying tolls, I doubled the length of my journey and spent much of the drive on country roads surrounded by more cornfields (does anyone grow anything other than corn there?!), and then joined the heavy highway traffic into one of my favourite cities. The rain kept going, however, and my rental car had an annoying habit of fogging up the outside of all the side windows and mirrors in the rain. So I had no way to clear them, and no way to see anything when trying to change lanes in bumper to bumper traffic unless I drove around with all the windows rolled down. In the rain. Needless to say, by the time I finally reached my hotel in the Gold Coast neighbourhood, I had become more than a little cranky.

Let me take a moment here to say that I know Chicago well (once spent quite a bit of energy trying to move there, but they didn't seem to want me) and would not normally have chosen a hotel in its ritziest area. But when I went looking for a place to stay where I could park without paying a giant surcharge, this little boutique hotel was running a parking included special, making it the only place I could find in the Chicago part of Chicagoland with free parking. So I took it. Unfortunately, no matter how expensive my tastes become or how much money I make, I am working class at heart, and completely resent people wanting me to pay them for things I am perfectly capable of doing myself. Hence, my three first thoughts upon arriving at my hotel in Chicago:
  1. The only parking is valet. I'm getting it free, but the ticket says it normally costs $56 a night. Why in the fuck would anyone pay you more than many people make in an entire day to drive a car in and out of parking space?
  2. Stop insisting that you'll help me with my bags. You will not. I have schlepped this luggage around the world with absolutely no assistance and will not be giving you the hefty tip you expect to roll it into an elevator.
  3. No coffee making facilities in the room. I shall require caffeine in the morning. Hm, here's a breakfast delivery menu: $9 for a small pot, $12 for a large. Uh, no. The tap water in the bathroom gets pretty hot, that will have to do. 
So it was in this mindset that I took a walk out for my night in Chicago and found nothing to do. Yes, it had stopped raining, and the view on nearby Lakeshore Drive was great, even on a cloudy day, but there wasn't much in the immediate vicinity. After walking several blocks, I came to an area with a few shops and bars, but at this point I was too exhausted and grouchy from all the mileage to see the good in anything, even a city I love. I spent a quiet night in my quirky but posh hotel room, and happily flew back to Seattle on Wednesday.

As soon as I got a good night's sleep in my own bed and my mood improved, though, I was sad that I missed out on my last night. The reason I added that night in Chicago is because I really dig that town and don't know if/when I'll have a reason be back; I hated having wasted my last time there.

As Neal reminded me, though, Chicago is always its own reason to visit. So maybe it wasn't my last time after all... as long as next time I'm in a better mood.

*It's not  that interesting, but here's the story. I had a flight booked to Louisville (6 hours of travel with a 1 hour layover) and one back from Milwaukee, but then the airline decided to bump my Louisville flight and instead stick me on one that would take 12 hours, with a 6 hour layover. When they wouldn't switch it back, I cancelled and chose a different airline, which let me add an extra night in Chicago and no longer tied me to Milwaukee.

Monday, September 7, 2015

400 More Miles

It's a holiday weekend, so masochist that I am, obviously I'm travelling.

I flew into Louisville, Kentucky (also known as Luhh-vuhl), on Saturday and picked up my rental car for what will likely be my last multi-state road trip.

Most of my knowledge of Luhh-vuhl comes from the movie Elizabethtown. The flick is often dismissed, but if you can get past Kirsten Dunst's generic-quirky-but-lovable-girl character and Orlando Bloom's weird American accent, it's a great Cameron Crowe film in which Susan Sarandon always makes me cry. And which is the reason I kept saying Don't miss 60B! while driving around last night. In the end, though, I didn't see too much of Louisville except from the road. It seems  a cool town, but I had much mileage to cover and no time to waste.

So today I woke up as early as the time change would let me and headed for my one tourist stop in Kentucky: a distillery tour. Of the many bourbon makers available, I chose the one that was the least out of my way and open on Sundays: the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. As I turned onto its street, I saw a big sign that said Diageo International and hoped it was just another nearby company, because, well, Diageo is what's wrong with the spirit industry. After seeing several industrial-looking buildings, I came to the gate, complete with a fake rustic wall and a security guard checking every car in and out. Well. I wasn't paying $10 for that corporate nonsense, so I skipped it and turned north toward Ohio.

My next planned stop was the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park... which was really just a visitor's centre and a few signs in the  middle of a downtown area, nothing much to see. Based on the signage, I went from there to Carillon Memorial Park. It was big and green, but again, there wasn't much to it. I went into the supposed brewing museum, which was just a brewpub with some old school 1800s equipment on display. I wasn't interested in eating or drinking, and it was way too hot to wander the park, so back on I-75 North.

Ohio must have a very large infrastructure budget, since there was major highway construction going on for about half of my drive up its length today. Also, they have these morbid signs that tell the number of traffic fatalities this year, to remind you to drive carefully. And maybe it works; the only dangerous moment of a full day's driving there wasn't caused by a driver, but by a tree. It fell suddenly from the shoulder to block 3 of the 4 lanes of the freeway, including the one I was in. Luckily traffic was light and everyone responded appropriately, so it wasn't the disaster it could have been.

Because I was on my way to Ann Arbor for the night, I spent a couple hours of the drive listening to Henry Rollins' Spoken Word Guy 2, which was recorded here. For probably 25 years I've been a fan of that guy, and maybe he's my hero. I don't know of anyone besides me and Hank who will pick up and go a random place alone, just because they've never been there and want to know what it's about. Sure, he goes to Iran and Syria where I visit Sweden and New Zealand, but he's been at it longer... I might still get to that level of road warrior. At any rate, I also live by his motto Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.

So I guess tonight, sitting in my third state of the day, I'm 400 more miles away from Bullshit. But there are always so many more to go...

Monday, August 24, 2015


Well, it's the last night of our holiday, and given that Jody declared Prague "ace" today and is now suggesting places for our next time abroad, I think I can call the trip a success.

After a long train ride from Berlin yesterday, we arrived at the central station and hailed an Uber to take us to the hotel. Given the reputation of Prague taxi drivers, I figured we were better off using a service with clearly published and tracked rates, where I could provide instant feedback and get a credit were there any questionable charges. Unfortunately, standing directly in front of the Uber pick-up spot sign didn't help the driver find us at the station, and it took longer to locate the car than it did to drive the short distance to the hotel once we did. After that small hiccup, though, we spent a relaxing first night listening to the trams rumble past and reading my guidebook, in preparation for a full day of tourism.

I've been looking forward to getting to the Czech Republic for a long time, because I feel my Bohemian genes somewhat more strongly than most of the other European bits that make up my mutt-like form. Reading the guidebook, I was stricken by how every landmark noted had a quirky historical story to go with it. I've never seen so much unusual history in one place. Given that my Czech great-grandmother was quite a character (my mom has often said that I "would've liked her" in a way that really means you and she are the same kind of weird), maybe I was right about the dominance of the Czech genetic material in my makeup. She always claimed to be Bohemian royalty, and while my family rolls their eyes and translates that to crazy gypsy, I took it to mean I needed to check out the old palace while here.

So we got up this morning -- OK, afternoon, it is us -- and set out to see the city. Our hotel is in the old town (Staré Mēsto), so it was just a short walk to the Old Town Square (Staromēstské námēstí) which was full of tourists, with a large statue in the middle, surrounded by lovely old buildings, and home to the famous Astronomical Clock. Sadly, we arrived just a few minutes before the clock did its big display on the hour, so the entire street in front of it was jammed with people waiting. Since Jody had never heard of the thing, and I'm against those kinds of scenes, we wandered off without seeing it and hopped the metro to Prague Castle (Pražsky hrad), which is much more than just a castle.

After a 2 minute ride, we left the metro and walked a couple of blocks to the castle approach, which is a long uphill trek, with a few stairs mixed in. I'm reasonably healthy, but making that walk in the sun was a bit much for me, and I thought Jody was going to kill me for making him do it... until we got to the top and the most incredible view of Prague was before us.

After a lot of photos and a significant mood improvement, we walked around the corner and strolled through the large castle gardens, thoroughly enjoying the scenery in all directions. From the garden, we emerged into a square with the old palace and some other buildings, before going into a castle gate. The architecture was brilliant, so many beautiful buildings with ornate details, that we were constantly stopping to take pictures.

And then we came out a dark passageway to stand in front of Saint Vitus' Cathedral (Katedrála sv Víta), and both uttered curse words in amazement.

I love a cathedral. In addition to my general religion nerdery, they're some of the oldest and most incredible buildings you'll get to see these days. I'm always impressed by them to some degree, but never so much as by this one. We braved the massive crowds to go inside, took even more photos, and just generally marveled at its literal awesomeness for a while. They still do mass there, and I can't even imagine how much more inspiring the place would be during a high mass. Neither Jody nor I have ever done particularly well with religion, but we agreed that if we had that capacity in us, worshiping in a place like that would certainly do it.

After the cathedral, we saw some more nice buildings, all seeming a bit less spectacular than they would have otherwise, and made our way out of the castle. Another metro journey back to hotel, a bit of shopping, some Indian food, and that's us pretty much done for the day.

Tomorrow we're off to another country that's in my genes: work for Jody and another week of vacation for me, back in Edinburgh.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


I'm writing this somewhere past the Germany-Czech Republic border, phone signal going in and out, on a train from Berlin to Prague. Surprisingly, I've managed to get Jody on another short flight for a long weekend abroad.

After spending a night in Edinburgh, we arrived in Berlin Thursday night, with much less flight anxiety than last time. We found our hotel and some Chinese food (Jody's preferred cuisine, regardless of location), then spent the rest of the evening watching football on television and planning our one full day in the German capital.

On Friday we awoke to a hot and sunny Berlin. Jody picked us up some egg sandwiches and croissants for breakfast while I showered and slathered on sunscreen, then we were off to enjoy the city, notes of the carefully plotted route around the city in hand.

But as I should have known, planning always leads to frustration.

The subway line meant to take us to our first destination had changed since the printing of my subway map, and now the trip planner might as well have said 'can't get there from here!' After much study of a more current map and wandering from station to station, I found a new route with a combination of 3 S and U trains, only to discover the S train we jumped on wasn't going anywhere. Luckily, a functional one finally came along and we made the journey to Checkpoint Charlie.

The checkpoint itself is a relic of the past with a background of the modern consumer world. The guard post stands in the middle of a bustling street, along with the old signage, a couple of museums, and a small portion of the wall left intact. Our city map had a dotted red line to show where the Berlin Wall had been, and it was a bit strange strolling casually back and forward across it during the day, unable to imagine how the same spot would have been when the wall stood.

Next, we hopped back on the subway to the Holocaust Memorial. It seems to go by various names in maps and guidebooks, but by any name, it's a powerful experience. The monument itself is a huge field of cement blocks varying in size, some small enough to sit on, some dwarfing the tourists walking the narrow path between them, all representing those murdered by the Nazis. Jody commented that he had expected there to be names inscribed, but I pointed out that record keeping was probably insufficient in that situation, which made it even more depressing.

From there we took a walk up the road to the Reichstag/Bundestag -- again I was unsure of the correct name to use -- which is an impressive building, but not terribly exciting. No one was allowed inside without an appointment and special clearance, and nothing much was happening outside.

We walked a bit further, grabbed a snack, and jumped another S train out to the Olympic Stadium where Jody had gotten us tickets to see Hertha Berlin versus Werder Bremen. Jody was gushing about how excellent "the atmosphere" would be, which made me slightly concerned that I would hate it. His idea of a fun football game is one with rowdy fans constantly singing and taunting the opposition, where I prefer excitement when something happens, but otherwise... sit down and shut up. Luckily we sat in the calm family section, right next to the crazy die hard Hertha fans, so he got his madness, and I got to sit undisturbed.

As it happened, while I was very glad not to be in their midst, I didn't find the hardcore fans annoying. Unlike the often nasty and antagonistic supporters of most teams, the fans were more positive and joyful about their team; it reminded me of the Bell Centre. Maybe it's because I was one of the home crowd, but I never saw any negativity from them in Montreal. The Boston fans said awful things, and the Montrealers just shook their heads and went on being in love with their Habs. Your poor decision of a team is your own business.

In the end, the game ended 1-1, and was fun to watch, high quality football. While we cheered for the home team like the polite unaffiliated visitors that we were, to my semi-knowledgeable eye Bremen looked the better team for most of the game.

We got back to the hotel after 11pm, exhausted from a long day in the sun (and 8 miles of walking, per the trusty Fitbit), but content that we'd done well in seeing Berlin.