West Country Wanderings

We may soon be relocating within here in England. After a stint in London following years in Christchurch, we could be heading to the West Country for the first time.

Nothing’s firmed up yet, though, and it may not happen. Still, thinking ahead while returning from Bristol on Tuesday morning, given we were in the area we took the opportunity to have a drive through parts of Wiltshire, which is a possible relocation general destination. We meandered through several towns to get a sense of the housing, local amenities, look, and overall “feel” of them.

Free Stock Photo: A road in a small town

Free Stock Photo: A road in a small town

We also stopped in at one letting agent to put our name down for notifications when new rentals come on the market. We explained what we are looking for and our price range. Hearing my American accent, the agent joked, “You understand, most of our properties don’t have big, American rooms at any price.”

“Oh, we’re used to that,” I told her.

Homes here are usually well-built (and often brick) and comfortable. Yes, most English houses are not “McMansions.” But who really needs all that wasted space? You gotta pay to heat it, furnish it, maintain it, and dust and clean it, etc.

The only thing I don’t like is when you can’t get off-road parking. (We could probably park a small English village on what might be termed our “big, American” Catskills driveway.) In our house in Christchurch, which we owned for ten years, we had no driveway of our own. Usually it was a non-issue, but on rainy days (or even snowy days – they do have those in southern England very occasionally) you don’t want to get home with a car full of shopping and find you need to park around the block.

In our wanderings, we didn’t bother with Bath (in next door Somerset): it is monstrously expensive and traffic-snarled about 24 hours a day. (We well-remember that, having driven – more like did 5 MPH – through it several times years ago.) Warminster is a military town (maybe the name’s a giveaway?), but not a bad place to look at, although what we saw of the town center seemed a bit tired. Bradford on Avon is set in gorgeous hills, with winding streets, and looks like something out of a film; but, like Bath, we suspect that given that appeal it is probably also massively expensive.

Trowbridge has possibilities. It has a variety of housing and attractive areas. Surprising in England nowadays, we also discovered it even has a town center multi-story car park with FREE PARKING for 2 hours!

We discovered that only after we drove inside the building. We were so incredulous how that could be so that even seeing a large sign on the wall announcing “2 hours FREE,” and spotting no pay machines, we still didn’t entirely believe it. We actually scoped around just in case they were hiding them. My wife even double-checked with a local shopper strolling to her car, “This car park isn’t pay and display?”

Before that, after couple of hours’ driving around already, we had both needed to, ummm, shall we say, find somewhere personally important.

Now, here is one for you to file for future driving in the West of England travel reference. If you are ever in dire need, Tesco Extra in Trowbridge has them. We were so pleased and uh, relieved – if that latter is the right word? – we rewarded that supermarket with some purchases.

By the way, an Aldi a mile or so away did NOT. We found that out to our disappointment after we had stopped in, thinking, given its size, that it would. So, we didn’t buy anything in there. ;-)

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane”

With my Dad doing better than we’d expected, Sunday afternoon I took an opportunity to venture up to the Catskills to check our house, and use Monday to mow the lawn and deal with anything else that may have needed dealing with. I admit I could also have called it my “24 hours of tranquility” away from the rural Pennsylvania Seinfeld episode in which I am currently trapped! ;-)

We have no broadcast TV in the house right now. Quickly I decided on an evening in front of the DVD player. I treated myself to the first few episodes of Mad Men from the very first series/ season.

Okay, trivia question: What are Roger Sterling’s first words ever said on the show?

Answer: “Morning girls.”

When I returned to my parents’ place last night, chatting I happened to tell my mother. She had worked in midtown Manhattan as a secretary herself briefly – pre-marriage – in the early 1960s. She laughed:

It’s true. They were my father’s age. That’s actually what they used to say to us.

Around the same time, she had also actually considered becoming a Pan Am “stewardess” – she who had never (and still has never been) on a plane. We discovered that when she revealed it to us at some point while the Pan Am TV show had been on the air. I still can’t believe it.

But I digress. Although there was no TV in house, I did have mobile internet. I wasn’t totally, uh, “cut off in the Catskills.”

However, pardon me here for maybe seeming a bit out of touch in this way. Recently I’ve been seeing bits on the net here and there about a site called “SoundCloud.” I did again on Sunday night.

I finally decided to click over and have a good look around on it…. and a listen. Noticing what was on the site, how it generally seemed to work, and with time to kill (after having overdosed on Mad Men), I searched for a couple of songs that were running through my head recently courtesy of radio (oldies) play. As a new novelist, I thought maybe I’d find cover versions by “unknowns” who might be worth a listen?

For “The Letter,” I stumbled on this singer. Incredible. Well, I just HAVE to share this:

In Barba Gwen31's stream on Soundcloud.

In Barba Gwen31′s stream on Soundcloud.

Barba Gwen31 has **some** voice. As we know, the web lets us now independent/ self-publish books. (Which, after all, is why I’m on here! ;-) ) Now it also allows singers to be heard globally whom we otherwise probably would have never heard of.

One frustration, though. I’d PAY, iTunes-like (yes, I’d separate myself from some money) to download and own it. However, I can’t figure out how? I don’t see how to do it? Ugh! :-)

Have a good Tuesday! I’m writing this post at my parents’ kitchen table. Near the sink, time to take his pills, they are on at each other…. again. Apparently he’s too inept to take them without her careful oversight:

“I love you, dear,” he told her off as she read the directions to him yet again.

“Read the rest of it!” she barked, handing him one bottle.

“It says, ‘Take one a day,’” he pointed to it.

“Old people get crazy taking medications. Oh, s-it, see what I just did!” she yelled as she took another of the bottles. “I’ll mix them up!”

“You’re an old person!” he shot back.

“Angie Gonzalez [an elderly, now deceased, relation] used to mess up her medication….” my mother droned on. “Oh, no one’s listening to me.”

“Mom, I am. Please stop now.”

A few more days remain in my Seinfeld episode. “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane….” ;-)

A U.S. World Cup To Remember

You may know by now that the U.S.A. went out of the World Cup Tuesday in a thriller, losing to Belgium 1-2 in extra time.

Had a late corner kick while the game was 0-0 landed in front of world-class striker Clint Dempsey (instead of someone else who proceeded to make a meal of the best goal scoring chance the U.S. had had all game), it would almost surely have ended up in the back of the net – and the U.S. would have been improbable 1-0 winners. For through 90 minutes goalkeeper Tim Howard had kept the U.S. in the game. If he had not made the saves he had been forced to make by a lackluster (and at times simply outplayed) defense, the U.S. might have lost by a lot more than one goal.

Throughout the tournament, playing every game hard until the last whistle, the U.S. team had kept American fans in their seats. The country clearly appreciated the effort and entertainment. The U.S. Embassy in London even tweeted this today:

U.S. Embassy London says "Thanks."

U.S. Embassy London says “Thanks.”

The growing U.S. interest in soccer is not being lost on marketers and companies. They see it; that’s their job. For instance, if you had looked yesterday to a book a flight on Emirates, this was the U.S. homepage that greeted you:

Emirates.com in the U.S. on Tuesday.

Emirates.com in the U.S. on Tuesday.

That’s not something you see every day. One suspects quite a few other advertisers might also like to see the next U.S. men’s World Cup broadcast on free-to-air U.S. network TV, rather than niche sports ESPN. Uh, and by “network TV” I mean not just in Spanish. ;-)

Favorite News Sources

I saw this asked on Twitter yesterday:

What are some of your favorite sources for trusted news?

I had never really considered that systematically before. I read lots of sites, so I had to think on it carefully; and I tweeted back several. Here is a fuller list of my “go to” regularly sites:

CNN
BBC
France 24
CBS News
VOA
RFE/RL
LBCI
The Christian Science Monitor
ANSA
SABC
The Times of India

Looking at those again now I’ve just realized that only one – the Times of India – appears to be an outright “newspaper.”

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a man reading a newspaper on a bench.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a man reading a newspaper on a bench.

Taking matters to another level, how about this? “Favorite” correspondents? Mine are:

1) “International”:

Hala Gorani (CNN), Vivienne Walt (Time, etc.), and Anne-Elisabeth Moutet (The Telegraph, France 24, etc. – and who follows me on Twitter!).

2) “U.S. national”:

Mark Knoller (CBS), and Brooke Baldwin (CNN…. who also follows me on Twitter!).

3) Extremely “U.S. local” (meaning the Catskills, in upstate NY):

Watershed Post (and which also follows me on Twitter, and is in my sidebar here).

I could go on and add some others – media outlets and individuals – but I’m sure you get the gist. Everyone has their preferences of course, and likely you have yours. Oh, and being followed on Twitter does not necessarily impact my preferences! ;-)

“Americans now get soccer”

As we all know – and as the #johnbrooksforpresident Twitter hashtag reminds us – the U.S. had a big, surprise win over Ghana at the World Cup on Monday courtesy of John Brooks’s dramatic goal as the game was ending. Reading Americans’ reactions to Brooks’s unexpected, last second header heroics, my [English] wife joked, “Americans now get soccer.”

During World Cups, inevitably this question arises: Why isn’t soccer (football) even bigger among U.S. sports? And Americans are lectured (for the umpteenth time) that although it is not the top sport in the U.S., all the rest of the world is obsessed with it.

Technically, though, “all the rest of the world” isn’t: that’s always been an exaggeration. True, soccer is nearly a religion in Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa. But it is often overlooked that it is far less important not only in Canada, but also in much of Asia and Australia/ New Zealand. Indeed the billion person Indian subcontinent is definitely not soccer-crazed: its passion is cricket.

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That said, U.S. soccer has come a long way in the last two decades – particularly the women’s game. The U.S. women’s soccer team has been far more successful than the men’s team: it is one of the best globally. Yet an interesting question is this: is it possible the “rise” of soccer within the last generation is a flip-side to the “decline” in the fortunes of U.S. professional tennis?

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I recall tennis was pretty popular when I was in high school back in, uh, the Middle Ages 1980s. However, soccer was well down the sports preferences list. For both women and men.

Yet when we consider how there is no U.S. man currently in the tennis “Top Ten,” and realize, the Williams sisters aside, among women only Sloane Stephens is in the “Top 40,” one wonders if many excellent American athletes who might in the past have played professional tennis – especially women – have instead taken up soccer?

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Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

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In-Flight Romance

A Wandering Aramean post yesterday brought back a travel memory. His article was about a woman on Southwest inexplicably choosing the middle seat right next to him in the window seat – when the aisle seat was empty. Reading it, I recalled a laugh (and a cringe) I had had on a transatlantic journey…. more years ago now than I care to admit.

On a NY to Paris flight, I had the aisle seat in economy on the 747. After I’d settled in, an American man (I saw his passport cover) boarded after me and had the middle. Lastly a woman appeared who had the window seat; she was some non-French apparently European nationality I never established. (I had heard her say she was not French, but I didn’t hear what nationality she had said she actually was. I do recall her being rather “Mediterranean”-looking.)

All hum-drum. It was cordial between us. We were all about the same age.

However, during the night, let’s say it became far more cordial between them. After dinner, the lights went down as usual, and I fell asleep. At some point, I awoke to discover them making out.

And I mean they were REALLY going at it. (I couldn’t see “exactly” what they were doing, nor did I care to try to find out.) Okay, fine. Whatever. It’s nice you’ve gotten to know each other, uh, so much better at 39,000 ft. International relations and all that….

This is stuff you hear about happening on planes. You never imagine you’ll ever really see it in person. I turned my head and went back to sleep.

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In the morning, pre-landing, they behaved as if nothing “odd” had been going on between them a couple of hours earlier. I do recall her mumbling to him that she was changing to go on to…. I never heard the city name clearly…. and he telling her he was staying over in Paris for a few days before connecting to, as I recall, Egypt. He seemed to be angling for contact details to meet her somewhere in a few weeks’ time, but she wasn’t sounding overly enthusiastic about it.

So, I surmised, err, that was probably that. Well, these things happen. Sigh. ;-)

Time Zones

The world is more than ever a 24 hour place. Yet it is not entirely so 24 hour that you too may not have noticed a similar phenomenon. My Twitter goes relatively quiet during the U.S. overnight; but around 9am ET, as the country starts to get to work, my timeline becomes far busier.

Not that you are ever tweeting from work, of course! ;-) As an aside, if you use Twitter and you’d like to, follow me, and I’ll follow you back. (I happened to joke yesterday on Cas Blomberg‘s blog about how I view Twitter.)

To our WordPress. I know many of you receive an email when a post appears here (thank you!), and, if you want to, you return and read that post when it’s most convenient based on where you are time-wise in your day. But I know lots of people use the WordPress reader. (Thank you again!) As with Twitter, that so many do causes me to wonder when are the better times to post on here?

I’ve seen more American and Canadian visitors turn up if I post around 9am ET – which is 2pm in London and 3pm CET. But if I do that, I get fewer European visitors. However, the reverse also seems the case: if I post 9am UK time, which is 4am ET US (1am in California), I get fewer North American visitors.

I have simultaneously also spotted some of you popping in from to the east of Europe – in southwest Asia, India, Singapore and Australia, etc. Naturally, a 9am ET US/ 2pm UK posting time means if you are in Asia and Australia, you see a post even later – the farther to the east, the later it is in your day….

….Or it can also be extremely early the following day! Sometimes, I wonder if some people ever sleep!? I always find it hilarious on here, or on Twitter, when I notice friends posting at about 3am where they are!

Let’s have some fun. On our “big blue marble,” where are you geographically? If you’d like to, let me (and the rest of us) know in a comment. I’ll start: currently I’m in Enfield, London, United Kingdom….

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….Oh, geez, did I just write “big blue marble?” I’ve just dated myself…. again! ;-)

Happy Thursday! Or Friday…. depending on your location!

Comparative Driving: UK vs. USA

After several months in the U.S., we are again re-adjusting to British driving habits. The most famous of course is that Britain is one of those countries that drives on the left. Yes, it can initially be a bit disorienting if you’ve spent your whole life driving on the right; but it is not hard to master once you get used to it. Everyone in the U.K. manages fine.

When I was first learning over 15 years ago, I found the foremost rule to remember is this: “Keep the center line to your right side. Always to your RIGHT!” Drilling that into your head helps it become second nature quickly. (It had better.) Sitting on the right side of the car behind a right hand steering wheel is also an invaluable and subconscious (and logical) assistance:

The right-hand drive steering wheel on our Belgium-assembled, British Volvo. [Photo by me, 2014]

The right-hand drive steering wheel on our Belgium-assembled, British Volvo. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Beyond that, one encounters other differing rules of the road and cultural driving behaviors. Americans newly behind the wheel in the U.K. must bear them in mind, for falling afoul of any may mean meeting up with one of Britain’s legion of legendary, unarmed police officers, finding a whopping ticket (or even more than one, or even a court appearance demand) waiting when the rental car is returned …. or, worse of all, requiring an NHS ambulance (which non-EU U.S. tourists are billed for; they don’t qualify for “free” UK medical treatment). They may seem weird and alien compared to what Americans are accustomed to doing on roads at home:

1) In the U.K.: You should make space – move over, if possible – and permit vehicles joining the motorway, or dual carriageway, to do so smoothly.

In the U.S.A.: “That moron thinks he’s merging into my lane? I’ll hold my ground and make him get behind me. Dammit, I was here first!”

2) In the U.K.: No left turn on a red light.

In the U.S.A.: “The light’s turned red? Oh, no! I know, I’ll speed up and turn right as quickly as I can before the oncoming traffic comes through the intersection! Wait, that guy in that overpriced SUV actually stopped at the light before turning? Imbecile. That’s a funny looking license plate too. I’ll honk him. He must be Canadian.”

3) In the U.K.: At a roundabout, STOP if necessary. Give way to vehicles already in the roundabout. When it’s clear, enter the roundabout and indicate your chosen exit. After exiting, continue your journey.

In the U.S.A.: “Yielding and driving partly in a circle to be able to go straight ahead or make a turn? What a dumb idea. It sounds French. If I have to stop anywhere, I expect to see a red light, or a STOP sign.”

4) In the U.K.: STOP signs are usually placed at junctions where a roundabout will not fit, and traffic is heavy enough to be regulated. When you reach a STOP sign…. STOP! After doing so, look carefully, and when clear proceed.

In the U.S.A.: “Not another blessed STOP sign? Geez. It’s government conspiring with the brake makers to get regular business. Or it’s looking to make it easy for some cop to hand out a ticket when he sees me roll through one of the 25 STOP signs in the last 6 blocks!”

5) In the U.K.: Red lights are positioned generally where a STOP sign won’t do, a roundabout won’t fit or work, or traffic is so heavy that a free-flowing roundabout is impractical. On green, you may more forward into and through the intersection.

In the U.S.A.: “Why is there a red light here? There’s no one else around? Are those crickets I hear outside the car? This waiting is soooo boring. I think I’ll eat my sandwich.”

6) In the U.K.: Using a handheld mobile phone is strictly prohibited.

In the U.S.A.: “I know using the phone’s illegal, but I have to text my girlfriend. Oops, a cop’s behind me! Hope he didn’t see me using my phone? I’ll drop it on the floor. No, no, I meant to drop the phone, not the coffee!”

7) In the U.K.: On motorways and dual carriageways, don’t undertake. Pass on the (outside) right only. Respect lane discipline for the safety of all road users.

In the U.S.A.: “I weave in and out and pass slow guys wherever they are, from any side. It’s every man and woman for himself out there. That’s what America was built upon: freedom! Lane discipline is for Europeans. Just like socialized medicine.”

8) In the U.K.: A sign announcing “Average Speed Cameras” means number plate recognition technology is calculating your average speed. They are seen most commonly in roadworks, but are being used on other stretches of road increasingly. If you are detected exceeding the speed limit, you will receive a ticket in the post.

In the U.S.A.: “Good thing we don’t have those liberty-violating speed cameras in the U.S. If I see 55 MPH in a construction zone, I do 65. The workers? Look, if they can’t handle the excitement of working with cars flying by, this is America: they are free to get another job.”

9) In the U.K.: Yellow school buses are a rarity. Be extra-vigilant near schools in early mornings and mid-late afternoons. Most children – usually wearing school uniforms – walk to school, cycle, use public transport, or parents/ caregivers drop off/ collect them. (It’s called the “school run.”)

In the U.S.A. [when it is MY child]: “I drive our darling Dylan to the bus stop every morning. He waits in my car until the bus appears – because it’s cold outside and bad people are hiding behind bushes. When the bus stops fifteen feet away, all traffic must halt for miles in every direction as they wait for my angel finally to board. He will whenever the mood hits him because he’s raised not to feel crushed by authority. Or Republicans. Yeh, he’s 16 and 6 ft tall. But he’s our baby; just like he’ll still be when he’s on our health insurance at age 26. Those cars waiting will just have to wait. Tough.”

In the U.S.A. [when I am driving, and it is NOT my kid!]: “For God’s sake, teach Dylan how to walk faster! And to dress. You let him leave the house looking like that? Come on, you spoiled, idiot kid! Quit texting and get to the bus! I have to get to work to pay the obscene school taxes that help pay for that school bus!”

10) In the U.K.: If you drive into central London, understand it has a “congestion charge.” When you enter the “congestion” zone, your number plate is identified by number plate recognition technology. Cost and payment details are available at the Transport for London web site.

In the U.S.A.: “I’ll drive wherever I want for free because that’s what driving’s supposed to be. It’s on Henry Ford’s tombstone, isn’t it? Of course it’s not free on the New York State Thruway and on all those bridges and in tunnels in New York City. But New York is run by communists, so what else would you expect?”

Yep, we all increasingly imagine we live in “one world.” Yet we most definitely do not. We simply can’t ever escape certain, urr, national differences. ;-)

North London Flowers

Morning today, in north London:

Bluebells, Trent Country Park. [Photo by me, April 16, 2014.]

Bluebells, Trent Country Park. [Photo by me, April 16, 2014.]

A gorgeous day. Sunny English spring days always feel just a bit more “springlike” than elsewhere. I don’t know why that is.

But, I admit, I’m a bit biased. :-)