Cruising on the Carnival Catastrophe

MIL writes:

14th Aug. The journey.

It looked like we were going to leave spot on time, as the captain made his welcome talk. 5 mins after take off time, he said there would be a delay of 10 mins as 2 people had not boarded and they had to take the luggage off. The first of his bullshit announcements. One hour late, we left. What was the true reason for the delay?
8 hours 40 mins later we started landing. Just as we were about to touch down, the plane suddenly veered back up into the sky with screaming engines. We watched the plane tracker on our screens with horror as we climbed steadily and headed due east, away from Miami. After 5 mins pilot said something about “they were a little tardy in giving landing clearance so we will try again, and we would land in another 10 mins.” But instead of circling we kept heading due east for 45 miles, before making a sharp U turn and heading due west back. We landed 30 mins later, with no further comment or apology, just the usual bland thank you for flying hope you have enjoyed the flight.
When dad complained that we had been given no proper explanation we were told it was because the pilot saw another plane on the runway. Not what he originally said.
Miami airport was even more shamble than ever. Instead of queues for customs, there was a huge mass filling the arrivals hall and all heaving in the direction of customs. In the middle of this melee was a yapping small dog in a pink jacket seated atop its owner’s luggage in a trolley. By the time we got through we and others had missed the 7.50 Trirail by 5 mins, and the next and last one of the night was at 9.40. A young man said with gloomy relish that it had happened to him before that this last train was sometimes cancelled. He also complained about pilot bullshitting – he said everyone knows it takes half hour not 5 mins to re-land.

But after a steamy 2 hour wait at the Trirail station it came. My buzzing head was further afflicted on the journey by a hippo sized woman with 3 ADHD type little girls, all ceaselessly yelling yelping and jumping on the seats. They spoke an unintelligible language which turned out to be Creole, when the mother informed me in English they had had a very long journey from Haiti – all of 2 hours. I said I had had a 10 our journey and, as a result, I said, with gritted smile, I was longing for peace and quiet. She didn’t get the hint, but lolled back herself.

At the Trirail Fort Lauderdale, a few of us waited at the deserted station praying that the shuttle to the airport would show up. It eventually did. Got taxi from airport to hotel, arriving 11 pm. What kind of Hilton has no food after 10 pm, not even room service? They gave us a menu for a take out place. our order was eventually delivered at 12.15, when we were in no state to eat it. And I was longing to take my last bath, as I knew no bath on ship, but no bath in our Hilton room either.

_____________________________

Boarding the ship took almost an hour as we were lucky enough to get a woman who couldn’t figure how to log on and access our completed info on her computer, so started filling out our info in a form laboriously by hand. Halfway through she suddenly saw the info on her computer, threw away the handwritten form and started again on the computer.

Very nice lunch in the lido buffet court, but too tired really to enjoy dinner. The cruise woman of Gid lied when she said she had sorted us with anytime dining. We were still registered as 6.pm dining, and there is no anytime dining on this ship. We got 8.15 at table for 8. None of the other 8 showed up this evening. We shall see tomorrow. Nassau tomorrow. Unlikely we will go to San Juan at all because of storm, but being on the sea is v nice. Room is nice, balcony nice. Sat to Nassau tour of Sol’s resort [Paradise Island]. The tone was like a tour of Vatican and Sistine chapel being reverentially being shown the vulgar “art” works except I don’t recall being charged $50 each to see Sistine. Still the only people at an 8 person table- it was like sitting with the ghosts of cruises past with empty chairs where Mailer boys and partners used to sit.

After cancellation of itinerary and reinstatement we will walk around San Juan in morning, and then go on bioluminescence kayak in evening. I hope we manage to steer the kayak forward some of the time.

Lunches a great variety, but I stood in the stir fry section queue for 20 mins before giving up- it would have taken another half hour. Today at sea, but rainy and squally, so no deck time at all. Tried to go to art auction to see Chagalls and Picassos being sold, but gave up after 20 mins in queue to get in. Where is credit crunch hitting the poor of USA? In port at Nassau were our ship and Carnival Glory and Royal Caribbean ship with climbing wall, and the majority on all 3 were black working class.

______________

Am typing this from St Thomas public library where a kind man like a tramp heard us asking in the street for Starbucks guided us here. The kayak experience was worse than the plane experience. They said it was a magical trip to see bioluminescent waters. I had my doubts after the last kayaking in Abacas with dad, but this was hell.

They didn’t warn it entailed a half hour each way navigating through narrow mangroves. In the pitch dark. The only light being a fluorescent circle at the front and back of the other kayaks, of which there were very many to crash into in the narrow straights. But the mangroves are the killers- they have overhanging branches like cut off lead pipes; thick and solid and inflexible.

There is not light from the sky getting as the mangroves meet overhead. So dad was hit by a branch, knocking his nose, which swelled, and knocking his glasses into the water. We then had to proceed for another hour with him almost blind. In the end the tour leader towed us with his kayak. This was literally like the ride to Hades on the river Styx, stygian dark with many cries and shouts and yells of people coming in the opposite direction warning shouts and crashes – as busy as the M25 at 9pm at night.
An Indian couple in our group tipped their kayak and fell in, adding the general chaos and mayhem. Young fit guys were yelling get me out of here, when is this going to end. They said afterwards man that was extreme.

We have no insurance it seems for personal effects. It will have to be household insurance like last time he lost glasses in the Cam if they pay for abroad at all. It takes weeks to manufacture glasses so it is to be done ASAP, as dad can’t use computer with his spare glasses he has here. Ronald Brown has the prescription and all necessary data to do this.

We went to see the sand shul again as don’t do shopping for diamonds, this afternoon magens bay tomorrow to a special swimming spot in Tortula swimming through caves- I hope that will be not as disastrous.

By ferry to island of Virgin Gorda. So called by Columbus because it looks like a fat virgin. The Caribbean guides of course use the politically correct ‘when Columbus REdiscovered the islands.’

The book of the tours gave the impression you were delivered to the beach and after a 15 minute descent over rocks you got to beach, put your stuff down and then could explore caves at leisure.

In fact after the descent we were waved in the general direction of the caves, and found we had to find our own way to the beach THROUGH the caves with all our stuff. She assured us it would be through knee-deep water max- for me waist deep. Squeezing through fissures or bent double at times.

Very pretty climbing down one large rock formation which of course is v slippery under water, I advised dad to follow my practice if sliding down one foot carefully down the side of the rock till you could feel the solid sand. But dad preferred the leap of faith, so slipped backwards into the water. Luckily backwards so he didn’t lose his second pair of glasses, and only all our stuff in his backpack got soaked, but the dollars dried out ok in the sun. It was a lovely little beach.

Our fears about noise specifically related to being in a cabin near the main stairs was unfounded. The walls of the cabins were very thin, so you could hear people next door jangling the hangars in their wardrobe, so general quiet owed more to people being very well behaved and heeding the notices not to make a noise in corridors and not disturb resting or sleeping people. None of the English drunken rowdiness.

The main reason I would never go on carnival again is unexpected. It is the appalling layout of the buffet courts. Instead of different islands for hot food, salads and other categories, it is all in long canteen stretches. So queuing is long.

No such thing at breakfast of getting your yogurt and then coming back for eggs or toast to keep hot, unless you want to start all over at the back of the line. If you try to nip in and just take a yoghurt, as you don’t want anything hot, you will be lynched. So much for brits being the ones fanatical about obeying the queue- the yanks are much more so. So you are stuck behind the somnolently slow people heaping their plates and ordering full breakfasts.

I tried asking abjectly and apologetically if they minded if I just nipped in to get a yoghurt and sometimes they allowed with a resentful glare, but usually the response was a curt, get to the back of the line.

The response at the shows is much more enthusiastic. It is not that they are wide-eyed first timers; they are just as much veterans of cruising, but carnival vets. Good shows.
I befriended an old man from Jerusalem who could speak no English. He had come to his nephew’s bar mitzvah in Miami and then due to cruise with a friend who fell ill. He relied on me to translate all the disembarkation info etc we met when I overheard people next to me in deck chairs talking. The woman was saying she spoke 5 languages including Hebrew. Turned out she was Armenian, born in Armenian quarter in Jerusalem but fled during one of the wars to Lebanon, then lived in Canada and now Boston? A yank reading Erik Daniken said the Jews killed everyone living in the country and that’s how they got to own the land.

I bristled, and said carefully through gritted teeth – I am sure its a lot more complicated, although I am sure everyone has their own story- looking at the Armenian. Yes she said, but she didn’t want to talk ab0ut politics but there had been hard times. I said I wondered where the yank had read this version, but I could assure him it was not true. ‘Not true?’ he repeated, sounding confused. He then said he didn’t remember where he read it- but he read this all happened thousands of years ago. Not in this book, he said, pointing to his Daniken, in case I was confused.

I then realised mortified he was referring to the biblical slaughters and take over of the eretz. So I narrowly avoided an embarrassing confrontation.

There were quite a few South Africans aboard, and quite a few Israelis and a party of 40 French Jews. There was no mention of a Shabbat service in the daily schedule, but a US Jewish man (he identified me when I queried and then refused the eel sushi at the sushi counter and said he had gone through the same inquiry process for the same reason) told me he heard there was going to be one but didn’t know where.

I asked guest service desk and after making a phone call they told me it was a room reserved by the French and I was not allowed to know anymore details as it was only for French people who had booked it. When I saw the huge group coming in late to dinner- the table next to us was 20 teens and children- the kids still wearing their kippot and hai necklaces, I realised they were the French. I asked them in French and they said it was not true no one else was allowed and that Americans had also joined in. they wished me Shabbat shalom. I had assumed they were Mexican or something but could now see they were Algerians etc.

Route Kanal

One bright mid-morning, in or around the late spring of 2001, I was at work when I noticed that one of my back teeth was tingling slightly. It was my final molar on the upper left hand side, and I described the feeling at the time as being similar to the feeling in your stomach when you are anticipating something nice, like a birthday party or a holiday.

The odd tingly feeling remained for the rest of the day. I ignored it for the most part, dismissing it as a curiosity. Later that evening, after dinner, the feeling became stronger. Again, apart from vaguely wondering what it was, I ignored it. As it got worse, I took a paracetamol and a tot of medicinal gin, assuming that it would be gone by morning.

The following morning, I woke up in the most agonising pain I have ever experienced. A powerful, intense throb was emanating from that tooth, and I could feel that the roof of my mouth was beginning to swell up. Paracetamol could not even take the edge off, and I barely noticed the effects of the Disprin I also took.

Having let work know that I had “toothache” (that word does not even begin to encompass the agony I was suffering. I felt like a fraud for even saying it), I called the dentist.

The receptionist informed me that the dentist had no available appointments for the day and I would have to wait until tomorrow. It was at this point that I burst into tears on the phone, and I could have hugged her when she said I could pop in for a five-minute emergency appointment that afternoon.

The rest of the day is a blur of ineffective painkillers and (umm) a bit more gin. Swilling the stuff round my mouth seemed to give me a couple of seconds’ mild relief. The pain of an infected root is exquisite. It fills your head with a sharp, steely blue and constant agony, which throbs and throbs and is inescapable. My ears were singing and it felt like I could barely see. I became furious with people walking down the street in front of my window, because they were not suffering as I was.

Finally the time for the appointment arrived and I staggered to the dentists’ in a haze of confusion and pain. He had a quick look and, yes, as suspected, I had an infection in the root of my tooth.

Had he been an NHS dentist, I have no doubt that I would now have a gap where that tooth once was. However, he was not. He prescribed me some antibiotics, and then after a couple of mind-buggeringly painful x-rays, said that he would save the tooth. It would take a total of four hours, and cost a stupid amount of money. Had my mouth not been the centre of my own private universe of pain at the time, I would have kissed him. I would have paid anything to make the pain go away, and was not inclined to lose a tooth if I did not have to.

The antibiotics superseded the gin late the same evening and, three days later and almost normal again, I turned up at the surgery.

I had two hours’ worth of lying in the dentist’s chair with all manner of bizarre devices being poked and prodded and drilled into my tooth. At one point he removed the dead nerve and showed me. It was a sad little scrap of grey, looking more like a dab of damp cigarette ash than anything else. He packed the new cavity with what smelled and tasted like bleach, and sent me, numb and drooling, on my way.

The next appointment was even longer and was accompanied by the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’s Diary. To this day I cannot listen to a single song from that album without lapsing into a flashback. I could only speculate about what was being put into my mouth and why. The dentist spoke only to the nurse, asking in low urgent tones for various pieces of obscure dental equipment. I do know that at one point I was sporting a lip spreader and dental dam to prevent some of the more exotic chemicals running down my throat.

I had three long pins inserted into the tooth and up into my jaw to hold it in place, and then a hefty dollop of amalgam on top to keep everything together. Somewhere I still have the x-ray image of these three pins, as a memento.

I have never, ever forgotten the pain.

Super 8 – a bit of family history

The Elmo Super 8 camera is a thing of beauty. Cased in black with chrome accents, it carries its weight elegantly and the pistol grip nestles comfortably in the hand. It also smells wonderfully of old camera equipment.

I unearthed this camera in my father’s loft one bank holiday. Looking for something else, I found a locked camera case and, being me, forced it open. After replacing the 17 year old batteries, everything appeared to be in perfect working order. My father is a dog in the manger type and is highly unlikely to simply give anything away, even when it is something that clearly has remained untouched and forgotten about for at least 2 decades. So I did not bother to ask if I could have the camera, I simply took it.

I also delved around and found dozens of old Super and Standard 8 film reels, some still sealed in the packaging from the developer’s – they had never been viewed. Some of these had been made by my maternal grandfather, and others by my parents. Whilst some had sound, and I also dug up a sound projector, the bulb had gone and so although I could hear ghostly voices coming from the reel, there was no vision. Modern S8 films never have sound – this was produced by gluing a strip of audio tape to the film but apparently the glue used did not meet modern environmental regulations.

Super 8 has the ability to add instant nostalgia and once you know what you’re looking at, it’s still everywhere. Documentaries and music videos use a surprising amount of it, and even brand new S8 film, shot barely weeks ago, gives everything the patina of age and the disturbing feeling that everyone in the film is long dead.

Of course, when watching something that is nearly 40 years old, that’s usually true. My parents’ wedding, filmed by my grandfather in Standard 8, is a case in point. Although my mother and father are the focus, occasionally there are glimpses of my grandmother. I was curious about this and delved further into the reels of film.

There are probably kilometres of film (each S8 reel lasts for about 3-4 minutes) shot by my grandfather of his primulas, the yearly carnival in the Cumbrian town of Cleator Moor where he lived, tractors ploughing fields, dogs playing in ponds, nestlings in hedgerows and children I do not recognise in Wellingtons. There are no notes or any sort of index indicating when the films were shot, where, or who the children are. They are of course silent on the subject themselves.

There are also short but incredibly strange experimental movies, including a stop-motion animation sequence called DALEKS, where it becomes clear that my grandfather had read about Daleks but had never actually seen one, and Circus.

Circus is the strangest and most disturbing film in the collection. It is nearly 10 minutes long and features a hastily painted circus ring set, and various caterpillars walking tightropes and swinging unwillingly from makeshift trapezes. An agonisingly long section shows one caterpillar trapped in a jar with a spider, perhaps in a lion-taming attempt. Ultimately the caterpillar skewers itself on one of the spider’s legs.

In some of the films, my mother and grandmother are present, but they drift in and out of the frame, as if they have just got in the way whilst my grandfather was setting up another tedious shot of his prize primulas. In total there is probably less than a minute’s worth of film of my grandmother, who died in late 2008 at the age of 93.

I asked my father about all this. The camera, worth £200 new in the early 1970s and still selling for over a hundred pounds on Ebay (when you can easily pick up a second hand S8 for less than £20), was my grandfather’s and the source of much friction. He suffered from a stroke in the 1960s and had to pack in managing the cinema, so my grandmother supported the family by taking a menial job in a zip factory. They did not have a great deal of money, and this camera cost the equivalent of over £1,000 in today’s money. Each reel of film cost the same now as it did then: £10. A film like Circus, consisting of four or five reels spliced togther, would have set him back over £50 in film and developing costs. Even today this is not inconsiderable, and he spent a lot on film. What is perhaps most poignant is that, like a lot of men, my grandfather liked to have the kit and to mess about with it, but lacked the patience to learn the techniques properly. The films are slapdash. My parents’ wedding film has a long section during the reception where barely anything can be seen because of the poor light. The Elmo has a good light meter allowing the operator to establish, before exposing one frame, whether the light is sufficient, but he obviously had not bothered to check this.

My grandmother was understandably irritated at her husband’s expensive hobby, but having been brought up to grin and bear it, and never to complain, simply put up with it. She also, it turned out, put up with her husband’s other hobby. He had a second family in another town. Whether the woman involved was actually his mistress or just a close friend, and whether the children he had filmed endlessly with his camera were actually his or not will never be known. However, my grandmother knew perfectly well that her husband would take them out on day trips to Blackpool and the like, and would disappear overnight from time to time.

This accounts for her refusal to appear, except ephemerally, in any of the films. My mother, too, appears occasionally but only to help him use up the last few feet of film before getting it developed.

When my grandfather (a man I barely remember myself) died in the early 1980s, my grandmother gave the camera to my father for safekeeping along with all the films. She said she never wanted to see any of the films or the camera again as they were associated with too many bitter memories: of being ignored while her husband industriously filmed garden plants rather than his only daughter; of being left to slog out long hours in a factory while he tormented caterpillars for his art; and being passed over in favour of another woman.

My father used the camera occasionally: most frequently to film his offspring cavorting naked in the back garden in the kind of films you get arrested for nowadays.

Mr Trellis has now adopted the camera for his own. We have a slowly increasing pile of reels featuring me, our cats, friends and family.

SanLosLas Part 4

SATURDAY

As suspected, Cocky did not return to the hotel (we were sharing the beautiful Opera Suite at Inn New York) until 8.45am. He was kind enough to text me that night to state that he was not dead. As we were due to check out at 11am, I lay awake for a little while wondering how he was going to manage on around an hour’s sleep.

Nicky and I got up at 9am and while he went for his run, I scuttled about packing and the like. By the time Nicky returned, Cocky had begun to rouse. We broke the news that he might have to spend the day on a park bench. Apparently he had stayed in the Manhattan apartment of a couple of kindly gays, but hadn’t got much kip on their sofa before he realised he’d better get back. Rather than go down the hobo route, he instead asked the landlady if he could keep the room for the day, and it was agreed that he could, for $80. We left him to it and went off to see Linda and Martin, Nick’s aunt and uncle, who live in Queens.

We realised that this was the first time we’d been to see L&M in the daylight and so after lunch we decided to go for a walk around Forest Hills, which turns out to be a lush, woody area of the city with some old (for the US) houses. Apparently some recent migrants to the area have decided that the old piles are not to their taste and so large, unpleasant edifices with pillars, balustrades and every kind of tasteless architectural confection have begun to spring up in their place.

We headed back in the late afternoon and noticed that the traffic down towards the Hudson had started to increase. This was no doubt due to the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks which were due to take place after dark. We said goodbye to Mrs Mensch, who said that the fireworks were not that good and that most locals prefer to watch them on the TV. For us, given the choice between watching the fireworks and then battling against the flow of people to get to the Newark airport motel we had booked for the night, and simply going when everything was quieter and thus getting a good night’s kip, the kip won out.

We took the subway to Penn and then the NJ Transit to Newark. Along the way we could see fireworks anyway. It was at around this stage that I realised why pregnant ladies don’t lift things. After about 6 months the production of a hormone known, self-explanatorily, as relaxin, increases. Ligaments and tendons become looser and you become more likely to sproing something. I successfully sproinged my neck, my shoulders and both hips in the space of 20 minutes, and ended up delegating baggage carrying to the porters.

We took the shuttle bus to the beloved Country Inn and Suites. Last time we stayed here I was kept awake till 4am by a stopover party, but as we checked in I noticed a sign stating that the hotel had now implemented a No Party policy. I was relieved to see this but then was dismayed to see that at least two separate groups of kids were tearing around the hotel, and one of them seemed to have decided to have a small but very noisy party in the lift. They were all wearing t-shirts indicating that they had attended a family reunion that day and were clearly in high spirits.

We wandered over to the neighbouring diner but found it to be closed. However, all was not lost as the hotel had a selection of microwave meals to buy, so we chose chicken pot pie and macaroni cheese, washed down with grape soda. Unfortunately the hotel only provided food, and not the means to eat it. Fortunately, I am wise and remembered our weird astronaut breakfast at the Country Inn and Suites in Florida. I tracked down the breakfast room and obtained cutlery and eating surfaces from inside.

Bedtime. We watched telly, Nicky swishing around happily in the jacuzzi and I lying in bed. The family reunion partyers must have tired themselves out because I didn’t hear another peep from them.

SUNDAY

Ugh, 6am wake up call so that we could get the hotel shuttle to the airport in time for breakfast and an 8am flight. The shuttle bus driver was a well upholstered gentleman and I did begin to wonder whether he was going to die before he’d dropped us off, since he sounded about a minute away from a heart attack every time he lifted a suitcase. He was kind enough to drop us directly at the terminal rather than at the monorail, and a kindly security woman checked us in from the queue, before ushering us to the lounge for Rice Krispies and tea.

It was all a little rushed. We got through security after the usual interrogation about what Nick’s Super 8 camera was, exactly, and waited nicely at the departure gate. I was then pulled to one side and shouted at by a member of Virgin Atlantic’s ground staff because my case “looked heavy” and that it weighed “50 kilos”. I said that it did not, and demonstrated that I could lift it easily, and explained once more that I wasn’t quite so stupid as to pack a bag I couldn’t lift. The staff member remonstrated that the case was too big, and I showed that it was not. I observed that the case, rather than being big or heavy, was in fact red, and that was why she’d noticed it.

I was eventually allowed to board the plane, but was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to get away with such a transgression again. I resolved to purchase a black case of equivalent dimensions to avoid such altercations in the future, and also to get Virgin to print my boarding card so that it was edged in easily visible Upper Class purple (when applicable) rather than printing it from a kiosk.

The entertainment system was broken. Gradually, a plane-wide reboot took effect except (fuelling my persecution complex somewhat) for mine. Instead of a safety video and the V-Port cornucopia of delights, I was treated to nothing but white noise for 6 hours. I finished my book and found that the only other reading material on the plane was a magazine about polo and the Economist, which is fine, but hardly 6 hours’ worth of reading material. My other option was a hand-held DVD player and a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You, but the promised player never materialised. It is galling to note that the squalling 9-month old baby’s seat had a fully functional entertainment system but it did not offer to swap with me.

Boredom seemed to achieve for me what champagne and restless pre-flight nights never could – I actually slept for most of the flight, which was very smooth. The baby was reasonably well behaved, except during landing when the change in pressure caused it to complain. I was under the impression that you were supposed to feed babies or give them a dummy during take off and landing so that they’d swallow and pop their ears, but its mother evidently didn’t know that, resorting instead to shushing the infant constantly. Even I know that 9 month old babies don’t understand the concept of shush – indeed, this seemed to irritate the child even more and the only thing that did shut it up was a neighbouring passenger making silly faces at it.

We landed, and parted company with Cocky at passport control because we had registered for IRIS and he had not. We left him at the back of a long queue, glanced at the IRIS camera and were out of the airport and in our pre-booked cab within 20 minutes of landing.

SanLosLas Pt 3

FRIDAY
We woke late and Nicky was perturbed to discover that he could not find his phone. After some vacillating he went out on a run, having arranged for the phone to be cancelled, and Cocky and I went out to Dylan’s Candy Bar.
We met Nick in the cafe and he demanded to be fed, having rejected breakfast earlier on. We decided to go to the famous Carnegie’s Deli and had chicken soup, salt beef and latkes.
We returned to Inn New York for a nice cup of tea and a sit down before heading out again to the East Village and the famous Stonewall Inn. The Inn itself is actually a nice pub with a convivial atmosphere, soft core gay porn on the TV and a generous bartender who was clearly quite fond of Nick and Cocky, given the stiff measures he allowed in their vodka and cokes.
When I went to the unisex loo (only 1 patron in the restroom at a time), I was accosted by a comely lesbian who appeared from a distance to be playing patience. However, when I went over I realised that she was dealing Tarot cards and she wanted to do a reading. I suggested that she should stop being silly and went to the loo.
Cocky wished to visit another bar that was perhaps less convivial for the likes of us, so we dropped him off and went home via the Gourmet Garage for smoked salmon to have on toasted bagels.

SanLosLas Pt 2

SUNDAY
Because I am a lovely person I got up early and got us a breakfast from starbucks -just pastries and tea really. I ordered a macchiato for Cocky but it turns out that Starbucks’ macchiatos are not like anyone else’s and are a sort of caramel coffee dessert rather than the usual espresso with a dab of frothed milk on top.
We then set out with bags of dirty pants to the famous Magic Wash laundrette, about 10 minutes’ drive from the Strip. It has change machines, which were ideal for state quarter collectors, massage chairs and flat screen TVs. We were able to wash all our stuff for $5. Whilst it was doing, we wandered through the fierce heat into the 99c store nearby. Just like UK pound shops, it is full of things that you never knew you needed, but it also had handy things like chilled drinks and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Once our laundry had dried, we got into the car to go home and realised instantly why the locals try hard to park under cover. The car was unbearably, unspeakably hot inside.
Somehow we survived the drive to Planet Hollywood for our show. We made sure we were parked under cover this time. We had a rushed snack lunch of nachos and guacamole.
The Gregori Popovich Comedy Pet Theatre found fame on America’s Got Talent. Popovich is a Russian emigre clown who can not only juggle, but has worked out how to train cats. The show was excellent and inspired us to try training Minnie and Finch when we got home.
We returned to the hotel to put away our laundry and headed straight for the pool. The TI pool was disparagingly called a party pool but it wasn’t too bad. We found a spot mostly out of the sun.
Hunger led us to walk back to Planet Hollywood for the Spice Island buffet. I managed to put away a substantial amount of prime rib, followed with frozen custard, crème brulee and candyfloss.
We followed this with a drink in the lounge overseeing what appeared to be a titty casino section, where the croupiers wore lingerie-style costumes and a pole dancer undulated a little with her pole. We noticed that the pole dancer was wearing two bras – perhaps to keep the cold out. On the way out of Planet Hollywood I was accosted by an aggressive leaflet woman demanding (in an almost incomprehensible accent) that I make Nicky visit Peepshow with Holly Madison. Outside we were bombarded with cards for prostitutes (in your room within 20 minutes was the promise) and further demands to visit strip clubs. I was a bit offended not to be offered these cards although other women were.
We paused on the way back to see the dancing Belaggio fountains and then the Whores of the Caribbean (AKA Sirens of TI), a confusing display of comedy pirates and slutty she-pirates.
MONDAY
Following some bitter complaints about the temperature and the concurrent lack of a possibility of a run, I organised a 6am wake up call so that Nicky could run while it was still relatively clement. There was a lot of complaining and moaning but I eventually managed to kick him out of bed, into his running kit and onto the Strip. We slept a bit late but were not woken up as we expected by Cocky, who had said he was going to meet us for cereal and milk in our room.
We tried to phone Cocky but got no answer from any of his usual channels of communication. Apparently he had been annoyed at the lack of gay pubs on the Strip and had gone somewhere last night, but where, nobody knew.
We went to Mirage to see the Posi redshirts doing badly at poker, and decided to do lunch at the TI buffet, which was nommy. More prime rib and candyfloss for me.
We returned to Mirage after lunch and tried to play casino war, which consists of getting a card dealt and, if it’s higher than the dealer’s card, you win. We lost.
We visited the Mirage pool – there is also a nude pool, billed as an adventure in European sunbathing, but we didn’t go to that.
Instead we decided to visit Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden, complete with dolphins and kittens – well, gigantic white tigers and lions actually, but cute nonetheless. Following this we had a nice cup of tea and a cool down before visiting the Mirage’s pool, where I had some blue slush. It appears the bartenders are not used to serving non-alcoholic cocktails and are confused about how much to charge. I was concerned to note that throughout the day we had not heard from Coxall and, on checking, found that he had not even tweeted all day. This was round about where we decided to start worrying.
Still, we visited the Venetian shoppes and stopped by Walgreens for cereal (Lucky Charms this time). It was while leaving the centre that we got a call from Cocky. He was apparently not dead, but hungover and had been sleeping all day. He had found a gay bar and had spent the evening chatting to a tranny and petting her cute white doggie. We returned to TI and our own pool. I realised I had been a bloody fool to have not swum before.
We visited the Mirage deli for dinner. Vv expensive and silly – who would pay $13 for 3 latkes? The waiter also kept rubbing Cocky’s belly and had a squint – he helpfully closed one eye so that we knew what to look at.
We met Songul, who had organised a date at Jet, the nightclub. We all decided to accompany her to find out what her date looked like. However, we hung around waiting for the place to open and eventually realised that we were in the wrong queue and inappropriately dressed.
So we decided to stand up Songul’s date and went to the Revolution lounge, a 60s style place but it did play quite good music, including the Violent Femmes and Korn, mixed in cunningly with current dance hits. I had a Virgin Mary, a dance attempt and then bed.
TUESDAY
Anniversary, today, awww.
We began the day with lucky charms in room with Cocky, and then proceeded to drive out to Hoover Dam, which took about 40 minutes. The dam is done out in 1930s art nouveau style and after a brief propaganda video which did not mention the drop in water level in Lake Mead we were taken on a tour of the turbines. We walked through tunnels built below the dam, which was somewhat problematic for me because I’d left my glasses in the car and was in my prescription sunglasses.
Outside, it was super duper hot. At the top of the dam the temperature was close to 50 degrees c or 120 fahrenheit in old money. I decided to forego the walk across the dam in favour of sitting in the air conditioned cafe but was told I shouldn’t sit there if I wasn’t going to buy anything, so I ended up sitting in the covered multi storey car park instead.
Lunch was had in the cafe – a mediocre hot dog. The attached shop was disappointingly full of tat for such a national monument, but if I had needed to buy a fluorescent dream catcher, this would have been the place.
We returned to Vegas, and headed straight for the pool for a lovely cooling dip and some very welcome slush, before setting out for the Wynn buffet and our anniversary treat trip to see Mystere, which was the first Vegas show for Cirque de Soleil and is now over 10 years old. It was a proper old circus variety performance involving alarming balancing acts, a genuinely funny clown and a giant inflatable snail.
WEDNESDAY
This morning, we were supposed to have a Cocky birthday buffet at the Bellagio but he failed to show up, having apparently been invited to see a drag queen’s pool the night before. Happily he turned out not to be floating face down in it.
However, we found Jake and others the in Bellagio buffet queue, and pointed out that this was the lunch queue not breakfast, as it was now 10.30am, there was a huge queue in front of them and lunch started at 11am. Instead we breakfasted at the Bellagio Cafe (at vast expense).
I still hadn’t had any tea so we went to the Caesar’s Palace Shoppes, apparently the most profitable retail real estate in America, for that. We all must do our bit. We battled through the fierce heat to our hotel in order to watch DVDs in our room.
Later on Nicky went to play some poker at last. I repacked and watched CNN before bravely venturing out, all the way to the Mirage pool, to hang around in regal splendour and wait for him to return. He eventually did, having broken even and then given up because he got bored.
We had dinner at the Strip House steak house in Planet Hollywood, decked out in the style of a 1920s bordello and complete with girlie flock wallpaper and girlie napkins. One of the girlie napkins somehow found its way into my bag but I don’t know how, officer.
After entertaining ourselves by trying to hand back prostitutes’ cards to the distributors, we watched the dancing Bellagio fountains do their thing to the Star Spangled Banner. Very patriotic.
We spotted a few hookers on our way back to TI – as suspected, they bore little resemblance to the photos on the cards that were being handed out.
We stopped by Rhumbar at the Mirage for a Virgin Mary and were bitten thoroughly by mosquitoes before going to bed.
THURSDAY
Having cancelled the 6am alarm call we were alarmed to be woken at 6am again. It wasn’t that difficult to go back to sleep and we met Cocky for a TI buffet breakfast at 10. The buffets really do offer the best value on the Strip. For $14 you can have as much as you like, including tea and juice, whereas in most of the cafes, $14 will barely get you two eggs any style and a glass of iced water. The canny buffet user will load up on high value items like fruit, cheese and eggs, whereas the neophyte will be distracted by the cheap carbs and fill up on those: which is of course the intention. I saw a woman at the Wynn buffet with a plate full of bread, mashed potato and crab legs.
Following breakfast, Nicky attempted to pack while I attempted to check out, like a grown up. I was utterly gobsmacked to be presented with an additional $550 charge on my credit card for, apparently, my room upgrade. I expressed my unhappiness and was told that I had signed for this extra charge. Oh, no, I didn’t, I said, and summoned the manager.
Rather than have an argument with the manager, the receptionist disappeared to check my registration card. Five minutes later he came back and said that I was right, I hadn’t signed for any such thing, and took the charge off my poor little Smile Gold Card.
Phew.
We set out for McCarran International Airport and dropped the car off. Nick was disappointed that he had not pranged the car, despite having paid extra for prang insurance.
The flight to New York on Virgin America was fine albeit very bumpy. The air hostess impressed us with her agility when she climbed into the dustbin to compact the rubbish and jumped up and down on it.
We took a cab to our hotel. Cocky had the misfortune to sit next to the driver, who kept up a constant banal conversation on his phone for the entire 40 minute journey. By the end, Cocky was ready to kill.
We checked in. It was now 11.30pm but as we were still on Pacific time, we ventured out for nachos before finally turning in.

SanLosLas Pt 1

Saturday
Alice and Nicky dropped the kitties off at Conifer Lodge Cattery while I attended to the chap who had come to fit the new kitchen.
After Alice left for Durham, along with her moth trap cum cat entrancer, I packed for Nicky and Marigold. We intended to travel with hand baggage only so I factored in one or two trips to the laundrette on the way.
We stopped by Langley Park to see Mrs M as she likes to see us one last time before we face certain doom on our flight. We took the Thameslink to Kings Cross to meet Coxall and then the crowded Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Terminal 5 and the plush new Sofitel.
When we checked in, it appeared that Cocky had been booked in for the following day. After some to-ing and fro-ing, it appeared that there had been an Expedia foul-up and Cocky was allowed to stay.
We dined at the Roux Brasserie. I had red mullet and watermelon sorbet with watermelon soup, while the chaps had some wonderfully runny cheese which I was not permitted to have due to Marigold. I vowed to take a trip to Rules immediately following delivery, where I would simply demand the cheese trolley and a half bottle of port. It’s only a short cab ride from UCH.
I had a poor night’s sleep due to arctic air conditioning and a 300 tog duvet. Duly knackered, I stumbled onto the Heathrow Express to Terminal 3 and a crowded check in hall. Fortunately a nice lady called Bee checked us in from the queue as we only had hand baggage, and we headed for security.
I was searched and while the security attendant was industriously measuring the blade on my nail scissors, my boarding pass went missing. I asked the security guards if they had seen it, and they looked around in a desultory manner and then shrugged in that public sector way which means “too much bother” and proceeded to ignore me. Fortunately Bee was still hanging around and she kindly escorted me through security along with a chap from defunct boy band, Blue. Meanwhile, the chaps had gone through security and had started phoning me and sending terse text messages admonishing me for being a Lady and disappearing into a shop selling Lady things.
I caught up with them and we went to the Virgin clubhouse for some much needed breakfast and tea.
I was refused a facial because of Marigold, which I found hilarious. However, while Nicky had his desperately required haircut, I was permitted a pedicure.
On the way to the plane, we stopped at Boots for some painkillers for Cocky, who had broken his shoulder. I was kept waiting in the line by a woman who was complaining that the airside Boots did not stock a particular homeopathic remedy for jet lag. I refrained from pointing out that it really didn’t matter what sort she chose in order to expedite things.
Before we boarded, I was asked to lift my suitcase to prove that it was under the regulation 8kg weight for hand baggage. I pointed out that I wasn’t quite foolish enough to pack a bag I couldn’t lift and demonstrated this fact. I was then permitted to board. One of the flight attendants offered me a half glass of champagne. Being French, he was quite taken aback by Nicky’s forbidding me to have any more, and whispered that he’d let me have as much as I wanted.
The flight was quite bumpy. At one point I spilled nearly an entire cup of tea everywhere. Two flight attendants offered to clear it up and bring me a fresh cup but I pointed out that (a) the mess had already been made and (b) until the plane stopped pitching back and forth, there seemed little point in making it worse. The flight attendants went back to delivering individual ice cubes to the demanding and vv rude lady next to me, who also had the most revolting phlegm riddled hacking cough I’ve ever heard outside a TB ward. She was coughing almost constantly, and when she had her nap snored so loudly and strangely that I wondered at first if she was on oxygen.
I tried to have a little nap myself, Aranovitch’s chapter in Voodoo Histories on the assassination of Trotsky being very soporific, but only managed to get an hour or so. I watched a Horizon documentary about fat people, about 2 minutes of High School Musical 3, Coraline and Shopaholic, which is utterly terrible and can be redeemed only by saying that the screenwriter is slightly less illiterate than the original novelist.
We landed on time in SFO and scuttled to the front so as to be first through immigration. We did not need to wait for our baggage, and so went straight to the BART. The ticket machines were vv confusing so I was glad I had done my research. The trains are fast and clean, and we were soon at Powell Street.
Never wander round Powell Street and Market with a map and look lost. Strange men proffering empty cups and smelling of wee will offer to help. The distance to our hotel, from my research, was reckoned at just over half a mile. In my slightly zombified state, I sternly told the chaps that a cab or the cable car would be ridiculous, and that we would walk.
Having been to SF before I really should have known better. The walk up Powell to California is almost vertical in places. It was very hot, sunny, and we all had bags to carry.
Somehow, and fortified along the way by a trip to a corner store for Snapple and crisps, we made it to the Huntington Hotel, which is exceedingly posh and not used to having three dishevelled, sweaty people turning up and claiming to have paid in advance. Eventually we talked our way in and had a much needed freshen up in our rooms before venturing out again in search of food.
We found it at tourist trap extraordinaire, Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf: tomato soup in a sourdough bread bowl with unlimited refills of root beer. Thus fortified, we visited the sea lions and marvelled at the 57 varieties of tat the place offers. We had ice cream, and then attempted to get the cable car back before being beaten back by the massive queues. A taxi was procured instead.
Coxall still needed more painkillers, so he and I took one last excursion to the corner store: he for Advil and me for cereal and milk for when I would inevitably wake up hungry in the middle of the night.
I fell asleep to Robot Chicken Star Wars and the Squidbillies on Adult Swim.

Monday
Surprisingly, I managed to sleep until about 7.30am, when Coxall called our room, bored, and wanted breakfast. By the time we were ready, Coxall had disappeared, and Nicky began panicking in case he’d fallen in the shower. I eventually called his mobile, Nicky telling me all the while that it wouldn’t work because Coxall’s iPhone was too expensive to run in the US. Coxall answered and said that he’d gone to take photos and had bought us all MUNI passes for the next three days. Hurray.
We had breakfast in the hotel, which was expensive but very nice.
Onwards, (after a shower) we took the cable car down to Market Street. Coxall wanted to visit the Apple Shop to find out why he was paying a fortune for international roaming on his data. They couldn’t tell him, so we were directed to the AT&T shop down the road. Apparently O2 have locked him in worldwide.
We took the no. 5 trolley bus to Ocean Beach. This bus goes along Golden Gate Park and terminates at the beach. The sand was very hot, which contrasted with the sea, which was very, very cold. Swimming is not advised here due to the waves and the strong rip currents, but surfers in sturdy wetsuits do brave the conditions.
We took the 5 back as far as Castro, and walked down it in search of rampant homosexuality and some lunch. The Castro by day is very clean and smart, and I stopped off for some excellent bubble tea before we decided to have lunch at Harvey’s. Coxall tried the bubble tea, and had to have the concept explained to him, but decided he didn’t like it. At Harvey’s (named after Harvey Milk), Nick and I shared some nachos while Coxall had a BLT.
We took the F tram back into town. The F line consists of vintage trams sourced from all over the US. Ours dated back to 1947. The F transits the hippie area of Haight-Ashbury and down along Market Street, the Embarcadero and the piers, ending up in tourist trap Fisherman’s Wharf. We intended to buy tickets to Alcatraz but soon learned that the misleadingly labelled kiosk only sold tickets for cruises around the island, not tours on it. We had to schlep back to Pier 33 for those.
Nicky had seen a sign for a Segway tour and insisted that we go and find out where and how to book. He insisted that either me or Martin should accost a passing stranger and ask them, but Martin refused and instead looked up the location at vast expense on his Iphone. We walked there and I was refused admission on account of Marigold. Nick and Martin booked a tour for the next day, however. I didn’t mind really as the tour cost $70 a head.
Following the successful booking, we intended to get the F tram back but found the queue to be immense, as was the line for the cable car. Adept tourists, of course, know to pick up the trams and cable cars a stop or two down the line to avoid waiting. We, naturally, are not adept and ended up giving up and taking a cab back to the hotel.
After some time sitting by the hotel pool and looking at photos, I realised that I was ravenously hungry – the kind of hunger that shuts down rational thought and leaves one a starving zombie only able to insist that it needs feeding immediately.
We found a diner close by and went there. Although Lori’s Diner is a “roadside” rather than a “New York” diner and therefore did not serve chicken soup, lox and the like, I had mushroom soup, a turkey sandwich and a massive chocolate milkshake with cream on top. Nicky had a vegan salad with egg and ranch dressing, while Coxall had some rather exquisite southern fried chicken.
After feeding, the Coxall became quite active and departed to visit SoMa, or South of Market, to find a bar. It turns out that San Franciscans don’t really go to bars until Sunday afternoon, but he had a nice chat with a Filipino bear who studies at Goldsmiths College in London.
Nicky and I went to bed to Adult Swim, meanwhile.
Tuesday
The boys were up early for their tour, and I accompanied them in the hope of breakfast. I had the brilliant idea of buying takeaway pastries and coffee, but this meant we missed the first cable car and were turfed off the second for having food. We ended up walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf instead. I hung around the Segway tour centre to film and photograph the chaps while they trained, and noted the unenforceable (in the UK) exclusion clause in the waiver that they had had to sign.
I took the cable car to Market in order to purchase some maternity clothes as I had discovered that morning that nothing in my suitcase actually fitted me. This was annoying for all sorts of reasons, not least that the world of maternity trousers is a deeply confusing one and led to my being welcomed to Baby Gap. However, I found a pair reduced from $60 to $20, so I suppose that counts as a win. I also purchased a tent which will come in useful after pregnancy if I want to take an impromptu weekend away somewhere.
That done, I took the F back to the wharf. Unfortunately it was pretty full and I was kindly elbowed out of the way in order that a man’s teenage daughter could take the last seat. Her father spent the journey jabbing me in the bump with his bag, which was quite annoying. However, the annoyance soon ceased when a passenger managed to break the tram doors. After scolding the passenger, the driver turfed us all off and announced that no traffic would be moving until the tram was fixed. I started walking again and was about to get the no. 10 bus when I noticed that the trams were moving.
Onwards to Fisherman’s Wharf, on a tram full of Australians… I met the chaps on schedule and was annoyed to find that they’d had a lovely time without me. We had brunch at the Buena Vista, famous as the place where Irish coffee was invented.
Following brunch, we opted to go over the Golden Gate Bridge by bus. I pointed us in the right direction to pick up the bus as directed by the guide book, but a bus stop did not seem to be forthcoming. Instead we walked down to the Marina and the Presidio. We had an organic hot dog and Coxall had an organic diet coke sweetened with Salvia, which is still just as disgusting as normal diet coke. We then messed about on the beach and Nicky took lots of photographs of dogs. I dropped the lens cap in the sand, which is why it now no longer works properly. A small child attempted to climb into my lap in the apparent belief that I was his mother. We agreed that we wouldn’t tell his real mother. We then crossed over to see the bizarre Palace of Fine Arts, a collection of pseudo-Greek follies next to the children’s museum, the Exploratorium.
At the Palace, we saw a woman towing her daughter on a long branch. The woman was told to stop doing this by two stroppy old biddies who complained that the activity was kicking up too much dust.
We walked back via the Safeway, for tomorrow’s picnic. I had a sit down outside and watched as a pair of cyclists paused for refreshments. One went inside to buy drinks and came out with a bottle of water and a can of what turned out to be a mixture of Bud Light and Clamato (tomato juice with added clam). He took a sip and went green – he explained that he’d thought it was just plain cold beer, but the tomato and clams came as something of a shock. I said I was relieved it had been a mistake as I was wondering what sort of person would drink that.
We then took the cable car from Taylor and Bay. There was still a queue but we were entertained by a busker and his trained pet rabbit, who hopped amongst the crowd. I tucked a dollar bill into the bunny’s harness for the busker before boarding the cable car back to the hotel. I sat next to an Australian toddler called Haydn. I know his name because his father kept telling Haydn off. First, Haydn used me as a ladder to clamber onto the seat. Then, Haydn pointed excitedly out of the window at a derelict Chinese wholesale bakery and announced loudly that this was where he was staying. Finally, Haydn began licking the window. I mildly pointed out to him that he shouldn’t do that, and when Haydn began rubbing the spit all over the window, I cracked up, which caught his father’s attention and no doubt compounded his already considerable embarrassment. “Don’t lick the window, you’ll catch a disease!”
We gambolled around by the pool at the hotel. The boys went in the jacuzzi but unfortunately I could not due to Marigold. However, I put my feets in for some welcome relief – like an idiot I had not worn my lovely comfy Timberland sandals and my feet were very painful as a result.
Duly jacuzzied, we set out at about 9.30pm to Chinatown and to the restaurant our concierge had recommended. We realised that Chinatown residents go to bed quite early – most restaurants close before 10pm here. However, our place was open.
The menu was quite hardcore. We’re not used to American Chinese restaurants, I suppose. Barbecue goose entrails with sea cucumber in porridge did not really appeal that late at night. However, our order arrived quickly, in enormous portions and was delicious. The couple on the next table seemed to have over ordered and after taking a couple of mouthfuls sat back with sour looks on their faces, sipping the Chinese wine they had also over-ordered. I felt a bit sorry for the waiter as he cleared up the tableful of uneaten food, and embarrassed when I realised the couple were British.
Back at the hotel, we had Adult Swim, a bath and bed.
WEDNESDAY
Ooh, a lie-in. We did not have to get up for Alcatraz until 2pm. The day started bright and sunny.
We had breakfast at Lori’s Diner again – eggs over easy for me and short stacks for the chaps. Martin also opted for the biscuit in gravy, which turned out to be four biscuits (savoury scones) smothered in what appeared to be ham and mushroom soup. He was defeated after two biscuits but the waitress was suitably impressed.
We took the cable car down to Fisherman’s Wharf and walked to Pier 33. I went ahead to bagsy our place in the queue and check in. We slathered sunblock on ourselves in the line. The ferry to Alcatraz only takes 12 minutes or so – apparently the swim can be done but will take a determined person (in a wetsuit) about three hours. The prisoners were kept on the island through a combination of rumour (that the bay contains man eating sharks), temperature, distance and currents. Only one person managed to make the swim and survive, but he was washed up in such a poor state that he was retrieved and back in the prison hospital by suppertime. As we drew near, it appeared that our sunblock was unnecessary. One of the famous SF fogs had drawn in and the island was cold and overcast with a howling gale – this is the usual climate on the island and was what the prisoners had to contend with most of the time.
We took the audio tour and Martin and I noted that the level designers of Half Life 2 must have had Alcatraz in mind when they created Nova Prospekt. We both had the urge to summon our antlion army to overpower the waiting Combine.
We had our picnic of rubbery American cheese, chicken legs, chips, dips and Oreos outside in the wind, and then toured around the museum part of the prison before taking the ferry back. Martin separated from us in order to go to the shops and purchase some t-shirts and a pair of jeans to replace the pair that had disintegrated in his luggage en route.
Nicky and I went to outdoor shop Patagonia, which is a bit like walking into my sister’s wardrobe – everything is high-tech, drip-dry, high performance and divided into base, middle and top layer. I wanted a collapsible jacket which would offer some wind and rain protection but be less annoying to transport than either my normal coat or an umbrella. The man on the till suggested that I could clip my chosen jacket to my belt when I went climbing, and asked me how Gordon Brown was. I explained about the expenses scandal and how good Chip and Pin was.
Like sensible tourists, we took the cable car from a stop or two beyond the turntable, thus bypassing the huge queue.
I suggested a trip to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and after a swim we set out. Unfortunately the place was heaving and we were told that we’d face a good two hours’ wait for a table. Nicky threw a strop so we took the Muni Metro (an underground tram) to Embarcadero. This meant that we had now taken all the forms of public transport in the city apart from the bog standard motor bus.
San Francisco is a very sleepy town and, again, most places seem to be lunch-oriented. There are plenty of restaurants and the like, but they are dotted around and you really have to know where you’re going before you set out. Most good places are in the Mission district, quite far from where we were. However, I happened upon a burger place called Automatic Refreshment and we were served with three excellent burgers. Well, I wasn’t. The menu said the burgers were served medium, i.e. slightly pink. Mine was completely pink and whilst I wouldn’t ordinarily mind I felt I’d already gambled that day on the underdone eggs I’d had at breakfast, so requested that my burger spend a bit more time on the grill. The waitress was very nice and brought me a fresh one (which was when I realised the first one hadn’t exactly been straight off the grill…), done all the way through.
Martin again disappeared in order to go and meet a friend who worked for LiveJournal (yes, I didn’t think it was still going either) and Nicky and I took the secret other cable car which goes from the Embarcadero end of Market all the way along California and right past our hotel.
Nicky found out about the cab arrangements for tomorrow. A cab, from the hotel, to the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland, would take about half an hour and cost $40.
Bed to the unfolding scandal about Governor Sanford and his Argentinian floozy. Apparently he loves her tan lines…
THURSDAY
Thinking, reasonably, that our train left at 8, I got up at 6.30. Nicky complained that we would be twiddling our thumbs for ages because the train in fact left at 8.50. I doubted that somehow and was right because when the time came to check out, he and Martin were still footling about looking for random socks.
I asked the doorman to get us a cab for the Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland. A cab was duly procured and Muggins here had to sit in it for ages while Nick and Martin completed their toilet and ambled through the hotel. The driver asked me where I wanted to go and I said Jack London Square Amtrak station in Oakland.
“Oakland?” he asked. “Oakland,” I said.
When we set off I had an odd feeling that we would end up somewhere wrong and indeed we did – the other Amtrak station on the other side of the Bay Bridge. The cab driver reacted in disbelief when we told him that there was another station and he had to stop twice to ask for directions. He explained that cab drivers in SF don’t like going to Oakland as it usually means they’re going to get murdered. He also said that he had never, in five years, been to this other station.
I was therefore absolutely right to have gotten a cab so early, as it meant that even taking account of the diversion, we arrived at the correct station with plenty of time to pick up the tickets and have a nice cup of tea from the Yia Yia Cafe nearby.
The train arrived, astonishingly, on time, and lumbered off with us on board as we started breakfast. French toast, tea and orange juice was had in the company of a pleasant chap travelling from Seattle to Los Angeles on business.
The Coast Starlighter has palatial first class cabins and a lovely parlour with huge windows for you to admire the countryside… and the trailer parks, dusty agricultural towns and scrapyards.
We soon settled into the rhythm, which is basically to sit around, read and sleep, until it is time to be fed again. Lunch was a grilled cheese sandwich followed by chocolate ice cream and all the Sierra Mist we could drink. Jarring our calm were two obnoxious teenage boys who seemed to think that it was OK to tear up and down the train, shrieking and yelling. Their parents seemed to think so too and were eventually told to restrain them by the train staff.
By the time dinner came around, with the announcement that Michael Jackson had died over the tannoy, we were travelling along the Californian coast with its many, many RV parks. We must have seen hundreds ranged along a coastal road, right next to the beach.
We arrived in LA an hour early and traversed Grand Union Station, which is an incredibly beautiful place, tiled in subtle shades of terracotta and chocolate brown.
We took the special bus to LAX to pick up our car, as for some reason all the car rental places in the station close at 5pm.
LA is basically a series of strip malls joined together by traffic jams. We drove down to the seaside town of Santa Monica and checked in at the elegant Fairmont Miramar Hotel, which is very swish and not used to the likes of us turning up at 11pm.
We watched the rolling news about Michael Jackson and had room service chicken soup, which was excellent.
FRIDAY
We had a little sleep in and Nick was distraught to see that the sky was overcast. However, as we had our breakfast (included in the room) the clouds began to clear up.
We decided to go to the Third Street Promenade, cited as one of the nicest places to walk in LA. However, given that nobody walks anywhere in LA, that’s not necessarily a good thing. The promenade is lined with shops and cinemas and street performers, along with topiary dinosaurs. We had fro-yo at Pinkberry before setting out for Mulholland Drive via Hollywood Boulevard. This drive gave us the chance to experience the real LA – that is, sitting in heavy traffic for hours on end. The boulevard was closed to traffic due to the weight of Jackson mourners clustered around his surrogate star (the real one being obscured by scaffolding for a forthcoming film premiere).
Mulholland Drive offers ravishing views of all the city for miles and miles. We stopped frequently, including one stop at a dog park to talk to the doggies. Coxall was happily petting an elegant grey doggie and I observed that this was an example of the much maligned American pit bull. Far from the squat Staffordshire cross breeds beloved of council estate hard men, this is an intelligent, gentle but powerful dog.
We left as one dog walker lost control of her pack, who as a dog were busily bullying a woebegone Alsatian who had decided to dry-hump one pack member too many.
We traversed the famous LA rush hour and realised that we hadn’t had lunch. I went to eat Oreos in our room while Nicky parked the car, and after a quick visit to the beach I booked the Gaucho Grill while the boys played in the sea. For some reason I had decided it was an hour later than it actually was, so we arrived in plenty of time for our 9pm booking. We were seated in any event and I had a lovely steak with spinach, courgettes and mash.
We walked down the promenade again, past the fire eaters and freaks, down to Santa Monica Pier. This is an old-school boardwalk although it does come, being LA, with a giant attached parking lot.
We chose to have a stick of cotton candy bigger than my head as we walked around the rides and games.
Bed was accompanied by more Jackson.
SATURDAY
Breakfast, packing and checking out. Nicky was perturbed to be presented with a three-figure bill for our breakfasts but this was soon readjusted when he pointed out that breakfast had in fact been included.
We drove down to Venice Beach via Whole Foods for provisions and were lucky to get a parking close to the beach itself. Pausing for a hot dog, we walked down towards the famous Boardwalk, lined with strange people, stalls and kittens.
We could have stayed there all day but we had to press on to Vegas. It took ages to leave the LA city limits, accompanied by 80s soft rock (which seemed appropriate) on the radio.
The drive across the desert is very beautiful and very long. We paused for a pit stop in the searing heat – someone had seen fit to build an outlet mall there. I noticed there was a great deal of litter, and that the landscape was marred every now and then by giant billboards.
We saw Las Vegas long before we arrived – glinting buildings appeared out of nowhere. It’s an impossible city in the wilderness.
We parked and checked in at Treasure Island. Nicky and I got a suite, which was nice, on the third floor, which was not so nice – I had told the hotel of my condition and I guess they’d interpreted it very literally as we soon realised we had been given a disabled room. No matter, the room was huge and came with two toilets.
Once checked in we went to find the Posi redshirts, who were firmly ensconced in the Mirage poker rooms. One frozen virgin daquiri later, I was ready for bed.

Jeni Thick-ett

Jeni Barnett spent the best part of an hour earlier this year talking utter bilge about MMR on her LBC radio show. When Dr Ben Goldacre posted a clip of said bilge on Bad Science, LBC threatened to sue for copyright infringement.

In the current hysterical climate, where a comedian can be banned from the airwaves for three months for leaving crude answerphone messages to the grandfather of one of his conquests, or the daughter of an ex-Prime Minister can be sacked on the spot for a stupid comment made, off air, to a colleague, I am surprised that Barnett hasn’t come in for more stick.

This is a woman whose only medical qualification is “as a mother”, who monopolised the airwaves for a good three quarters of an hour telling her listeners that MMR gave children cancer, seizures, autism and would kill them; that it was cruel to give injections to a “tiny baby” and that the baby’s immune system was too weak for vaccinations. I wondered how many needles would have to be poked into the tiny baby if it got seriously ill and was taken to hospital. Quite a few, I suppose. Perhaps Barnett would be happy with that.

Sections of the transcript are available here and here.

After reading this, I was tempted to quote some poetry, specifically the lines:

Keeps firing off clichés with startling precision
Like a sniper using bollocks for ammunition

Virtually every vaccination myth and outright lie I have ever heard, collated into a 45-minute segment on LBC Radio. LBC apparently has 852,000 ABC1 listeners who are apparently upmarket, intelligent and mature. In Greater London, uptake of the MMR vaccine has plummeted to close to 50%, way below the numbers needed for “herd immunity”. Because the measles vaccine isn’t 100% effective, a certain proportion of children must be immune in order to protect both those who cannot be vaccinated for whatever reason and those for whom the vaccine hasn’t worked. Whilst this figure can be partly attributed to children recently arrived in the UK from countries where the vaccine isn’t widely available, it is also due to upmarket, intelligent and mature parents who have fallen for the myth hook, line and sinker.

There is no evidence whatsoever that MMR causes autism. Yes, it has side effects and these can be serious. But these side effects are far, far rarer than the side effects of mumps (sterility), measles (1 in 300 will die) and rubella (serious consequences for the foetus if caught by a pregnant woman).

I am only a lay person who has looked at the evidence with as critical a mind as I can muster. There is no debate, there aren’t two sides of roughly equal power opposing one another. Rather, on one side we have the enormous bulk of evidence and the statistics that prove that vaccinations have saved lives and that they have transformed childhood. Even sixty or seventy years ago, the childhood illnesses that Barnett shrugs off so readily were literally deadly serious. Children were paralysed by polio and deafened or blinded by measles. Childhood was once a time of anxiety, pain and all too frequent loss. We don’t live in those times any more.

On the other side, we have a few people (and they are mercifully few, regardless of what they claim) who refuse to acknowledge any evidence which contradicts their view. Sadly these people tend to be upmarket, intelligent and mature adults who have access to the Internet and phone-in shows on LBC Radio, who shout down anyone who tries, gently or otherwise, to show them why and how they are not just wrong, but dangerously wrong.

I didn’t have vaccinations for measles, mumps or rubella, because I was allergic to something in the vaccines. At the time, herd immunity wasn’t high enough to protect me, so I had measles, mumps and rubella. Barnett may dismiss them as a natural part of childhood, but I beg to differ.

UPDATE: I hardly ever see Google Ads, so these made me giggle.

googleads.JPG

PPS: This scene is a thing of the past, mostly thanks to vaccination. It’s a ward in California fullIron Lung Ward of iron lungs.

Sunday 4th January 2009

After collecting our various creatures from the kennels, I decided to unpack for an ailing Trellis.

Whilst I was merrily removing all my mini bottles from the front pocket of my hand luggage, I was reminded that I had carelessly bunged Trellis’s unprotected disposable razor in there. Whilst blood fountained out of my finger from a gash approximately 15mm long by 3mm wide, Trellis hopped from foot to foot wondering what to do. It is, after all, me that has the first aid training. After he got the first aid kit out, I soon discovered that it’s actually quite hard to bandage up your own hand but we managed to stop the bleeding and Trellis bodged a halfway decent basket sling to keep the wound elevated.

Between the razor blades was the strip of my finger that it had removed. What makes it worse is that this isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this – reached into a bag containing an unprotected razor and injured myself – I’ve done it before at least twice, although not as badly.

Still, trailing to casualty to have the injury stitched and dressed did at least help to take my mind off the fact that I’ve caught Trellis’s relapse-flu and have to spend next weekend in sub-zero Whitby.

Saturday 3rd January 2009

Hoping at least that our pilots hadn’t been kept awake by the same party (or indeed had attended it), we took the shuttle back to the airport and breakfasted in the Virgin lounge. Two very assiduous staff members kept cleaning up our breakfast before we’d had a chance to eat it, but we managed to gobble down some cereal, tea and fruit before going through security.

Another assiduous member of the security team took it upon herself to check every one of my bottles to ensure it was not over the maximum size: 3 fluid ounces, or 100ml in new money. It seemed to me that she was unfamiliar with metric conversions as it took her quite a while, digging around in the front pocket of my hand luggage. Yes, the same pocket where I had stashed the unprotected disposable razor.

Fortunately she escaped unscathed, and I caught up with Trellis, who I believe would eventually have noticed that I wasn’t behind him, although I’m not sure when.

One last wee, and we boarded the plane home. I had fruit and yogurt for breakfast, then watched some improving films: The House Bunny (ex-Playboy bunny becomes a matron to a UCLA sorority house) and The Fall (bizarre art-house movie about a child in hospital who obtains morphine for another patient in return for stories). Again, the flight was quite bouncy due to a fast Gulf Stream, and we got into Heathrow at about half past seven.

Trellis and I whizzed through passport control thanks to our IRIS registration which was something of a relief as I was in desperate need of the loo (and the cubicle is very private). My pre-booked taxi driver called while we were in baggage claim, and we were whisked out of a frantically busy Heathrow and were back home in time for tea.

Friday 2nd January 2009

The allure of travel! The open road! The excitement of airports!

All right.

We had to depart Gulf Tides today and it was a terrible wrench. We delayed for as long as possible, sitting by the beach and helping Kareon do some badly needed laundry. However, there came a point where we did have to go. We drove to Tampa airport, listening to Christian Rock, and wondering if it really is just the grace of god (as they would no doubt argue) which allows the christians to purchase more powerful transmitters than PBS.

We noted that the Chrysler Indigo which we were driving averaged about 24.6 mpg – this is significantly less than the Judge’s gargantuan Volvo S70 T5, and wondered why anyone seriously considers the American car industry worth saving when a compact car about the size of a Ford Focus does less per gallon than a car the size of a London bendy bus.

We paused along the way in St Armand for a little present shopping and an enormous lunch in the diner – pancakes and eggs for me and a cesar salad for Trellis. Then onwards.

After dropping off the hire car, and not looking back once, we checked in for our flight to New York. I was briefly entranced by a sign directing us to the Viewing Platform, but this turned out to be a euphemism for Smoking Verandah, with nothing but a view of the monorail and some people having a last gasper before their flights.

Through security we went. I was very naughty because I had (a) not put my toiletries in the compulsory baggie and (b) had not put my laptop in a separate box for the x-ray machine. Still, they let me past. We found that our flight was delayed by over an hour due to foul weather at Newark, which made us anticipate a bumpy flight and perhaps the excitement of a sideways landing. Half way through our wait, I was called to the main desk over the tannoy. I thought for a second that we were going to be bumped from the flight, but instead I was asked if Trellis and I would like to take an exit seat, with extra legroom and some exciting responsibility. I jumped at the chance and accepted on Trellis’s behalf. In the event of an emergency, where better to sit than *right next* to an exit which you can operate?

The flight was, as anticipated, turbulent, with the Airbus’s trademark bounciness spilling coffee cups and soda and waking grumpy babies on a regular basis. Trellis and I were happy to spend the trip watching a Dog Whisperer marathon and were sad when our landing meant we missed Cesar’s tribute to his favourite dog, Daddy the pitbull.

Stepping off the plane at Newark felt like jumping into a paddling pool of iced water. I had, fortunately, planned for this. Knowing that we were going to visit two very different climates, I had organised an ingenious system of layering. I had packed two cotton frocks and three coordinating long-sleeved tops, along with a few pairs of woolly tights and a jumper. In zero Fahrenheit New York, everything was piled on, and then in balmy Florida, peeled off to a single layer of frock. It did mean that I got on the Airtrain looking like I had been kicked out from a particularly exclusive girls’ boarding school, but at least I was warm.

We were booked into the Newark Country Inn and Suites. Whilst Trellis checked in, I scampered over to the diner for takeaway burgers and other bad things. I chose a turkey cheeseburger for Trellis and a mushroom Brooklyn burger for myself. We dined, as is becoming our custom, cross-legged on the floor next to the jacuzzi.

In bed, I noticed that the pipes were making a lot of noise and I could feel a rumbling. It eventually dawned on me that someone in the room next door was having a jacuzzi at 1am. And not just a late-night jacuzzi, but a late night jacuzzi party, with cigarettes (the smell percolated through the air conditioning), shouting and loud music. The revelry was occasionally punctuated by other guests’ thumping on adjoining walls and ceilings. I couldn’t sleep at all. Earplugs, I know from experience, don’t help as I have tiny pixie-ears and find them very uncomfortable. Trellis, cosy in his fleecy sleep-earphones, reacted uninterestedly and went back to sleep.

Eventually, at 4am, I phoned the front desk. The racket stopped a couple of minutes after that, so I at least got 2 hours’ sleep. When our alarms went off at 6am, the party kicked off again. I suspect the culprits were cabin crew on a layover and can only imagine the Bacchanalian delights taking place.

Thursday 1st January 2009

The first day of 2009 dawned bright and sunny, although I can’t say the same for Trellis, who woke with symptoms heralding the return of his flu. He was shivery but hot to the touch and kept coughing. Some Sleepytime tea and oranges seemed to perk him up enough so he could be bundled up and plonked by the pool to await the olds. Mrs M had decided that we would all go to Anna Maria Island for their Bridge Street New Year’s day party. There would be stalls and attractions – a mini State Fair, by all accounts. We set our sights on Anna Maria, the olds and Karen C following us (with Blade) in their V6 Buick at caution speed, allowing cycles, pushchairs and old ladies to overtake.

We drove to Anna Maria village, which is at the end of the island itself. The only sign of anything was a shabby flea market, and we soon realised that we’d lost the olds and that between the three of us, we had precisely zero working phones. Blade had bought a dual-band phone (and he needed a tri-band phone to use in the US) due to a humiliating incident in a phone shop where he had felt obliged to buy the cheapest on offer when his PhD supervisor, who thinks he is the only son of a lesbian single mother, spotted him in there. Trellis has long ago realised that the best way to avoid phone calls is to leave his phone at home, and mine had run out of battery.

We did what anyone else would have done. We hung around for a while hoping to spot the Buick and then set off back to Gulf Tides. On the way, through a village called Bradenton, I spied the olds and Karen C. They were furious. Of course, the Bridge Street New Year party/state fair was held here! Anna Maria, it turns out, is quite a large island. We dealt with the recriminations and then set off for Bridge Street.

There was nobody around, no sign of any fair, stalls nor of anyone starting to set something up or taking anything down, and the only place open was a seafood restaurant where the only menu item acceptable to everyone was fried grouper. On our way out of the restaurant, I saw a notice stating that the next Bridge Street fair would take place on 3rd January.

Back at Gulf Tides, we visited Publix for some lunch and I then disappeared to do some much-needed revision. When the olds left, Kareon redoubled their assault on the tennis court, this time playing until it was dark, then switching on the floodlights so they could continue. Meanwhile, Trellis and I prepared a dinner of leftovers, consisting of macaroni cheese, scrambled egg and leftover cabbage. Blade was furious when, after turning down the macaroni, he realised that there was only really egg and cabbage to eat. I observed that he really should have paid attention to what I had told him, and also that if he must invite himself to dinner, he should accept what he’s given with good grace.

I very kindly packed for Trellis as well as myself. He’d picked up a free disposable razor on the plane, and I chucked that in the front pocket of my hand baggage.

Wednesday December 31st 2008

We woke relatively early on New Year’s Eve and took the bicycles up to the twee town of St Armand’s for some shopping and a root beer float. The ride took just over half an hour, over flat, smooth cycle paths which displayed the cruiser bike’s strengths – easy to freewheel, indestructible and an upright riding position which allows the rider to take in the scenery and spot rogue cars.

After we returned, we woke the children for another day at the beach. We persuaded Blade to follow us in after a while, but as he strode out of the water, we all realised that his white shorts had become completely transparent. Poor Blade had to sidle out of the sea with strategically placed hands to preserve his modesty and the innocence of the children playing nearby.

After lunch we embarked on the trip to Siesta Key to meet up with the olds for the Sarasota street party and dinner at Pho Cali. Karen C spent the car journey complaining that there was something in her eye. Her eye had swollen up and tears were streaming down her face – we tried to make her cry by various methods to try and rinse it out, but to no avail. Once we arrived at the olds’ flat, I put my SJA training into effect and advised her to stick her eye under a running tap. The olds were horrified by this and were preparing to visit the drugstore for proprietory eye rinse, citing the pH value and sterility. I observed that if we were to take Karen C to the hospital, they would stick her eye under the tap. Lo and behold, the tap treatment worked and we went to the drugstore for some eye drops – by the time we arrived, she was almost back to normal.

This visit was livened up considerably when Trellis and his father disappeared for 20 minutes. I theorised that they had gone for a drive in the hired Buick. Mrs M scurried up and down the car park, looking for the Buick, peering into every car in the lot, and we both slowly realised that she didn’t really know what the car looked like, although she did know what kind of detritus was on the back seat. Eventually the Buick swept back into the car park, proving my theory. We waited at the beach to see the sunset and then drove into Sarasota. The main street had been closed to traffic and was full instead of fairground rides and carnival food like hotdogs, sausages and cotton candy, as well as two stages with local bands and recorded music playing. Pho Cali was mercifully only bustling, not packed, and we got our table, bubble tea and beef short ribs.

After dinner, we toured the street party and saw the lighted pineapple which was due to drop at midnight. We returned to Siesta Key to watch some fireworks, and then back to Longboat Key for midnight on the beach. I set up the Eee so we could watch the countdown on MSNBC and opened a bottle of English sparkling rose. It was fun to watch the New Yorkers freezing in -17 degree cold (zero degrees Fahrenheit) while we sat on the beach near someone setting off Roman candles.

Tuesday 30th December 2008

A day away from the olds! Trellis and I took an early morning cycle to Publix following a revelation I’d had about a root beer float jelly – vanilla jelly, made up with root beer. Unfortunately, it appears that Jell-O haven’t shared my revelation, since they only seem to make something called vanilla “pudding”, akin to Angel Delight. Never mind.

We breakfasted and woke up Kareon for a visit to their beach. We swam in the sea and watched pelicans dive for their lunch, before breaking off for lunch of our own – hot dogs and a cold collation of various bits and bobs from our respective fridges.

An afternoon of chapter reading by the beach was followed with a swim in our warmed resort pool, and then a trip to Publix for dinner ingredients: a Karen C classic of fish fingers, mashed potato and cabbage, with spinach, beet and tomato salad, followed by vanilla frozen yogurt in Oreo cones.

Monday 29th December 2008

Monday morning, and the prospect of a day doing nothing beckoned. We had breakfast on the balcony, including, for me, the revelatory experience of a peanut butter and grape jelly bagel. We had discovered mock peanut butter (made from sunflower seeds) in the local supermarket the day before. Once I had got over the initial shock (an “oh, my god, I’m going to die” moment), I found the stuff to be rather nice.

After breakfast, we woke Kareon and went on a bike ride towards a village further down the spit called Sutton. The resort’s bikes are those Dutch style cruiser things with back pedal brakes so they took some getting used to. However, it was lovely to spin along the cycle lanes in the morning breeze, and we stopped at a private beach on the way.

We travelled up to Sarasota for lunch at a Vietnamese place that promised bubble tea- unfortunately they had run out when we got there, but we had wonderful beef short ribs anyway. We browsed around the local shops, including Whole Foods, which was interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that the local Amish/Mennonite community seem to shop there. It is somewhat hazardous to visit a Whole Foods if you aren’t either vaccinated or resistant to measles, as several US epidemics have been traced back to branches of this organic supermarket, favoured by anti-vaccinationists. Fortunately, Kareon and Trellis have been vaccinated and I have had measles, so we were good to go.

We returned to the Vietnamese restaurant to book it for New Year’s Eve as our original choice had proved to be altogether too chi-chi and expensive.

We drove home to encounter the olds, who were very excited to see our flats and rummage through our respective fridges. We set up an encampment on the beach and swam in the sea. The sea was cold, but not frigid, and it took a while to brave the breakers, stride out and get our shoulders wet. However, once achieved, acclimatisation was well worth the trouble. There were pelicans dive-bombing fish around us and dainty little sand pipers paddling on the shoreline as we splashed about.

Ravenously hungry, Trellis and I cycled to the local shops after his bath and were surprised to find that the restaurants tend to close at 8pm. The only place that was open was a swanky Italian restaurant – fortunately the food was excellent and well worth the premium.

We pedalled home in the dark and were tucked up in front of QVC by midnight.

Sunday December 28 2008

Ah, breakfast on the balcony. Chocolate Lucky Charms and tea on the balcony, in the Florida sun. Ah.

We woke up Kareon at 11am, and observed that they had made a mess of their apartment. In Cambridge, Blade stayed in a student flat called The Annexe. The Annexe soon became a byword for Stygian filth and general bad hygiene – the kind of place with a pool of dark liquid at the bottom of the fridge, whose constituency and provenance is best left unexplored. For some reason, Kareon do not sleep in beds, preferring mattresses on the floor. Perhaps this is in observance of some Islamic Hadith, or just because they are slightly feral. We took them to the local supermarket to load up on crisps and junk food, before travelling to Siesta Key to visit the olds. Their flat overlooked a beach made of fine, soft, pure white powder. In this beautiful beach, a paean to all that is delicate and yielding, I managed to step on a thorn and had to visit a drugstore bathroom to apply First Aid to myself and yank the thing out, then hoicking my foot over the sink and washing the puncture wound. I merrily cursed the confidence with which I had decided not to bring along my First Aid kit, which of course contained tweezers, wipes and other useful items for such an occasion.

After a lovely swim in the sea, and hot dogs and tea, Kareon and we travelled to Ybor City, just outside Tampa, to see a concert by a thrash metal band called Sevendust, and some excellent sushi beforehand. There was only one reason for this visit. Gideon’s PhD was on a chap called John Witherspoon, one of the Founding Fathers. The singer in Sevendust is an African-American fellow by the name of Lajohn Witherspoon. This, gentle reader, is the only reason for our presence there. I am well used to rock gigs, of course, having spent many years standing on sticky floors and peering through gaps in taller peoples’ heads to see the band. The others, however, were less experienced. Whilst I wandered to the bar and drank beer while ignoring the support acts, the others stood in a worried knot with their fingers in their ears. One man talked to us, but disappeared very quickly when we explained why we were there.

The band were good when they finally came on, but we had to leave early to negotiate our way out of Ybor City. The drive back was livened up by some Christian rock and an argument about Science. We were tucked up in bed by 2.30am.

Saturday December 27 2008

The next morning, we girded ourselves for the marathon drive across Florida, from Orlando to Longboat Key, about an hour from Tampa. We stopped along the way to visit the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is quite fun and worth the visit.

We soon found that the only radio stations with decent transmitters were Christian, and an hour or so of Christian rock later, we opted for Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on audiobook. The traffic going in the opposite direction was solid for miles and miles, consisting, we guessed, of fractious children and harassed adults making their way home after christmas at Disneyworld.

Along the way, we stopped at a citrus farm and bought an enormous net bag of tangelos, a hybrid of tangerines and grapefruits, grown on the farm and picked the day before. I resisted buying the bushel-sized bag, pointing out that we couldn’t bring fruit back to the UK and that they’d never get eaten. It turned out that the tangelos were so delicious that we could have easily munched our way through a bushel.

Lunch was had at a KFC somewhere en route, and we finally got to beautiful Sarasota and Longboat Key at about half past five in the evening. We got our keys and made a mess in our two-bedroom apartment very quickly, before visiting the local supermarket and making pasta for dinner.

We then had to set out again to collect Kareon from Tampa airport, which is a three-hour round trip. We are very good people, and it wasn’t just all the Christian rock we’d been listening to. Oh, no. Kareon were knackered, smelly and fractious, but we had anticipated this and greeted them with a jumbo bag of Cheetos. We finally got to bed at about one in the morning.

Friday December 26 2008

Following our breakfast, it seemed fitting to go for lunch with a man who had eaten very similar things aboard the Space Shuttle. The Kennedy Space Center offers the chance to dine with a real astronaut every so often, and when I found this out I got incredibly excited and insisted on being taken. When we got there it appeared that this emotion was not uncommon – well, certainly amongst the under-12s, at any rate. There were plenty of adults there, however, so it wasn’t too strange. The food was an excellent cruise-ship style buffet with salad, chicken, macaroni and cheese, mixed vegetables, mini corn dogs and three different types of cake (red velvet, devil’s food and carrot), which were all delicious. Story Musgrave (for it was he) has been into space six times and was part of the Apollo B team, who were to take over if the A team became ill, got blown up or simply chickened out. Sadly for him, the plug was pulled on Apollo before he got a chance to go to the moon (the Apollo 17 astronauts were on there for nearly a week) but he became a Shuttle pilot instead and has also worked aboard the ISS.

Following our lunch, we took the bus to the viewing area where you can see the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads. Unfortunately, the next Shuttle launch is only in February. From there, the bus went on to the Saturn V and Apollo exhibition, where an actual Saturn V rocket is on display, in all its phallic glory. Of course, Andrea Dworkin found the shape of rockets to be upsetting and this, the largest rocket built by NASA, with enough power to shoot someone to the moon, would have been very upsetting.

Onwards and upwards, we took our third bus to the ISS complex, where we could step through a mock up of the ISS itself (in its sadly attenuated format) and spy on what was going into space next.

Back to the main centre, Trellis insisted on going on the launch simulator, but I chickened out at the last minute, as the combination of harsh vibrations and loud noises was less appealing when I considered the delicate state of my barely recovered insides.

We intended to go to a diner for our dinner, but ended up at a Wynn-Dixie where we bought chicken and pickles and other dainties, and ate them picnic style on our hotel room floor. We discovered instant root beer floats, which contain a widget to give the foam, just like bottled draught beer.

Thursday December 25th 2008

We had booked christmas lunch at the Brazilian steakhouse, for the second time. Men stride around with various types of meat on enormous swords, and carve off unlimited amounts until you beg them to stop. We were politely rolled out of the door and waddled down to the subway for the epic trip to JFK.

To get to JFK from Manhattan, you have to take a bumpy subway to Queens and then the grandly named Airtrain to the airport. In theory this is fine, but the plastic seating of the E train means that you become intimately acquainted with each and every vertebra down your spine before you get to Queens.

The Jetblue flight was delayed by an hour so we availed ourselves of the limited delights of Jetblue’s own terminal – tea and free wireless, mostly. When we finally piled onto the plane we were dismayed to be seated next to a very large gentleman. However, he wasn’t much trouble and spent the trip watching the Christian Channel. A far bigger issue was the cabin crew. At least one appeared to be drunk and was unable to construct a coherent sentence over the PA. She sat and chatted to a passenger while the captain was landing the plane, and only took her seat when we were literally 2 seconds from touching the ground. Far from finding her confidence reassuring, we were alarmed. Cabin crew should have authority – we weren’t sure that she would have been able to control a plane full of terrified passengers and evacuate them safely.
Still, we were at Orlando airport in one piece. We collected our rather grubby hire car and set out to the Country Inn and Suites on Astronaut Boulevard.

What I love about the Country Inn and Suites is their eccentricity. From the outside, they appear to be a run of the mill American travel tavern. Inside, however, the lobby contains a large fireplace (ornamental, of course) and shelves of books for you to borrow. Most rooms also have a jacuzzi, usually next to the bed and positioned so you can watch TV in it. The breakfast is also baffling, consisting of prepackaged everything and DIY waffles with the batter in a plastic cup. That night, for our christmas dinner, we had a cold collation of various items which we had purloined from Inn New York.

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

In the morning, we whimsically decided to run in Central Park. The whimsy was rapidly replaced with hypothermia as we skidded through ice and sleet. We were constantly turned back from our chosen paths by heaps of glassy ice which had clearly defeated the gritting team. By the time we arrived back over an hour later, we were soaked, numb and freezing. We had a very welcome hot shower before having some breakfast and then venturing out.

The hotel’s proprietor had very thoughtfully left two umbrellas for us. However, one turned out to be in two separate pieces, and the other, which we took to protect us from the sleet, gradually disintegrated throughout the course of the day.

We travelled first to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a shop containing three storeys of sweets. We picked up a variety of dainties, including a gummy tarantula and some Hannukah lollipops.
We were surprised that the streets and stores were not as frantically busy as we had expected – it was christmas eve, after all. We were able to navigate around Banana Republic to purchase a much needed new jumper without any trouble.

Lunch was had at a kosher deli on the Upper West Side – chicken soup and kneidlach followed by a hot dog smothered in Boston Baked Beans and sauerkraut, washed down with tea (for me) and root beer (for him). We then zoomed down to the Jewish Cultural Centre for a two-hour Yiddish musical, about which I can only say that I survived.

In the evening we travelled up to Queens (an epic journey) for dinner with Linda and Martin, Trellis’s aunt and uncle.

A commonplace book on the internet.