or, The Virgin train of confusion
Thursday September 1, London to Portmeirion
We packed up and hit the rails, heading to Wales and Festival no. 6.
Festival no. 6 takes place in Port Meirion, Wales, and was one of the main reasons we planned this trip. To quote from the official website:
“Spend the weekend discovering an award-winning eclectic mix of screenings, readings, performance art, installations, intimate talks and conversations and so much more.”
“an intimate boutique music and arts festival”
“we wanted to create a more bespoke offering, carefully curated for those who are looking for a more refined weekend”
“the coolest, most surrealist, funkiest, freakiest, best festival in the world”
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? (Spoiler alert: you know it’s all going to go to hell, right?)
We got to Euston station early because we hadn’t picked up our special Festival No. 6 train tickets yet. Thankfully, our friend J. spent half the day yesterday tracking them down because the Festival is hugely disorganized. They said they’d mail the tickets, and didn’t. They said they’d email them, and didn’t. Blah dee blah. We were getting worried. J. finally found the tickets at the First Class Virgin lounge at the station. The agents there thought the big, wrapped up stack of tickets was for a tour group. J. got her to open them and low and behold, our tickets!
We got a good breakfast in front of the station and I picked up some supplies–cookies and booze–and then got in the long line for the train once the platform was announced.
Argh…total confusion. The reserved seat info didn’t get uploaded so the screens all said “available” even though all the tickets had seat numbers, so all the festival people had to ask the people already in our seats to move. Most people on the train had huge packs (camping gear) and went back and forth banging tents and pads and sleeping bags into everyone as they tried to find a place to stow them. The small luggage racks were already full and our suitcases didn’t fit in the racks above. I moved a case of Strongbow and crammed my suitcase into the rack but poor R. had to leave his in the vestibule and jump up at every stop to make sure it hadn’t rolled out the door.
The cute young things began to put on their festival make up – glitter and bindis. Festival style here, at least at this festival, is a kind of hippy raver look, leaning more towards hippy.
The car was quite raucous and the Virgin train staff gave up even trying to service us for the 3 hour trip. They’d hired a two-woman band to entertain us, but not given them any space, so they stood in the aisle, trying to play as people pushed past.
I’m not sure when we crossed the “border” into Wales, but the landscape began to look very different as we got closer to Bangor. Tall, jagged mountain/hills, vibrant green hillsides, chest-high stone walls surrounding sheep pastures, sheep.
I felt the “otherness” vibe I hoped to feel when we crossed into Scotland (but didn’t).
The Festival people were supposed to give us our wrist bands (to get into the festival) while we were on the train, but didn’t get to our car until we were five minutes from Bangor. We managed to get ours but J. and D. didn’t; regardless, we didn’t get our bus passes and would have queue up for those once we got off.
A friendly station security guard struck up a conversation with us as we waited, asking where we were from. We told him, then I asked where he was from, and he laughed and said just over the hill. Our first Welshman! He proudly told us that this was the only county in Wales to have Welsh speaking schools. All the kids learn Welsh. He said they’ve got Syrian refugees and their kids are learning Welsh. He said it’s a sight to see, all the little Syrian kids speaking Welsh. : )
In another moment of unexpected luck, in addition to the two booths we were waiting to get to, the festival people started handing out wristbands and bus passes starting at the end of the line. And we were at the very end. What the heck!! When does that happen?
We hopped right on the bus and soon after were on the road to the festival. The hour trip was mesmerizing. Not only because of the great scenery but also thanks two loud English women in their late 40’s behind me.
Sunday night? No idea. Everything was fine until I started doing shots. I was walking down the lane, Tommy picked me up when I fell and then I was in bed. He ran out in his knickers. I don’t do drugs anymore. Can’t. Did ya know I was in the army? I wanted to fight but they didn’t let girls do that when I joined. I tried to join the American marines…
on and on.
We got close to the festival and I saw a narrow gauge steam train! I’d love to ride it but I don’t think there is time.
The bus pulled into the festival and it was total confusion again. The bus driver gave no instruction. He stopped, everyone got off, staff pulled our luggage out from under the bus and threw it onto the ground, and D. and J. went to find general camping. R. and I tried to find someone who knew what was going on but everyone appeared to have just gotten on shift and had no clue.
Eventually we figured out we had to get back on the bus to be driven to Boutique Village–the pre-set up tents we’d booked. Other people had to get off the bus because it wasn’t the bus to the parking lot.
We waited in line, again, to get our camping wristbands and it started to rain.
Our tent, one of many in identical rows, is pretty cool. My first Glamping experience. We’ve got a real mattress, a table, two chairs, a weakly-inflated and unusable couch, and two side tables. We can stand up! I’m a-ok with this although it is horribly overpriced. Oh and we’ve got private “fancy” toilets and showers!
We stowed our gear and tried to text D. and J. to make plans for dinner and found…the internet doesn’t work. Cell doesn’t work. We had 3 bars of 3G but nothing happened. We had no idea where they were.
This was a big problem. I expected to be able to go off on my own and meet friends from time to time, and assumed we’d be able to keep each other updated on cool stuff that was happening. (Future self note: it never got better. My texts never went through. I only met my friends by accident. It was a huge pain and really took away from my enjoyment of the festival.)
By sheer chance we met D. in line at a food booth in a lawn area between the big arena and the village. We joined he and J. and their friends from Edinburgh in what I called the red tent – a Moretti beer tent with red lights. We had a nice night! A. and S., J.’s friends from college in Edinburgh were fun and we had drinks and good conversation.
Wednesday August 31, Cambridge – London
My cousin took a special training class so she could take us up on the roof of King’s College Chapel.
Woo! She signed us in, got a walkie talkie and some flashlights, and unlocked the secret door in the back. We climbed 157 well-worn stone steps (the chapel was finished in the early 1500’s) of a dim spiral stairway and admired graffiti carved in the wall from throughout the ages.
The roof was great! My favorite part was climbing a ladder to the very tip top and just sitting there. I could have stayed for hours. I doubt I’ll ever have an experience like that again…sitting on the peak of a roof of a 600-year old church.
Also cool, we got to walk between the stone roof (that you see from the interior) and the wooden roof above it (the one with the lead that I sat on).
This isn’t a great photo, but it is above that ornate ceiling you see in the photo below
There are holes in the stone roof so you can peer down into the chapel. I felt, irrationally, that the roof was going to collapse under my weight!
The interior of the chapel is beautiful. We haven’t gone in too many churches on this trip so I wasn’t burned out on them and could appreciate it.
I don’t know why but I love these guys
After lunch we caught the train back to London and checked into the hotel – Citizen M. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a great concept. Super tiny rooms, almost like being in an RV, but with big beds and really nice common areas. The upstairs bar has great view of the Thames, couches, and you can hang out there all day and night.
We walked over Tower bridge (nicer than I remembered) and waved to our friends D. and J. who were just returning from somewhere by boat.
They are the ones that told us about Festival no. 6, one of the reasons for this trip. We met up with them at the hotel and had drinks at the bar, then took the tube to a great Chinese restaurant down an awesome seedy alley with shops selling poppers.
Tuesday August 30, Cambridge
My cousin was very sweet and understanding when we told her we were going to move to a hotel. Fortunately there was a Holiday Inn express five minutes from her house, along a pedestrian-only path that ran past an idyllic lake and field of bunnies. And, oddly, a military training course with a barbed wire fence–and bunnies.
My cousin is, I believe, a fellow (?) at Cambridge. I’m not sure if that is the right term. She does research and teaches. She’s got an office and a lab. And because of that we got extra special access to everything!
My cousin could eat three meals a day for free in this insane Hogwart’s style dining hall!
I’ll probably explain this all wrong, but from what I understand Cambridge is made up of separate colleges. Students apply to a certain college, regardless of major. Sounds almost like getting into a sorority. You live at the college and get lots of support from it, but your major is made up of people from all different colleges. My cousin belongs to King’s College.
All the colleges (that I saw) are collections of pretty, gothic-looking buildings, very ornate. King’s College is particularly attractive. Tourists aren’t allowed in so we felt very special. Also, only staff can walk across the lawn! She took us across but it felt wrong. It was so perfectly groomed.
The river Cam runs behind the buildings–fenced off to keep out “geese” according to the guard, aka the riffraff punting on the river. I’d have liked to take a boat out–the college has its own boats–but my cousin said she was not good at it.
My cousin’s office, where she does her teaching, has an amazing view and a fireplace. Her lab is in a modern building adjacent to the botanical gardens.
Downtown Cambridge is a mix of old and new–the new not particularly interesting (e.g. the mall) but the place feels vibrant and not trapped in the past.
R wasn’t feeling well so I had a good dinner at a pub with my cousin and her girlfriend, then made the long trek back to the hotel.
Monday August 29 – London to Cambridge
We checked out of the hotel and wandered around Shoreditch, trying to find the Nomadic Community Garden I spotted from the above ground train. A guy in a shop pointed us in the right direction but alas, it was closed on Mondays. We could still see a lot through the fence. It looks to be part garden, part burning man camp.
There’s a lot of nice graffiti art in Shoreditch. I think some of my problem with the paintings at the Tate is that they meant something viscerally to the people of the time, whereas we have to read the little plaque on the wall and even then it can’t resonate with us the way even graffiti can.
We thought we’d get lunch at a fancy food hall at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and we did, but it wasn’t that good.
The store was packed thanks to the bank holiday. I had the dumb idea to try to do some shopping but it was too expensive and I didn’t want to lug things around even if I could have afforded them.
I was curious to see all the different types of Muslim outfits the women in London wear. I know only one woman in a headscarf in San Francisco (she goes to my gym and lives in my neighborhood and we chat). She is pretty westernized with just the scarf and otherwise “regular” clothes. I saw about 100 women in various forms of dress in Selfridges alone. Everything from the full black outfit that covers everything but the eyes, to a loosely-worn headscarf with regular clothes (granted with long sleeves). And all varieties in between. I need to read up on this because I could tell the women were from many different countries and I don’t know how much of the dress is cultural vs. religious. I don’t want to be ignorant about such a current issue.
(BTW: it would be easy for me to look stuff up after the fact and act like I knew all about it when I write this, but that isn’t the point. I’m trying to capture what I experienced and thought at the moment and in real life travel the only thing I google on the spot is train and bus schedules, locations of museums, etc.)
The men with these women are almost always dressed like extras in a soap opera based in Los Angeles. Western, brand-conscious casual sportswear. Jeans, expensive shoes, fancy shirt. Absolutely no indication of their religion or country of origin. ???
I wandered into Hyde park where truly insane people were ranting. Public speaking in the park is a tradition but these guys were garden variety lunatics. I found a quiet place to deal with my credit card being turned off, despite the fact I’d let them know I’d be away. Buying a $6 bowl of soup was considered mighty suspicious!
Late that afternoon we caught the train to Cambridge.
I was thrown off by the development around the train station. Most of the towns we passed through have the “old town” near the station but the station in Cambridge was surrounded by boring, haphazardly-placed, newly-built, 10-story apartment buildings. Not charming, and no where I’d like to live. My cousin told me (later) that Cambridge is becoming a commuter town for London, since there is a fast 45-minute direct train there, rents are cheaper, and schools are excellent. Unfortunately that means people that work in Cambridge are getting driven out.
My cousin lives in a short and skinny house with a long and skinny yard. She is on the end of the row of houses so she gets extra windows. It is a decent size for one or two people but I can’t imagine trying to raise a kid in a house that small. And no closets!
Nearly all the houses in town are more or less identical, following three main floor plans.
The majority seem to be row houses and are horribly monotonous (to me) especially given the lack of vegetation. What a cruel architect. Why not build in some variety? It is so dehumanizing. My house is..that one…I think. I see this kind of construction all over the U.S. as well, so I’m not singling out the UK. I don’t like it anywhere.
We walked from her house into the city center for dinner. The “old” town felt real and living, not geared towards tourists, which was nice. I’m amazed how nice the waiters have been everywhere, especially given that people don’t really tip. I think San Francisco might have the least friendly wait-staff of any city I’ve ever visited.
The guest bed in my cousin’s house, true to theme, was skinny…and we are not! The mattress was comfortable but we spent the night elbowing each other and trying not to fall off.
Sunday August 28th, London
I wracked my brain to come up with a good pun having to do with the prime meridian, longitude, mean time…I know I had some good ones…Help!
I thought going to Greenwich to see the prime meridian and the start of time was not something any other tourist would consider doing. WRONG! I also thought we’d pop over there for a few hours and then do other things but it ended up eating up the whole day.
Firstly, it always takes way longer to get places than you expect on the tube because the map isn’t to scale. R. read an interesting article about how people make bad decisions on which route to take based on that map. I made that mistake myself, choosing a line that looked like it was only one stop from our hotel, but turned out to be a mile.
So it was probably an hour before we were even standing on London Bridge dock. The woman in charge usually worked at another dock and was quite flummoxed, not sure which boat was going where. When our boat finally arrived they tried to say they were full but she fought for us, yelling at the man, telling him, look, 10 people got off, you can take these people. She triumphed!
Greenwich was jammed! A huge attraction apparently. The town is very cute. The last of the tea clippers, the Cutty Sark, is on display.
Everyone and their grandmother was clomping up the hill to the Royal observatory to straddle the prime meridian, even though we likely crossed it a dozen times walking from the dock.
I didn’t realize that sailors had latitude figured out, but longitude was the problem – for navigation. One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum was about the development of a clock by John Harrison (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison) that would work on a ship, given the changes in temperate and humidity and the motion.
His first three designs were beautiful (and large) and the fourth, an amazing apple-sized work of art that really worked! An enthusiastic American guy saw me admiring it and recommended a book called Longitude as a good read.
I also saw a very old telescope used to discover Uranus (?) and a camera obscura.
We got a snack and took an above ground train back instead of a boat, and saw the dock lands redevelopment (I tried to piece together what we saw and what a cabbie was telling us about Canary wharf being a place you’d never go 20 years ago and now his mate’s place is worth 1.5 million). Ultra modern enclaves surrounding quays. I got that I “could be anywhere feeling” when we passed through.
I hoped to do a little shopping but we arrived on Oxford Street at 6pm and everything was closing, so we got back on the tube and went home.
Lazy, at the hotel, we decided to get dinner across the street at a place called Dishoom. We’d been watching people line up for it for days. It was tasty Indian food but clearly benefiting from hype.
Tomorrow we head to Cambridge!
Saturday August 28, London
This hotel, the Boundary, has a really great store/cafe on the ground floor and where we get to eat our included breakfast. I wasn’t sure how it worked, but worst case, we pay for it.
It’s a bright happy space and I was content to be there. It was all the best of London and I didn’t have to move. Accents, a nice view, food. I asked for tea, and so did R, and the waitress said, “Tea for two?” OMG I’ve never heard that asked seriously.
I decided to walk to the Tate modern. It’s less than two miles from here. We are in a cute neighborhood with interesting shops, including a thing called Box Park that is a bunch of shipping containers side by side and on top of each other–with shops or restaurants in each.
Some impressive high rises are being built in Shoreditch (and everywhere. This town is exploding). My phone took me on a weird path through them. Felt like downtown San Francisco on the weekend. Scary and deserted. Still, I like that London is a living and changing city. A skyscraper next to an old pub, that kind of thing happens all over.
Right next to Millenium bridge, the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Thames and drops everyone at the Tate, was a steep stairway down to the muddy bank of the River. It was one of those “never in the U.S.” stairways, nearly vertical tiny mossy steps with no handrail. Still, there were people down there rock hunting so I crept down.
The bank/beach was interesting and horrifying. I sat on a damp rock to examine a few square feet and immediately found a bone that might have been a vertebrae. Also, lots of shards of cups and plates, who knows from when. I saved a piece, hoping it was from the 1800’s. Much terra cotta and/or bits of bricks. Rocks. Very few shells.
If you zoom in on the picture, you’ll see most tan things are bones
I thought my bone was unique, then I saw a two-year-old blonde Russian toddler bobbing her way back to her mother, holding a femur. There are bones EVERYWHERE. WTF? I’ll assume they are animal bones…
A sweet pre-teen came up and asked me if I’d found any treasures. I showed her my way too light (as in not heavy enough given their size) black rocks and she speculated they might be coal. Hmmm!
The Tate couldn’t hold my interest, not after the mysterious bank of the Thames. A giant building, tourists dutifully shuffling through, exhausted…Sometimes museums feel more like zoos, the art held captive.
To be fair, I really liked this pile of radios. Many were playing. There was nothing else like this though.
I’m a big fan of natural light and the Tate had little of it. I wish there was a way to display one masterpiece on every street corner. Would people even take notice? If we take these paintings out of the museum, are they no longer great works?
I’m pretty sure I’ve hit the wall that I usually hit much sooner. My brain is shutting off. When I’m wandering around the Tate thinking the art sucks that is a pretty good sign. I need a day in a white room!
I made it home on the Overground (I hadn’t heard of that until this trip!)
We did a little bar hopping in the area, but it is all 20-somethings trying to mate.
Nice alteration of a do not enter sign
Good people watching for sure and the weather was great, but in boring but real life, my tooth was hurting. I’m supposed to get a root canal but every time I’m about to make an appointment it gets better and stays good for half a year, so I put it off. It began to hurt in the morning and by night was really nagging.
I went back to the hotel and downed ibuprofen and R. brought back really good tacos and we ate in the room.
Friday August 27th – Edinburgh to London
Today was a travel day and I’m going to keep this short because I’m behind.
We said goodbye to Edinburgh with a crappy train station meal and beautiful clouds.
The train initially headed east and I got to see the sea again. It is a different sea than I am used to. Kind of sluggish, with barely any waves, and few sandy beaches. The land turned to mud and just lay there.
The people across from us had the good view
Too soon we were back in England. Edinburgh must be just north of the unofficial border. Many nice towns on the way south, but I can’t say I’d want to live in any of them.
We arrived in King’s Cross station and though I didn’t realize I’d been missing urban energy it hit me the moment I got off the train. People, busy people, lots of them, going places, animated. A part of me I didn’t know had been tense relaxed. This, all this. The long taxi line. The woman trying to corral three children. The drunk Englishman meeting a friend. The fancy older woman in expensive shoes getting into a cab with a man in a patterned scarf. Us, getting in our own cab with a chatty young cabbie who wanted to know where we were from and telling us about his trip to Orlando with his children to Disneyland, and that he didn’t need to go back.
I’d thought of Edinburgh as a big city until just this moment.
Our hotel is just what I needed. No view per se on the third floor, but we have SIX windows. We had only a small one in Edinburgh. And they actually open, fully. Unlike Las Vegas, London is pretty sure we aren’t going to try to kill ourselves during our stay.
We went up to the roof bar for drinks and sunset, and to count cranes. London is under construction. I counted 22 without doing a full 360. The weather here is very good. Mid-70’s I’d guess. Way better than San Francisco, where my friend just instragrammed a photo of herself in a wool coat.
We sat next to a real London asshole. A guy with a wedding ring who asked where the cougar bars were in San Francisco because he is heading there at the end of the month. He had two pink rum drinks in front of him that he proudly proclaimed had FIVE kinds of rum. His button-down shirt strained as it tried to hold in his belly.
We left to go for a walk since we’d been sitting all day. Shoreditch has a fun Williamsburg-esque vibe. We ate at a packed food court/food truck thingy called Pump. Had a drink at some other place with a too-loud DJ.
I reluctantly rolled down all six shades and went to bed.
Thursday August 25th – Edinburgh
Yesterday I caught a cab home from Hollyrood park, and asked the driver about the walking path that runs along the Leith river. It looked pretty on the Internet. He said it was and got very enthusiastic, telling me to go to Dean Village and Stockbridge – where he was born and raised. Stockbridge was voted best place to live…in some publication. All the little villages around Edinburgh used to be separate but have been swallowed up.
When I asked how to get to Dean Village he made it sound like it was really far away. I’d have to take a cab or a bus but he didn’t know which bus because he hadn’t ridden one in years.
Well when R. and I set out to walk there today it turned out to be less than a mile away! The area around the little river was extremely charming, however, the path was closed in the direction I wanted to go (to the museum of Modern Art). I looked online later and discovered it’s been closed since 2012, and the council has been “evaluating” and “monitoring” the situation and repairs will be undertaken soon. Heh.
I’m embarrassed my taste is so predictable. I spotted a Dwell magazine-styled restaurant from a block away, Foundry 39. Old-timey lightbulbs hanging from an elaborate pulley system, interesting objects on shelves made from pipes, a big piece of beaten copper on the back wall (for no reason.) Ahhhhhh…yes. Hey I did pubs. I needed a taste of modern!
In more strange good luck, we sat down and the waiter informed us it was national hamburger day and all burgers were free. Free? Yes, free. So we had burgers, and they were good.
In this area, just steps from the tourist area and absolutely tourist-free (as the cab driver promised) I began to feel that maybe the bubble wasn’t as impermeable as I feared.
I returned to the book festival, which was coincidentally just two blocks away, to meet with Noel Chidwick, creator and editor of Shorelines of Infinity magazine, where my short story was published. I felt like a spy, going to meet a stranger in a cafe.
He spotted me, waved, then popped up to get me a cup of tea. We had a nice chat about the magazine and all his creative pursuits (author, musician, play write, editor) and he gave me a super secret preview of the next cover. I asked why Edinburgh seems so obsessed with murder and ghosts. I saw many ads for tours with these themes.
He laughed and said I hadn’t been here in the winter. He said the Royal Mile was completely deserted, as were all the closes, and that it was very foggy and windy and dark from about 4pm until around 9am. In short, very scary!!
After our meeting I went back to the river, heading in the other direction towards Stockbridge. The path was pretty, peaceful, and relatively busy. Dog walkers, kids heading home from school, teens making out on the bank.
From there I headed back to the shopping area, thinking vaguely of getting some souvenirs, then rejecting the idea of getting anything nice because we are going to be camping at Festival No. 6, and not to be overly paranoid, but I don’t know how safe our stuff will be and I’ve got to be okay with anything left in the tent possibly being stolen. I doubt anyone will steal my crappy clothes and I wouldn’t care too much if they did, but I’m not going to buy a nice new something and have that taken.
When I got out of the store, the fog was rolling in! I was happy to see it as I feel like I got to experience all the weathers…except the wind which is fine.
I met R at a pub near the hotel and we had a pint and planned the evening. We had tickets to an organ concert and absolutely were not going to put ourselves through that again. Noel Chidwick recommended going on the Mary King’s Close tour. He said he’d been on an unofficial tour before it was done up for tourists and it was a way to see how people lived in the 1600’s.
Well…his unofficial tour was probably much better than the real one. It was way overpriced and covered almost no ground, relying instead on the guide to tell stories of the Black Death and such.
Still, it piqued my interest in sewer systems of the past (I initially got interested when I Iearned how Chicago reversed the flow of the river and sent their sewage downstream instead of into the lake). In Edinburgh’s case, there wasn’t one. Everyone dumped their waste in the streets in old town, where it gradually made its way downhill to a lake of crap. OMG!!
I can’t wrap my head around this. I thought as a species we evolved to know that good smell = good and bad smell = bad. I seriously want to read more about this so if anyone has any book recommendations…
After the tour we had delicious Indian food. MMMmmmmm! We decided not to do any Fringe events and call it an early night at 11pm, though we didn’t get in bed until 1am. It’s hard to wind down after such stimulating days.
Wednesday August 24th – Edinburgh
I’ve got no idea how this city functions or any insight into to the real personality of the place. What people think or do for a living. If I had to speculate based on personal observation I’d erroneously assume everyone works in a restaurant, drives a cab, or is an architect (I’ve seen several offices in old town).
I’m in two huge bubbles, first, being in Old Town in the tourist area and second, having Fringe Festival happening around me. I’m seeing zero reality. The extra weird thing is that I’m having a good time. Old town is gorgeous and mysterious. Tonight we got off the bus after dinner and found ourselves on top of a big arch/bridge that we’d been under the night before and had to figure out how to get back down.
R saw what looked like a passage on the phone, and there we found an ordinary door propped open, revealing a steep spiral staircase–old brick with tiny, scary stairs. We walked gingerly down, worried we were going to end up in someone’s apartment, but we exited into an alley. The bottom door self-locked behind us and when shut, looked like any other apartment door. The alley had walls of fat cut stones that towered up on either side of us.
All the closes and secret passages are being used so the city feels very real, very alive, despite the tourism. Plus, the tourists around me are for the most part European – so still foreign and interesting! And the attractions are historical, not faked up like fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco.
Though Fringe Festival is also a bubble of sorts, it has gotten me out and about and into venues I’d never have seen if I was here during a normal time. I should put venues in quotes. Some of the places seem to be storage rooms.
Anyway…it turned out to be an unexpectedly sunny day today, and me of course in a long-sleeved shirt sweating profusely. R and I got irritated with each other in the hot sun. Everything is good as long as we wander aimlessly but when someone wants to go to a specific place then phones must be consulted, bus tickets must be acquired, routes argued over. We agreed to both do our own thing for a few hours.
I wanted to see the ocean. It wasn’t far. I took a bus to Ocean Terminal…which turned out to be a mall–and also the location of the royal yacht Britannia. (Which I did not tour). The mall was bland, and the view of the ocean somewhat obscured, but I did get to see the Dazzle Ship – which I really wanted to see! It is part of the International Festival and I’d seen ads for it. It was a cute modern take on the old war dazzle ships.
I asked a woman working at the mall falafel counter which bus to take to get to Hollyrood park, or I as put it, “the big volcanic hill over there.” She was decked out in a full chador (Islamic full body cloak worn by Iranian women when going out – thanks Internet) and I expected a middle eastern accent but she replied in full Scottish brogue. Surprise! There are many Muslim women here. Who knows how many men because they don’t have to cover their hair. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? I won’t start.
A woman on the bus told me where to get off for the park. You’ve got to love any directions that include, “walk along the wall behind the palace.” Ah Europe!
I saw two ways up the hill. One steep and one gentle, each heading in a different direction. I wanted to get to the tip top and assumed the steep path would be faster. Hmpf. I got 9/10 of the way there and the path began to descend and I saw it went almost all the way to the base then zig zagged back up. No freaking way! It was already 5pm and my legs were tired so I turned back.
The view from the nearly top felt so familiar…I could swear I was looking at the San Francisco Bay. They even have an island that looks like Alcatraz, and the hills beyond could be the east bay. The rolling hills could be many places in California.
When I got back we immediately went out for a pint at a pub. I don’t like beer much but it felt absolutely obligatory. I really liked the beer I picked randomly (Belhave Black Scottish Stout) and the servers at “the oldest pub in Edinburgh” were friendly as were the patrons, the guy next to me advising me which whiskey to try.
We then went to an excruciating organ concert in a pretty cathedral. The music was all gloom and doom and gut shaking bass. I figured it was rude to leave so I spent the time trying to decipher the flags hanging above me, one of which was belonged to the civil defense messengers from one of the world wars.
After that we hopped on a bus to Leith walk to a restaurant I’d found – which stopped serving food at 9pm!!! We got Italian instead. Do restaurants close early here?
We bused back and got off in our neighborhood, not sure what to do next, when a woman handed us a flyer for The Secret Circus, and asked if we wanted to see tits. “These tits! My tits! Her tits!”
What is cool about Fringe Festival is all the free shows, and that the performers stand outside the venue recruiting people, then run in and do the show.
I assumed from the “tits” reference that the show might be burlesque, so we went in. It turned out to be a great variety show! A couple burlesque acts, a comedian, musicians, a magician. Super well done. Better than many shows I’ve paid for. I got pulled up on stage after I ignorantly agreed to hold a piece of paper. A bit embarrassing but interesting to realize you can’t see a damn thing when you are on stage with those lights in your eyes! So fortunately the performers didn’t realize there were only 20 people in the audience!
It was another very good day.
Tuesday, August 23rd – Edinburgh
I can’t believe we only arrived on Sunday. I’m still a little stunned every time I walk outside and realize, oh wow, we’re here–and I’ve already seen so much!
We got off to a late start. I slept well but woke groggy. I’m embarrassed to say that late breakfast was at Pizza Pronto. At some point it is better to eat what is in front of you than to trudge on angry and hungry trying to find the perfect most unique restaurant.
We walked to the eastern end of the royal mile. I keep wanting to call it the miracle mile (as in Chicago) and can’t get that out of my head. Most of the street is taken up with Fringe Fest (promotional activities) and is crowded and crazy. From there we headed up Carlton hill, which is supposed to have a great view from the top, but we didn’t go all the way up since the vista seemed just fine from where we were in the middle.
From there I hightailed it down the hill, hoping to hear an author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The book festival was physically smaller than I expected, taking place in a fenced-off block that is normally a park. Temporally and event-wise it is big, running over several weeks with back to back events every day and a 1/2 inch thick program. The space (which must be totally empty normally), is nicely furnished with tents and raised walkways as well as two cafes and a full-size tent bookstore.
I got a ticket (kind of pricey for a one hour event) to see/hear Mark Haddon (author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which I read and am pretty sure I liked.) It was a great talk. To paraphrase – he said he is a white guy with a middle class upbringing who wants to write about the things he knows, but is bored of books about things like that. But introduce a sawed off shotgun…and then you can write about Christmas and all the knick knacks…as long as a stranger comes to the door.
He also said it takes him many drafts to get a story to a point where it isn’t awful. Thank god. I’m sick if hearing from writers who pop out a first draft in a week and finish a story soon after. He also said writers “start from zero every day” and if you don’t worry you are never going to be able to write again then you aren’t a writer. Writers have to balance “grotesque egotism with surgical self doubt.”
I waited out a heavy rain in a clear tent/cafe area with a cup of tea, then walked down Rose Street, a fun, cafe-filled street I’d like to go back to in better weather. I keep thinking, this place must be nice in the summer, forgetting this is the summer! : )
We are staying on the south side of the big ridge that has the castle on it (everything on that hill is old town), so to get anywhere we have to walk up and over or around.
The book festival was in new town to the north, so it was a hike to get back to the hotel, and the moment I got back we had to head out again to a Fringe Festival event…as our cab driver pointed out, “Why’d you come all the way to Scotland to hear an American band?”
Well, we don’t live in New Orleans so a New Orleans Jazz band is still pretty cool to us! Super small venue, cute crowd of older Scots who were made to dance by the singers. One of the singers came around at the end of the show and hugged and/or kissed every single audience member. I teared up a little at that. I mean, how freaking kind.
We got a great dinner afterwards at Rollo. The food in Edinburgh has been very good. About 90 percent of restaurant workers seem to be not Scottish, so if this brexit thing goes through – the restaurants are going to all be in big trouble!
We had tickets to a comedy event later that night: How to save the world without really trying. We arrived at the address (at ground level) walked down a flight of stairs, were directed to another flight of stairs, over and over again, until we arrived five stories down on a completely different street! The steepness here is mind boggling.
R picked this act totally randomly because they had a science fiction theme…and it was the absolute best thing we’ve seen here (future me concurs). London-based Bourgeois & Maurice – go to their site and watch a video. They are really funny. Comedy and songs, political and social satire.
Many of the venues during Fringe are probably not usually used as such. The room used for this show had a good sound system but was damp and hot and smelled of mildew.
On our way back to the hotel a comedian handed us a flyer to his own free show, which was happening right at the bar we were walking past and the theme was Drunk but Not Wasted, four drunk comedians, so of course we had to go. It wasn’t actually in the tiki theme bar, but up a flight a stairs, then another flight, then another flight, and we finally ended up at a dark dead end. On our way back down we noticed a piece of paper on the dirty wall with an arrow pointing to a closed door. Right then the comedian who’d given us the flyer ran up and opened that door and told us this was the way, but it wasn’t starting for 10 minutes. So we were obviously way too early!
We walked through a couple of mostly empty rooms to end up in a room full of chairs with blacked out windows–where we were clearly going to be killed and eaten!
Though we survived, poor R was the chosen victim of the night and was teased by all the comics…I guess that is a comic thing…to find a theme and stick with it. He didn’t mind. After all there were probably only 10 people there and no one was recording the event.
Finally – BED! Soooo tired…
August 22, London to Edinburgh
I woke at 3:30am, starving, but forced myself to stay in bed until I fell asleep again a bit before 5am. There are worse things than dozing in a king bed in clean white sheets waiting for the sun to rise in London…I kept telling myself.
The included hotel breakfast was good–fresh breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt, meat and cheese and tea! I’m so happy to be in tea country. When you ask for tea no one says “Mint, Green, herbal…etc.” they bring you black tea that is really nearly black and a pitcher of milk. Mmmmmm.
I had two hours in London before catching the train to Glasgow and managed to get to Hatchard’s, London’s oldest book store, and some of the other oldest shops in town including Fortnum and Mason, Floris (Perfume), and Paxton and Whitfield (Cheese).
Sadly none looked particularly old inside. Ironically, I ended up on a street full of men’s stores, while R ended up on a street of bookshops! None open yet though. I also ran through the National Gallery, heading right to the “modern” section (19th and 20th century) and saw some nice Monets and Turners.
We caught a cab to Euston station, which was crammed with people watching the departure board…all of whom ran to our train to Glasgow when the platform was announced.
It was a perfect day to ride the train. We were still jet lagged and confused so it was a relief to sit back and watch the scenery and not make any decisions for 4 hours.
We paralleled a canal for the first hour or so and I saw locks and the skinny barge/houseboats. I couldn’t really take any good photos from the train because we were going 120mph and there was glare on the windows.
The scenery, rolling green hills, farms, sheep, small towns, was bucolic. Literally bucolic:
2. of, relating to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life.
I get to use the word literally so seldom I had to look up bucolic to make sure I had it right.
I was a little disappointed in the lack of change of scenery when we got to Scotland. I don’t know what I expected but I’ve been imagining the place for so long. I thought maybe towns would thin out…there’d be about 20 miles with no people, then we’d come over a rise and there would be a landscape of rolling hills, no trees, and a big lake. Maybe a heath, whatever that looks like. And in the distance a smudge and that would be Glasgow. I heard it was industrial so it would have some smokestacks. Then we’d get on another train to Edinburgh and pass through empty countryside again, and then Edinburgh would rise up, a jewel-like city on hills.
In truth I never saw much of Glasgow because all we did was change trains there. (We’d gotten a ticket to Glasgow before we decided to stay the whole time in Edinburgh so we had to use that ticket). We got on a slow commuter train that stopped everywhere and gradually emptied. I didn’t mind that though the landscape remained too bucolic. Too English looking. I wanted my imaginary Scotland!
I wish I’d been air-dropped into Edinburgh because it is the dramatic city I imagined. Castles! Cliffs! Ravines! Spires without churches under them (probably also known as monuments). We got a cab to our pleasingly decorated “Euro” hotel. Clean and tasteful with blonde wood–I could be in Finland.
We went out right away because we were starving. The front desk gave us some bullsh*t recommendations on where to eat but we found our way down a close to a great place. What is a close you ask? We wondered the same thing. An amazing tunnel/alley thing between very high buildings! They are really cool. We had a great dinner on Advocate Close at Devil’s Advocate. Where we noticed that no one around us was Scottish.
Oh yeah and the Fringe Festival. It’s a huge deal! Kind of like South by Southwest but it goes on for weeks and weeks. The streets were closed, people sang and played guitars on stages or in alcoves…and that was just random people not official events. We didn’t try to go to anything yet.
On our way home we stumbled upon the infrastructure associated with an event called “Tattoo.” We had no idea what this was. Firstly, we saw a Cinderella carriage guarded by police. We waited, expecting someone to get in, but no one did. I asked a guard and she said it was the Queen’s carriage and it was there because of the celebration of her 90th birthday. Okay??
The carriage drove away.
We walked on and came to a street full of bus after bus. Then we came to the horse bus – with horses. And guys that looked like they’d stepped off the set of Lawrence of Arabia. And then men and women in kilts with instruments. Then we heard bagpipes from the castle, which was right above us. Then gunfire, then fireworks.
What is a tattoo? We had to look it up:
“The Tattoo is an iconic Edinburgh institution, and a sellout year after year after year. Music, dance and precision display with the Massed Pipes and Drums, the Massed Military Bands, cultural troupes, singers and the poignant refrain of the Lone Piper against the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.”
It runs for about three weeks every August and people were scalping tickets on the street for 120 pounds!!! Bizarre!
We got a quick drink in our hotel bar and a crashed hard and slept all night! Yay alcohol cures jet lag!
U.K. Invasion 2016
We are headed off on a back and forth trip across the UK. London Glasgow Edinburgh London Cambridge London Port Merion London home. It’s going to take me a few days to get into blog writing mode. I’m always stiff at first. It’s hard to write what I’m really noticing instead of the standard laundry list of what we saw, so bear with me.
We took a Virgin Atlantic 787-900 from SFO to Heathrow. The plane was pretty good for a plane; comfortable seats, big screens, best food I’ve had on plane yet, and very quiet – quieter than Bart (we measured the decibels). The flight attendants were one version of cliche “English” that I have in my imagination – cute, blonde, elaborate hairstyles, big teeth, big smiles, bright red lipstick and all of them in uniforms two sizes too small–which I assume is Virgin’s fault not theirs.
Getting through customs was oddly easy. No one went through our bags–we just walked out. We took a speedy and expensive train to Paddington station, and from there a cab to the hotel.
LONDON!!! I haven’t been in over 10 years. We ditched our bags and went right out, though we were beginning to feel tired. London is so stately and serious. So grown up. Our hotel was in the theater district, right near the National Gallery, and Big Ben was just down the street. Total immersion!
Traveling is more fun now that I’m owning the fact that I’m a tourist and not slinking around trying to fit in. Yeah, technically not on a tour but I’m going to carry my camera and stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk and gawk. I think I have some credits due me since San Francisco is such a big tourist destination. I can’t apologize for thinking London is interesting and wanting to take pictures.
Funny – I haven’t been on vacation in a place where people speak English in quite a while. It really takes the stress out of everything. It’s also interesting to realize how many people have foreign accents, whereas if I was in France I’d assume that anyone speaking French was a native.
I loved that the cab driver asked if we were staying a fortnight. Ha! I had to look it up.
We heard Big Ben chime 6pm, looked at the London Eye from across the muddy river, then began to crash. We made it to a great gyoza restaurant just as it started to rain.
R. went up to the room and fell asleep early. I tried to stay up until 10pm by hanging out in the lobby. The hotel, at least formerly, was “hip” but it wasn’t very hip on a Sunday night–families with kids, everyone in sneakers.
I made it until 9:45pm…a good effort! We had a great first day.
I don’t usually write about one-day trips. This blog is for significant adventures. Then it occurred to me that most people will never visit Volcano. Most people will never visit California, or even the U.S. I thought about someone in a country I’ll never visit, maybe Poland, taking a weekend trip to a small town. Would I want to read about that? Yes. So here you go.
I wanted to take a tour of spring. For a few weeks each April the dry golden hills of California turn a crazy vibrant green and explode with wildflowers. I wanted to see the green, to lay in the green, to take pictures of the green, to find a field of wildflowers and bring back a big bouquet that would make me sneeze once it was confined to our tiny house.
It wasn’t supposed to rain. My dream trip was sunny. I’d prepaid the first night at the hotel with the expectation we’d arrive late after a long day of “car-hiking,” what we call it when we take back roads and stop often to take photos. Now the weather was shitty and we had to go anyway.
The problem with trying to take back roads in a rapidly-developing state like California is that that little squiggle on the map is now the main drag through a city. It took us longer than it should have to get out of the Bay Area because country was now suburb. Our car-hiking was past strip malls.
When we escaped from the sprawl of Concord I finally felt I was somewhere else. The Sacramento delta has an understated charm but the light was crappy and I wasn’t inspired to do much more than snap a few crappy photos from the car.
I cheered up when we got to Volcano. We’d discovered the town a few years ago when we were driving around the gold country and vowed to come back and stay overnight.
All the gold rush towns along highway 49 are really cute, though most are sadly soul dead, any normal businesses long gone and replaced with antique shoppes and jewelry stores. Still, the buildings are preserved and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you are back in 1890. And 1890 is ancient history in California. That said, there are more authentic-feeling ruins around. Old mining equipment and such. So even if it is quite new compared to things in Europe or even the east coast, it is part of our history and thrilling to us natives.
Because – if you were wondering – in elementary school we spent about a week on world history and the whole rest of the year on California history. Making dioramas of log cabins in shoeboxes, taking field trips to Sutter’s Mill to pan for gold, learning about the missions, writing reports on how to grind acorns…
Ai yi yi. As a kid I loved this, as an adult I’m not sure I got the best education. Was it good for me to study our rather unimportant history in so much detail instead of learning about the rest of the world? Would the rest of the world have been too abstract? I caught up later and love to travel so I guess it all worked out.
Anyway, Volcano. At two or three square blocks, Volcano is too small to ruin. There aren’t enough storefronts to attract tacky retail. It boasts two small hotels, two restaurants, a bar, a post office, a grocery store, and a theater. It’s off the beaten path.
Our hotel, the Union Inn, is lovely on the outside and slightly less so on inside, as if some HGTV contestants had $1000 and five hours to make the place “look like a BnB.” Boxes checked, barely.
We walked around town during a break in the rain. Every Single Building in town has in informational plaque. This is simultaneously educational and unnerving. It’s like, hi. You are a tourist. I’m a cute building. I used to be a jail. I’m adorable, aren’t I? Take a selfie with me. Don’t worry. No one will make fun of you. No one really lives here.
Once it started raining in earnest we settled into the bar adjacent to the St. George hotel. And geeze that place works. I worry I’m being manipulated when I’m in a tourist town but the décor is great, the vibe is great and the bartender was an amazing kind soul who told us the history of the place as if he didn’t do that 20 times a day. He actually led me into the hotel lobby to show me a photo of Volcano in its heyday. Population 5000, wood shacks everywhere and a landscape destroyed by strip mining.
A lady from a group of drunks at the other end of the bar informed me that I was in charge of music and that the jukebox was free. I dutifully picked 10 songs. The bartender nodded “good choice” at one of them and I beamed.
I gathered, after a couple hours, that because this place is really close to Sacramento there are “regulars” who often come to Volcano for weekend getaways. We were befriended by a fascinating “May/December” couple. I don’t know if people even use that term anymore but it’s what my mom calls someone very young with someone much older. The man, in his early 70’s, struck up a conversation with us and after a few minutes of yelling he and his 20-something girlfriend moved a couple bar seats over to be closer to us.
I wasn’t sure they were a couple at first but the woman kept touching his arm whenever he got too loud and boisterous, which was all the time, and rolling her eyes at his outrageous statements, then telling us what he thought about related subjects–exasperated with him in that way that only a mate can be.
I’m familiar with the concept of older men with younger women, but only from magazines…Hugh Hefner with his newest bunny, the grizzled president of some South American country with his mistress. No one I know has ever dated someone 40 years their senior. Since it doesn’t seem to happen all that often I wondered how this relationship came about.
I liked them both. They were intense and opinionated and we had a great time discussing California politics, but I did sense some tension. I asked the woman if she’d heard of Roughing It, a book by Mark Twain about the gold and silver rush, and she replied, angrily, “Of course I’ve heard of it. All young people aren’t idiots.”
Oops. Someone has a chip on their shoulder!
After another glass of whiskey she began to high five me whenever I agreed with something she said, and then she’d nudge her boyfriend and say, “See, she understands.”
At some point they went out for a cigarette and smoked and cuddled on a bench in front of the window, then disappeared. I was relieved. They’d been acting something out for me, the audience, and I was confused and not eager to see how it ended.
After that, a bearded, red-faced man who looked like he’d arrived on one of those large, RV-style motorcycles asked if we were from San Francisco, because we looked like we were. I expected some good-natured ribbing when he found out he was right, but he lived in San Francisco back in the day, and pointed out a leather-clad man behind him. That guy’s daughter was the director of a play that was opening in the small theater that night–a soft open for friends and family so we couldn’t go. Too bad.
We had a good dinner back at our hotel and fell asleep early.
The next morning it was still raining. I was determined to get some photos, dammit, so I got the umbrella and my good camera and trudged up Church Street to the old cemetery. The gravestones listed birth and death dates as well as country of origin. People came from all over the world to Volcano to search for gold. What a crazy place it must have been in its heyday. And funny that people still come to California the strike it rich, this time with tech companies.
It was nearly impossible to keep my camera dry and absolutely impossible to avoid soaking my feet, so I gave up.
The inn only had four rooms and we were the last to breakfast. I’m not a fan of BnB’s for this specific reason. Breakfast is served from 8:00-10:30 but if you come down at 10:15 you’ll be greeted by a very impatient server. If we came down at 8 like everyone else, he could clean up the food and get on with his day. Not to fault the guy–he was super nice and friendly, just with an undercurrent of wanting us to hurry up and leave.
I’d discovered there was a cave right nearby, and I love caves. The owners of Black Chasm (it’s privately owned) had hand-painted a sign on the road in the style of official brown and yellow government signs declaring Black Chasm a National Landmark. Which I’m sorry to say turns out not be true…according the the NPS website.
Shrug. It was still a good cave. I liked it. And no rain down there!
We had amazing pizza for lunch at Pizza Plus in Sutter Creek. The best sauce I’ve had maybe ever. Still too rainy to walk around, and my feet were still wet from my morning adventure.
We stopped for a few minutes in Locke, a town in the shadow of a levee in the Sacramento delta, built by Chinese workers in the early 20th century. The polar opposite of overly cute overly touristy Sutter Creek, poor Locke is sad and rundown and barely inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for these historic towns.
We got home that evening and despite the cave, my overall feeling was that the trip was a disappointment. I barely took any pictures and saw almost no wildflowers. I didn’t get my spring fix.
It took me a few weeks to realize that the only problem with that trip was that what I expected to happen didn’t happen, so even though a whole bunch of other things did, I couldn’t appreciate that right away. My expectations create a kind of haze over the real world, a transparent overlay, so that when things align, everything is super colored, super amazing. When things don’t work out, I’ve got this pesky vision of sunny skies overlaid on the gray clouds, fields of poppies on the walls of the dark bar and it’s hard to have a good time because of that.
Should I stop having expectations so I can be more flexible and adapt to the “real world?” Yes, I’d like to be more flexible, but I dunno. I like having expectations. It’s still spring in California so I’ll try again. There are still poppies out there.
We took a quick trip to downtown Los Angeles to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I didn’t have my computer with me because trips with friends don’t offer much time for contemplation and writing, so I didn’t blog on the spot but I’ll attempt to recreate our weekend now.
We flew from SFO to LAX and took a Lyft to the downtown Standard. We’ve stayed there numerous times in the past and I think this was one time too many. It’s got a very distinct style that they haven’t updated in the past decade. So even though it is still great and if you wiped my memory I’d ooo and ahh, it felt like same old same old.
Gauging from the crowd at the rooftop bar on a Friday evening, it is no longer the hip place to be, which was a disappointment because LA people watching is so fun.
We walked to dinner at Redbird. Downtown LA is definitely NOT gentrified. The denizens are similar to those in San Francisco’s tenderloin district, but the vibe is totally different. Bigger, emptier, more haunting. Many shuttered buildings. No crowds on the sidewalks, just the occasional idiot tourists (us!) and raving homeless person. I didn’t feel in any kind of immediate danger but we all agreed to cab it back.
Redbird is in an old rectory and photographs much more majestically then it presents in real life. I can barely remember the food because of all the other odd things that happened. We arrived on time and the host apologized that the party at “our” table was having desert and would be done soon. I was mystified that we were assigned a particular table and not the next 4-top that opened up. We didn’t mind. We were happy to have drinks and gawk. Good people watching there for sure! After half an hour we were getting hungry, and the host again apologized. We moved from the bar to a bar table when one opened up–which earned us the ire of the bartender! We’d already had a round, but when we went to the bar to get another he haughtily refused to make us a drink. We were at a TABLE now and the nonexistent SERVER would get our drinks. We sat there drinkless and confused. At some point the host, who was really very nice, told us the table was almost ready and offered to buy us drinks. We were happy to accept and explained that we had tried to get our own and been refused, so he did some magic handwaving and a few minutes later the server appeared with drinks for us.
When we were finally seated it was at the most awkward table ever. The back of my chair was a foot from a chest of drawers thing – which the waiters actually needed to access to get silverware and other supplies. So the whole meal waiters were squeezing behind me and rustling around. !!!!
R. had a headache and felt bad from the flight, so after we ordered he left to go back to the hotel, which meant we ended with way too much food.
Highlight! Actress Riki Lindhome from Garfunkel and Oates (one of my favorite shows) sat down at a table right across from us midway through dinner. She was on a date and I was trying hard to be cool and not stare at her. Meaning, I totally stared at her. And felt sorry for her that people like me stared at her when she was just trying to have a nice night out. Oh well!! : ) Overall it was a good night and they comped us a lot of our food so I had no complaints.
Saturday morning we headed straight to The Last Bookstore.
What a great place! In case you haven’t heard, all the big bookstores in San Francisco are gone. The chains left, and the little indy places are flourishing, but we don’t have any grand spaces dedicated to books. No clean, well-lighted places, just small narrow spaces filled with eau du old paper.
The Last Bookstore is a temple! A cathedral! A maze! Amazing! Built in an old bank it is what a bookstore should be.
In addition to books, the mezzanine level hosts art galleries. I actually bought some art. My house is very small and I’ve got limited wall space so I was really happy to find some very small original art.
We spent the afternoon at the Standard’s rooftop bar/pool area, which was a very strange experience. Years ago I laid on the exact same couch and had an amazing time drinking and frolicking. Since then, my tastes have changed. I was older than the 20-somethings that surrounded me and therefore invisible to them, which was amazing. A group shared our corner and spoke freely about stupid ass shit. I don’t want to be mean. I was 20, I was an idiot, I admit it. But to see it now played out in front of me…god…the posturing…the insecurity…guys literally comparing their abs…the women tottering around on high heels taking selfies…I so do not want to be young again. I wanted to tell them all they were beautiful and to relax.
To cap it all off, when we left Sunday, I saw that Iron Maiden has their own plane. What!!??? All in all a great weekend.
Princess Cay was great! Our last stop before we returned to Ft. Lauderdale. When I heard it was a private island owned by Princess Cruises my expectations fell. I pictured a sandbar with some half-dead palms. And the “tours” they suggested in the newsletter seemed little more than a desperate last grab at our cash. “Rent a beach chair. Rent an umbrella. Rent a floaty thing. Go fishing!”
It was the first destination we needed a tender (little boat) to get to. I thought that would be a pain, but doing it once was kind of fun. They pack those things full! This excursion self-selected the healthiest of my shipmates.
Anyway the island (or as it turned out, a small portion of a much larger island) was great! Beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, nice facilities. I took a long walk when I first arrived. Maybe too long. I went around a point and found myself completely alone, which I was first really happy about, then I saw some dude at the other end of the beach in nothing but shorts, who then disappeared into the trees. And I thought, oh yeah…right. This is where I mysteriously vanish.
The cove with the dude in the bushes was really pretty though. I love being by myself (more or less) on a tropical beach. It’s hard to convey how freaking bright it was out there. Noon, sparkling water, white sand. Even with sunglasses on I was overwhelmed. I collected a couple of scoops of sand and I didn’t realize until I got back on the boat that the sand was tiny shells. So beautiful.
Snorkeling was great. Tricky getting in and out because it was shallow and rocky (and I didn’t want to squish anything) but it was super clear. I really wanted to stay there. Really really.
I was happy to end (because I didn’t pay much attention to anything after this) the cruise on a high note.
I wish I could come up with a profound wrap up to tie this all together, but all I can offer is the wise words of a nice Jewish grandmother from New Jersey. “This is your first cruise?” she said. “Well, you’ll either like it, or you won’t. Cruising isn’t for everyone.”
I raise my Manhattan to you, ma’am! You are so right. I had a really good time (?) but I asked myself a theoretical question. Would I go on another cruise right now, if it were free and there were no consequences with missing work? My reaction was an immediate THANKS BUT NO THANKS.
April 16th – at sea
I slept 10 hours last night and woke groggy. I stayed groggy all day. I’m turning into a sea slug. I could have gone to either zumba or aerobics and I thought nahhhhh…I don’t wanna go up there in the sun and jump around. In defense of my laziness, it really is a bad location, up on the very top floor of the back of the ship in the sun on a basket ball court. It smelled like exhaust when I did the classes last time.
I worked on the blog for a while. I was trying to find a social spot without having to be social myself and that didn’t work too well. First I found a good table on the back of the ship, but nearby one of the cute women from the string trio was having a lunch date with one of the other ship’s entertainers. I think she is Ukrainian. The conversation was so horrifying I listened, rapt, while pretending to be engrossed in my computer. The dude, possibly another musician, and definitely American, went on an endless monologue, only asking her questions as related to his story. “You know what Legos are?” things like that. I couldn’t catch every word but he talked a lot about things he “splurged” on and then customized and everything was GOLD and EXPENSIVE. I’m sure the woman was looking attentive but she said about 5 words the entire time. If she is looking for a rich American husband I hope she doesn’t pick that guy because he was full of it.
I wasn’t getting anything done, so I moved to the center pool and found a chair in the shade with an empty chair next to it and began to write. Within minutes a party of five from Quebec settled in next to me (on that one empty chair), dumping clothes, towels, and stowing their bucket of beers. It was super busy by the pool because we were all trapped on the ship. Everyone went into the water except grandpa, who settled in and began to tell me of his career in HR writing safety training manuals and conducting seminars.
I’ve been avoiding a certain subject, hoping I’d have a revelation that would flip everything around in my mind, but that hasn’t happened. I’d guess 80% of the people on the cruise are over 70, and many closer to 80. And they are all around me in bathing suits. I’m not making fun–I’m staring my future in the face and it’s sagging and blotchy and covered in skin tags and moles and brown patches and spidery veins. And this is best case! These people are all alive and healthy and mostly mobile and they can afford a nice vacation after a terrible winter.
As I nodded and smiled, I finally had my revelation, though it wasn’t the one about mortality I was hoping for. I was trapped in yet another conversation that didn’t interest me, same as that poor Ukrainian chick on the bad date, and it wasn’t because the guy was older than me, it was because we had nothing in common!
I was relieved. I’m not an asshole or an age-ist. I’m sure I would have a great time with 70 and 80 year olds if I were, perhaps, at a party at Betsy Johnson’s house. But here on the ship I’ve had zero luck finding any common ground other than we all tried to sneak alcohol aboard.
Later I went on a tour of the galley. I was excited for this, but they ran us through really quickly and tried to sell us a cook book.
Dinner was good. Shrimp and a giant lobster tail. Such a treat. After we tried really hard to have some fun. The singer in our favorite bar was awful. A piano player near the Piazza was fun and got the crowd involved but if I’d heard him in a bar in San Francisco I would have walked out after one song. Trapped! Like an animal! Like tiger butt woman!
We waited to see a balloon drop, 1000 balloons dropped from the top of the three-story piazza onto dancers below. I was excited because I expected bedlam, everyone batting balloons around, chaos and laughter!
What I didn’t know was that some of the balloons contained PRIZES, so 5 seconds after the balloons dropped it sounded like I’d stepped into a firing range and every single freaking balloon was popped. I didn’t know balloons could disappear so fast. They were just gone! What a waste!
We went to Club 6, the sad, sad dance club, to try to stretch our night out a little longer. I ran into my new friend from the snorkeling trip (she is from Berkeley) but she was going to do laundry. Club 6 was pathetic as usual. We hate the DJ. Firstly because he keeps yelling out things in a DJ voice HEY EVERYONE – HALF-PRICED DRINKS NOW UNTIL MIDNIGHT!! And secondly because he wears his headphones not on his ears but right above his ears with the connector thing going straight across his forehead like he is getting a brain scan. And thirdly because he plays horrible music so that no one dances. I know it is a tough crowd spanning generations but top 20 songs from the 70’s to present is just too confusing.
We went to bed mad at the music.
April 15th, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Something about the changing speed of the ship woke me in time to watch us pull into port in Charlotte Amalie. I could tell right away something was different due to the number of huge yachts, well-built houses, and lack of taxis outside the gates. Were we back in the first world?
As I was soon to learn from the van driver that took us downtown, U.S. Virgin Island residents get most of the benefits of U.S. citizenship except voting. He also told us the island produces nothing, absolutely everything is imported (milk is $8 per gallon), has no natural resources and that no other countries wanted them.
I can only assume the U.S. jumped in due to some huffy, late-to-the game competitiveness. I need to read more about this because this country doesn’t seem like a piece you’d try to capture in a board game.
Question: why are there no wind farms on these islands? It is windy all the time. I would think that free power would help St. Thomas be a bit more self sufficient.
We’ve had a bit of trouble figuring out what to do each day, mainly because the three of us have not-completely overlapping taste and everyone is trying to be flexible, leaving us at an impasse. R. would like to take photos, then sit in a very shady area of a nice resort and play on the computer. R.’s mom would like to shop, take tours, and also spend some time on the beach. I want to snorkel, swim, sail, and walk around and take photos. We all like a good meal!
With nothing on the calendar for today, I suggested we go downtown and shop/take photos/eat lunch, and after lunch I’d sneak off for a snorkel trip. This worked for everyone but poor R., though it would give him the chance to take photos. I felt bad about ditching him but he was nice about it.
The taxi ride was a ridiculous rip off. It turned out to be only one mile to downtown. He had 8 people in the van and charged $4 each.
We walked around a bit and weren’t hassled much. Lucky because I’m about to go from “no thank you” to yelling at people. I don’t want to look your diamond bracelets and I don’t want an island tour. Leave me alone!
St. Thomas is more racially diverse than any island we’ve been on so far, and more in line with what I’m used to in San Francisco. And by that I don’t mean 47% white or whatever SF is now. I mean many different races. Our cab driver was middle eastern, the woman in the jewelry store Caucasian, and our waitress in the Mexican restaurant was black. That is a typical day for me at home (except I never go into jewelry stores).
Downtown was upscale shops, U.S. prices, nothing unusual (esp. given it is all imports).
I walked back to the ship along the water and examined the yachts. These huge ones are ridiculous. Only appropriate for super-villains planning world domination from the high seas…oh wait…
Anyhow, the snorkel cruise. On a catamaran, not a yacht. And one with an actual sail this time. We powered out to Buck Island, a scrubby bird sanctuary–not quite the tropical island I’d pictured. The small bay was well-sheltered and there weren’t too many boats moored.
This was a beginner snorkel adventure and most people went on the “tour” with one of our tan, surfer-esque crew members. How does that work? I jumped into the water and snuck away. The water was crystal clear. Like glass. So amazing. There wasn’t too much coral/plant life but there were plenty of fish and I really felt like I was flying. Disconcertingly so in the deep water. Part of my animal brain got nervous. Oh yeah, cool, I got to see a ship wreck. A first for me. A WWII ship.
I’d noticed a dozen or so buoy things bobbing on the surface and assumed they were markers for divers. Not quite. I turned around at one point and was completely weirded out to see a group of people riding towards me on strange scooter/snuba devices, their heads in bubbles. The scooters were suspended about 20 feet underwater by ropes attached to the buoys. I can’t quite convey why, but this was totally unexpected and menacing and scary. They looked half human/half machine and they were in formation and coming for me.
I got away from there as quick as I could. Part of my fear was rational. I’m sure they had no freaking idea how to control those things and I didn’t want to be in the middle of a panicking herd.
We got to sail back, no motor, and they crew served us rum punch–rather aggressively. Which was totally fine with me but I thought if someone can’t get up and get to the bar then maybe they shouldn’t be drinking.
Today I remembered why I’m not a fan of large group activities. People in a group seem to lose half their IQ almost immediately. When the guy came to get us for the snorkel tour, people flocked to him and many ended up in the middle of the street. None of those same people would go stand there if they were alone. Zero survival instinct when following orders. He had to actually tell them to stand against the fence. Bizarre.
Unexpected pleasure. Right after sunset we began sailing past Puerto Rico. Unexpected mostly because I don’t know the geography of this region very well, and I pictured Puerto Rico being somewhere way far away, but I guess it is and we were way far away too.
We ate dinner in the Horizon buffet. The food is pretty good and buffets are fun. I hoped to see a magician at 10pm but I was beat. Something about sun and sailing and snorkeling and rum punch…I was done.
April 14, 2015
I’ve been keeping my eyes open for exotic birds and haven’t seen any, but today we were greeted by hundreds of screaming seagulls.
We decided to walk around town and then take a cab to a beach hotel that sold day passes. No more trying to crash fancy resorts.
We didn’t last long in town. We made it though the taxi gauntlet fairly unscathed, but the town itself was hot and dingy with three-foot high curbs that threw R.’s mom for a loop. Plus it was all local shops, not the fancy boutiques she likes. After a few blocks we gave up and got in the next cab that offered a ride.
The Halcyon Beach Hotel was what I’d call a C+ grade all-inclusive hotel. It was clean and the staff was nice and they checked all the boxes, just barely. It is the dry season, I get that, so they didn’t waste water irrigating the lawn, but that made the hotel look sad and shut down, since there were lawns everywhere. All the rooms had patios or balconies, and though it seems statistically impossible, none of the outdoor furniture matched. It was like a hurricane hit a Walmart one island over and all this stuff ended up on their shore and they kept it.
The plastic lounge chairs on the beach had a fatal flaw. When you sat in them the plastic netting pulled the back up so it hit you and you’d have to wrestle it down. Lunch was decent but very basic. I’ve never stayed at an all-inclusive so it was exactly how I expected the food might be. Nothing you’d ever want the recipe for.
The beach was beautiful though! Really pretty. Powdery white sand, 50 shades of blue. Crappy snorkeling but I didn’t mind. The whole setting was so wow. One of my favorite things was a cliff that showed the geology of this part of the island, which is apparently made of shells and petrified sea creatures!
I think we were all ready to go mid-afternoon but we had the usual arrangement with the cab driver; he’d come back to get us and we’d pay him then for the roundtrip. We’d asked him for a card but he didn’t have one so we were stuck there until the appointed time.
A great boat came to pick up the pilot when we left the harbor. Lovely rust bucket! I keep getting flashes of “Heart of Darkness” on this trip. I joked that this trip is a mash up of that and “A Room with a View.” Me and the aunties and the dark impenetrable jungle. Man, released from all restraints, gives in to the excesses of the 24-hour buffet.
Barbados, April 13th
Argh…the plan today seemed simple enough, get a taxi and go to a beach. Since I’d just run the taxi gauntlet on St. Kitts I figured getting a taxi would be easy. Ha!
We emerged from the ship in a very industrial port. The busiest we’d yet seen, with warehouses and lots of activity, making me think Barbados is a more prosperous island than any we’d yet visited. We exited through the gift shop, forced on a U-shaped path past all the junk and duty free stores.
Right outside, the official taxi stand. A woman in uniform asked where we wanted to go and led us to a taxi driver, the first woman I’d seen in this role. She took us to her cab, a van, and told us to get in. We said how much? She kept insisting we get in, we kept asking how much. Finally she said some outrageous price, $60 or so, to go the 12 kilometers to the beach. We said that is too much. She slammed the door shut and dramatically locked it. Then some other taxi drivers tried to recruit us and she and the other drivers got in a huge shouting match. Then she said $30 to go to the beach and we said fine, and got in. She told us she needed two more passengers then we’d go. That is how they do it there. All the big cabs are more like shuttles. We looked around and saw this was true. All the vans around us were half full and the drivers out hustling more passengers.
This seemed like bullshit to me. There were more than a hundred cabs lined up out there, more than enough to each take just one party & it didn’t seem fair to the cabs at the end of the line that the front people took everyone. Anyhow, we waited. Our driver wasn’t doing much hustling. She stood by the cab stand. After 10 minutes we were super annoyed. R. got out to see what the driver would do…like maybe come back and drive us! But she didn’t. An older gentleman with a mostly full van said he’d take us and he said he would leave right away. We got in and though he did quickly get a few more passengers, we did get going pretty quickly.
He was an amiable guy. I think all cab drivers double as tour guides. The downtown (name) was bustling, many people, big department stores, and though it looked like it would have been fun to walk around there, we’d probably have been hassled. I’m getting cynical.
I’d picked a resort on a good beach somewhat at random, expecting we’d have lunch in the hotel restaurant and then use the beach after. Unfortunately I picked a super exclusive hotel (near Rhianna’s fancy condo) and we were turned away at the front gate. No riffraff!
The cab driver took us a mile further down the road to a small beachfront restaurant with lounge chair rentals. It was a pretty beach. Not the greatest snorkeling but a great environment overall. Sitting on white sand under a tree drinking rum punch watching the ocean change color as the clouds rolled by…not much to complain about.
The restaurant called the same cab to come get us later. Tony the tiger? I forget his nickname. It seems like there is a strict code of conduct here because everyone knows everyone and if a cab drives you somewhere, you are their property from then on!
He took a high road back and we got to see more of the island. Pretty. My favorite so far. He said our boat was one of the last of the season. The big cruise lines take their boats to Europe for the summer (hurricane season here). He said times are hard when the ships don’t come. I felt better about being a tourist right then and paying a ridiculous price for a short trip.
I’m wondering how these countries can diversify their economies (as I’m sure they wonder all the time!). Since so much work is virtual now, any kind of IT or customer service could be based here. ???
I was tired after all that sitting on the beach and went to bed early, no shipboard activities.
April 12, 2015
Apparently, I was right about cruise ship passengers, we are nothing more than fleshy cash dispensing machines.
I pulled open the curtains today to a great surprise–exuberant tropical flora a stone’s throw from the window (if you were very strong). Birds were singing, flowers falling from trees; I was very optimistic. I’d signed up for a 1 p.m. catamaran trip so I had the morning free for exploring the town.
I was harassed nearly every step of the way. Mostly by humans but a bit by the weather as well.
First I ran the gauntlet trying to get out of port. Shopkeepers invited me to come in and get a free pearl, etc., but they weren’t that annoying. Once out of there, I had to get past the taxi stand–20+ very aggressive men flapping plastic maps in my face, telling me they would drive me around for an hour or two for a good price.
Once through the parking lot I thought I was safe but no. All the cars parked along the bayside drive that led into town were also cabs. Then, with no warning, it began to pour. I’m not saying I’m not an idiot for not bringing an umbrella. I am. I stood under a tree with umbrella-like leaves and was somewhat protected and actually having a pretty good time. What’s not to like about 84 degree rain in 84 degree weather?
All was good until a cab driver ran over to stand with me and explain why taking a walk was the worst idea in the world. I was getting wet, my shoes were getting ruined, blah blah blah.
When it stopped raining and I made it past the line of cabs, cabs that were driving would honk if they were driving the other way, or pull over if they were going my way and wait for me to pass by. OH MY GOD.
I finally made it to a commercial district. Everything was closed because it was Sunday and thankfully, the place was deserted. I heard singing found my way to a large, old church, service in full swing. Here is the weird part; there were guards at every door.
I’d seen a couple out-of-it homeless looking guys but way less than I’d see in San Francisco.
I continued walking and a nice grandmotherly woman who was talking to a friend in a car asked where I was heading. I said I was just walking around, and she said, don’t walk this way, it isn’t safe. I was so happy to speak to someone who wasn’t trying to take my money and so very sad she was warning me someone else would.
Completely discouraged, I went back to the port shops, or tourist zoo, and got a rum punch and free wifi from “Rum Jungle” (full of cruise ship passengers face-timing or desperately typing on their phones).
The afternoon catamaran cruise was fun. Unfortunately it was powered, no sail. We were all disappointed by this (the morning cruise had a sail) but I read the ticket and it did simply say cruise. I’m sure the tour operators have their language perfected to handle all contingencies.
As we traveled south along the coast, I saw fancy vacation homes scattered here and there on the hillsides, and the occasional resort. I realized that most vacationers probably never go to town. They go to their area and stay there. And these little areas were tropical paradises. It bummed me out how the cycle works. Crappy city, lots of under-employment, locals harass tourists as they try to make living, tourists retreat to private enclaves which could be anywhere–no local flavor. So many missed opportunities.
Anyhow, I was looking forward to seeing Marigot Bay, “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean” according to James Michener. If that was ever true, it isn’t true now. Physically, it was fine, but nothing to make me gasp. My first thought was, woah, this place is crowded. How can you swim here without getting run over by a boat? Boats, buildings, docks–nature took a back seat to all the man-made junk.
We stopped for a swim at Anse Couchon beach, which, Yay!, was on my list of best snorkeling spots. Our giant catamaran plowed in, honking its horn to get swimmers out of the way because, hello it’s US and we need to park in that spot and ruin your fun so we can have some!
I grabbed my snorkel and jumped right in because we only had 40 minutes. I saw cool stuff, in particular these bright orange tube-like things maybe an inch or two in diameter and a couple feet tall. Not sure if they are plants or animals. Plus all the usual fish suspects. However, many people rated this the 2nd or 3rd best place to snorkel on the island which is a little worrisome as it was fun but not a very large area. I figure in reality there are probably tons of great places but you’d have to jump out of your dingy at the base of a cliff and no tourists do that.
From there we went further south to see the Pitons, two majestic peaks that rise straight from the ocean. Lemme just say they are more majestic from certain angles. If you are north of them, on land, they appear as two separate, cliché volcano shapes. R saw them like this:
From the sea, they are more connected. I’m not complaining – I am just saying! Many vacation dreams have been spawned then dashed thanks to accurate but extremely cleverly shot photos. So, the Pitons were fine from where I saw them but not wow.
Overall I had a good day, but my feelings about tourism and being a tourist are complicated. I don’t want to visit places where I’m not welcome, but I’m sure attitudes vary. Locals with a good job in tourism might be happy about the situation, but there are many not so good jobs as well (the woman checking our IDs before we boarded the ship was nearly asleep) and then the unemployed who seen no benefit to us tromping around (whether or not that is true).
I think it is good to experience being one of the few white people in a 99% black city and country. I felt uncomfortable and like I stood out, and of course I did, but it was for so many reasons. I always feel nervous when I arrive in a new city. I always look lost and stupid. And we’ve experienced that same mob at the train station/airport/ferry terminal in Mexico, in Russia, but there we in town for a few days and had time to get through that and past it.
As I was walking to town this morning I greeted some fellow cruise ship passengers on their way back to the ship. They warned me that the town was not very nice and they were going to take a taxi tour if I wanted to join them.
It really bums me out that the lesson the 3,300 people on this cruise ship are learning is that if you want to have a good time on this trip, you have to stay in the bubble. Stay together, stay in the Princess bubble, and all will be well. You’ll meet one local, your driver, and he will be funny and tell you about the island and you won’t bother the locals and they won’t bother you. Maybe that works for everyone? I’m not being sarcastic, I’m actually wondering.
April 11, 2015 – St. Kitts
I was dead asleep when we arrived at St. Kitts, so my first impression was that it was blurry, bright, and not very tropical. The last two held.
Today I officially became a tourist. I’m sure I’ve been on a tour before but never one like this. I was one of the pale, dazed passengers disgorged from the ship, wandering within the chain-link-fence protected area, looking for my number, getting on the bus.
That said, the tour only lasted a couple of hours and our driver was great…skinny young guy who admitted he’d been out late dancing. I picked his brain about the island. The long drive to the old fort and batik workshop was a chance to see neighborhoods I’d have never seen otherwise.
The neighborhoods were beautifully decrepit. The kind of buildings I love to photograph but we were racing by and all I could do is get some crappy shots from the window of the bus.
The grounds of the batik factory were very nice.
I don’t know much about the Caribbean but I’d guess St. Kitts is one of the less prosperous islands. Few hotels in evidence, not too many beaches, Mexican-style concrete block buildings with rebar sticking up where a second story might go someday, scary power poles. Nice plants in gardens but no “wow” factor as you take in the broader vistas.
Ruins at the old fort
We got back to the ship at 1pm and thanks to THE INTERNET! which yay, we had on land, found a well-rated beach bar/restaurant not too far from the dock. Maybe this is a Caribbean thing that everyone knows about, but all the van taxis are named and decorated.
Though Jam Rock restaurant was only a few miles from the port, it was an adventure getting there. We turned right before we got to a hideous-looking Marriott resort and took a partially-paved road up and over a steep hill to Friar’s bay. The taxi driver said he’d come pick us up at 3:30pm and we could pay him then. Good tactic for both parties!
The place–tin roof shack on the beach, open kitchen, picnic tables–was popular with locals as well as tourists. Some well-dressed Kittian (?) businesspeople were having a serious business lunch the next table over, talking about cell phone coverage and property values.
After some delicious rum punch and mahi mahi I went snorkeling. All the stupid online guides were very disparaging of the snorkeling here. “Disappointing” “mediocre” blah blah blah. Obviously written by people who can go snorkeling anytime at fabulous places, which I can not! I can’t even go in the freaking water in San Francisco.
The water was the perfect temperature and surprisingly clear given the surf. The shallow reef right offshore harbored tons of life, mostly very small versions of the fish I usually see when snorkeling.
Unfortunately there were also many black spiny sea urchins. I’d read about them and they were out in force. 4+inch quills/spines, whatever they are. I got out past the waves and reef easily when I started thanks to sheer ignorance but after snorkeling for an hour and seeing all the urchins I was super nervous about coming back in. I made it but I should have walked the beach first and found a better place to go in. I was so excited I kind of forgot snorkeling best practices.
We watched the pilot boat untether the ship from the moorings (?) before the boat set sail.
We passed St. Kitts and Nevis at sunset and are now rocking and rolling on the high seas again. It’s been a struggle to write this in our cabin as being on the edges of the boat means worse rocking. I don’t feel sick, it is more like being on a swing in slow motion.
Anyhow, getting into the ocean and seeing the fish really buoyed my spirits. I felt like I was finally somewhere different, actually on a trip.
April 8-10, 2015
As I wander the ship I can’t help but feel I’m a guest at a Las Vegas wedding where I don’t know many people. Everyone is friendly, polite, and well dressed and most are carrying a beer or cocktail. I’ve struck up conversations with grandparent-aged couples who live in Connecticut or Toronto or just outside of Tucson. I’ve gotten tons of advice on where I should cruise next and which ships and cruise lines are best.
I’ve learned the stabilizers are great on this ship and we’ve had an incredibly smooth ride. I’m loath to admit to my more seasoned shipmates that I didn’t expect this thing to feel like it was moving quite so much. The sea has been incredibly well-behaved and these swells are one or two feet, tops. Nonetheless, the ship rocks steadily and there are odd lurches and shifts. I feel mildly dizzy most of the time, like my head is a balloon on a string. The irregularity throws me off and when I walk the ground feels half an inch too high or too low. I took a zumba and an aerobics class and standing on one foot was absolutely out of the question.
Turns out I’m not a fan of “the sea” in general but the parts of the sea where it hits the land. 360 degrees of gently undulating blue doesn’t captivate me…however the clouds do! They don’t blow by us, we blow by them.
Our room is nicer than I expected. Yes, still kind of 1990’s RV with the low ceiling and brass details, but we have balcony and enough room to move around. The shower is small but the showerhead better than most hotels.
The décor of the ship is upscale casino and I just don’t get it. I never get it. Somewhere some very smart people decided that throwing a hundred disparate patterns and textures and colors on walls and ceilings and floors creates a feeling of spacious, timeless, upscale elegance (and also hides stains.)
This is just a small sample of what I saw as I walked from my cabin to lunch…and I had to leave things out.
Some one *wanted* me to experience all this in 10 minutes. Wahhhh????? This and the ship rocking????
And the art. Wow. I don’t even know what to say. Just in case you can’t tell, this first piece is an actual painted woman in the middle, with her butt as the tiger’s nose.
And a naked lady painted white with a cheetah!
These lovely pieces are in the hallways, for everyone’s enjoyment.
While I’m not a fan of the décor, the staff are amazingly nice, well dressed, and polite…I’ve never had such a uniformly good service experience. Ya know how in the super market management forces the cashiers to say hello and ask if you found everything and they say it like someone is holding a hot poker to them? Well here, the staff has obviously been told to smile, greet everyone, joke around, be patient, and they do this with academy-award-worthy sincerity. Like they can’t imagine anything that would make them happier than bringing me an iced tea. So, kudos Princess Cruises. Wow.
Most of the staff (whose nametags list names and nationality) seem to be from less-economically developed countries. Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ukraine, India, Thailand, and are fairly young. I hope this job is a good opportunity for them and that they are treated fairly and paid well. They appear to have a good dental plan– everyone seems to have braces!
The entertainment has been good and pervasive. Movies by the pool, live music in the different bars and lounges, jugglers (!), comedians. The cruise director is everywhere getting people to participate. Line dancing! Hot legs contest! There are “informational seminars” on how to look 10 years younger or deal with back pain or techniques for choosing the best watch.
I went in the pool the other day, but it is so freaking windy (40 knots?) the water kept blowing into my face and I was worried my stuff was going to blow away. I was holding a glass of iced tea and when I turned a corner the tea actually blew out of my glass and onto my shirt.
The food is perfectly fine. Sometimes good. And it is freaking everywhere. I’m trying really hard not to eat crap but I’m only 80% successful which isn’t good enough. I just finished this post and was on my way to the room when I passed a full-on taco bar. Guacamole, salsa fresca, cheese, beef or chicken. So I had one. Because–there is literally no other way to the room than through the taco bar. I’m not kidding.
I’m enjoying this experience but in the future I don’t think I’d like to spend more than a few hours awake on a boat. Being out of sight of land is a bit boring. I brought my computer to the back of the ship to write this, and the woman sitting next to me said, happily, “I could sit here all day!”
April 7, 2015
I’ve always been skeptical of cruise ships. They disgorge the people that invade “my” tropical island, stomp all over the coral, support the tacky souvenir shops that infect the areas around the docks, and generally bumble around, appearing to the locals as little more than fleshy cash dispensing machines.
It has been my misguided conceit that I’m nothing like those people. I didn’t get to the island on a big ship! I’m an adventure traveler…which means I took a bus and a ferry! I’d never hang around downtown buying sparkly t-shirts…I’m 10 miles away eating tacos at a beachside shack that was recommended by 350 people on Yelp. What a rebel, eh?
Well, I’m about to eat my words, and apparently 80 flavors of hand-made gelato. I’m going on a Caribbean cruise.
I’m still skeptical but as you might suspect, I’m becoming a bit more sympathetic to those who choose this method of travel. When pressed, many of my friends admit to having been on a cruise with their parents, which is the very reason I’m on a plane to Ft. Lauderdale right now. I can see why people in their 70’s and 80’s might not want to haul suitcases on and off of buses and roll them down dirt roads to get to a hotel that doesn’t have an elevator or air conditioning or screens in the windows and then pack up and do that all again three days later, yet they still want to travel.
My brother likes cruises because he’s got three kids, and wrangling kids is zero fun. On a cruise he doesn’t have to worry about them–they can run wild in relative safety. Though I did just find out my nephew spent $100 in the arcade before the attendant cut him off!
Lest I sound like I’ve relegated cruising to retirees and pre-teens, how about one other group? People that like vacations to be non-stressful and fun. What a wacky concept! You mean some people don’t like standing on a deserted train platform at midnight in the rain arguing about how to get to the hotel? Or arriving famished in a small town and finding every single restaurant is closed because there is a strike or it’s Sunday or a national holiday? Much of my “adventure travelling” has stressed my body, relationships, and brain, and when I get back and people ask if I’ve had a nice vacation, all I can do is double blink. Vacation?
So, I’m off. This will be a first for me and trying new things is always fun. And I won’t have to worry about anything. Except maybe the ship losing power. Or crashing into something. Or norovirus. Heh. For the first time ever I’m hoping a trip isn’t an adventure and “us people” just have a good time.
January 14 and 15, 2015
Poor Lyon never had a chance for a fair review from me. At this point in the trip I’m jaded and it is probably time to go home. I can’t help but make comparisons though. This cathedral isn’t as nice as _______. This river isn’t as big as _______. The bridges aren’t very ornate. The streets aren’t as charming, the ruins aren’t ruined enough. Those aren’t original windows, are they? Hah! It’s ridiculous, I know, but I can’t help it. All the images of places I’ve just been are fresh in my mind.
I feel bad saying Lyon didn’t blow me away, but that was the truth of it. My day to day life is pretty routine, so when I travel I’m looking for a change of scene. I want to visit places with a strong, easily identifiable character. I want superlatives. I’m only going to be somewhere for a few days. I’m not going to get to know the place, figure out if it would be a good place to live or not, get my finger on the pulse of the city. Not going to happen. So not only am I eager to visit places that are not like San Francisco, I need the places to be different from each other as well.
So, Lyon suffered in comparison to Paris. Yes, it looked very different and had a different vibe, but nothing stood out.
I respect the fact that Lyon isn’t afraid to throw modern buildings in amongst the old. I have mixed emotions about the center of Paris being frozen in time. I think it must stifle creativity. Berlin mixes old and new and it works. In Lyon, it doesn’t work as well.
Buildings from different centuries stand shoulder to shoulder, each pretending the other doesn’t exist. That’s what got me, the dissonance. At some point each architect had a decision to make and each of them seemed to say, “Well, I know this ___ style building next door will probably be here forever. I suppose I could do a little something to make my building fit in with the rest of the block, maybe with color, maybe with a façade…eh screw it. I’m going to do whatever I want.”
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like too strict aesthetic guidelines but I also don’t think designers should work in a vacuum. Every time I turned a corner in Lyon I felt like I was in a different city, or a different decade.
Quick review of sights:
The old town. Nice. What you’d expect. Old buildings, four or five stories high. Cobblestone streets. Some wide shopping streets, some narrow alleys. Covered passages. Old churches. Some grand civic buildings.
Travel sites warned me to stay off Rue de such and such because is it “so touristy” but it certainly wasn’t touristy in my book. The street was lined with the usual French and international chain stores, not places selling diamond encrusted “Lyon” t-shirts and there was no Swaroski crystal store. Also there were no tourists. I think I saw two the whole time.
Roman ruins: Yes. But heavily restored.
The Confluence: An area that used to be decrepit docks (?) that is now being redeveloped. Very interesting buildings here. I love the Musee des Confluences. I suspect it might look dated some day the way the 1970’s concert hall does, but today, 2015, it is really fun. This could be a really nice area in 10 years. A good place to live if you are sick of old things. Right now there are still many empty lots and things being torn down. We came across a creepy barely open traveling amusement park here.
Public transport: Good! Very stylish and metros and trams arrive constantly.
Fashion: Still nothing to report. I’ve been keeping my eye out for any kind of breakthrough fashion but everyone wears jeans and leggings and little black booties. People dress nicer here than typical California casual, but in a conservative, earth-tone kind of way. Almost no one wears a t-shirt with art or a message on it.
Food: Good, but I’m ashamed to admit to my foodie friends that I didn’t seek out traditional “Lyonnaise” cuisine like blood sausage and boiled hooves and all that. I don’t eat a lot of red meat. I had sushi and Thai and Italian and many quiches and baguettes. I did love Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Super fancy food market, mostly prepared foods and small restaurants.
Museums: I went to the Museum of Printing and Graphic Design. Good info about the history of printing, but not many artifacts, and they lost focus when it came to the modern era. They had typewriters when they should have had a Xerox machine! I can’t recommend it. R. went to the Lumiere museum and said it was small and just okay.
It’s pretty ironic that all the time I was in Paris I yearned for “normal” France and when I got it in Lyon I missed the energy. Tomorrow we head back to Paris, but not really Paris, Charles De Gaulle airport for one last night in France before we fly home. Half happy, half sad.