Category Archives: Travel

The killer in plane view

I have to tell you that I got it all wrong, dear reader. After all these years wishing that I’d become a spy, I’ve finally realiszed that I was aiming at the wrong profession. Because – frankly – if there’s a better job in the world than being an air marshal, I’m yet to hear about it.

Now admittedly my jealousy may in part have been caused by the fact that I have been bumped off my return flight from Los Angeles back to New York this morning by Delta needing to find a seat for an air marshal. But given that I found out about it moments before getting on board the outbound flight reminded me that I could spend the entire journey picking out that flight’s marshal from among the passengers.

For the uninitiated, an air marshal is a federal employee whose job it is to ‘neutralisze’ any terrorist on the plane. And to be honest, it would have been more difficult to pick out Lady Gaga in her full regalia than the ‘incognito’ undercover agent, such was the average age of the 16 people occupying the business class seats. I can only assume that LA was hosting a Golden Girls convention this weekend.

Infact, if it hadn’t been for a swarthy guy sitting across the aisle from me looking like he’d just stepped off the set of CSI Miami, I’d have been forced into the inevitable conclusion that I was the air marshal after all.

Still, sitting in such close proximity at least gave me the chance to observe what the marshal has to do during the course of the flight. And to be fair, from this exclusive log book that the marshal inadvertently left on his seat as he stepped off the plane, you’ll see that the job can’t be easy…

0930 Laugh at the plebs as I wander up to the front of the boarding line. Smirk as a fat man with some kind of McSausage McBiscuit starts audibly complaining about me pushing in. Idly ponder what his chubby little face will look like when I pop a cap in his ass if he steps out of line on the flight.
0942 Wonder if I can get away with a glass of champagne, but decide against it at the last minute. Order vodka and tonic instead.
1001 Attempt to blend in with the rest of the passengers by getting out some reading material. Always good to catch up with the latest news in Paid Assassin’s Monthly.
1029 Why does the guy across the aisle keep looking at me and taking notes?
1059 Order the granola for breakfast. I’d love the French toast, but find that a heavy stomach affects me something rotten when I’m trying to shoot terrorists.
1115 Look around the cabin at the other business passengers. Decide to keep a close eye on the grey haired woman in 2D. Wouldn’t be surprised if that cane she’s holding turned out to be an Uzi.
1201 Start watching Love Happens. Hope the guys back at the base never find out that I’ve seen every film that Jennifer Aniston has ever made. Twice.
1243 This holster is starting to chafe on my shoulder. Think about putting the gun in the overhead locker. No hijacker can get up at the moment anyway, as the captain’s illuminated the seatbelt sign.
1307 Flick through the SkyMall catalogue. Make note to buy video recording sunglasses on my next trip.
1341 Momentarily fall asleep, and almost shoot man in 3B when I’m woken with a jolt by the flight attendant dropping her tray of glasses
1401 Woman in the adjacent seat has decided to tell me all about her trip to visit her son in La Jolla. Attempt to feign interest, while hoping that she notices the six inch knife scar down the side of my face and decides to back off.
1424 Pilot says we’re coming into land. Thirty seven air marshal trips I’ve made now, and not a single opportunity to take down an Arab. On the plus side, my collection of in-flight headsets is looking superb these days,

Brit On The Water

new-york-skyline1

Despite the protestations of The Special One, I’ve never quite been able to understand the point of a holidayvacation on board a cruise ship. The idea of being surrounded with 2000 people whose idea of a good time is spending their evening watching some underworked and slightly camp ‘entertainers’ perform The Birdie Song is enough to send me racing into the arms of a passing Somali pirate. I have a recurring nightmare about pulling out of port and realising that I have no escape from Nigel and Doris (and their hilarious stories of the time that Nigel accidentally washed his hair with mayonnaise).

No, the cruise is simply not for me.

Of course, like all the best over-the-top generalisations, my loathing of cruise liners has absolutely no basis in knowledge. I’ve never stepped on a boat of that size – indeed, I don’t think that I’d even seen one particularly close up until this weekend when we saw the Queen Mary 2 blocking out the sun in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sadly, all that has now changed. I am now a cruise veteran.

To be fair, there seems to be a lot going in a cruise’s favour. I was admittedly working pretty much round-the-clock at a business conference, the swimming pools had been drained, and I barely went outside for three days. But nonetheless, I can see why some people would possibly get quite into the idea. The ship was enormous, with numerous restaurants, nightclubs, bars and even a casino – as well as a basketball court, a golf range and an art gallery among many other attractions. I’m sure that kids – if any had been allowed on the boat – would have been thoroughly entertained by a crack squad of children’s entertainers. And who can argue with a team of maids who turn your towels into elaborate sculptures of frogs, rabbits or dogs?

All in all then, pretty bearable. Apart from the music, that is.

Never before has such a collection of terrible tunesmithery been gathered together in one place. From the piano player on night one, to the ill-advised Chinese trio on day two, to the over-the-hill male and female combo on the final night, the entertainment was enough to have half of the conference delegates running for the lifeboats, and the rest desperately hoping that the boat was actually called the Titanic.

The first song I heard being played as I walked out on to the deck was – no word of a lie – Lady In Red. And it was downhill from there. Seasons In The Sun, Hello, Chiquitita, Everything I Do (I Do It For You), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You – rarely can there have been a less enticing set of songs played for a group’s ‘listening’ ‘pleasure’.

The entertainers did have the good grace to look embarrassed, occasionally casting their eyes around the stunned onlookers to make sure that they didn’t know anybody.

At least I think they did. I’d jumped into the Atlantic by the time they played Wind Beneath My Wings.

The British invasion

Some things are just inescapably British – ideas or products that you would just never think to see anywhere else in the world. Try to describe an Eccles cake to an American, for instance, and you’d probably see a wrinkling of features and a look of disgust reserved for farmyard smells and cat vomit. Dandelion and burdock is clearly one of the tastiest fizzy popssodas around, but that doesn’t mean it would make sense to a German. And while the likely identity of the the Christmas number one is debated in pubs and TV shows across the land, nobody else in the world cares what tops their chart on December 25th.

If there’s one country that’s peculiarly averse to all things British, it’s France. Government rations the amount of English language music that can be played on French radio, while there’s a constant war waged against the creeping Anglicisation of the language. Put simply, the French are a proud nation and would be perfectly happy to have nothing to do with the British if they could possibly avoid it.

Which makes the presence of this packet in a local supermarchegrocery store all the more surprising:

Fisherman's Friend

I can’t remember the last time I saw these things in the UK, let alone in a French supermarket. Menthol pastilles with more kick than an angry donkey, Fisherman’s Friend are British enough that you practically expect a rousing chorus of Land of Hope & Glory every time you open a packet. And now they’re in France. Next they’ll be eating Branston Pickle with their croque monsieurs, and salad cream with their fromage et jambon baguettes.

I was so shocked, I had to buy three packets. The Special One and The Young Ones won’t know what’s hit ’em, I can tell you.

Excuses excuses excuses

It may not have escaped your notice that America is a pretty large country. You could probably fit the UK inside New York state (if you borrowed a bit of New Jersey, perhaps?), and I’ve seen bigger aubergineseggplants than Wales. And like any large territory whose population has migrated for work and family over the years, America has developed an extensive, environmentally friendly and efficient public transport system.

OK, that last bit’s a lie. The occasional subway system and local bus network aside, most Americans’ idea of public transport is giving a neighbour an occasional liftride in their car to Walmart. The train network is woefully underdeveloped, serving only a relatively few cities. British readers will sympathise when I say that the trains here are enough to make you pine for Network South East or the West Coast Main Line.

All of that leaves the wishful traveller with predominantly two options when he or she wants to travel long distances: take the car (and experience the dubious sheet-stained delights of the American motel system), or take a plane. Not surprisingly, when faced with such a choice, most Americans put their latent environmental concerns (stop laughing at the back, please) behind them, and fly.

Domestic flights are like buses in many ways. Largely because there’ll be no planes for three hours, and suddenly four flights to Charlotte will come along at once. Delays are pretty inevitable, and the sky above La Guardia (New York’s ‘domestic’ airport) generally look like the M25Long Island Expressway on a bad day. Except with more wings.

With so many flights and connections, the logistics involved in the checked luggage system must be pretty involved. And given the (often speedy) turnaround between connecting flights, it’s amazing that suitcases and rucksacks don’t go missing more often.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less annoying when your bag is one of exceptions. Especially if your flight has already been delayed by two hours, and you’re standing in a deserted airport with two exhausted children. Still, United Airlines promised to get it to me by 1pm the next day, so it couldn’t exactly be described as a great hardship.

At 4pm, three hours after the deadline, I took my life into my own hands and called the United helpline. After a few abortive attempts at getting through the voice recognition system (see the comments on my last post for more insight), I finally got through to the dreaded call centreer.

The man I spoke to could not have been more friendly, and at absolute pains to insist that he was sorry for my inconvenience and woud be doing everything to resolve the situation. Given that he was in India, he’d even been given phrases to ensure that he connected with me on a more colloquial level. Admittedly I didn’t necessarily need to visualisze him ‘bending over backwards’ to help me, but it was a nice try.

Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another. I was put on hold while he called the delivery company who would be bringing my bag back, and after a short while he returned to say that he had been unable to reach them, and that – as a result – I would just have to sit and wait for a little while longer, and hope that my bag turned up.

After a little pressing on my part, and ‘polite’ enquiries into why I couldn’t get more information, I was finally given what I believe to be the greatest excuse ever given by a call center operative. Ever.

“I’m sorry sir. I really wanted to help you with this, but the delivery company is really busy and so I was placed on hold. But the hold music was so irritating that I couldn’t wait any more.”

And with that he was gone.

Interestingly, my bag turned up an hour or so later with this tag on it. I believe the phrase is “you couldn’t make it up”.

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What does a man have to do to get a beer around here?

Ordering alcohol is never easy for me when I’m in the southern United States. I’m asked for ID on a regular basis, despite the fact that I turned 21 many moons ago, and showing any barman or waiter my British passport generally produces a look of bafflement and wonder. I guess it might be Tennessee’s way of attempting to stop me from drinking in the first place, given that the state still has a number of dry counties. Or no-go zones, as I prefer to call them.

But sometimes all it takes to get a drink is abject humiliation.

On a flight from Washington DC to Knoxville on Wednesday evening, the flight attendant and her trolley made their way down the aisle of the tiny plane offering free fizzy popsoda, or alcoholic drinks for $6. No tiny bags of free snacks, sadly – one man who asked for some pretzels received a slightly embarrassed reply of “Sorry, United got rid of them a while ago.”

A couple of people had opted for a late night beer by the time the trolley got to me, and after five hours of hanging around airports, I decided to get the Thanksgiving party started in a similar way (safe in the knowledge that my passport was in my back pocket, in case any age-related concerns were brought up). Putting aside my annoyance at paying six dollars for something available for less than a dollar in a supermarket, I waited for my turn.

Attendant: “Can I get you a drink from the trolley?”

Brit Out Of Water: “That would be great. Can I have a beer, please?”

Attendant: “Pardon?”

Brit Out Of Water: “A beer please.”

Attendant: “Sorry?”

Brit Out Of Water (face reddening as people start to listen in): “A beer.”

Attendant: “What is it you would like sir?”

Brit Out Of Water (desperation setting in as fellow passengers start to laugh): “A beer. You know, a beer. A beer.”

Attendant: “Erm, I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we have…”

[Brit Out Of Water bends down, opens the bottom drawer of the trolley and gesticulates wildly at the cans within]

Attendant: “Oh, a beer! Why didn’t you say…”

Now, I admit that the British tend to pronounce the word that denotes “an alcoholic drink containing water, grain, hops and yeast” as ‘bee-err’ and Americans pronounce it more like ‘byurrrrgh’. But nonetheless, most flyers know that their drinks options are limited to a very few options, and so it wasn’t as if I was going to be asking for a glass of Château Pétrus (1929 preferably, although I hear that the 1961 is drinking very well at the moment). But that British accent just keeps getting in the way of day-to-day life, it would seem.

On the way back yesterday, a different attendant approached with the trolley on our delayed flight back to New York.

Attendant: “Would you like a drink sir?”

Brit Out Of Water: “I’ll have a Heineken, please.”

So sue me

No word sums up America quite as well as ‘litigious’. So conscious am I of the propensity of my fellow citizens to engage the services of a lawyer that I can barely bring myself to go to the toilet at work, for fear that the sound of me relieving myself will cause untold emotional trauma to some unwitting bystander who subsequently sues for $25m.

Of course, most Americans go through their lives without even knowing the name of a good attorney, let alone leafing through the pages of Money Grabbing Bastard Monthly in order to find one to employ. But there’s definitely a group of people who are prepared to sue at the drop of a hat. Especially if the hat is dropped on their big toe, bringing a tragically early end to their once promising tap-dancing career.

Now a New York resident Gokhan Mutlu is suing JetBlue Airways for $2m after being forced to sit in a toilet for three hours on a flight to California. Apparently he was turfed out of his seat by a flight attendant who originally agreed to sit in the jumpseat so that Mutlu could board, but then actually found it too uncomfortable for the flight.

Being honest, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for any of the parties involved.

Certainly there’s no sympathy for the pilot, who allegedly told the passenger that “he was the pilot, that this was his plane, under his command that (Mutlu) should be grateful for being on board.” I mean, I will barely say a rude word to the world’s worst waiter in New York in case they decide to sue for discrimination against serving staff, so it’s difficult to understand why the pilot thought that he could get away with attacking a passenger.

Nor for the flight attendant, whose poor little bottom got a bit more uncomfortable than she thought it would to get in the jump seat, and so had to persuade the pilot to make the nasty passenger sit in the toilet so that she could give her derriere the cushioned home it so richly deserved.

And don’t even get me started on the passenger. Sure, it’s possibly dangerous to sit with no safety belts in the bathroom. And it’s probably pretty humiliating too. But how humiliating does something have to be before you deserve $2m for your troubles? Frankly if I was paraded naked infront of a crowd of people that included my mother, all my ex-girlfriends and the entirety of The Special One’s extended family, maybe I’d think that I’d deserve a million or so.

But sitting on a toilet and missing the chance to pay two dollars to get the chance to watch yet another movie featuring Jennifer Aniston, doth not a couple of million dollars make.

Frankly, if it meant avoiding the sorry excuse for food that most American airlines serve, he should have shaken the pilot by the hand and thanked him for the best flight he’d ever had.

Washed up

I’ve always had a fascination with staying in hotel rooms, from the swankiest luxury pad to the seediest travel motel. I’ve stayed in more than my fair share over the last few years, and I’ve inexplicably never really managed to get over a childish fascination with everything from the little packets of coffee to the embroidered dressing gown that can apparently be purchased as long as you’re prepared to hand over an arm, and indeed, a leg.

I’ve had some pretty memorable hotel experiences too. A hotel in Memphis offered rooms that were larger than most of the places I’ve ever lived in my life (as well as ducks that made regular processions from the lobby to the roof, under the supervision of a duck master). A place in Majorca practically came with its own butler, while the memory of an in-room heated pool/jacuzzi in Santorini will stay with me for many years to come. If only because I was forced to get up at three in the morning to ask the hotel staff to get it to stop gurgling, while my new bride slept soundly through the whole experience.

When it comes to service though, top notch American hotels know exactly what they’re doing – and they probably do it better than anyone else, in my experience at least. Staff couldn’t be more attentive to any requests that you might have, and the facilities seem purpose designed to make sure that you have as good a time as it’s possible to have. Admittedly you pay through the nose for the experience. The hotel I’m in at the moment charges a compulsory $9 per day facility fee to charge for the gym and the delivery of a 35 cent newspaper. A facility fee? I assumed that the extortionate room rate was my fee payment for the use of the facilities, but clearly not.

What’s interesting though is that when it comes to ensuring that customers feel that they are being provided with a luxury experience, Americans always turn to the British. Show me a four or five star hotel in the US, and I will show you a place that uses British toiletry products in its bathrooms. It’s as if the British are the only people who know how to keep clean (which, if you’ve ever been to Flint in North Wales, you’ll know is far from the truth). My current hotel home has Gilchrist & Soames shampoos and body washes on offer, while recent stays have featured Molton Brown, Cowshed and Jo Malone. And that’s before you even consider the boutique offerings put together with rose petals and water by an odd bloke in his bathroom in Nottingham.

Seems that American hotels have decided that if you want to get that extra star, there’s no choice but to go English in the bathroom. Dial, Herbal Essences or American Crew just won’t cut it if you’re looking to get into the Luxury Hotels of the World book, it would seem.

Ironically, the ultimate olde Englishe bathroom brand Crabtree & Evelyn was actually launched in Cambridge in Boston. Even Molton Brown is owned by the Japanese. Seems that luxury might be going abroad if we’re not careful.

That said, it’s difficult to be too upset when you’re sitting in 85 degree heat with a cold drink on your mind.

Now, where did I put the key to the minibar?

Reality bites

I’ve been an avid follower of CSI: Miami for about three years now. However bad an actor David Caruso is, I practically live for the moments when Horatio Caine takes off his glasses and tells Frank that it’s murder.

I’ve now been in Miami for three days, and not once have I been shot at. There’s been no attempted murder, and I’ve not even been in the vicinity of a drive-by. I admittedly saw a Miami-Dade police car, but I think that had more to do with a John McCain fundraiser in my hotel, than any Emily Procter-led investigation.

Miami is known for two things – crime scene investigations, and dolphins. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here. I’m thinking of suing under the trade descriptions act.

Aroma therapy

Even though New York subway carriagescars are probably twice the size of their London equivalents, don’t be confused into thinking that there’s plenty more room for commuters to be carried home in comfort. Most trains are packed to the gills, and the rails are placed too far apart to avoid being thrown headlong down the length of the car whenever the train comes to a sudden halt.

A relatively empty carriage is rarer than a quiet night in with Britney Spears, and its arrival in a station can lead to a stampede worse than the opening of any department store sale. Just the dream of a seat to call your own for the rest of the journey home is enough to turn grown men into jibbering fools.

Sadly, there’s always a catch when it comes to the empty carriage. And today, that catch came in the form of urine.

Pretty much every thirteenth train you get on in New York smells of urine. Usually it’s just a passing homeless guy who has wandered into your nasal radius, allowing you to step out of harms way with relatively little effort. No such luck today though. I walked the entire length of the carriage in a bid to get away from a smell that I can only describe as two parts multi-storey car parkparking garage stairwell and one part abandoned alleyway behind a popular bar. The unique pungent aroma still lingers in my nostrils even now I’m sitting at home enjoying a glass of wine.

Even in ‘the carriage of pee’ though, there’s always a statutory minimum of six people who manage to sit through the olfactory terrorism as if nothing was wrong. Such is the strength of the odour that there’s only three possible explanations for their ability to withstand it. Maybe they’ve just got no sense of smell, like my old chemistry teacher Mr Mellor who lost his ability to detect aromas after accidentally sniffing too much ammonia during an experiment? Or perhaps they’re the cause of the urine smell in the first place, although it seems a little far-fetched to believe that six people could have conspired to produce the smell.

My favourite explanation is that all six people have got thirteen-year-old children in their lives. After all, if you can walk into a young teen’s bedroom and not drop dead instantly, anything else seems like a walk in a particularly nice smelling park.

London, England

Travelling to the airport on Monday, my taxi driver asked me whether I was from London. Distracted momentarily from a state of perpetual nausea caused by the constant stop-start motion of driving down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, I replied that although I was actually on my way to London, I actually originated from the North-West of England. The driver’s response? “Oh, so you’re from England, not London?”

I long ago accepted that the ‘Great’ has pretty much vanished from Britain, and that in many ways my home country is little more than a footnote in world history. Sure, we punch above our weight in certain things such as music, football and Branston Pickle production, but we’re not the force that we once were. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt that so many Americans have such a fundamental lack of geographical understanding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as I believe it should be known.

When it comes down to it, many of the residents of my adopted country believe that the UK consists of two places – London and England. Wales is in England, “Ed-in-burrow” is in England, and the Cotswolds are probably somewhere between Big Ben and “that wheel thing”. Trying to explain where Chester is can be difficult enough when you’re talking to a Brit. But when you can’t even use Manchester and Liverpool (the UK’s third and seventh largest urban conurbations respectively) as reference points, you may as well as just give up and tell some Americans that you come from London.

I know that America is an immensely huge place, and that as a result it has cities far larger than anything that the UK can offer – other than London. Given that you can travel from one end of the UK to the other in about the same time it would take you to get from the bottom of New York State to the top, I guess it’s maybe like asking somebody from Colorado whether they’ve heard of Poughkeepsie. But even so, you’d struggle to find anybody in Britain who hadn’t heard of Seattle and Washington (the twenty-third and twenty-seventh largest cities in the US respectively).

Still, nothing’s as bad as Macy Gray proudly strutting on stage at the Glastonbury Festival a few years ago and shouting “Hello London” to a bemused crowd. After all, what’s 150 miles between friends?