Sunday, 29 August 2010

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

We're in Saaaaan Fraaaaancisco! Well, not quite, we're in San Jose, but it's in the bay area, and it's bigger than SF itself. We've been here a few days now so we've done loads but I'll try not to write too much.

On Tuesday I was feeling rubbish with a cold so we didn't even leave the house until the afternoon. Margaret was at work so Tom took us to visit Stanford University to have a look around. It's a beautiful place and the lady in the post-grad admissions office was very friendly. I think we alarmed one youngish researcher when we stopped him in the corridor and quizzed him about his work and what it's like researching at Stanford. He was mostly telling Nik the details about what he's researching so Nik nodded politely while having absolutely no idea what was going on. I think I will look into applying to do a PhD there, even if our experience was tainted by a parking ticket :(

On Wednesday we borrowed bikes and took them on the train up to the city. We cycled along the edge of the bay until we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, which wasn't as big as I'd thought (I had it in my head for some reason that it was 6 miles long) but was still very nice. We cycled over it, stopping every few metres to take photos and admire Alcatraz. Taking the ferry back across the bay I was feeling queasy again but I still managed to see Alcatraz quite close up. It's a bit creepy, especially as Nik hums the theme tune to 'The Rock' every time he sees it. By the time we got across the bay we were very hungry so we had the clam chowder in sourdough bread that Nik goes on about so much and it was indeed very good! I'm not as fed up of Nik as these two sentences make me seem... We wandered round the touristy pier areas for a bit, saw the sea lions and headed home again. I wasn't very keen on the view of San Francisco from the bridge - it's all on hills and looks very crowded - but it's very nice once you're inside.

We explored the coast and some interesting little villages on Thursday. Margaret had taken time off work so she and Tom took us around and showed us things. We even paddled in the Pacific (at my insistence), but not for very long because it was cold! We bought some amazing bread with artichoke baked into the centre, and later we went to a goat farm and got some goat cheese with sundried tomatoes. It was meant to be part of dinner but not much of it survived the journey home!

We didn't get much chance on Tuesday to go into the different neighbourhoods of San Francisco so on Friday we went for a drive around some of the residential bits, including some ridiculously steep streets! We had breakfast in the gay village and I was quite surprised at how explicit the window displays in the sex shops were. We had bagels for breakfast, and the cleaner in the shop was a little over-enthusiastic; if someone was in the toilet and had locked the door he would unlock it from the outside to go in. He did this to Nik first, and we stopped him once we'd realised what he was doing, but then he tried to do the same thing when Margaret was in there. The houses in the area were really beautiful, all different enough to be interesting while looking like they were meant to go together. We went to Chinatown for a bit and Nik got distracted by a very ornate piano in a shop and played it for a while, but we didn't buy it as it was $200,000. We also drove down the twistiest street in the world or something like that.

Yesterday we went to a mission town and looked at the beautiful church and its buildings, as well as the 'jail' which seemed to be more like a shed. Then we went wine tasting! Although of course I'm too young to drink here so I didn't have any wine at all. Nope. Well, maybe a little bit. My intelligent comments of 'Mmm, it tastes of... red wine...' impressed everyone there. We did try some interesting ones, including a Syrah which was very nice, and some good Champagne. We were going to buy some but we weren't very sure that it would survive the flights home.

In the evening we watched 'The Rock' to get the theme tune out of Nik's head, which didn't work. It was made much cooler by the fact we'd seen the island so recently. Today, after spending the morning at a farmers' market trying some wonderful fruits (pluot, anyone?) we watched 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', a very disturbing and moving film. This afternoon my cousin Virginia and her 4-year-old daughter Lissie arrived so Nik has been having a lovely time playing with Lissie and pretending to be a unicorn, and winning her admiration for his ability to throw an orange very high into the air.

Tomorrow morning we leave :-(, we should be back in Cambridge by Tuesday afternoon, and then, in case anyone had forgotten, it's my 20th birthday on Wednesday!

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Midwest by Train

You're waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't be sure. But it doesn't matter. Because we're going together.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception
So here is the blog post from the epic train journey. I tried to write it as we were going along, so it's in a series of (relatively) short updates. I hope you don't find it as wearying as we did....

1 hour to go - we're going on a train!! Amy is slightly excitable and keeps bouncing up and down, which I think is freaking out the Amish group nearby slightly. We will set off at 2pm (central time), and we're scheduled to take just under 52 hours, though the train is nearly always late so we'll see about that.
8 hours in - What the Amtrak brochure said about meeting people has certainly been borne out. Having settled into our seats, found the toilets and eaten lunch we went over to the observation car to watch the plains of Illinois and Iowa rolling by. We sat next to an elderly couple on the final leg of their long trip round the USA, and chatted with them for a while. I was delighted to find that they were the first real life birthers I've met on this trip, and as well as believing that Obama was born in Africa the guy warned me that America wont be free much longer because the young people don't respect the flag and the communists and socialists are going to take over. But he also told us some entertaining stories about the Canadian border control taking his gun away from him and his grandfather being arrested for brewing whisk(e)y, so that was alright. Following that we treated ourselves to dinner in the dining car, which meant we got to sit next to a young couple from the complete opposite end of the political spectrum, who seethed at us for having free healthcare and cheap university education. And then talked us through their proposal to set up a commune of former students. Slightly different then.
13 hours in - I think I'm going to enjoy this. After trying to sleep for a couple of hours I gave up and went to the observation car with a book. A guy was asking for paper because he was trying to write a country-style song, so I offered him paper and my ukulele and we added some chords to it. A man nearby helped out with the lyrics, and since he turned out to be a gospel singer we spent a while teaching each other songs. At which piont someone else went to get her friend who also plays uke. Since she's actually good at it she took over for a while, holding the fort until the guys with the guitars arrived and the gospel singer's grandson turned up with his amp. Absolutely wonderful fun! We just stopped for a while at a town called Lincoln (I think it's named after the car) so I'm going to call it a night and hopefully get some sleep before we get to Denver, though since we're running two hours late already that might not be too hard. / 19 hours in - This morning I woke up in time to see a beautiful sunrise behind the train. Although the plain still feels a little like it might go on forever it is being broken up by increasingly frequent hills and small rises as we progress through Nebraska. When Amy wakes up we'll go and investigate breakfast.
26 hours in - look at the VIEW!!!! It's absolutely amazing! The Rocky Mountains gradually appeared over the edge of the plains, without any real foothills to disguise how huge they are. The train snaked its way somewhat precariously between rockwalls and alongside sheer drops, cutting through tunnel after tunnel. After passing the highest point on the Amtrak network (also in a tunnel!) we joined the route of the Colorado river near its source and will be following it for about 200 miles. What started as a clear blue stream has already become a ruddy brown, with rafters chasing each other down rapids. The scenery is just stunning, we've been sitting by windows with our mouths hanging open for the past 5 hours! We've been assisted by a couple of locals who got on at Denver, though we're starting to get odd looks because we keep ordering identical meals....
44 hours in - we just put our watches back by an hour for the second time this trip, making it 8am Pacific Time. The sunset in Utah last night was just stunning, a group of us were wishing that the train would turn to give us a proper look at it, though with the camera I've been using I'm not convnced I could have done it justice anyway. We're still running two hours behind schedule but we've booked a table for breakfast to fortify ourselves for the last leg through Nevada! Slept much better last night too. 8-)
50 hours in - we've been travelling all day at around 5,000 feet on a huge plateau, though we've been descending steadily for a while now. There are pine forests all over the mountainsides; we spoke for a long time to a Mormon couple, and the husband leads a scout troop who go camping in the mountains. Amy might just change her mind about coming home. We are in California now though, so nearly there!

And we made it! We came in just over an hour late, so the whole journey took around 53 hours. We were met at the station by Amy's aunt Margaret and her husband Tom, who took us home for a shower, dinner and an early night. Amy's picked up some sort of bug, so she's feeling pretty grotty at the moment, but we still managed to visit Stanford University today so that she could ask about postgraduate courses. If it cools down we'll spend tomorrow cycling around San Francisco!

Nothing but BIG THINGS!!!

I want to go up the BIG tower and eat lots of BIG pizza and go to the beach!
Amy Buchanan-Hughes, on things she wanted to do in Chicago
Well, we've certainly done those, though to be honest the pizza was a bit of a let-down. It was just a bit over-processed and big rather than actually tasty. But hey, we had it.

And the big tower was very exciting! All the local tip-offs we got suggested that we should go to a cocktal bar in the John Hancock tower, which is slightly shorter than the Sears tower but means you get in free and get a table to sit at while you drink an expensive drink that's still cheaper than admission to the Sears, so we did that. We got up there at 7pm, so we had plenty of time to drink in the view of the city and Lake Michigan before the sun sank into the plains beyond. It was absolutely magical, Mum you would have loved it!

We've been staying here with a friend and her family, who have all been amazingly welcoming and hospitable. As Jaime's parents are Indian we've been struggling a little to properly defne what "spicy" means, but frankly when the food tastes that good it's not worth quibbling! We spent a day relaxing at theirs but also made it round a load of museums and parks, as well as getting a quick ride on the infamous elevated train that goes round corners at right angles. Seriously, this is one crazy country!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

"You guys are from England?! Like, wow, do they, like, teach you English over there?!"

A post from Nik:
Play the tape again, I want to hear the sound of an elevated train.
Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive

As you may have worked out, the other person in the previous post is Amy's brother, Jamie. We've just spent the weekend with him and his wife Kerri, and in spite of the fact that there isn't a whole lot to do in the Carbondale/Marion kind of area we had an absolutely fantastic time. There was plenty of steak for everyone (even Amy), the baseball game we went to was great fun (even if I wasn't allowed to join in the dancing), and Kerri turns out to be an expert in the art of mixing cocktails, which was very useful. She's also good at making steaks look like continents, which wasn't as useful but was certainly entertaining.

At any rate, it was a fantastic weekend. Both Jamie and Kerri were amazingly generous and hospitable, and it's wonderful that Amy now has a brother in practice as well as in theory. There isn't a lot else to say about what was probably the emotional high point of the trip, because it went off absolutely perfectly. Smiles all round.

And now we're in Chicago! Our train left at 7.30 this morning so we're pretty worn out, and Amy had a bit of a problem when we arrived at Union Station. She seems to be irresistably drawn towards very tall buildings, which as you can imagine is quite an issue in downtown Chicago, but I managed to drag her and her purple suitcase away for long enough to catch a train to Lombard to meet Jaime. We're very early, but after an exhausting weekend sitting in a park with a ukulele is proving the perfect way to unwind. And nap....

And from me:

The end of our week in St Louis was good fun. On Thursday we went out for a walk towards the river. As we left the hotel the heat was stifling and painful. We'd barely made it to the end of the block though when we felt the first spot of rain. We were pleased and hoped that a short shower might cool the streets down a bit, so kept walking. By the time we reached the river, and were far from shelter, the thunder and lightning started and the rain became so heavy we were soaked through. The people in cars must have thought we were completely mad, dancing around happily in the downpour! Eventually, after enjoying the feeling of not being too hot, we decided to take shelter under a bridge where we dried off a bit and ate lunch while chatting to a friendly man called George. The rain stopped before long and the sky became beautifully clear again so we carred on walking. Within half an hour we felt a spot of rain again, and hurried into a multi-storey car park not a moment too soon, from which we watched the most wonderful thunderstorm I've ever seen! For a while the lightning was right over us, the thunder was terrifyingly loud and the rain was whipping through the car park so violently that we had to hide in a corner to keep dry. We have some pictures which probably won't do justice to the storm at all, but we can put those up later.

Dinner in the revolving restaurant was awesome. The area is very flat so we could see for miles around. I had a lovely steak AND cheesecake. I've found that despite what I'd heard about the Americans being much stricter wiith their alcohol laws and being very careful to ID everyone who seems too young I keep beng offered alcohol by people who seem very surprised when I say I'm underage! I think they're fooled by the accent.

On Friday we visited the courtroom where the slaves Dred and Harriet Scott sued their owner for their freedom, which was quite moving. I wish they could see things now, see how famous their case became.

In the afternoon I got very bad vertigo but managed to sleep it off on the bus to Carbondale. We had to show ID getting onto the bus and for the third time in the past year I was accused of not being the person in my photo! I am a few years younger, with blonde pigtails and no nose piercing, but I didn't realise I looked so different.

The weekend was amazing. Waiting for Jamie to arrive at our motel on Saturday morning I felt more nervous than I have in a long time. I needn't have worried though as we had a lovely time chatting, eating, drinking bubble tea, visiting villages in the middle of nowhere via the 'scenic' route (and discovering that stubbornness and refusal to admit a mistake runs in the family...), eating more, watching baseball (they even managed to hit the ball a few times), failing to win a signed baseball bat despite entering the competition four times, visiting Walmart, seeing a house that Buckminster Fuller lived in, and finally hanging out at Jamie and Kerri's house for Sunday afternoon, drinking cocktails and playing silly games on the PS2. It's a shame we only had a weekend, though I was exhausted even after that, but Jamie's promised to come back to the UK for my graduation in a couple of years!

Our journey up to Chicago was very easy - we got on the train very early in the morning, I slept for five hours, we got off the train. It's nice and cool up here (relative to what it was further south) so we had a nice walk around the downtown area of Chicago before getting the train out to the suburbs where we're staying. We arrived about four hours early so sat in a park for a bit, until I'd been bitten by so many mosquitoes that we had to move. We were going to get a drink but then we walked past a guitar shop and ended up sitting inside for about an hour and a half chatting to two local men, which was weird but fun. When we finally got to Jaime's house (not to be confused with Jamie), we had a lovely curry for dinner and then had a nice early night. Today we're chilling out before heading into Chicago this evening to have drinks with the parents of the groom from the wedding Nik went to a couple of weeks ago.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Too Darn Hot

I fall for this season every time,
When it's hot, and everybody smiles.
I can't help myself, I'm in love
With the summertime.
The Divine Comedy, The Popsinger's Fear of the Pollen
As Amy said, on Tuesday evening we were taken out to dinner in the Loop, kind of the altenative area of St. Louis, by Steph (who I met at the wedding) and her friend Herb, which was great fun. Herb and I shared a platter of American beers and we all ate way too much [I didn't eat way too much! I was quite happy - Amy], but it was a great evening - thanks guys! Wednesday we spent exploring Forest Park, the 7th largest urban park in the USA, which itself contains multiple things to do, each with its own car park. This is to avoid having to actually walk anywhere wthin the park away from the air-conditioning of your vehicle, because actually walking would be insane.

We're kind of coming to agree with this idea.

Given that the temperature is constantly in the mid to high 30s (celsius) walking around at anything other than snail's pace becomes really uncomfortable really quickly. Amy and I made it from where we had lunch to the art gallery by flitting from shade to shade (though after a while Amy gave up and just started walking in straight lines). The art gallery was nice and cool though so we spent lots of time there, though the best thing we saw all day was the turtle in the lake which kept poking its head just above the water, taking a look around and disappearing again. I do a really good impression of it, I'll show you some time.

When we've been at the hotel we've caught fragments of Amercan TV. This is quite frustrating because commercials take up literally about a third of the programme time, so you're constantly interrupted by adverts for medicines that seem mostly to consist of side-effects, political candidates who are either working for oil companies or not working for Barack Obama (depending on who paid for the ad), or places to eat where the serving staff wear talking hats. The news programmes seem to spend more time telling you what's coming up or what they've just told you and the reporters constantly shout, which gives an overall impression that you're being kept up to date by a deaf guy with Alzheimers ("and if you need any more towels..."). So yes, an exciting cultural experience all round. Also, if anyone knows what "tailgating" means in the context of something students do before watching a game, we'd be most grateful.

Today we're having a bit of a lazy morning so that we're not too exhausted for our extremely posh dinner tonight in a revolvnig restaurant that Amy found, though we might walk/saunter/crawl down to Laclede's Landing later on, which is where the first settlement of St. Louis was started. And then tomorrow it's off to Carbondale and Jamie....

PS - Amy wants to tell you all that on Monday night we found a fudge stall EXACTLY like the one in Cambridge (but with not-very-nice fudge), and that the people staffing the stall started a sing-along in the shopping mall, which was really cool. So now she has.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

"If it won't fit, don't commit"

...or so I was warned by a poster about driving across train tracks.

It's about 6am but my body clock is still a bit out so I'm wide awake and hungry. In about two hours our complimentary beverages will be delivered to our room which is very exciting! I'm enjoying the poshness of our hotel a lot! There are a ridiculous number of pillows on the bed though, some of which are nearly as big as I am.

My journey here was mostly uneventful apart from when our late arrival into Newark left me with not very much time to make the transfer to my second flight. Of course I ended up in the slowest immigration queue with a large family in front of me who couldn't speak English and couldn't understand how to give their fingerprints. After a mad dash across the airport, rechecking my luggage and changing terminal, I made it to the gate just as my row was being called. I sat down on the plane thinking "at least I can have a nice g&t to calm me down a bit"... forgetting that I'm underage here. Then I thought maybe a cup of tea, but they weren't serving hot drinks (it was only a tiny plane with three seats per row!). In the end, the flight was so turbulent that we'd almost landed before I got anything to drink at all.

After catching the lovely metro from the airport to near the hotel, I found the right road for the hotel and started walking. I say walkng, but the air here is so hot and thick it can feel more like swimming. I was quite awestruck by the tall buildings, and I can't wait to get to Chicago with even taller ones! Unfortunately I was so busy being impressed by the buildings that I forgot to check which way I was walking and ended up heading several blocks in the wrong direction. Eventually I got to the hotel, where Nik was waiting for me in the lobby. When he came over to greet me the concierge said it was the cutest thing she'd ever seen, or something like that.

We're on the seventh floor, or sixth if you count the British way, and since we haven't found the stairs we keep having to take the lift which sets off my vertigo. It doesn't usually last too long though. The views aren't very exciting but that doesn't really matter. The city is very nice even if it is a HEAT ISLAND as they said on the news. Yesterday we walked to the arch which is a lot more impressive than it looks in pictures. We sat under a tree to eat our lunch and met a completely fearless squirrel which tried to make friends with us. Then we discovered that under the arch there's a big museum about the westward expansion of the United States. It's not something either of us know much about so we spent quite a while in there and we'll be going back today. Nik is trying to learn all the presidents in order, but while he's doing that I think I might go watch the museum's puppet show which is probably more on my level...

The food so far has been a little disappointing, probably because I was expecting it to taste a bit more similar to at home. It's all so sickly sweet! I'm a big fan of milkshakes but I had to throw half of one away because I couldn't stomach that amount of syrup. It's also not as cheap as I was expecting - if anything it's more expensive than at home - but maybe that's just because we're in the middle of a city. We're going to a posh restaurant tonight though with someone Nik met at the wedding so hopefully I can have some nice steak. Also on Thursday evening we're hoping to go out to a really posh looking restaurant which rotates as you eat! It's right by the river and the arch, and very high up, so the views should be really good.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


Marriage is to be taken seriously, but not always in grim earnest; its problems take perspective from fun, adventure and fulfilment, and joy and sorrow are mingled together. We rejoice in success, but we must also be glad that we can console each other in failure. "With my body I honour you" is to many a blessed phrase: but while some find a perfect physical relationship easily, others reach it the hard way, and it is not less precious for that. It is wonderful never to quarrel, but it means missing the dear delight of making up. Children bring joy and grief; some will have none and will miss both the grief and the joy. For some, there is a monogamy so entre that no other love ever touches it; but others "fall in love" time and time again, and must learn to make riches of ther affection without destroying their marriage or their friends. Let us thank God for what we share, which enables us to understand; and for the infinite variety in which each marriage stands alone.
We thank God, then, for the pleasures, joys and triumphs of marriage; for the cups of tea we bring each other, and the seedlings in the garden frame; for the domestic drama of meetings and partings, sickness and recovery; for the grace of occasional extravagance, flowers on birthdays and unexpected presents; for talk at evenings of the events of the day; for the ecstasy of caresses, for gay mockery at each other's follies; for plans and projects, fun and struggle; praying that we may neither neglect nor undervalue these things, nor be tempted to think of them as self-contained and self-sufficient.
from Quaker Faith and Practice

What a wedding. What an absolutely awesome wedding. Classy and sophisticated, yet unmistakably unique to the couple. As with so much of this week, music was the recurring theme of the afternoon; even before the wedding started Dave had found a piano and was jamming to calm his nerves! The wedding itself opened with a 15 minute set of english baroque pieces played by a small string orchestra, climaxing with a piece which the groom had written for the entrance of his bride. The Americans in the congregation seemed somewhat bemused by the vigour with which the groomsmen belted out Jerusalem, but of course both Dave and Sarah looked absolutely stunning. All the right people cried (some of them twice), and the procession left to more of Dave's music.

The reception was no less musical - the professional jazz pianist was soon usurped by a barber-shop arrangement of Happy Birthday for the organist (turns out I can still sing tenor), and around the throwing of the bouquet and garter a very cute pair of englishmen kept the guests entertained with Flanders and Swann. As it was the same englishmen who did the readings (including the one above) at the service, Martin and I got quite a bt of fuss, mostly because apparently we made the readings sound like Shakespeare. Of course the singing and dancing carried on into the wee hours of the morning - replete with compulsory Proclaimers moment - and then a small group of us retired to a hotel suite to gossip about how wonderful it all was.
And so I'm not in Kansas any more! I got a lift to St. Louis with Steph, one of Sarah's Aunts who lives out here and has very kindly offered to show us around a bit. They're all so friendly! The hotel is absolutely fantastic, though the concierge did get off to a bad start by asking me, "So which part of England are you from? Obviously it's somewhere in the south." Thank you, you can all stop laughing now.
And Amy should be here any minute....
UPDATE - Amy is here now. Hot, bothered and tired, but here.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

I have space in my suitcase.

I thought that statement deserved to be the title of the post, and indeed in the post itself:

I have space in my suitcase.

Not just a little bit at the edge that something tiny could be squeezed into if I tried really really hard, but a big proper gap. Needless to say I'm very confused and worried that I must have forgotten something significant. I even bought an expandable suitcase because I didn't trust myself to pack little enough stuff.

In other news, it's five hours until my taxi arrives and I'm not planning to sleep until then because I'm terrified I'll oversleep and miss the taxi and then the bus and then the plane and not get to America at all. I've set four alarms as well.

And a complaint: I tried to buy some shorts today but there are hardly any in the shops because, of course, they're all switching over to their winter collections. Sigh.

Dave's getting married!!

Well you know that it's going to be alright.
I think it's gonna be alright.
Everything will always be alright

When we go shopping.
Barenaked Ladies, Shopping

The past few days have been a lot of fun. We spent most of Wednesday buying ingredients for and peparing curry for Friday's rehearsal dinner, though guests will be relieved to hear that my role was limited to chopping stuff. Dave took charge of the curries, Martin the naan, and Casey made sure that we actually did all of those things, and then did them properly when we messed up. Apparently curry has been a particularly important theme in Dave and Sarah's relationship, and the resulting food was absolutely fantastic so that was clearly a day well spent.

Thursday provided an opportunity to go to the nationally renowned shopping centre in Kansas City, as well as the nearby art gallery. The Country Club Plaza was the first shopping centre designed to accommodate large volumes of shoppers in cars, and this enabled it to survive the Wall Street Crash and keep going today. The buildings were inspired by a trip the architect took to Seville, and there are plenty of plaques around telling you what the statues and so on are based on. The art gallery was also really cool (I spent most of the time in the photography exhibition and completely missed most of the gallery, but never mind), and a great way to chill out before the stag party! Being the wild crowd that we are we set off in the 11-seater Battlebus that Sarah's dad has borrowed for the week - singing impromptu versions of The Beatles, Jerusalem and Pachelbel's canon - to the local Lazertag, there to be absolutely pwned by a group of local teenagers. How cool are we. We then headed off to an Irish pub to join the hens for the rest of the evening, and there was much drinking and dancing and other revellings.
Friday was the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, which over here is when the speeches and toasts happen (rather than at the reception). Both sets of parents gave very touching thankses, but Best Man Tim and Maid of Honour Alison stole the show with a hilarious speech and a comedy sketch respectively, both of which had everyone howling with laughter. Watching Martin do an impression of Dave as Lady Gaga's American costumier is something that will remain with me for quite some time....

Today is of course the wedding!!! I'm about to head over to make sure that Dave's up and dressed, and then we're going to be at the curch for 2pm. We might grab some lunch first, but I'm still pretty pogged from breakfast - the myth that the food here is plentful and a little sweeter than I'm used to is turning out to be completely true. That and the coffee's very different and the beer's weaker, but that might not be a bad thing.

And now I'm going to talk about something which happened on the second flight I was on on the way here. In the seatback in front of me there was the early Spring edition of Skymall magazine, Continental Airlines' retail arm. It contains a whole load of design solutions, many of which I can imagine people I know buying, such as the compact tangle-free fire escape ladder. Unfortunately I spent most of my time looking at it laughing myself silly. Many of the things on sale range from the bizarre (a coffee table that's also a kennel? Or how about a wheelie bag for your dog?) to the pretty sinister (watches with hidden cameras or pens with microphones; "Record without ever being detected"), and just the unnecessarily specific (like the million germ eliminating travel toothbursh sanitizer).

What hit me most though was the way they were marketed. Shoes with springs in the heels claim, "Feel Like You're Defying Gravity...GUARENTEED!", while an exercise bike product brags, "Pedaling [sic] doesn't get any better than this". Another pair of shoes, which have a whole page to themselves, shout "you're an animal / RUN LIKE ONE" (which suggests to me that they also ought to sell gloves), and as well as using science to prove how vital they are many of the adverts play on fear for yourself or our family. All products are either, "Made in the USA" or simply "Imported", except for items with a special pedigree like the genuine Turkish bathrobes ("where the world's finest cotton has been grown since the Middle Ages").

My favourite find, however, I have copied out in their entirety below. If you don't know what diamond plate is (I didn't) have a look at this link first, the title's slightly misleading.

Musts for the man cave, basement, garage, or shop. Swap out wimpy plastic covers with rugged, industrial aluminum [sic] diamond plate. Standard sizes fit anywhere regular covers do but look much cooler and more manly. Mounting screws included.
I know what I want for my birthday. For the mancave.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

And the church is real old...

It is the mix of familiarity and alien strangeness that Europeans have so often found confusing, and occasionally horrifying, but the flaws lay as much in their expectations as in the reality they encountered.
Philip Jenkins, A History of the United States
Hello! As you may have noticed from Facebook I have safely arrived in Kansas City, having rediscovered my dislike of flying (though I did get to see Frost/Nixon on the first flight, which was nice). I was picked up at the airport by the happy couple Dave and Sarah, who have given me an American flag, a lovely hat with Captain America on it, and a poster covered with fake Americans like Igor Stravinsky and Barack Obama.

I'm staying with a guy called Tom, who is incredibly friendly, very helpful, and completely forgetful. Casey, a friend of Sarah's who is also staying there, had all of her stuff moved out onto the landing yesterday because he kind of forgot that she was staying there, and on a less serious note he keeps telling us all the same stuff. This does mean that we're learning things about Kansas City very thoroughly, such as that the church where the wedding is happening is from the 1890s, and that the art gallery is real famous and Tom has a membership card, and that if we need any towels there are some somewhere but I can't remember where I put them....

Playing spot the difference has been fun. A huge amount is familiar, and the common language makes everything written easy, but at the same time I struggled to make myself understood when ordering water yesterday! The main difference is how hot it is here - yesterday was the hottest day of the Summer so far (around 40 degrees centigrade), so it's impossible to stay outside for too long. Of course everything's bigger, but it's also so much more spread out. In this heat you couldn't actually walk between some buildings which are technically neighbours, because there are massive green spaces between them even just outside the centre of town. And of course everyone has huge gardens and enormous houses, and Tom has a creek out the back which we went and had a look at.

The rest of Dave's family arrived yesterday, along with our school friend Martin Noutch, so we're spending today being chilled out to give them a chance to get over the jetlag. We're hoping to go swimming this afternoon, but given it's an outdoor pool I'm not sure there's actually going to be any water left in it by now.

Monday, 2 August 2010

I found this amazing website where you can track a flight's progress live, and if you zoom in close enough you can see it inching bit by bit across the screen. This is unlikely to excite anyone other than me though...

(Edit: I've realised this sounds kind of like a creepy level of stalking! It's not, honest :-S)