So the last bits of 2014 were great. Which is a bit of an administrative hassle, if you’re the type of person who feels compelled to write a painfully exhaustive review of the year, only to go on and do fun things in that selfsame year afterwards. But still, Pequod’s with Todd and Carolyn was a joy. As was JJ’s games night, where I got to play Cards Against Humanity for the first time, although I do maintain the potentially controversial opinion that it’s not risqué enough.
We also played Catchphrase, during which I had to describe the word ‘penny’, and after saying something like “like a pound, but the smaller British currency unit” (although probably not as clearly as this) a panicked team-mate shouted “kilopound!”. Which was (a) amazing, and (b) a bit sad, because we’re nowhere near as metric as Americans think we are.
Anyway, it’s 2015! And 2015 kicked off at Saujanya’s generously-hosted party, chiefly memorable for its provocatively hot punch (have you ever had your nostrils assaulted by steaming alcohol before?) and a large quantity of champagne as midnight hit Central Time. Later, I courted good luck for the year (at least so Robert alleges) by ordering Hoppin’ John – a Southern New Year tradition – at Michele’s brunch.
Yesterday, to avoid cabin fever during the off-again-on-again holiday break, Randi and I took a day trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin. The chunks of ice on the lake were beautiful, the Wisconsin cheese curds delicious and the mile-long streetcar system – while probably unnecessary from a strictly utilitarian point of view – was very cute all the same. But I don’t want to talk about any of that; I want to talk about the Metra train which we used to get there. Kenosha is the terminus station on the Pacific North line and the cost of a ticket for the two hour ride is a mere $7 (or about £4.50 in real money).
That’s the turn-up-and-go cost of a return ticket – no fiddling about with advance booking and seat reservations. Oh, and you’re allowed to return the next day if you so prefer. The penalty for buying your ticket on the train itself instead of the station? An extra $3. And at no point did we have to endure any automated announcements about taking all our personal belongings with us, either. This is all such absurdly good value from a British perspective, it makes me feel a little ashamed. Railways are in our cultural DNA: how come we get so beaten by a country which couldn’t care less about them?
One other thing I wanted to write about was This American Life, and in particular their programme (part one; two) from 2013 on Harper High School in Chicago’s south side, which I listened to over the break on Katie’s recommendation. Because as much as I enjoy going on my train-based Midwestern escapades, it’s sobering to reflect that I’m effectively cut off from whole swathes of my own city which are just too scary and intimidating to visit. The social problems are, of course, hardly unique to America – but the easy availability of guns adds a shocking level of cheap, fatal violence. In the year prior to this podcast, 29 current or former students had been shot, and the testimony of teenagers who walk home down the middle of the street – considering this marginally safer than the sidewalk – is hard to forget. A highly recommended listen.
For the long Thanksgiving weekend, Randi and I took a roadtrip around Michigan – conveniently upping my total of states visited by one. (A double bump, technically, if you counted the brief drive through Indiana… but that would be cheating.) So here is a story of five very different Michigan towns.
1. Paw Paw
Most notable feature: Adorable name
Ideal movie setting for: Plucky small town beating the odds
Most notable feature: Town square podium
Ideal movie setting for: Local political thriller
Most notable feature: World’s largest Christmas store
Ideal movie setting for: Winter family film featuring Santa, elves and the baby Jesus
Most notable feature: Beautiful sand dunes by the lake in the State Park
Ideal movie setting for: Voyage to the Desert Planet
Population: 38,401 (allegedly)
Most notable feature: Spooky emptiness
Ideal movie setting for: Zombie apocalypse
In all seriousness, it was a really lovely weekend, fuelled by a great in-car Spotify playlist, a sure touch at stumbling across wonderful B&Bs without any prior arrangement, and friendly people all round. (Also, I lost track of the number of times we met Father Christmas.) The adverts on the side of the buses in Chicago don’t lie: Michigan is a beautiful state, at least in parts, and it was well worth a visit.
Hello, again. While I was away there seems to have been a definite shift towards the cold and the wet and the blustery. Which is good news, in case you were wondering, because it means coats, huddling indoors with mugs of tea and Cat’s welcome home plate-piling roasts
So this is where I’ve been: Canada! Specifically, starting out in Calgary and then travelling up via the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks with Michele and Nisa. Let it be said from the outset that we are both eternally grateful to Nisa for a) hauling all our stuff around in her car, b) being the expert on tents, stoves and other wilderness skills and c) stopping us getting eaten by bears.
Oh, Canada. How to describe Canada? If America was created by a benevolent deity lazing away a free weekend by playing a giant continent-sized edition of The Sims, then Canada is the result of that deity reaching for the cheat codes in frustration when its Sims remained stubbornly unhappy the first time around. The landscape is still clearly North American, pretty much, albeit with fewer billboards (and, delightfully, billboards which still make archaic boasts for food with ‘great tasting flavour’ rather than using impetuous upstart spellings like ‘flavor’). The glistening green lawns of suburbia still sprawl across giant infernal grid systems, and even relatively quiet cities like Calgary (sorry) have unapologetically giant skyscrapers. (You don’t get the impression that anyone in North America has ever worried about maintaining the equivalent of ‘nice uninterrupted views of St Paul’s’, or – indeed – written any ‘view management frameworks‘ which run to over 30,000 words.)
But, at least on this trip, Canadians did a good job of living up to their reputation as the more chilled-out and at-peace Americans. Little things. Smiling faces. Teenagers unironically saying ‘dang it!’ after missing the bus. Cars which stop for you to cross the road. “What’s the national mood like in Canada at the moment?” I asked one of our hosts. “Well, you might remember we had some pretty bad floods here recently…” he replied. (I didn’t, of course, but tried to mumble sombrely and sympathetically.) “Yeah, they really helped bring everyone together to rebuild. It was really nice.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Canada.
Of course, most of this trip was spent with Canadian trees rather than Canadian humans, and of this there are plenty of highlights: hiking up a mountain for the sake of a teashop at the top, lying in a tent looking up at the stars, being disabused of the notion that bearspray is just a joke product, morning cups of tea, evening cups of gin, and deciding that “because it’s cold” is certainly no reason to avoid swimming in a beautiful lake between the mountains. Blissful.
And one sadder note: we also visited a glacier which Michele remembered from a family trip a mere ten years ago, only to find that it’s almost gone. We were able to stand on ground which had once been ice under the Bush presidency, and by the time of Obama is now earth and stone. Soon it will all be gone. Even if you don’t know what it all means (so what’s the impact of losing this glacier?) it’s a sobering demonstration of just how quickly the grand, awe-inspiring structures of the natural world around us can change and disappear.
P.S. Oh, and I legitimately used a sonic screwdriver toy in lieu of a flashlight. Because I am cool.
So I’m back from the States Now, thankfully, I’m not going to re-create my month on this blog because (a) it would probably take another month just to write it up and (b) I’ve already written it all in my little paper journal. (Yeah, about as retro as sending postcards!) But just to set the scene: I flew first to Boston to stay with Sophie, and then to San Diego in California for a journey up the Californian coast which also included Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Santa Rosa. And it was amazing, of course.
I have oodles of photos, which will shortly be finding their way onto Facebook for those so inclined. But I thought it would be nice to start with ten for this blog. They (mostly) don’t include photos of people, essentially because I was so well looked after by so many wonderful friends and relatives that they wouldn’t all fit into just ten photos! For the record, though, a massive thank you to: Sophie, Perry, David, Ginger, Alex, Geoffrey, Jackie, Jeff, Lori, Crystal, Daryl, Ermila, Glynis, Laura, Giampaolo, Niccolo, Tessa, Matteo, Robert, Robin, Tom, Emily, Daniel, Jamie, Sharon, Jonah, Staci, Sophia and Rachel. And anyone else I’ve missed out. And Virgin, because flying with them is quantitatively better than with anyone else. (Sorry, this is all a little bit Academy Awards, but I guess I’m just high on a drug called dominicself.co.uk…)
Heya blog! I’m back! Yes – came back from the Big Apple on Friday morning and managed to avoid the effects of jet lag by staying up like normal. Before we get to the most-requested photos it’s time for some observations about New York! Firstly – it’s not America! OK, maybe it is, but it’s very Londony too. I’m talking about the public transport, the lack of fat people walking around (sorry – stereotype but hey ) and all sorts of little touches that reminded me of home.
There are differences, of course. In London you sometimes wander into the road, decide you won’t make it and go back to the pavement. In New York, oh no you don’t! By the time you’re in the middle of the gigantic crossings you’re a million miles from the sidewalk so you might as well plough on and avoiding getting run over by the ubiquitous yellow taxis.
American TV is also… shit. Don’t get me wrong, they make some great programmes, but it’s still unwatchable due to the constant adverts. Fox News also stuck me as not only horrible, but really unprofessional too. And they have no idea how to interview without you hearing both people talking at once.