Thursday, October 28, 2010

This is Pants

We interrupt the scintillating tale of our vacation in the Royal Forest of Dean to bring you this special update on the state of my underwear.

You’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you?

Some time ago I posted about the lack of quality underwear in this country, and proved that the quality of men’s undergarments in the UK are no match for what can be bought in the US of A.

In that post, I did note that I had, at long last, found some acceptable underwear from Marks and Spencer that were comfortable and durable but, alas, only sporadically available. My loyal readers suggested I shop for them on line. I did. Thank you.

But in the months since discovering underwear that doesn’t disintegrate after a few washings, I have uncovered another, awful secret: it shrinks. (Okay, you in the back making cracks about how it’s me that’s getting bigger, not the underwear getting smaller, please knock it off; we’re all about to die laughing.)

I found this out while getting dressed this morning and attempting to pull on one of the aforementioned pair of Y-fronts. It looked as if I were trying to squirm into a white cotton Speedo. All of the pairs from that batch were, essentially, useless (unless you count sending my wife into a spasm of giggles as useful). I then found another M&S pair from a different batch that were still wearable. Then I looked at the labels:

The shrunken Y-Fronts were made in China; the “still okay but I’m keeping an eye on them” pair were made in Sri Lanka.

After discovering this, I said to my wife (who was still whipping tears from her eyes and gasping for breath), “I wonder where the American underwear was made.”

So I went through my underwear pile looking for a US pair. I admit that the bundle of Y-fronts and tube socks I brought over with me are getting a little thin on the ground—as well as in other locations—these days, but recall that they were purchased almost nine years ago.

“They were probably made in Bangladesh,” my wife said.

But when I turned out the still springy elastic band and located the label, I saw printed there, in proud, red, capital letters: MADE IN THE USA.

I rest my case.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Disconnected - Part IV - Wherein I Wake up

(The continuing saga of our holiday in Gloucester)

Sun. 12 Sept

In my dream I was taking Part III of the Prince2 exam.

For those of you who didn’t live through the previous Prince2 campaign with me, Prince2 is the Project Management methodology (we PMs enjoy using terms like “methodology” – another one we like is “rebranding”) currently favored by the Office of Government Commerce, whose job it is to favor these sorts of things.  And being, as it is, a government organization, you can bet the favored methodology is anything but simple and straightforward.  The clue is in their logo:

Or, maybe this expresses it better.

Prince2 Certification is not actually mandatory, but finding out your PM is uncertified is a bit like visiting your dentist and seeing on his office wall—in place of a diploma—an affidavit, signed by himself, stating that he’s always been interested in fiddling with peoples’ teeth and fancies himself pretty good at it so he thought he’d have a go.

A few months ago my Prince2 certification expired and I had to re-enlist.  Long story short, I somehow, miraculously, passed the exam (and quite well, thank you very much) and thereby avoided becoming the laughing stock of the office (I was sure they would start calling me “The Project Manager formerly known as Prince2”).  My stress levels dropped and I congratulated myself on the fact that I will never, ever have to take that exam again.

But here I was, betrayed by my subconscious, sitting a fictional Part III of the exam and feeling my anxiety writhing and climbing inside me like a spider skittering up a rain spout.  The series of 50 questions that I had 20 minutes to complete began:

Question 1:
A question mark, but don’t make a point of it.
Chose one:
a. A
b. B
c. C
d. D

Question 2:
Fog, ten years from now:

And so on.

There were other plot nuances I could divulge to give you a sense of the complete story arc but you probably hate it when people start describing their dreams to you.  So I’ll tell you about my other dream, instead.

In this dream, a young girl was being held captive and, although she had a mobile phone with her and could call for help, due to government cutbacks, every agency she called –police, child welfare, MI5 – simply put her on hold or told her they would make a note of her issue and get back to her at a later date.

This was the dream that woke me up, and I took it to mean that I shouldn’t watch the evening news before going to bed.  With sleep now beyond me, I got up, stumbled through the unfamiliar darkness to the far side of the kitchen and turned on the light so I could make some coffee.  Then I spent fifteen minutes looking for a spoon.

If I were in charge of hotels and guest cottages, I would force the owners to live in them for one week each year.  This would eliminate many of the little annoyances that remain even after they have lovingly outfitted the place to perceived perfection, as our hosts had done.  The cottage was charming, well-decorated, kitted out with quality furnishings and utensils (at least I saw nothing I recognized from the Pound Shop) and even had two-ply paper in the loo.  They had, in their minds I am sure, thought of everything.  Well, a week or so of living here would have set them straight:

As noted earlier, I had to walk all the way through the kitchen to turn on the light.  Whose idea was that?  And everyone knows that cutlery belongs in the drawer just to the left of the sink.  So what is it doing in a cabinet on the other side of the kitchen?

Another thing they did was put wooden counters throughout the kitchen.  They look lovely but wood, as anyone should be able to tell you, warps when it is wet (there’s the sink, there’s the draining board; pay attention, these are clues) and if it stays wet, it rots.  My father was a cabinet maker.  I grew up to the smell of sawdust and the grinding of a belt sander and was, at an early age, imbued with a near religious reverence for wood, which means I cannot leave the cottage until the dishes are washed and dried and all the counters wiped down.  This is not something I relish doing while on holiday.

But as petty annoyances go, nothing beats the bathroom waste bin.  You know the ones I mean, the white plastic cylinders about the size of a flour canister with a little pedal on the bottom you are supposed to step on to open the top, allowing you to drop whatever it is (I don’t want to know) that needs dropping into a little plastic cylinder.  They are in every bathroom in every hotel, guest cottage and B&B in the world.  No matter how posh the establishment, you’ll find one in the loo, but you’ll never see one in anyone’s house.  Do you know why that is?  Because they are shite, that’s why.

They are so light and flimsy that attempting to step on the peddle results in you inching forward as the bin inches backward until it ends up out of reach behind the loo.  And if you do manage to gain enough purchase on the tiny pedal, the lid will fly open with just enough force to careen the bin off the nearest wall and send it rolling under the sink, disgorging its contents along the way.  So I am not a fan of these bins and my heart sinks each time I see one in a hotel or guest house bathroom.

This place has one in the kitchen.

Now, not only do I get to constantly experience the joys of these useless apparatuses, but as a bonus, I get to take the garbage out every 20 minutes.

But enough of the carping.  As I said, the place is lovely, our hosts most gracious and the inconveniences petty.

Except for that one about the waste bin.

(Next: the first morning)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Disconnected - Part III

(The continuing saga of our holiday in Gloucester)

We were heading for Chippenham, but managed to completely miss it, ending up in Devizes instead. By now we were ready for lunch but Devizes was not ready to let us stop; the entire town was locked solid with parked cars, leaving us no choice but to allow ourselves to be carried on through on the rippling flow of stop-and-go traffic to be dumped into a wilderness that, on the map, was nothing but a criss-cross of red and white lines, many of them unlabeled.

From there we drove randomly, eventually stopping at a service station out in the middle of nowhere that, unaccountably, had a large and very busy Subway attached to it. Judging by the car park and the queue at the till, it must have been the only Subway in the entire county, a place the locals visit when they want to treat their families to a special meal, such as a foot-long tuna sub with sweet corn and a blue drink in a plastic bottle. Good thing it was merely the lunch hour—if we’d have arrived at dinner time we might have needed a reservation.

After that, we grew tired of adventure and headed north for the M4, where we covered the final half of the trip in a tenth of the time the first half took.

To continue our holiday tradition, we stopped at the Tesco in Chepstow to do a week’s shop. Later on, I knew, when we finally reached our destination, we would put the groceries away in logical places, hang up our clothes, pack everything away in drawers and quickly fall into our usual routine. For us, going on holiday, at least in Britain, is less like a week at a resort and more like living in someone else’s house.

Still, that’s not a bad way to have a vacation; it’s cheap, you’re surrounded by familiarity and comfort, you don’t have maids poking around while you’re out during the day and you get to visit all of the local attractions that you would never see if you actually lived there. It’s such a good idea that we spent one holiday in our own flat, using the week to tour a variety of local sight-seeing destinations we would otherwise have never gotten around to.

And so we left Tesco’s with our groceries, running into Kate Humble on her way in, ostensibly to do her weekly shop, or to slip into a blind cleverly hidden in the produce department for a special segment on “Autumn Watch,” highlighting the mating rituals among Chepstow Tesco shoppers.

We were now just past the time for check-in and we were close to our destination, but there was still one more holiday tradition to get through: the tradition wherein the directions—supplied by the cottage owners—leave off a vital piece of information. In this case, we were to take the major road we were driving north on through the center of town and turn at the Gagging Ferret. No problem. The trouble started when we discovered that the road we were on did not, technically, go through the town.

After becoming acquainted and reacquainted with the bypass several surrounding villages and a car park or two, we eventually reached our destination—later than we’d planned, knackered from the drive and stressed out from taking so many wrong turns (including going the wrong way up a one-way street), which is, of course, also part of the tradition.

The accommodation was lovely, the area quaint and quiet and the landlord friendly and effusive. He was a displaced Londoner who had come to visit the Royal Forest of Dean some 14 years earlier, fell in love with it and never left. He was filled with nothing but praise for the area, how peaceful it was, how beautiful and wild the landscape remained and how welcoming the locals were.

His wife was also from London but his three young daughters were locally bred, making them, in his estimation I imagine, true “Foresters.” I had to wonder how the locals might feel about this; if they were anything like the old Yankees of Maine, you continued to be regarded as an “outsider” for the first five or six generations.

“If a cat has kittens in the oven,” they would say, “that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”

So after getting the key and exchanging life stories, we set up housekeeping and took stock of the local area.

I love vacationing in the UK. Over the years I have discovered a host of stunningly beautiful locations and then returned home thanking my lucky stars I didn’t actually live there. Pretty and peaceful it was, but there was a single pub/restaurant (albeit, a very nice one) in the scattering of houses that masqueraded as a village, along with a single, small convenience store/post office combo. And that was it, no shops, no market, no cinema, no Starbucks, no fast food joints, no hair styling salon on every corner, no betting shops, no kebabs and no rail link to get you anyplace where you might find these things.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. This was, after all, why we came. I’m just saying—having been spoiled by the delights of civilization—that I’m glad I don’t live here.

I grew up in a very rural setting—more rural that this—and I loved it. But that was before the days of 24-hour television, internet, computer games, shopping malls and mobile phones, back when we knew how to entertain ourselves and could find diversion in the simplest activities, such damming up a stream or building a raft out of twigs and leaves and encouraging your little brother to try it out in the mill pond to see if it would float.

These days, we’re not happy unless someone or something is holding out attention, but not for long. We crave 24/7 connectivity but can’t communicate in more that 140 words at a time. As a culture, we’re addicted to sucking the teat of technology and we cry when it is pulled away. I’m not altogether happy about that, but having long ago sold my soul to the cyber-gods, there was little left to do but open a beer, light a cigar and settle down at the picnic table in the garden to check my e-mail on my CrackBerry™ and connect my laptop to the internet.

I turned them both on. There was no signal. None at all. No phone, no internet, no way to communicate with anyone, no way to update my blogs…

Imagine my disappointment.

(Next: coming to terms with our surroundings)