Tuesday, November 12, 2019

America

And so, we went to America.

I think, this year more than any other, it became obvious that I no longer belong there. It’s as foreign to me as Britain was when I first fetched up on these shores. Everything is different. Everything is strange. And, aside from visiting my family and friends, there is no reason to go there anymore.

Almost anything I miss from America, I can buy here now. The fact that I don’t miss many things from America any more helps in that respect, but there are still an awful lot of products on the selves here now that weren’t available years ago. I can, for instance, have a fluffernutter sandwich now, any time I want. I don’t, but I could. Also, A1 sauce, creamed corn and even Goldfish Crackers are readily available. In fact, the only thing I still can’t get that I would really, really want is Half-n-Half.

Nope, can't get any in the UK.
Well, that and French Burnt Peanuts.

Actually, I can have them mail-ordered, but I'd need to sell a kidney first.
We ditched United Airlines this year in favor of British Air and the flight went very well, thank you. With just one little niggle:

Which airline clerk do these people deal with? Any I see
wouldn't allow me to take those bags.
Naturally, most of our time in America was spent visiting, and eating. I have noticed that the climate in the US has an adverse effect on my leather belt. By the third day it seems to have shrunk noticeably, and it takes a few weeks back in the UK before it returns to its usual size.

Speaking of, while in the US, I bought a few pair of jeans because US jean have the proper number of belt loops on them (i.e. 7), as opposed to the UK jeans I buy from M&S, which have only 5. This is not a new problem. The Brits were overly frugal with the rings in their ring-binders when I first arrived, seeming to believe that 2 were enough.

But then I wrote a blog post outlining the issue and proving that the US binder, with 3 rings, was superior. After that, they began to offer 4-ring ring binders, and I am ever so thankful. So, I am hereby putting Britain on notice that 5 belt loops are not enough:

Notice the Slippage Area
Seven are what is required.
No Slippage.
I look forward to you sorting this out.

But back to our trip.

We had a good time visiting the G-kids, and hanging out with the rest of the family.

It was autumn, and that meant pumpkins and apples and
pumpkin donuts, and pumpkin coffee, and pumpkin cake, and pumpkin....
But that's how we like it.

The G-Kids, waiting for their mom to finish her marathon.

Mom, looking waaaaay too fresh for someone just finishing a marathon.
Well done!
When we were last there, we were still having to sign our credit card receipts.
This year, everything was suddenly hi-tech.
During a lull in the festivities, we took an overnight trip to Nantucket. I used to go out there about 30 years ago with a buddy of mine who worked there. The island is timeless, so it hasn’t changed much—at least the buildings haven’t.


Back when I first visited, the island was expensive. Now it’s very, very expensive, and all the local shops and restaurants are gone and have been replaced by boutiques that don’t put prices on their merchandise and trendy bistros serving nuevo cuisine. (Until this visit, I wasn’t aware it was possible to spend that much on a bowl of pasta.)

Yes, over 3 million dollars for a modest house.
Still, it was an interesting diversion, and we went to bed looking forward to returning to the mainland the following day. Except, we couldn’t. A storm blew in overnight and the ferries weren’t running so we had no choice but to spend another day (and night) in the most expensive place in the western hemisphere.

The mark of a posh hotel--hangers that aren't attached to the rail.
Fortunately, we found the place the locals go to eat, something Americans would call a Greasy Spoon, and the Brits a Working Man’s Cafe. It was wonderful. Good food, lots of it, at a reasonable price. And served by local people genuinely glad to see you, instead of snooty outsiders who looked down their noses at you because they guessed (correctly) that you really weren’t going to buy that $356 sweater you were looking at.

What I did do, to celebrate spending the two most expensive days I have ever lived through, was go into a Ralph Lauren shop with the full intention of buying an overpriced shirt. Just because.

I left disappointed, however, and under the withering gaze of the tall, blonde shop assistance, because there was nothing tasteful in the entire shop. I have written about this before: where what used to be a tasteful, tiny logo, has recently become a huge billboard screaming “Wealthy person here! Wealthy person here!” I can see the shops in Sussex falling for this, but I thought the highly fashionable boutiques of Nantucket would still know what good taste was.

Our final adventure came on our drive back to the airport.

Some years ago, on a documentary about train travel in the US (Michael Portillo, I expect) we heard about an abandoned railroad bridge over the Hudson River that had been turned into a Garden Bridge. We noted that it was near enough for a visit and planned to go have a look. As it turned out, we were too busy to fit it in, but as we had to pass by it on our way to the airport, we thought we’d take the opportunity.

We are so glad we did—simply stop off for a peek, that is.

This is sorta what we expected:
The Dream

This is what we got:
The Reality
And so, we went home.





Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Belfast

We went to Belfast last week, and it took all fucking day to get there. As I write this, Boris Johnson is in Dublin for a meeting. He left this morning and is returning to London later today to dismiss Parliament, so he doesn’t have the humiliation of a self-inflicted minority government hanging around his neck 24/7, all before dinner time. What the genuine…? We left our flat at 10:45 in the morning and didn’t check into our hotel until 7 PM. And the 60-minute flight home took up seven hours of our day. Nice to be king, isn’t it?

Belfast. Suggested motto: Not as bad as it looks.
At any rate, we went to Belfast, the Red-Headed Stepchild of the United Kingdom, and we had a grand time. Northern Ireland is, like the rest of Ireland, stunningly beautiful, but the North has issues. 

First of all, they’re small, and often forgotten when people think of the United Kingdom, even by people who live in the United Kingdom.


Secondly, their tourist industry—and their economy in general—took a battering while the British Army was there “keeping the peace,” which is a euphemism for really stirring things up.

The Troubles are still troubling.
Thirdly, although peace came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the opening of the border, the remnant of the UK Government is leading the charge for a No-Deal Brexit, which could close the border and kick-start the Troubles again. Or, that’s the worry, and if the British Army returns to “keep the peace,” any progress in tourism and economic stability they have made in the last 20 years might be trodden under tank treads.

Admittedly, this is a simplistic and pessimistic view, and, frankly, that wasn’t what was on my mind during our visit; I was more concerned about the bathroom.

We were in a hotel that billed itself as 3-starbut which would have struggled to get a 2 in my bookand, in place of an actual bathroom, we had a prefab unit that looked as if it had been made in a gigantic injection mold, set into the corner of the hotel room before they put the ceiling on, and stuck in place with clear bathtub sealant. I have to admit, I was dubious, but it won me over in the end. The shower was roomy and had adequate water pressure, it contained a large area for personal items (unlike the bathroom in our flat) and it was bright enough in there to perform surgery. If I could fit one into our flat, I would.


Our one-piece bathroom unit.
The first item on our itinerary was a visit to the Titanic Museum. The Titanic was built in Belfast, by the Harland & Wolff shipbuilding company. H & W built hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ships, many of which, I assume, survived their maiden voyages. The Titanic, as you know, did not (no, really, they made a movie about it and everything). Belfast keeps this historic oddity low-key. Aside from the Titanic Museum, the Titanic Bus Tour, The Titanic Gift Shop, the Titanic City Tour, the Titanic Quarter, the Titanic Hotel and dozens of other businesses with the name Titanic, they hardly mention it at all. It’s like they want the world to know, “Remember that ship, the big one, sank and killed all those people? We built that!”

One of the many fine exhibits in the Titanic Museum.
It's a replica, of course.
The Museum, however, was first rate, and took you on a journey through the lives of the people who worked as shipbuilders, detailing how they built the ships, and how Titanic came about, and, of course, how it sank. It was well presented and provided many photographs and recordings about the Titanic and the people who built her and sailed on her. The one thing it did not have was a bit of the actual ship.

This is a replica, too.
With the souvenir hunters going down to the wreak every other week, you’d think they would have been able to snag a rivet or a chair leg from one of the state rooms. I went to a Traveling Titanic Exhibition in Phoenix before I moved to the UK and there was a huge section of the hull on display. I was certain it would be on display at the Official Titanic Museum and was looking forward to having my photo taken standing next to it so I could send it to my Titanic-mad Grandson and say, “Hey, Charlie! Here I am standing next to the hull of the REAL Titanic. And you’re not!”

But, alas, it was not to be. We traversed the entire museum, as well as the gift shop, and there was nary an authentic bit of the boat in sight. Curious, I Googled it and discovered that particular piece is in Las Vegas. Figures.

Las Vegas? What's wrong with Belfast?
At least I got to see it; eat your heart out, Charlie!

The next day, we visited the Giant’s Causeway. This is one of those attractions that is so often in documentaries that, when you see it, you feel like you’ve already been there. Still, it was a thrill to be clambering about on it.

Look familiar? Still, it's worth a visit.
From there, our tour bus wended its way hotel-ward via the monotonously beautiful countryside along a coastal road, with periodic stops at quaint little villages. It soon became apparent that the tour company had some sort of agreement with the villages, wherein they agreed to stop there and unleash hordes of tourists so they could drop money in their shops, tea rooms and pubs. The problem was, these were small villages, and when our bus parked next to four others and we were all released, there was nothing to do but walk from one end of the village to the other (which took all of 5 minutes) because the shops, tea rooms and pubs were full to bursting.

Wandering about the town.
The impression I came away from these villages with was, they needed the money. They all looked a bit down-at-heel, but they get top marks for attempted to disguise the fact that many of the buildings were derelict by painting over the boarded-up windows and doors with pictures of windows and doors, so they looked like this:


Instead of this:

I had to look twice at this door to be sure it wasn't an actual door.

On our final day in Belfast, we were left to our own devices, so we went to the spectacular city hall. There was a history exhibition there that was well worth an hour of our time, and then we took the 50-cent tour, that didn’t cost a penny. I have to tell you, if you are ever in Belfast and have an hour or two to kill, you could do worse than take this tour. If, that is, you don’t mind listening to a city employee who is clearly very excited by civic architecture and the city’s political history.

Belfast City Hall.

Worth a visit.
After that, we headed for the airport for our 60-minute flight home, but…well, you know how that worked out. Maybe if I had told them I was the Prime Minister, I might have made it home by dinner time.

And look what we found! This, alone, made the trip worthwhile.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Power of the Blog

Wonder of wonders: they turned the fountain back on.

No announcement, no fanfare, no apology. It just came on one day. And now that the hot weather is back, the children are gamboling in it once more—along with, one must assume, their sun-cream and danger of falling.

Granted, there was an outcry, and articles and letters in the local papers, and angry/sarcastic comments on the town’s website and Facebook pages. But the thing that pushed it over, the deciding factor that made them say, “All right, already! We’ll turn the sodding fountain back on!” must have been my blog post. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? They turned it off, I did a blog post about it, they turned it on; cause/effect. I’m stunned, elated, humbled and a little bit anxious.

Fountain before Blog
Fountain after Blog
As Uncle Ben told Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I can’t ignore this newfound ability to make governments bend to my will, and I must use it for good. But what should I turn my attention to next? Brexit? Lord knows it needs some sorting out. Trump? Ditto. The Middle East? They could have peace at last, and with peace comes McDonald’s, KFC and ASDA; a win-win-win. And what about the Climate Crisis? Should I use my power to tackle that?

No, I think I need to turn my attention closer to home, toward those everyday things that are the bane of civilized men and women everywhere. Therefore, I request that the appropriate governments pass the following laws:


  • If a market sells hamburgers or hot dogs in packages, they must also sell packages of buns with the same number of buns. Failure to comply will allow customers to take as many packages as they wish in order to achieve bun-parity, and they will only be charged for the initial package.


In case you went to school after 1970 and don't have your smart phone handy,
you would be allowed 8 packages of hot-dogs (real ones, not tofu substitutes) and 5 packages
of buns to make a 1:1 ration of  hot-dogs to buns.

  • People who park like idiots should be chained to their vehicles for three days and made to apologize to everyone who passes by the blocked parking spaces. For every person the offender fails to apologize to, and extra day will be added to their sentence
Idiot

  • Grossly over-sized carry-on luggage should be placed in the offender’s seat with the offender standing next to it. During the flight, the offender’s seat number will be announced, and passengers will be encouraged to “Tsk tsk” them.
That is easily twice the size of my carry-on.
Who is letting these people get away with this? Find them and
arrest them, as well.


  • These people just need to be shot.

That will do for a start. So, if the appropriate powers can put Brexit aside for a moment and turn their attention to the above, I (and everyone else in the civilized world) will appreciate it very much.



Thursday, July 25, 2019

Aqua-phobia

We are, as I write this, experiencing the hottest day ever recorded in the UK. Fortunately, Horsham has a fountain, the kind that shoots water up from the pavement at various heights, to please the eye and provide a place for children and the adventurous to frolic and, on a day like today, cool off. Unfortunately, the Horsham District Council decided to celebrate the hottest day ever, by shutting the fountain off.

Horsham's Non-Water Fountain
Their excuse: sunscreen, it might get into the filters, and it might damage them. Also, children might slip.

This might have made sense (well, actually, no, it wouldn’t) but for a few extraneous reasons:

- Fountains in cities all over the world are famously packed with people on hot days. Some of these fountains are hundreds of years old and they all seem to be working fine, and as far as I know, no one has died.

- This particular fountain has been operating fine, even with children gamboling about in it, for several years now. Would another week have hurt? Why shut if off on the hottest day…ever?

No problems  here; must be Horsham-specific.
While it may seem illogical and indefensible (because it is), they did not do it because they hate children (although there is nothing to suggest that they don’t); they did it because they are afraid of water.

This makes perfect sense, when you take this recent move into historical context.

The Shelly Fountain, it was an icon of our town, it put it on the map, it was what people thought of when they thought of Horsham, but the Council shut it down, put a fence around it, left it to rot and then dug it up and made a planter out of it.

Such a joyful fountain...

...left to rot...

...now pushing up birch trees.
The Swans, a much-loved sculpture in the Swan Walk Shopping Mall, depicted swans coming in to land on a sheet of water, about 1-inch deep. There were little jets of water that shot against the swan’s feet, giving the impression of movement. It was a lovely image, until they took the water out and replaced it with glass.

Before

After
There was a water feature in the plaza near the Bishopric, a babbling brook that ran over a waterfall. This was turned off some time ago without funfair or explanation.

No reason. I guess they just didn't like it.
There is also a water fountain that was put in the town during Queen Victoria’s reign. It was restored in 1977 and hasn’t been active for as long as I can remember.

I can't recall ever seeing water in this thing.
And even the town watering trough has been turned into a planter.

Think of the poor cows!
So, you see, the move to turn off the fountain in the plaza was the next logical step toward a water-free town. If you come to visit Horsham now, you will find not a single water feature working. Apparently, this is what the Council is aiming for.

I understand their next move will be to drain the River Arun.

The River Arun, and The Riverside Walk, soon to be The Dried-out Trenchside Walk


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Scamaphobia


Time was, you had to meet someone face to face to be scammed. Then con-men discovered mail, and the telephone, and email and their job became easier and easier until you could find yourself sat on your sofa watching Homes Under the Hammer, content in the knowledge that you had a hefty sum nestling in your bank while, unbeknownst to you, someone from the other side of the world was transferring your money from your account into his.

"Hell-o, Mr. Harling's Bank. This is Mr. Harling. I should like you take all
money from my accounts and place them in Cayman Island account, yes?
Oh, certainly, I am Mr. Harling. I do not pretending to be him.
Money is sent? Спасибо, I mean, thank you.
This has led me to develop a simple, but hard and fast rule: if anyone approaches me—via phone, mail, email, at my door or on the street—that I do not know as a friend or who is not responding to a request for assistance or sustenance, that person is, de facto, a criminal with the intent of pulling money out of my pocket and sticking it in his.

That this rule has led me to hanging up on actual utility companies and, in one memorable occasion, a hospital calling to tell me my father-in-law was being discharged and needed a ride home, is unfortunate, but I still believe it is better to err on the side of caution. I never click on links in an email and I routinely hang up on unknown callers.

But, while phone calls and extraneous emails remain a nuisance, they are easily dealt with, What I really fear is being scammed while I’m not looking. Fortunately, this has never happened. Until the other day.

I was doing the monthly updates of our accounts and noticed a fee of £98.83 taken from my bank account by a company I had never heard of. This didn’t alarm me at first. I often forget that I have bought something, but a Google search generally jogs my memory, allowing me to recall a holiday purchase from a little store in the Highlands a month or two back who have finally gotten around to taking their money. In this instance, however, the search only served to heighten my suspicion.

It was a loan company, the type catering to recently released felons and/or people with a bankruptcy looming in their background. Additionally, I found a thread on a message board about this company having taken a hundred quid from someone’s account in similarly suspicious circumstances. They were not only a dodgy loan company, they had form, so I went down to my bank, explained the situation and they, quite helpfully, canceled the direct debit, refunded my money and began an investigation.

Later that day, after finishing the household accounts, I noticed, with extreme unease, that we had more money than I thought we should. Having less doesn’t surprise, or unsettle me. But more? There was clearly something wrong. After some careful searching, I realized that a very expensive purchase I made some months back had never been deducted from my account. I wondered about this, and why I had no paperwork. Surely something that expensive would generate paperwork.

It took a while, but I finally tracked down an e-mail that jogged my memory. Something I had received and filed without thought weeks earlier: the sum I owed the company was being taken in installments, which explained why I had not seen a drop in our bank balance. Additionally, the installments had been converted to a no-interest loan by the company, and turned over to…a loan company.

In a panic, I contacted my bank, only to be told that, as the investigation process had started, there was no way they could stop it. They suggested I call the loan company, which I did, with great trepidation. I imagined they would not be pleased at my having taken the money back, and might say something like, “You took your money back? That’s okay, Vinny will be around to collect it. You’ll recognize him. He’ll be carrying a cricket bat in one hand, and a cash box in the other. You’ll become acquainted with one of them. Your choice.”

"Good morning, Mr. Harling. We can do this the easy way,
or the hard way."
The loan company, however, was cordial, and understanding, “Oh don’t worry about it,” the woman chirped, “It happens all the time.” Which only served to confirm what type of loan company they were.

Long story short (too late) everything was eventually straightened out, they got their money, the bank has been mollified, all future payments should go ahead without a hitch, and Vinny never paid me a visit.

But I’m still going to be cautious when answering the door for the next few weeks.



Friday, June 21, 2019

Day of the Ziffit

This is to be a day of sitting and waiting. Let me tell you why.

We are readers. And as such—and despite occasionally taking advantage of the amazing convenience of eBooks—we habitually visit bookstores and charity shops and return home with arm-loads of new acquisitions. In a perfect world, this would not present a problem—an ever-expanding library is a joy to a book-reader—but, alas, this is not a perfect world so we do not live in a mansion with a library and snooker room that we could turn into a library. We live in a tiny flat, a reality which, from time to time, requires us to cull the herd.

We undertook such a purge a few weeks ago. But this one was different, as we had discovered a service called Ziffit.


It sounded brilliant. You download the app, point your phone at the bar-code on the book and, ping, the book is added to a list, along with the amount of money Ziffit will pay you for it. You do this to all the books you want to get rid of, then take them to a handy collection point (there is, it turns out, one half a mile away from us) where they are shipped to Ziffit Central and a few days later, money appears in your bank account.

That’s what the website said, at least. The reality was a little different.


It started well. I pointed my phone at the first book. Ping! It was accepted. The next book was not. Nor was the next. Nor the next. I scanned several series, where one book in the series was accepted, and all the others rejected. I scanned old books, new books, rare books, popular books—nothing. In all, I scanned over one hundred books. Of that, only eight were accepted, for a total of £4.97. This in my view, wasn’t enough to bother with. So I didn't.

Undeterred, or perhaps because I had already done all the work to dig them out, I then scanned our collection of CDs.

The CD cull represented a major step in our efforts to regain storage space. We’d been hauling these CDs around with us for years but only recently realized that we no longer owned a CD player. So, even if we did one day decide to move several items of heavy bedroom furniture and search through the box under the bed to find that one song (rather than just cue it up on our phone) we wouldn’t be able to play it anyway.

Still, it was a heart-rending decision. These were physical items, sought-after jewels that, throughout our lives, we had scoured erstwhile records stores for and listened to over and over again. Each one evoked memories, making them more than just a collection of useless, plastic discs. But, while memories don’t take up space, things that evoke them do, so the CDs were consigned to the Ziffit pile.

That went marginally better. The hit-rate for CDs was about 1 to 4, so we ended up with a big pile of acceptables, and four big piles of rejects to haul down to the charity shops, which, incredibly, still accept CDs.

Following Ziffit’s guidelines, I boxed up the ones they wanted, closed out the list and moved on to the step where I arranged to take them to the local drop-off point. To my consternation, that option mysteriously disappeared, leaving me no choice but to arrange for a courier to come pick it up, which required our presence. And the pick-up window was from 8AM to 5PM.

The upshot was, in order to get rid of the CDs—and, hopefully, see £98.07 put in our bank account—we had to take a full day out of our oddly busy schedule so we can sit here, in the flat, all day long, waiting for someone to come take this box. (And how, I have to wonder, do people with the inconvenience of jobs cope with this?)


Ziffit, to their credit, did try to soften the blow by telling me that, on the day, they would send an email with a 1-hour window “so you can plan your day.” Sorry, too little, too late. I plan my day in the weeks leading up to it, not at 9AM when I may or may not get an email telling me to be here from 1 to 2PM. (No email yet, by the by.)

To conclude, it would have been a lot less trouble and taken a lot less time if I had just bundled everything up and schlepped it down to the charity shops. The only up-side to Ziffit that I can see is that, from here on, I won’t be tempted to try any of the “Bucks for Books” dot coms popping up like housing estates on green-field sites.

However, if you find yourself with a surplus of books, or a surfeit of obsolete CDs, and you don’t mind buying packing materials or waiting around all day for a delivery van, then you might give them a try. After all, despite my moaning, I am going to be almost a hundred quid to the good when this is over. And I am getting a day off where I don’t have to run here or there or do this or that so, all in all, I would call it a win. But just.

UPDATE: Three emails and two text assuring me they would come get my package today. We waited all day, and no one showed up. No hundred quid, and I have to unpack all the CDs and take them to the charity shop. Ziffit can stuff it.

Disclaimer: Ziffit is not paying me for this, aside from the money they promised for the CDs. They did not solicit a review and, frankly, would probably have been happier if I had not supplied one