Thursday, 30 August 2012

... experienced a hurricane (Video links)

DISCLAIMER: This is a record of my personal experiences of Hurricane Isaac; I haven't had access to radio or TV news for a couple of days so cannot say whether it hit other areas of the city or other states much worse, but in our northern part of the French Quarter this is how it was on the ground, as it happened. Generally, the mood here now is relieved and cheerful that it wasn't a lot worse, and the clean-up's already well underway. Go NOLA :)

Tuesday was something of a washout: the storm was still playing hard to get (even though it had been predicted to hit around 4pm) and despite the fact that nothing much was going on, weather-wise, everything was still shut. It was dirty weather all day – heavy rain on and off and blustery winds; not the sort you'd want to be out in, admittedly – but the temperature outside was balmy, and the wind and rain were no worse than an English November (and a good deal warmer). Nonetheless, Bex and I were stuck at the hotel and pretty damn fed up. Little did we know how fed up and stuck we were yet to become …

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

... been to a hurricane party

Monday, 27th August 2012

The night before Isaac was due to hit, Bex and I were invited for drinks and dinner at the house of my friend Lander (whom I know through my very excellent ex Paul Eros – they studied together at Corpus Christi, when I was going out with Paul). Lander's family seat is in the Garden District, on Prytania Street – a good couple of miles west of our new billet at the Melrose Mansion, which is on the corner of Burgundy and Esplanade.

We weren't sure how easy it would be to get a taxi, but we had a mission to fulfil (we'd asked if we could bring anything to the party and Lander suggested gin) so we decided to walk west to Canal and look out for an off-licence on the way. We found a small general store with a wide range of booze, but no gin (it's not big in the South, which is odd, considering how refreshing a gin & tonic is – not to mention the medicinal properties of quinine).

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

... been to New Orleans

... and admittedly, the middle of hurricane season wasn't the brightest choice of a time to go. But NOLA was on our way, we wanted to see it, we had a friend there for goodness' sake - what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Hurricane Isaac ...
On Sunday, August 26th, at around 3.30pm, Bex and I arrived in New Orleans on the Amtrak train from Memphis (see separate blog post for the details of the nine-hour journey and the folk we met on it). The weather was fine; steaming hot, as is usual for the South in August, but not unbearable. There was not a breath of wind – the proverbial calm before the storm, in fact. There was no wi-fi and very little mobile phone reception on the journey, so we were effectively incommunicado for most of the day, having boarded the train just before 7am.

We heard scraps and rumours of a tropical storm heading through the Gulf on the journey but didn't pay much attention to it, concentrating on getting our stuff to the Hotel Royal (a lovely bijou boutique place on Royal Street, in the French Quarter) and planning our visit to the Big Easy. Oh, the swamp tours we would go on, the cemeteries we would visit! We wandered around the quarter taking pictures of all the gorgeous ramshackle Spanish Colonial houses – of which there are many – and doing a bit of souvenir shopping. We made it halfway down Bourbon Street, which is reminiscent of some of the nastier alleys in Soho, with its sex shows and drinking dives, before the smell of stale beer, sick and fermenting garbage drove us back.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

... been to Nashville

Friends, this is a sad day. I have a serious loss to report – and a serious indictment of Delta Airlines.

The Bad Thing Delta have done is give the misleading impression that Bex and I could check at least one bag each on every flight – including internal ones. But no, this turned out to be a terrible lie! Bad Delta! Checking bags is free on flights into and out of the US – but not within it. Then it costs $30 (£20) per bag. So obviously, we weren't doing that, especially as we hadn't been warned about the extra cost. Luckily, the extra Samsonite rolling case/backpack I bought in Boston apparently counts as a “personal item”, so I could take both that and my backpack on the plane. Me: 1, The Man: 0

Farewell, my useful pal. You will be missed.
Unluckily, I'd left my multi-tool gadget – the blade on which is about two inches long, but still counts as a knife – in my backpack, because I'd assumed I could put it in the hold every time we flew. Not so. BEEP BEEP went the X-ray machine, and the offending item was confiscated. The Man: 1, Me: 0.

So a lucky employee of Delta Security is currently having the pleasure of playing with the pliers, horseshoe-stone-remover, saw and mini file on my Swiss Army knockoff knife and I am extremely annoyed, because it was a good gadget, I'd had it for years, and I haven't a clue where to get another one (it wasn't actual Swiss Army – they're too expensive). All knife donations gratefully received – just don't send by airmail :/

Anyway, that little incident aside, the flight (via Detroit) was fairly hassle-free, and we were lucky enough to bump into some fellow UK travellers at the airport bus stop who were going to the very youth hostel we'd settled on (the Nashville Downtown Hostel, fact fans). The NDH, being another brand-new enterprise, and went further in creating an aura of mystery even than the HI Boston – forget not answering the phone, they didn't even have a listed number – just a website and an address. On the other hand, the rooms and beds were cheap and comfortable (£45/$70 for a double private room, £17/$25 for a bed in a four-person dorm) and the wifi worked a treat, so I was prepared to forgive them almost anything.

Revelling in the low low prices!
The everchanging trio of guys on reception were also delightful, individually and collectively: helpful, polite, great for recommendations etc. You had to make your own bed and hire towels (rather than their being supplied) and there was a kitchen/fridge arrangement rather than a breakfast laid on, but at these prices who was arguing?

The building, on First Avenue opposite the LP football stadium, used to be a law office, and its pedigree showed: all rooms (even the toilets)P were only accessible by keycard, the doors were three-inch slabs of walnut, and our first night was spent in the Aretha Franklin room, whose only window looked on to the corridor: all the dorms are in fact former offices or meeting rooms for the firm. 

Error 404: Room Not Found.
Odd to think that a law office could go out of business – or downsize, I suppose – and yet a hostel charging $25 a night could be a viable venture, but again, that's probably just one of the many symptoms of the recession – which does seem to be deeper and more serious than in the UK.

After a quick shower we met the three fellow Brits – James from Uxbridge, Tom from Guernsey and Millie from York – in the lobby, and commenced a relatively restrained bar-crawl. First we went to Jack's on Broadway (which is reminiscent of a mini Las Vegas strip, with its bars and neon signs, not to mention the 24/7 country blasting from every doorway and even public loudspeakers set into the sidewalk – really! The local nickname for it is Nashvegas). Jack's does a basic, unchanging menu – ribs, black beans, mac 'n' cheese, etc. every day from 10am to 9pm, but they do it well (apparently … we missed eating there because Bex and I had to go back and pick up my phone – but the others said it was good).

For drinks, we went to that exotic novelty, a bar where you could smoke! Inside!! *Faints* This was in stark contrast to Boston where you are meant to be 25 feet from any building entrance, which practically speaking means sparking up in the middle of the road. They also did the most ENORMOUS cocktails. The Kryptonite-'rita below (beers included for scale) cost the princely sum of $9.15 (about £6.50). Admittedly it was mostly sour mix, but I ain't complainin' …

After that we listened to some truly awesome live Western Swing at a bar called Robert's. Bex was convinced there was an Elvis impersonator sitting in front of us, but he never turned round. Still, there's a little Elvis in all of us .... The second night Bex and I went out for a drink, the Tennessee Titans were playing the Arizona Cardinals – the first game of the season, at the LP stadium across the way – and we could hear the cheers from our room. So we found a bar on Second Avenue (just behind the hostel), which was plastered with dollar bills, and crucially, was showing the game. I can't pretend to understand it (the four 15-minute quarters can take up to three hours to play because of all the stopping and starting) but it was entertaining white noise for the eyes while I sipped my JD and Coke.

A big stadium for a lot of very big men
There was also a late-opening cowboy boot shop which had the logic-defying offer of “Buy One Pair, Get Two Free” on all its boots – this was genuine, and loophole-free, but you had to be prepared to spend about $300 on the first pair. Bex agonised, but finally decided to get one amazing pair rather than three OK pairs, and invested her $300/£200 in the beauties below. This was a good choice, as literally not a day has passed since without some appreciative stranger hollering "nice boots"! I am actually pretty jealous, but the logical part of my brain insists that I don't need any more boots. Not even beautiful ones like these. 

Please form an orderly queue to worship
On our last morning in Nashville we wandered up Printer's Alley (which boasted the almost certainly inauthentic – especially since it wasn't open at 11 in the morning - Fleet Street “English” Pub) and got breakfast on our way to catch the Megabus to Memphis (of which more later). Passing the War Memorial, we noticed that the plaza it was on was extremely palatial and done in the classical style – this wasn't the famous 1:1 replica of the Parthenon (built to celebrate, or perhaps consolidate, Nashville's status as "the Athens of the South") but it sure as hell looked like the same guy had commissioned it. It was hard to tell whether the actual buildings were ornamental and empty, or contained windowless offices, but it was an impressive sight. (Sadly my camera ran out of battery around this point, so pix will follow when & if I work out how to upload them from my phone). 

Not an English pub
The Megabus was 40 minutes late (a car wreck on the motorway, apparently) and the driver seemed somewhat competence-challenged – he never came round to check anyone's tickets, and managed to lose a wing mirror halfway there, as well as setting off 20 minutes late from the rest stop – but we arrived in one piece in Memphis, only an hour behind schedule, and had a damn comfy (and wi-fi enabled) ride. Basically the journey was fine (mirror incidents aside) once we got going: but the aircon was off for twenty minutes before we left so we were all slowly broiling in the Tennessee heat, especially on the top deck. Still (said one of the group of African-American teachers who were sitting at the back) “think what Rosa (Parks) went through ...”. Indeed.

Why can't you go both ways?
I wrote some verses of a lamenting country song while we were waiting though, to amuse Facebook, so my time wasn't wasted. Or perhaps it was.

Ohhh the Megabus to Memphis got me steamin'
Steamin' just like cattle in a pen
And now I'm spending all this goddam journey schemin'
How to never ride the Meg-a-bus again ...

Well the Megabus to Memphis showed up tardy
We was waitin' forty minutes in the sun
When we got to Memphis we was gonna party
But now we're tuckered, stick-a-fork-in-me-I'm-done

Oh the driver ain't so good at speakin' English
And he lost a mirror halfway down the road
And the wireless connectivity is rubbish 
All in all, we're lucky we ain't gettin' towed ...

Next stop: Memphis! (obviously) - then on to New Orleans! See y'all there!

PS: Here's a little video I made of the stadium and the river - tell me if it doesn't work.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

... been to Boston

Boston has a reputation – in the US at least – for being a city Europeans feel comfortable in (perhaps because of its inhabitants' other reputation as being rude and standoffish). The first reputation, I can report, is well-deserved; because it's a pre-car city (unlike, say, Las Vegas or most of LA) it's built on a human scale as far as distance is concerned: it's also known as “the walking city”. The town centre is small and a bit higgledy-piggledy – not the ramrod gridlines of midtown New York (or indeed Nashville, of which more later) and many of the 18th and 19th century buildings have been preserved: in short, it feels a bit like home.

State House (1700s) with skyscrapers
The second reputation, however, is quite undeserved: Bostonians are just as friendly as any other Americans (and friendlier than nearby New Yorkers) – even though they don't indulge in the slightly alarming Southern habit of touching your arm when giving directions/advice. The people are ever so happy to help (yes, even tourists) and the general have-a-nice-day quotient is pretty high.

One of the most important things to do in Boston is find somewhere decent to stay: it's an expensive city and accommodation is at a premium. Bex did the best she could with the Rough Guide info she had, but unfortunately our youth hostel at 40 Berkeley Street was both pretty expensive ($135/about £90 for a two-bed private room per night) and a little … prisony (see below).
One night's hard labour, no parole.
Holloway-tastic! A Travelodge – if they existed over here – would have been cheaper and better, but that's Boston for you. Also, their promised wifi was down, which sent me into a spiral of withdrawal symptoms complicated by jetlag on the first night, resulting in a bout of extreme sulking: if Bex weren't used to dealing with problem teens she probably would have lamped me. Luckily we found a rather better place for the second night for only $30 (about £10 each) more.

This was the recently relocated Hostelling International Boston, a place so hip and exclusive that they didn't answer the phone and their website had no details of what they offered, room pics, facilites etc. - only a booking form. But we were pretty desperate to escape Berketraz so we booked the last room and humped our stuff half a mile across town. This is what the bedroom and ensuite bathroom looked like (it was communal bathrooms at Berketraz, before you ask):
Map of Boston tube on shower curtain!

Wow! Nice beds, a desk and a telly! Our cup runneth over ...

Swipe me! A sexy lobby full of pretty people (and Bex)
Now that's more like it. HI Boston had working wifi, a TV in the room, sleeping space for three(!) and was five minutes from downtown – the theatre district, the cinemas, and, crucially, the trolleybuses. I can highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston with about £50/$80 per night to spend on accommodation: it's basically a hip, minimalist hotel ... although if you want bacon & eggs in the morning you'll have to go out, because the breakfast is pretty basic; self-service bread, bagels, cereal & yoghurt.

But anyway, back to the trolleybuses. These are a staple of the Boston tourist scene, and are so popular that there are three rival companies competing for your custom: OldTown Tours (wooden seats, old-timey-looking buses, Top Deck (two-storey open coaches with fully padded seats for the more comfort-seeking/obese tourist) and another one I forget. All tours are narrated by the drivers, with varying degrees of humour and success; all also include some freebies.
Inside of the trolleybus

Outside (with waving idiots)
Old Town are the most expensive at $42 per (two day) ticket – and also, be warned, they don't go to Harvard, though they do cross the Charles River into Cambridge and show you MIT. But their driver-guides were great and their service is the most frequent – every 15 minutes, which is useful if you intend to use the trolleys as a sort of supplementary public transport (Boston also has a swift and efficient five-line underground system called the T). Unlike normal buses and the T, the trolleys only go clockwise around the city, but if you're not in a hurry this won't be a problem … and you'll get to see Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox for whom Babe Ruth played), the Christian Science HQ (a mahusive domed church), the eighteenth-century State House, Boston Common (beautiful public park) and its swan boats, the Cheers bar (outside only) and more.

The Old Town ticket also includes a 45-minute tour of the inner Boston Harbour – which was great, as you can hop off to visit the USS Constitution – built in 1797, it's the oldest continuous-service warship in history – and poke around (admission's free, though security is a bit of a pain). Finally, you get into the State House (see above), from the balcony of which the Declaration of Independence was first read.
Where everybody knows you're a tourist ...

Hancock's togs
Squee! It only takes about 30 minutes to go round as it's so small, but it's a lovely Georgian building with a great gift shop and you get to see John Hancock's coat and Bible.But enough of history and culture! What about the food? Well, for that I'm going to need a whole separate blog post, so hold your horses – in the meanwhile I give you ...

Dunkin' Donuts is BIG in Boston. I mean really big – their slogan is “America runs on Dunkin'” and if you lived in Boston, where there is literally one on every street, you'd believe it. (It's less evident in the South – Nashville didn't have a branch that I saw). The great thing about Dunkin' Donuts is that it does more than just do(ugh)nuts: it does decent-strength coffee (with syrups which I LOVE) and it has the best vegetarian selection of any major chain: veggie burritos, egg and cheese muffins, egg white flatbreads and Texas Toast Grilled Cheese are all on the menu.

If you're a vegan you're pretty screwed, but that's true of much of the US. The only thing you could eat – potentially – would be the spinach and artichoke dip which appears on almost every bar menu and seems to be a local speciality. But I'm pretty sure they put cheese in that :/

Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee, where we go bar-hoppin', drive to Jack Daniel's distillery, discover why you should always carry a credit card, and Bex buys some cowboy boots. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

... been on an American road trip

So here's the thing: I haven't updated this blog for a while (mea culpa - been busy promoting the book and writing the next one ... and the Olympics ... and blah blah fishcakes excuses ...)


Me and my sister Bex - well, actually more her, because she's extremely organised, and can drive - are about to realise a long-held dream of taking a road-trip across America!

We'll be flying, driving and possibly coaching or training to some of the best bits of the USA - many of which neither of us have ever visited before - including Boston, Nashville, Memphis (she's an Elvis fan), New Orleans, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, LA and finally New York - where I'm going to attend my very first Liars' League New York City event, having been a silent partner across the waves since its inception.

We are both unreasonably excited, and have probably packed far too much. But the deal is that if she drives, I'll blog the trip (with photos and everything) - so watch this space ...