Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Joy of Flying

Plane travel is certainly convenient when you consider how long a ship or train takes, but I'm sure we can all agree that the experience of flying, from packing to security to boarding to disembarking and waiting for luggage, is uncomfortable at best and can sometimes even be a humiliating test of endurance.

One of the VERY few pleasures of flying is reading through the SkyMall catalog that you find in the seat pocket on any major airline. The Star Trek "Captain's Chair" seems to have disappeared from the current edition (replaced by King Tut's chair?), but you can still find the the following gems:

Bigfoot the Garden Yeti. Never mind that Bigfoot is clearly not a Yeti due to his geographical location. He's not even real, so shut up with your species talk already!

Porch Potty. This is so that your dog can pee on fake grass, in the house or on your terrace.

And this one is my absolute favorite, because of the videos of the cats pooping in the toilet.

Who says flying isn't fun? There's at least twelve minutes of hilarity on every flight, longer if you're a slow reader!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Expedition Artifacts

I went to London last weekend to be a fan-girl. I was there to watch a few classic writers speak. "Travel writers," we call them, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the term, which can mean anything from repackagers of tourist board propaganda to presenters of researched literary narratives.

I've long held that I'm not precisely a travel writer. I write about myself and the adventures I have when I'm on the road. Yes, I am a traveling writer. Am I travel writer? That depends on your personal definition of travel writing. Amanda aims to take back the term into the realm of legitimacy. I'm probably too tired—too beaten by the perception of travel writing as a way to get glamorous free trips in exchange for presenting the tourism board's point of view—to fight back. There's not much glamour in genuine writing, which mostly involves tons of research followed by sitting in a room for months on end while wishing you'd taken a job as a whale-guts-sorter instead. Anyway, I don't write to describe a sense of place. I write to work out what goes on in my own head when I'm presented with a crazy new situation. I'm whatever you think. Expedition writer. Travel writer. Autobiography writer. Vanity writer. All of the above, maybe.

I'm a hardcore fan of travel writing in its most classic definition. It's the great explorers that I obsess over. Mostly the British ones, who took to the unknown road in inappropriate clothing. My favorite is Shackleton, who mixed bravado and daring with a fair bit of spirit-of-the-time cluelessness.

The travel writing event I was at last weekend was at the Royal Geographic Society in London. That's the organization that has been associated with many of the great colonial-era explorers, including Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, and Hillary.

I was pretty excited to be there in the first place, but then when I went on a brief tour of the reading room, I completely geeked out.

The librarian showed prints from Frank Hurley's "Endurance" plates, watercolors of Africa by Samuel Baker, Mary Kingsley's hat she wore while exploring West Africa, Antarctic expedition shopping lists, and old maps.

You can take a look here at some of the materials they have in the Foyle Reading Room.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mini-hippo Added for Scale

Another shot of our major winter event.

Snowy Morning

Shoulda stayed in Spain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Toy

Here's my new caganer that I bought in Barcelona last Thursday. I was pretty disappointed in the selection this time. No Fidels, Obamas, Bushes, or Tin Tins. I bought the Prince Charles but wasn't totally sold on it. Even then, I bought the last one, out of the display case.

Here he is with all of his friends in my apartment.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Being Abroad is the Easy Part

I rolled out of bed at around six Monday—UK time. That's one in the morning back home.

I showered and packed, unplugged my assorted chargers, then took one last look around my room at the Holiday Inn Ariel by Heathrow. When I'd booked the room, I'd been interested in the cheap rate and free bus from the airport, and hadn't given thought to the last time I'd been in this hotel. It was with Herr Marlboro in spring of 2005, a few months before moving to Uganda. I looked out of the restaurant window at where he'd worked on his motorbike in the parking lot and didn't feel too bad about things. This hotel had ghosts, but only mildly curious ones. I'm not still spinning from the first year of this blog.

London was gray—or rather grey—and raining on this Monday morning. I checked out and trudged across the street to the bus stop. At the Central Bus Terminal, I stepped over puddles to get inside the airport. At the self check-in, I snarled at a uniformed attendant who implied that I was a moron for not knowing to choose "Check-in without bags" since "Check-in with bags" was grayed out.

"Like my colleague just told you, check-in here and then carry your bag over there."

"You've got to admit that it looks like I should click 'Check-in with bags.'" I was checking my backpack, now heavy and stuffed full of new clothes I'd purchased in Barcelona. As heavy as it's ever been, even when laden down with a parka in Siberia. I'd bought a cute blue wheelie bag before I'd left home but there'd been snow on the ground on the day I was flying, plus it turned out that I couldn't fit much in the cute blue wheelie bag. I'd left it lying empty on my bed, zipped open and waiting for me to pack it.

"Yes, it does. That's true."

"So I'm not stupid, like you just implied I am?"

"No, NO! Of course you're not stupid."

"That's good. I was worried when you said that bit about your colleague having told me already, that I must be stupid. I wouldn't want you to think I'm stupid."

"No, no, you're not stupid."

mutter mutter yeahwell grumble ignore glare check-in

After some wretched toast and eggs, I headed to the gate and got on the plane. I always take an aisle seat in the middle row these days, and check my seat assignment to make sure I'm next to an empty seat at check-in. This works most of the time, except on full flights. No one wants the middle seats.

So I had two or three seats to myself for the long journey across the Atlantic. I slept some and managed to eat a fairly tasteless pizza an hour before landing at noon, home time.

I got through Immigration and grabbed my bag quickly, got on the LIRR and was at my office across from Penn Station at two. Not bad.

And after work, I went to my Flash class, which is from 6-10. I left my backpack at work. I'd come back and pick it up later. I couldn't very well drag it to Flash class. I would if I were teaching—my students are used to my quirks, and I'd gone straight from class to Kuwait last year. But I was a student, not a teacher in this class.

By 9:30, I had a raging headache, was starved for something more than that icky pizza I'd had on the plane, and was retaining no more than "I wonder if I could use Dot Syntax as a writing pseudonym," so I left early and went back to my office to get my bag. Since it was raining, I wanted to avoid being outside with my bags and laptop. I would, I figured, catch the A train to Port Authority, where I'd find the bus that goes straight to my front door.

Yeah, right.

At the gate the 126 usually leaves from, the doors were locked. They lock at 10 and the bus leaves from a different gate. I bought my ticket from the vending machine, then went up to the 400s, where there was copious signage for which bus left from which gate. None of these signs, unfortunately, mentioned my bus.

I asked some people. "Which gate is for the 126 to Jersey City?"

"Jersey City? The 126 goes to Hoboken."

sigh. I'd been here before.

"No, once an hour it goes on to Hamilton Park in Jersey City."

That once an hour, 10:20, was nigh.

I rushed back down to the usual gate to read the sign again. Actually, rush is an exaggeration. You can't rush with a huge piece of luggage.

I still had my raging headache. Now my muscles ached too from bag-lugging, and I was really, really tired. And seriously grumpy. And if someone had put monkey eyeballs coated in sugar in front of me, I would probably have devoured them.

I read the sign and rushed about halfway back to the gate before looking at my watch, then cross-checking the time with my phone.

Nope. I wasn't going to make any 10:20 bus to Hamilton Park.

I sighed with great melodrama and headed back down to the A train. What a stupid waste of time.

The A took me to 14th, where I walked up some steps, down a corridor, down some steps, and caught the L to Sixth Avenue. There I went up some steps, up a corridor, up some more steps, down a corridor, through the turnstiles—oops, no more money on farecard, better put some on, wait, here comes the train, oh, good it's not my train, it's the Hoboken one, maybe I should get on it anyway, it's here after all, and I could change to the other train there, no no, I'll have better luck at Grove Street where there are always taxis so I better get the Journal Square train—and sat down to wait.

A woman nearby was yelling loudly about wanting to shoot a man who was staring at her. No one was nearby.

Then an announcement came over the P.A.

"Due to a (rrrrtherpshgffkdj) condition, the Journal Square-33rd train is running subject to a 15-minute delay in both directions."


Across the platform, the woman continued to mutter and scream. I thought about joining her.

Next time the Hoboken train came, I got on.

At Hoboken, I dragged my luggage across the platform to the WTC train, which goes to my stop. I didn't actually *want* to go to my stop. I wanted to go where there was a reliable taxi rank. But my stop was better than waiting for ages in Manhattan, so off I went.

And there were usually taxis waiting across the street at my stop.

Except tonight, it was raining. You can never get a taxi in the rain.

I stood at the taxi stand in the rain, by the mall, and wondered if I cried, how would that affect anything? I certainly felt like crying, standing there in the rain with a huge headache, exhausted from overdoing it, carrying a giant bag. But that wouldn't help anything at all, so instead, I pulled out my umbrella and started walking home.

And when I got there, I gulped down a few handfuls of peanuts, threw all my wet clothes on the floor, curled up in the little corner of the bed and went to sleep, right next to my cute blue wheelie bag.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Geeking Out

So what am I doing in London this weekend anyway?

I'm just being a total fan-girl at the Royal Geographic Society. There was a travel writing event and both Jan Morris and Dervla Murphy spoke. I came over to see that.

Then when I discovered I could go downstairs to the Map Room to see artifacts from Shackleton and great African explorers, I was over the moon. No photos of that part though.

Jan Morris

Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy and some woman who claimed to have written some books

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Busy Day

"I'll sleep on the plane," I'd thought en route to my whirlwind weekend in London with a quick stop in Barcelona. "I'll just have to."

I maintain that I could have done it. IF I'd remembered my nerdy blow-up neck pillow and my earplugs. I had the eye-mask thingy, but that only went so far since a Spanish sports team was on board, along with an older women's travel club from an unspecified southern state. Everyone was chattering well into the night. And when I'd just start to drift off, I'd hear "I can't sleep at all, Myrtle, how about you?"

I'm guess Myrtle wasn't sleeping much either, so long as her pal kept trying to get her attention.

The night was long and I'm sure I never slept for a moment. But at nine a.m., I was standing in line at Immigration for non-EU passport holders in Barcelona in the new terminal. That was disconcerting—I'd forgotten a new terminal had opened and was not in any state to be confused. But I sat down for a morning coffee, then caught the €5 Aerobus to Plaza Catalunya.

I had my backpack with me, so rather than just melt on into the city, I had to jump on the red line to catch the metro to the bus station. I left it in a locker and bought a €12 one-way ticket for later that evening to Girona Airport, where my €39 Ryanair flight left for London Stansted.

Back on the red line to the yellow line to Jaume I. I was on a mission. I wanted to get to the boutiques before siesta came and shut several of them down until 4 p.m. It was about 11:30 by then.

First, I got out of the metro and headed right towards the Gothic neighborhood. The caganer store is just there on a small walk street. On my last trip, I'd scored a Tin Tin caganer, or maybe the Obama caganer. I no longer remember when I bought which—but this time? The caganer selection wasn't too good. My choices were limited to Spanish sports stars and Spanish politicians. One lone Prince Charles sat in the display case in the window, so I bought him.

I reversed course, passed the metro, and headed down Princesa Street. I stopped at Fete, On Land, and Miriam Ponsa. Great sales were happening at On Land and Miriam Ponsa so I dropped a fair bit of dough on Princesa Street, before heading deeper into Born to visit Anna Povo. That store is open during siesta so the pressure was off.

By then, I was getting hungry. And I was carrying a lot of bags. I stopped in a tourist restaurant for an adequate menu del dia, or price-fix lunch. It was a not-particularly great restaurant near Plaza del Pi, and I knew that already having eaten there before, but it was fast and there when I needed to eat.

And I didn't want to stray too far from Pi, because that's where Petritxol is, a tiny alley that features my favorite clothing store in Barcelona AND some of the best hot chocolate in town.

My lunch stop had cost me though. It was too late to get xocolata until after 4 or 5. I couldn't wait that long.

I stopped in Bionic, the Boyd Baten store, picked up a new shirt, stopped by Tomo II for a few more shirts, then headed to a place around the corner for xocolata. I hadn't been there in years and it wasn't as good as the stuff in the alley. I think I've had better even at fast food restaurants. Nevertheless, a gal can only drink so much thick, creamy hot chocolate at a time so that would have to do. Plus, it had the advantage of being open.

By now it was past three, and I needed to check in with work, so I jumped back on the metro and raced up to the Starbucks with the desks and power outlets, just above the main plaza. I bought a cappucino, plugged in my laptop to sign onto my Boingo account and...


Something was wrong with the certificate. I looked around. No one had their laptops out and on.

Ah. Well, maybe there'll be Internet at Girona Airport.

But last time I was there, there was almost nothing at Girona Airport. But that was years ago. I almost never fly out of Girona because it's so far away—an hour by bus. But a cheap fare's a cheap fare, and I've have had a tough time justifying an expensive flight for a whirlwind shopping expedition.

I gulped down my caffeine fix and headed back to the bus station on the metro. I sat on a bench for a minute and piggy-backed on an open wi-fi signal, downloading my mail. But looking at my watch, I could see that I had to hurry onto the 5 p.m. Girona bus, so I raced off to the lockers, got my backpack, and shoved it under the bus. I lugged my pile of shopping bags onto the bus with me. I'd have to deal with it in Girona.

An hour later, I disembarked along with a lot of other disheveled folks. They all headed off to deal with the Ryanair formalities—which are pretty minor now that they insist on online check-in. My flight wasn't until 9, but I'd just wanted to get my bag checked and sit down somewhere with my laptop.

I unzipped my backpack and rearranged all my new clothes into it. I pulled out my boots, which no longer fit in the bag now that I'd stuffed it full of purchases. I placed my shoes in my bag instead. My socks would keep falling down but surely I'd survive this inconvenience somehow.

At check-in, there was no line. In the past, it had always been a nightmare. Maybe this new policy wasn't a bad thing. And almost no one else was checking luggage which was an additional fee. (My base fare was €14.99 and my bag fee was €15. The other 10 were Ryanair fees.)

With just my knapsack, I looked around for a place to sit down. Girona was as sad an airport as it had always been. I went through passport control. Same cafeteria. Was the McDonad's new? Had the hot dog stand always been there? But no wi-fi.

I used my laptop anyway, and then thought, "I'll just have a look at my iPhone." I'd put my UK chip in before I'd left home.

And to my surprise, I was suddenly online!

I didn't stay there. You don't want to be roaming on data, pretty much anywhere. But I was dazzled. My iPhone worked on the phone network in Europe! That's more than I can say for home, where I'm too cheap to fork over the high costs of phone data on a monthly plan. (I use a cheapie prepaid system with an older phone at home.)

Eventually, I stood in a snaking line of Ryanair customers, all wheeling fairly uniform mini-suitcases. Ryanair enforces size regulations and also forces people to carry on one item only. Purses and laptops go inside the carry-on. I don't really have a problem with this. I do have a problem with people dragging their worldly possessions onto the plane. I understand that luggage gets lost but those bins aren't designed to hold your kitchen sink.

There was a mad race for seats when the gates opened, but I didn't mind where I sat. It was a short flight to Stansted and a world of chattering-Myrtles couldn't have woken me up for the ride.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Here are a few highlights from my eight hours in Barcelona yesterday. Two shots of the shelves at the caganer store (the pickings were slim and I ended up buying a Prince Charles caganer to match my Tin Tin, Fidel, and Obama caganers), and one of some of the delicious xocolata Barcelona is famous for.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Mission

On Facebook, Otis had a thread going about pinball and reminded me that in the creaky old days, we'd spend hours (and lots of quarters) mastering the Elvira, Fish Tales, and Adams Family machines of Vazac's, Z Bar, and the Scorpio Bar. I don't drink so I got really good at it in time and even exerted some control over the machines. Though our pal Steve J could always beat me--he was a master.

And look what came up! A pinball "museum" in Asbury Park. Play all day for $20.

I have a field trip coming up in the spring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

From the Archives

In 1991, French artist Moebius sketched this on a paper tablecloth when we took him to lunch near my office.

I hesitated for a second, then my inner nerd took over and I took the tablecloth with me when we left.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Better Late?

Today I finished making these two supermarket bags.

Which I was, uh, making as Christmas presents.

Yes, last Christmas.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pride Goeth...

I've been researching mattress-buying, which is, as it turns out, a huge pain in the @ss.

There's three big-guys to look at, mid-level brands, and then there's IKEA. Each of the major and mid-level brands has three levels within the brands and then has multiple variants within each level. And nothing has the same branding as anything else just in case you, the consumer, get it in your head that you want to comparison shop. Silly consumer! How dare you think you have any control?

I went to the mattress store in Hoboken on the train this morning and went to Macy's yesterday. Then I walked from Grove Street PATH to get my car. My plan was to go by IKEA and try out their mattresses and then to go by the JC Sleepy's, since JC is what they call an "Urban Enterprise Zone." That means low sales tax in JC.


Drat! Foiled again!

I was standing in front of my garage. I'd totally forgotten that we'd had a snowstorm. I'd been glad to have a garage since it meant I didn't have to dig out my car. Which is good cuz I, uh, don't own a snow shovel.

There was a minor pile of snow in the street in front of my garage. The plows probably left it there.

With visions of spinning wheels, I realized that I wasn't going anywhere in my car.

And turned around and trudged home.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Brief Mention

I got mentioned in the writer center newsletter this month! For the Bolivian toilet article.

Belonging to the writing center is a lot like belonging to the gym. I think about going a lot and I pay for my membership every month.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Vast Improvement

We finally got our blizzard.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

City of Slush

We have a little snow on the ground in JC, but the "blizzard" was pathetic in Manhattan.

But I hear there's still time.

More Fun With Flash Class

There's a blizzard going on but the trains are running fine. I'm late for work... but not because of the snow.

I'm late for work because it took me all morning to figure out how to export this properly for my blog. This is important work, folks... the intro sequence* to "Bowser and the Ham."

*with apologies to Albert of Comicraft since I stole his lettering, and to the creator of RiffRaff, and to all pigs everywhere.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Day Out

I'm going to be in Barcelona for a day next week!

Okay, not even a day. I fly in first thing in the morning, spend the day there, and fly on through on Ryanair to a travel writing conference in London that night. And will be gone just for the weekend plus two days, since I have to be back to attend my Flash class on Monday. Oh yeah, and work.

It sounds crazy to go by Barcelona just for a day but I have to see if there are some new clothes that I must buy, and I also am really jonesin' for that thick hot chocolate that they make there.

I'm likely to be jetlagged out of my mind and desperate for sleep, but won't have a hotel room. My bag will be in a locker. I found one of those power napping places where you can nap for a half-hour but I'm thinking a hostel bed will be a better value as they won't throw me out after 30 minutes.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Experiments in Tech-land

I'm taking a class in Flash at the same school that I teach at.

Many years ago, I was pretty good at Director. And guess what, things have changed. I am already frustrated and having to read the damn textbook. Anyway, this small slideshow is both meaningful and meaningless. Sorry to put you through the learning curve with me.

But not really that sorry, I guess, or I wouldn't post my exercises.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Swearing at Machines

When the robots leave me a message, I always get annoyed.

They usually say something like this "This is the Citicard early warning system. Did you make a charge for $4.95 to ..."

I get crazy-irritated, because, duh, that's just me printing out postage.

So when I was running late for work this morning (I know, I don't work Fridays, but I had some stuff to do and was going to meet a friend for lunch) and a robot called me, I swore at it.

"Did you ... charge ... $65.20 ... for ... general mershandy?"

"*&^%$ that's general merchandise you piece of T^%)) machine!"

But the machine did not understand what I was trying to ask it, which was for more details. My memory doesn't work as well as it used to and while I didn't take my card out of my wallet yesterday, I also wasn't sure it wasn't just something taking a few days to post. When was the last time I used my credit card? Couldn't tell you. No idea. But I'm sure I used a virtual account number so I wasn't too worried.

The robot hung up on me after a while, so I called the bank.

A nice fellow in India went through the charges with me. Apparently they were all online and the number-snatcher had been entering the wrong expiration dates. Had I charaged at, some kind of executive gift place, or at a kids toy site? No, no, no.

I was glad at least I was nicer to the bank guy this time. Usually, I'm pretty obnoxious.

How the hell does this happen? My ATM card was compromised once too. I didn't use these in Mexico or and certainly not in other destinations over the holidays. I don't send the numbers flying over unsecured networks or public wifi, and anyway, I use virtual numbers online.

It's all kind of a mystery, but maybe I'll be a little nicer to the robots in the future.

Meanwhile, guess it's cash only for a while.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

More Adventures with Wheelie Bags

A few years ago, I got the bright idea that I needed to be more professional. That my filthy, massive backpack that had been around the entire world with me for a year—then zigzagged across the oceans as well as along from California to NYC in the back of my old car—was somehow inadequate for my work-related expat jaunts to Kuwait and Cairo.

This notion lasted exactly 10 hours, during which time I learned that one must consider the shape of subway turnstiles when purchasing luggage, and one should treat wheelie bags gently if one doesn't wish to break their handles.

I'm hell on wheels. It's true.

I ended up with a tall-and-skinny $35 wheeled duffel that I bought in the Outdoors section of a Barcelona department store.

This bag serves me well when I need to take my entire worldly goods along for months, and my backpack is perfect for shorter, rougher trips.

But now I wanted more.

'Cuz now the airlines are charging for bag-checking. Which is just silly. I want FEWER people to be dragging the kitchen sink onto the plane, bashing people in the head and clogging up the aisles. But the airlines are looking to save money, not thinking about passenger comfort and safety. And if I'm going away for the weekend, I don't want to pay an additional fee to throw a small duffel into the baggage hold.

So I bought a new bag. It's thin enough for the subway turnstiles and cute enough that I don't mind that it's a wimpy wheelie bag. I love it. I hope I don't break this one.