Thursday, December 10, 2009

Because the regular kind of surfing makes no sense in Scotland

A while back, a few friends of mine discovered a Web site called CouchSurfing. Essentially, it's a worldwide network of people offering up crash space to strangers, free of charge and quid pro quo. Because what could possibly go wrong there, right?

Actually, very little, because it's well-organised and remarkably safe. And even though it sounds strange -- let strangers stay on your couch? really? -- I can think of no better way to actually discover the true fibre of a place.

Case in point, without CouchSurfing, Kat and I would likely never have done any of the following during our whirlwind visit to Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland:

-- Spent a day visiting Edinburgh Castle with a native German speaker, then spent the afternoon wandering around the city with both her and her boyfriend, confusing them to death by teaching them idiomatic English. (It gave me flashbacks of teaching my French exchange student the words from the theme to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air -- it was the only rap song I knew the words too -- and then attempting to explain what 'chillin' out, maxin', relaxin' all cool' meant.)

-- Gone Ceilidh dancing in the upstairs section of an Edinburgh bar -- with aforementioned exchange student wearing a kilt -- and discovering that once you get the beat, it starts to make sense.

-- Subsequently stayed out until 3 in the morning with four other, non-CouchSurfing-related complete strangers, reveling in the idea of making the world a smaller place.

-- Found ourselves standing in a kitchen in Dublin as two of seven people of seven different nationalities. (English, American, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Basque, if you're keeping score at home.) And, of course, found ourselves realising that it's quite sad that we don't speak any other languages.

-- Eaten an Italian meal prepared by an actual Italian -- and an ex-professional water polo playing Italian at that.

-- Gotten arguably the most honest tour of Belfast's troubled areas that one can get -- from someone who recognises the folly on both sides. And paid nothing for it, one might add.

-- Gone to 'Soul and Funk' night at a pub in Belfast, complete with a handful of guys with full-on 70s sideburns and hair. (How they get away with that in day-to-day life one can only wonder.) With, naturally, another batch of people from about six different countries. (France, Italy, Australia ... and a few others, I think.)

In summary, if you didn't catch that, CouchSurfing=good. I recommend it to anyone.

And the cities themselves? It really was a bit of a blur, but Edinburgh -- fit like a glove. Felt comfortable there even on the airport bus, and that feeling never faded. Dublin -- too expensive for my tastes, and somehow a little less friendly. More of a big-city feel. Belfast -- still a very conflicted place, even as the tensions of the past begin to fade somewhat. Stuck in a weird place between wanting to move beyond its history and knowing that it's what draws most people who come to visit (other than Dubliners looking to take advantage of the exchange rate, that is.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009


So my friend Kat is visiting from Florida. It's incredibly exciting, and we're going gallivanting about Scotland and Ireland starting Tuesday.

That is, of course, if I don't die of residual embarrassment first, courtesy of an ill-timed trip to a train toilet.

In the interest of full disclosure -- or just the opportunity for people to make fun of me just a little bit more -- I should say that several months ago I used a train toilet, but neglected to push the lock button, something I realised at exactly the moment someone else pushed the open button from outside.

Pushing the open button causes the door to slide open very, very slowly. It's like being on a game show, except the prize reveal -- well, let's just say it would be difficult to underbid the value.

We decided to go to London on Saturday, despite the weather being awful even by English standards -- wind, rain, etc. And as you do, I needed to go to the toilet.

Making my way to the nearest one, I found it occupied, so I proceeded to the next carriage, where I saw that the ring of lights around the open button was on and concluded it was empty. And though the door didn't open the first time I pushed the button, I assumed that was a mere technical error and tried again.

It was that exact moment that one of the gentlemen sitting near the bathroom decided to say, 'hey, there's someone in there.' And there was. A young lady of about 25, looking rather flustered and appearing as though she wished the floor would open up and drop her onto the tracks. Understandable. I know how she feels.

Making a hasty retreat, I decided I really didn't have to go that badly and returned to my seat, sharing only the briefest of details with Kat and figuring that would be the end of it.

It wasn't, though. It never is, is it?

A few minutes later, the doors to our carriage opened, and who should walk through but that same young lady. I turned immediately to the window, hoping that if I did my best to avoid being seen, she wouldn't even notice me, a strategy that was remarkably effective.

Far. Too. Remarkably. Effective.

Why? Because she sat down in the seat opposite us. And started telling the story to a friend on the phone. I stared out the window, now myself wishing the floor would open and drop me onto the tracks. Kat and I exchanged occasional furtive glances, smirking all the while.

She noticed that, of course, and apologised after she got off the phone, then started retelling the story. I tried to subtly identify myself, but to no avail, so eventually I just had to tell her. Several more phone calls followed, in which her level of bemused embarrassment had understandably risen, and the remainder of the train journey took, oh, I don't know, 47 hours. (Actually, she was rather nice, and we chatted for several minutes.)

Finally, we got to London, she fleeing for the door, an awaiting cab and a stiff drink.

But a story with only one Billy Mays moment just isn't good enough. Oh no.

For when we got up, I was most surprised to hear someone say my name. Maybe because I know so few people here, relatively speaking, or maybe because I was just willing it to be for someone else, I tried to ignore it. But it continued. Of course.

Sitting directly opposite us, for most of the journey, had been a longtime friend of my father's and his wife, people I have met before. And yes, they'd heard just about everything.

I think I stopped blushing a little while ago. I hate train bathrooms.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sure, the free drugs are nice, but I really wanted to face off with a death panel

When I showed this to my dear, dear friend Kat, she assured me I was 'not that boring.'

I know, I know. Worst blogger ever. I guess I feel like blog posts should be all whiz-bang, yeehaw exciting, rather than ... whatever it is I could actually be posting about.

Life on this strange little island, though, continues pretty much as before. The job search remains tedious. (There used to be a neat little metaphor about a lighthouse of optimism here. Then someone shot the bulb out.) Still going to a few football matches a week -- though you all bore of that easily, apparently! And I still occasionally prove useful on quiz nights. (Need to know which is the largest state by population? I'm your guy. Need to know trivia about long-running BBC children's show Blue Peter? Erm, does anyone else need a beer?)

But. But! I have now had my first few sips at the fountain of life that is socialised medicine. (Yes, I spelled it with an 's'. If I ever DO get a job, I figure the practice will be helpful.) As such, I now feel utterly qualified to pronounce truths on the long-running debate of the relative merits of public and private health care.

Or, you know, just to relate what actually happened.

I rang up my local GP back in August, because I needed some new prescriptions. Was given an appointment for a few weeks later, though I think the timeline was more because there was no urgency to my particular situation. If I'd needed to get in sooner, I probably could have.

Once I had my prescriptions, I went over and got one filled. Because I'm unemployed, it was free. Huzzah, I thought ... but this could be annoying if I ever find work, since prescriptions for the working are £7.20 apiece, and I was going to need quite a few of them filled.

But, a little bit of Google sleuthing later, I learned that diabetics also receive free prescriptions! And not just for diabetic supplies -- for everything. (So I got THAT going for me, which is nice.) They're also free for cancer patients, anyone over 60 or under 16 (18 if you're still in school), pregnant or a new mom (er, mum),

That first visit produced nothing more than prescriptions. But I was sent a letter with an appointment for a diabetic check, which was Tuesday. And I was able to surreptitiously work out how the office works; they hand you a placard with your GP or nurse's name on it, and there's a board with all their names and lights. When yours lights up, you go back. Sounds simple ... but it's not as though they explain it. (Then again, how many people come in at 28 having never visited a GP before? Exactly.)

Before the diabetic check, I had to have blood drawn, which meant visiting a separate phlebotomy clinic. Unsure of how it actually worked, I wandered in looking, I'm sure, like a deer caught in headlights and taking a couple minutes to realise that I was supposed to take a numbered ticket and sit down.

My ticket number was 34. They were on 24. I figured I'd be there for at least an hour.

And 20 minutes later, I was back out the door. Portrait of efficiency, that place was. Three ladies drawing blood with the surgical precision of a vampire. (And not one of those 'shiny' ones, either.)

So then the actual appointment was Tuesday. Most of it was with Nurse Caryl, who did all the basic things, height, weight, etc., and gave me a flu shot and pneumonia shot (also free because I'm diabetic ... there is a theme here). My GP checked my eyes, feet, etc. Both of them were very nice, if slightly baffled by exactly WHY I happen to be in this country. (Most commonly asked question so far: 'So how long are you staying for?')

I also was instructed to contact one of the area diabetes clinics for yet more follow-up; I expect this may be where there's actual discussion of my management, as Tuesday's visit seemed to be more about possible complications, etc.) And I'm also supposed to get some sort of retinal photography done. All very fancy.

So all in all, I'm pretty pleased with the whole thing. Certainly the most disorienting aspect is that when you're done with the GP (or blood-taking lady), you just walk out. You don't have to stop by the desk ... because you don't have to pay.

Negatives? Yeah, maybe a couple. The prescription system's a bit tricky ... especially when you don't understand it. Essentially, I have to take my repeat order form into the GP's office, then come back a couple days later to pick up an actual prescription, which I then get filled. That's made slightly more annoying by the fact that the GP didn't prescribe all that much of any one thing. (Indeed, when I said I tested my blood sugar 6-8 times a day, he recoiled in horror and said it should be more like 2-3. But that's an argument he's going to lose, and so far I don't see there's much he can do to stop me.)

And there is a slight sense of being bounced around a little, but then it's not as though one doesn't visit specialists in the U.S. either.

As for the death panels, I'm sure they're back there somewhere. I'll keep looking.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cliff's Notes version

To those who bore easily where sports are concerned, the post below can be summed up with 'England good, Australia bad.' But read it anyway, ya ingrates!

(That's right: the beatings will continue until morale improves. Or at least until I get a job.)

Why is this man kissing an egg cup?

Photos in this post shamelessly, uh, borrowed from the Times.

To an Englishman, they are some of the sweetest words in creation.

To an Australian, they are devastating, deeply painful words, on a par with 'We're all out of Foster's' or 'The dingo ate your baby.'

And to most of the rest of the world, they are utterly, bafflingly meaningless.

'England have regained the Ashes.' A five-word summation of a month-and-a-half-long roller coaster in a sport that I can all but guarantee will never catch on in the United States.

Cricket has a curious reputation outside the eight or 10 countries that follow it -- and even within them. What kind of sport takes five days to play and has 'tea breaks,' the general line of reasoning goes. Surely nothing interesting can take that long.

And it's true. There are tea breaks. It does take five days (well, sometimes). And there are extended periods of time when nothing happens. But even when nothing's happening, something's happening, and in following this series (because, well, it's something to do), I've come to realise that.

So why 'The Ashes?' Because, well, because England are sore losers, pretty much. Back in the late 1800s, England lost to Australia (then still a colony, and a penal colony at that) in a test match at a ground called the Oval. So humiliating was this defeat that a paper called The Sporting Times published an obituary of English cricket that included the line 'the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.'

When England visited Australia next, the tour was dubbed 'the quest to regain the Ashes,' a group of women presented a small urn, allegedly containing the ashes an item of cricket equipment, to the England players and a (slightly bizarre) tradition was born. (The urn pictured above is not the real urn, which is pretty much in a museum.)

More than a hundred years later, it remains international cricket's biggest rivalry.

In its modern-day form, the Ashes is contested every other year, alternating between England and Australia. Australia dominated the late 80s, the 90s and the early ... whatever we're calling this decade, but England finally ended the run with a 2-1 series victory in 2005. (A series is five matches, but a match can end in a draw -- which isn't the same thing as a tie.)

Australia, though, won them back in late 2006 (cricket is a summer sport, and so the Ashes is conducted in December when it's held in Australia), whitewashing England 5-0. And there was little to suggest that England could put up much of a fight this year, because, well, England weren't very good.

But they were good enough.

(Quick interlude for a very quick overview of the rules: Each team can bat twice in a match. Each turn at bat is called an innings. (Not an inning.) In each innings, a team gets 10 wickets, the equivalent of outs, and as much time to use them as they want. Scores reach into the hundreds.)

The first match ended in an improbable draw, which, as I said, isn't the same thing as a tie. What it basically means is that over the course of the five days, the two teams are unable to complete two innings(es?) each. And that means that even if you're hopelessly unable to win, you can hold out until the end of play and at least not lose. It's the equivalent of hitting 69 straight foul balls with two outs in the ninth of a 10-1 baseball game and the umpires saying 'You know what? This is going nowhere. You boys had enough?'

(There are those who would argue that stuff like this is the reason Test cricket isn't as popular now, having been passed in the eyes of many by the shorter versions of the game, especially Twenty20. And it can be very boring. But that's why they sell beer.)

And in England's case, what they did, with the last two batsmen seeing out the final 69 balls of the match without making an out, was the equivalent of two relief pitchers standing at the plate and hitting those 69 foul balls. (This would be one of those times where, although nothing is really happening, everything is happening. They weren't scoring runs, but they didn't have to.)

But so dominant were Australia, despite not winning, that there seemed little reason to expect they wouldn't win the series, especially with the second match at Lord's (remember when I went there?), where Australia hadn't lost for 75 years.

Like I said, hadn't. England steamrolled to victory, making history and surprising pretty much everyone.

By the third match, I was pretty much hooked, even though I can't afford Sky and therefore couldn't watch on TV. But because it rained the entire third day, Australia were able to force a draw of their own.

Then they bashed England's heads in in the fourth match, evening the series with a victory so dominant they didn't even have to bat their second innings, England scoring less in its two combined that Australia did in its first.

And since a drawn series means the Ashes stay with whoever has them, England had to win the fifth match, and Australia only had to draw. The English never having been famous for their optimism, hopes were not high, to say the least.

England batted first, which was crucial, but didn't make a very good score. Australia then started their innings really well, and it all looked like it was going wrong. But then, in two hours, England took eight of Australia's wickets, an incredible achievement at any point of any match, but even more incredible in this one.

It was a 22-1 run in basketball, back-t0-back-to-back home runs in baseball. You felt a wicket was going down with virtually every ball. In literally two hours of a series that lasted a month and a half, England had, essentially, won the Ashes.

Having finished the Aussies after, yes, tea, England managed a better score in their second innings, and with more than two days to go, Australia needed 546 runs to win the game, the equivalent of scoring 10 runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 11-10.

The all-time record for such a situation is 418 -- though England managed to allow a successful 'chase' of 387 against India just last year. But remember, Australia didn't need to win. If they could somehow bat out the final two-plus days, they could draw the match and keep the Ashes.

And after a strong start, it all looked sickeningly possible. I was worried, the radio commentators were worried (well, except for the Australian ones), everyone was worried. And not just about a draw ...

But when Australia's third wicket went, early in the afternoon, everything changed again. We knew we were going to win. It was only a matter of when.

And a few hours later, when we did, I will admit, I got a little emotional.

Over cricket? Really? Yep.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Who's Extra-special? YOU'RE Extra-special

On May 15 of next year, some 90,000 people will crowd into England's national stadium, Wembley, to watch the final of the Football Association Cup, or F.A. Cup as it's known by, well, everyone. Millions more around Britain will watch on TV, and quite a few more will watch around the world.

And with any luck, the 2018 World Cup final, too.

It is a grand occasion, one of the highlights of the English football calendar, and that is reflected in its prominence, scheduled for the week after the regular season ends and the only game in town, so to speak. (The tournament itself is conducted alongside the normal league campaign, rather than as a postseason playoff as is typical in American sports.)

The final itself has been contested, in recent years, mostly by members of 'The Big 4,' the four large clubs that have dominated the past decade and a half of English football. (Even anti-fans of soccer have heard of these: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.) A glorious exception came two years ago, when the local Premier League side, Portsmouth, were the winners.

Fifteen months later, the club is nearly bankrupt!

For the average fan, the F.A. Cup begins in January, when the teams from the top two divisions enter the draw for the third round. Most will know that lower-level teams come in for the first round, a couple of months earlier.

But before the 'first round,' there are six other rounds, starting with something called the Extra-Preliminary Round, followed by the Preliminary Round and four Qualifying Rounds. For a club to advance from the Extra-Preliminary Round to the First Round thus requires six victories -- as many as would be required for Manchester United to win the Cup.

That's because the F.A. Cup is open not only to the country's biggest clubs, but also to some of its smallest. (Briefly, the Premier League is at the top of the 'pyramid,' which goes about 20 levels deep. There is theoretically promotion and relegation to and from each of these levels, though stadium restrictions put a limit on that. The F.A. Cup is open to teams in the top 10 levels of the pyramid, though many at the 10th level aren't eligible because their grounds don't have things like floodlights.)

And part of the 'magic' of the F.A. Cup comes from the fact that, theoretically, any team can reach the Final, even if, in practice, that never happens. And more magic is found in the way games are set up -- there is no seeding at all, and any team can play any other team. Manchester United, therefore, could play Chelsea in the third round, or it could be drawn against some lucky lower-level team that's won through a half-dozen rounds already. And even more remarkably, Manchester United could be forced to play at that team's ground! (Although a club of Man U's size would generally require the tie to be moved to a larger ground.)

It's all highly unlikely, of course, but it's not impossible. Just two years ago, a team called Chasetown entered the Cup in the Preliminary Round and made it all the way to the Third Round, where they were drawn against Cardiff City, a side from the second-highest division in the country. And Cardiff were forced to travel to Chasetown, where the average attendance is something like 200. More than 2,000 packed into a tiny ground to watch Chasetown improbably take the lead before bowing out to a respectable 3-1 defeat.

Four months later, Cardiff lost the F.A. Cup final to Portsmouth.

So less than three months removed from the last final, contested on the day I touched down in England, the F.A. Cup began again last weekend. And because I am hopelessly romantic about things like this, I had to attend. Saturday saw me at a familiar venue, Fareham Town's delightfully quirky little ground, where the home side were playing local rivals Moneyfields. (The draw is heavily regionalised in the early rounds, so local derbies, as they're called, are common.)

Attendance at Fareham's first two home games was 102 and 103, and the excitement of the F.A. Cup swells the crowd for this game to, um, around 160. With 203 Extra-Preliminary Round games, that likely means that the attendance at ALL of them was less than half the total that will watch the final in nine months.

But although Fareham Town's players are more likely to walk on the moon than appear in the F.A. Cup final, there was no lack of energy about the game. A decent cup run can mean a financial boost for a club, if nothing else. And with Fareham's players all on, at least according to the man standing next to me, £10 a week (plus undisclosed bonuses for winning), even the £750 prize money for winning in the Extra-Preliminary Round will go quite a long way.

But there's to be no prize money for Fareham this year, even after they take the lead early in the second half. A pair of goals from free kicks by Owen Elias, the second in the final minute of the match, knocks them out, the fact that Elias is an ex-Fareham player only making the sting worse.

Drawn games in the F.A. Cup are replayed at the ground of the visiting team. Once upon a time, they were replayed as many times as necessary, but the constraints of the modern game mean replays are now decided by extra-time and penalty shootouts, if necessary. The semifinals and finals now have no replays at all.

But the Extra-Preliminary Round does, and that offers me another chance to dip my toe in the pool. A Google search helps me decide that I'm going to Pagham, a small town about 40 minutes to the east, where the local team is replaying a match against Banstead Athletic. (Pagham itself is a small seaside town and is apparently becoming popular with the celeb set, including Emma Bunton, the once and future Baby Spice. I don't recall seeing her at the game ...)

The pre-match announcements remind us that extra-time and penalties are on offer, and it doesn't take long to reach the conclusion that that's where we may be going. There are few real chances, as both teams defend rather desperately, and the match seems destined either for a shootout or a late, late winner.

That winner, much to the home fans' chagrin, nearly comes at the end of regulation, when Banstead are awarded a penalty kick. Most of the fans appear already to have given up hope of victory -- at least until the kick is blazed at least a foot over the crossbar, still rising as it hits the net behind the goal.

Extra-time, then, with the game still 0-0. But it doesn't take long for Banstead to redeem themselves, with a scramble near the goal ending when one of their substitutes bundles the ball over from about two yards out.

Not surprisingly, this is just the thing Pagham need to finally inject some urgency into their game, and they come close to scoring a couple of times. But their lot appears up when one of their substitutes flattens a Banstead player (during a Pagham attack, no less) and is ejected, leaving Pagham short-handed for the final 10-12 minutes of the game.

But they overcome the odds, and a scramble of their own ends with the ball crashing into the hand of a Banstead player in the penalty box, giving Pagham a penalty kick of its own. There is no repeat of the earlier calamity, and we go to the dreaded penalty shootout.

If, however, the keepers are feeling any nerves, they don't show it, seeking each other out to wish each other luck. And after the first Pagham penalty beats Banstead keeper Dave Tidy, he remarks to the fans behind the goal that nothing much can be expected of him, as he is just 'a fat, slow old ...' (He never finishes that sentence, leaving it to our imagination.)

A shock, then, when he saves the next one, though it is, in his words, 'the worst penalty ever.'

He saves Pagham's third as well, but his team's struggles continue, with their second crashing off the crossbar and the third saved by Pagham's Wes Hallett, whose pink-torsoed, black-sleeved goalkeeper's shirt is about two sizes too small, leaving him looking as though he turned up late at the Hello Kitty Football Shop's summer clearance sale.

In the end, Pagham can thank the goal frame for their spot in the Preliminary Round, Banstead's fifth penalty crashing off the post before Pagham's Andy Fox wins it with his side's final kick.

£750 in the bank, then, and a home game in the Preliminary Round against Walton Casuals. Only 13 wins from Wembley...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Nothin' doin'

Two more posts below this one. Cricket should be down below Wales, but it's not, and I don't feel like fiddling with it.

I had been waiting to update because I was hoping to have big news to share. I had a couple of job interviews last week, and I was confident I'd get at least one of them, and then I could put up a big, triumphant post.

But who wants to put up a post admitting defeat? Yeah, exactly. 0-for-2, and back to square one. Frustrating, that.

Where to now? Not sure, really. I'd like to continue pursuing editing jobs, but 64 quid a week doesn't go very far (especially if you take the train to interviews ...), so I fear it may come to stocking shelves somewhere for a little while. We'll see.

In the meantime, football season is right around the corner. I've managed to get out to a couple preseason games, which are as pointless as preseason games in any sport, but entertaining in their own way. Of course, last week, I was in long sleeves and kinda cold. 61 degrees on July 18? Welcome to England.

And lest you think I won't entertain you, play "spot your humble correspondent." These were at Fareham Town yesterday. Who? Exactly. (But they do have a neat little stand. And I enjoy lower-league football.) The photos are courtesy of the host club's Flickr site. (Not that I've asked permission or anything.)

The ball's in the air. That happens a lot at this level.

A very random shape for a stand.

Bats, balls and beer

If it looks like a baseball game and sounds like a baseball game ...

Wait a second ... that looks nothing like a baseball game. Also, you didn't see this picture. If the steward knew I'd taken this, he'd have thrown me from the stand. You're not supposed to use mobile phones during play, apparently.

Indeed, is there anything more English than cricket? Not that what is pictured above bears much resemblance to the cricket you're probably familiar with. Well, the stereotypes of it anyway. Games that last five days, tea breaks, white sweaters -- none of this here. This is something called Twenty20 cricket, which bears about as much resemblance to "real" cricket as the home-run derby does to a baseball game.

But it was pretty entertaining. My uncle invited me to an exhibition match between the Indian champions and the English champions at Lord's, the self-styled home of cricket. It was roughly the equivalent of taking someone who's never been to a baseball game to Game One of the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

Twenty20 pretty much turns cricket on its ear, throwing out most of the strategy and slow play of the longer version (called Test cricket) and replacing it with loud music, cheerleaders and batsmen aiming for the fences. Well, not really fences. More like a rope boundary. (Also present: beer vendors with backpack coolers and handheld taps. That Americans didn't invent this is the biggest upset since David 1, Goliath 0.)

And that loud music? Well, let's just say the English (or the Indians -- the cheerleaders, among other things, were their idea) may not completely have the concept of music at a sporting event down pat just yet. Both teams had a little song snippet that played when anything good happened during their turn at bat. For the Indian team, it was some bit of Indian pop music, and for the English team, it was that annoying "I'm coming out" thing that, I think, Pink did.

But the strange thing was they would play this little snippet whenever ANYTHING happened, good or bad. Batsman hits a 6 (home run)? Snippet plays. Batsman is out? Snippet plays. Bizarre.

Not that there wasn't an English contribution to the game as well.

I won't bore you with a long explanation of cricket (not least because I'm not capable of giving one just yet). But it was definitely entertaining, and I've even started paying attention to the long-form version, in which England are playing (and, to the surprise of, well, everyone, beating) Australia in the Ashes series.

See? I've lost you already.

Where the streets have two names

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Wales (population: 3 million; population including sheep: 14 million) to visit an aunt and uncle I hadn't seen in, oh, two decades.

That I could drive for a couple hours, cross a bridge and be in another country is a concept so fascinating as to be mind-boggling. Of course, some will tell you that Wales is not, in fact, a separate country, but none of them is Welsh.

And yes, everything in Wales has two names. Every street sign is in both Welsh (which is a strange amalgamation of English, Gaelic and French, but with fewer vowels) and English. I assume after a while one learns which signs are pointing to one city with two names (Swansea/Abertawe, for example) and which are, in fact, pointing to two different cities. But I'd guess it takes time.

My aunt and uncle couldn't have been more welcoming, especially considering they hadn't seen me since I was about 4 feet tall. They insist I still look the same; I'm not sure just how I feel about that.

Pictures? OK.

Citrus: It's not just for Floridians anymore. An orange tree at Aberglasney, a restored medieval house and garden.

Garden in the shape of a Celtic cross.

A GoingHomefortheFirstTime rarity. Me with my Uncle Greg. Why do those look like 90s jeans? I swear they're not.

No really. That's a real road. Signposted and everything. I took this photo at the urging of my uncle, who made my stepfather drive down it on his first visit to Wales. Hilarity, apparently, ensued.

Mervin the dog. Would that be Merwyn in Welsh? Merwn? Mrwn? In any event, Mervin is ... special.

Brecon Beacons National Park. It's best not to be in a hurry. This guy wasn't.

How many dogs do YOU know with their own lunchbox? I told you he was special.

Llyn Bryanne Dam. Remind anyone else of the Pacific Northwest?

No, really. It's best not to be in a hurry. This lasted a good two minutes.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Friday update? Sure, why not

A little bit of news on the job front, but I'm a believer in jinxes, so nothing more until I know more. It's not an offer, but it's nice to have some kind of response to something.

It's been quite the hot week in Britain. Temperatures approaching and even *gasp* exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. Which is about 86 Fahrenheit. Which, in turn, is enough to prompt heat-wave warnings and general paranoia.

IN FAIRNESS: There is very little air conditioning in this country. So 85 is a little bit more annoying. But when you've lived in the places I (we?) have, it's hard not to giggle.

I've gotten my share of England losing at things in the past week. The footballers lost the European Under-21 title to Germany (blargh) 4-0 (double-blargh) on Monday, and the new great hope of British tennis, Andy Murray, was knocked out by the other Andy, Roddick.

Big doings next week: Cricket on Monday, and Wales on Wednesday. I promise to try to post pictures, but I'm not a big fan of carrying my behemoth of a camera around.

Ooh...but I have a camera phone now. Eeenteresting.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I shall open a froggery!

I was going to take care of some of the pieces of dead hedge in the back garden, but my hedge trimmer battery was dead. So I decided instead to skim off the green seeds that cover the small pond instead.

That dead hedge.

And on moving one of the stones that are situated at one end, I found my business plan. A froggery.

OK, not really. But look! Tiny little frogs!

For a bit of perspective, about eight of those seeds would fit on my thumbnail.

Hang in there, little guy. You'll be a frog in no time.

Anyone for escargot?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Gratuitous view shot!

The late-evening sky does some strange things.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Curiosity confused the Brit

I've realized in my short time alone in this house that having a cat (or, I suppose, any other uncaged pet) is useful for more than just companionship: It's also a ready-made explanation for any weird noises that may come from other rooms. Strange creak? Clattering noise? Cat did it.

No cat? No easy explanation for this bump or that bang.

Not that the house is possessed or anything. Still, it'd be nice to know just what was making some of the noises. Probably just things settling in the dishwasher.

Or is it?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the dole, and I don't mean bananas

I am now officially registered for unemployment; I'll get my 64 pounds a week starting in a few weeks (though I'll get the cash from the date of application). 5,000 miles to get on public assistance? Totally worth it!

No, but really, I'm gonna keep looking for jobs, and hopefully something will come along.

Also managed to blow up the microwave the other day. Don't really think it was my fault, as it just started firing sparks out the side. But it's been replaced, and the new one has a touchpad and a clock and everything. Very exciting.

And I've hacked most of the hedge at the edge of the patio into submission. It needed to go.

Yep, a little short of excitement this week, but all in good time, right?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Flying solo

I dropped my dad off at the airport yesterday, so I'm officially on my own now. It's a little strange, to be sure, but I'm getting used to it. I've been moving a few things around, trying to figure out exactly where I want certain things to go, things like that. Obviously, my main task is to find a job, and that process will now begin in earnest. (Right after I update my blog ... or something like that.)

A week or so ago, I was enamored of the charm of hanging laundry outside, and my darling sister posited that I would get bored of it after a while. I'm not bored of it yet, but waking up this morning and looking out the window to see that it was raining ... well, it took some of the sheen off hanging laundry outside, anyway.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Not much more to say, but I have pictures to post.

We've spent most of the week working on the front bedroom, where I'll be sleeping. To say it needed it would be an understatement. We didn't take any before pictures, because it was so bad, but the walls were all this color. (There are a couple closets that still need painting; we had to put the stuff we were keeping somewhere.)

The color can best be described as either "pee" yellow or "baby ****" yellow.

Now, however, it looks like this.

We actually picked the bedding first, then matched the paint to it. The "espresso" back wall there is the only wall that's that color. The others are "sweet caramel."

Sweet caramel is hard to see here. The room doesn't get much light, and my camera batteries were dying, so there was no flash. Also, there's a vacuum cleaner in the way. Oh well.

We also found some really cool stuff among the piles of clothes and other stuff that was up there.

A barometer/altimeter. The flash was working at this point. No idea as to its age or origin.

Photo album. Appears to contain a number of photos of my great-grandfather and others of his generation.

And what I think is the coolest of all:

A surgery kit (we think) that we believe belonged to and was likely carried by my great-grandfather during World War I. It might look a bit like a shaving kit here, but if you look closely enough, you can see that those are scalpels. If it turns out to actually be a shaving kit, then it's still pretty darn cool.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Short update

Projects in the works, projects in the works. No pictures as yet, but I should have some tomorrow. We took a big leap on the front bedroom, which will be mine, and we totally stuck the landing.

The weather continues to be absurdly nice, though it looks like that should be coming to an end just in time for the weekend. Woohoo!

That's all, really. Told you it was a short update.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Jolly good, then

At long last, the post you've been waiting for. And by you, I mean my sister, since she keeps bugging me.

This post is brought to you by jet lag (except not really), a balky camera card and unseasonably (OK, un-ever-ably) mild weather.

I tell you, if you believe in omens, then this whole thing is going to go swimmingly well.

Let's go back to the airport on Friday night, shall we? Actually, we can go all the way back to the driveway, where we crammed all four of my suitcases (OK, yeah, it was a lot, but it's MY. WHOLE. LIFE!), plus my father's small carry-on, plus my duffel bag, plus two laptop cases, plus a jacket, plus three people, two of whom aren't fun-sized like my sister, into a 2004 Kia Rio. Yeah, it was pretty amazing.

Once we got to the airport, though, that was where the good times started. Of those four suitcases, three (THREE) weighed in at 49.5 pounds. If you've traveled internationally, you know the weight limit is 50 pounds, with a $50 charge for anything over that. So yeah. Apparently I pack better than I thought. (Or, you know, I stood on the bathroom scale with suitcases in my hand, so I knew roughly what they weighed.)

On the plane? I was assigned a middle seat. Dear Old Dad had the window. The aisle? Claimed by NO ONE! Huzzah! Not to mention touch screen video entertainment, better than one might have hoped for on a 757.

And on our arrival? Holy beautiful weather, Batman. 25 degrees, bright sunshine, clear skies. (What's that? 25 doesn't sound warm? Celsius, young grasshopper. OK, it was something like 78 or 80. It was nice.) If the weather was like this all the time, everyone would live here. Naturally, it isn't. I'm sure we'll resume regular service by the end of the week.

I'd include pictures of the drive back from the airport in Bristol, featuring winding country roads and a detour down a single-lane really country road, courtesy of the idiot reading the Google Maps directions. (Said idiot will remain nameless, but I hear he has a blog.)

Welcome home.

Don't act like you're not jealous of the key on the right there.

Having survived the English countryside, we opened the doors and windows, gazed upon the splendour of the four-foot grasses in the back and settled in for the final football match of the season, the legendary FA Cup Final. Of course, having tuned in in the third minute, I managed to miss the fastest goal in Cup final history, scored after a mere 25 seconds.

But I digress.

Look past the tall grass. Look right on past it.

A fish-and-chips dinner followed (also photographed for posterity and eaten by my camera), and then we passed out. In my case for 12 hours. Time change accomplished.

Sunday, we started clearing up the front garden, a multi-stage task to be sure, then celebrated the sunny weather in fine English fashion by going to the seaside. And sitting on the beach. The beach of rocks. Who needs white sand? Besides, it'll be white sand in another, oh, million years or so, right?

Pub night followed. It was good. Umm...that's it, really.

As of today, I now have a bank account (devoid of money for the time being), car insurance (thanks going to Dear Old Dad) and an application for a National Insurance number (mmm...socialized medicine. It's good for what ails you. Allegedly).

And I've driven my new ride, the 1997 Renault Megane. Oddly, it was made the same year I actually visited France.

The Renault Megane enjoys being driven on the left side of the road,
fine wines and cheeses and being snooty to Americans.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

More to come later, but I'm here. Wow. Weird.

But there's beer to drink and a Cup Final to watch ... so, again, more to come later.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

4,148 miles

That's how far the odometer tells me I've driven since I left Palisade, Colo., on May 6, just 19 days ago. The final 400 or so of that (I lost count) were completed today, with my darling sister by my side. I probably owe her an apology for being cranky the last 100 miles or so, but if she hadn't kept tormenting me with that damn toy spider!

I mean, uh, sorry, sis!

Despite her advocacy for the Georgia-New Jersey in one day school of thought, we split it into two, mostly because it offered the chance to visit not one, but two members of the Rich Lovie Past. We stayed with a college friend named Cassie (a seemingly less-than-common name in most corners of the world, with the exception of the corner I live in), who is well on her way to medical fame and fortune ... or at least fortune.

We also visited another friend of mine, Angeline, whom I met on a high-school exchange trip to France a dozen years ago. And, yes, that makes both of us feel very old.

But not as old as THIS makes me feel.

Although, apparently, looking this dorky wasn't ALL bad.

It's a shame in some ways that it took moving to England to visit so many old friends, but it seems like life works that way sometimes. It's definitely been an added bonus.

Still doesn't seem like I'm leaving on Friday. I feel like I oughta be more nervous. But I'm not. That's gotta be a good thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The last of Rich's epic driving adventure begins tomorrow morning (I really should be packing, but, ooh, look, shiny!). My sister and I will drive (OK, I'll drive, she'll ride, non-stick-shifter that she is) from Georgia to New Jersey, with a stop in Virginia to see a couple of my old friends. Surely nothing bad can come of trying to drive up the Jersey Shore on Memorial Day, right?

Accomplished the trip's main goal, which was to see my little sisters graduate high school. Hard to believe the little bitty babies I held not so long ago are all grown up. They're off to Georgia in August, because they're good, smart young ladies. :)

Against all odds, all three of these people are related to me. By blood, at that.

Also got some quality time with the little charmer on the left there, who's related to me, but not by blood, lucky little devil. If I find a better picture somewhere, I'll totally post it.

I leave for England on Friday night. Yeah, I know. That's pretty soon, but yet if I'm gonna get all nervous about it, I haven't yet. I'm gonna go with that being a good thing. Really, I'm just excited to find out what exactly is going to happen. Whether this works or ... well, just HOW WELL it's going to work. How's that?

Yeah, I like that much better.

Monday, May 18, 2009

O, Florida!

I always liked O, Canada. Seemed much more like a fight song than the Star-Spangled Banner.

But yes, Florida: Because I needed even more humidity.

I spent nearly three years living in Florida, before I moved out to Colorado. I worked at The Daily Commercial, a daily paper in the scenic town of Leesburg (where scenic means "festering" and town means "wasteland.) The paper was the town's equal in every way but one: it employed a series of good, honest people, many of whom I still like a lot.

Most of them, fortunately, have left. A few remain, and we encourage them often to GET. OUT. NOW.

So my trip to Florida was centered around visiting a few of those with whom I worked. I started in Daytona Beach, which was one of my favorite haunts when I lived in Leesburg, mostly because it had (a) a beach and (b) a minor-league baseball team. It also has (c) my good friend Sherry, as well as (d) my former boss Jim, his lovely wife Jaime and their new little one, Cameron.

Drove down on Monday (because I hadn't had enough driving!) and got there in the evening. Met Sherry's boyfriend, Amir, a pilot, and went out for a few drinks. (A Daily Commercial tradition if ever there was one.)

Tuesday we visited Jaime and Cameron and Jim, though Cameron, as 1-month-olds do, spent the visit sleeping and eating. It was OK. It gave the cat a chance to get some attention.

We also visited the lighthouse on Ponce Inlet and, most importantly, the beach. There's something about the ocean, and in particular the Atlantic, for me. Something about the vastness and connectedness, the knowledge that the same ocean that hits the shores of Daytona Beach also hits the shores of England, gives me a sense of peace. It'll be nice to be near the water again; Colorado is lovely, but it doesn't even border a state that borders the ocean.

Tuesday night was the big Leesburg reunion, complete with Mexican food and beer. (Again, Daily Commercial traditions/coping mechanisms.) Got to see Paul and Keri, who still, tragically, work there, as well as former photographer Matt, random coffeehouse guy Daniel and, of course, Kat. Sweet, sweet Kat.

I've moved around a lot, so I don't have many super-close friends, but Kat is as super-close as it gets, especially for someone I don't see much anymore. We spent many a Leesburg night angsting over our sad Daily Commercial fates, as well as any number of other things.

And though Kat points out below that in the two days I spent in Sarasota, where she now lives, we didn't DO much, we also didn't need to. We fell right back into our normal rhythm, with the addition of Scrabble (2 games each, but I totally won by more) and bar Jenga (2 games to 1 for yours truly).

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

In all, a trip well worth the driving, which took my total mileage over 3,000 since I left Palisade. I'll be in Atlanta for another week, then take myself and my sister up to New Jersey, from where I'll leave for England on, most likely, Friday the 29th. (Cue scary music.)

More pictures possibly to come. I didn't take them.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bad blogger! No biscuit!

Updates coming soon, I promise. Been in Florida for a few days, enjoying even more humidity and also good company.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I should learn to complain less

And to think I thought I was bored.

Nothing like an "inland hurricane" -- the National Weather Service's words, not mine -- to spice things up.

When I left Mount Vernon, Ill., this morning, it was cloudy and there had been storms the night before, but nothing too bad. Maybe I should have checked the weather, because it got bad quickly.

ST. LOUIS - Wicked thunderstorms packing winds gusting to 120 mph pounded parts of the Midwest on Friday, leaving four people dead, collapsing a church and knocking out power to thousands, authorities said.

It was some kind of nasty, although I didn't hit much in the way of wind. Or if I did, I didn't notice it for the sheets of rain. Three different times, I had to slow down to 40 mph or less. And I guess I got lucky.

Still, that definitely made the final day of the trip more interesting. And I gotta say, I'm a little disappointed that all that rain didn't do a more effective job getting the bugs off the front of my car.

Safely arrived home, though. Got to hug the Georgia branch of the family for the first time in over a year, which is always nice. Now for a quiet weekend followed by, get ready for it, MORE DRIVING! Woooooo!!!!

No, it's OK. I volunteered. I'm heading down to Florida on Monday to visit friends and break a promise I made two years ago never to return to Leesburg. Even now I shudder a little bit.

No pictures today. I was too busy dodging death.

(Sounds pretty bad-a, doesn't it?)

Day 3

Left: Mount Vernon, Ill.

Arrived: Lawrenceville, Ga.

Miles: 512.

Stops: Yeah...I can't remember. I'll work on it. I had Chick-fil-A in Nashville, and I stopped at a gas station in Ringgold, Ga.

Diet Cokes: 3, including a 24-ounce bottle. Apparently they're dumping the 20-ounce and replacing it with 16- and 24-ounce options. At least in ... wherever it was I got that one.

Yeah, I'm a little fried.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I guess HTLRROX was taken

The photo fail, it is strong in this one.

There was supposed to be a picture to illustrate my story, but I guess I wasn't paying attention and took one of the ground instead.

But I was thinking to myself earlier that I needed some way to immediately engender hatred toward me, a way to make sure people flipped me off in traffic, maybe even fired shots at my wheels.

But apparently, the best idea is already taken. By the guy with the SPAMMER vanity plate.

From the file of other good ideas, I give you attending a baseball game on "Education Day," the educational value of which is dubious, but the noise value of which is indisputable. When it makes the AP's game story, you know it was insane.

The Royals turned four double plays in front of 32,714 screeching fans—it was School Day at The K—

So yeah, School Day. But actually, it wasn't that bad. Nice day, good game, in and out quick. And a really nice ballpark, especially for a team that hasn't been worth a flip in 25 years. They're pretty good this year though.

Though they have to give away a lot of school day tickets to draw this many people.

Hey Atlanta folks, remember when they put that new videoboard in at Turner Field? I'm pretty sure they claimed it was the biggest in baseball/the country/the world. Well, it isn't anymore.

Sorry to disappoint you.

Other observations from two days on the road:

How long do you think it'll be before the Americinn hotel in red-state Russell, Kansas, renames its meeting room, which is currently known as the Dole-Specter Conference Center? (Yes, remarkably, both those men are from Russell, Kansas, as in billionaire Phil Anschutz.)

I understand that one can't control the last name one is given. I get that. But there are choices one can make, given the cards one is dealt. And so, if your last name is McQuitty, maybe you name your trucking business "Jim's Trucking Service," rather than "McQuitty's Trucking Service."

Do you think "pet live pigs" is a less effective method of advertising a roadside petting zoo than it was, say, three weeks ago?

Day 2

Left: Salina, Kansas

Arrived: Mount Vernon, Illinois

Stops: Kansas City, Mo., (baseball game and Arthur Bryant's Barbeque), somewhere outside Kansas City, somewhere near Danville, Mo., rest stop outside O'Fallon, Ill.

Miles: 510

Diet Cokes: 3 (I know, that doesn't seem right)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leaving what now?

So that was gonna be all dramatic and neat and melancholy ... and then it snuck up on me more quickly than I expected. I thought Kanorado (no, really) was in Colorado; it's in Kansas.

But that's OK. Because that sign? Is a filthy, rotten lie. I left "colorful" Colorado hours before I ever saw that sign.

OK, to be fair, brown is a color.

But yeah, all the tourism brochures and Web sites and such, showing Colorado as the outdoor paradise, skiing capital of the world, blah blah blah? That's the middle of Colorado. Denver, for example. And west of Denver.

East of Denver? Might as well belong to Kansas. So basically I had a good, oh, five or six hours of straight, flat farmland to look at.

To that end, a game! We're gonna play "Colorado or Kansas?" There's no cinch way of knowing, at least not as far as I know. See how you do.

Day 1

Left: Palisade, Colo.

Arrived: Salina, Kan.

Stops: Edwards, Colo., Denver, Arriba, Colo., Goodland, Kan., Hays, Kan.

Miles: 685 (including a few miles of wandering looking for places to eat)

Diet Cokes: 5