Location: Alexandria, VA, USA
It is Columbus Day tomorrow which means this is a holiday weekend. Much like the venerable British Bank Holiday, it is a 3 day weekend for the working citizens of the United States and no doubt will be filled with familial activities such as barbecues (in some regions it is still baking hot- here included) and browsing DIY stores. It occurred to me today that as a society, sometimes the people we choose to celebrate in our holidays are strange. True, we often get it right (Martin Luther King Day for example) but other times... Take Columbus for example. he is hailed as discovering America, a fact that would have peeved Leif Ericsson had he been alive (he "discovered" it 500 years prior. It actually had always been there. Just no one from Europe had bothered to visit until Leif thought it might be an interesting day out)
Another one is Britain's own Guy Fawkes. A man who was part of the plot to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne by assassinating King James I in a very subtle fashion. Whether everyone knows the story or not, all us Brits go out on a brisk November night and set off a few hundred rockets to the theme of Star Wars: Episode 4. So you see, we sometimes do pick strange people to immortalise in holiday form.
What I think we should do is add new holidays to the year and name them after real folk heroes of recent times. There are plenty of them out there who deserve it and none more so (at least in my mind) than Albert Gunton. For those of you who were not raised in a family with London folklore repeated on every family trip to the city, Albert Gunton is the man who jumped across the raised drawbridge of Tower Bridge in a bus. As my dear Dad often told me every time we passed Tower Bridge, in 1952, a London bus driver named Albert Gunton was crossing the bridge on his route when the bascules (the platforms of a drawbridge that move) began to move without the proper warning signal. It was too late to stop in time without sending the bus plunging off the edge and into the Thames so Bertie, without missing a beat, put his foot down and accelerated over the widening gap, setting the No. 78 bus down safely on the other side. Not one person was hurt on the bus and Bertie was awarded ten quid for his bravery. The story itself sounds fantastical but it really happened. And for that reason, Mr Gunton should, in my mind have his own bank holiday, complete with a signature ale called No. 78 sold on the allocated day in commemoration.
Location: Alexandria, USA
Just a quick note for you all today. Really, I am only writing to tell you all that I am sitting at my dining table which is by the window that overlooks the main road leading down the hill. While I am sitting here, there is a huge lightning and thunder storm crashing overhead and has been for over an hour.
It is perfect weather for a mystery. I half expect the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine to pull up. We don't have a haunted mansion nearby but there is that old abandoned fairground where weird goings on keep occurring. I bet old man Withers has something to do with it........
Location: Washington DC, USA
Saturday was the start of the National Book Festival in Washington DC and seeing as we did not have much else planned for the day, we decided to go. Though it only takes ten minutes by train to get to Capitol Hill from our place, we decided it might be fun to drive. After all, it is not likely to be as busy on the weekends in the business district is it? Oh what poor naive fools we were.
The drive from Alexandria to the outskirts of DC is pleasant. You drive through a parkway (which is essentially, a park) that runs parallel to the river, giving you views of the Potomac and much of the lovely scenery that resides in Northern Virginia. You also pass other interesting sites like the Pentagon (it's big. I mean REALLY REALLY big) before ascending along a winding road that is flanked on either side by woodlands, rocky streams and mini waterfalls. After this serene drive through what seems like a deep forest, you take a right turn and are suddenly in the heart of Downtown with every other driver in the DC Metro area. Within 5 minutes you have gone from driving at a sublime 35mph to 4mph as you crawl bumper to bumper. Once you get to Capitol Hill, then you have to negotiate the one way streets, crazy roundabouts (With a straight lane that bisects it, I might add. There was one incident where I was circumnavigating said roundabout when a large white van appeared from my left at high speed heading down the bisecting lane straight towards me. It was quite the adventure) and weekend detours. Oh it was a fun ride.
We eventually found a private car park with underground parking that although steeply priced ($12 for the day! Normally I would have given the parking attendant a sound thrashing for stealing my money but the desire to park somewhere safe won out), was just 15 minutes from where we needed to be.
The festival itself was most enjoyable. It was set out on the mall between the Smithsonian Museums in giant white tents where various authors were talking about their works. There was also a Barnes & Noble tent selling , well, books. Inside the B&N tent the heat was stifling despite the fans and there was not much room to move. After 5 minutes of trying to get to the travel section, I gave up and fought my way out. Ironically across the mall is the Barnes & Noble store which has all the same books at the same prices set over two floors in an air conditioned building. Yet the burning desire to visit the smaller, cramped tent was apparent in the queue that led outside the tent doors.
After several hours at the festival we headed back to the car, weighed down by bags of the standard freebies you obtain at these events. We had three bags of author recommendations, excerpts on books, a poster, bookmarks and upcoming book festivals. I am sure we had the intention of reading through all this information and utilising it somehow, but inevitably it has ended up in the cupboard of whimsy with other relics of similar fleeting interest. ( Items here include random bits of wood I was sure I would use for something, postcards I still intend to frame and more bookmarks)
Tired but happy to have spent the day doing something other than watching TV, we headed back into the mayhem of DC traffic and, after many detours, sudden left turns and cutting in to other people's lanes, we made it home.
Location: Alexandria, Virginia, USA
Before I begin today's missive let me just say that Friday Night Dinner is one of the funniest British comedies I have seen in a while. I may be viewing it 8 months after everyone else but it is comedy gold. Paul Ritter is perfect as the Dad. He reminds me of my own and no doubt reminds many other people of theirs too. If you want to see what I am talking about go to YouTube or buy the DVD. Very funny.
Anyway, with that out of the way, I thought I would tell you all about our little trip to find our new place in the lovely township of Alexandria. About 3 weeks ago we flew out to look at places to live. Having spent the last two years in the concrete jungle of Houston (for me anyway, the wife has spent her life here more or less.), we decided we wanted something a bit greener.
After landing in Baltimore and checking into our little two star motel (recommended by the wife who stayed there before when she was interviewing) we made the plan to pick up our rental car and meet with estate agents on the Maryland side of DC first. We had been doing some extensive research into areas and based on money, crime rates and access to DC, we thought that Maryland would be our best bet. How little we knew. After driving around for a day through some admittedly nice towns and countryside we did not find much to suit us save for a house that was an hour from the city and an apartment that was equally far. All the towns in Maryland we visited were a mishmash of dual carriageways and grey buildings, though they may have looked grey due to the lashing rain that had followed us. The following day we headed to the other side of DC and after an hour found the apartment we now live in. It is big enough for two adults and two extremely uncoordinated cats and close enough to DC that you can actually see the capitol building from certain parts of the town.
What's more, the old town area along the riverfront is very reminiscent of England and in the two weeks being here i have managed to find several eating and drinking places to my liking (including a real, old school roadside diner complete with stools at the counter-we subsequently had our Sunday breakfast at said counter just this weekend).
After finding ourselves the apartment we headed to nearby Fairfax where some friends of ours had invited us to have dinner with them at their apartment and also very kindly stash our 5 suitcases of home items that we were leaving behind to collect on our return.
All of this sounds very mundane I hear you say. Where is the humour and adventure? Well, friends, here is where it gets interesting. Our Airline, Southwest called us to notify us of a cancellation of our return flight due to the incoming Hurricane Irene. This meant we had to hurriedly amend our hotel stay for one more night and contact the car rental people to let them know we needed it one more day. After saying our goodbyes later that evening we headed back to the hotel which was an hour away and watched the news. We stopped on the way back and loaded up on vitals such as water and food (Food= peanuts, chocolate bars and other, less than ideal emergency foods).
The following day the beginnings of the hurricane hit Maryland. Deciding we needed to get out, we took the car and went out for lunch. Having been in hurricanes all her life, the wife knew that we had a good 8 hours before anything too bad was happening. At the Quiznos sandwich shop everything was eerily quiet as the lone sandwich maker and his friend sat looking out the window.
Later on that evening I wandered out into the lobby of our little hotel where many of the guests had gathered watching the news (This puzzled me as we all had tv's in our rooms). My trip was to take advantage of the free 24 hour coffee that was continually refreshed but I soon found myself watching the news as Anchor after Anchor reported from various flood-hit towns on the coast.
Feeling antsy, we decided once again to brave the storms and drove out to Domino's to get a pizza. I hear you ask- ARE YOU CRAZY?! Well I return this with what is crazier- going out to Domino's to get pizza or the fact that Domino's was open during a hurricane? By the time we got back the rain was falling down in a delightfully horizontal fashion whipping through my clothes and stinging my skin.
We holed up in the hotel and watched Tv for the rest of the night. During this time I also called our car rental place who refused to let us extend the time on returning the car to a later time despite the fact that FEMA had said to stay off the roads in the hurricane. The car rental company who I shall call SH-ALAMO for fear of being sued, steadfastly refused to extend the time unless I wanted to pay an extra $150. After repeatedly saying we are in a hurricane my friend at SH-ALAMO decided he had enough and put me through to an answer machine. (Tip to car rental companies- don't outsource your customer service to other countries- it really upsets your customers) After finally sorting out the car rental (we ended up phoning the airport and another car rental company answered our call- the kind lady physically walked over to the other car rental and looked for someone to help us) , we slept soundly through the rest of Irene.
The next morning we dropped the car off at an eerily empty airport rental site and took the bus to the airport. Our flight was not until the afternoon but we had little else to do so we went through airport security to discover there was us, maybe 8 other travelers and whole airport of bored staff. No airplanes had arrived at all. It was the strangest time I have ever had in an airport. But at least we didn't need to queue for security.
So that was our Irene adventure and it was an education. I learned several things during that weekend. 1) Microtel is an awesome budget hotel with many perks, not least being the free coffee 24 hours a day. 2) Never rent from a car company named after a Texas battle site, proceed to curse them out and then leave your sunglasses in the car. You will never get them back.
3) If the bar in the airport terminal before security looks fun-go there. It is never guaranteed they will have another similar bar on the other side of security.
and finally....4) Almost every major hurricane to make landfall in unexpected places in the past 10 years has done so when I visit that place: Floyd in Florida, Ike in Houston and now Irene in Maryland.
Location: San Antonio, Texas, USA
It was my birthday in August and I celebrated by denying it was anything of the sort. It is a nothing age for me, I was neither 21 again or at the landmark middle century. Instead I was just another male thirty-something pretending I was still in my twenties. To get me out of my negative attitude towards my birthday, the wife decided we needed a road trip. So one weekend in the baking heat of August we drove the 4 hours to San Antonio, a city I had longed to visit but never had the chance.
If you ask any Houstonian (at least the ones I know) they will tell you that San Antonio is a dirty city with nothing but the Alamo there. Well, let me tell you a little secret that you probably didnt know (Why would you? You are no doubt reading this from the foggy grey of London Village in Mother England) , the truth is, San Antonio is a very fine looking city indeed. On the edge of Texas Hill Country it is clean and attractive. The downtown area is very attractive, built as it is around the historic Alamo and the architecture harks back to the America of the fifties. Walking down the street you could be mistaken for thinking you were in a film set for a story set in 1955 America (Think Back to the Future, Hill Valley). All in all it was pleasant indeed. After meeting some friends who live in San Antonio for Sushi, we journeyed down to the Alamo to meet two other friends who happened to also be visiting the city. If you know your American history then you will know that the Alamo is where, in 1836, Mexican Troops basically annihilated the soldiers fighting for Texas Independence. It was where the legendary Davy Crockett lost his life along with James Bowie (of whom the Bowie knife is named after). Despite this massive loss, it was a turning point in the Texas Revolution and not too long after this loss Texas gained its independence. An interesting fact for you all is that a high number of the American soldiers were in fact colonials from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. Reading the memorial stones conjures up images of this varied band of soldiers from different countries and backgrounds standing together as the thousands of Mexican troops camp less than 1000 feet from the wall.
That evening we experienced another of San Antonios great attractions- the Riverwalk. Winding through the city, the Riverwalk is lined with shops, bars and restaurants and is not unlike wandering through a tourist attraction in Disney World or the Venetian in Las Vegas. The main difference is the 110 degree heat that bakes your skin dry and burns your bones (it is that hot). We sought refuge from the nighttime heat in one of the plethora of bars along the river, where the four of us lined the bar and drank several beers to combat the dry heat (as you should).
After leaving our friends at their hotel, we collected the car and headed out of the city to a small, one horse town called Boerne. Literally a main street and three stop signs, Boerne was where we were staying for the night in a historic building that housed an elegant B&B. Driving through the town it was eerily quiet. We parked up in the adjacent car park and took our bag up to the balcony where our room was and collected keys from a lock box. I looked up and down the street. Not a sound except the clicking of crickets and cicadas in the undergrowth. After living in Texas for almost two years, I finally had found the quintessential small Texas town.