The Nashville Diaries, part I

Thurs 9 May

After a pleasant and comfortable flight from Heathrow which was just a little longer than three feature films laid end to end, I landed at BNA, and was met by the full Robinson family. Well, I would have been, if I had come out on the level they expected me to, but I didn’t, and so we found each other in the car rental section instead.

Their sweet kids are holding Welcome Quinn signs, adorned by hand-drawn pictures of aeroplanes which do look slightly like they’re on fire.

I pick up my rental car. This year I opted for the “Compact” size, one up from “Mini”. Any concerns I had about the size of my transport are eased when I get to the car and realise that “compact” is American for “generously-sized family saloon.”

Ryan and Katie have organised a ‘welcome back’ party for me for Saturday evening, on their back porch. I am excited to see lots of old friends, and just to have a party on a back porch, which is not something that happens too much at home.

I have a breakfast date early tomorrow morning in Nashville, so set my alarm for 7:15am. 

Fri 10 May

7:15am was always hopelessly optimistic. Woke up at 4am.

Descended to the kitchen around 7am and made myself breakfast. Found milk in the fridge. I always check the expiry date on milk before using, ever since going camping with Ickle Bef. The milk in the fridge will expire on 24 July. American use-by dates scare me.

A sweat-soaked Ryan appears in the kitchen, returning from a run. We strike up a root beer conversation.

Each year I come and stay with the Robinsons, and each year, Ryan and I conduct extensive research into which root beer is the best. Never, though, have we taken any notes on our findings, and we forget from one year to the next, so every year we have to start all over again. 

This year, Ryan’s preliminary grocery store trips have indicated that a vastly-reduced range of root beers are available. I blame Trump. It wasn’t like this before he took over.

“Have you had a root beer?” Ryan asks.

It’s 7:30am. I do not feel the need to dignify this question with a response.

Instead I make myself coffee with my Cafflano Kompresso. Ryan is intrigued by this process, especially when I have to lean bodily on the plunger to force the water through the grounds.

“I think I packed the coffee a bit too tight,” I explain, through grunts, as a single bead of espresso finally drops into the clear container at the bottom. Some minutes later, I have a double shot of espresso with the most incredible crema, slight shortness of breath and a round mark imprinted on my right pectoral muscle.

Ryan looks bemused. He doesn’t drink coffee, he wouldn’t understand the lengths one has to go to sometimes.

Later that evening, I have my first root beer of the trip. It wasn’t good.

(1) Kroger Private Selection with ginger. Weird. Why add ginger? 4/10

I followed it up with a Sioux City. Made with cane sugar. That was pretty fine.

(2) Sioux City. Pretty fine. 7/10

The forecast tomorrow is for thundery showers, so we postpone the party to next Saturday instead.

Saturday

Saturday morning, I am leaning on my Kompresso and grunting again. Ryan comes into the kitchen.

“Looks like you packed it a little tight again,” he observes.

“It needs to be 9 bar of pressure,” I explain. “To produce genuine espresso.”

“Looks like you’re getting at least 11 bar there.”

I console myself that the great artists in history probably received criticism for their finest work too.

The other noteworthy thing that happened on Saturday is that I had a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and it might have changed my life. The label proudly claims it to be the Granddaddy of all root beers. I believe it.

(3) Sioux City Sarsaparilla. Proper good. 8.5/10

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part II

On Day 3 the sun was out from early morning. With a large and very attractive white bandage on my face, I joined forces with Steve, Doug and Fiona. Fiona had a lovely green ski jacket.

“It’s pistachio,” she pointed out.

We started out clockwise on the Sella Ronda, heading for Val Gardena. Our progress could best be described as halting. 

At the top of every lift we paused in wonder, breath visible, hanging in the crisp mountain air. The fresh covering of new snow had added a layer of further splendour to mountains that were already the most startling and majestic I’d ever seen.

Thus we proceeded, slowly, interrupted regularly by the scenery, eventually arriving at the top of a massive bowl which, further down, gave way to the top of the Saslong World Cup run. But in the middle of the bowl, irresistibly alluring, lay a short parallel giant slalom race course, complete with start hut, and a timing wand to push through. Like real ski-racers do.

Doug and Fiona – who in due course would become known as the Flying Pistachio – raced each other, and the result has been lost in the mists of time, obscured by a difference-of-marital-opinion and a steward’s enquiry. Which left me to race against Steve.

Steve, in his youth, had raced competitively three of the four race disciplines (Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G and Downhill). 

I, on the other hand, had watched all four on TV. Many times. Accordingly I felt I had an even chance, if not a slight edge.

Technology is such these days that one can scan one’s ski pass at a handy nearby electronic kiosk and watch a video of any of these kind of races one has taken part in. As both of my regular readers will know, I am not always a fan of technological advances. However, coming across such a kiosk later in the day, I saw that the automatic camera had successfully captured the first few seconds of the ‘contest’, and then – gamely – had swung through a random arc and focussed on a nearby metal pole instead. I was grateful.

The ‘racing’ complete, we joined the Saslong and made it down safely. I remain in awe of the skill, but mostly the courage, of World Cup downhillers who straight-line it down black runs like that.

At the après-ski bar at the foot of the race piste, there was a goat on the roof. Of course there was. We took pictures.

After a funicular train journey through the heart of a mountain, and another gondola ride upwards, we stopped for lunch at the top. I went inside the Rifugio to order.

“Bitte?” asked the server.

Many moons ago, in Edinburgh, I had an Italian neighbour whose first language – I discovered – was German, and thus I was educated in the fact that a region of Italy is primarily German-speaking. And it appeared that we had skied into it.

I later discovered that this part of the Dolomites had originally belonged to Austria, until relatively recently, when it had been transferred to Italian ownership through a series of circumstances that I am still a little fuzzy on.

However the Austrian-German-sounding placenames live on, and German remains the first language in certain parts.

We skied the lovely 10.5km La Longia run down into Ortisei, and caught the cable car back up again.  

One of the distinct pleasures of skiing in this area is that all the villages were real villages, not purpose-built ski resorts. Thus one had a definite sense of touring around the area, rather than simply skiing up and down runs. The differing languages across the region only added to the sense of travel.

That evening we had dinner out at the Kaiserstube. Having been in Italy for three full days at this point, and not having had pizza, I decided to put that right. There’s something about Italian pizza, eaten in Italy. It’s apparently simple and uncomplicated, and yet profoundly tasty.

My first and, prior to this trip, only visit to Italy was a week’s holiday in Milan, during a hot and sticky June, nineteen years ago. I and my travelling companion Stephen arrived at our small city hotel after a series of delays due to striking baggage-handlers. We were ravenous.

I approached the hotel receptionist – a youngish, bespectacled gentleman.

“Is there anywhere around here we could get a pizza?” I enquired. This remains, I believe, the most stupid question I have asked in any country at any time.

He smiled, and with a benevolent and gracious air, produced a local map and with a pen circled the location of a backstreet pizzeria nearby. I believe it was called Grog. It was family-run, and the pizza was simply outstanding.

Kaiserstube’s pizza reminded me very much of this. It was an excellent evening, to round off a great day.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part I

It’s April, dear reader, Yesterday’s watery sunshine, luring us briefly into thoughts of balmier weather, has given way to today’s endearingly British rain-hail-sleet combo. Or “April showers” as we like to call them.

But before April came March, which witnessed a couple of important events. Firstly, Britain’s non-exit from the EU on 29 March. Having been guilty in the past of being carelessly ignorant of important goings-on in the nation, I have tried manfully to stay abreast of developments with Brexit. At least every now and then. I have periodically read articles and blog posts by political analysts, which appear to come forth daily. But I find they all follow the same format:

  1. Last night [this thing] happened.
  2. What does [this thing] mean? or occasionally What happens now?
  3. We don’t know

What I deduce from each article is that, really, nothing is happening.

Happily, March also finally witnessed my long-awaited ski trip to the Land of Bialetti, with 23 fellow adventurers. I christened our group the Dolomites Snow Angels, and no-one objected, or at least not too strongly, and so that was that.

On the first or second evening, I can’t quite remember which, Emily – the holiday rep – held court in our neighbouring chalet’s living room. Our chalet was the Traviata, theirs the Violetta. Both named after a Verdi opera. This pleased me.

Every chalet holiday I’ve been on has had one of these introductory chats from the rep. Never have I attended one before.  But this time I was numbered among the crowd that trooped over to the Violetta. And I found myself pondering what my sceptical non-attendance might have cost me all these years, as Emily engaged us in a whistle-stop tour of the area’s skiing highlights.. 

She waxed lyrical about La Longia – the 10.5km red run down into Oritsei, and went on to mention the legendary Saslong men’s World Cup downhill black run in Val Gardena, the La Crusc church in the furthest away corner of the map above the village of Badia, the lovely blue runs of the Alta Badia valley, and the Marmolada Glacier, with its spectacular views from upwards of 3000m, not to mention its WWI museum. 

Clearly all that plus the 1200km of general skiing available wasn’t going to keep us busy, so she was also offering limited places on a trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Hidden Valley on Day 5. Cortina promised yet more stunning and unique Dolomites scenery, a ladies’ World Cup downhill, and a ski run featured in For Your Eyes Only. Meanwhile the Hidden Valley ski run is regularly voted one of the world’s top 10, includes a pub with two resident Alpacas, and the opportunity to be towed the last flat 1km or so by a horse-drawn cart. Oh, and there were tunnels left over from WWI to explore at the top.

Having come to the Dolomites with the express purpose of completing the Sella Ronda, by the time she was done I found myself less invested in that, and much more interested in the variety and quality of the unique skiing experiences to be had here.

Of course, there was no reason why these attractions had to compete, and so on Day 4, ten of us did in fact complete the Sella Ronda, interrupting our clockwise journey at Corvara to head off on a monastic pilgrimage to La Crusc, before rejoining at Corvara and skiing hard all the way home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day 1 was, as it always is, a day for re-acquainting oneself with one’s ski legs and remembering forgotten techniques. Having more or less found my way down the hill safely in the morning, I had decided to have an easy and fun afternoon skiing in the fun park, through ice tunnels and over pianos, but took the wrong lift up and instead found myself skiing black runs and moguls in Arabba with the some of the more adventurous Snow Angels.

But I survived, and on the way home found somewhere selling Baileys, with which we toasted St Paddy that evening.

On Day 2 we awoke to falling snow. It had been falling since the early hours, and so we abandoned any plans we might have had to ski hard and long that day. Truth be told, there probably wasn’t a plan for that day. Most days plans were formed late and on the hoof, which is not a bad way to approach a holiday, I reckon.

We headed away from the crowds of the Sella Ronda, up Val di Fassa, and took a gondola ride into a winter wonderland. Not that we could see all that much of it, initially.

Skiing in the falling snow, provided it’s not being propelled into your face by a Force Nine gale, is a wondrous thing. Sounds from across the mountain are muffled by the ever-deepening snowy blanket, and skiing must be done more by feel than by sight due to the reduced visibility. And everything is soft. Everything, that is, apart from my ski, which came off during a particularly inelegant wipeout at the bottom of a black run, and clattered into my face.

After some slope-side ministrations from the amazing Steve, who – Mary Poppins-style – conjured a host of medical supplies from his bottomless rucksack, I repaired to the nearest Rifugio, whereupon a host of friends patched me up with steri-strips, chocolate cake and espressos. I remained there for many hours, entertained by the inimitable Jamie and Kirsty, until I had recovered my courage sufficiently to ski a blue run a couple of times and then retreat back to the chalet.

Almost New Year

We’re midway through the festive season, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, when some have gone back to work and some haven’t. It’s an odd time of year. All through December I look forward to the time off that comes at Christmastime, and then when I get there I’m not always sure what to do with it.

Late on the eve of Christmas Eve, I began packing for my early morning flight the next day.

Packing, I find a relatively straightforward business, when going somewhere for a decent length of time – heading to the US for 10 days, for example. Or when going skiing. In both of these scenarios there is a lot of underwear to pack, not to mention a shedload of compassionate chocolate for my American friends in the former instance, and thus the which-bag-to-take decision is an open and shut, er, case.

When one is flying down to London for only four and a half days, however, there is much opportunity for vacillation. And when there’s an opportunity to vacillate I like to grab it decisively.

It seemed easy enough, initially. I had the option of checking a bag into the hold for free. It was a no-brainer.

So I dragged out the big guy, and started to fill it. Got everything in, room to spare. Looked a little under-filled, frankly. Began to wonder if I could have got it all in the carry-on-appropriate little guy. 

Vacillated.

Got the little guy out. Decanted everything from the big guy into the little guy and packed it to the gunnels. It fitted, just. Although there remained the ‘morning of’ items that would need added. Would be tight. Decided it was going to be ok.

But now… all the toiletries needed to be in 100ml containers. Dug out some clear plastic bags and began to fill them. Realised my Travel Size tube of shaving gel is probably 4 years old now. Wondered if I’d made the right decision. Would I have to re-check in?

Vacillated.

What settled it in the end was the thought…

“What if I receive a gargantuan Christmas present this year?”

And that did it. There was simply no space for a gargantuan present. 

Everything out of the little guy, back into the big guy.

Arrived at London City Airport, and my sister picked me up, with my oversized suitcase, at what we both thought was the pick-up point.

Cue the arrival of an Official at the driver’s window.

“I’m terribly sorry, madam, but I need to inform you that you haven’t got a ticket YET, but as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge. This is a drop-off area only.”

My sister protested her innocence. No signs, she said. This is where she’d always come to pick up people, she said, channeling a classic Northern Irish argument for right-of-way. I was waiting for “My father and my grandfather ALWAYS picked up people here y’know” but it never came.

The Official, as Officials are wont to do, failed to acknowledge anything she was saying and simply repeated the script.

“…as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge.”

With the option of ‘driving away’ now effectively off the table, I began to think we might be spending Christmas there, just me and her, in the car. Maybe Deliveroo could bring over some turkey sandwiches to keep us going. I had some Christmas tunes on my phone. It might not be so bad. Just four and a half days, then I could leave the car – mildly odorous and slightly itchy I would presume – and go back into the terminal to fly home, and she could safely drive off, having legitimately dropped me off at the drop-off point.

Mercifully, a compromise was reached, which involved me guiltily exiting the car, walking a few hundred metres to the official pick-up point, where my sister picked me up again, legally, for £397 less than she might have had to pay, and Christmas was saved. Hurrah!

Christmas Day duly arrived. Christie (6) declared to anyone who would listen that he had seen Santa and his reindeer flying into the garden the previous night.

“I literally saw Blitzen fly down into the garden.” 

“Oh really?”

“He nearly crashed into the SHED!” he proclaimed, joyful and triumphant.

I need to have a conversation with Christie about his use of “literally”. Maybe next year.

Over Christmas much turkey and many pigs in blankets were consumed. 

Of course, no gargantuan presents were received. However, I did receive a triple-pack of white hankies with my initial embroidered in the corners, which made up for the slightly disappointing absence of socks.

After a muddy visit to the park, and a family outing to see the wonderful Mary Poppins Returns, having been warned in a dream, I returned to the airport by another route (the bus and the DLR). This foxed the Official completely.

Back in Edinburgh Friday evening, it being the last Friday of the month, me and the gang were at an unusually-quiet Akva for a festive G&T. Or two. Or three, in some cases, but no names will be mentioned.

Post-Akva, there was an ill-conceived and ultimately abortive attempt to go clubbing by a few of our number. Once again no names will be mentioned. On our initial foray into an establishment on Grindlay Street, we appeared to have stumbled upon an underground table-tennis club. For children. 

Bemused, we beat a hasty retreat and retired to a nearby bar, where there seemed to be some other over-16 revellers, and we shouted at each other at close range for a couple of hours. It was great fun, although I really don’t know what anyone said, and just nodded and smiled a lot. 

Last words of the year go to Over the Rhine

Happy Almost New Year. There is still so much music left to be made.

 

Camping and Emergency Loo Roll

A week or two ago we welcomed an old friend back to Edinburgh – the traditional Scottish Summer.

The greatest, hottest, driest summer since records began, or at least since 1976, is on the wane, it seems. No more unprecedented experiences like selecting the second button on the electric shower, to make the water cool enough to step into. On a number of recent occasions, my thirty minute drive into work has necessitated the use of the holy trinity of sunglasses, windscreen wipers and headlights. Sometimes all at the same time.

With spectacular timing, our old friend has reemerged just in time for me to go camping for the first time in over twenty years. Admittedly a mere nine years ago I did go camping with my Sister and her burgeoning family, but that doesn’t count, since all the camping infrastructure (and a great deal of stately-home-infrastructure to boot) was laid on.

On this occasion I have had to give a great deal more thought to the supply and provisions.

Wiseman, after hearing of my camping intentions, and slowly lowering his eyebrow, kindly loaned me his tent, and camping stove, and various other arcane implements, the usefulness of which, I imagine, will become apparent at around 2am.

After one tutorial on the camping stove, and none on the actual tent-building, I reckon I am ready.

I wandered through Tesco, looking for camping-style easy-to-cook meal solutions, pretending to myself that this was vastly different to what I normally look for in Tesco.

In a flash of inspiration, I picked up some loo roll, for emergencies. Shea Butter ‘flavour’. Four rolls. You can’t be too careful with these things. And some paper towels. And a dustpan and brush. Must return the tent in good nick to Wiseman, or I’ll never hear the end of it.

My companion on this particular trip, to the Openskies worship festival in N Ireland, is Ickle Bef. We conferred about what we were bringing for the first time at 10pm last night. This was possibly leaving it a little late. Ickle confided she was bringing two camping stoves. I feel this is overcooking it slightly.

Loading the car at 6:15am this morning, I noticed that Ickle had her own dustpan and brush. I suspect the duplication, some of which is important for decency’s sake, like having our own tents for example, won’t stop there. I do hope she has her own Shea Butter loo roll, though, because I might need all four of mine. Depending on how the cooking goes, on our multiplicity of stoves, I guess.

Now, on the ferry, halfway across the Irish Sea, the sun is shining, and I wonder what could possibly go wrong. Ickle Bef is out on deck, wisely banking some solo time.

Openskies’ website states that campers have access to showers, charging points, and the presence of the Lord. You can’t ask for more than that, really.

Camping? I feel recklessly optimistic. Bring it on.

Did I remember to pack the tent?

TOWIE

I’m seriously considering renaming this blog “I apologise for the lack of blogging recently.”

It’s not a very snappy title for a blog, I grant you, but might set expectations appropriately.

This week finds me back in Nashville and Franklin, visiting old haunts. With last year’s experience still fresh in my memory, I gave careful thought to the timing of the shoe-to-flip-flop transition. Anticipating an arrival temperature of 34C/93F, I decided an early transition was called for. I made the leap in Heathrow, while the feet were still relatively fresh.

Heather, Jacq and I were flight pioneers on this trip, taking an almost-brand-new flight route direct to Nashville from London Heathrow. I had slept badly the night before we left, due mainly, I think, to a certain amount of childlike excitement at the prospect of coming back to Nashville again. 

Both of our flights went off without incident, although my carry-on bag took the dreaded diversion down the inner track at security screening. 

Do you mind if I look through the bag, sir?

Absolutely, I said, brimming with confidence that a mistake had been made. And besides, what’s the alternative answer to “yes” for that question?

Minutes later, the nice security lady was holding up a large Phillips screwdriver, in the now tension-filled space between us.

Uh. I’m so sorry.

No problem sir, I’m afraid you can’t take that on the plane as it’s a tool.

Yes, yes, I understand. I’m so sorry!

I’m going to lay – fairly and squarely at the door of sleep deprivation – the blame for failing to take that out of my bag before flying.

What’s slightly more concerning is that this happened in Heathrow, which means the nice security people at Edinburgh didn’t pick it up…

Once on the flight and getting settled in to our seats, it became quickly apparent that we were co-pioneering with a great cloud of Essex-ness. 8 or 10 of them. Their exact origin was a subject of some post-flight conversational dispute. Jacq reckoned London. Whatever, they were loud, not overly-endowed in the self-awareness department, and had the energy to maintain their volume pretty much throughout the flight. 

I quaffed a plastic cup of orange juice with ice, and being in bulkhead seats, placed the empty-but-for-ice-cubes cup in the stretchy pocket fixed to the bulkhead at floor level.

I made good use of my custom IEMs to drown out the Essex noise, and managed to claw back some of my lost overnight sleep.

But not for long. I was rudely awakened by someone kicking my cupful of ice over my bare feet. Coming to, slowly, from a distant and pleasant place, I realised a few important things:

  • There was no-one standing or walking nearby
  • I must have kicked the cup myself
  • I had done a decent job of distributing ice cubes around the cabin, including over the large gnarly bearded dude sitting across the aisle.

I apologised. In the light of near constant loud Essex-ness, I actually don’t think he minded the ice shower all that much.

Never managed to regain that distant land of sleepfulness.

First morning in Franklin meant a visit to the Factory was imminent. My three year old host Jude, on learning I was going to the Factory, immediately wondered if I was going to have a bowl or a donut. By “bowl” he means an Açaí bowl from the Franklin Juice Company. This is a bowl of frozen fruit sorbet, topped with organic granola and fresh fruit.

Donut means a 100-layer donut from Five Daughters Bakery.

Which one do you think I’m going to get Jude?

With a sidelong glance at my profile, he replied without too much consideration

Donut!

That’s right Jude, that’s right. Nailed it.

Back in the Six One Five

Well, my flight from the nest lasted approximately two weeks, whereupon the builders moved in to replace our bathroom, and I moved back in with my mother for the second time in my adult life.

Mercifully (for all parties) this latest visit also only lasted two weeks, whereupon I returned to a flat with a shiny new bathroom. Two weeks later, I packed my bags and caught a flight to Nashville. For two weeks.

Sunday was travel day, and my travelling companion was my friend Heather. A more amenable, lower-maintenance traveling companion you are unlikely to meet. Heather didn’t mind which seat she sat in, which meant she got the centre seat, with me in the window seat.

In the air, en route to New York in an old American Airlines aircraft with TV screens down the middle, just out of sight of anyone in a window seat, we were informed of the new automated passport control system in place at JFK. Heather expressed some concern about this, and the prospect of immediate deportation on the pressing of one wrong button.

As for me – I was no more nervous than I usually am on approach to the USA, having had dramatically varying experiences at US Customs in the past. Maybe a fraction more nervous than usual, given the perception I have that Mr Trump is not all that fond of non-Americans.

Ironically, Heather aces the automated system, whereas I fail to get past the first hurdle – getting it to read my passport. The machine metaphorically rolled its eyes, and displayed a message instructing me to go find a human being. Which I did, but it seems system failures of this kind are rare, because said human being wasn’t equipped with the requisite paper customs form.

Fortunately there was a semi-completed form – in Spanish – lying discarded on the counter (fate of the Spanish-speaking semi-completer unknown), and by ticking some boxes beside sentences I didn’t understand, and signing it, I had completed the paperwork required to enter the US. That, or I had signed a confession to some unknown crime. But what’s life without a little excitement?

In an oddly-quiet JFK, I noticed that the post-Trump America has sunk to new lows, selling white cheddar popcorn in a Union Jack-emblazoned packet. White cheddar popcorn is an abomination. Never have I come across such foul-tasting popcorn in the UK. Ascribing such a vile combination of foodstuffs to the UK is slander of Special-Relationship-threatening proportions.

Speaking of cheese… while waiting in the lounge for the Nashville flight, I went to the restroom to swap my shoes and socks for flip flops. I was on holiday after all, and about to hit a Tennessee basking in 30C sunshine.

I returned to my seat in the lounge, and gradually became aware of a gently insistent stench. I initially convinced myself that it wasn’t anything to do with my newly-liberated feet, but it was a hard sell. I moved on to trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.

We boarded the flight to Nashville, narrowly avoiding getting on the Montreal flight instead. The aircraft on the Nashville leg was a tiddler, as always, with just two seats per row on one side of the cabin, and only one on the other. Heather didn’t mind which seat she sat in, so she got the window this time.

The single seat across the aisle, empty when we boarded, was soon filled by a girl clutching a large pizza box. The box was clearly occupied, judging by the sweet meaty fragrance emanating from it. Still, this wasn’t enough to mask the aroma from my feet.

I enquired of Heather. “Can’t smell anything,” she said. Like I say, a great travelling companion.

I glanced left towards Pizza Girl. She was wearing an actual face mask, such as those seen on cyclists in smog-ridden cities. A mild over-reaction, I felt.

I retrieved my emergency pair of socks from my hand luggage and put them on, trying to do my bit for the environment, and concerned for the welfare of my fellow passengers.

Some time later I glanced left again. Pizza Girl had bolstered her defences by putting a white cloth over her head.

As the plane began its descent, a nervous glance revealed that she had the face mask and the white sheet on, and was slumped forwards over her tray table. Somewhat miffed, as I thought the sock approach was working quite well, I decided that she was making something of a meal of it all.

With a sniff and a mental toss of my head, I threw some Drew Holcomb on the iPod, as the Cumberland River and the Batman Building hove into view through the starboard window.

On disembarking the plane, Heather kept a respectful non-associative distance from me as we waited for the checked hand luggage to be delivered to the air bridge. Not because of the smell, but since the unplanned wardrobe change during the flight, I was now breaking new fashion ground by wearing socks and flip-flops.

Meanwhile Pizza Girl stood a good few metres even further away, presumably because of in-flight wounding and an unwillingness to forgive and move on.

Four days on, things are going well. I have a temporary SIM card for the two weeks I’m here, to allow easy communication with my American friends. This is working well, however it appears that the previous owner of my American number had signed up for parenting advice via daily text messages. So I now know that it’s good to let one’s child serve themselves, and it’s ok if they spill a little.

In a week’s time, armed with 11 days of text-borne advice, I expect to be a bona fide expert on parenting, and will be ready to share my expertise with any of my parent-friends.

You’re welcome.

Decision Time

Westin O’Hare Hotel

15 September, 6am CDT


I know objectively that this life change I’ve undertaken is a big decision, but when people point that out to me, while acknowledging that it’s true (it must be), I’ve felt like shrugging and smiling.

This has been one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make in my life. I’ve had more stress trying to work out what to do with a free Saturday morning (ok, I need to get this, this and this done…would make more sense to have breakfast at home, save time and money…BUT I would really like to have brunch at Indigo Yard…but that’s going to take up a bit of time, agh, agh AGH!) than I have making the decision to sell most of my worldly assets and head to the States.

This decision has been signposted by God to me through various means since the beginning, and he has smoothed the way all along. It has taken faith, but my experience has always been, and never more so than now, that he rewards you for stepping out in faith for him.

This morning I am faced with another big decision. My bag didn’t make it to Chicago (never mind Nashville) last night, and in my carry-on luggage I have a number of life’s necessities (such as a baseball mitt) but no underwear.

So, yesterday’s pants or go commando? Uncomfortable grottiness or the risk of being deported for indecent exposure at airport security when I have to take my belt off and my trousers fail to stay up..?

—-

Chicago O’Hare Airport

15 September, 8am CDT


Now in O’Hare having a breakfast burrito and Pepsi. I feel it’s important to try to embrace American culture early on.

It’s tempting to say everything went wrong on yesterday’s journey, but the reality is that all the important things went right. That is, they let me in the country. And so two delayed flights and one missed flight, a missing bag with all my clothes and an important chocolate consignment for chez Jones in it, don’t seem so bad after all. And I got an overnight in a Westin hotel, which Alyn informs me is an upmarket Sheraton, and certainly felt like it, courtesy of AA. American Airlines, that is, just for clarification.

They also supplied me with a voucher for breakfast, which upon arrival at the hotel restaurant, I realised totalled $7. 

“What can I get for $7?” I asked my server.

“Uh, a coffee is $5.50, more like $6 including tax.

“Ah.”

I had to resort to the Starbucks outlet in the lobby. The day can only improve from here 🙂

No delays when you need them

After a consecutive series of delayed flights over the last week, the least I might have expected was for tonight’s flight back to Edinburgh to be shunted back, at least a little. Which would have been useful, as a points malfunction at Stratford had left me scrambling onto an overcrowded bus in order to complete my ‘rail’ journey to the epicentre of the 2012 Olympics, from where I still had to take a tube and the DLR to get to the City Airport. I hadn’t managed to get on the first bus, due to the panic instilled in my fellow travellers by being denied their timely arrival into Stratford, and the scrum that ensued.
Finally made it to check-in, with the screen showing my flight as boarding, and on to security, which had the longest queues I’ve seen there. Naturally, I joined the slowest-moving one, which is a natural gift of mine, and then forgot to take a pen out of my trouser pocket, which triggered the scanner. At which point I had to remove my shoes, belt, and all pocket contents before undergoing what amounted to a full-body grope. And an electronic sweep-down which seemed convinced that I had something metallic somewhere very personal. I know privacy campaigners are exercised by the prospect of the new X-ray scanners which display an image of you in disturbing detail through your clothing, but personally I think that’s preferable to the physical invasion of your dignity as it currently stands.
By the time I had been certified a non-terrorist, the screen was displaying ‘Gate closed’ beside my flight. Undeterred, knowing my hold baggage had gone ahead of me, I pressed on, almost breaking into a run at times despite flapping shoelaces, and less-than-secure trousers, having had no time to reinstate my belt to its rightful place.
Escorted individually to the steps of the plane by a very kind and patient member of the BA ground crew, I finally made it on to the flight ten minutes before it was due to take off.
I had eschewed the opportunity to change my seat during online check-in earlier, since having done this on the way down and yet still failed in my attempt to secure a seat with no-one beside me. Miserably. I was sat beside an absolute bear of a man. I took my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. The Bear was working his way through a puzzle book, and I could feel the pressure as I reached the crossword in the Guardian, and folded it over, in a way which suggested I had every confidence of being able to solve one or two of the clues. And what do you know, I solved 1 Across instantly. Instantly, I say. And then had a lucky run with four more in a row (in a row, I say) later on. Quite satisfied with myself, I put the paper away and re-opened Mr Trescothick’s autobiography.
The City Airport being principally used by, um, City types and pink-sweater-clad students at the London School of Economics, I was, by some distance, the scruffiest person on the flight. I love the City Airport, for its proximity to my sister’s house (points failures at Stratford notwithstanding), and its spectacular flight path in and out over the centre of London. But I can’t help but feel it wasn’t made with the likes of me in mind. Visiting the cash machine in the terminal on Monday I noticed that on selecting ‘cash withdrawal’ the amounts assigned to the screen-side buttons started at £100 and increased in multiples thereof. I selected ‘Other Amount’. On plugging into the free LCY wi-fi I was presented with a welcome screen which requested the usual user info – name, email, postcode etc. And two drop-down boxes in which I was to state my industry and occupation. The default suggested for industry was ‘Accounting’, and for occupation was ‘Board of Directors’. I didn’t even satisfy the default age range (18-24).
Sigh. At least the John Mayer gig was brilliant, and worth the travelling and hassle. My ears were ringing for some time after getting home, not so much from the music as the audience. I had commented on how many teenage girls were present to my gig companion, affectionately known as The Maestro. He pointed out that girls which looked like teenagers to me were probably 25. I thanked him for his observation. The 25-yr-old girls made a heck of a racket when JM’s band arrived on stage, but managed to ratchet it up even further when the man himself appeared. And they kept it up for most of the gig. In fairness, he played a great set, despite him not playing my favourite songs (why do artists do that… is it just me?), memorably throwing a bit of the Jackson 5 into the mix at one point. The Maestro was playing in his own gig the following night, and I went along to watch him. Was greatly pleased to see that I wasn’t the sole target of his youthful insolence, as he publicly heckled the singer/guitarist he was playing for.
I say ‘youthful’, but actually he’s getting on a bit himself. As is Maggie, 3 years old today, and terribly excited about it. I deferred my present until later in the year, as she has quite a few to be getting on with, and anyway, junior cricket sets cannot be practically demonstrated in January. Those delights will have to wait.
Now back in Edinburgh for the foreseeable, I find myself experiencing a slight return to the post-holiday blues which hit me hard on Sunday night. A reappearance on the slopes before the ski and cricket seasons crossfade, while financially daunting, seems like a great idea right now…

Airport déja vu

Another flight from Edinburgh airport, another lengthy delay. I find myself sitting beneath the same speaker that I sat beneath eight days ago, the interminable wait on that occasion punctuated with conversation and laughs with 11 friends all en route to Val Thorens. And DC, directing a baleful upwards look towards the speaker, as another cheesy Christmas song interrupted his concentration on the Sunday Telegraph.
This time there are no friends, sadly. More mercifully, there is no Christmas music. Airport delays, who needs them? Luncheon vouchers are only a small consolation, although BA win points for possessing a decency lacking in Jet2 last week by advertising their existence over the tannoy.
At least I have a good book or two for company. My Christmas presents this year were, let’s say, tinged with a cricketing theme. Two books – Marcus Trescothick’s autobiography and Harold Larwood’s biography, and one DVD box set of the 2009 Ashes. Have been looking forward to watching the series highlights since it finished – the TV coverage being exclusively on Sky meant that I missed quite a lot of the matches as they happened. So Stuart Broad’s destructive spell at the Oval is, as yet, a pleasure still to be enjoyed.
Trescothick’s book provides a harrowing account of his breakdown when on tour with England in India, and subsequent struggles with depression. However, in the early chapters which chart his ascent through the echelons of county and international cricket, he recounts how he frequently found himself declaring “Isn’t this great?” as he experienced the joy of scoring runs at higher and higher levels.
Last week, I found myself, not for the first time, thinking, and sometimes saying aloud to anyone who would listen: “Isn’t this great?!” as I carved up another sun-kissed piste. Or watched the sun sinking over snowy mountains, with a hot chocolate warming my insides, and the prospect of a rapid exhilarating descent to the chalet ahead.
If anything, my speed on skis this year was even faster, having borrowed Kenny K’s helmet, and experiencing its sense of security for the first time. Thankfully it was never needed, except when Mandy took it upon herself to test drive it with a forearm smash to my forehead. With friends like these…
My trip to London is to see John Mayer play live, he having the temerity to schedule his only Scottish date on Saturday night while I was still in France. At least he had the good sense to arrange a London gig within two days of Maggie’s 3rd birthday, so I can combine two showbiz extravaganzas in one visit.
Having been slightly disappointed with JM’s most recent studio offering, I am hoping his live show fulfils its reputation, and is worth the airport delay…