Wednesday, July 25, 2007

White Knuckles

Part 1 in semi-regular series detailing Euro Tour 2007 highlights. While guaranteed to be interesting to the Author, it's likely and expected to be less so to Readers like you. All hail the Wankosphere, for it feeds my ego. Let's begin, shall we?

Phase 1 of the adventure was a 4-and-a-half day free-spirited driving tour of Southern England. The general plan for Day 1: land at Heathrow, pickup the car, visit nearby Windsor Castle, then drive to Salisbury for some R&R in a B&B we had booked. The theme here was to keep jet-lag at bay and quickly get ourselves acclimatized to UK time.

The plan generally worked, but not in quite the way we had intended.

Air Canada fulfilled all of our expectations and ensured our flights were late. The culprits, as always, were ominous mechanical issues followed by the tried-and-true 'bad weather in Toronto' gambit. This time, it didn't matter. We were getting into Heathrow at 6:30am anyways, so Air Canada could be late as they liked as far as I was concerned.

After an uneventful flight filled with boring movies, uneatable 'food', and free booze, we arrived at Heathrow (late) and spent almost an hour clearing customs. Because I don't sleep much on airplanes, I had already achieved a Zen-like state of fatigue and the customs lineup took on a slightly psychedelic tinge around the edges.

With some perfunctory questions from a customs dude with frosty-tipped hair, we found our bags, found the Avis shuttle, and - before I could think twice - we were standing in front of a gleaming blue 2007 VW Passat diesel wagon. Good news: it would easily hold our luggage. Bad news: the steering wheel was on the wrong side.

According to Google Maps, Windsor Castle is but a mere 18 minutes from Heathrow. Armed with these instructions, a traditional map, and a GPS, we managed to extend the trip to about 45 minutes. Finding Windsor was easy. Finding the Castle was dumb luck.

Prying my hands of the steering wheel required gentle coaxing. I knew my heart would explode before the end of the day, but my family would not believe me. I wondered how they would get my body back to home soil. I could only imagine the Air Canada screw-ups.

But the sun was shining, the air was warm, and the Castle was the first friend we would make on our journey. It was interesting enough, but not really the sort of place that would inspire awe in Her Majesty's subjects. We saw the changing of the guard, some staterooms, the chapel - but my mind became fixated on the journey ahead.

Soon enough, we decided to head to Salisbury where we would be using Rokeby Guest House as our base for a couple of days. Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of our navigational tools, we could not escape the environs of Windsor. We got lost, got lost again, found ourself back where we started, then did the whole thing over again. For 90 minutes we did this as the muscles in my neck crept ever-close to my earlobes.

This was a trial-by-fire driving lesson in England. I soon got the hang of driving on the left and my tires were hitting the left-hand curb less frequently. It soon became apparent that the mechanics of driving would not be the issue. Navigating would be the problem - and a big one at that since roads tend to Not Be Straight and Not Go Directly Anywhere. Traffic circles were a cute idea, but little-resembled circles. Imagine a highway clover-leaf flattened out and shrunk to fit inside the smallest English village. Now imagine that finding your road inside one of these hairballs is decided by a lottery who's rules are a secret. Now you've got an English traffic circle.

Then came Eton, home of the venerable Eton College. While not on our agenda, we nonetheless found ourselves quite suddenly on its narrow, ancient streets wistfully imagining the circumstances under which the authorities would find our bodies decaying inside a lifeless blue Passat. I made a mental check of the location of our passports. It would make identification easier, I imagined.

That's when we had 'the incident'. The left front tire (or is that tyre) kissed the curb yet again and emitted a rubber-on-stone shriek. As a cabbie would soon point out to us, this had caused the sidewall to develop a plum-sized rupture. Day 1, and I was already having to deal with car repairs. It was Nova Scotia all over again (another story for another day).

Into a gas station for driving directions and a check of the tire. The spare tire was full-sized, so there was no urgent need to locate a garage to buy a new tire. I made the decision to drive on the damaged tire and, if it burst, I'd throw on the spare. Damn the torpedoes.

90 minutes later, we were in Salisbury - 3 hours in total to take a trip that the good people at Google promised would take 1 hour. And the tire - still intact.

The final irony - we got lost 1 block from the B&B because the lovely people who own Rokeby Guest House gave us incorrect directions. Once we sorted this out (with some help from a convenience store clerk), we found the B&B a comfortable oasis in which to encamp. To put things in perspective, a pile of leaves under a tarp would have been equally as comfy for us by this time. We had long ago ceased to be running on fumes. Now it was spite.

The last act of the day before falling into comas would be dinner at a local pub where the people were friendly and the food was better than Air Canada's.

This was Day 1, and I already had an irrational fear of driving blue Passat's. What would the next 4 days bring? The large beer told me to forget about all this for while, and so I did.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Myth of Free WiFi

Okay - Euro Tour 2007 was an utterly amazing 2 weeks. Portsmouth, Bath, Salisbury, Old Sarum, Windsor, Eton, London, Paris, Versailles - and the list gets longer. It was truly a family adventure and there are stories to tell, pictures to share, and impressions to paint.

I so hoped to be posting from Over There. I had my cool little Palm device with WiFi and had figured out how to post to Blogger via email. All I needed was an occasional wireless connection and I'd be reporting from the front lines. I had read so many breathless accounts of the European penchant for free hotspots, I suppose I pictured myself sitting in a cafe or in a park exuding a diamond-cool Wired magazine kinda vibe as I casually jacked into the Net from my PDA.

Cue the squeeze-box music. A loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and the Information Highway running through my hands.

But I 'supposed' wrong. Nowhere did I encounter wireless access for the proletariat. Hotels, airports, cafes - they all wanted my credit card. Only once did I find a free connection, and that was some poor soul's unsecured home network that appeared for only for a few moments late one night at our room at a Salisbury B&B. I managed to squeak out one quick email to our house-sitter to let her know we'd arrived in England reasonably intact. Then, the connection evaporated - consumed by the Salisbury mist, I imagine.

I'm going to share some stories anyways. Maybe I'll even post it as a day-by-day account (set the Wayback Machine, Sherman) - at least until someone cries "Uncle!". But I can't help being a tad disappointed that my little experiment in 'You Are There' ended up a failure.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Does Anybody Here Remember Vera Lynn?

In about 6 hours we'll be on our way - London Slightly-International Airport to London Heathrow, by way of Toronto Pearson. Assuming I can sleep through the in-flight flicks - Wild Hogs anyone? - we'll be touching down about 6:30am local time Monday morning. The weather there is predictably cool and wet.

The anxiety levels are high, but time will lurch inexorably forward and we'll be there soon enough. The biggest problem right now is packing light. I'm counting no fewer than 6 different electronic chargers for various cameras, phones, iPods, and other whatzzits that are apparently key to our survival over the next few weeks. Contrast that to my first trip abroad 22-ish years ago when I brought a duffel bag, a Russian-built manual camera, and a travel iron. Note that the travel iron was never actually used.

I'm hoping this is not my last post for awhile. I plan to blog from Over There whenever I get the opportunity. I have this cool little used Palm Tx (thanks eBay) that can do email and limited surfing whenever it's in range of an open WiFi connection. So long as I can send email somehow, some way - I'll post something here. The downside - it's unlikely I'll be able to post any pictures. And, yes, I'm bring a charger along for the Palm.

Be back soon. I hope.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Frumious Bandersnatch

This is Maple - no doubt resting after hunting her latest kill.

We stay off the stairs now. And we never let our feet dangle off the bed. It's just better that way.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ummmm.... Oi?

Fundamentally, I own 3 pairs of shoes. One is the running shoes I wear everyday - even to the office. Two is the sandals I wear when I can't manage bare feet - outside the office. Three is the formal black things that I wear on those oh-so-rare occasions when a suit is required.

Of course I have boots, but we're Canadians here and talking aboot boots is redundant, eh?

The imminent Euro Tour demands a new pair of shoes that exist in the theoretical rift between running shoes and formal black things. I'm not sure these exist, but I have to believe they do. I believe Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle was based on this theoretical footwear. Or maybe it was Adams' Improbability Drive.

No matter. I needed shoes.

So I've been searching shoe stores for the past few weeks and have been largely unsuccessful. Strike One is that I'm an Average Joe, and stores don't really - you know - exist for us. Strike Two is that my feet aren't wide enough. All the nice shoes are for guys with wide feet. I don't understand why, but I'm secure enough in my manhood that this doesn't bother me too much.

After hours of searching (I'm not kidding) I finally found a pair that worked for me. That's pretty good news in itself. Even cooler is the fact they're Doc Martens. At least I thought this was cool for about 10 minutes.

You see, my perception of Doc Martens was forged in the crucible of Punk many years ago. They were the uniform of young toughs who were all about senseless anger and useless gestures of pointless violence. And they attracted the right kinds of girls back in the day.

But they were beyond my means back when it meant something.

Apparently everyone grew up, and Doc Marten went legit. So my uniform now includes casual dark brown Oxfords with a logo that echoes back to a different era. Just when I thought I'd finally arrived, everyone left.


As in 'Syrup'

Because you're dying to know, the rare and deadly Siberian cat moved into our home just over a week ago. And her name *tympany please* is Maple.

Maple is doing great and has pretty much taken over the house - as cats will do. She's friendly, will set the 'playful dial' to 11, enjoys sitting in the upstairs shower stall for some inexplicable reason, and will undoubtedly be huge. My guess is that she'll tip the scales at 20 pounds or more when all is said and done.

I've owned many cats over the years or, rather, many cats have deigned to acknowledge my presence. But I have to say this is the most vocal feline I've ever encountered. When she enters a room and sees someone, she talks. When she wants to play, she talks. When she needs a lap to flop into, she talks. Odd, that one.

So, that's Maple. I'll post a pic when I get a chance, but be forewarned that I'll need to balance all this cute-and-fuzzy talk with a few unreasonably violent and/or pornographic posts in days to come.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Sick of Being Sick

It never fails. I rarely get sick, but when I do the Gods of Virii (that's a virus with friends) pick precisely the worst time to strike. Like now. For the past 4 days I've been lethargic to the point of catatonia. Judging from the apparent swelling and soreness of my throat, I really should be spitting up blood and smallish pieces of tissue.

But I can't enjoy my illness right now.

Work has been nutso-crazy the past few weeks, so I can ill afford any time off. The kids have managed to save their dentist, optometrist, and orthodontist appointments until after their recent cessation of hostilities with teachers and such, so I can ill afford to cancel any of these appointments just because I've lost the ability to swallow or breathe. And finally, our Euro Tour '07 begins in just 1 week and, of course, I'm not ready yet. I need shoes. I need Pounds. I need to know how to dial a phone in France. I need to believe every detail is known and documented.

But I don't have the energy.

Someday, before I die, I'm going to get sick at precisely the right time. The cupboards will be full of good snacks. We'll have a big screen TV that even shows all the correct colours. There'll be a lock on the bedroom door. And I'll just relax.