bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Seven

A touch of the black stuff! (This photo opportunity sponsored by Guinness!)

For a ‘slight’ change of format, this blog entry of Stranger in a Strange Land is not going to be about me banging on about my travels around the States, nope, this is gong to be about Barack O’bama’s (yes, that’s the proper spelling) visit to Ireland and England and Stranger in a Strange Land somehow seems an appropriate title. The O’bama’s have just arrived in the UK after visiting his ancestral ‘Roots’ in Ireland and like most Irish I’m thinking yeah yeah, yet another American (as proven by birth certificate) claiming to have Irish blood coursing through his veins, in Barack O’bama’s case this is a whole 5% heritage and I’m wondering which bit, his nose, his right hand, I’m not sure which 5% is Irish but I hope it’s not the finger on the nuclear trigger because we Irish tend to be a tad mischievous

Would you like a little more Irish in you?

One of my friends at work was saying he’s about as Irish as Arnold Swarcheneggers left foot because he’s black (the President, not my friend who has typical Irish colouring ie  pasty light blue at the height of summer) and he thinks there are no native black folk in Ireland but I had to disagree, most of my generation will remember the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, Phil Lynott who was also black and Irish, as a sideline Phil used to have a wonderful line at concerts in America, he would shout out to the audience “is there anyone here tonight with a little Irish in them” and the crowd would naturally roar yeah and then he’d grin and say “are there any girls out there who would like a little more Irish in them…?” a man after my own heart. Apparently O’bama was asked did he like Gaelic and he replied “yes, especially on spaghetti but Michelle doesn’t like me eating it as my breath stinks in the morning..”

Anyway, Barack has been to his ancestral home in Moneygall and I noticed an interesting statistic, Dulux, the paint manufacturer had donated 3,500 litres of paint to smarten up every house — at least one painted in the Stars and Stripes. Potholes had been filled in, pavements patched up, floral displays hung from lamp posts and flags hoisted the length of Main Street. Now what I’m wondering is, just what sort of impression does this give the President about Ireland, does it just look like a rather wet version of Disney World and is his overriding memory going to be that Ireland smells of fresh paint? (I wonder if that’s how the Queen thinks the entire world smells like…and is that a required qualification to join the Royal Family, no allergies to fresh paint..).

The show has moved to London now,  it seems the visit was caught short due to that volcano in Iceland erupting again and fears that Air Farce One was going to be grounded, here’s a tip if you happen to be a superpower like Russia and you are planning a surprise attack on the UK, all you have to do is wait for that volcano to erupt again and you can fly your jets with complete impunity over our bases and airports because of course all bloody air traffic is grounded yet again.. It was not the first time in the day that the president’s travel arrangements had to be changed somewhat hastily. Earlier, the presidential Cadillac, nicknamed “the Beast” for its bomb-proof features, failed to make it out of the US embassy in Dublin after getting stuck on a ramp. You kind’a think the Secret Service would have done a trail run… The O’bamas had to abandon the car in front of waving crowds and switch to a horse and cart to drive them to the Marine One helicopter that took them to visit his ancestral home. Only in Ireland…

So now at 10pm GMT the president is attending a banquet in Buckingham Palace, nice place, been there once, the loo’s are difficult to find! but very plush, they employ folk to wipe yer butt, indeed they employ folk to kiss yer butt and there are 170 guests from both sides of the Atlantic at this banquet, so we have Tom Hanks sitting next to ‘M,’ the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers which is strange because I thought the head of M16 was Judi Dench, but that must be an interesting conversation, I dare say the head of M16 could reveal some stories that would be rejected by even Hollywood as defying reality.

Of course, what I’m wondering is, will Michelle Obama hug the Queen again, apparently that’s a major no-no here but like a red rag to a bull.. Interesting to see that Buckingham Palce hasn’t moved into the 21st century, one of the reporters asked “is there WiFi here?” to which the super cool as a cucumber courtier replied  “No, we haven’t gone completely Starbucks yet. “

From the US media point of view this trip is very much a non-news story and there is (or was) very little coverage of it state-side, at least there was little coverage until the Obama’s met the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, well, they have to do something to raise their profile, the Obama’s that is..

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Six

Somewhat ironic, isn't it, how difficult it is to get into America nowdays.

In February I went to Barcelona for my 50th birthday, I wanted to see Sagrada Familia but here’s the thing, there was one guard at passport control and as the entire plane disembarked and queued up to go through he barely glanced up from his newspaper and just waved us on, I can’t tell you just how relieved I was as I had 50 kilios of nuclear grade plutonium,  Haitian goat hide drums and a small Albanian family concealed under my jumper…

This is in marked contrast when travelling to the States. I’ve travelled all over the country, north, south, east and west and arriving at passport control is never easy.  I visit travel websites showing how welcoming America is and indeed it is but from the time I enter the passport control to the time I get through, there’s an underlying tension and this has only become more acute since 911. I know Americans are probably relieved to be ‘home’ but for us ‘aliens’ it’s a time of tension, it always throws me, this juxtaposition, the America I know is warm, friendly and very welcoming, this is how I am psyched up when I arrive but I’m always nervous waiting in the queue to have my passport stamped and these days my photograph and fingerprints taken, like everyone else in the ‘aliens’ queue I try my best not to look like a terrorist and arouse suspicion, especially as now they have installed geiger counters, kind’a ironic considering I come from the land of bombing and terrorism,  I spent the first 25 years of my life being checked/searched/scanned/groped/probed before entering Belfast city centre and any large shop (sometimes we’d go around twice if the security woman was nice looking!) and so I’m used to stringent security but even I feel the tension going on holiday, sorry I mean vacation, in America.

The best place to land is Raleigh airport in North Caroline, it’s not much more than a wooden  shack in the middle of nowhere (or at least gives that impression) and the worse is Miami airport which is surprising because of the zillion that cross the pond to go to Disneyworld. Miami is well known amongst travellers as having the tightest/meanest/strictest security, they don’t have watch towers and razor wire but it’s feels like it’s only a matter of time, I’ve had a couple of run-ins with them, at one point had an officer place his hand on his gun holster and order me not to move, trust me, when that happens you do exactly what he says, men in uniforms with guns tend to focus the mind in much the same way having diarrhoea does – which by co-incidence was exactly what I started doing in my pants as he reached for his gun, “Stand in the circle SIR!” was one order I wasn’t going to mess with. I think if the immigration staff at Miami had their way they would shift Disneyworld across the pond so we, the great unwashed, wouldn’t have to trouble them, oh hang on a minute, they did exactly that,  Eurodisney..

JFK was surprising OK and relaxed, surprising because of the Twin Towers, thought it would be worse there, maybe it was because there are so many Irish there and he thought I was coming home to join the diaspora but by far the most gobsmacking was Las Vegas, from the moment I got off the plane my eyes were affronted with huge screens blasting out scenes from ‘We Will Rock You’ and whatever else was showing in Vegas, plus there was row after row of one armed bandits – no, not row after row of muggers with only one arm, (although that is an interesting image now I mention it) but this is what we call slot machines here in the UK,  this was even before I got to the baggage carousels never mind immigration, seriously, a little piece of Disneyland in the middle of the desert.

I’m always deeply jealous of the US Passport holders queue, that one seems to go reasonably quickly but even there it seems to take a lot longer than necessary, I did pitch up at LAX once with 300 other potential terrorists and we had the good luck to arrive at lunch time because there was only  two immigration staff on, the mood in the hall was not good, especially as one officer was held up with an Asian couple and wouldn’t let them in, Argy Bargy’s song ‘There’s Going To Be A Riot’ kept running through my head..

But it’s not only airport border staff that give me grief, a few years ago when I was driving around Arizona I went to Yuma and nearly crossed over the border into Mexico but the border guards there told me they wouldn’t let me back in without a lot of hassle, even if I did have a hire car full of manky laundry sitting in the car park behind them. I drove off and bounced along the border roads for a few hours and it was noticeable that I was the only car that was stopped and checked by the random border patrols. After being stopped the fourth time I asked one of the patrol guys why was I being targeted, I certainly didn’t look Mexican or look like I could be hiding a family in my compact car but he let me into a little secret, it seems that the reason I was being stopped all the time was because I had my window down to let fresh air in, all Americans drive with the window up and the air conditioning on, only Mexicans drive with the windows down, the border patrol call it ‘Mexican Air Conditioning’ and assume anyone with the window down is really Mexican…  or Irish

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Five

Fail.

It seems I am to lose yet another of life’s little pleasures, after being scolded by the government (who are determined to suck ALL the fun out of life)  for eating butter, salt, ice-cream, white bread and Mars bars dipped in batter and fried, (not all at the same time), now it seems I am to lose the pleasure of explaining to Americans that they are spelling everything wrong. For example;

British English vs American English

colour vs color
favourite vs favourite
memorise vs memorize
defence vs defense
centre vs center
jewellery vs jewellery
plough vs plow
encyclopaedia vs encyclopedia

(My spell checker is going absolute nuts at that list!)

These are just some of the more common differences and if I had a dollar, I mean a pound, for every time I typed in Wikipaedia (as just about everyone on this side of the pond would do automatically) rather than Wikipedia I’d be a rich man..

However, It seems I owe my friends across the pond an apology (or ten), after taking every opportunity to lecture them about their incorrect spelling of colour and neighbour ad nausaeum,  I’ve recently discovered that Americans may have more claim to the correct spelling of English than I give them credit for.

Apparently..  (always be wary of any sentence that starts with the word ‘apparently’), apparently, American English has remained relatively unchanged since the pilgrim fathers landed there and this is part of the reason why it still retains old 18th Century spellings such as color, neighbor, etc  and it’s somewhat cheeky of me to lecture Americans on spelling as that’s how we spelt everything in 1620, plus being a man I can’t spell to save my life (technically English is not my native tongue but Irish is so at least I have an excuse).

Moaning about spelling comes down to a combination of snobbery and aesthetics, on this side of the pond there is a wee bit of a superiority complex when it comes to the mother tongue, after all, this is the land of Shakespeare and Dickens and we, I mean they, like to think they know better.

But you see, most of the settlers at the colony of Jamestown which was established in 1607 (i.e. thirteen years before the Pilgrim Fathers), mainly came from the home counties, and a number of them were considered aristocrats so I imagine American English before the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers was closer to London speech but the Pilgrim Fathers (and their wives and children but whoever mentions them???) arrived in 1620. Most originated in the East Midlands, and most spent several years in Holland before departing to the New World. One reason for leaving Holland is that their offspring were becoming “Dutchified”. So their speech would have been East Midland with some Dutch influence thrown in, and then of course quite a lot of Dutch came over after the first year… and slaves too..

Thanks to American hegemonemony, (thank you Hollywood) America has pretty much kept the English language relevant globally, from helping stop the British having to learn German at the end of a gun barrel to the simultaneous, simplification, preservation and evolution of the language itself, Americans can be credited with keeping the language going. Americans are like the old Arabs who kept the Greek knowledge preserved, except the Americans improved and built on this knowledge significantly but I do wonder why, after the revolution, Americans didn’t just change the name of the language and have done with it.

Thanks to a gentleman called Noah Webster it would appear that American spelling got a bit frozen in time. The name Webster means nothing over here, apart from the brewery of course, it’s the Oxford English Dictionary that every child has a battered copy of in their school satchel but Websters seems to be the gold standard across the pond. However, everything isn’t as clear cut as it first appears, a lot of American variant spelling is down to Noah Webster. Have a nosey at “Noah Webster, American Men of Letters“,   page 251;

“Slowly, edition by edition, Webster changed the spelling of words, making them “Americanized.” He chose s over c in words like defense, he changed the re to er in words like center, and he dropped one of the L’s in traveler. At first he kept the u in words like colour or favour but dropped it in later editions.”

He also changed “tongue” to “tung”—an innovation that never caught on.

So now there is some debate on both sides of the pond as to which spelling is correct English and the more we try to differentiate between US usage and UK usage the more the common enemy, the hated French will be comforted in their ridiculous “traduit de l’américain” at the front of translated novels… just to piss off the British..

What’s interesting is that 404 years after the founding of James Port in the new world, America still haven’t chosen an official language yet. At some point in the future I expect them to get off their collective butts and pick English (or if they wait long enough, Spanish) and then they can start telling the rest of us how it should be spelt.

Of course, betwixt thou and I, I think America already has a de facto official language, it’s called Incomprehensible Shouting

(Personally, I have always wondered why the Americans pronounce “herb” as “erb”).

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Four

NOT the London Leprechaun (although 'Twatt' does have a familiar ring to it)

One of the many things I find interesting about flying to the States is that when over Maine (ME) I always notice Bangor and Belfast come up on the moving maps, after being raised (ie trailed up backwards) in Bangor, Northern Ireland (NI) and spent lots of time in Belfast, it always makes me smile to see those names popping up.

There aren’t many similarities between both Bangors, Bangor ME has a population of 30,000,  an international airport and has the balls to call itself a city, Bangor NI has a population of more than twice it’s younger sibling and much more modestly calls itself a town and has one train station and a taxi rank. In one Bangor the main pastime is to sit in your car on Queens Parade and see who can gather the most dust and cobwebs, and the other, to quote it’s website ‘a friendly city that’s filled with excitement, opportunity and activity, and a gateway to the natural beauty of this great state’, you can probably work out which one is which.

I did find one similarity between the two Bangors, G.W. Bush managed to sneak aboard a transport plane and glad hand troops about to head off from Bangor ME  to Iraq in 2004 but during World War II, Eisenhower addressed Allied troops in Bangor NI, who were departing to take part in the D-Day landing.  In 2005, his granddaughter Mary-Jean Eisenhower came to the town to oversee the renaming of the marina’s North Pier to the Eisenhower Pier, my memories of North pier are of a decrepit wooden pier rotten to the core and closed off to the public but as wee nippers we climbed over the fence and barbed wire (and watch tower) to fish at the end of the pier, if Mary-Jean Eisenhower stood on that pier then she must have inherited her grandfather’s balls of steel

Bangor NI has been around a while, bronze age swords were found there in 1949 (took them long enough!) and a Viking burial ground in Ballyholme beach, a place all residents are familiar with as it’s the only beach that the sewers don’t directly spill out onto. Bangor was first mentioned about 558AD and Abbey Church there dates back to that time (which co-incidentally is about the same age as my car).

Bangor ME was incorporated in 1834 but how it got its name is a matter of debate, you see it transpires that Reverend Seth Noble, the first installed minister, went to Boston to petition the General Court of Massachusetts for an act of incorporation. Before his departure, citizens agreed that the town’s new name would be ‘Sunbury.’ Legend has it that Noble was humming a favourite hymn as he participated in the official proceedings and mistakenly answered ‘Bangor’-the name of the hymn-when asked the town’s name and thus Bangor was reborn.  Could have been worse I suppose, he could have been humming “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”

What’s equally interesting is that 35miles south of Bangor ME is Belfast ME, population about 7,000 but even they have their own airport albeit not an international one (yet), Belfast NI does of course have Belfast City Airport but come on, the population was 267,000 last time anyone stayed still long enough to be counted, exactly 260,000 more than it’s younger rival.

The way Belfast ME got it’s name was also as well thought out as Bangor ME, the founding fathers wanted to name the city Londonderry after their home in New Hampshire, not after the city of Londonderry in Ireland because of course that would be too sensible and after all, one can’t have too many Londonderry’s. It certainly wouldn’t confuse anyone having another Londonderry 200 miles down the road, “No no, you silly sausage, it’s the other Londonderry you want, down the road…” UPS would go crazy trying to figure that one out. However, wisdom prevailed and the founding fathers of Belfast did what all deep thinking men did and tossed a coin and Belfast won. This was of course, a new, previously unheard of definition of the term ‘wisdom’.

So I wonder about a few things, why on earth would you want to name your city after Bangor and Belfast, surely if you were going to name a town you’d create some new name or you’d pick a name that no-one would miss, there are literally thousands of tiny little hamlets in Ireland and the UK, some of them with only two or three houses and wouldn’t it be much wiser to put their names to greater use than copy Bangor seventeen times (yes, there are seventeen Bangors in the world, one close by in Wales and nine in the States, yeah, nine! and even a ship ‘The City Of Bangor’) but a cursory nosey with Mr Google brings up many alternatives such as Shitterton, Pratts Bottom, Badgers Mount, Crotch Crescent, Titty Ho, Ugley, Bottom Flash, Twatt, Brown Willy near Bodmin Moor, Berriwillock, Grimbister, Noak Hoak, Scrabster and Skoonspruit, names I’m sure no-one would miss, and between thou and I, I’m deeply jealous of Australia which has Burrumbuttock, Jiggalong and Tittybong,  and then finally there’s America, near Ely in Cambridgeshire, UK.. oh bugger, seems that one’s already taken..

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Three

I went to Greensboro one day… yes, you may need to Google that one..

This happened quite a few years ago, it was one of those days, I pitched up at Gatwick airport and asked when was the next plane leaving for the States, the clerk said the next available flight was to Raleigh International Airport, North Carolina so I said “excellent, never been there before, I’ll have a return ticket please” and three hours later I was flying over Glasgow, Iceland, Greenland and then Newfoundland etc

Anyway, I duly pitched up at Raleigh International Airport… and went outside to the taxi stand,
“Take me to the nearest big town please..”
“ermmm that’ll be Raleigh…you SURE you want to go there?”
“ermm yes…why not?”
“No-one visits Raleigh, it’s like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave…”
“OKKkkkkkkk well, lets go see anyway”

Six hours later and I was hitching my way out of town up i40.The Dispatcher was right, worlds most uninteresting town.. worse than Great Yarmouth in February and that’s saying something. My main aim was to try to get to Greensboro because there was a lot of Civil Right history there, the Long March started there and I thought it might be interesting. Sadly I was mistaken.

Dear reader, as a word of future warning, the best time *not* to visit Greensboro is when they have “Furniture Week”, what happens is that all the furniture manufacturers pitch up at Greensboro for a week and show off their designs and everyone in the States comes along and buys wardrobes and tables and expensive magazine racks on wheels.. and every hotel and motel, guest house, B&B and cardboard box is fully booked, the proverbial no room in the Inn…not good.. but eventually I found a room in a seedy hotel…I know it’s seedy as it takes only cash and there are bars on the reception kiosk.. but a room is a room and I try to freshen up.. Whilst I was washing away I could hear this Irish music playing away faintly and I thought what the hell is that, I thought I’m the only Irishman for about 500 miles in either direction so I got dressed and tried to locate where the music was coming from. I walked around the block to the back of the hotel and listened and followed the music, eventually I found this pub called M’Couls and it was buzzing..

http://www.mcoulspub.com

So I went in and I couldn’t hear too much because of all the chat downstairs so I said to the barman where was the Irish music coming from, he said upstairs, a group plays there one Sunday every month, I said God, I thought I was the only Irishman for miles around and he said, oh yes, you are, in fact you’re the first Irishman I’ve meet since working here….oh dear..

So I went upstairs and it was packed there too but out on the veranda there were about a dozen men and woman all sitting down with goose harps, drums and bagpipes playing this great music and a large appreciative audience watching them. I thought this is great so I went to the bartender and asked for some Guinness, (terrible terrible muck but I felt I had too drink it considering the circumstances). The barman gave me a huge big smile and asked if I was Irish and I said yes, of course and he asked to shake my hand..I thought that’s very friendly of him..

I sat down and started to listen to this group playing and then it dawned on me that I hadn’t a clue what they were playing, I sat there for nearly a hour and I had no clue what any of the tunes were. The weird thing was it was definitely Irish music but they would be playing away continuously and then one of them would slowly stop, put his drum down, go for a quick pint and then come back and start playing again, and they all did this, there was this continuous movement of group members to the bar and loo but the music just kept on going, and then the music would slow down and someone would start a different beat and then they would all follow that beat and join in..

Eventually I wiggled my way to the front when one of the girls playing the goose harp took a break and went off to the bar, when she came back I stopped her just before she started again and I asked her what the group was called and what was that tune they were playing..

She looked at me with huge big eyes and said, “oh my God, are you Irish?” I said “well yes, so what?” (I’m starting to get worried now..) … and she waves her arms to the rest of the group and goes “Guys Guys, he’s Irish!!” I’m checking out just where the exits are now… They all stop and go “Wow, you’re Irish…” and I say “…errrrr..yes, what of it, what’s the big deal?” and they all start asking me questions about the music…and I’m sitting there and they’re all shaking my hand and I’m thinking what bloody parallel universe have I stumbled upon, surely there must be Irish folk around here if you are all playing Irish music but no, apparently they don’t get many tourists in Greensboro, they do have a tourist office but it’s usually to point them to some famous drive in the mountains and also where some civil rights march started in the sixties but that’s it, no-one comes to Greensboro outside of Furniture Week and there are no out’a towners let alone foreigners..

So it transpires that there was this guy who ran a music shop in Greensboroand he loved Irish music, so he taught himself some of the tunes and then others came into the shop and learnt the tunes and instruments, eventually there was about a dozen of them and they started meeting up at weekends and making up and playing their own tunes. Before they knew it the neighbours were complaining about the racket so they approached McCouls and asked if they could use his upstairs space to which he readily agreed, and then it became a regular fixture that they would all meet up there at 4pm for 4 hours first Sunday of the month and this was great for them as they had an appreciative audience and the bar got all the extra trade.

But the thing was that they didn’t know any traditional Irish tunes so they simply did jamming sessions all afternoon and of course none of the locals know any tunes either so they didn’t know any better and this is where I came in and they wanted to know how they sounded and did they sound Irish and a hundred a one other questions soooo I spent ages chatting away with them and slowly getting plastered with more Guinness…god awful stuff but they kept buying me pints of it…and the food was even worse…

Anyway, they were a really nice bunch, so lovely and keen but to cut a long story short and after a few pints and loads of questions I got up and announced that “as the unofficial Irish Ambassador to Greensboro, North Carolina, it gives me great pleasure to bestow honorary Irish citizenship on each and every member of the band” to which there was a HUGE cheer and lots of back patting..

Not bad for a Northern Irish Git, this is what is always happening to me on my travels and why I like to travel off the beaten track..

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part Two

I went to Florida one day.. not sure they will let me back in.. It’s very different from the rest of the States, it really does feel like Cuba…or how I’d image Cuba if it had more money, more plastic surgeons and less sense..

Was in one of my mischievous moods (!) so at the hotel I decided to wind up the receptionist, I came down after unpacking and said to him “Why don’t I have a sea view?”, he looked at me puzzled and said “But no one has got a sea view, the hotel is seven blocks from the sea..” and I said to him “Don’t be silly, I’ve looked at the maps and seen how thin Florida is, I should be able to see the sea from both sides of the hotel…”, he looked at me like I was serious and the other staff took a sudden interest in this lunatic Irishman..and then I burst out laughing and so did he…

Everyone said I needed to go to South Beach, it was roasting even though it was only April so off I went with my swimming trunks and towel, got to the beach and it was huge, long and it looked like there was either a Supermodel or Porn Convention on in town.. So of course I had to go and place my towel in the middle of the densest cluster of silicon..ahhh heaven…

So anyway, was lying there sunning myself and noticed something strange, loads of folk around but no-one in the water…this was odd..so I asked a couple next to me why no-one was swimming, was there a shark alert or something? and they said oh no, it was only April and the water was too cold…TOO COLD?? bloody hell, we used to go swimming in the sea in April and that was in Northern Ireland, now *that* was a cold sea, they only called it the North Sea to get tourist to come, it’s proper name was the Arctic Circle.. and I have been in it during April.. of course you are frozen..and you have to avoid the passing icebergs…and the occasional polar bear…but apart from that it was fine…bracing stuff..

So I goes down to the shoreline and walks in and then start swimming…it’s fine but the waves are huge, there is quite a deep shelf…no gentle slope but matters not because I’m afloat on my back…and I look back at the beach and there’s a woman there taking photos of me with her mobile…and everyone is looking at me… and I’m think..WTF..is a great white about to appear? and I carry on swimming, I swim further out past the breakers where it’s easier to swim and next thing I know there’s a plane circulating overhead with the words Coastguard on the side… and I’m thinking cool..I wonder what they’re looking at.. and I spin around and there’s a crowd of folk on the beach pointing in my general direction…and I’m starting to get this uneasy feeling…perhaps it IS shark season……so I start to swim back slowly.. I’m quite far out and didn’t notice I’d actually passed over some net in the sea but I’m swimming back slowly and next thing I know there a Zodiac boat coming towards me..and I think F*** me.. I’m going to get run over…the whole bleeding ocean to play in and the buggers come and play in my area…but it slows down and circles around me..and I see on the side it says Lifeguard Rescue Patrol…and I think bugger, I don’t believe it..and the plane is circling overhead…and there is a large crowd on the beach… and I want to die…

So the guy on the boat shouts “Am I OK Sir?” and I shout back “What The Hell! I’m having a swim! is that against the law in this State?” and he says “but no-one swims in the sea at this time of the year and someone put a call in to the Rescue Patrol..” and I shout back “Thanks but I’m perfectly safe and need no assistance..” and he shouts back.. “you DO know you have swam past the shark net..don’t you..” and I shouted “is that what that’s for? I thought it was a strange place to have a fishing net..” and he laughed and I shout “sorry to have troubled you..” and he shouted back “That’s OK sir, there’s twenty of us on this beach and we’re bored senseless…it’s the first excitement we’ve had for months..”

Not sure why I attract all this attention, is it The universe trying to get it’s own back on me for all my misdeeds…..

And then there was the airport security on the way home….

bookmark_borderStranger in a Strange Land: Part One

I went to Minneapolis once.. rather stupidly I went in February, Feck it was cold, was not a good idea, on a scale of ‘not good ideas’ with one being putting your tongue on the terminal of a nine volt battery and ten being putting your tongue on a frozen lamp-post, this was perhaps an eight or maybe even a nine ..but it was a free trip organised by St. Jude Medical to look at their Stentless Aortic Valves, I’d go anywhere if it was free…Iran, Iraq..even Afghanistan if it’s free…don’t forget, I come from Northern Ireland, guns and bombs and terrorism doesn’t scare me, grew up with it all, they don’t call Belfast ‘Northern Beirut’ for nothing you know..

So I went to my training session on the two days and by the way ate huge amounts of doughnuts of all flavours and colours, where do they all come from? pink ones, apple ones, cinnamon ones, jam ones, chocolate ones sprinkled with hundreds and thousands and then dusted with caster sugar to finally beat my Islets of Langerhans into submission.. there seemed to be an endless supply…

I worked on Thursday and Friday and had Saturday free before I had to get a plane back to civilisation in the evening, so I thought I would wander out of the plush (free!) (and warm!) hotel and have a nosey around.. It was *a bit chilly*, I hadn’t really prepared for the cold, stupidly I thought it would be just like our winters in Ireland, three snowflakes and that’s yer lot but I was seriously mistaken, it was really brass monkey weather, for the first few minutes I felt exhilarated…like I had just entered a cold shower, I was awake and alive but then I realised just how cold it really was, my breathing actually became painful and my cheeks seemed to have gone numb..I scanned the horizon for polar bears…and icebergs.. and headed for the mall that was signposted as 100 yards away…and I walked and walked …blocks and blocks of skyscrapers but no mall…and I was starting to get concerned, no mall and no one walking in the streets, no shops for respite, no bars, no coffee shops, nothing..Scott of the Antartic’s famous last words sounded in my head “I’m going out now, I may be some time…”

But cars were driving past ?somewhere..so I followed a car up a ramp into a towerblock..and followed a couple into a lift going down to the building basement..and in there was the mall… I grabbed a coffee…they don’t seem to do tea in Minneapolis …apart bizarrely for iced tea?? That does not compute as far as Irishmen are concerned..why would you drink iced tea…in winter..with no milk..or sugar.. so I had a coffee and thawed out..

Once I felt the blood coursing through my frozen cheeks again I chatted away to a shop assistant, it seems the winters in Minneapolis get so cold that rather than have everyone outside in the streets the city thought it was be a much better idea to have all the shops and bars under the skyscrapers…ergo you can leave your air conditioned house and drive in your air conditioned car almost directly into the air conditioned malls… the chances of you actually inhaling some fresh air during the winter months was somewhat less than the chances of a dog finding a tree in the middle of the Sahara..at night…during a sandstorm..

I chatted away with the young assistant and asked her what was there to do as a tourist in Minneapolis? She said, well, really we don’t get many tourists here, in fact I was the first foreigner she had ever met (she WAS young!) so I asked if there was somewhere I could buy a postcard…she didn’t know…nor did her Manager… but he shook my hand and she took our photo?????? why????? So I directed the same query to the Manager.. and he reflected thoughtfully for a minute and then said proudly…well, we have the Mall Of America…the worlds biggest mall… and he beamed.. I was confused.. I was already in a VAST shopping mall, was this not it? and why would I want to go to another mall… and I said well, what about history, anyone famous born here, assassinated here, (BTW, how famous does one have to be to be assassinated rather then murdered?…just a thought) any famous (non-mall) buildings, heritage trails, parks, history…ANYTHING…tourist information office?…nope.. the Mall Of America was it.. I asked him how long he had lived in Minneapolis…all his life he said… I asked him had he actually left the State at any time in his life…nope.. hmmmmm

So I spent a few hours wandering around the mall, it actually turned out to be a fascinating exercise, in this country I go to Sainsburys or Tesco and see the same food again and again… and trust me, consistency is good in many things…especially in terms of bowel movements. I know where everything is and I can do a weekly shop in three seconds flat…well, three seconds flat if it wasn’t for those stupid automatic self-service checkouts saying “unexpected item in the shopping area, please remove to continue..” for Christ sake, it’s bloody shopping so how could it be unexpected? what does it think it is, the Bolivian Navy on manoeuvres in the South Pacific?? stupid machines… But wander around an American store…WallMark…Target..BestBuys and you recognise absolutely nothing, all the food is different, all the hardware is different, even the medicines are different…Paracetamol and Aspirin..nope..what the hell is Tylenol and where is the Lemonsip…all completely new and strange..

I spent ages looking at all the strange factory processed foodstuffs that claimed to be natural and healthy but had never been near a farm in their entire existence, things that would send any child in this country into a hyperactive frenzy with one lick… and they pack everything into papers sacks for you …whilst you stand there with your arms at the same length thinking “I could do this and then your queues would be half the size…you dimwit..” and the spotty sixteen year old smiles at you and wishes you a nice day …but he has that look of desperation in his face that says please help me, I’ve been trapped in BestBuys since birth and the crystal in my hand is starting to blink.. (OH for heavens sake, Logan’s Run you idiot, when were you born? yesterday? or 29yrs and 364days ago? google it!)

So I headed off and left the hallowed halls ?malls of America, the sun has come up and I actually find a park, mostly deserted, not even the obligatory joggers running around with their iPods and smarmy smug git looks and I sit down in the park by this frozen lake, across from me is some modern art of a giant spoon with a cherry on the end, what is the city trying to say..take my cherry? I’m giving it to you on a bleeding big spoon…a friend of mine in Canada sent me an equally large wooden spoon a while back, I asked was this the bobby prize in some competition I had unknowingly entered but she said no, it was simply because she knew how much I like to stir it up so now I had a huge big effing spoon to stir it up even more..She also sent me two blue stress balls to squeeze but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my balls were already blue and stressed..

The ice on the pond is frozen and two teenagers are sliding across it good naturedly..and trying to crack it.. I’m reminded of that old joke;

One night a drunk Eskimo decides to go ice fishing. He goes off into the night, sets down his fishing rod and starts to hack a hole in the ice with his axe…

Suddenly, out of nowhere a voice booms out “You won’t find any fish there!”. He looks around but can see no-one and thinks he must be imagining it so starts smashing the ice again..

The voice booms out even louder ” I said you won’t find any fish there!!” and he looks around mystified but can see no-one…He thinks I’m definitely drunker than I thought I was but resumes chipping away at the ice..

but again he hears the voice “Look, I said, you WON’T find any fish THERE!!!”

..and he puts his ice pick down, looks up to the heavens and says “is that you God, trying to show me the error of my ways?”

And the voice booms back

……..”NO! It’s the ice rink manager, you fecking idiot!!”

My butt is starting to stick to the bench, next time, I go in summer and take my chances with heatstroke, mosquito’s and malaria..