No Non-essential Travel

While I’m pretty sure everyone is finding the prospect of weeks upon weeks cooped up with potentially no end in sight, those of us who get itchy feet even in normal times are likely finding the concept unbearable. When I’m not travelling I look after American students, and last week they were suddenly all summoned home. I fell apart. Yesterday was my last day in the office, and I spent much of it in tears. I now face a prolonged period stuck, if not within my flat, within my area of north London, isolated (at least physically, if not virtually) from many of the people I love. As someone with depression and anxiety always hovering in the background, this frightens me, despite the fact I have a perfectly nice flat, am healthy and even have a few savings. But, it occurred to me that those of us who right now just want to be somewhere else could use some inspiration. So, here are some of my favourite books that are vaguely travel-related – they’re not all actual travelogues, as reading about places we could go and can’t could potentially make us feel even worse! But, if you’re after inspiration…

A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

This has been my favourite book since I was a teenager, and the main reason for wanting to visit Australia, which I have since managed to do, though sadly not to Alice Springs itself. A love story initially set against a bleak World War Two backdrop, it’s beautiful, sad and uplifting all at once. One thing I would like to do, one day, is walk around the mainland part of Malaysia using the route in the book.

When The Going Was Good – Evelyn Waugh

I stumbled across this collection of Waugh’s travel writing a few months ago and it’s wonderful. Seeing what has changed – and what hasn’t – since the 20s and 30s is fascinating, and of course Waugh’s writing is impeccable.

Down Under – Bill Bryson

Of course, if you want humorous books about travel, Bill’s your man, but this is my favourite by far. Laugh-out-loud funny, I made the mistake of reading this on the plane to Australia, leading to frowns of disapproval as I sat in my tiny seat audibly sniggering. Brilliant, hilarious and incisively accurate.

Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome

A novel from 1889 that could easily have been written in 2009, this is still very funny, especially if you’re familiar with Hampton Court’s maze. I was very disappointed that my husband hated it so much he gave up after 20 or so pages, leaving me to wonder if we really were as made for one another as I’d previously thought.

Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

I honestly think this is one of the finest books ever written. Getting into it is a bit of a marathon – persevere!! The strange style and the jarring between sections makes sense after a while, and the balance of humour (the translator is a wonderful character) and despair is so good that it’s exhausting.

Travels With Charlie – John Steinbeck

Again, largely historically interesting as a record of how things have or have not changed, this insightful, sometimes funny, sometimes mournful record of a journey across the US with a dog for a companion is unjustly one of Steinbeck’s lesser-known works.

The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux

This is a classic travel book, plus I have a mild obsession with trains. Pure, immersive writing and worth a read if you want to pretend you’re somewhere else.

The Call of the Weird – Louis Theroux

I thought it only fair to include this given I’d included his dad, and while not strictly a travel book, it’s great nonetheless. Louis is one of those writers that you can’t read in your head without doing it in his voice, and that’s a real skill. I recommend this!

Pole to Pole – Michael Palin

I almost put in Around the World In 80 Days as that was the first of his adventures, but Pole to Pole was extraordinary in that so many seismic changes occurred the year Michael happened to go on this particular trip, with the Soviet Union literally dissolving behind him as he travelled south. And, of course, Michael Palin is a delight to read.

Leaving Home – Garrison Keillor

Is it cruel to put a book called Leaving Home on this list when none of us can? I love Garrison Keillor, and it’s worth noting for anyone who is not into reading but has nonetheless somehow got this far on the blog post that you can get hundreds of episodes of The News From Lake Wobegon on YouTube, in Keillor’s own unparalleled voice. His writing – especially when he’s reading it – is one of those things that can calm me down, and make me feel as though the world is OK really, even when it isn’t. I think Leaving Home is probably the best collection of the Lake Wobegon stories, which are short and sweet so perfect if you want a book to just dip into now and then.

So, that should keep people going for a while!

Taking It Easy in the Big Easy

New Orleans had been on my bucket list for ages, so it was, on reflection, a relief that we even made it there after various complications in the days leading up to it. Finally arriving in an impressive downpour just hours before we were due to set off on a cruise from there, and feeling generally unwell and exhausted, the city wasn’t immediately as inviting as all the books and blogs had promised. Even the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport launched, within minutes of our getting into the car, into a well-rehearsed series of warnings as to where we shouldn’t walk at night, where we shouldn’t go at all, and what might happen to us if we did.

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Founded in 1718 by French colonialists, New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi, is one of the older of the USA’s major cities, and unique in its make-up, a chaotic and glorious mix of cultures, from Creole to French, known for being the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and the home of Mardi Gras, famous for beignets, jazz and amazing food. On the other hand, until as recently as 2013 it also had the dubious distinction of being known as the USA’s Murder Capital, and I was struck, on our drive to the port, that I had never seen so many obviously homeless people in any US city, despite visiting a number of larger towns than this one.

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I disappointed an American friend recently, when asked excitedly upon my return if I thought NOLA looked like France – she looked almost hurt when I said no, it didn’t (unlike her, I have been to France.) In truth, many of the famous parts of it look like Blackpool, and not in a good way – run down, seedy, making a quick buck out of tourists who don’t necessarily have a lot of cash to spend. Its bright lights often signal life’s less salubrious pleasures, and in the rain especially one could see the city had seen better days. But other parts of it were as good – even better – than expected. The architecture may not be as quintessentially French as its visitors think, but it is unmistakably New Orleans, and that, surely, is better? I could have spent days walking contentedly around its Warehouse District (controversially – in my opinion – far more appealing than its thronging, over-hyped French quarter). As for things to do, its National World War Two Museum vied with the Smithsonian’s vast, free institutes for the title of the best museum in the country – 2 hours into our visit there we felt we had barely scratched the surface.

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Incredible breakfast at Willa Jean

The food is famous for a reason, and there is a LOT to choose from. With limited time (a two-day visit at the end of a cruise, and a mere few hours at the start) we had to be almost mercenary in where we chose to eat, though I have a feeling a bad restaurant wouldn’t survive very long here. We chose, I think, wisely, sampling an amazing brunch at Willa Jean (recommended by a friend, this exceeded our expectations) at the sweaty, chaotic and almost achingly hip Sylvain, and the obligatory beignets at Cafe du Monde (beignets are undeniably incredible, the location is probably better in the summer when it isn’t raining.)

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Hipster-chic at Sylvain

Accommodation-wise, the choice is as eclectic and plentiful as you would expect, but the prices seem fairly consistently steep, particularly in season. We felt we had landed on our feet with the Renaissance Arts Hotel which, while inexplicably not scoring as brilliantly as it could have on TripAdvisor, was nonetheless conveniently located with imaginative and beautiful decor and lovely, friendly staff and a great adjoining cafe.

Before leaving we just had time to nip to Louis Armstrong Park to pay homage to a man whose work I have admired for many years – we even chose What A Wonderful World for our first dance at our wedding ten years ago. Had I not feared looking like an eccentric idiot I would have hugged the statue of this kind-looking and charismatic musical genius whose work I hope will never be forgotten.

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The man himself

So that’s New Orleans – a slightly gingerly, brief, off-season visit, but one I’m glad we made nonetheless.

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Cruising into Christmas

Let’s face it, all but the most exclusive cruises are basically Butlin’s on the sea, dressed up as a luxury experience. Add to this the frisson of excitement that comes with knowing you could throw up at any moment and you pretty much have a cruise. And this is how we chose to spend our Christmas – bobbing about on the Gulf of Mexico with three thousand strangers while the housekeeping staff gloomily lurked in corners with mops awaiting the inevitable. At heart, you see, I’ve always been something of a masochist.

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Huge effort going into not throwing up here

There are many things to be said for taking a cruise: it’s all-inclusive, so once you’ve spent the money you know that you will at the very least have enough to eat and somewhere to sleep without having to fork out any more unexpectedly; it also allows you to visit multiple places with minimum planning (though admittedly they may not be places you necessarily want to go to… see ahead…) It also incorporates as little or as much “entertainment” (and I use the word advisedly) as you want (or not), courtesy of the Fun Squad, ensuring compulsory Fun is had by all throughout complete with a constant cycle of Giant Trivial Pursuit, Christmas Jumper Competition and swimsuit parade to really ram home those 70s overtones.

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And then there was Kevin. Oh, wow, was there SO MUCH Kevin. Kevin, the Cruise Director, who I’m pretty sure hadn’t slept since around 1995 and existed on a cocktail of cocaine, egotism and desperation, rudely awakened you from your gentle snooze each morning as he shrieked over the tannoy. By the end of the week we half expected Kevin, increasingly manic and potentially a man on the edge of some sort of breakdown, to start hacking away at our cabin door with an axe, Shining-style: “Heeeeeeere’s KEVIN!”

For an extra fee they also provide excursions, which is a convenient, if not always impressive, way to see a new place in a very short space of time (cruise stops are never quite long enough – usually around 8 hours max.) We went on two of these – one was brilliant, one was average. But as the comedian (Paul Lyons – unknown yet brilliant, look him up) put it “Isn’t Cozumel beautiful? And you realise JUST HOW beautiful when you get to Progreso.” And he was absolutely right.

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Cozumel

Then there’s the socialising, which seems compulsory on cruises. It seems surprising to me that my husband, who once texted me from the seat next to me on the London Underground to politely ask me to stop talking to the gentleman sat on my other side, seemed to warm to the idea of talking to complete strangers, something from which he would usually get as far away from as possible. But he did, and we became, on this occasion, really good friends with the most lovely couple from Mississippi. A friend of mine with whom I shared the fact we’d been on a cruise sneered at it, telling me that it wasn’t “proper” travelling, and that it was a meaningless and shallow experience where you would never really immerse yourself in another culture but a) By getting to know two people from a completely different part of the world we’ve done just that and b) my husband’s aim wasn’t to immerse himself in anything, it was to get his money’s worth from the drinks package.

So, to cruise or not to cruise? We’re in two minds. On the one hand, there was one day where, for a couple of hours, I possibly felt the illest I have ever felt in my life, something I didn’t think was possible on a vehicle of that magnitude. On the other, not having to think for yourself for a few days, and having your accommodation, activities, all the booze you could drink, some friendly faces and some weirdly creepy towel art (why is that a thing on cruises?) all at your disposal for five days was just the relaxing change I needed.

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Your guess is as good as mine

 

A French Christmas on the Danube

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Christmas, for a host of complex personal reasons too dull to put into a blog. For this reason, every few years my husband and I decide to dispense with the whole shebang and spend it Somewhere Else – this year we will spend 25th December somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico between Progresso and New Orleans.

The first time we chose to extricate ourselves from the enforced jollity of a “family” Christmas (that is to say, a Christmas spent with other people’s kids as an ever-present reminder we will never have any of our own) we chose an altogether more traditionally “Christmassy” destination – the capitals of the Danube, decked out with festive markets and obligingly covered in snow and ice. We found ourselves on the fabulous Vivaldi, part of Croiseurope’s fleet of river cruisers, accompanied by a cast of fellow travellers and crew to which any self-respecting travel writer would have been grateful.

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The Vivaldi in a snowy Budapest

Croiseurope is a French company with a mixture of French and local staff. The French staff included a superb and illustrious Maitre D who remained remarkably calm in the face of some of his more demanding guests (of which more later), and two delightful “les Animatrices” – hosts charged with keeping us all entertained during the evenings and travel days, which they did expertly with an eclectic and always-enthusiastic mix of line dancing, shuffleboard and quizzes. Other staff included those in the kitchen, bar and restaurant, who seemed to change daily – at each stop, staff would disembark to go home for part of the festive period, our lovely Slovakian waitress leaving us in Bratislava to spend a late Christmas with her young child. One fixture of the journey – and I do hope he’s still there – was Laslo, our ever-present entertainer, glued to a Casio keyboard and sporting a haircut (or possibly toupee) straight out of a 70s gameshow. One of his favourite songs was White Christmas, but it seemed he only knew a small and apparently random selection of the lyrics, so it went something like “I’m dreamum ba-dap-dap da….  CHRISTMAS! Ja…dum.mm.ONES….ba-dap da KNOW.” (A man of great versatility, he later handed out presents dressed as Father Christmas, albeit one with unlikely dark hair.)

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Laslo performs to an adoring crowd

The issue on a smaller cruise, though, is always going to be the other passengers. On large cruise ships it’s usually possible to eventually gravitate towards Your People, the likelihood of there being someone with similar hobbies and tastes being almost inevitable. On a small river cruise, however, this is far from inevitable, and the chances of being able to avoid those with whom you don’t necessarily click are pretty much zero. The problem we had on this particular trip came in the form of the other English passengers.

We had booked the cruise directly and at the last minute, along with two other people, who came to be known simply as Les Japonaises – they were a young Japanese couple who had been temporarily living in Oxford while the husband studied for a Master’s in Business. All the rest of the passengers were French, save for a group of 12 English over-50s who had paid (they later discovered, causing some disharmony) a much-inflated rate to be accompanied – and corralled – throughout their trip by an English “guide” whose main role seemed to be berating the French crew of a French boat for having the audacity to persistently address their overwhelmingly French guests in French.

The other English people proved a cause of discomfort for us throughout the trip. For a start, they openly pitied us. They saw us as this hapless English couple surrounded by French people and encumbered by two inexplicable Japanese youth, without the funds to pay for a superior trip such as their group was enjoying, complete with guided tours of each location and interminable classical music concerts complete with wigs and period dress. Our protestations and the fact we were happily attending the French excursions (where I would burrow into my brain to extract my schoolgirl French to translate into English, and Hisato would translate to Japanese for Yuka, so frankly it was anybody’s guess what information she took away from those tours) were met with a mixture of horror and sadness, and at our last stop, Bratislava, they selflessly invited us (after a vote, apparently) to tag along with them. Whether anyone had suggested Les Japonaises also go along remains unknown, but they were allowed to scurry off to the castle and enjoy themselves, whereas we found ourselves on one of the most excruciating guided tours we’d ever attended.

The main reason the tour was so excruciating was that the other people had zero interest in listening to anything the tourguide, a Slovakian with a degree in the history of her region, had to say, as they were more intent on educating HER on everything that was wrong about the country. An hour or so into the walk, after a (in my opinion) very interesting explanation of the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a brief interlude on the benefits of EU membership and a diversion into local Bratislavan street art, as she paused for breath, one of our group said loudly “but it just seems so STUPID to me. I mean, you HAVE TO be in the EU because you’re such an insignificant country. Wouldn’t it make sense to just join with one of the countries nearby, like Hungary?”

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Street art, Bratislava-style

At dinner later, we heard this same woman’s husband declaring to all around him – context unknown – “yes, jolly resourceful, you know, the Africans, but I suppose they have to be.”

It was with great relief when they left the evening’s entertainment in protest because it was – horror of horrors – in French. They went off into town amidst much sighing and outrage, and we settled down to listen to the story of Le Petit Sapin (in my case), and of goodness knows what in Yuka’s case.

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Enjoying organised entertainment

Embarrassment at any association with our compatriots aside, this remains one of the best trips we ever did. We visited a snowy Budapest on Christmas Day, walking around the castle grounds and feeling more like we were in Narnia than central Europe; we started and ended in a regal and elegant Vienna, dazzling and confident in its Christmas robes; and we discovered with pleasurable surprise the tiny yet picture-book Slovakian capital, to which we plan to return.

 

 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

After almost a full year working for a university based in the United States, this month I finally got to go there. Based in a suburb of Philadelphia, its environs are quintessentially American: houses which, to the British eye, seem almost eccentrically large, with the stars and stripes hanging proudly over door and neat little verandas overhung by a mix of red and yellow leaves straight out of a holiday brochure waxing lyrical about Fall on the east coast. The town center, such as it is, sports an underwhelming diner, a generic and characterless bar, a 7eleven, two gas stations and a notable lack of anywhere selling decent coffee, unless you count the inevitable Dunkin’ Donuts. Transport links are sporadic and bear no resemblance to the timetables, and everyone is disconcertingly friendly.

It surprised my colleagues that I would want to stay anywhere in the vicinity beyond the allotted period, and they enthused about the ease with which you can get to Washington DC or New York from there. But I’d already been to Washington DC and New York and had never been to Philadelphia, a name which conjured up any and all of eclectic memories of history lessons about American independence, Tuesday evenings after school joining in with the opening theme to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince, overpriced cream cheese that probably has nothing to do with the city, and the image of a resolute Sylvester Stallone punching the air at the top of a big flight of steps. The City of Brotherly Love that lovingly decapitated a hitchhiking robot last year then dumped him in a ditch, Philly is famous, for all the right reasons and a lot of the wrongs ones too. Why would you pass up on the opportunity to go there?

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I had all of a day and a half in Philly. The half day, at the start of the trip, clouded by jetlag, the remnants of travel sickness and general disorientation, was a good opportunity to get a feel for the city, to get vaguely oriented (though after 18 years I still get lost in London, so it’s all relative) and get an idea of the scale. I was very lucky to be accompanied by two ex-students who showed me some of the main sites (and indulged me in running up those steps – of which more later), so that, after a week of meetings, I could unleash my over-excited little English self on a city that promised much and gave even more. So, if you want to see Philly and have 24 hours, here are my tips, opinions and general ramblings:

1. Stay centrally. Philly is expensive and a lot of the chain hotels are overpriced, but I found an amazing new place called Pod Philly. It’s one of those trendy places whose style could be most politely described as “warehouse chic” and would not have looked out of place in Shoreditch, but the staff were great, the minuscule rooms cleverly designed providing you don’t value privacy in the bathroom, and the location brilliant. It even had a gym.

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Want to lie in bed and watch someone use the loo through a screen door? Then this is the very place.

2. Don’t miss the nightlife. If you’re in Philly for at least one night, GO OUT! The aforementioned hotel is in an area called Rittenhouse. The square and area around it is jam packed with fashionable restaurants and bars. I was lucky to have a local with me who a) knew the area and b) was in desperate need of a night on the tiles. Her choice of venue was Village Whiskey, somehow cosy and swanky all at the same time, with an impressive choice of drinks and unnecessarily large portions (note to self: in the US, don’t order a salad because you want something light.)

3. If you manage to wake up the next morning (I recommend a brutally early phone call from someone in the UK who doesn’t know there’s a time difference to shake you out of bed) you’re ambling distance from the most incredible selection of hangover-curing breakfast choices at Reading Terminal Market. I chose Dutch Eating Place, surrounded by a mass of what looked like reliable locals waiting for their orders and shouting incomprehensibly at one another in that unmistakable accent which is 90% jovial with a hint of “cross me and I’ll kill you” thrown in, and it was brilliant.

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Reading Terminal Market: not a good place for the indecisive

4. By the time you’ve reached Reading Terminal Market you’re then half way to the historic district where you can – and should – visit the historical sites that fall both loosely and loftily under the heading “The Birthplace of America” (or perhaps more accurately “the birthplace of the modern United States”, but that isn’t quite as catchy.) One of the huge benefit of the sites and museums in this area is that, unlike many attractions in the US, they’re free to visit. For the Liberty Bell, you can just wander in (or if, like me, you’re trying to warm up with a coffee and are reluctant to throw it out just to be allowed to join a long line of people, nip around the side and take a photo through the big glass window without having to queue). Independence Hall requires a ticket, which you can get (for free) from inside the Visitor Center, which will get you into a timed tour. (If you’re British, you may want to be quiet for this bit, lest someone hears your accent and decides to make this a Thing.) The tour was actually fascinating (I know shamefully little about this particular period in history, apart from the fact we were the bad guys, it sort of kicked off with folks wasting good tea by chucking it into the harbour, and Lin Manuel Miranda has since made a not unsuccessful musical out of the life of a certain Mr Hamilton) though at one point he stressed that we MUST NOT lean on the walls as the building was extremely old – 280 years! At this point the Americans gasped, and the European visitors gave themselves away by raising their eyebrows.

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5. Elfreth’s Alley claims to be one of the oldest continually inhabited streets in the US, and however accurate this may or may not be, it’s well worth the diversion to have a look. Cobbled, unspoiled, and almost devoid of tourists on the cold Fall day when I visited, it’s really very beautiful.

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6. At the other extreme from Elfreth’s Alley and a brisk walk across town, the One Liberty Observation Deck is the inevitable Very High Thing That Charges A Lot For A View. It does it well, though, and on a clear day this is worth a visit to get an idea of the sheer scale and variety of a city whose views extend to three states.

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7. Admittedly a little left-field, and also not the easiest place to find, I visited the Mutter Museum on a detour on the way to lunch after it came highly recommended by a friend who described it as “bits of humans in jars. You know, stuff like that”(?!) and as I didn’t know, I went to explore. Technically a museum of medical science, it’s apparently hired out by goth couples for weddings and other events, which I find strangely pleasing.

8.Talking of lunch, you could probably eat out somewhere different every single day in Philadelphia and still have places left to explore. Controversially, I found myself underwhelmed by the famous cheesesteak (anything called “cheese whizz” should be given a wide berth – I’m by no means a gastronomic expert, but cheese that comes in a jar and has the same name as British slang meaning to urinate is, well, offputting.) It should be tried once, though, and there are a myriad of places with modest names like “King of Steaks”. But once you’ve had one, I’d recommend the Italian District, which has some incredible pizza restaurants. Oh, and, um, Rocky stuff.

9. If you come to Philadelphia, you’d be forgiven for thinking one Rocky Balboa is actually held in higher regard than the Founding Fathers. Made all the way back in 1976, it has inexplicably spawned seven sequels, and I’d guess that easily as many if not more people visit the city to pay their respects to this indomitable fictional character as they do to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their mates. And the city has done very well out of it – apparently more people run up the eponymous “Rocky steps” as visit the (incredible) museum that they lead to. At the bottom, people queue patiently to pose for photos next to the statue of Rocky (which has apparently moved around over the years, not least because it pissed off the museum so much.) Even the Independence Visitor Center was selling Rocky keyrings and Rocky bottle openers and Rocky hoodies alongside the Liberty Bell fridge magnets and Birthplace of America t-shirts. There is a thriving trade in Rocky guided tours of the city (beware – the pilgrims who go in these tours take things very seriously: if you don’t have any quotes beyond the second film and aren’t prepared for your fellow tourists to turn up in grey tracksuits hopeful that at some point they’ll get to neck a tumbler of raw eggs and punch the crap out of some meat, this tour isn’t for you.)

Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes, I did run up the steps, and yes, it was, genuinely, the highlight of my week. I have never pretended to be an intellectual.

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Sorry-not-sorry

10. Refreshingly for a US city, Philadelphia has a pretty good transport system, so you can set out for the airport, which is only a half hour or so from the center by a cheap and comfortable train, a sensible amount of time before your flight without the fear of being stranded in some faceless railway station. In fact, the main stations themselves in Philadelphia are worth a look, as the city is full of grand, confident art deco buildings, of which 30th Street is one of the grandest.

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So, if you’re looking for an east coast destination, Philly has far more to offer than I’ve been able to see, or indeed fit into a blog post. And Rocky.

Travelling For Bad Travellers

I have a show about travel coming up at the Leicester Comedy Festival called The World Is Your Oyster Bar – the title is taken from a song I sing in the show that questions, with more than a little incredulity, the presence of seafood bars in airport departure lounges. I mean, I like seafood, but nothing, and I mean NOTHING, would make me want to chug a load of oysters or sample some shrimps right before I get onto a big metal tube with hundreds of other people with whom I will be in close proximity for many hours. People must go to them or they wouldn’t exist. Who are these loonies? Presumably, simply people who have never had the joy of throwing up on a plane, and realising quite how horrendous an experience that is.

When I flew into Beijing a few months ago I witnessed what my husband, who works in a theatre and has seen it happen amongst many a group of school visits, tells me is known as a “vomit storm”. A small child, apparently without any warning, was suddenly spectacularly ill, somehow in multiple directions all at once. The combined shock, accompanying smell and turbulence that had presumably caused this in the first place set off the woman behind him, then the gentleman two seats away from her, a teenager behind him and so on. By the time we landed the poor flight attendants looked broken as they surveyed the carnage. I was mildly amused, having overdosed on Stugeron before and during the flight – amusement tinged with relief and pride that I was getting off the plane unscathed.

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Something about this strikes me as impractical…

I get sick on everything. I once got motion sickness on the big slide at the Olympic Park. I struggle on Pendolino trains, on many fairground rides and in pretty much all cars. Even aircraft (generally OK) can catch me off guard if the turbulence is bad. And I love travelling (or, rather, the part of it that involves being somewhere else and exploring new places). I now even have a job that involves regular trips on coaches, occasional transatlantic flights, and many an impromptu trip in an Uber. My work calendar is peppered with reminders like “TAKE TRAVEL SICKNESS MEDS!!” and I permanently have a plastic bag in my bag, just in case. And my boss teases me mercilessly about it.

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Motion sickness isn’t just feeling a bit dodgy in a car. It’s all-encompassing and thoroughly awful. If I start to feel travel sick I know that it’ll be a few hours before I feel fully better, even if I get out of the situation pretty much immediately. My head starts to ache. I feel clammy, sweaty, dizzy, weird as though I’ve had far too much coffee. I can’t focus. My stomach feels empty and full at the same time. If I actually throw up (and fortunately I usually manage not to), I can feel shaky and generally below par for several hours. If I don’t, I often get that ominous feeling that I might need to throw up for a little while afterwards. This is annoying on holiday, the first day of which is often a write-off for me as I’m either ill or drowsy from medication to stop me feeling ill, and utterly impractical at work. Where work is concerned (and this matters as I really, REALLY love my job), I’m worried the joke will wear thin after a while – a couple of weeks back, my normal tube line was down and I had to take a circuitous route involving a long bus ride, constantly stopping and starting in thick London traffic. I made it into work but was then impressively sick in one of our not-at-all-soundproof bathrooms. Twice. I had to hand over the talk I was meant to be doing to a colleague while I recovered, then went directly to a meeting with my boss. I have absolutely no memory of what that meeting was about: painfully aware I’d played the travel sickness card before, I spent the meeting nodding and making what I hoped were vaguely intelligent noises of approval whilst desperately hoping I wouldn’t have to make a run for it.

And I can’t offer any advice to fellow sufferers – think of this post as group therapy rather than a cure, because I don’t have the magic answer. I wish I did (apart from anything else I’d make a fortune!) I’ve scoured the internet and found “hilarious” videos of YouTubers’ unfortunate mates chundering on various modes of transport with title like KEVIN LOST HIS LUNCH, vlogs by cheerful bright young things touting their various “natural” solutions (Peruvian tree frog, anyone?) or medical pages talking very sensibly and making my greatest woes sound like a mere minor irritation – ginger is great, they say (I’ve tried it, the result being I now associate the taste of it with throwing up); try pressure bands (I have – I’m either not doing it right or am completely unable to suspend my disbelief to an extent that any placebo effect will kick in). There is a plethora of tablets available and they actually work brilliantly (see aforementioned Air China flight!) but a) they make you sleepy and b) they involve forward-planning, which I can’t do if, say, my normal commute is disrupted unexpectedly or I need to take a student somewhere in a taxi (usually because THEY are not well – which makes feeling ill myself all the more awkward!) Then there are tips for managing symptoms: look at the horizon (in a cab in London?!) lie down flat (again, in a cab in London?) sit in the front, breathe fresh air, try not to talk and instead focus on your breathing (in a… OK, you’re getting the picture now.)

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Without these I’d probably get fired

So, in short, I don’t have a solution (though I’ve found peppermint tea helps me recover afterwards a lot more quickly), just a desperate wail into the abyss to please make it stop! My advice is more to be prepared – take tablets if you can, and always have a bag available for minimum embarrassment. On the plus side, though, the horror of Ryanair removing free sick bags (this seems foolhardy at best) and the fact that one gentleman shares my obsession with receptacles (presumably for different reasons) to the extent he has created a “virtual museum” online for them, has at least given me sufficient material for a full-hour one-woman show, inspired perhaps by this marvellous Goodies Song.

But seriously, who IS visiting those seafood bars???

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Singing about oyster bars

Japan: Part One

I’ll let you into a secret: Japan has never been all that high on my bucket list. This are for a number of reasons: it’s expensive, it’s a very long way away, and, while there is much to see there, it arguably lacks those “must-see” wonders like Niagara Falls (done) or the Pyramids (still on the list.)

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The sun prepares to set over Mount Fuji

I had a couple of chances to visit a few years ago when one, then a second, cousin moved there temporarily, but incompatible schedules and lack of funds, and the fact that at the time I was travelling all over the place for work, meant it never came to anything. Finally, this year, I made it over there. And it’s, well, weird.

I know I shouldn’t say another culture is “weird”, as that’s a relative and subjective term. Those from other countries probably find it decidedly weird that the British say sorry all the time, even when someone else bumps into them, and that we take passive aggression to such heights that if it was an Olympic sport we’d wipe the floor with everyone else. But, as my husband pointed out grimly as he sat on the floor in a pair of borrowed slippers, “they have a toilet that can wash your bum in 4 different ways, but they don’t have chairs.”

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I quite liked sitting on the floor, but the Husband was less impressed

Japan is wonderful in many ways – organised and slick. Everything works, and a huge effort has gone into making the environment as peaceful as possible, with amplified bird noises guiding you to exits in tube stations, and gentle tunes to let you know the train doors are about to close. Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world; the architecture is varied and beautiful; and the country is blessed with a multitude of different landscapes and scenery, much of which we visited – in two weeks we managed beaches, mountains, cities and everything in between. But before I go into the nitty gritty of the actual places we visited, here are some things you really must know about Japan:

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Cherry blossom in Kamakura

Toilets

OK, let’s get this one out of the way: the famous toilets. It is indeed true that Japanese toilets are electronically operated and possess a wider range of possible options than the Enigma machine. Every toilet in Japan seems to be like this – we stayed in a traditional Japanese house in Kyoto which had no beds or chairs – we slept on futon mattresses and knelt on cushions around a low table. The toilet was in a separate little hut outside, but was every bit as technologically advanced as those in the shopping centres. Every possible need has been considered. On sitting down the seat is disconcertingly warm, but that’s not because someone has spent a relaxing half hour reading a book on there, but because it has been programmed to heat to optimum temperature. Next to you will be a dazzling array of buttons with most of the instructions in Japanese, which is fairly dangerous for everyone’s inner child which is screaming “what happens if I pressed THIS one?” I inadvertently found out what almost all of them did when I popped into a public lavatory. I was sitting down minding my own business and taking my time when the toilet suddenly decided, apparently of its own fruition, that I needed my bottom to be washed. A jet of warm water suddenly shot up, apparently from nowhere, giving me mild colonic irrigation and a not insignificant shock (my shriek must have been heard by all the other people in the bathroom.) When I had recovered, remembered what I’d gone in for in the first place and finished I noted the one sign in the cubicle translated into English: “now you must flush toilet”. I looked around, but there was nothing that looked even remotely like a flush – no chain, no handle, just a series of mysterious looking buttons with Japanese writing next to them. I passed the first one only for another jet of water to be forcefully propelled towards my anus. More tentatively I tried the second one, and this time a gentle stream of water began to wash me from the other side. The next button, it turned out, made some attempts to cover up my yelps, as sounds of birdsong and running water filled the cubicle. Starting to feel as though I was playing Russian Roulette with the toilet I continued tenaciously down the row of buttons, and by the time I reached the last one I had been washed and blow-dried from every possible angle. The last button, of course, was the flush.

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At least this one tells you where the flush is

It’s the most electronically advanced society on earth…right?

As the toilet demonstrates, Japan is full of wonderful inventions. The bullet train was introduced here as long ago as the 60s, and now races through the countryside at a speed of 200mph, connecting cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto – which are as far apart as London and Edinburgh – in just over two hours. Yet, despite this technological innovation, Japan has a mainly cash economy. Hardly anywhere accepted credit cards. This does mean that there are a lot of ATMs, as people are constantly having to withdraw cash, but most don’t accept non-Japanese cards. Towards the end of our stay we visited a theme park. As this was a) a visitor attraction and b) fairly expensive we assumed that they would take cards. They didn’t, but the very nice lady directed us to the convenience store opposite to get some cash…which of course didn’t accept our cards. We had already discovered that the one place that would accept UK cards was the 7eleven, so we headed out to find one. In London it’s said you’re never more than three feet away from a rat. In Japan, it feels as though you’re never more than three feel from a 7eleven…except, apparently, here. A 20-kilometre roundtrip later we returned to the bemused and by now slightly worried cashier and got into the park.

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The country that brought you the shinkansen, but not the card processing machine

Temples

Temples are shrines are everywhere in Japan, and they are glorious. You can be in the middle of Tokyo, turn a corner, and find yourself standing in front of the most beautiful, intricate sanctuary. Apparently only 40% of Japanese people identify as “religious”, yet it’s very common for people to pop to a shrine to pray or make an offering, for example before exams or before a baby is born. It actually reminded me a little of the way Catholics petition certain saints (Anthony being my favourite, because, as a dyspraxic, I lose everything all of the time). I have heard the Japanese described as “spiritual rather than religious” and actually found the pick ‘n’ mix nature of different traditions very appealing.

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Etiquette

Japan is known for its etiquette, ranging from general politeness to complex cultural and social rules. People think the British are polite and fond of queuing, but the Japanese make us look like amateurs, forming tidy lines as they wait patiently for the subway. I learned the word for “excuse me” (sumimasen), which proved to be extremely useful. Other etiquette rules are more confusing to the unaccustomed westerner and seem to revolve largely around slippers. In all Japanese homes and even in some areas of public buildings you are expected to take off your shoes upon entering, or even before you enter. You will then be provided with slippers, but you can’t wear the same pair of slippers from then on – that would be unthinkable. You have downstairs slippers which (I assume) can be worn everywhere downstairs, except in the lavatory, where you find a separate (communal) pair of special slippers for use in that room only. Then of course there are Upstairs Slippers, because heaven forbid you walk any downstairs dirt upstairs, or vice versa. I’m ashamed to say I never got the hang of the slippers, and if I try to return to Japan will probably find I’m banned for shoe violations.

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Waiting for a train in Tokyo

Green tea

My husband has vowed never to eat fish or drink green tea ever again, because as far as he’s concerned, absolutely everything we ate while we were there tasted of one or the other. On occasions where we deliberately ordered the most un-fishy thing on the menu we would find it invariably came with a side dish of miso soup with some form of shellfish in the bottom. As for matcha (green tea) you can buy almost anything flavoured with it, including ice cream, oreos and (I kid you not) kit kats (though this is marginally more appealing than the soy sauce flavour, which is actually a thing.)

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Perhaps our weirdest experience, though, was finding out you could bathe in it, because, let’s admit it, the one thing that’s missing from British leisure centres is the ability to have a communal bath with complete strangers. At the spa in Hakone you can actually bathe in green tea, sake, red wine or coffee (though there are signs everywhere telling you that you shouldn’t drink from the baths – what would possess you to drink chlorinated coffee from a giant tub you’re sharing with 18 or so other people is beyond me, but there you go.) At the coffee bath a ceremony is performed twice a day, where a member of staff (who admittedly wore an expression that said something along the lines of “where did my life go so wrong?”) rang a large gong and loudly shouted something incomprehensible (to us) in Japanese which the crowd in the bath parroted back enthusiastically. He then filled several large buckets with warm coffee, then threw the content one by one over the assembled, before plodding off to presumably do the same with sake, red wine and matcha.

We recounted this strange tale to a Japanese friend at dinner a few days later. He frowned, thought for a while and said “hmm, sake bath. That’s very unusual.”

They really, really like muzak

Wherever we went in Japan it felt as though we were being stalked by a hotel lift in the 1980s. It turns out the Japanese love muzak – incidental, synthetic music is played everywhere, from shops to subway stations to hotel lobbies to zebra crossings. (Yes, really.) Every station on the vast Toyko metro has a slightly different little tune, ranging from a couple of notes to several bars. (I’d play you an example, but wordpress won’t let me unless I give them more money.)

They really do get “l” and “r” mixed up.

But then, even after two weeks, the only Japanese I can read is the two symbols that make up the word for “exit”, so who am I to judge?