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