Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Brit Is In Florida

The big bald eagle has landed. Ok maybe I'm not as graceful as an eagle but the rest is true enough.

I'm in Florida for the winter and as the temp probe in the lanai/Florida room is currently showing 93F, I'm sure glad we have a/c in the living room.....where it's still 79F.

But enough of such was my trip here is what you want to know ? Don't ya ? Yes you do.

Left home at 9am yesterday (Fri) and got to Manchester airport at 10:25. No problems there.

There were 3 long lines at the Virgin Atlantic Economy check-in desks and as I'd not been able to check-in online, I'd no choice but to join one of them. But which one was moving the fastest ? The classic dilemma. Then a security guy asked if I needed help and I played the confused old man trick. Sadly it seems to come easily to me these days.

He led me to a check-in machine even though I told him it wouldn't work. As my ticket was for 6 months, I knew they wanted me to actually go to the desk to check my visa. But I tried anyway and sure enough it deal. I think he then took pity on me, although my rolling on the floor and crying like a baby might've swung it for me.

In any case he opened up the First Class line for me (which was empty) and're on your own so go ahead. I went ahead and got right to the check-in and was done in about 5 minutes. Woohooooo for the confused old baldy man.

Then it was upstairs to security screening and this was a doddle too. As I'd taken the risk, for the first time ever, to put all the cameras and cables into my checked luggage, my carry on case just contained my medication (see previous blog) and laptop. I was through in seconds.

So I arrived at the departure gate at about 11:15am and my flight wasn't till 1:30pm ! The time passed and we started boarding at 12:45pm and I was in my seat at 12:55pm. At 1:25pm the plane started rolling back from the terminal and we were on the way.

Well not quite. 10 mins later we were back at the gate as we had a 'small electrical problem'. 90 minutes later this 'small' fault was fixed and we were off again. It was 3pm.

It was a really old Jumbo as you had no control over the in flight movies, apart from clicking on one of the 12 channels. The movies just played back to back so if you joined part way in, tough.
Probably only one plane in the entire fleet is like that and I was on it. Still, I managed to watch "The Hurt Locker", quite good, "Terminator : Salvation", ok and most of "Transformers : Revenge Of The Risen" which was as stupid as the first in the series. There were better movies like "Up" and "Ice Age 3" but I'd seen them too recently to want to see them again.

The pilot must've used his turbo lever or 5th gear or something as he made up the time somehow. "English Rose" touched down at Orlando only 5 minutes late.....only to find another plane in our bay ! Don't you hate when that happens ?

Then came the challenge of getting through immigration and customs. I have a history with immigration as basically they don't like me visiting for 6 months at a time even though I'm allowed to with my visa. Things started well as I found a line with only 3 couples ahead of me and in no time I was at the desk. The agent was not only friendly but chatty, two characteristics I'd never seen before. He called me a snowbird and actually welcomed me back - while stamping my passport. Phase 1 had been passed successfully.

Got my luggage and approached customs. Now normally this presents few problems for me but I probably had guilt written all over my face as I'd enough chocolate bars, After Eight mints, orange kit-kats, jaffa cakes and so on to feed a 3rd world country. I'd pretty much emptied the sweetie aisle at Tescos before leaving. With a straight face I told the agent I'd no food and he let me pass.

I was in !!

Deb picked me up and by 3am (UK time) I was at my winter address in Sebring. I'd been travelling for 18 hrs which wasn't bad for my trips here but was tiring nevertheless. I was in bed by 4am and as usually happens, I was wide awake about 5 hrs later and ready for coffee !

So that was it. I'll post more interesting blogs as the days go by (hard to top this one though !!) but it's time to catch up with how Leeds are doing. Ahhhh we're 2-0 up with time for more. It really is a great weekend and as the clocks here go back an hour, it'll last even longer.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

T-Minus 34H:59M:59S

As I'm leaving on Friday morning to spend the winter in Florida (where it's 92F right now and as humid as all hell), I would normally start packing tomorrow afternoon. After all these years, I've created a pretty comprehensive checklist and if I tick off every item on it, then I'm always 'good to go'.

It's not just a 'what to pack' list. Oh no. When you leave for 6 months, you have a few more things you need to do before locking up and hiding the key under the stone by the door. The stone marked 'Door Key Below - Do Not Remove.'

Just think of all the services you need to ask to be suspended or shut down or if you've paid for a year of cover, to try and get a refund. - gas appliance insurance, car insurance, car breakdown cover, tv licence, road fund licence, cable tv, internet, phone and so on. You need to inform your bank so when you use your cards abroad, they're not blocked after the first purchase. You need to collect proof that you're going to return to the UK in order to keep US Immigration happy and that's no easy task.

All this is on top of sorting out the electricity, gas and water so that the house doesn't burn down, blow up or get flooded over the winter.

It could all be very stressful but like I said, I have my trusty checklist with policy numbers, phone numbers and basically what to do for every service. Sorted.

One extra chore I have to deal with is taking a 6 month supply of my medication with me and that little task used to present quite a problem, I can tell you. Well I just have, so there. Doctors aren't keen on giving you a prescription for 2 months supply, never mind 6 months. Thankfully my going to America for the winter coincided with a VERY helpful pharmacist taking over the practice across from my docs and every year at this time, he just gives me as many drugs as I need.

Some are even prescribed for me !! Only joking, officer.

So I've just opened all the boxes in order to save space in my carry on case as there is NO way I'm risking those pills in my checked luggage. Those pills are my life, literally, and I'm not prepared to have them turn up in Azerbaijan or Bora Bora on Friday evening. This often means my case is opened at the security checkpoint as the x-ray machine flags up that I'm possibly a Columbian mule.

Here are the empty boxes I threw on the floor as I went along........

So you can imagine what my case looks like with well over 1,000 pills in it. Thankfully they don't weigh much so there is still room for my other absolute necessity and one that also can't be risked in my checked luggage.

Yes of course, my laptop !!

The very thought of 6 hours without t'internet, never mind 6 months, is enough to bring me out in a sweat - and that's before hitting the Florida humidity.

Anyway this will be my last post (no trumpets please, it's an old joke) until I'm on US soil, unless those nice Immigration people don't believe my drug story and send me back.

To be continued........

Monday, October 26, 2009

Christmas In A Foreign Land

Apart from Christmas 2003, I've spent every festive season this century in the good old US of A. In fact since I started going to the US in 1989, I've spent 12 out of the 20 over there and this year will make it 13 out of 21.

That's the math out of the way !

So I'm well used to the cultural differences by now and although I've never been much of a Christmas person, I've tried to incorporate a few Brit traditions into my US festivities.

Growing up, we were too poor to afford Christmas and my parents would rewrap the same presents every year and tell us to hand them back on Boxing day in the hopes we'd forget what we got. I did have my doubts every year even though they convinced me that the comic annual was really called "Beano 1954" and the familiar stories were only familiar as they were true to life. I finally sussed it all out in 1969 when I unwrapped the "Big Ben Jigsaw Puzzle...Ages 5-8"

I was 17.

But I digress.

Several years ago I took to the US a box of Christmas Crackers, a very British, if mildly explosive product that made me somewhat nervous going through US customs.

"So what are these then ?"

"Well two people grab an end each and pull hard and....umm......the cracker explodes and things fall out of it....things that were in a tube."

"So it's a pipe bomb ?"

"Nooooooooo it's only a cardboard tube and the explosion is really only a little bang."

"There's no such thing as a little bang. And take that stupid hat off."

"Don't tell me you've never pulled a cracker at Christmas ?"

"Right buddy; you're pushing your luck now."

"Bah humbug."

"What ?"

Anyway I discovered that you really need to experience Christmas Crackers from a very early age as to be introduced to them in middle age just isn't the same. Oh everyone enjoyed the pulling bit and the groaning at the jokes bit and even the silly paper hats bit - but the joy of the little gifts was short lived and most were left on the dining table when everyone retired to the living room to fall asleep. Well what did they expect from Poundstretchers ??!!

I had much more success with my one contribution to the Christmas meal - a trifle ! Man did that go down well and has continued to be a very popular addition to the groaning yule tide table ever since. The great thing about a trifle is that you can pretty much throw in anything you want - although I'd stay away from using meat of any kind. Or vegetables. Easy on the curry powder too. Best to stick with the more traditional ingredients and you'll have a winner every year.

So I don't miss Christmas in England anymore. I can live without the weather. I can live without the turkey on the table. I can live without Queen Liz moaning about her decade horribilis. I can even live without Wham, Slade, Shaking Stevens and Wizzard clogging up the charts and stopping Sir Cliff from being No.1 again.

I'll settle for wearing a t-shirt and shorts, going swimming on Christmas Day and eating a trifle better than anything I'd get in the UK. Thank you Debby.

And best of all, no more Christmas Days like this.........

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Windows 7 - A Whopper Download !

Yes I know I'm being very lazy today by posting first a video with no text and then this photo with only a bit of text.....but sometimes I just come across items on t'interclacker that are made for sharing.

And speaking of sharing, how about this (not so) little beauty ?

This Whopper (was ever a brand product ever so aptly named) is being sold in Japanese Burger Kings to coincide with the launch of Windows 7, the latest offering from those nice people at Microsoft, the ones we're not sure we love or hate. A bit like the Whopper in fact.

The first 30 customers to order one will be able to buy it for 777 yen (they don't miss a trick do they ?) which is about $8.50 or just over £5 in real money. After that they'll cost just over $17/£10 each.

Now this isn't a trick photo or a mock up advert. It's all kosher - well apart from the meat of course. There really are 7 patties in this monster and I love how the lettuce, tomato and onion are still up on top to give some semblance of it being a healthy meal. Sadly they are so far removed from the bottom part of the bun that they might as well be on a different plate....hell on a different customers plate !

But those cunning marketing people have thought this out. In the land of the Sumo, it's a match made in heaven - just as long as they're the first 30 customers of course.

I'd pay good money to see that line.

Well It Made Me Laugh..........

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Dim View Of Memory Lane

As I sit here typing this (my secretary has the day off), it's cold and raining. Outside I mean.

Inside, I've had to turn on the central heating to add to the living room fire as the temp of 61F was just a tad nippy for comfort purposes. With both of these going, I'll probably be asleep in half an hour.

I'm at that age, you know. And speaking of age..........

A few hours ago, as I didn't fancy Yachting, Showjumping or something called WWE Smackdown on afternoon telle, I glanced through a few old diaries from 1969-1975 but I may as well have been reading ones written by someone else. The words I read brought back few memories about anything or anybody I'd written about.

Admittedly few events were worthy of having a memory about and most entries consisted of when I got up, what happened at school/work and when I went to bed. Samuel Pepys has nothing to fear from my diaries.

But my main worry about my rapidly diminishing memory is that few of the names I mention in those diaries ring even the slightest bell with me. Not a bellette. Not even a ding-a-ling. These were people I spent many years with - even though I'm not in touch with any of them today. Maybe that's the point. They were merely stepping stones on the cobbled road of my life.

Hmmmm think I'll send that one to Readers Digest.

I have retained no friends from my school days and none from my work days either. Is that normal ? I donno. I sometimes think I'd like to have a chat with many of them but even with my searching powers on t'internet, I've not had any joy. It's hard to search for people when all you have to go on is a school nickname !!

And what would we have in common even if I did find them ? A chat could be a bit difficult. Like chatting with a stranger really. I couldn't even do much reminiscing with the school ones as I remember so little about those days !! What am I like, honestly ?

The thing is, ask me a question about pop music in the 60's and I'll know the answer. Groups, songs, even lyrics (such as they were back then) and I'm your man.

So I'm using that as my yardstick.

When I can't remember the words to Daydream Believer or know who sang "Concrete & Clay" then I'll start to really worry. Until then, I'm sorry Gearbox, Bucket, Sainty, Crud and PJ, but you'll just have to remain school "friends" who I'll never remember.

Oh shoot, sorry. PJ is my brother. I think I do need to worry !

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Italy Day 4 - 30th August 2009

I didn't want to overwhelm/bore you with constant posts about Italy and so I've left it a while since the last entry. The story now continues......

After spending two and a half days sightseeing in Rome, it was time to head for the hills.


We left the Sheraton Hilton on the 10am shuttle as we needed to pick up our rental car, a Ford Focus Wagon, from the airport. We hadn't ordered a FFW but you know how that goes !

I'd programmed my GPS to take us from the airport up the coast and then inland to Siena, a short trip of 153 miles, but we were in no hurry and wanted to enjoy our first real taste of Italy.

And what a taste we got. As Fiumicino Airport was well outside the built up west side of Rome, we were into rural Italian countyside from the get go. We soon hit the coast but even though I'd picked the closest route to the sea (SS1), we rarely caught sight of water until we came to the large cruise ship port of Civitavecchia. We did stop before then to actually go down onto a beach to touch the water but it was more of a ceremonial act than anything else. It was warm.

At 3pm, somewhere along the 60 mile drive up the coast from Civitavecchia to the town of Grosseto, we stopped off for a late lunch. Light on the stomach maybe, not not on the wallet. We'd hoped that meals would be cheaper outside of Rome but this was not the case as even a simple lasagne and a pop in a small cafe cost over 10 euros. At Grosseto we headed inland and NE on SS223 towards Siena and started looking for a place to spend the night as we wanted to be in Siena early the following morning.

By 5pm we were approaching the small mountain town of Civitella Paganico, saw a sign for the Hotel Santa Genoveffa and decided to have a look at it. As we went up the beautiful driveway, it became obvious that we had found a real gem for our first night in rural Italy.

The hotel itself was stunning and although I'll include a few photos here, mine do not do it justice and you'd be better off looking at the ones on their web site, especially the aerial view which shows it best. It overlooked rolling vineyards that crossed a slight valley towards the town and we had a wonderful view of it from our bedroom window.

In front of the tastefully renovated 18th century farmhouse buildings, was a large swimming pool and after booking in and dumping our bags, we soon made use of it. I was some minutes behind Daphne and Stephen as I was taking video footage and when I reached the pool, I saw they were wearing bizarre, colourful and not very flattering caps.

Eh ? Where did they come from ?

Well it seems that they'd only been in the water a few minutes when one of the staff came out with the caps and asked them to wear them. Hotel rules. To save time, I went to reception to get mine and although we joined others in the pool who were also wearing the caps AND were playing with a ball, there was no offer of having an international game of water polo. Shame.

Like most of the converted farms/villas we were fortunate enough to stay at on our travels, this one was set among vineyards with extensive grounds. At the side of the hotel, one large garden area was set aside for archery and guests could have a go at no extra charge. Sadly we didn't have time to try this out as we needed to get off into town for supper.

As we walked to the car parking area to the left of the house, we had wonderful views across the vineyards and we just knew that we'd already fallen in love with Tuscany.

Our evening meal wasn't anything to write home about, or indeed write a blog post about, so I'll pass quickly over it. We ate at 8:30pm which set the tone and became the norm for the rest of the trip. Italians eat late and eat slowly. All that arm waving takes time !

We returned to the hotel and with little else to do anyway, we made our plans for our visit to Siena in the morning and turned in early.

And what a memorable day we had to come............

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Honesty - The Best Policy ?

I'm just back from shopping at my local Sainsburys and I could have been £20 better off - and I totally blame my mum and dad. Even though they're not alive anymore ! Confused ? Then read on.

You see they brought me up to be truthful and honest and as a result, I've never done a dishonest thing in my life.

Ok that bit was a lie but apart from that, I've never done a dishonest thing in my life. Mostly.

So lemme explain. I went down the electronics aisle in the store and a little gizmo took my eye. It was one of those wireless FM transmitters that allows you to play your mp3 through the car speakers. Now I've had a corded version of this gizmo for several years and as it's currently stored in a drawer somewhere, you'd be right in thinking it wasn't much cop. It wasn't. Lots of wires make it a pain to set up but it was mostly crap as radio music would bleed over the mp3 music from time to time as you drove along and so it was basically a waste of money.

The one I saw today had no wires at all and did things differently so reducing the chance of radio bleed. Best of all, it was only £9.99 and so into the shopping cart it went as my impulse buy of the week.

When I got to the checkout, the bill came to £41. WHAT ? I said that a bit loud at the time too.

Well I'd only bought a few items as I'm leaving the country in a couple of weeks so I didn't need much. Then I remembered my £9.99 gizmo and thought that had to be why my bill was so high. Thankfully I said this out loud as well and the cashier heard me and said....."no actually, it was probably the £19.99 gizmo".

"WHAT ?" I know. I must stop talking in capitals at checkouts.

Now to cut the next 5 minutes short, I got her to scan it again and when it came up at £19.99 again I told her to take it off my bill. She did this and after paying £21 for my few groceries, I left the checkout.

I decided to return to the electronics aisle to check the price label as my thought was that the '1' part of the price was hidden and this needed to be fixed so another punter wouldn't make the same mistake. But when I looked closely at it, there was a £ sign in front of the 9 and so it was definitely priced at £9.99. I told this to the electronics guy and after he'd scanned another gizmo to prove the point, he agreed the price on display was wrong and said....sorry.

"Whoa there big guy" I said. Well it was something like that anyway. "The price label may be wrong but it's YOUR mistake and not mine so I would like the gizmo for £9.99 please". Once this Sainsburys drone had told me there was nothing he could do about it, I took the gizmo to the customer services desk and told my story. The woman scanned it to get the £19.99 price and then went off to see the label - which I'd told the drone not to touch on pain of lots of pain.

CS lady came back and agreed the price label was incorrect, the fault was theirs and I could have the gizmo for £9.99. Result.

Then the result became even more of a result when she gave me a £10 note ! Eh ?

Well she obviously thought I'd paid for it at the £19.99 price back at the checkout and so was refunding me the difference. This was clearly her mistake as not only had I told her several times that I'd had the gizmo taken off my bill, but she also had the till receipt in her hand and it clearly showed this to be the case.

Not only had I got the gizmo for free, but I was £10 up on the deal. This never happens to me. I pushed my cart out of the store as if the wheels were on fire but when I got to my car, the heavy guilt set in. I almost heard the voices of my mum and dad telling me that what I'd done, while not exactly dishonest, just wasn't right.

Reminding them that they were dead and I could really do with this unexpected money did little to overcome my feelings of guilt. It didn't do much for the passing shoppers either who were by now giving me a wide berth as I was looking skywards and talking to myself.

And so I went back into the store and back to the CS desk where the poor lady still hadn't worked out that she'd made a boo-boo. She actually asked me if everything was ok ??!!!!

Having explained what she'd done, she went red in the face and thanked me for being such an honest chap. In fact she thanked me so many times that I was going red in the face as by now everyone around the desk knew the story.

I handed back the £10 and handed over my credit card to pay the £9.99. I was £20 down on the deal but at least it was now an honest transaction and I can sleep tonight. Hmmmmm.

But before you offer me up for canonisation (or idiot of the week award) part of my thinking was that they had kept my original receipt. The one that clearly showed that the gizmo had been removed from the bill. They could've traced me from that receipt (maybe) and I couldn't have stood the shame of being asked to repay the £20 on my next visit.....even if that will be in May next year !

How much did THAT affect my decision ? I donno. But I'd like to think it was a decision based mostly on my upbringing and I'm going with that.

Mum & Dad..I know you did a good job on me but could you not have told me that once in a while it's ok to never look a gift horse in the mouth !! Or a free gizmo.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I Need A Fag

Many decades ago, older boys at many UK boarding schools used younger boys almost as their personal servants, called fags.

One of the many tasks these fags were required to do was to warm up the toilet seat on cold winter days so that the older boys wouldn't have to 'suffer' even the temporary discomfort of sitting down on a cold seat. How civilized !

I'm was never quite sure why the fag had to drop his pants to perform this warming procedure when I'd have thought that just sitting on the seat would suffice. But then we're talking about boarding schools and you know how that goes !

Anyway I've been trying to not use my central heating before I leave for America in 3 weeks time and as a result, my bathroom has been cold enough to store eggs ! I paid a 'visit' last night and decided there and then that I had to either admit defeat and turn on the central heating or else get a fag for 3 weeks.

Earlier today I asked in my local store and the owner said he wasn't allowed to sell fags in singles (damn our government regulations) and as I only wanted one, I realised I'd have to do a Google search to find him.

Have you ever tried putting 'fag' into a search engine ?

Well I discovered lots of very interesting and image heavy websites I can tell you but none of the nice people there would agree to warm my loo seat for me ! I did like their tattoos though. I had to laugh when in a web chat, one of them said I needed to come out of the water closet. I like humour like that.

So anyway I'm sitting here now in my toasty warm house, near to my toasty warm radiators and all set to visit my toasty warm bathroom when the need arises.

Our short sighted government may tell us that fags can damage your health but I can tell you that my energy bill would be a lot less.

The thing is, I suspect my sweetie bill would be through the roof and I'd risk being on a list somewhere !!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Dying Art Of Letter Writing

I'm reading the autobiography of Roald Dahl at the moment (he of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and The BFG fame) and having got to the part where he was sent to boarding school, it revived many of my own memories.

If you've read any of my previous posts about this subject, you'll know that I'm not particularly happy about having some of those memories revived !

However when he was telling us about the letters that went back and forth between him and his mother, I got to thinking about the dying art of letter writing. In this age of internet and cell phone communication, I can't remember the last time I wrote or received a personal hand written letter.

Being an inveterate hoarder, I went looking through some of the letters I've kept over the decades and found the last one I got from my mum before I left boarding school. Mum was a letter writer extraordinaire and would write to all her brothers and sisters (she was one of 12) just about every week and more often than that to my brother and myself while we were at boarding school. Sadly my eagerly anticipated letters weren't delivered by an owl - mostly because once mum had attached her first letter to it's leg and let it go, our owl was never seen again !

Another letter I've kept for obvious reasons, was written on Wednesday 16th April 1986 and postmarked the following day. Here is an extract.............

We've had constant rain - heavy too - since yesterday morning with severe gale force winds and it looks like continuing today as well. It's well Dad worked so hard at the wall last week althought he got little encouragement from me as I was afraid he was overdoing things. Thank God it looks like he has no ill effects, he feels good. The front garden is like a pool and it'll be days before he can continue on the wall..........

......hope you are well and happy yourself, son. Write or ring soon. Loads of love. God bless and take care of yourself always. Dad and Mum xxxxxxxx

I never got to read that letter for 2 weeks after it was posted and it was the last letter I ever got signed like that. Before it arrived, I got a call from mum saying dad had come in from working again on the garden wall, sat down in his chair saying he was feeling very tired and then collapsed after a massive heart attack. He was in hospital and so I went home to be there but he never recovered and died a few days later.

He had been 74.

After the funeral and spending a few days with mum, I came home and found that letter on the floor under the letterbox. I don't think reading any piece of text affected me so much before or since and rereading it today, even after 23 years, still gets to me.

Would reading an email have had the same effect, even if printed off to keep forever ? No. It's seeing it written in my mum's handwriting that makes it so personal and enhances the deep irony of her words. It makes it easy for me to see her sitting in our little living room in our council house writing it. And even today it makes me feel so guilty for rarely doing what she wanted most from her a phone call or better still, sending her a letter much more often than I did do.

Mum died in 2003 and when I was clearing out the house I found stacks of letters from me going back to my boarding school days......probably every one I'd ever written to her. I finally saw how much letters and phone calls meant to her and how little of my time it would've taken to have made her happy.

It seems that every generation has the same excuse when it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family - we've not got the time. Today with texting, phoning, skyping, IMing, emailing, twittering and so on, we probably think we're all keeping in touch more than at any other time in our history and that may be true on many levels.

But find the time to write a letter, actually hand write it, and wait for the response you get. It will make it feel like time well spent. And who knows, even if the other person doesn't keep it as a treasured possession, it may still start a writing trend that continues for many years to come.

A trend to reverse the dying art of the handwritten letter before we forget how to write altogether.

Give it a try and give a lovely surprise to those who you care about.

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