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When Elder Daughter first started school, I used to go and help out in the classroom occasionally.  I noticed how much of the newly qualified teacher’s time was taken up by a small number of boys who knew very little in comparison to many of the other children, quite a few of whom could already read.  One boy in particular did not know his colours.  His mother was tall and blonde and thin and decorative and vacuous and disinterested and I resented the amount of teacher time that her son took up because of her neglect.  I saw her waiting at the station with her husband on Saturday.  To begin with I saw only a beautiful floor-length grass green coat.  The bodice was fitted and the skirt lapped around her ankles.   I coveted the coat.  Her hair was invisible under a grey cloche hat which had an intricate silver brooch of a lizard attached to one side.  Her face was dramatically made up, her flattened skin contrasting with vivid red lips.  She looked stunning, especially surrounded by hordes of men waiting to catch the train to an away football match.  She looked around her, took some chewing gum out of her mouth, and ground it into the paving stone. 

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 The new London terminal for Eurostar was opened by the Queen on the 6th November 2007.   St Pancras station is and odd mixture of Britishness and something much more European and refined.  The soaring architecture left me marvelling at Victorian design.  The skeletal station roof is like being inside the ribcage of an dinosaur.  So ahead of its time and so contemporary.  Looking up at its beauty is a statue of its most loyal protector, the poet, John Betjeman, a briefcase at his feet, looking rather down at heel.  The station is so new that everybody has cameras and most people eschew the towering kissing couple, where they are supposed to congregate, for the everyday Betjeman.  Smiling people queue to pose in front of him and couplets from his verses are set into roundels in the concourse.  A long crowded champagne bar stretches between him and the platform filled with the young and the old, the smart and the workaday.  When did British train travellers ever drink champagne on the platform before?  Happy prospective travellers sit in an indoors outdoors kind of way in comfortable box pews, watching other happy travellers, as their happiness bubbles up inside them and the sharp nosed trains glide into the buffers.

 Catherine Deneuve or is it Ivana Trump?  One or other of them strides on heels like pins across the marble.  Thick blonde hair is swept up into an immaculate chignon and the dark tailored clothes continue column like from shoulder to feet.  Her eyes are hidden behind dark glasses though it it December and raining.  She carries nothing.  A glorious younger man accompanies her.  Olive skin, dark hair.  On the other side a porter pushes a luggage trolley full of brown and gold luggage.  I wondered how she had found the porter and who she was, but I realised that I no desire whatsover to be her.

We wandered round a exhibition of sculpture by Matteo Pugliese.  All of his male figures disappear into the surface on which they are displayed or are emerging from the surface, depending on your outlook. We disagreed about his work.  For me it represented survival, perseverence, pulling oneself out of the quicksand, the triumph of endeavour, overcoming.  For my husband the works represented suffering, torture, emprisonment.

Returning from Brussels, we watched out of the train window as the entrance to the Tunnel came up to meet us.  Parallel rows of ten foot high wire fences ran along the tracks on either side, immigrant-no-man’s-land between, rolls of barbed wire fixed on top.  Every bridge was reinforced with more fences and more wire.  There were floodlights every few metres and cameras that could see everything.  These fences were in France but they are to keep people out of Britain.  A guard had stopped his van near a fence.  He was standing next to the fence, with his back to the train track, urinating. 

Lola Button and Elder Daughter were looked after by their favourite stable girl and her boyfriend.  He is a young paratrooper and leaves for his first tour, a six month tour of Afghanistan, in a few weeks.  Lola Button told us that they spent some of the evening looking at videos of the paratrooper proudly shouldering his machine gun, dismantling it, put it back together again as fast as he could.  He is so proud of the Army.  He has a picture of him with Prince Charles that he keeps in his car.  My husband said he wished he had the sort of experiences our daughters have.  I am very worried for the paratrooper and his girlfriend.

 

Belgium has a particular smell.  It smells of waffles and chocolate, combined.  I’ve tried to tease the waffle smell out of the chocolate but they refuse to separate.  The smell is most pungent at the shafts that exit from the underground metro stations.  It’s a smell that creeps over into France a bit too.  You catch whiffs of it in Paris in the Metro.  I thought about other countries I’ve visited and most of them have smells.  France, for example, except for the wafflely bits, smells of bad drains.  As in Belgium, the smell is worst in underground train stations, but it can be found in almost every house, leeching out of the sinks and the lavatories.  In French houses the smell is generally mixed with Javel water, a liquid bleach.  The combination of ripe Reblochon and Javel and drains is very evocative of France and quite overpowering. 

Greece smells of the crushed leaves of warm oregano in sun-baked mountains.  India smells of sandalwood.  Sri Lanka is a two-faced combination of rancid butter from the butter sculptures that decorate hotel dining rooms and which makes my nose wrinkle and wince just to think of them, and the heavenly smell of frangipane flowers.  I decided that they were all new smells, smells I hadn’t smelt before I smelt them for the first time and so they were locked into my memory of the country forever. I couldn’t summon up a smell for America or for Australia or for Egypt, though I tried. 

England smells of cut grass, Wolf’s ears, damp churches, sugar beet being boiled to make sugar, clean washing dried outside on the washing line, basmati rice cooking, oranges covered in cloves, old fashioned Buff Beauty roses, river mud, stale beer.  Washing never smells the same in another country.  I like the smell of my home.   Lola Button says her friends like her smell so much they come and sniff her.

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I found this lady on a previous trip to Brussels.  There is a model village, or model Europe, which was quite fun with the girls.  She sits somewhere in Copenhagen, I think.  I don’t know what happened to her feet.

 

Laissez-passer issued to International Civil Servants of the United Nations

Proper UN Convention status refugees are issued with a blue travel document, accepted worldwide.  I will always remember the first one I held and how it made me want to cry.  

Not all asylum seekers can show the well founded fear of persecution needed to gain refugee status.  UK asylum seekers granted the lesser status of Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR), or humanitarian protection under the European Convention on human rights, or those granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) are still nationals of the countries they have fled.  They are generally expected to keep their national passports current and use that to travel outside the UK to third countries.  Alternatively, in certain circumstances they are allowed to travel under a brown travel document or Certificate of Identity, issued by the UK government.  These are now issued by the new Border and Immigration Authority and cost £210.00. 

In order to get a brown travel document you need to show that you have applied to your own country for a passport and this has been formally and unreasonably refused.  Reasonable refusals – such as because of criminal convictions or failure to complete military service – will mean that the UK, too, will refuse to issue the travel document and you will be marooned here.

Only if you can show written evidence of the refusal and can show that it was unreasonable will you be issued with a brown travel document.

Mr and Mrs V call themselves “refugees”.   Technically they are not.  They are Serbs and left Yugoslavia in 2000 and typical of many who sought safety in the United Kingdom.  In 2002 they were granted ELR for four years, as was the practice then.  This temporary ELR status meant that the UK reserved the right, after the four years had elapsed, to decide that it was safe for them to return to their own country.  For them it meant four years of underlying tension – never knowing whether this would be their home for good, whether they should put down roots, or whether they should always hope to go back home.

They managed to get a brown travel document each, also valid for four years.  This enabled them to travel to see other close family members who had also left Yugoslavia.  Both the ELR and the travel documents ran out in 2006.  The Home Office was swamped with applications from the many hundreds in identical positions, wanting their ELR extended or converted into the more coveted ILR. 

Mr and Mrs V have recently got a decision.  They now have ILR and may stay in the UK indefinitely.  Many others are still waiting.

Once they have been here for a whole year with ILR, and providing they have been resident in the UK for five years by then, Mr and Mrs V will be able to apply for naturalisation as British Citizens, provided they can find the £735 fee for a couple applying together.  The will have to show that they are of good character and sound mind, and that they are familiar with the life and language of the United Kingdom.  If they are over 65 they may be exempt from the life and language test.  Once they are British Citizens, they may apply for a British passport to travel to other countries.

Until then, Mr and Mrs V have a conundrum.  They would very much like to travel to a third country to visit Mrs V’s elderly mother, paralysed by a stroke, but they have no laissez passer.  They must apply to the Serbian embassy for new passports.  If those are issued, they must travel under these passports – which seems odd when the UK has acknowledged that they are unable to return to Serbia and, indeed, their former brown travel documents were stamped good for every other country in the world but their own.

If the passports are refused, then they will have to show that the refusal was unreasonable.  Only then will the travel documents be issued.

Mr and Mrs V may be able to persuade the Border and Immigration Agency to issue a brown travel document on compassionate grounds.  They will need to show that they have to travel urgently and will need evidence of the compassionate grounds, such as a doctor’s certificate for Mrs V’s mother.  In the meantime Mrs V’s mother gets older by the day.

Try explaining that to a couple who speak about 100 words of English between them …

Through a train window

I forgot to take a camera to Holland, and only had my mobile phone with me.  On the train ride from the port to Amsterdam the very early morning light falling across the flat fields was so beautiful, with the vapour trail in the sky following the same trajectory as the  dyke.  On Sunday evening the autumn sun went down suddenly over the lake in the north of the Netherlands, the light changing from gold to grey to purple in the space of a few minutes. 

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“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Psalm 119, v105

The Amsterdam Bible Museum organises an Art Prize each year, and exhibits a shortlist of entries for the prize.  This year artists were asked to submit New Media entries inspired by the theme of Psalm 119, and particularly the line “I am a stranger on earth”.

Only one entry could win, but this year another entry was given an “honourable mention” by the panel of judges. 

“Lonely funerals” are those funerals where there are no mourners at all.  Only the four pall bearers, the undertaker, and a civil servant representative from the Dutch social services attend the service.

Since 2002 a varying group of poets have organised themselves through a foundation called Stichting De Eenzame Uitvaart (The Lonely Funeral Foundation) to ensure that a poet attends every lonely funeral in the Amsterdam and Hague area, and reads out a poem which has been composed specially for the occasion.  The project is co-ordinated by the poet, F. Starik, who has attended 72 such funerals and whose entry received the honourable mention.

F. Starik’s installation at the Bible Museum is a silent white room where the walls and the furniture are shrouded in white sheets.  Even a video of one funeral is seen only through the white sheets.  On the wall, in Dutch and English, is Starik’s poem ‘Songloed’ or ‘Sunglow’ which begins:

“Noem ons deelgenoot.  In feite delen we niets/Call us companions, when in fact we share nothing.”

The film running behind the sheet carries the poem set to threadbare, hauntingly simple music and is a montage of documentary pictures of one funeral recorded, against Starik’s wishes, by Dutch film makers.  Starik describes the lonely funerals project as “a slow work of art, whereby each deceased person writes a new chapter in the great book of oblivion”.  The poet has perhaps four or five days notice of the funeral, and only a skeleton of details of the deceased’s life.  The poet reads out the poem between the first and second piece of music, but “there is no audience to hear him.  He speaks into emptiness.  The lonely funeral is not theatre.”

Nor can the poet replace friendship.  The poet’s role is to salute someone he has never known and will never get to know.  The text accompanying the exhibit concludes with the words of the neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks from his book The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat:

“From a biological and physiological point of view we do not differ all that much from one another, but from an historical point of view, as a story, each of us in unique”.

The dignity afforded the lonely funeral by the addition of a carefully created poem  – which had the lonely deceased as its inspiration – touched me deeply.  I enjoyed sitting there silently, enjoying the rare experience of being a solitary stranger.

I watched “Amazing Grace” on the plane.  Twice.  It was an inspired choice by BA to show this film, and that it should always and forever be available on flights to the United States.  It portrays William Wilberforce’s fight to have slavery abolished and is moving and very uplifting and made me a little bit proud too.  The area of our town that we live in is mostly infamous for all the wrong reasons, but was initially parcelled up by a Quaker landowner and sold off to fellow faithful Quakers.  Most of the roads are named after slave abolitionists – Wilberforce, Dilwyn, Clarkson, Benezet – which added to the resonance of the film for me.    The themes of the film were so touching, though.  Faith, kindness, non-discrimination.  I could have watched it again, and again, and probably will.  I hate flying.  Trust issues. 

The last time I felt as if I had to ask nicely to be allowed into a country was in 1987 when I briefly went to East Berlin.  Since then every country that I have visited has either had an obligation to let me in, or has been slathering over the thought of all my tourist pounds to the point where refusal becomes an impossibility.  I very much felt as if I had to ask very very nicely if I could please be allowed to enter the United States – a humbling and, therefore, not necessarily bad experience.  Still, having a white skin, and a British passport, eased the passage of our family, as I could see from the experience of others around us. 

It is impossible to talk about the definitive American culture.  Colorado and San Francisco were so different that it would be difficult to include both in any generalisation.  So some of these observations apply to only one of our destinations, and a few apply to both.  Also, we met only a small untypical sample of Americans – and those mainly in Colorado – and had to largely rely on what they told us to be true. 

 Size 

Everything in Colorado appeared huge.  I could see why Dolly Parten would need all that hair, and I felt very small and insignificant. The airport at Denver was an overlapping series of the biggest, whitest tents I have ever seen, in the middle of the flattest landscape you could imagine, with the blackest, heaviest thunder clouds and the most striking bolts of lightning.  From there we picked up the biggest car we have ever driven with the biggest armchair seats and the biggest cubic capacity engine we’ve ever harnessed.  Those are the only two superlatives that the car can claim, however.  Most are still reserved for my beautiful car which would be out of sight before the Pacifica had left the starting blocks. 

I’ve gone a long way to avoid automatic gear boxes, but there was no way out in the US.  I hate automatic gearboxes with a passion.  They won’t accelerate fast enough, and they take control when the control should be mine, and they feel as if they are careering dangerously out of control on downhill slopes. 

Even our outsize car was dwarfed by the environmental monstrosities of all the other guests at the ranch, whom seemed to have hired trucks, not cars, for the short trip from the local airport to the ranch.  These honking huge gas guzzlers needed a step ladder to mount the cab, and parallel parking was only a dream in another universe.  They were gross, but, God, did they represent power, maleness, success, or so their drivers thought … 

Our first lunch on the drive up from Denver quickly followed on from our first foray into a happily located designer outlet village on our route.  Now this I was in favour of.  I could kit my children out with the labels they desired for the price of a sweat-shop T shirt from a bargain shop back home.  So, Ralph-Laurened and Abercrombied up, we hit the micro-brewery.  The Dam Brewery.  Full of the biggest damn hamburgers and the best damn beer.  My husband was in heaven.  In Britain, beer is served in half pints and pints.  Here, you could sample a huge array of beers in small quarter pint glasses, so that you missed nothing.  Good job I’d mastered the nasty automatic gearbox by this point.  The portions were enormous, which made us start looking at the size of people.  Some were tall, but quite a lot were just overweight.  I felt very small and insignificant as I crawled away in my not-quite-big-enough tortoise of a car.

 The Ranch 

Not that anyone at the ranch was overweight.  The ranch was perfection.  Because the dollar is weak, we can punch way above our weight and so spent the next week in the company of the very well off when we are only well off.  One lawyer had flown his own jet to Steamboat.  Another family of three siblings and spouses and lots of children could have built a house with the amount the week must have cost for them.  We were the only non-Americans and were privileged to enjoy seven undiluted days of people-watching at breakfast, lunch and dinner and during the daily rides and hikes.  That was when I wasn’t shielding my eyes from the glare of all those white teeth!  It’s surprising that any of us spoke all week, so ashamed were we of our naturally yellow fangs.  I kept meaning to buy the whitening strips, but forgot.  Damn teeth. 

Competition 

On arrival at the ranch we were handed a list of the names and contact details for all the guests, which, no doubt, allowed those with internet access to google all the men.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do with this list other than annotate it with notes such as “fine white scar lines on upper arms and thighs indicate a history of self harm” … or “psychopath in the making – blame the parents” or “no visible botox”.  But I’d missed the point, not having access to Google.  And I am being cruel, when everyone was so kind. This was the beginning, for the men, of a week of intense competition, mental but primarily physical, with not a moment off for relaxation.  Lots of muscle flexing and posturing.  My husband, being somewhat competitive, was not going to stand by and watch.  So, it wasn’t exactly a family holiday …  his mind was on other things.  At the final cook-out, my husband read out the poem he had composed to celebrate the week (a tradition foisted upon one “new” family in this week each year, we were told).  He brought the house down, and possibly won the day if not the week (presuming they had all googled him too) …  That, and his impending ascent of Mont Blanc next week.  Oh, it is hard to be a man in a competitve world. Perhaps the women competed too, for different things, but I could not be bothered and, anyway, was much more interested in riding.  I’m sure we competed through our children, if not through our jean size.  My children are attractive, intelligent, kind and funny, so no worries there … I am very, very lucky. 

Children are the same everywhere 

There were about ten families.  Among the children were six other girls of our daughters’s ages, so they both had both the constituents of a dream holiday – horses and friends.  We hardly saw them all week as the wranglers kept them occupied from after breakfast until bed time.  We watched them pretending to be cheerleaders in the talent show, and felt proud when – at the final cook out – our elder daughter was awarded the coveted “Future Wrangler” certificate for riding the fastest horse on the ranch and showing all the others how to do it.  Several emails have already been exchanged – I was amused that one girl immediately sent photos of her (very impressive) house and demanded photos of ours in reply.  Boy, it is hard to be a child too in a competitive world.  Money buys houses, and parents earn money, so why would a child choose to define herself by the size of her house? Duh. 

The convention was that couples circulated so that everyone met everyone else through the week.  They were a very diverse bunch from all over America who probably had little in common with each other except very healthy bank balances.  A couple of older men were on their second marriages.  Most men were self-made men with their own successful businesses.  Only one of the women worked and she was deputy legal counsel for a Fortune 100 company with a nice line in Missoni dresses.  Oh, for someone interested in people and how they work, it was a dream on a plate.  An anthropological field trip.  I was even blessed with a  resident psychotherapist who gave me his insights too. 

A few things struck me … 

Reluctance to criticise 

First, people were generally very incredibly friendly, and seemed much more keen to include everyone in all the activities than a similar group would have been in the UK.  This was a very good thing.  They seemed to be challenged by the idea that someone might like to spend some time alone, bird watching, or just reading.  The psychotherapist thought that this was because most of these adults were the product of summer camps in their youth and just slotted back into the appropriate behaviour of their childhood.  That would explain the enjoyment of joint activities, but not the genuine desire to include everyone, especially the outsiders. There was a reluctance, which would be unusual in the UK, to voice any critical opinions.  I found this frustrating as I was struggling to get at the “real” America.  A fatuous example will illustrate my point.  A wine tasting was arranged one evening with wines individually introduced and then served with complementary foods.  In the UK, there would have been a great deal of discussion about the wines, whether they were any good, whether another wine was better, and whether the food did indeed complement the flavour of the wine.  We tried to encourage this discussion, but our guests preferred polite, uncritical praise.  How does change happen for the better, without criticism? 

Difficult subjects 

Similarly, there would be a polite refusal to engage in conversations about difficult subjects such as health care, Iraq, Mexican immigration, global warming.  In the UK, guests would have revelled in an opportunity to discuss such subjects and a fairly trenchant exchange of views would have been normal – at least normal for us. This politeness means that there is no falling out.  I can see the benefits of it.  But it seemed to be inauthentic since I presumed that everyone did actually have an opinion on these subjects.  To be fair, some guests did start to volunteer their views towards the end of the week, and these were the most interesting and illuminating discussions.  The subjects were very difficult and I could not be sure whether the diffidence about discussing them was a reflection of hopelessness about every solving them, or a reluctance to face up to the fact that not everything was perfect, especially to an Anglo Saxon foreigner. 

One thing I very much liked about the ranch was that it appeared that success was something that an individual could enjoy in his life time.  In other words, the class system was based around individual attainment, and not entirely around your social origins (though I am sure this still counts for something).  In the UK it is perfectly possible for someone from a lower social class to become very rich, but that will not ensure that he is accepted by those in the higher social class.  In order to be accepted there, he will generally need to have been educated in one of the more elite public (private) schools and a good university.  Since this is unlikely, the best he can hope for is that his new found wealth facilitates the education of his children who may, if they are lucky, be accepted.  Three generations are normally what it takes.  I did not get the impression that this was the case in the US.  Nobody seemed interested in where they had been to school, or college. 

Anglo Saxons 

One caveat, however.  Only one of the twenty two adults was not Anglo Saxon in origin.  His origins were Polish and he was married to an Anglo-Saxon.  The list of names read like entries in a rural UK telephone directory, and it occurred to me that not a single president of the US had been other than Anglo Saxon.  Paul Fussell (“Class”) was still right.  I asked some of the wranglers whether they could remember any guests who were not Anglo-Saxon.  They couldn’t.  This may be a reflection of the main activity at the ranch being horse-riding.  Perhaps it is mainly those of Anglo Saxon origin who ride?  It would be the same in the UK.  There are very very, very few people of minority ethnic origins who ride horses.  There are very few who live outside large towns.  There are very few who use the countryside.  There is only one black farmer.  So, it was not so much that it was different from the UK, but more that I expected it to be different …  Why don’t ethnic minorities claim the countryside for themselves? 

Why don’t they ride horses, when there can hardly be anything more satisfying than the symbiosis between a beautiful horse and its rider?  And when there is so much beautiful landscape to enjoy most easily from the back of a willing horse. The horses were beautiful and well mannered.  Mine even had a brand with my initials on his right shoulder (there is a God, after all) and shared a name with my daughter’s own pony.  We rode up into the mountains to abandoned silver mines, the horses picking their way down again along rocky paths.  We rode through lush forests full of flowers that here we only plant in our gardens … delphiniums, rudbeckia and asters, wild raspberries.  We rounded up cattle and herded them into pens, we competed to show off our gate opening skills, and I spent an afternoon “joining up” with my horse until he would follow me, his nose to my jean pocket, around the field. 

Western riding is still an activity a man could enjoy without appearing effete, and so boys and girls enjoyed it alongside each other.  I gather that this is true only of the West, not of the East where very few boys ride.  I cannot understand why men and boys do not take up riding more.  It is more dangerous and requires more skill than riding a motorbike. 

Nature

As we stood out on the decking looking over the lake one evening a bald eagle swooped in to land on a tree across the water.  He stayed for three days on and off.  The owner of the ranch had never seen one on the ranch in more than thirty years of ownership.  How lucky we were.  At lunch hummingbirds played around our food, drinking through their long beaks from hanging globes full of syrup.  Deer wandered around our cabin.  We saw an antelope mother with her twins on the hillside.  We saw bear tracks. It was a blessed, beautiful spot. 

I cannot think of an equivalent place in the UK, so beautiful and yet so physical.  I think I’ve found one in Ireland, which I hope we might try sometime.  There might even be a chance that the staff and guests are as friendly as those we found on the ranch. 

Ethnic Diversity

None.  Not in Colorado.  Can’t remember seeing a single black people outside Denver airport, or even any ethnicities other than Anglo Saxon.  And I did look. 

National Pride 

We went to the rodeo.  I think the rodeo has a similar social profile to motorcycle speedway in the UK.  But for all the hot dogs and rain and litter, it was an amazing display of skill and funny too.  Our vegetarian daughter shed a few tears but was comforted by her new friends.  At the beginning the national anthem was played as a cowboy galloped round full pelt holding the Stars and Stripes.  I wanted to cry for the pride that everyone demonstrated in their country.  We were told that often this is followed by a request that all those stand who have served their country in the military. 

Which brings me to another observation.  Denver airport had separate waiting rooms for those who had served their country, and the older guests at the ranch told my husband that experience, or lack of experience in Vietnam, defines men of a certain age.  There is something unspoken that they share (or not).  There were other examples, which we noticed at the time, but I’ve now forgotten, of more respect given to those who have fought for their country.  It is not the same here, sadly. 

Finally, why did they all hate the Simpsons?  We love the Simpsons, and finding a cinema to see Spiderpig was top of our list for San Francisco.  But nobody at the ranch would admit to watching it, or allowing their children to watch it.  Do they have any idea how funny, how clever, how perceptive, it is?!? 

We were just tourists in San Francisco, so our experience there was entirely superficial.  Except for the City Lights Bookstore. 

Alcatraz was worth every penny and the smell of seagull guano, but San Francisco seemed very European, if a bit more hilly than our average city.  It did not wow us, as Colorado had. 

But perhaps we were already not noticing the differences.   

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