Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The patient traveller

Travel merits dread. It is not as bad as one anticipates. It is worse.
As if the dramas of security delays are not bad enough, the economic woes of the airlines would seem to have them all in a state of staff shortage. The result is, of course, longer and longer queues.
Let's face it. The reason people have to go to airports hours and hours early is not for the security scrutiny queues, albeit that they are long. It is to queue for checkin.
I stood for an hour with my luggage at Logan in Boston, inching forward in a condensed snake queue of hapless fellow travellers.
At first it seemed as though there were four people operating the check-in desks, then three, then two, then one... And the queue stood frozen, passing time gazing, chatting, soothing children, waiting... Then there were three check-in desks working again - from a line-up of 12, mind you. Most of the desks were unattended. And, from time to time, the clerks would just vanish from the existing posts leaving us all wondering where they had gone and why, since it was clear that there were a lot of people waiting.
From time to time, someone would patrol the queue calling out for people who were at risk of missing their planes because they were still waiting in the queue. These people would be taken to the front and put in a special priority queue. The rest of us just had to wait a bit longer. After all, we acted upon the advice of the airport system and arrived with the hours to spend waiting in the queue. We could afford to be kept waiting. The people suddenly taken to the front and causing us to have to wait even longer were the people who had not given themselves the time to wait in the queues. They were, in other words, the late-comers. Late-comers are given priority over those who have been early or have responded to the requests of the airport authorities. In other words, if you want the special VIP treatment, be late.
You will be put at the front of the queue. You will be saved the back-aching stand in line.
What is wrong with this picture?

I am a punctual person, daughter of a punctual person, trained to punctuality. I like punctual people. If everyone was punctual, the world would tick along quite efficiently.
I understand that things can go wrong and even the most punctual people can be thrown out of whack by an unexpected - breakdowns, accidents... I am eminently sympathetic towards such crises because I can feel their stress. Punctual people get veery stressed if they cannot be punctual.

But there is another world of people who just don't get the punctual thing. They march to the beat of their own drum - and to hell with the rest of us. They arrive late at theatres and cinemas. Worst of all, they arrive late to dinners - leaving hosts in a spin and food losing its zest. Latecomers insult and inconvenience others. They are just rude.
So there we were, standing in the snake cordon at check-in, silently seething as we watched the latecomers, Latinos on a flight to Miami, being rushed to the front. I am sure I was not the only one thinking that perhaps they should be allowed to miss their planes to teach them a lesson about punctuality.

The airline staff are exquisitely trained. I have never had an unpleasant experience with a single one of them. If they are harried and overworked, they mask it well. They are charm and helpfulness - when, at last, one comes to interact with them. But, one learns later to one's cost and disappointment, they lie. They would seem to have been trained to lie as a customer-soothing strategy. For instance, they may tell one they are giving one a terrific seat allocation. I have even been told, when there has been some sort of cock-up, that I have been upgraded - only to discover, when boarding the plane, that it was not an upgrade at all. Just as the promise of a vacant seat beside on the Qantas flight home mine proved hollow. I asked the man sitting in the supposedly vacant seat how long ago he had booked said seat, thinking that perhaps he had been a last-minute booking or on standby. Oh no, he had booked a month ago, he said. The empty seat had been booked for a month! Why did the check-in woman choose to tell me it was empty? I had not asked. In fact, there were no empty seats at all on that plane. It was a crammed cattle crate of humanity.

Security queues also are long and tense - manned by officers who keep a stern facade. It's a bizarre sort of factory line - the steadily moving people and the loaded conveyers, the scrutineers watching their screens like fierce quality control operators. Officers are calling out instructions - "all shoes must be removed". The queues seem resigned to their ordeal as they shuffle slowly forwards. But when it comes to their turn, people seem to dissolve into a frantic dance of urgency, pushing impatiently to grab trays and squeeze in to make a place at the unpacking bench. And off comes the jacket, the belt, the shoes. Pockets are emptied. One unloads the laptop and sends it rolling along with case and handbag before stepping through the metal detectors under the eagle eye of ranks of uniformed security guards and then stands, waiting, at the other end, braced for quick response to gather one's possessions and be out of the way without holding up the production line..

Once reassembled, the waiting begins again since, inevitably, one is early for the boarding time. It is time for finding the quietest spot one can, for people watching, reading, killing time as engines roar outside and muzzled announcements crackle out of the tannoys. Every ten minutes or so at Boston, the warnings against taking fluids on the planes were reiterated - listings of lip gel, lipstick, hair gel, toothpaste, hairspray, skin lotion, bottled water, coffee... And there were more queues, people lining up at departure gates, all in some pointless hurry to get on their planes before the next person.

Mine was a fairly uneventful flight to LAX, unpleasant in being sardined between a Dylan-like musician who pulled down the window blind and went to sleep and, on the aisle, a stodgy businessman who drank four whiskeys in a row and went to sleep with his elbow intruding into my space. I was in enforced physical contact with that man throughout the six-hour flight, although not a single word was exchanged.

LAX is always hell. Asking directions to the Tom Bradley International terminal, I was directed out of Domestic and into the street. Not where I wanted to be, since there is an internal passage which saves one from further security screening. But, once out of doors, I took the chance for a cigarette before entering the queue hell of that vast. cavernous terminal. I headed straight for security - only to be turned away. My boarding pass was unacceptable, said the officer. Qantas now rejects boarding passes issued by its airline partners. I would have to join a Qantas queue and have my American Airlines Qantas boarding pass replaced by a Qantas Qantas boarding pass. So I join yet another queue and wait and wait - watching the mysterious comings and goings of the desk clerks. Twentyfive minutes later, I have new boarding passes and can join the security queue. It is huge. But I have time. And I am in the existential mindset - there-is-no-other-reality.

Funnily enough, there are few franchises after one has passed security - limited choices for refreshments. I bought a bad fruit salad, found a deserted departure lounge and sat down with my book as hyped-up kids shrieked and hurtled around the place. The time will pass, I told myself - and, of course, it did. Slowly. But the loaded plane departed late - and lost more time on the Pacific crossing. Packed in like sardines, it was an uncomfortable flight and I envied the sleepers. Despite a valium and a glass of red wine, I managed a scant 45 minutes. I was devastated. Cabin service was cheerful but slow. They handed out dinner menus but had run out of menu choices before they were a third the way down the economy section. The meal was just food - not tasty at all. And it featured a butter bean salad and further black beans in a hot vegetable medley. All those beans for all those people packed hip-to-hip in a metal tube? What sadist designed this fart city menu? My stomach was soon popping and seething with wind - which added very effectively to the general discomfort.

As did the lateness of the plane. Departing late and flying into headwinds, the 15 hours was going to be 16 - and it was clear that connections would not be made. I called the "cabin manager" and asked if he could radio through to re-jig the Adelaide connection for me. He made an inordinate fuss of me thereafter, popping back and forth to give me updates on "company response" - which was, of course, that I would be put on the first available flight. In fact, after hauling my luggage through the massive customs queue, then through the airport and joining yet another snake of a queue, I was put on the last available flight. Perversely, the 30 other Adelaide-bound passengers were given the two earlier flights. I guess I was being put in my place for asking. A Qantas gift of more time-killing at an airport - zombie-like exhausted and demoralised time-killing.

But at least the trip eventually ended, 30 hours after it had begun.
It is now a matter of recovering the strength and the spirit, overcoming the jetlag (I write this at 4am) and wondering why I have this feeling that Qantas hates me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

LaPaglia - a celebrity riff

Anthony LaPaglia calls his hometown, Adelaide, "like a little Bronx, but with Australian accents".
I don't think anyone has ever described the city thus - or even thought of it. Certainly Adelaide has a strong and well-entrenched Italian community which, from the migration heyday of the 50s, has added substantially to the city's soul, as well as to its cuisine.
And isn't that laudable actor, LaPaglia, an export of whom we can be proud! Unlike Mel Gibson who we now prefer to see as "American-born" and not Australian, despite his Aussie upbringing and NIDA training. As a regligious extremist, Gibson is now an embarrassment. He and that moronic Tom Cruise are the disgraces of Hollywood - ill-informed loudmouths who gain a global platform for their dangerous and warped views because of their wealth and stardom.

I have always been of the opinion that actors are actors. They act because they have more substance as other people than as themselves. Their skill is in expressing what other people have thought and written. When interviewing actors, it is often necessary to "feed" them worthwhile things to say, since most actors are not profoundly well-informed outside of their metier. Yet the the media insists on trying to pump newsworthy things from their mouths - because their popularity attracts reader interest. Making them inherently interesting is another matter.

This is where gossip has become an industry.
It breaks my heart to see the massive output and the lucrative turnover which assuages the apppetite of this market. The vapid for the vacuous.
Are the starlets too fat or too thin? Do we like their taste in clothes? Do we like the company they keep? We care. We care!

This obsession with the minutiae of celebrity has spawned a new population of paparazzi - desperate freelance photographers everyone loves to hate. Theirs is a perilous existence in a shallow and fickle world. I know the adrenalin which drives their chase. Poor bastards.

Paparazzi are not a new phenomenon. Back in 1970 I chummed up with a Rome-based gossip-chaser whose primary purpose was to come up with the goods on Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Those were still the days when movie stars were stars.

Now the star system has been replaced by the celebrity circuit. Talent is not in the formula. One only has to look at the absurd phenomenon of Paris Hilton or hear the grotesque vocal contortions of Jessica Simpson to have this rammed home. And who among us does not know who those dreary glamour girls are? We can't name Grigori Perelman, the Russian mathematician who has just contributed the most important piece of abstract thought since Einstein, but we can quote the trite comments of Paris Hilton who has just told us that she can't believe how good she is.

One wonders if people will tire of the celebrity saturation. Will they wise up? Will they get interested in people or issues of more substance? Or will the cynical media moguls just go on manufacturing new celebrities to sustain the vast profits generated by tinymind turnover?

We know the answer.
Oh, well, I am still proud of Anthony LaPaglia. A fine actor, a great Australian and a proper, old-fashioned movie star.

Travel blues

The melancholy of last days. With such inexorable swiftness they melt one into another until one is there at the Valium gates of departure. Another finality in this finite mass of finites.
But another beginning awaits - or, at least, a resumption. I do not dread returning to my desk at the paper. Indeed, I look forward to seeing my colleagues and to the surprise of the next assignment.
It is just that, from this vantage point, it has no reality. It is so impossibly far away - and the path is tortuous and torturous. It is to be adrift in that somewhere nowhere which will never end - the pergatory of security queues, waiting bays, transit lounges, departure boards, vast walkways, harried air crews, tiny seats in those big metal cylinders which roar and lurch and surround one with vile, viremic air. My fear of flying has not abated with experience. I think fear of flying is just plain commonsense. I have loads of commonsense. Thus, I am ever terrified of flying. And once on the vast journey, there is no other reality. There is no existence outside the airports and planes. It is an enclosed, eternal world. It is hell.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Toothache terrorist

Pity those of us scheduled to take long-haul flights in this new era of carry-on carry-on. When faced with 28 hours of travel between the east coast of the US and South Australia, one tends to like to be prepared for problems, not to mention being able to freshen-up along the way. The prohibition on deodorants and toothpaste in cabin baggage has been glorious fuel for the comedians - the birth of stinky passenger syndrome. But it has prospective passengers very apprehensive. Hell, one doesn't want to be one of the stinky passengers! Tourist class in jumbo jets gets fetid enough with fragrant passengers. How ugh is it going to get?
Oh, boy, is this restriction a win for terrorists! It is another erosion, a quiet humiliation of the Western capitalist travellers.

I don't go down to the corner deli without my tiny bottle of perfumed oil. It is always tucked in pocket of my handbag. I'll have to do without it in the impending trip to Oz. Oh, well. I always have my pack of moist towelettes.

The other thing I like always to keep on my person is a tube of dental antiseptic gel. I am a poor old thing with a long history of gum disease and, hence, a tendency towards sudden flareups when under stress. Toothache and abcesses. I hold this in check this with fastidious dental hygiene and the use of peroxide mouth washes. At the first sign of trouble, I apply Colgate Peroxyl - the best of all effective treatments. And I always carry a tube of said peroxide gel, just in case. Insurance, if you like.

Now what was it the terrorists were planning to use in their thwarted scheme to blow up planes? Peroxide!
Suddenly I am a person carrying terrorist weaponry!
A toothache terrorist?
It's almost funny.

What is funny is that, according to the Homeland Security list of can and cannot carry items, while I will have to live without my Peroxyl gel, it seems that I am still allowed to carry long, sharp knitting needles!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Terrorism lessons from NBC

American news services are not particularly good. They are constant - but they are not comprehensive. Rather, they are delivered with a rapid-fire, breathless urgency by which they assume a gravitas, a sense of importance, is imparted. This delivery is meant to obscure the fact that the stories are short on detail or explanation. They are essentially grabs. Everything is grabs. Teasers followed by grabs.

Tonight, however, NBC actually decided to expand its coverage of the foiling of the London terrorists by delivering a blueprint of what they intended to do. Yes, the newscasters who give habitually truncated reportage of world news, suddenly have gone thorough. Too thorough. From the sublime to the ridiculous. They have gone to the trouble of preparing detailed graphics and computer renderings so they can show exactly how the terrorists would have exploded planes over major cities. They showed the ingredients. The common household ingredients! They showed the tools. They showed how mixes would be made and of what and where. And where the terrorists would sit and connect with each other. It was a copybook "how to".

Well, aren't they smartypants exploitationist showoffs "in the public interest"?
And aren't they complete morons!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Oh, no.

Fear of flying rises to new heights.
I am a cot case before the most routine air travel and more important than packing when getting to and from the USA is taking Valium to dull the anxiety. I need Valium to pack, since packing means departure and that means takeoff and landing.
Now, thanks to the brutal-mindedness of terrorists, I crave Valium at the very thought of my impending travel.
I had been warned by an on-the-ball blogger that rumour was out and about that there would be some appalling terrorist action coming up towards the fifth anniversary of 9/11. My source was right on the money.

This morning I woke to the barrage of reportage, views of Heathrow jammed with displaced passengers, terror alerts on the highest, airports in bedlam across the world as air schedules descended into chaos and new restrictions were asserted - all fluids banned and in the UK, all handluggage including computers and handbags. Passengers only permitted to carry boarding passes! The idea of my computer being thrown around as freight simply terrifies me. I can't bear for it to be out of my sight at the best of times.

One can only hope that Britain's crackdown has disabled this large, sophisticated terrorist cell. But Britain is unsure. So we all quake.
And we wish it was otherwise, we people of love and trust and peace. We wish there was not all this hatred and spite. We wish there were no extremists. We wish the political world were more agreeable. We wish that America was not so hated. We note that America was not so hated before George Bush took power. Had there been a Democrat government in the USA right now, would this world situation be so grotesque? One thinks not.
But what is, is.
And we must live in fear.

A Connecticut travelogue

Mystic is one of New England's charming coastal towns - which gained international attention when it became the site of the film "Mystic Pizza", the film which rocketed Julia Roberts into stardom. And, yes, the pizza parlour is still there at the top of the quaint little main street.
We had loved visiting Mystic and the utterly charming nearby fishing port of Stonington some seven years ago and felt in the mood to pay them a return visit - particularly to eat at a certain waterside restaurant where we had been served one of the most memorable meals of our lives.
So, on Friday afternoon, we headed south across Massachusetts to Connecticut and the coast. It was a particularly aesthetic drive, once we left the main highways. We meandered through the undulating rural landscape along leafy, winding roads. Signposts occasionally announced towns but nothing much materialised except a few clapboard houses on large lots and yet more farms with lovely old barns. Immense vistas of corn, tall, ripe, healthy corn, corn "as high as an elephant's eye", stretched back from the roadsides. Lush and verdant country, indeed.

Things were decidedly weird when we arrived in Mystic. There were traffic jams all over the place and, at the town bridge, which opens on the half hour to allow seacraft up the estuary, there was a serious and static backup. We swung out of it, looped around some rather pleasant residential backstreets and stopped at a donut place from which we could observe the traffic while indulging in coffee and a donut. This was when I got the first clue as to what was wrong. A chubby woman in a sunfrock came in to buy a box of donut holes and commented that it was good to see the power back on, although it was still off where she lived.
It must have been the severe summer storms which had savaged New England, we surmised. Correctly. Lightning and falling trees had caused havoc and local businesses had been brought to a halt, some of them for 24 hours.
We repaired to our accommodation, Mystic's Best Western, to find it oddly deserted. In the dark foyer, a frazzled receptionist was busily sending all the guests elsewhere. "We've had no power since yesterday and don't know when it will be back on," she explained. "They have rooms up the road at Day's Inn." Not for long. We got one of the last - but it was quite acceptable since it was a smoking room with two double beds. And, delight of delights, complimentary wireless Internet access.

After an hour or so resting, reading and catching up online, we headed for Mystic town again - for a pleasant walk before dinner. Very pleasant indeed. The little town was massed with weekend tourists. They seemed to be affluent New Englander types - sporty, tanned, well-groomed people in pristine shorts and snappy sandals. Crocs, the colourful, light, plastic sandal of the moment, were much in evidence.
Mystic is not a shopping town. It has just one, narrow main street with quaint little giftie stores and, seemingly, lots of icecream parlours. We melded into the ambling throng, pausing to gaze at people being wined and dined on a moored launch at the dock and to watch the bridge raise and lower for yachts and excursion boats.

I had called the restaurant from Nashua, asking to be put on the priority seating list. Table reservations are not common in the States. People tend to arrive and be queued in order waiting for tables to become free. Priority seating requests lifts one's status in the queue and one is seated before the "walk-ins" - of which there were masses at the lovely S&P Oyster Company restaurant. We were allocated a patio table at 7.30, our chosen time. Surrounded by pots of vivid flowers, we could still watch the bridge and the passing vessels. As the sky softened into delicate sunset hues, I sipped on a frozen mango vodka, Bruce a Bourbon, and we purred at the pleasure of the moment, the divine decadence in a divine place. For starters we had ordered fried calamari and onions with an aioli sauce.

It was baby squid, unspeakably delicate and delicious. We also shared a tangy salad loaded with fresh orange portions. As the lights came on over the water, our mains arrived - hearty bouillabaisse garnished with lobster claws for Bruce and a spread of Alaskan crab legs with dipping butter for me. Oh, my. Ambrosial is the only word for that crab, which came with an odd tool I had never seen before, designed to pierce and then saw neatly through the long length of shell to get at the sweet flesh within.

We were too sated for S&R's rich desserts, but followed our waitress's suggestion to seek an icecream on the main street. I was glad since, amid the zillion options at our chosen icecream parlour, was black cherry sorbet. It was outrageously exquisite - and I ate it sitting on a waterside bench on the quay walk.

Best Western had told us we could book into our room at 11 am the next morning. After a breakfast of fresh waffle and coffee at Day's Inn, we drove around the bays looking at marinas and boats and the smallest beach in the world, nothing more than a reclaimed boat ramp. I had a wander at the Mystic Village shops, lovely, eclectic tourist shops in a pleasant pseudo village arrangement while Bruce read the NY Times on a shady bench beforer we headed for Best Western, only to be told that there was only one room ready - which was not the king smoker I had reserved. We were then told that internet reservations don't guarantee you will get what you reserved online. I had reserved by phone, ringing the Best Western 1800 number, the number Best Western Mystic has on its website, I said. "It's the same. You can only be sure of getting the room you want by ringing the hotel direct," she replied. This blows sideways the whole concept of reserving hotel rooms online or even via toll-free numbers. You must pay a long-distance call if you don't want your hotel reservation to be pot luck.

Best Western told us to come back in a few hours. There was a slim chance a smoking king room may become available. No, if we left our luggage there, it would not be secure and they could take no responsibility for it.
This, therefore, left us carting my computer around with us, nervous of leaving the car for long in case it became too hot - for it was steamy, hot weather in Connecticut. Thus constrained, we juggled our plans for the day, cancelling the two-hour tour of the historic seaport since there was no covered parking for cars (and one could not drag a computer through the exhibits).
Instead, we headed for New London and the River Thames - which had been our Sunday plan. A walk on the beach seemed like a nice idea, and an exploratory to find the old house in which our friend Grant had lived when he worked on the famous submarine corporation. Eugene O'Neill also had once occupied that house, he had told us. So it had double significance as a travel diversion.

New London is an oddly down-at-heel town. It has a gracious old main street, leafy and narrow, with historic buildings and imposing church towers. But it was almost deserted. A few desultry convenience stores were open, but there was a bleak, abandoned feeling to it. And the surrounding back streets seemed decayed and threatening. In a tiny town square, a sad quasi Rasta band was playing melancholy music as a feature of the oddest and smallest craft market I have ever seen. We wandered through - about five stalls with no customers. There was some Asian tat, some woven cushion covers, some beading, a local club promotional and a large and depressed-looking African American woman selling home-made "gourmet bean pies". I did not fancy the idea of any food which was sitting around under clingfilm in the steamy heat of the day. Nor did anyone else, by the look of the stand. She would be taking her labours home with her.

In unspoken agreement, we headed back to the car. This town was no place to hang around. A beach walk, water views, nature...so we followed the map to the headland where the beach park was located. Once in the coastal burbs, New London was far more salubrious. Very salubrious indeed. Large houses and crowded marinas. As we neared the beach park, we found ourselves suddenly in a traffic jam. No. A queue of cars waiting to get into a vast carpark. How odd. Finally we reached the entrance gate to discover that there was a $11 fee to park the car before getting to the beach. The whole area was enclosed in high cyclone fence and there was a water funpark for which one was, presumably, also paying admission. We explained that we were lost , hooked around the admission booth and drove off in search of a plain old beach.
A sea wall obscured the beach we found down the road. Parking was problematic. There were "resident only" signs everywhere. But Bruce had spotted The Lighthouse Inn up the hill and had earmarked it for lunch. It was an imposing old place looking down one of the roads to the sea.
We found a lovely, shady spot in the circular driveway around the Inn and headed down the road for our beach walk before lunch. On reaching the gate to the walled beach, we were blocked by tanned young gate attendants. Apparently we needed to have a guest pass to walk on the beach. It was a private beach.

We followed the wall down the length of the beach, walking on a narrow, weedy verge towards the lovely old lighthouse on the promontory. There were more gates to the beach, each one firmly closed with assorted "Private" signs - one seemingly a business, another for different residents....
It was clear that we were unwelcome. Tourists were unwelcome. Outsiders of any hue were unwelcome. And, indeed, when one paused and perused the sun-worshippers spread out along the bay, it was a WASP world, an affluent, suntanned, youthful, privileged WASP world. An exclusive enclave with ownership of a large stretch of beach. I snarled with disapproval, for I am of the Australian understanding that beaches are for everyone and that no one should so much as attempt to restrict public access to them.

Thus grumbling, I settled for a look at the lighthouse. Oops. Another sign. Not just a "private" sign, but a "no photographs". Huh? How unwelcoming and just bloody bossy is this community? Out of sheer perversity, I photographed the sign.

We retraced our footsteps and headed for the Inn which turned out to be one of America's historic hotels - with an imposingly handsome interior, grand dining rooms with gold chairs, wood panelled walls and ceilings, chandeliers and formal wait staff. We were giving a lovely window table in the almost empty dining room. Some upmarket young women were gathered in another dining room, bubbling away with social noises. It seemed to be a bridal shower. In another gracious old dining room, a singer and pianist were rehearsing. Otherwise, the place seemed oddly quiet. Our waiter was called James and he was comically snooty and not pleased that we wished to drink water. Thereafter his service was not swift. But the meal was pleasant enough - crab quesadilla shared as a starter and seafood salads for each of us. Mine was a seared tuna salad so fired up with wasabi that lesser mortals may not have coped with it. One had the feeling that the chef was not very worldly and was trying just a bit too hard. Sometimes the Americans miss the mark with their efforts at being olde worlde gracious and end up just being a bit pretentious. This was such a case. Nonetheless, the environment soothed us and we departed happy, heading for the darling town of Stonington for coffee and cake.

Stonington is a "Kodak moment" village. There are no fast food places - just a charming main street lined with hanging flower pots and characterful shops and cafes. We scored a perfect carpark in the shade right beside the Yellow Cafe and went in for coffees and sour cream cinnamon cake, chatting with the proprietor about the drama of the recent power outages. Then we took a stroll, along the main street and through backstreets to the fishing wharf where the lobster pots were piled up, where grimy working fishing boats rested on their moorings and where fierce fish stench emerged from the canvas-covered gutting tables which, now abandoned for the day, were still wet, with knives and scaling tools trustingly abandoned.

Walking back through more side streets in which the old clapboard houses bore historic plaques revealing who had first lived there - captains and pioneers - we came upon the village green, and very busy it was, too. The town fair was in full swing and, unlike the sad little New London market, it was packed with avenues of stalls and swarming with people. We meandered through, reflecting that a weekend market was a weekend market was a weekend market, and emerged at the other side of town, to walk more charming old streets admiring lovely and quaint historic houses, until we reached the car - well and truly walked.

At which moment, it occurred to me that we had done all we really wanted to do and had no pressing reason to spend the night in a hotel which may or may not have the room that we had reserved. So we returned to the Best Western to cancel our booking (they had found an appropriate room) and drive back to New Hampshire - slowly, along different backroads. They were just as lushly rural and beautiful as the road down but, amid the cornfields, there seemed to be quite a lot of decidedly upmarket horse studs. They are not poor in Connecticut.

And back onto the efficiency of the American motorway system to "schuss" across Massachusetts, skirting Boston, and slipping across the border back home to NH with the realisation that we still had a whole Sunday to spend at our ease with newspapers and nature walks.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

In praise of American drivers

Australian drivers could take a leaf out of the book of the Americans. This is a great car nation where multi-lane highways channel intensive clamours of cars and trucks eternally changing lanes as they speed to wherever they are going. The traffic is daunting. And yet the drivers seem not only to be skilled but also to be courteous towards each other. They do not attempt to "own" their lanes, as Australian drivers do with manic territorial imperative. While Australians do their utmost to prevent anyone from changing lanes in front of them, the Americans are polite and accommodating. But more than this, away from the seething, swarming highways, they are incredibly polite and accommodating towards pedestrians. In Australia, one takes one's life in one's hand when crossing a road let alone trying to move around the terrifying deathtrap of supermarket parking lots. In America, if one so much as sets foot off the kerb, cars slow to a halt. If one wishes to take one's supermarket trolley back to the car in the parking lot, the arriving and departing cars will stop to allow you priority. Even terrifying-looking big, beefy, shaven-headed, tattooed trailer trash men in their aggressive, high-chassis utes will cheerfully stop as one crosses the thoroughfare to enter or leave the supermarket. Even tough teen boys with their doof-doof stereos will stop for pedestrians. It is the law - and it is observed.
It is also the law in Australia, too. But you'd never know it.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Middle East lament

The piquance of being on holiday, the pleasure of doing interesting and indulgent things, is undermined by a gnawing sense of guilt. One cannot watch the news or read the email missives about the Middle East without feeling a hole in one's soul for the misery that is Lebanon and Israel. Oh, Lebanon. Of the myriad places I have been, Lebanon was, by very far, the most civilized and hospitable. The kindness of the people was such that I was rarely able to pay for anything. And I met poets, architects and intellectuals as well as the people of the street. Even at our cheap hotel, workers acted more as friends than employees. I dined in elegant restaurants tiered down the courses of waterfalls - long, languid meals of many delectable morsels followed by sweetmeats and arak and coffee, the latter stretched full-bellied in lounge chairs and puffing on hookahs. Lebanon already had been scarred by violence. How many times has it been rebuilt? And now I look upon the pulverised buildings and mutilated dead and feel so, so, so sad. Yes, for Israel, too. Albeit that it was not kind to me when I visited. It is a land of perpetual tension, which, in itself, is as unhappy as it is unpleasant. One wonders if it will ever achieve its promise. Not this way, methinks. One can only see this grisly conflict going on and on, wishing that Hezbollah and Hamas could pull in their horns and that compromises could be made. So I suppose I am a bit cross with all the aggressors - for they make so many of us so very sad. Even when we have that precious time, as I do now, for lightness of life and earned respite from labours, I feel burdened by grief and a sense of hopelessness for them all.

I wonder if that super-fit, cake-eating President, George Bush, is sharing such dark contemplations. Like me, in this world-troubled time, he is on holiday. Yet again!

Friday, August 04, 2006

On being Mel-icius

The appalling Mel Gibson has done a good thing in his drunken outburst of racism. He has demonstrated exquisitely that fame and money do not bring wisdom. He has demonstrated that religion can be an illness - certainly the ill of the world. And he has given the common world a wake-up call about the insidious ever-presence of warped and ugly bigotry - something we often allow ourselves to forget.

The nasty star, who retaliated with a bilious outburst of anti-Semitism towards police who had made him stop his criminal drunken driving, gives us all cause to pause and wonder what may lurk beneath our sober selves. Do we harbour hatred, too?
We all have prejudices, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. They are things we see as likes and dislikes - preferences. I am not fond of neo-Cons, for example. "Hate" may be too strong a word, but I could certainly let loose a rant about their retrogressive double values and their greed. I have had a series of very unpleasant experiences with two ethnicities, so I generalise a dislike while, ambivalently, feeling open-hearted towards individuals. This is ethically entirely wrong and it worries me. But it is how it is. Similarly, I once was raped by a man with a crewcut. Ever since, I have loathed men with crewcuts - but have made exceptions as the years rolled on.

So, how would I behave as a drunk if a right-wing cop with a crewcut pulled me over for DUI? I would shut the fuck up, that's how I'd behave. A cop is a cop is a cop. And I'd be well aware that I was in the wrong if I was driving with a belly full of booze, not to mention sucking on Tequila as I went
All of which makes me join the rest of the thinking world in thinking that Mel Gibson is a bloody disgrace and should be well and truly blackballed by the vapid Hollywood world which has lavished him in approbation for making violent blockbusters such as "Braveheart" and "The Passion of Christ". Will this happen? Probably not. Hollywood is all-forgiving because its craven values are based on fame and success and not on principles.

At least they have canned his Holocaust special. Obviously, the son of a Holocaust denier, a man who has demonstrated an overt loathing of the Jewish people and, 2000 years later, is accusing them of being Christ-killers, is just not the man for that job. Indeed, it is an impertinence that he ever considered depicting the subject. It is another impertinence that he now calls on Jews to counsel him.
But he has done us all a favour in his outburst. He has shown us who he really is.
And he has made us look at who we are, too. Hopefully, not a bit like Mel Gibson.