Friday, August 21, 2009

California Day 9: Wal-Mart

With the plane leaving for Britain at 14:30, there was not much we could do on our final half-day in the US. After ensuring we were pretty much packed we headed to Wal-Mart to buy some bits and pieces for the folks back home. Then it was the long drive back to the car rental place at the airport to drop off our trusty Canyonero which had served us so well. We nearly got charged for the scratches that were on it despite the fact it was like that when we got it (and the diagram pointing it out had been marked wrong). We passed the security checks relatively quickly and after reading up on the history of the Pacific Baseball League from the display at the airport, we finished the holiday as we started it with some pizza and a couple of beers.

The flight back was relatively uneventful. I had hoped to watch a few films but only managed to watch the Start Trek one which was decent enough. I did manage to get some sleep though, which proved to be useful as although we arrived back just after midnight California time it was 10:30 in the morning when we arrived in the UK. My only explanation for the missing ten hours was that we were abducted by aliens. As everyone on the plane lost this amount of time as well, I can only conclude this is more common than many people think.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

California Day 8: The Beach

Our last full day in California was spent relaxing, firstly at the hotel recovering from the epic journey to Yosemite and then to Half Moon Bay, a nearby beach which also took us near the airport which would prove useful for the final journey home. The unfortunate thing about the beaches in California is they proved not to be suitable for swimming; this beach had unpredictable waves which made it dangerous, while our trip to Santa Cruz had a notice of potentially contaminated water. Not a patch on Barmouth...

The evening saw us go back to the Cheesecake Factory for a goodbye meal with out hosts. The restaurant was filled to the rafters so we had to wait for a table. As with Fuddrockers on Tuesday we got one of these fascinating gadgets which flashed and buzzed when our order or in this case our table was ready. The wait, however, allowed me to nip to the mall and buy some stuff from a rapidly dwindling amount of dollars. When we got back to the Cheesecake Factory I ordered the amazing Eggplant Sandwich which was not necessarily amazing, but was not bad.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

California Day 7: Yosemite

It would have been a crime to come so close to Yosemite National Park and not visit and day 7 was the day we set aside for the two/three hour drive. It was fortunate we had three drivers registered to use the car as it turned out we would need all of them. The journey was pretty interesting leading us to a variety of roads including country roads that we had not encountered in the US yet. At one point we had to stop at a railway crossing for 10 minutes while a very, very long goods train went past.

It cost $20 to enter Yosemite in a family car and this was the point I took over the driving. We headed to Curry Village where we briefly thought about renting a tent for the night before dismissing it and renting a boat to take out to the stream instead. It was literally a case of three men in a boat but the low water level and our combined weight meant we had to get out a couple of times to push it. We reached the other end an hour or so later and took a shuttle back to Curry Village where we stopped of for a quick snack at the Taco/ Burrito bar before climbing towards the first waterfall (Vernal) on the half-dome day hike.

The website says it is a walk of moderate to strenuous difficulty. I wish I had visited the website first as I would have been better prepared. I went up in black jeans, a t-shirt and trainers ("pub wear") with the temperature near 100 degrees Fahrenheit when everyone else was in hiking clothing. My friends were not much better prepared with one of them going up in in little more than plimsolls. It was far and away the most tiring thing I have ever done and there were times when I thought it might have been my final destination. I was absolutely cream-crackered when we got to the footbridge and that was only halfway there, although it was arguably the hardest bit because after that the steps started. Steps as high as my knee with pensioners and kids doing this. Going up was bad enough but I did worry how I was going to get back down (although actually it turned out to be a lot easier). Carrying a bag did not help and we had to share the burden which I think was fair because it contained our only water bottle that we supped from regularly. Our boy in plimsolls nearly slipped on a few occasion on the descent but managed to keep his balance, unlike the lady we saw on the way up who had large cuts at her knees after what must have been a particularly bad fall. The top of the waterfall was impressive though and I would not mind attempting the full trek to the top of half-dome in better shape with the proper gear. Maybe the ascent turned me mad.

When we got back down we decided we had enough time to see the giant sequoia at the other end of the park. It took us an hour to drive there and by the time we made the walk the sun had set and none of the photos I took came out. It was pretty scary walking through that part of Yosemite in the dark in the knowledge that there were bears about. An hour there meant it was an hour to drive back, and we had to fill up at a self-service petrol station we passed in the park. We got back to the Valley and managed to catch a glimpse of the nutters ascending El Capitan at night, who spent the time in the dark hanging off the edge of a cliff shining torches at each other. After two hours driving I had to finally give up the wheel to member one of team Le Mans and fell asleep for the other three hours back. We reached home at nearly two which perhaps meant we would have been justified in staying over.

Yosemite is an amazing place which quite literally will take your breath away. I might have a convenient excuse that I live too far away to justify going back and completing the half dome trail. One would have to be incredibly fit to do it, but Yosemite will inspire you to give it a try.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

California Day 6: Mount Diablo

Time to take our 4X4 up some rugged terrain: we spent the morning driving to the top of the tallest local mountain, Mount Diablo which may have initially been a mistranslation of thicket! The views from the top were indeed impressive and with binoculars one could see San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. We had to pay $7 to take the car to the top of the mountain, but the price does not allow you to take home any momentos from the state park as we found out when we were prevented from taking some cones as big as coconuts back in our car.

The afternoon was spent lazing about the pool back at the hotel before going out in the evening to a burger place near to where we went on the first night. Fuddrockers is a bit like McDonalds but different; the burger comes in a cob, the fries are wedges, and the smallest size is a third of a pound (as compared to a quarter pounder in a British MD). You can put the salad and ketchup on yourself. After this meal fit for a king (or kings), we went to an electrical store that I was prevented from going into on the first day due to a cotton candy gummi bear ice cream problem. I had not missed much as it reminded me of Curry's digital on Highgate Middleway although it probably did have a wider variety of goods including DVDs, Games and musical instruments.

We planned to move on to some Go-Karting later on but ended up playing another round of mini-golf.

Monday, August 17, 2009

California Day 5: San Jose

We were back on the BART on the morning of day 5 to get to San Francisco Airport in order to pick up the car we had rented.  Once at the station we managed to quickly get on the Sky Train, which connects the various terminals at the airport with the car hire place.  When we finally got past the queue and the bureaucracy we found a red Ford Escape waiting for us in the carpark.  Working out how to drive the thing was interesting; obviously US cars are all automatic and do not really have a handbrake, and we found the brakes on this car were quite shall we say responsive.  We headed over to San Jose which is on the way to Pleasanton, where we were staying.  

San Jose lives in the shadow of the much more famous San Francisco, but is actually a city with a bigger population (just smaller than the size of Birmingham).  The problem is there is not much to attract tourists.  There are a lot of Art galleries and museums, and we amused ourselves in the shop for the Tech Museum of Innovation for a bit before walking around downtown San Jose.  It was absolutely dead but very clean, and the parking only cost us $7 for the whole day.  We ate some sandwiches/ paninis in a European-style cafe in the city centre and walked back through the Plaza de Cesar Chavez past some undesirables who had not been there when the mounted police had rode through earlier. I was amused to see a bus to Alum Rock.

After driving home we relaxed back at the pool in the hotel while waiting for our friend to get back from work.  After a quick drink at the hotel, we set off out again this time to an American Mall which I will describe as a slightly posher version of the Bull Ring.  We decided to go back to the Alehouse after and because I had managed to catch a cold at the beach on Saturday I volunteered to be the designated driver.  This meant I got behind the wheel of the behemoth that was the Ford Escape for the first time.  I found it quite easy to drive, not having to worry about the gears and with wide roads and no overtaking lanes, it proved relatively easy.  I managed to get to the Alehouse and back without killing anyone, so overall it was a successful day.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

California Day 4: Biking the Bridge

Day 4 took us back into San Francisco to do the very touristy thing of biking the Golden Gate Bridge. Having struggled to make it out of the car park, we spent some time at Lori's Diner to eat fries and milkshake (not a good combination). We ended up at Blazing Saddles to rent some bikes, where I found out riding a bike is harder than it looks. I ended up on a tandem with a more experienced cyclist - what fun we had (although not as much as the group who had rented the three person cycle)! We cycled across the bridge up to Sausalito where we had a short snack (a cheeseboard) before catching the ferry back to San Francisco. Unfortunately, due to the size of the queue of cyclists trying to get on it, we were unable to get on the ferry that took us back to the place we rented the cycles from and ended up taking one to the ferry terminal which was allegedly five minutes down the road. I'm not sure how you were supposed to get there in five minutes but it certainly was not by bike. The ferry did, however, give us some impressive views of the city and Alcatraz island.

In the evening we ended up having dinner at the Cheesecake Factory because everywhere else was closed. The Cheesecake Factory offers a lot of dishes, but surprisingly for the amount of choice, I struggled to find anything I wanted on the menu before I settled for a spaghetti bolognese. The portions here were huge (they offer you a box to take home anything you have not eaten) and we received some typically brilliant American service from the waiter. A couple of people braved the cheesecake for pudding despite the large portions, although I do not believe we were able to finish these off between us. We got home a bit early anticipating an early start, as we had to pick up the 4x4 we had rented on the Internet from San Francisco Airport in the morning.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

California Day 3: Santa Cruz Beach

Day 3 saw us waste the morning attempting to hire a bigger car but we came to the conclusion that there was not anything suitable available in the car hire places we went to and that in any case we probably would not need one until Monday when our current driver was back at work. For the afternoon, we drove to Santa Cruz beach but struggled to find parking. Three of us left the our two friends to find somewhere to park and had a walk round what could only be described as the the US version of Blackpool - and to be honest, it was not that much better. We managed to buy the equivalent of a cornetto from a local shop which was far bigger than any similar ice-cream I had ever purchased from a fridge in Britain, and a beer from a local bar which seem to be in short supply in the US. While at the bar, we heard that our friends had managed to park on the pier and were waiting to meet us. I managed to buy a genuine American hotdog on the pier and thought I was being ripped off until I realised that US prices do not include the dreaded sales tax.  Underneath the pier we saw some sea lions:

After a brief walk/ rest on the beach we decided to move to a quieter location. We found a small cove just past a railway track further down the coast which we stayed at until sunset.

We drove back along the coast and in the evening went out and, having heard of our problems trying to find a bar earlier in the day, were driven to the local alehouse near our hotel for the first time. I had a rather hot chilli dish with sourbread and sampled a couple of what would I guess be described as real ales in Britain. Of all the things we missed from Britain in the US, I guess it was the local watering hole which left the biggest gap.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Califonia Day 2: San Francisco and Baseball

Prior to the beginning of our holiday, my friends who were already in California had booked tickets for the baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies for the evening of 31st July. It was therefore an easy decision to spend our first full day in San Francisco prior to the match in the evening. Our driver had taken the car to work, so we got to San Francisco using the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) which runs for part of the route along the centre of the highway. One frustration was that the ticket machine only gives change up to $4.95, but I later found out that there was a change machine behind the ticket machine. Doh!

We got off at Powell Street and decided to take the San Francisco Cable Car to Fishermans Wharf. The Cable Car is like an old-fashioned tram that can get up and down the roads on the steep hills that are part of San Francisco (the film Bullitt is set in the city). The queue was incredibly long and a couple of us left it to buy a day ticket from the local booth (which quaintly, uses a scratch-card style system to choose the date one is travelling on, similar to the West Midlands daytripper cards for buses and trains back in the 80's). The ticket also allowed travellers to use other Muni transport in San Francisco. Back in the queue, we were harrassed by beggars and buskers which did not make for a great first impression of the city. When we finally got onto the Cable Car, it was rather overcrowded. For the first (and possibly only) time in my life, I got off at Fishermans Wharf with an appreciation for Travel West Midlands.

We wandered around Fishermans Wharf where I caught my first glimpse of Alcatraz and Clam Chowder in a bread bowl (although the latter really is an East Coast dish). For some reason, we finally settled for pizza for the third time in three meals. We spent some time walking around San Francisco, including the Ghirardelli shop in the square and an interesting street on a hill with a rather winding road that I am sure people were driving down just for the sake of it.

We got back on the cable car (past a non-threatening busker that looked like Michael Moore with a showman bunny sidekick) and ended up walking through the San Francisco business district, where a bunch of cyclists suddenly seemed to be cycling through the city. We unsuccessfully tried to get on the bus N or P to get the the AT&T park where the Giants play, before realising it was actually an old-fashioned (or should I say new-fashioned) tram and getting on it halfway towards our destination, not before we had walked past the Bay Bridge, however, an impressive bridge in its own right taht holds its own against the more famous Golden Gate bridge.

We managed to get to the AT&T park in time and quickly worked out that an innings is over when three people are out. Baseball is a strange game, and my prior belief that it was rounders for girls was only tempered by the fact I have seen how much more competitive the girls at the school I work for play.

Baseball is an intriguing game, but surprisingly for a US sport I have to say that I don't think it is as exciting as the British version, cricket. Many people believe soccer will never be big in the US because the yanks will never see the excitement of a nil-nil draw (and to be honest, neither do I). However, Baseball scores are more similar to football than to cricket, which is much more high-scoring. I think culturally, baseball is too embedded in the American psyche to be under an real threat from cricket, in particular, Twenty20 and the Indian Premier League which I can see one day turning into a true world series with clubs participating from all over the world. The Test-loving purists will hate it, but I think it would be great to see cricket competing commercially with its sister American sport. With India's ascent to superpower status and with its burgeoning population, surely this is only a matter of time?

For the record, the Giants lost 5-1 in the only game they lost in this mini-series to the Phillies. The Giants have never won the World Series since the franchise moved to San Francisco. Will the Birmingham City of baseball be lucky enough to win it this year? On the current evidence it is unlikely - but then again, what would I know?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

California Day 1: Arrival

Thursday July 30th 2009 turned out to be the longest day of my life, quite literally.  After taking the tube from where I had been staying to Heathrow, we managed to check-in on time (save some minor passport trouble) for the 10 hour Virgin Atlantic flight to San Francisco.  We set off around 11:30 BST and arrived around 14:30 local time at the other end.  I mentioned the in-flight entertainment in my previous post so I will not bore you by repeating it here.  Once we got to US immigration, we were asked the standard questions and had to give the relevant fingerprints on the electronic reader (NB: They want four fingers, not your forefinger).  We were picked up from the airport and driven to our hotel/ apartment where we stayed briefly before going out to dinner.  We ended up going to a pizza place in the evening and I had a bottle of Samuel Adams to go with it.  One of my friends had warned me that we would not be served by anyone with an American accent, and while this was true in the pizza place (with the obligatory ID check for the beer which I passed with my British driving license), it was not true at the Ice Cream parlour where I was given some traditional, polite American service by an American (How you guys doing today?).  I like to try things I would not normally get at home while on holiday, and I think I blended in well asking for blue Cotton Candy flavoured ice-cream topped with Gummi Bears (although I did chose the small portion which might have revealed my foreign origins).  Gummi Bears proved to be a rather time-consuming topping, so I did not manage to take full advantage of the visit to the shops nearby.  We ended the day with a round of mini-golf before heading home.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Trip to California

Two weeks ago, I set off for an overnight trip to London to stay at some friends' place before   flying from Heathrow on a trip to California the next day.  Over the next week or so, I hope to recount the experiences of my first trip to the USA and specifically to its most populous state.

One of the regular topics on this blog is the overcentralisation of the country in the capital and Heathrow, in particular the decision to build a third runway, has been criticised previously. There were no direct flights from Britain's sixth busiest airport direct to San Francisco, and the indirect flights were as expensive as the direct flights from Heathrow.  As such, I was forced to use the busiest international airport in the world despite my disdain for it (although I was also travelling with some friends who were based in London).  Even more worrying, originally it looked like we would be flying by BA from a BAA airport; a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.  However, our incompetence meant that we missed the cheaper BA flight and ended up flying Virgin Atlantic - a blessing in disguise in my opinion.  While BA epitomises the third-rate Thatcherite-Blairite capitalism of privatisation of a publicly-owned service to monopolist profiteers who run it down to the point that it is now a dodgy pension fund which does a bit of flying on the side, Virgin Atlantic represents capitalism at its best; entrepreneurs building a business from scratch and delivering a decent product to attract the masses.  Let me say, the flight did not disappoint either; having not flown long-haul since the early 90's, I was amazed at the choice of food and entertainment, over 60 movies and numerous tv shows, numerous games that can be played some against other passengers and even a phone, e-mail and text-message service from the flight (the latter for a premium of course). Discussions with my friends who are temporarily staying in California seemed to confirm that Virgin was indeed better than BA in this respect.

However, flying from Heathrow still left me with the problem of getting to London for a mid-morning flight, which being a weekday could have proved rather expensive had the friends I was flying with not generously offered to let me stay over at theirs.  This left me with the option of getting to London by train either pre-booking via Virgin trains for £7 each way, or using the £19.50 super off-peak with Chiltern railways. Unfortunately, Virgin trains tend to be closer to BA than Virgin Atlantic, and the risk that I would miss the train back to Brum by flight cancellations meant I was prepared to pay more for the slower but more flexible ticket by Chiltern trains, which has the added advantage of leaving via the far superior Birmingham Moor Street Station rather than the overcrowded concrete mass that is Birmingham New Street.  The Chiltern line is really two local services; a local service from Birmingham Snow Hill to Leamington Spa, and one from Bicester to London Marylebone.  Hence the train left packed and pretty much emptied by Bicester, only to fill up again the closer we got to London.  We seemed to stop at a ridiculous amount of stations (I think it was 27) meaning the entire journey took 2 hours 14 minutes instead of the 1 hour 24 it would take from New Street to Euston. Once in London, I had to face the tube.

Life would be a lot simpler for the majority of the country if we used the extra capacity at regional airports rather than putting all our eggs in the baskets of London airports and in particular, London Heathrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bobby Robson 1933-2009

Sir Bobby Robson was the first England football manager I remember, starting with his ill-fated campaign to win the 1986 World Cup (failing to qualify for the 1984 European Championships was before my time).  England were on the verge of being knocked-out after a loss to Potugal and a draw with Morocco before a Gary Lineker hat-trick defeated Poland 3-0 in the final group game.  An identical scoreline defeated Paraguay in the second round, with another two goals by Mr Lineker which would take him 5/6ths of the way towards the Golden Boot he won that year.   An infamous quarter-final against Argentina, the first match between the two sides since the Falklands war, saw a moment of genius and a moment of disgrace by Diego Maradona send England home; Argentina went on to lift the trophy for the second time.

In 1988 an equally disastrous start saw England fail to recover from defeats to Ireland, Holland and the USSR to go out in the group stage.  Bobby Robson was continually villified by the national press, which continued into the 1990 World Cup where another slow start saw draws against Ireland and Holland.  Mark Wright scored to beat Egypt in the final group game 1-0 and England topped the group.  They went on to beat Belgium (in the last minute of extra-time!) thanks to a David Platt goal, and Cameroon in the quarter-finals after two Gary Lineker penalties.  This took England to the first (and only) World Cup Semi-Final since 1966, in which the Germans broke English hearts by winning the penalty shoot-out after Gary Lineker cancelled out a freak free-kick which went in after being deflected off Paul Parker.  For the second time, Robson's England had been knocked out of the World Cup by the eventual winners.

Normally the national job is the pinnacle of a managers career but if anything Bobby Robson went on to greater things while the national team seemed to go the other way.  PSV, Sporting, Porto, Barcelona and Newcastle awaited Robson in his twilight years, with success being achieved at each club.  His translator at Sporting, a certain Jose Mourinho, went on to become assistant manager with him at Porto and Barcelona, and has turned out to be a half-decent manager himself.  Newcastle would probably give a lot for him to be back as manager.

What I will always remember Robson for, however, was how he conducted himself with the utmost grace and integrity in the space of some vicious attacks from the national press (a situation which only got worse for his successor Graham "the Turnip" Taylor).  Despite, post-86, qualifying for every international tournament he could have, and getting us to our best result in a World Cup on foreign soil in 1990, my impression is he was never truly appreciated by the "experts" writing the football columns in the national press.  These same experts villified him at the beginning of the 1990 World Cup before claiming, with Paul Gascoigne maturing a little in four years time, England would have a great chance of winning the tournament outright in 1994.  Of course, England never qualified for the World Cup in 1994, and Paul Gascoigne never played in a World Cup again.  His biggest problem was that he was not Brian Clough.  Everyone thought Old Big Ead should have been the manager when Robson was appointed.  As such, the gutlessness of the FA overshadowed what Robson achieved for the England national team, which, save a dodgy World Cup win in 1966, was probably more than any other manager of the three lions could claim to have achieved.