USA ’18 – Day 3 – Not so Fast not so Furious

Our drive along the 192 into the parks takes us past numerous eating establishments but at the very end there is a formal looking building with the words “Bob Evans” above the door. Initially I thought that it might be an estate agents or a realtor in the local parlance but a quick search identified it as a restaurant. I then made the mistake of suggesting to the rest of the occupants of the car that as it had Evans’ name above the door it must be a more up market restaurant. This was quickly shot down in flames as it was pointed out to me that if having your name above your eatery was a mark of good quality that would make Wendy’s, Denny’s and McDonalds all fine dining. They had a point so I quickly drove on. I’d like to say that nothing was said of it again but these things have a way of coming back to haunt you.

Today’s park was Universal which is actually two parks but they are so small (compared to Disney) and so close together that we consider them as one. Universal feels a lot more adult in its theme with rides based on the likes of Harry Potter (of which there are many), Transformers, Simpsons and Fast and Furious.

We made our way straight to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride for which the signs said there were 10 minute wait times. I can only assume that was the wait time to secure a locker because beyond that and the long walk to the ride itself there were no delays (as seen below). In keeping with many of the more recent rides in Universal this makes use of screens to display action as you are moved from scene to scene in some sort of cart. This is a lot more effective that I have made it sound here. The best example is probably the Transformers ride which seems very immersive.

Next stop was to Hogsmeade station where a trip on the Hogwarts express awaited us. This is what appears to be a real steam locomotive pulling four carriages. It is incredibly realistic. Once you are seated inside you really could be on your way to Platform 9 3/4 as the windows are replaced with TV screens projecting images of your journey including a number of iconic movie places and a very realistic run into London. It was very impressive. You step out onto Kings Cross station which too is very realistic.

That is not an accusation you could lay at Universal’s newest ride Fast & Furious — Supercharged. It had only been open a week and today was the official opening. Despite this, like the rest of the park, it was pretty quiet and we got on it easily albeit slowly. We all came off the ride saying the same thing – “is that it?” It was very short and pretty tame compared to the high octane films. I don’t think we’ll be rushing to go on it again.

Today was the first time ever (I think) that I have gone completely camera free on holiday. Instead all the pictures were taken with my phone and don’t seem to have suffered any for that. I did feel a little naked not carrying the camera round though and it is much easier to hold and use than a phone so I may yet still take it out with me.

For our evening meal we went to The Cheesecake Factory. I was feeling bloated from all the other meals we have had so I ordered off the skinnylicious menu where the salads were under 600 calories. What turned up was the biggest plate of salad I have ever seen and while it was delicious I could still only manager half of it!

USA ’18 – Day 2 – Kerching!

One of the things that irks me somewhat about coming to the parks in Florida is the price of the parking, in fact that they should charge for parking at all. That’s right parking isn’t included in the price! When we first came it was $5 a day and you got a really nice souvenir card to keep. Now the price has leapt up to $22 and all you get is a shitty paper receipt. Still we dutifully paid it like everyone else as we entered Magic Kingdom this morning.

With all other parks your journey to the gate is fairly straightforward. The car parking lot transport dumps you right there and just just need to walk right on in. Not at Magic Kingdom where you get dropped at the transportation centre where you have a choice of either getting the monorail or boat across the lagoon. We elected to take the boat as it is nice to see the park appear before you. Just before we were due to depart I noticed some people chucking money over the edge of the boat. Leaning over I could see that the pontoon was covered in coins that boat goers had thrown over. It seems that even when Disney aren’t asking for payment people still find a way to give more to the corporation!

Given that we have been coming to Disney since the boys were quite young we have a number of pictures of them in various places over the years. This year we thought that it would be nice to try and reproduce some of them and today was our first opportunity at the sword in the stone. Our initial problem was actually finding where it was. There was no guarantee of course that it would even still be there. However, we found a helpful guide who pointed us in the right direction and while the surroundings had changed a little it was basically exactly the same as when the first photo was taken 16 years ago.

I did wonder if the boys might be resistant to reproducing these pictures but to their credit they were both pretty amenable and the resulting shot is great.

We returned home early afternoon still suffering the effects of jet lag but having enjoyed our day in Magic Kingdom.

After a rest we went out in the evening to the family favourite Cracker Barrel which serves simple fare at cheap prices. I had, however, forgotten about how much choice there can be in a simple menu option. Helen had chosen something that allegedly came with scrambled eggs. In the UK if it says scrambled eggs you get scrambled eggs, no questions asked. Here it is like some complicated quiz to find out just how you want your eggs – who knew that there could be some many different options for the humble egg?

We went back home stuffed and jaded.

USA ’18 – Day 1 – Never Say Never Again

So, here we go again, for another spin around the Walt Disney World parks in Florida. Yes, yes, yes I know we said that last time was THE last time and that we said that the time before too but we just couldn’t resist. This really is the last time…

The flight was at a reasonable hour so we didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn or wake the boys prematurely which was a blessing. After a chicken free (for me at any rate) breakfast in Nandos the boys went to the Weatherspoons to get their blood/alcohol levels sorted before being shut in a metal tube for nine hours. Helen and I wandered the rather uninspiring shops that Gatwick South Terminal had to offer.

The plane pushed back right on time and it looked like we were going to get away nice and promptly. We hadn’t even started moving in a forwardly direction when it all came to a grinding halt. One of the passengers had fallen “ill” and we apparently needed to go back to the stand to let him off. Worst was yet to come because not only did we have to let off the passenger they also needed to wrestle around in the hold for his baggage, reaffirm all the baggage in the bins around where he had been sitting and refuel the plane. Wait, what? They need to refuel the plane after having travelled approximately 100 yards? Just how close do they run these things? In the end the wait time wasn’t too bad and we were finally off.

Unsurprisingly a flight to Orlando is full of families and lots of young children. These have never been any particular trouble and they roam freely during the flight. There are two exceptions to this – take off and landing when the plane is filled with the sounds of children being forcibly restrained against their wills. That is a long 20 minutes.

Forward nine hours and we arrived at Orlando and our first snaking queue of the holiday. Despite the multiple lines and volume of people it didn’t take too long to get through, which was a blessing as it is a stressful time stood there wondering if you are going to be allowed in.

We collected the car and made our way out into the sunshine of an overcast Florida and straight into our usual row. Take two tired, stressed individuals and put them in a car with vague navigation instructions and light blue touch paper. It happens everytime. Despite getting lost and having to drive through a $1 toll because it wouldn’t take notes only coins – you would have thought that given the numbers of tourists fresh off the plane on this route that they would make it easy but oh no – we made it to the villa unscathed.

There is a now long established tradition that the first evening half our party has Dominos Pizza while the other half Chinese and this year was no different. Then we all sit around full and tried trying to hold out as long as possible before going to bed.

Tomorrow it’s back to Magic Kingdom.

Marillion, Hexagon, 19th April 2018 – So Here I am Once More

It has been a while since the last time I saw Marillion live – 34 years to be precise. A lot has happened since then for both them and me. My last outing to see them was at the Apollo in Oxford when Fish was still the front man. He burst onto the stage through a large bit of white paper I seem to remember. These days he’s not quite so active and is more concerned with his potted plants and new greenhouse.

Support for the band was Roxanne de Bastion, a folky-poppy singer who arrived on stage on crutches wearing only what appeared to be a nightshirt, one red boot and a leg cast. It was an interesting ensemble!

Next up was something else that I hadn’t seen before. Someone, the tour manager, I guess came out and told us about how they weren’t one of those restrictive bands. They were happy for us to take pictures and post videos to YouTube but please don’t use your mobile because it blocks the view of the person behind. This seemed somewhat contradictory to me. If you spotted anyone taking pictures you’d know that they were, apparently, a “twat”. I guess that makes me a twat then, although I did wait until the second encore.

And finally, they were here, on stage in front of me.

They make for an interesting bunch of people. Out front is Steve Hogarth who was excitable and expressive (His movements during the songs reminded me of comedian David Armand’s interpretive dance routine to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”). He also had an odd line in musical instruments including a cricket bat, yes, a cricket bat which had been converted into some sort of keyboard. There was no indication why but I suspect that the answer might just have been because he could.

Hogarth was backed by the most studious bunch of musicians I have seen in a very long time. Lead guitarist Steve Rothery very much reminded me of my secondary school headmaster! They were also the most hi-tech band I’ve seen in a while too. The keyboard player was rocking a Mac Pro while I’m pretty certain that Rothery was connected to mission control and coordinating the latest Space-X launch between songs!

And the songs. Well they played a good selection of Hogarth era tunes including a several from the excellent latest record. They then came on for two encores during which Hogarth implored us to “Sit down. You’re too old to stand up” (he was right) before ending with Garden Party. Here’s to the next 34 years!

Chris Difford & Boo Hewerdine, The Forge, 6th April 2018 – Cars and Girls

Today we finally collected our new car after several false starts during which Hyundai proved that they were incapable of mounting an efficient delivery operation. There was a tedious hand over process that had to be sat through before we could finally get the keys though.

When we arrived we handed over the keys to our existing car, which was been offered in part exchange. The salesman went off and collected the keys for our new car and on returning opened his desk draw and put them in there. No doubt this was for safe keeping and to stop us running off with them and driving the vehicle that we had paid for before all the boring paperwork was completed. Whatever the reason Helen and I found it a bit odd that he couldn’t just leave them on the desk. We’re clearly not trustworthy looking!

As the salesperson was reading down the delivery sheet he realised that the car mats hadn’t been included. These weren’t any car mats, oh no, these were luxury mats for which we had paid an additional £60 (everytime I say that sentence, and I say it a lot, it always amazes me that the garage can be so miserly over a set of mats when you are spending tens of thousands on a car). Anyway, off he went to get a set. He appeared a few minutes later empty handed. He then made his way to the i30 show car from which he took the mats and walked out past us to our car waiting outside where he fitted them! Neither we nor he mentioned it! Our excuse was that by this point we just wanted to escape. It’s not clear what his excuse was.

Finally we were allowed to leave and drive away. Our first proper journey was down the lovely A33 to Basingstoke where we were going to be seeing Chris Difford & Boo Hewerdine, the former of Squeeze and the latter The Bible.

The duo were appearing at the Anvil not in the main auditorium, that was packed out with Jasper Carrot devotees, but in the Forge. The Forge is the musical equivalent to Harry Potter’s home at the Dursleys in that it is literally the space under the stairs. It is tiny, or “intimate” as Difford regularly referred to it, holding just under 100 people. The last gig we saw at the Forge was James Grant and it seems to suit this kind of music particularly well.

Hewerdine came on first, there is no backstage at the Forge so artists have to come in through the same door as the audience, and played a handful of songs. Hewerdine is a terrific songwriter and has a lovely dry self deprecating wit which he uses to great effect between beautiful acoustic renditions of his songs. In a way he very much reminds me of James Grant, both were in bands that were minor hits in the 80’s (The Bible and Love and Money) before going off to forge solo careers writing songs that tell a real story and are powerful emotionally.

After half a dozen songs Hewerdine was off and there was a short intermission before he was back to introduce Difford. However, rather than launching straight into a run through his extensive back catalogue they first off started with a Q&A between themselves. I got the feeling that this was more to warm up Difford, who seemed a little uneasy, than to provide value to the audience. One reason for Difford’s unease might have been that his brother was in the audience which may have been off putting.

When Difford came on he was armed with an iPad which he snapped into a stand in front of him. He never again touched it all evening but was clearly looking at it so either he was watching the telly or it was prompting him for words and stories. In some ways this was a bit odd as the structure of the evening was autobiographical and I’d imagine that he does the same stories every night. Whatever it was great to hear them and hear some classic Squeeze tracks played acoustically and hear his rock ‘n roll life.

That’s three members of Squeeze we have seen live now, I’m thinking that we should go and see Jools Holland so that we can tick off a couple more!

Steven Wilson, Royal Albert Hall, 29th March 2018 – The Sound of Muzak

This morning at 10am I was in front of my computer trying (in vain as it happened) to get tickets to see Snow Patrol in April. The tickets were going to be £70 and it was standing. Remember what I said about standing before? In the evening I was seated in the splendour of the Royal Albert Hall to see Steven Wilson for which I paid only £50. I’d never seen him live before and (spoiler alert!) he was tremendous.

The Royal Albert Hall is a great place and perfect for someone like Wilson. Not only does it look great but because it was designed for music the acoustics are fantastic and you get a good view no matter where you are. Contrast this to the awful Wembley arena where it sounds like you are in a bucket and the view is poor.

Normally you go to a show and you listen to the music and watch the band play but this was much more a multimedia experience. I’d read reviews of Porcupine Tree in the past and this sounds very similar. There was a giant screen behind the stage showing videos. Occasionally a net screen was drawn in front of the stage onto which things were projected, such as Ninet Tayeb (above) and dancers. On stage we were treated to Indian dancers dancers and the ever entertaining “Sir” Nicholas Beggs (for someone most associated with pop Beggs does like his prog regularly appearing with both Wilson and Steve Hackett).

Wilson covers a big range of styles moving quite effortlessly from pop through to heavy rock and a lot of prog. As last nights gig was being recorded for dvd there wasn’t a lot of talking between tracks so as to squeeze as many tracks in but there was one interesting section where Wilson stuck up for pop. This had come about because Wilson’s latest album, ‘To the bone’ is perhaps more accessible and, yes, poppy for some. Wilson made a spirited defence of pop and said the “best band ever is the beatles and second best is Abba. I’ve written a great pop song” and he has – Permanating (comes with a great video above). Last night’s rendition also included the dancers

WIlson said, towards the end of the set, that “I’m going to end with two miserable songs. One is miserable with a sing along chorus and the second one is just miserable!” He was right!

Who needs Snow Patrol?

What do you mean mats aren’t included?

Those of you that are reading this and know me will know that I like my cars fast and, like many others, like top end marques such as Jaguar, Aston Martin and Tesla.

Helen and I have long talked about what our next car would be to replace the hated Vauxhall Insignia and had our eye on a nice new BMW 1 Series. Yesterday we bought a Hyundai i30. How on earth did that happen?

Our current car, the aforementioned Vauxhall Insignia, we’ve had from new since 2009 and has been a pain from day one. We picked it up from a garage in Cambridgeshire and on the drive home there were problem with the electrics. Over the years there have been all sorts of issues with it including needing a brand new gearbox. We’ve spent a lot of money on that car and it hasn’t seemed very grateful.

Just recently there have been a spate of niggly issues with it (the coolant appears to be leaking away somewhere) and it has been in and out of the garage. So it was clear that its days were numbered and I wanted to avoid the issue we had with the previous car, a BMW 3 Series, where I came out to drive to work one morning and found that it had wet itself!

In an ideal world I would have been straight off the the local Tesla garage and ordered a fully loaded Model S or even that BMW 1 Series but financial realities took hold and so we found ourselves sat in the Hyundai showroom. We had pre-booked a test drive and they were obviously keen for us to attend having emailed, phoned AND texted to make sure we were going to be there.

I have to say that I like the look of the Hyundai but I had low expectations for the comfort and engine so I was pleasantly surprised when we took it out for a spin. It not only drove well but was comfortable too. Based on this we decided to commit. As an aside it seems that the time spent viewing (anything) is inversely proportional to the purchase price. I’m sure we spent more time contemplating our last fridge than we did this car!

One of the things that had drawn us into the Hyundai garage was a very generous amount on offer as part of a government backed scrappage scheme to take older, more polluting cars off the road. We knew that this would be £4,000 for our Vauxhall and the salesman almost immediately upped this to £5,000 or about £5,000 more than our car was actually worth! I did also consider asking if I could come and watch as my old car was crushed just to make sure nobody else had to suffer it.

Next came the difficult questions – what did we want from our car. We had a fairly modest list: not the 1 litre engine, had to be petrol, doesn’t need Sat Nav, shouldn’t be white, er, that’s about it. It seems that Hyundai have taken a leaf out of the Henry Ford playbook as we were told we could have any colour we wanted as long as it was white.  If we wanted a poncy name colour that would be an extra £600 – kerching! Oh and as for that 1.4 engine you can only get that with the third model up, the SE NAV, which, of course, comes with Sat Nav and a higher price tag – kerching!

Then there are the insurances, one of which was to protect the paint and upholstery. From behind his desk the salesman produced a large bag, similar to a pilots flight bag. From this he began to pull all sorts of cans and bottles like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat. He then explained that these could be used when polishing the car. Helen and I looked at each other and then back to him. “Polish the car?” we thought, “that’s not happening.” Maybe we could gift the bag and its contents to the nice Eastern European gentlemen at the local hand wash place at the shopping centre?

By this point we had been in the showroom for getting on for two and a half hours and I was frozen and if I heard diamond cut wheels one more time I was going to scream. Part of the problem was that our conversations with the salesman were punctuated by long breaks as he went off to check things. As it turned out this checking also seemed to include the score of the England v Ireland rugby match…

Decisions had been made and so the salesman took us through our purchase and the financial implications of it. “So you have the Hyundai i30 SE Nav in poncy name blue with 1.4 litre petrol engine, electric mirrors, bluetooth, DAB radio, Apple carplay, a wireless charging mat, rear parking sensors and rear parking camera (why both?). Oh and are you happy to pay £60 for the floor mats?” Excuse me? The floor mats aren’t included in the price but a sodding rear facing parking camera is? Ah you see these aren’t any sort of mats, oh no these are “luxury” floor mats! I am therefore expecting them to be stitched with gold thread.

The deed is done and it has to be delivered to us (well we have to collect it) before the end of the month to ensure that the scrappage applies. I just hope that this time we can make it home from the garage before a warning light comes on!

Hamilton, a Load of Rap

It seems that the lead times from ticket purchase to actually going to the event are getting longer and longer. We waited the best part of six months from booking to seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Yesterday, some 13 months after we booked the tickets, we got to see the musical that everyone is talking about! Yes, we finally got to see Hamilton.

Now those of you that know me will probably assume that this is a musical about the life of Stevenage’s best known export, F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton. However, you’d be wrong, this was about the rather lesser known (to me and, one suspects most others) Alexander Hamilton one of the American founding fathers. The musical has had rave reviews on Broadway and I was interested to see just how well it played in front of a UK audience.

The show is written by Lin-Manuel Miranda someone I knew only from his small role in the TV show House. In that he does some rapping and the style and feel was very similar to that used in Hamilton. I’m no great rap fan and I must admit that there were times when I wished that there were subtitles. That said there are other musical styles too such as the appearances by King George III which were probably my favourite bits.

Like every West End musical there was a terrific cast (who knew George Washington was black?), a superb set and I came away having learnt a lot more about the America founding fathers and Hamilton in particular. He didn’t strike me as a particularly likable person and get his comeuppance in the end.

What I found most particular was the audience though who I came to suspect must have been predominantly American. They let out a huge cheer when Washington was introduced and laughed heartily at the jokes about New Jersey which went over my head. But most weird was the cheering after every song as if it was the end of the show, along with the obligatory whooping and a hollerin. I started to wonder just how would they top this at the end? With an instant standing ovation of course! I’m not suggesting that the show wasn’t worth a standing ovation but it all felt a bit contrived to me.

So, to sum up, Hamilton is a superb musical with a great back story and the right balance between humour and history but it needs a better audience!

Szczecin 2018 – Day Two – Food Glorious Food

I think that there might be a risk that today’s post may well be more foodie than travelogue. My hosts are keen for me to sample everything Szczecin has to offer and so that is what I have to work with.

As I said yesterday the eating habits of the Poles, or at least those I visited, are very different to my own. With no lunch taken I was offered a “second breakfast”, again brought by my host for me, to try during the day. Firstly this consisted of a savoury wrap with vegetables and the inevitable gherkins. This was followed by a sweet pancake filled with a white substance that I couldn’t identify.

Late afternoon we took the tram back into the city. There’s something exotic about trams, even the ones in Birmingham, but when they are abroad they seem positively cosmopolitan. The trams in Szczecin are no exception and I greatly enjoyed get from place to place on them. Especially the old yellow Berlin trams which had a bit of character.

We visited Pierogarnia Kaszubska to sample another local delicacy, Kashubian dumplings which are potato based and stuffed with a variety of fillings but the tastiest were those with meat. They very much reminded me of the gyoza dumplings that you can get here. They came warm with an onion sauce and were very tasty.

The dumplings were warmer than the welcome we received. I’m told, as this passed me by not speaking the language, that the woman behind the counter didn’t want to take one order for the two of us but do us individually. This would have been challenging as despite the menu being in English she was not going to accept it in any language other than Polish. So two orders were duly placed and then I pissed her off a second time by having the cheek of paying with too large a note. Thing was she opened the till to reveal a mass of notes of all denominations so I suspect she was just being difficult!

Finally we went up what I am reliably informed is the highest building in Szczecin and the cafe at the top, Cafe 22. Twenty two stories is not really that high but it was the tallest building that I could see across the city by some considerable margin. By this point I think we were both full and so just restricted ourselves to tea.

So that’s my time done here and I flew out of the tiny airport which only has two international gates. Szczecin airport must be the only airport in the world named after a union as it is called Solidarity. Can you imagine the GMB Heathrow Airport? Nope me either. What is universal though is the grumpiness of the border guards. On the way in there is no welcoming “welcome to our country” smile and on the way out they don’t seem pleased that you are leaving either. There’s no pleasing some people.

I liked Szczecin but I’d have liked to have seen more of it in the light, so that’s a job for next time.

Szczecin 2018 – Day One – Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

All my previous travel posts have been documenting our adventures while we have been on holiday so this post is a little different as at the moment I am away on business.

Travelling for business doesn’t always make for the most interesting of trips. Often you are on the outskirts of town on some business park seeing only the inside of an office and a hotel room. However, on this flying visit to Szczecin in Poland I have managed to get out and about to sample the local architecture and cuisine.

I got up this morning to find that lovely great big flakes of snow were falling and settling. In the UK this event would have caused chaos but the plucky Poles were going about their business travelling to work, school or wherever without any problem whatsoever – it was a sight to behold. And so I was able to take the tram (bought secondhand from Berlin apparently) and get to my destination where I spent the day in the office.

It’s always interesting to see how countries not far from your own differ and the culture shock here is the Poles eating habits. I was told that they don’t do lunch in the same way that we do in the UK but something much more like grazing. So a big breakfast and a snack at 11, again at between 2 and 4, and then a meal in the evening. To be honest I do that AND have lunch at 12! So today lunch consisted of gherkin soup kindly provided by my host’s wife.

This evening we went to what was a up-market Spudulike where fillings included a very tasty grilled chicken and broccoli option which would have been very healthy were it not for the cheese sauce. More interesting was a visit afterwards to Bar “Pasztecik” to sample local delicacy Pasztecik szczeciński. This is a like a doughnut with a meat filling, served hot in a simple paper wrapping clearly designed to eat on the go. It wasn’t unpleasant but there was such a small amount of meat in it that really it just tasted like a doughnut! The place itself was interesting too as it clearly hasn’t changed much since it opened 50 years ago. There was a cash desk by the door where you paid. Running the length of the wall was a brightly coloured mosaic leading to a hatch at the back of the room to exchange your receipt for the goods.

Later I walk out from the hotel and did a loop around some of the sights of Szczecin. I had particularly wanted to see the Philharmonic Hall which is the building in the header picture. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen, it almost looks like a temporary structure. Some of the pictures I have seen of the hall the place was lit with coloured lights. Tonight it was only white but no less impressive.

I then walked down to the river and then back up to the Ducal Castle and then past one of the many churches here. I would have lingered longer but it was cold and by this time my hands, which had been out of my pockets taking pictures, were frozen.  I’m hoping tomorrow that I might also be able to see some of these place in the light.