USA 2004

For too long I have been in need of a good break. Life at home has become really stressful and my brain is in rebellion over it. Month after month, year after year I put off taking a real break but I am at that point where I cannot wait any longer.

I had a few choices open to me but eventually settled on three weeks in the States staying with friends in Georgia and having a week totally on my own in Florida.

It is difficult to convey how stressful my life is, there are so many factors that add up to one hugely overpowering situation and I am hoping this break will do me some good, not least, make others think about what life may be like without me around and hopefully, teach me that I get too involved, take too much control and maybe create much of my own stresses.

November 2004 was the date I chose for this break and managed to get it all arranged in a little over a week, I impressed even me. My friend Robin picked me up from home and drove me to the airport and an ungodly hour and from then on, I was on my own. Time to see how well I coped with just me to think about.

I am always organised and in control, in fact, it becomes so predictable that I worry in hope that maybe I could possibly make a mistake so, I was actually quite happy when upon my arrival at the south terminal I discovered I should have been at the north terminal … I guess that is a lesson to me in reading documentation rather than making assumptions as to what I should be doing. On the plus side, I did get to have a go on the Gatwick transportation system and I am a sucker for a free ride.

I hate e-tickets, there is nothing in my hand, I am just turning up and hoping someone has a computer that knows who I am and allows me to have what I have paid for. This method has never been a problem for me but I am used to paper, it is real, it can be read over and over, details checked and double checked and it is difficult to argue with a document printed on that company’s letterhead paper that says they owe me something.

I digress, at the Delta Airlines check in I joined a huge queue, one of those queues that is bad to start off with and can only get worse because it no doubt contains someone that booked an economy class ticket but really wants to go business but they don’t want to pay for it. If they can’t go business, they want to have a spare seat next to them because they have a sick relative that needs space, true, that sick relative is currently in Bournemouth but they try it on anyway. Once their demands have been rejected in as polite a way as it is still possible to do when the check-in staff really wants to be resorting to violence at this point, our favourite customer produced carry on luggage that would suffice as checked luggage for most people. Somehow, the fact that this one item is not going to fit into an overhead locker or that the locker could carry the weight even assuming that anyone was foolish enough to lift it that high, this most valued of clients will insist that they have always carried this bag with them, it has never been a problem before. Meanwhile, I am stood, along with many fellow suffering passengers, waiting in that queue slowly crossing off what I will now no longer have time to do once I get flight side in the terminal. With my heart sinking with thoughts of my very unhealthy cooked breakfast going, my shopping trip, my chance to slip into something more comfortable … my knight in shining armour appears in the form of a man from security wanting to take a look in my bag. This is not the bad thing that many travellers dread, no, this is salvation. After a short and not unpleasant chat about the various contents of my checked luggage, I was directed to the business class check in to have my bag checked immediately. As I was there being treated as a superior species the glares from those passengers, who only moments before had been sneering at me being picked out as a security risk, grew increasingly severe. I, of course, found it difficult to constrain a smug smile as I whisked past them on my way to my breakfast, a dream that they were quickly losing!

Whilst sitting there eating my breakfast, I noted that it was still only 08:20 which meant I had a good 1:30 before I need to head for gate 49 (apparently a 15 minute walk, these walks are clearly timed by senior citizens who have just missed the airport buggy service) Anyway, I looked at my mobile phone, I always use that as my time piece as I dislike wearing a watch, it dawned on me that I was about to come unstuck when I entered a zone where for some 11 hours I was not going to be able to have my cell phone turned on! My first major expense of the trip was to buy myself a new watch; I still don’t like wearing them.

I did some filming, all ready for the home movie I would make on my return. I filmed all the way up to the terminal where I had apparently become a security threat and was asked to stop filming. Now, it defies logic to me why it would be that a person could get this far filming all the way yet be stopped from filming just before entering an aircraft, surely by this time the damage would be done and all the footage required by a terrorist would already have been captured. What makes this even more ridiculous is that there is a regular programme on television which takes us behind the scenes of an airport, in fact, this airport so we get to see inside the terminal, right up to the gate and beyond. Clearly, I have missed the bit on the start of that show which tells all terrorists to switch off now in the interests of national security.

I filmed the aircraft expecting to see a Boeing triple 7 but this looked like, and, in fact, turned out to be a 767. Not a terrible bird but I was looking forward to the new experience of the larger aircraft. I soon found seat 41C and after a while, my seating companions, Mr & Mrs Rosen arrived. They were typically Jewish. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jewish people, they are full of drama, everything has to be a statement with them. The Jewish people are among the few in the world that can both create and solve a crisis in the same sentence. However, Mr & Mrs Rosen were Jewish with interest. They said they had flown a lot before yet somehow gave me the impression that they had never done this in an aircraft!

“Abe, where is row 41? Is this row 41? I can’t see it, is this the row? How is someone supposed to know these things already? Why do they make it so difficult, it is only a plane, why can’t they make it simple so anyone can see”

“Sadie, enough already, these are our seats, are these are our seats? Where does it say they are our seats, these are our seats.”

This continued throughout the flight … “How are we supposed to hear the movie, do we use these headphones, yes, we use these, how do we know we are supposed to use these, ask someone Abe”

It was actually a fun distraction, anything that can make a 9 hour fight pass quickly, with a few exceptions, has to be good. A good example of an exception to a healthy distraction may be the captain saying something like … “Ladies and Gentleman, we apologise for the slight turbulence you are experiencing, this is due to a wheel falling off on take off”.

There was a map on screen showing our current position in the world. At 11:40 I noted we were flying over our home town of Northampton. This brought a lump to my throat thinking of the people I loved down there doing their daily lives oblivious to the fact that, at that time, I was in that plane overhead.

Soon into the flight an attendant came round for drinks orders, Luckily, I only wanted a diet Coke, it appears that soft drinks were free and anything else had a price tag fitting of any city centre bar. To make matters worse, they used an exchange rate the likes of wish the USA could only dream of. Currently, according to Delta, it is around 1.33 Dollars to the UK Pound. Amazing considering the real rate is closer to 1.85 at the moment. They were not only making a huge profit by overpricing drinks but also on fleecing those travellers using sterling. This pricing policy may have improved had passengers been able to see the prices in the In-Flight magazine, sadly, this aircraft had been rapidly prepared after a late landing and they had not gotten around to replacing such things as the magazines. They also didn’t check things like the in-flight entertainment was working. Mine wasn’t. I had to hold the plug for the headphones the whole time to hear what was being shown on the screen. Strangely, I was able to clearly hear the totally awful music channels they had. To make matters worse, the headphones are not designed for those of us that wear top of the ear hearing aids. There is no way to position them right so that the audio can be received. The only alternative is to remove the aids and yank the volume up high or to bring my own headphones. Because of all the messing about with the headphone, I had to give up on the first movie which was ‘The Notebook’ though; it didn’t look like my kind of movie. I got to see ‘Spiderman 2’ which was my second time of viewing. It made me blubber a little (again) which I hid well and, on the plus side, it rehydrated my contact lenses for me!

I do wish they didn’t provide pretzels and peanuts on flights, this just means I need to drink more and need to use the loo more. Thankfully, both are free, but the least I have to think of filling up and emptying out on a long flight the better. One tip I now know is that drinking on an aircraft is very important. A person becomes dehydrated in all that artificial air for so long.

Moving ever closer, we are now at 35000 feet travelling at a speed of 520mph and now flying somewhere over Halifax or, more accurately, just past Goose Bay in the Gulf of St Lawrence. This, for those that do not know, is Canada … I confess to being a little confused at seeing Sydney on the map but then remembered back to the couple that booked their honeymoon in Sydney amazed at the bargain price they got only to discover themselves in Canada and not Australia.

My head is staring to spin, not with the height or the speed but from the amount of caffeine I am drinking, perhaps time to get onto some serious water drinking. I am trying to work out the time difference and whether it is best to work on UK or US time on the flight. Logic says I have left the UK so that is in the past; I therefore need to switch to US time. Problem with that one is that it means I have not that long ago been fed lunch for breakfast and dear Mrs Rosen has had a glass of wine before noon which she tells me, she never does. I need to stay awake for some time so I need to make a decision and decide that US time it is. Besides, UK time would have now at 17:05 and I would need to be thinking of sleep some time in the next 5 hours. However, if I switch to US time, it is only 12:05 and I have plenty of time to do whatever I want to do. Time zones are wonderful things (except flying west to east where they are quite horrible)

Now, in-flight aerobics, I understand why but does it have to look so dumb? I am watching people all over the plane wiggling feet, standing and stretching, pulling weird faces … I swear there was a man in row 12 doing some primal screams. Would any of these people do anything that made them look so stupid in any other circumstances? The guy outside the toilet right now is making the weirdest of faces and I am not entirely sure this is part of his exercise plan or whether he is desperate for the loo.

I just watch a programme on the flight screen. It was a documentary about the history of the United States. At first, I thought that was a joke because as anyone knows, they don’t have any not compared to those of us raised in the UK. However, it quickly transpired that it was about the original inhabitants of the land, the Native Americans. It got me to thinking, how do modern day Americans feel about such programmes showing them what they destroyed in order that they may have the lives they have now? The same would apply to Australia though, it is perhaps the British that should feel any guilt about that as we ignored the natives and exported our scum there.

The plane finally landed at 15:35 (EST) but not without incident. Our pilot clearly misjudged his approach and we came in too fast. We hit the runway and the air brakes were hit immediately. The plane lurched from left to right like a roller coaster ride whilst the pilot attempted to compensate. I recall thinking “Oh my, this is interesting” (or words to that effect). This was not my only experience of the nature of flight problems at Atlanta. A week or so later I watched as an aircraft on final approach had to abort his landing and go around again only feet from the runway, heaven knows how those passengers must have felt.

I was now into the wonders of the US immigration service. There was a guy in front of me; his intelligence has to be brought into question. After all, he had all he right paperwork, he was a European citizen and, as such, could enter the US without a visa but rather than just hand everything over to the immigration officer, no, he hands him his passport which he happens to have stored a large amount of Dollars in. He got the inevitable reaction and the immigration officer immediately stood up and insisted the money was removed right now and gestured over to additional security. This situation was saved by a fellow European; I won’t mention they were Italian so as not to accuse all Italians of being stupid like this, I am sure it was a one off. This other guy explained to him his ‘error’ and he was moved along. It came to my turn and, by now; I had already become aware that travelling alone brings instant suspicion. He wanted to know where I was born, when I was born, where I was going to stay in the US, who with, how long I had known them, where I met them, how much money I had on me, what credit cards I had, in fact, he asked about every dumb question he could think of asking, questions I am sure any illegal would have already got answers for, hardly fool proof. I was allowed in after having my picture taken and my prints too, I was expecting to get an orange boiler suit too and some shackles like I have seen on TV. From here, on to customs that didn’t seem to care a jot what I had in my bags just as long as I said there was nothing in there, they seemed happy to wave me through. That was when I lost my checked luggage again. It worries me that I have to get a train before I can be reunited with it again so I walked instead. Of course, I am not familiar with Atlanta airport and was unaware just how far it was from the gates to the south terminal. After so many hours sitting down my legs had some serious objections to suddenly having blood forced through them. I walked from concourse ‘E’ down to ‘A’ and then there were some escalators, I assumed, up to baggage reclaim. Apparently, not so, this actually brought me to the wrong side of security. I was going up, everyone else was going down, this should have told me something. A nice but confused security man told me “Sir, why did you get off the train here? You know, you really should have stayed on it until the last stop, baggage reclaim”. I decided to thank him for his words of wisdom whilst carefully avoiding saying “Thanks for stating the bloody obvious”.

Daniel was waiting for me at the top of the escalators which was a pleasant site, nothing worse that go through a long flight, rigorous testing by security and then find there is nowhere to go. No one waiting for me to whisk me off would have been most disheartening. Having someone to help with my ageing and falling apart luggage was certainly helpful too.

This is only my second trip to the US. The first being two years previously to Orlando where I have to say, I found it American but not how I expected. It was really way too similar to the UK for my liking. Atlanta was different. It was how I expected the US to be, the skyscrapers, the picket fences, the mail boxes, school buses, super size trucks, the sort of streets that Freddie Kruger would feel at home on, this was America. It has to be said though, Atlanta is one busy airport and the highway, for my liking, is way too close to the runway. I really don’t need to be able to wave to passengers of aircraft whilst I am a passenger in a car.

Staying here, in Atlanta and Augusta, I am also able to spend time with the locals, the folks that have lived out here for years, generations in fact. I class these people as my friends yet; somehow, it is still strange to me that they should all speak with this Southern American accent. It is nice yet weird. Me an east London boy born and bred having friends from other continents, something I would not have imagined in my wildest dreams when I was growing up. Of course, I was in town so it had to rain and boy, did it rain! True, it was warm rain but this was not forecast. I was promised unbroken sunshine, high temperatures and general wonderment in comparison to the cool, damp conditions I had left in the UK.

It was great to meet Dan again and also, Mary-Ann for the first time. This was somewhat unreal to be suddenly thrust into normal life again after so long alone travelling and slightly disorientating but a very warm, loving feel. My first meal in Georgia was at the Barbecue Kitchen. A basic diner dating back to the late 60’s serving lovely moist meat and side dishes in College Park near to where Mary-Ann lives. We passed one of the Steak and Ale restaurants too which try very hard to look Elizabethan yet fail miserably and manage, instead, to make themselves look like cheap theme park eateries. It has to be said though, the food at Steak and Ale is excellent and we had some toward the end of my stay.

After our sumptuous fare in Atlanta, we headed off to Augusta and the Summers’ house. I may talk more about that later.

Today is Election Day USA. It is everywhere, I swear even Sesame Street had an election special. I was watching one programme that was interrupted to tell us that it is still too close to call in Ohio but that Kerry is unlikely to win even if he wins there, the best that could happen there is that Bush would be confirmed as the winner … but it was too close to call at this time so back to our programming! I can’t say that any election ever really excited me. After all, once I have voted, I have done everything I can do to influence the outcome. A change in the leadership is not going to change anything overnight so I just as well get some sleep and wake up refreshed to the final outcome … unless I live in the USA where final outcome to presidential elections these days seems to be decided by the lawyers and the judges and can take weeks.

As a break from the election, Daniel and I visited Wal-Mart. It was nice to see something different yet, somehow familiar as I had visited their stores on my last visit to the US. It was also weird to see just how big Halloween is here in the US. Back home they are all set for Christmas, this is November after all, but over here, barely a sign that Christmas is going to happen next month. I am told that this little oversight is always corrected immediately after Thanksgiving. It was obvious to me by now that I really ought to be in bed. It had been some 23 hours since I arose from my bed in the UK and my body was dropping not very subtle hints about how I needed this sleep. I really don’t recall much after arriving back at 512 Waterford Drive.

OK, it is really fair to say this as it was so relevant to my trip. The Summers have some problems with their house. It has a major infestation of fleas, I assume from previous and current pets. They are abundant indeed, and me wearing shorts is not a good idea so despite the temperature outside of over 26°C I am wearing my jeans. Speaking of the temperature outside, in here, it is so cold I may need to soon put something on; I guess this is the peril of air conditioning. I guess, after staying up real late to watch the election, it should not shock me that at 10:51 everyone appears to still be in bed. I, on the other hand, have been up since 7:40 this morning. Considering that would be 12:40 in the afternoon back home, I think I did quite well. Hopefully, I will settle to the new timings and sleep a little later tomorrow.

I still have to meet Don and Tacoma, his boyfriend. They were about last night but we kept passing each other all over. They were up and about this morning too, playing the guitar it seems, I have never been real good at meeting new people for the first time in their kitchen in the morning so I shall await further movement before venturing that way.

Today I met Don and Ty. Don is a little weird, not in a bad way, just in a ‘different’ way. Once I got over the shock of the three lower lip piercings and the blond hair, he was actually just a lot like most other younger guys back home in the UK. He offered me a iced tea drink he had just made and then added what sounded to me like… “Are you allergic to men?” What he actually said was: “Are you allergic to mint?” I still have some way to go in understanding the southern accent it seems. I was more surprised by Ty (Tacoma), no one had prepared me for the fact that he is an HIV positive victim and quite disabled by it. That was a real shame as he was a nice guy, I’d have liked to have spoken more but had to spend most my time concentrating on not letting my shock at him being in a wheelchair get to me. Hopefully I shall meet him again when I return to Augusta in just over a week. I never did meet him again.

With this house being such a mess, I have spent some time with Daniel clearing up, trying to sort out the place, clear some junk. It is a tough job as there is really, quite literally, so much shit everywhere. Not only am I getting bitten by fleas but I am also walking in cats, dogs and rodents faeces. I am just so thankful that this house is so full of love that these things don’t matter. Sometimes folk just fall on some rough times and I am not going to start bringing judgement upon them. Helping them is helping me too because I don’t have to do this, I can say no at any time and don’t have to feel guilty about it, for once in my life, I really have a choice in this. I find work is only work when we have to do it, when no one else is going to do it for us, as long as we have choice, no job we do is ever really ‘work’.

I love the plans for the house. It will have wood flooring, be redecorated, have some new blinds and repairs done where needed and the garden will be landscaped. OK, they never said anything about the garden but hey, in for a penny, in for a pound. It will be great, if I can get back, to see it all changed and free from unwelcome visitors.

We stayed up late watching programmes such as ‘drawn together’ which is a cartoon taking characters from other formats including video games and placing them in a ‘Big Brother’ setting. It is actually very funny and I hope we get it soon in the UK. ‘Family Guy’ is also great. Now, normally, I don’t do cartoons, they are for little people … OK, they don’t get much smaller than me, I mean, young people of course. However, on this occasion, I must confess to enjoying this level of humour which will most likely go way over the head of anyone younger than around 14 I guess … In my day, it would have gone way over my head in my mid twenties!

We went for a drive locally too. I wanted to get some items for the laptop such as a wireless network card to have me connected to the broadband here and a GPS receiver for use on the road with the laptop. I also needed a spare battery for the camcorder and a charger for my phone to use in the car. It amazed me how I could buy a phone that is to be used in every country of the world yet the power adapter did not work in the States! Computer peripherals are so much cheaper here. I had to ask just why it was that the network card for the laptop was so cheap; the guy just said that this was the price. To give an example, I would be expected to pay around £20 in the UK yet only $10 here which is around £7; it is daft how different the prices are. I should point out too … rip off Britain is doing this price hike with just about everything in the PC catalogue. Print cartridges are at least half the price here, keyboards, mice, just about anything from the PC base unit down is cheaper here yet they are no more made here than they are in the UK, we just have to hike that price to make those profits, when will the UK wake up to this? To be fair to the UK, we do have fuel at 4 times the cost of the US and higher employer expenses than in the US, we also have higher taxation on goods.

Speaking of taxation, yes, they do that in the States too but not so clean cut as the UK’s VAT. We have a fixed 17.5% on just about everything with the exception of food (give it time) yet here their rates are variable and a combination of three taxes, the local, federal and the State. This would not be so bad and quite manageable if it was possible to know how much this was on each purchase but that is not how it works here. No, here they add tax on at the point of sale. In other words, just because something is priced at $10 that does not mean it costs that, in fact, it will probably cost closer to $11 once tax is added. This, on a $10 item is not so drastic … spend a total of $400 and see what happens to the price! They don’t have a real equivalent of our Council Tax here, that tax that we pay for our everyday living expenses such as waste disposal, schools and the police. One thing they do have here is the ability to vote out a useless sheriff and get someone in that looks after the needs of the people and not just their budget. The UK has unelected judges, we can’t fire them. We have unelected police chiefs, they can only be fired by senior unelected police chiefs, in other words, if we are not happy with the way our police do their job, there is not one thing we can do about it. I would not want to have to pay any extra to dispose of my refuse than I already do in local tax but, at the same time, I would love to vote off our police chief for the totally crap job he does in keeping the people of my town safe.

I awoke late this morning; I am sure as a result of staying up so late yesterday. We had breakfast around midday, lunch at somewhere near 5pm and dinner at nearly 9pm; this appears not to be unusual here. Partly this was because at around 3pm jetlag hit me, I just felt so awful, my head was throbbing and I just wanted to sleep so that is what I did until around 5pm We got some more clearing done, the floor in the front room is now clearly visible though I am not sure how much of a good thing that is considering the amount of poop that is there. It looks quite horrendous if I am honest about it. I just keep thinking how sad it is that this place has such potential yet looks so bad at the moment. But, on the plus side, with the floors clear and vacuumed, the bug man can come in and do his stuff without hindrance and soon they will be on their way to clean living again.

For dinner we went out and met some of Daniels friends. I was clearly the oldest there by a long way but none of them seemed even a little fazed about that and I had a good laugh with them. We ate at a Logan’s Roadhouse which was just one of the most unhygienic places I think I have ever eaten at. Don’t get me wrong, this was not in a bad way, it was the image they were going for, that 1950’s Roadhouse look yet, this chain only dates from the early 90’s. Clearly they were going for the rustic look and they had succeeded as much as I could see. There was sawdust and peanuts all over the floor, it looked an awful mess, but fun. After this we went to one of the many café book stores they have here and had coffee with Kim, one of Daniel’s lesbian friends who was amazingly civil for a lesbian, not like many of the British lesbians at all. I would get to like Kim a great deal over the time I spent in the US, she is a really likeable person … I am considering asking Kim to come to the UK and operate some lesbian behavioural classes for us.

It is now 1 in the morning, I am expecting to be doing quite a bit tomorrow, not least of which is returning to Atlanta ready to pick up my car on Saturday for the drive down to Orlando. Staying up late is one of those things I just know is going to keep happening despite all the logic behind the reasons for getting some sleep.

Today is 5th November, normally the day in the UK when we let off fireworks, burn a guy on a fire and consider the possibilities for the country had parliament been blown up all those years ago. Not that we do much considering, it wasn’t and it’s not as though it was much of a parliament anyway.

I visited another State today, South Carolina. My State tally is up to three so still some way to go before I have done all of them. Whilst in SC we went to see a dam which was really quite amazing. It wasn’t the most awesome structure on the planet but the scenery around it was just so exactly what I would imagine for the States. Apart from the wonderful and stunning scenery, there was not much else to do there. A small information centre talking about snakes and why they are, how beneficial they are to the environment, how they keep the rodent population down and that old classic, they won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. How on earth does a person know if they are bothering a snake apart from receiving a pair of fangs in the leg or worse? Of course I was also doomed to hear that recurring tale that tourists hear … well, if you come back next week … or, if you were here last week! Well, I’m not, I am here now, why do they even bother?

Went for an exploration of Augusta along the river Savannah which I should like to comment is amazingly clean. The amount of vegetation growing in it was testimony to that fact, a fisherman’s paradise I should imagine. We had coffee with Kim and Marty, I like them. We also met a young lady from North Carolina and it was just so amazing how folk just talk to each other here rather than sit there embarrassed to interact with someone else for fear they may talk back. The coffee shop itself was incredible, playing what I would call ‘southern’ music, a jazz and blues combination, very friendly and had it got any more laid back, would most likely have fallen over.

Augusta has had a few major floods over the years and one of the bridges marked the various water levels, amazing just how much water can rise and the devastation must be terrible.

Later in the evening we drove to Atlanta to see Mary-Ann. The journey was memorable only by the fact that I was testing out some new software and a GPS system which plotted where we were going along the road, suggested a route etc. One major glitch, the roads around Atlanta airport seem to have moved, for some time we were driving across wasteland according to the computer. We ate at Crackerbarrel’s I think and the meal involved dumplings, chicken, fried okra, meatloaf and some hash brown casserole.

We slept in Mary-Ann’s other house next door (The White House). It is comfortable enough, well; I guess it must be because I don’t recall waking up at all. In the morning Daniel and I went to have a waffle breakfast. It was a plate sized waffle, some hash brown with diced tomato and some bacon. The waffle also had butter and maple syrup on it which made it quite delicious. Our venue was one of the great multitudes of ‘Waffle House’ chain restaurants that exist all over and on just about every junction. I got to feel that in the morning it was an OK place to eat yet maybe, just possibly, in the evening this turned into a den of vice and intrigue. OK, it was boring and I want to make it interesting, so sue me.

Following this we travelled to the airport where a nice young lady that had forgotten her contact lenses, decided to give me an upgrade. Apparently, an economy car was not good enough for me, neither was the medium sized family car she first gave me, she decided, instead, that I should have a convertible and who was I to argue? She also said that a young guy like me needed something a bit special to get myself a girl, now, I can’t think of much I would want less than a girl but it was a nice thought. Remember here, she had forgotten her contact lenses, enough said.

The journey to Orlando took much longer than I would have liked. It took at least 8 hours. To say I was worn out when I got here is an understatement. This was partly as a result of traffic but mainly for two other reasons. The first being my insistence of driving around the airport perimeter twice just for the view you understand, the other was my playing with the electric soft top of the car. I couldn’t make my mind up whether up or down was better. You see, when the car was stopped it was warm and sunny and nothing nicer than an open top. At 70 miles per hour, it was a different story so I would need to stop again to put the top back on and so it continues around every 40 miles or so, on off, off on. It took me a few days to decide that it was off anything over 21 deg C and on below that. There was also another slight detour when I turned off from the airport (eventually) in that I then missed the turning for the Interstate. At this point, ‘exit right only’ didn’t sink in as meaning, that lane had to turn right. I took it as a statement of fact and thought it was actually rather dumb, of course traffic that drives on the right exits right only. Oh, and the logic of my brain on this day … stop at a service station, have a wee, the need for such brought on by the chill of the roof down. I would then get a drink which I would finish quickly along the journey and then need a wee again. I would stop, have a wee, get a drink … and so it went on.

I am now experiencing the part of this break I was really looking forward to and, to be totally honest, it sucks in a glorious way. Certainly I can see why so many people eat ‘out’ here, that is because all but the largest Wal-Mart has little choice of food to buy to cook. Sure, there are loads of aisles crammed packed with grocery items which all seem to be Mexican here in Florida. Sure, there are steaks, there are potatoes and all sorts of vegetables but as for the sort of food any British person may be used to, there will be a struggle to find it. More on this later I suspect.

Eating alone, boy, some places resent the hell out of that. I am at the point where I have taken to eating away from busy times so that I am allowed to finish my meal in peace. An empty restaurant also allows me to not feel quite so alone. Being alone in an otherwise empty establishment never seems quite as bad as eating alone in a place that is heaving with customers. When it is quiet I can think, take my time, read a book. With others around me I am aware constantly that their fun revolves around others. I also cannot say I have seen many other individual travellers either on this trip. All the people I have seen have been coupled or in family groups. Not that I am desperate to talk to anyone or anything but yesterday I was wandering down a street and obviously staring at someone a little too much, just trying to feel a part of someone’s happiness I guess. It came as a little shock when the guy said hello to me!

Eating at a place I really shouldn’t mention as I am sure the management of Planet Hollywood would not like it … oops, seems I mentioned them anyway – eating there I got excellent service. I was rapidly shown to my table, I was served promptly, my meal rushed to my table and when I said I was ready for the bill, the nice waitress said “Sure honey, I’ll get you outta here right away”. Now, how can a person argue with such efficiency? Well, I can, I got the distinct impression I was in the way. One person taking a table for two halves profits that is pure economics. The table they gave me seemed to be on a thoroughfare, which was used most regularly. The chair opposite me just contained my rucksack, which is a little trick I have learned, take a rucksack and place it in the opposite chair, others may think I am holding that seat for someone or, at least, it looks like there is not an empty chair there. I digress, that chair was pushed right in to the table yet still it was pushed forward each time someone wanted to get passed.

In contrast to Planet Hollywood I went to a restaurant in the Disney Market Place called “Cap’n Jack’s” Restaurant for lunch earlier that day and they were wonderful. They were friendly and helpful; I thought it was quite possible there that Cathy really did want to look after me. I got the sort of service many visitors will comment upon after a visit to the US. They were busy yet they still had time to see to all my needs in a polite manner that made me feel welcome.

Driving here in the US is a lot different to the UK. For a start, most people have automatic cars which tend to speed up driving and acceleration some way. They also have more road works here than I have seen all year and this is November! Unlike the UK, road works do not normally carry any speed reductions as I have noticed which can be a little tricky to get used to with huge great trucks bearing down on my small convertible. There was one next to me earlier blocking my exit, it was so huge I had to decide to slow down and let him pass before turning or just drive under his trailer!

In a country where just about everything in the home is electric, it amazes me that there are no electric kettles here; they are mainly stove top which are the sort we used 30 years ago. Speaking of electrical appliances, the noise around the house from these things is amazing. Sitting here next to me now I have the noisiest fridge/freezer I have ever heard, add that to the noise of the pool filter and air conditioning, there is some noise here. Speaking of the pool filter, what sort of logic places such a noisy device directly under the window of the master bedroom?

Of wildlife in general, I seem to have seen very little. One large bird yesterday but that is all. I shall keep looking around and see if anything else pops up. That is nothing except racoons, armadillo and snakes. Speaking of snakes, there was a snake waiting for me when I arrived back at my garage. It was not huge but I am sure it could have made a fair attempt at attacking me had it so intended. As I was watching out for the cat that seems to have adopted the Florida home I was not looking for something closer to the ground so it was not until I was just inches away with my hand clutching the door handle that I noticed Mr Slither! A quick identity check showed it to be the Garter snake, a harmless variety I could have taken home and shown to mother had she not died nearly 20 years ago.

On my first full Florida day I just wanted to get myself used to the surroundings so headed for International Drive in Orlando. I parked the car up and went for a long walk. I am tempted to say I walked along the front but, of course, Orlando is inland and looking like a seafront resort is entirely coincidental. It was really hot, the sort of heat that makes me instantly relaxed, not a care in the world and it was great just wandering, taking in the atmosphere and smelling the smells of cooking everywhere from the plethora of restaurants along the way. My evening was spent swimming in my pool listening to Queen on the stereo, sometimes, life cannot get more perfect.

The following day I set myself for going to Universal Islands of Adventure but instead of staying on the 192 until I got to Interstate 4 I turned off too early and found myself heading for Disney instead. Knowing there was a turn up ahead back onto i-4 I was not too worried and looked around me whilst driving along and took the occasional video clip. I glanced to my right just in time to see the i-4 exit which I had missed (again). Now I was committed to driving to the gates of Disney’s MGM Studios. I had two choices, try and turn around and look really stupid or accept that today I would be visiting MGM instead. No contest really, I planned to visit there at some point anyway so it was no great change of plan. I carefully noted the number of the lane I was parked in and headed for the train. I had not noticed that instead of walking straight I had cut across the lanes of parked cars to avoid the crowd. The result of this being, I now had no idea where I had parked my car. The train to the park pulled in, I got on and we were soon on our way. Upon arrival I realised my wallet was in the car so had to go back again, the only passenger on the return train. It was at this point I realised lane 44 did not contain my car and spend the next 20 minutes playing with the remote key fob of the car listening out for the horn to locate the car eventually in lane 47. Wallet in pocket I headed back to the park, up to the counter and bought my ticket for two days entry to Disney.

I had already made my mind up that the Tower of Terror ride was not going to be my first ride but went there anyway to get a fastpass ticket. From there I walked over the other side of the park and did Star Tours and took loads of pictures. I rode Tower of Terror after that, it was brilliant as always. Before getting on to it, I had gone around to Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and got a fastpass for that so it was off Tower of Terror and onto the coaster, I was in heaven. From the coaster I picked up another fastpass for Tower of Terror and then went over to the Back Lot Tour which is always fun in a very corny sort of way. Many more pictures on the way and then a dash back to Tower of Terror for another ride. Now I had time for shopping, an expensive call home to remind me what was wanted and then the parade to watch. Knowing I was not doing any more rides here, I went along to the Tower of Terror and picked up another fastpass ticket, just as a memento.

Today has rained; it has not been cold, just really wet and windy. This has been fortunate in a way as it coincides with a day when I feel particularly tired, too much activity in too short a time frame. I had been visiting Islands of Adventure but after only a few rides I succumbed to the tiredness and weather and went home. With very little else to do, I think I shall settle in for the night with a good movie.

Wal-Mart has a lot to answer for. It is just a little compulsive, not least because it is the one place that always seems to be open. Fortunately, most of the things I really loved there simply will not fit into a suitcase … except, a new suitcase which has been really tempting noting the condition of my current luggage. Somewhere over the years since the purchase of my suitcase things have fallen apart a little. This is only shocking when I consider it has probably been used no more than 5 or maybe 6 times since new. I have to remember to tell anyone that decides to security check my luggage that they may well slice their wrist open on it now and get them to sign a disclaimer.

The Magic Kingdom was wonderful. My other visits have been rained off so it was lovely to spend this one in glorious heat and sunshine. Space Mountain was first; I just fancied a coaster to start with. Queues were to a minimum so I didn’t have long to wait. My next ride had to be The Haunted Mansion. Last time I was not impressed because I had compared it to the Paris version. This visit was much better and I enjoyed it considerably more. The only new ride for me was the Winnie the Pooh experience, I hadn’t done that before and it was cute, not worth the wait some were doing (I had a fastpass) but a nice little ride. The Alien Encounter has been replaced with a similar attraction using Stitch instead of the Alien from the movie and it was a lot more family friendly though still too much for little kids. I possibly enjoyed that most of the 2004 Disney experiences as it got me through some emotions and I love an attraction that can do that. It was nice too to go on the Liberty Belle paddle steamer. It was fundamentally boring but the views were good and the rest was welcome. Before leaving the park, I did the Disney Railroad but, I have to say it was really boring and I could have done without it.

In the evening I drove back to I-drive to see FAO Schwartz, a store I loved from my last visit. I parked around a mile away and walked there in a relaxing warm evening. Imagine how grumpy I got when the main point of my visit was closed! FAO Schwartz has closed in Orlando now and only have two stores left in New York and Las Vegas.

I find that my food tastes place me in the ‘ethnic’ section where I will also find the Typhoo teabags which I can happily live without but many others from the UK seem incapable of doing judging by the short supply on the shelves. I mean, my choice of cuisine is hardly exotic but just seems to not coincide with that of the US. At times, I did wonder if I was in Spain by the amount of Spanish everywhere but no, this is still the land of the free – OK, not free but many are cheap or at least reasonable. With the influx of Mexican or, more accurately, Cuban visitors one would have thought it not inconceivable that making a chilli-con-carne would be possible, apparently not so, not the way I would recognise it anyhow. Same goes for the English national dish of ‘curry’, that really is ethnic. I could make it, I mean, the ingredients exist to make my own from scratch. The problem being, the US buys in bulk, I would need to buy the sort of amounts that would last me a year back home making my one curry meal cost an entire week’s food budget.

Next day and I am at another theme park. This time I am at Seaworld. I was looking forward to this because I had not been before. Sadly, I was not impressed with it. The main problem was with the annoying abundance of shops and other extra money making ventures making it difficult to find the attractions. Still, I did find some, the first being the dolphins. I didn’t expect to get quite so close, so close that I could have touched one had it not thought splashing me was more amusing. It was a wonderful experience to be so close to them but I still reserve judgement on the justification to keeping them in captivity at all. The same applies to the Killer Whales, not whales of course but the largest of the dolphin family. True, the show was excellent and amazingly clever but why have them living there at all except just to entertain us, there has to be a better life for such incredible creatures. I could understand it if they were endangered but they are not, they are not at risk at all so why? I rode Kraken, the Seaworld coaster and boy was that extreme, fun, but a little more than I was expecting. Whilst riding it I decided to not stay at Seaworld much longer but instead head off for Universal Studios and do some rides there. So set on that was I that I almost forgot to visit the manatees which were just about the only reason for visiting Seaworld at all! They are wonderful, so serene and so sad how their existence is threatened.

I was at Universal by 3 that afternoon, I had been at Seaworld some 4 hours and that seemed like enough to me. I think Universal Studios is the more spectacularly visually impressive of the parks in Orlando. I also think it contains the best ride of the parks too, ‘The Mummy’ which was simply unexpectedly awesome. I just had to do that one twice. Annoying thing was, the first time I went straight on, the second I had to queue for 40 minutes. I did ‘Earthquake’ too whilst I was there and had some late lunch but didn’t find myself wanting to do anything else really, I had enjoyed the experience, watched the ‘Blues Brothers’, done some shopping, I was content to leave.

As I was in the area I tried to visit some friends to the north of the City. I called first but got their answer phone as usual so decided to go over anyway just in case their mobile was in the car or something like that. Sadly, even though I found the house straight away, which looks lovely, they were not in so my last chance to visit had passed and it was such a shame as I really enjoy their company and it would have been good to catch up again and so annoying as this was the closest we had been in two years.

I found out something that now seems obvious … pool lights attract bugs! Yes, whilst swimming in a pool at night anywhere near to the pool light, keeping a closed mouth is a really good idea. Also, beetles are remarkably good swimmers yet even they are incapable of swimming non stop for more than a day or two but are much easier to remove from a pool when deceased.

On my final full Florida day I took a drive to Clearwater on the Gulf of Mexico coastline. I was amazed at the whiteness of the sand on the beach and how lovely it looked. The journey there was for the most boring but became interesting from Tampa over to Clearwater across the causeway. I really don’t think that is the sort of place I would want to be in a hurricane, in fact, I am sure that would be one of the first things to be closed.

I ate at a beach café, a lovely jambalaya which I had never had before but it was wonderful. By now I was well and truly hooked on sweet tea and so had several glasses of that too before heading back off to my house.

The trip back up from Florida to Atlanta was much better though I was desperately trying not to put any more fuel in the car. Why I was worried about it I don’t know. US fuel is quarter the price of that in the UK yet, from overhearing some ‘good ol’ boys’ it is possible to believe that they are being totally ripped off.

It was sad to leave my independence but good to be getting back to speaking again too. My timing was spot on and I had my planned lunch break in Georgia just off the Interstate. I decided to try KFC as I was really wanting something familiar rather than having to think about it, the drive was making me do quite enough thinking. I walked in with a smile and then saw the menu. Oh dear indeed, I hardly knew anything there. They had original recipe or new recipe, dark and light chicken, fries replaced with mashed potato and a side of coleslaw made with virtually raw cabbage and a biscuit, the mash had gravy, very odd indeed. I needed the toilet first anyway but had to content myself with the disabled toilet that had no lock on it with me practically facing the door to do a pee, I am so glad no one walked in.

Once outside again I was confronted with the thickest southern accent I have ever heard and couldn’t understand a word. Still, not defeated I relied on body language and she seemed to think we were communicating so maybe I did a good job, that or she has the same problem with all her customers and so has got used to them just asking for what they want and ignoring all her questions.

Radio and television in the US is much like the UK, too many channels, way too many adverts. In fact, some if not, many of the adverts are better than the TV or radio shows they interrupt. The news teams seem to have fixations, one story can dominate the news for weeks at a time yet, in fact, has little public interest beyond the soap opera appeal. The main stories here seem to be either the election or, more important yet, the murder trial of Scott Peterson. Crammed in here are the dead donkey stories that we in Britain don’t do anymore except on local TV. A programme was broken into to ask for the help of the public in capturing an alleged attacker, not a murderer or assassin but an ‘alleged’ attacker.

Not wanting 440 miles of adverts to listen to on the radio I decided to buy some CD’s which made the time pass much more enjoyably and more relaxing.

US humour, if I can call it that, is not as we have got used to it in the UK. We are, or were, more into the one line gag, the short comical story or the real life observations of the ridiculous. Here, they too do ‘gags’ but mainly it seem to be what I have come to term ‘clever humour’. In other words “This is not funny but it is so clever an observation or just so darn right and you know I am a comedian so you are going to applaud me” An example …. “Health care, what about health care here? Yea, those doctors, they don’t care anymore, they are so afraid of being sued they would rather let you die”. Now, I am not sure, did you laugh? I expect the audience to be thinking … yeah, we all know it, how clever of you to be able to put it into words. Anyway, in my limited opinion, American humour is most often, just not funny. Strangely though, individual people living here most often are very funny.

I did a Steve Williams first today, an American Football match. This has now equalled the amount of sports fixtures I have attended anywhere, a great sports fan I am not. Daniel’s nephew Kyle was playing in what I guess must be some sort of junior league. I had no idea what the rules are, apparently something like rugby only different. I would say ‘different’ is an understatement. There are touchdowns and probably goals though, in rugby terms, this may be a conversion. The quarterback in the big guy I think and they are all dressed for battle in a way we British would not dream of doing for risk of being seen as unmanly. From my perspective, if I am going to have several guys hurtling themselves on me at a great speed, I’d have all the protection I could find! The other team didn’t stand a chance mainly as they were playing rubbish but I reckon that has a lot to do with their coach who didn’t stop yelling at them in a very abusive way. Kyle’s coach was calmness itself, true; his side was winning, not much to get in a panic about. However, I get the impression he is most often like this with instruction and gentle encouragement, always a winning formula.

Kyle is one of Wendy’s four children, Wendy being Daniel’s sister. After a while I got used to calling her ‘Windy’ it is an accent thing. I was thinking how much Wendy’s eldest boy, Aaron, was like my Max, the same style completely from the hair to the shoes … when I got home, I found Max has had a makeover, cropped hair, colours other than black, hell, just when I think I know them!

Daniel and I visited a gay bar; it was just like UK gay bars. Not in the best part of town and of questionable design quality. I enjoyed it all the same though the gin and tonic was awful but for the equivalent of £3.50 for all I could drink for the evening, I shouldn’t complain. It was nice to meet some more people that Daniel knew and to also go back to one of their houses too. Chris is a lovely guy, he was way too pissed for his own good and heaven knows what he was doing driving. He managed to stay awake long enough for us to have a good few games of cards and we were also joined by two other guys. I enjoyed not being treated as the old guy, I was nearly twice their age but they treated me just as I am sure they would have any one of their other mates. True, the English accent got them a little and they smiled several times at it but I quite enjoy that. Someone has to be either comfortable with another person or stupid to be able to have a laugh with them about their accent and I didn’t think of any of them as stupid.

Our Savannah trip was good and well worth the long drive. I thought Fort Pulaski was thought provoking and an emotional experience, I also admired Dan for his persistence in walking around despite the obvious discomfort he was in and he doesn’t complain about it either, I have a lot of respect for people that are able to do that. US historical places being so much younger than most castles of the UK made understanding the history and emotion of the fort much easier. Seeing the battle scars still visible on the walls was dramatic, sadly, arrows fired at castles don’t leave many battle scars.

Savannah as a city is very historic as was reflected in many of the buildings. Sadly, it had been dumbed down and spruced up for the tourists but it is still possible to see the original architecture there. As with all tourist magnets, the prices were hyped so we opted to drive a little outside the city and ate at a Longhorn Steakhouse instead. My Sirloin was perfect and the sweet potato worked well with it. Much of the food I had in the US was good and far superior to similarly priced UK restaurants.

It was sad to leave Augusta for the last time but good too to be moving on to somewhere new.

Back in Atlanta and Daniel and I went to the city with our first port of call being Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse. Daniel and I were chatting so much I doubt either of us paid any real attention to who else was in there less yet made any effort to talk to anyone. It is good to use American book stores with coffee shops; they are so much more civil than those here in the UK and people can walk around browsing whilst drinking a coffee. The rest of the evening was spent finding vantage points to take pictures of the skyscrapers.

Almost three weeks have passed since my arrival here and I have come to love much about this country. The service I receive, I really don’t care if they wish I have a nice day or not, hearing them say it makes me feel good and that is why it is said. Being with the Summers family, in many ways, dysfunctional but full of love and admiration for each other, most importantly, not afraid to show it either. Sure, all the normal family issues are there, the back biting, the arguments, (the law suits), but on the whole, these people are part of each other and it is this that I believe keeps this country great. Even neighbours that don’t like each other manage to utter a civil word on meeting, in the UK; we just don’t or won’t do that. It is telling our kids we love them, telling them they have done well, telling them that they are important that gives them the confidence to make their lives worthwhile. Sure, some, even with the best family upbringings will fail, will fall down because they are just not strong enough but with this sort of family backbone, there is always hope for them. All any parent could ask for is the love and respect of their children and that those children do all that they can to make happiness for themselves. What else do I like about the US? The architecture is something special, whole buildings built Art deco style, bold and brassy, up there pronouncing to the world that it doesn’t matter that they may not be to the taste of many; they are there, statements of their age and something to be proud of. Train whistles, I love them, I lay in bed listening and smiling. I have no idea why that is, for some reason they make me smile and feel warm inside. What do I not like? Politicians here seem so darned dishonest and so open about it I have to feel it is distasteful. It is one thing to be dishonest but these people seem almost proud of it, they don’t care that they are duping millions of people into thoughts that are simply inaccurate. This most recent election campaign was just scary with the methods used to win over the votes. Somehow, a book written over 2000 years ago and known for a fact to be flawed and the most contested book in history is setting the agenda for the political face of this country. Immigrants, Muslim’s, homosexuals and those not wishing to follow religion are now to blame for the wrongs of this country. I get scared as hell when a political party cannot win elections based on the real issues of peace and well being across their country, the good health of their nation, and equality of all the citizens of that country, the right to live safely and away from fear. Those guys fighting for a place in the most influential building on this planet should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t like the way this country pollutes the planet with so little regard for the consequences. The arrogance of a country that believes, genuinely believes it has the right to police the rest of the planet. The US is not superior to the rest of us, it is just bigger and has more money then most, at school we used to call guys that abused that situation bullies. The US needs to learn to work with as many countries as possible to attain world peace and stability not dictating some western ideal to others. Britain is little better in this but then we, as a nation, would not be doing what is currently happening on our own/ With great power comes even great responsibility. Oh, I don’t like grits but I guess I can let them off that!

Daniel and Dan cooked me a wonderful meal to end my stay, hardly anything I had tried it before and it was simply delicious. It was a shame the bean casserole was attacked by the cat so I couldn’t have any more but there was plenty to eat anyway. The visit to Wal-Mart the previous day had been really boring and I was annoyed that I left my wallet behind so could not buy a few last minute items that I wanted to get.

The drive to the airport with Danny was quite sad, I was really going to miss him, I think we get along really well. I was going to miss this country too. Thankfully, the journey through the airport and home was trouble free. I arrived back just slightly early and Robin was there to greet me. Our drive back to Northampton was slow but nothing unusual for this country.

Jet lag was in full swing when I got home but I managed to stay awake, it was great to see the kids again. Jermaine arrived home last and within minutes had a seizure splitting his lip open so we spent the remainder of the evening in casualty with him, I was home again, back to normal.

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