Sunday, February 25, 2007

Will Someone PLEASE Carry My Bags?

International travel can be a bitch. I’m not telling you anything new, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong… I love seeing the world. I love meeting new people with different accents and world-views. I spent two weeks in the UK and Ireland and had a very positive experience in both locations. Yet, at the end of my two weeks when I began craving my own bed and started running out of underwear, I longed for home. So I made my way back to London awaiting anxiously my non-stop flight back home to DC, or at least Dulles International Airport.

Heathrow Airport is simultaneously the most impressive and most disgusting airport I have ever seen. When I made my way through the security line to pass into the gate area, I didn’t have the sense that security was a sham like I did when I left Dulles. The men and women organizing the lines, working the metal detectors, and completing manual searches struck me as SERIOUS professionals. They were respectful, competent, and firm, all at the same time. Before this, I just felt it was a sad unavoidable truth that men and women responsible for our airport security were just destined to be ill-tempered and drunk with power. In fact, there seems to be a sense in Britain that public service is more of a privilege and honor than here in the US. Their public servants are proud to be even train operators and parking enforcers. If anyone has an idea how to spark this here in the US, I’d love to hear it.

Back to my subject – the down side of Heathrow is its pathetic show of greed. Once you clear security, the politeness and respect are discarded along with that 20oz bottle of contact solution that didn’t fit into the little plastic baggy. You are dumped into a large common area with screens telling you which gate will take you to your plane, just like here in the US. The catch is – they don’t tell you which gate you need until 5 minutes before boarding. I was puzzled by this initially, until I realized that the entire terminal is one big duty free store. This is not an exaggeration. The round terminal area is actually one large store in which salespeople try to give you samples and explain how much you’re saving without paying VAT. Really, at this point, most travelers probably want to just sink into a comfortable chair and get the most recent information on their flight, but this becomes impossible when the main goal of the facility to sell you crap. Basically you are forced to wander around a large Wal-Mart until your plane is ready. For those of you who decided to be responsible and get to the airport early, you’re screwed.

Do we have a better system here in the US? I can’t answer that. The Brits are obviously better at catching bad guys who try to blow up or otherwise cause mayhem on planes. Yet, at least here in the US, I get the sense that the main goal of the airport it to get you on the plane and that all the other airport services (including retail) are only a necessity demanded by weary travellers – surprising for our culture of profit and exploitation. I wish we could have the best of both worlds. I think we and the UK should form some sort of combined super state – where British wit and politeness are combined with our practicality and fun-loving nature. We would be unstoppable.

As I returned to the US, I realized that I am indeed not part of the solution, but part of the problem. Instead of waiting in the taxi line like a responsible individual, I was quick to ditch out and be illegally solicited by an off-duty personal driver who offered to take me into DC with three other people “at a reasonable cost”. I blame my lack of judgment on the fact that my conscience was still sleeping after the long flight.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dublin Calling

...well, maybe not night and day, but Dublin is definitely a different city. Dublin is to London what a Philly/DC mix would be to NYC. I say Philly because Dublin has obviously been pulling itself up from a not-so-glamorous past, and it feels about the same size as DC. Yet, they are growing at a phenomenal rate. Dublin is also a more manageable in a three day stint than a bigger city. They've just installed a tram system called the Luas, which means "speed" in Irish. The tram runs up and down the Liffey River, along which most of the city flows, so for the moment there is quick public transit to almost anywhere you want to go. Within a few years, though, the expansion of the city will break far out of this band and the tram system will be somewhat like DC's - effective if you live in the right areas, but not so much if you actually live outside the city proper.

The gay "scene" here is also different. There is no Soho-like or Dupont-like area. It's all interspersed with the straight world. I think this is a testament to the uniting power of alcohol. Dubliners don't care what color you are, where you came from, who you worship, or who you sleep with, as long as you drink pints of beer and can pay for it. But don't try drinking cocktails here... they have to measure out each shot to government standards. That's just no fun. Yet, they get by just fine on beer. If you're ever in Dublin and want to experience the scene, hit The George on Sunday night around 9:30pm for Drag bingo and a show. The Drag queens are amazing. They actually PERFORM instead of sit around and bitch or make racial jokes. Also, try to make it to the Dragon. The bar itself is a bit of a bore, but if you make it to the upper floor smoking deck, you'll find the real party. If you're lucky, Miss Panty will be spinning some great tunes with a cigarette hanging from her lips and the floor will be bouncing a bit from the spontaneous dancing.

I picked a great weekend to visit. 20,000 French were in town for the Ireland/France rugby match. Apparently, rugby fans are much more well behaved than the soccer fans we've been hearing about recently. In almost every pub and restaurant, the French were there in droves to support their team, which defeated the Irish team 20 to 17 (I think). Although, I hear the next big match between Ireland and England is supposed to be even more crazy.

So... here's what I learned in Dublin...

1. Rugby is the hottest sport ever. EVER.
2. You don't have to tip a drag queen to get a good performance (they do it for free here).
3. There are no leprechauns in Dublin, but they do have very short cute guys.
4. If you plan on eating out anywhere in any of the city's nicer restaurants, get there early.
5. Don't try pronouncing Irish without some research ahead of time.

Headed home very soon. It will be nice to get back to the US. They have crazy money here, and I'm tired of hearing the word "cheers". No offense to my new friends here, but they use it way too much.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Major Marty Reporting in From the UK

Yes, I'm here reporting to you from a dingy internet cafe on Charing Cross Road in London. I've manged to break out of my comfortable bubble in Dupont Circle for a bit of time and expand my horizons all the way across the Atlantic. It's a bit liberating to spend a little time in a city where everyone appreciates coffee and no one talks about Paris Hilton. All the comforts of home with none of the crap I hate about... home.

I quickly learned that London is in the same class of city as New York - busy as all hell with nowhere near the right amount of space for anything you want to do. Variety abounds here in all aspects of life. Hipster seems to be the fashion for all men - straight and gay. And the food... my god! The food! Here are some observations I found significant in the last few days, in true Major Stroodler list fashion...

- After about two hours, I noticed that I started to get a "Madonna fake-British" accent. Words like "hello" and "you" and "water" were coming out all strange. I actually had to force myself to say them they way I always do.
- Pizza Hut is actually a classy place here. I liken it to California Pizza Kitchen in the US, and people can't get enough of it.

- Everything is measured in metric - except the important stuff. "Inches of snow", "feet of altitude", Pounds... oh, wait... Seriously, the news reported that London is supposed to get six inches of snow tonight. Was it too hard for them to convert, or did 15 and a quarter centimeters sound too terrifying?

-No one likes to touch each other here. There are millions of people walking the streets and clogging the sidewalks, yet there is huge effort to move quickly enough to avoid even a slight brush of the coats. I think it's the vestige of some dormant politeness that has since withered away from most Londoners.

-Bird Flu is a BIG DEAL here. A few turkeys got sick over the weekend on a farm in Scotland and it's been the biggest news for days - even bigger than a letter bomber that is apparently terrorizing the country. They gassed something like a million birds, incernerated them, and have now quarantined all the people within a two mile radius of the farm.

-They have ten second commercials here. Most are the normal 30 seconds we have in the US, but every once and a while you get this weird flash of some product or gimmick for 10 seconds.

-There's a lot of crazy here. Just not 20 seconds ago, two drunk guys stumbled into the internet cafe I'm sitting in, fell into a table and computer, started fighting, and got thrown out.

There will be more to come later. I'm headed to Dublin in a few days, and I'm told that the difference between the two cities is like night and day. At least the time zones are the same.