Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Let Siri Do The Driving

   Over the past 45 years we've traveled between my old family home in Hull, south of Boston and our own home near Teresa's family in northwest Minnesota dozens of times. When we're in a hurry and can afford it we fly. When we had three kids or extra time, we drove. The distance is 1750 miles. The land record from home to Hull is 34 hours. This was set when shuttling the boys to their summer jobs in Boston. The boys needed a car for the summer so we'd leave home in the afternoon one day, pick up the interstate in Wisconsin, drive through the night taking turns at the wheel, and when we crossed the Mass line, I'd call my mother, and she'd lunch ready when we rolled in. After visiting the family a day or so I'd fly home.
    Driving the interstates is efficient, but monotonous. Now that we're both retired, we decided to take secondary roads as much as possible on our most recent trip to Hull in late March. We were able to find our way over to Duluth without assistance. Once we crossed the bridge into Wisconsin we opened Google Maps app on my phone. Superior is a city off many dead-ends, and you just have to trust the voice on your phone knows it knows what it's talking about.
   Normally, we'd take 53 to Eau Clair and hop on I-94 to Chicago. But instead, we stopped in Chippewa Falls just north of Eau Clair and found a motel. That was day one. After our fine continental breakfast next morning, we found a nice limited access highway, which I define as a four lane highway with access from side roads. Sometimes it goes around towns and other times it goes right through the downtown. On some stretches you can cruise along at 70 mph and other times you hit one traffic light after another for ten miles.
     Our goal today was the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield where our old friend Ana lives. Along our route was the town of Marshfield. Our middle son Joe lives in Marshfield, Mass. and  whenever we mention Marshfield around our friend Catherine, she perks up, because she grew up in the Wisconsin Marshfield. Her father was a pilot and owned a small airline based there and Catherine had this  charmed childhood, so we felt we needed to swing by the airport and send Catherine a pic. The sign at the airport was surmounted by a Beechcraft D18 and the airport was named after Catherine's father. These are the kinds of things you won’t see from the interstate.
   Milwaukee was a little out of the way, but what’s that saying about the road to a friend's house is never long. When we were getting closer, we cheated a little and hopped on I-41 to Brookfield. We wanted time for a chat with Ana before her three girls got home from school. Ana was originally from LA. She had gone to law school in Milwaukee and took a job as a law clerk in Roseau because she wanted to experience small town life.  Teresa also worked at the courthouse and we became good friends before she moved back to LA.
     She got married to John from New York City, had her three daughters, and returned to Wisconsin when John found a job there. Ana is very involved with the girls school activities. “It’s nice to be able to do this while the girls still want me around,” she says. The family took us out for supper and we tried to reciprocate by making crêpes the next morning. Day two.
    After breakfast, we hopped back on I-41. I had no interest in messing with the back roads of Chicagoland. We were planning to visit my Aunt Mary and Cousin Liz at their home the Beverly neighborhood on the south side of the city. Liz advised going straight through downtown. There are no stoplights on the interstate, just the guy in front of you who’s not moving. But the downtown jam soon unstuck and we arrived at Aunt Mary’s in the early afternoon. Mary, age 91, had a stroke last year which has limited her mobility and vision. Mary has always been a high spirited woman and while the stroke has slowed her down, it has not affected her demeanor.
   We had a fine visit with Mary and after watching Jeopardy, Liz's friend Ralph drove us over to the excellent Franconello's for an early super. We had to get back home to watch the local favorite, Loyola, beat Nevada to get into the Elite Eight. Madness! That was followed by two episodes of the overheated "Chicago Fire." Liz never watches this show, but a neighboring house would be appearing in that night's show.  Liz said their street had been sealed off earlier for several days during filming, a real pain for getting Mary out to rehab. But it was good for the economy. The local subshop had done $6,000 in extra business. The house in the show was empty and on the market. Liz said all the windows had been removed and replaced with temporary steel frames for giant propane tanks to belch out flames. We had to watch two hours of overwrought drama to get to the fire which was pretty impressive. Liz was disappointed she could not catch a glimpse of her own house down the block. All in all, Day Three was quite a day.
   On the morning of Day Four, Liz gave us a fine breakfast and a sack of sandwiches. We hopped on I-90 to get out of town. When we got south of Gary we headed south a few miles  till we found a limited access highway running east. It was 1,000 miles to Hull, or I should say Marshfield, as we'd be spending a couple of nights at young Joe's. I wanted to make around 350 miles per day and Akron, Ohio looked to be a good stopping point. Our road, U.S. 30 had me worried. There was a stoplight about every mile and we were hitting all the reds. But we were just too close to the big city. Once we passed Valpariso, the stoplights thinned out. U.S.3 was a fine road, but it was slipping south so at Columbia City Siri put us onto a narrow country road to keep us on track towards the south edge of Akron where the mid-range motels cluster. We were now on a winding, narrow road that appeared on our Rand McNally as a thin red line. I had selected the "No Highways" option on Google Maps and I later realized that Google was stitching together the shortest routes for distance, not time. This was perfect. I did not have to think about where to turn. In her friendly voice Siri alerted me to upcoming turns. I could just relax and enjoy the countryside. Traffic was always light on these country roads and we had no need to stop for lunch thanks to Liz's sammies.
   Only the small towns slowed us down. Some of these towns were neat and well preserved. Others were squalid, but interesting in their own way. This was working America, not tourist America, or show biz America. We were taking a break from those aspects of the country.  Teresa hates being boxed in by semis on the interstates, and had no problem with our slow pace. She had loaded a goodly supply of NPR podcasts onto her iPad, so we were doubly entertained. We had lots of leftover sweets from our recent St. Patrick's Day party. We really had no need to stop, except for gas and rest rooms. and we needed rest rooms more often than gas. We felt a little guilty using the facilities without buying anything, but didn't see a "customers only" notice until Massachusetts.
    Western Ohio was hilly, but soon gave way to flat farm country. We passed through an area of lakes and resorts between Akron and Canton and pulled up to our motel at five p.m. Not that it matters, but these motels are often located in mercantile wastelands of car dealerships, storage facilities, or the backsides of malls. There was a TGI Fridays next to the motel, with a deep discount for motel guests. This trip was not meant to be a gourmet tour. For being in the middle of such a lifeless area, we were surprised at how full the restaurant was. Of course it was a Friday.
   Day Five was to be a long. but pleasant slog out of Ohio and across the Alleghany Mountains of Pennsylvania and up to Binghamton, NY for the night. When I had looked at the mountain road on the map it seemed extra wiggly, but it proved to be an excellent road, uncluttered with traffic. Here we were, travelling across the most populous part of the country and the main impression was of emptiness and peace. We passed through a stretch of Amish country where every yard had a horse carriage and a long line of drying clothes. At the edge of a small town, we saw a young man in an open wagon, directing his horse to a hitching post in front of a store.
   We climbed through a beautiful national forest along the Alleghany River and across a pass and down into the valley alongside tumbling streams. We followed Route 6 through old towns with "Port" in many of their names. There were thicker or thinner deposits of snow along our entire route starting in Ohio. Again, the feeling was of being in a part of the country seen only by the locals.  We could have stopped and visited the shops and little museums, but we had not budgeted time for that. We had no time to meet the locals. We had to get to Binghamton and our motel.
   And again, our motel was located in an odd spot. Even Siri said "Good luck, guys." But it didn't matter. Once checked in we pulled the curtains and logged onto wifi. We are not big steak house fans, but we had an old gift card, so we ate steak and watched Loyola beat Kansas State to get into the Final Four. It had been a fine Day Five all together.
     Next morning when the clock read six a.m. we jumped out of bed, eager to get an early start on our final day.  It took an hour to get organized, but the clock in the breakfast nook read eight. Housekeeping had neglected to turn our room clock ahead to Daylight Savings Time. That's an hour we'll never get back.  A couple of inches of snow had fallen during the night and as we made our way through the hills and towns of southern New York, we were in and out of sunshine and overcast.
     Siri guided us over the Catskill Mountains along highway 23.The panorama near Wyndham Mountain was the best of the trip since Duluth Harbor.  We crossed the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Soon after we were being welcomed to Massachusetts. Siri has a charming habit of welcoming you to whichever new state you've just entered. When a few minutes later she said "Welcome to Connecticut," I wasn't so charmed. As we sat I a parking lot checking the atlas, she welcomed us back into Massachusetts. We'll not be getting one of those home assistant robots anytime soon. Here on the home stretch I really needed to break out of my Siri induced trance and take control. She was leading us down Algorithm Alley, long stretches of residential streets at 30 mph. But we were too committed to this track. And really, what's the rush. We arrived at the home of Joe and Ashley, Isla and Nash at 5:45 p.m. Plenty of time to pick up where we last left off.

                                                      Image result for panorama catskills winter
                                                                             The Catskills 20 Years Ago 

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Fine Mess

    I had just resolved to boycott FedEx for that company's failure to distance itself from the NRA when wouldn't you know it, a FedEx truck got stuck in our driveway. Teresa was just about to leave for town to help her sister. Now she was trapped. I had planned a quiet afternoon studying medieval British history. Instead, I put on my boots and grabbed a shovel.
    The driver had slid off the track that gets built up on our road over the winter. We are careful to stay on the track, but unwitting delivery men in a hurry sometimes slip into the valley and get hung up crossways in the road. That's what happened to this guy. He had 18" long steel tracks he was laying under his rear tires. I helped him shovel and replace the tracks for about half an hour when he gave up and called for a tow truck. "Here's your package," he said. "Thanks for your help."
      I started to heat my lunch when Teresa said, "He's shoveling again."  I went out to investigate. He said the tow truck wouldn't be here for an hour. "Read a book, man!" I thought to myself. "Queen Matilda's husband was only 14 when she married him. Middle Ages. Fascinating."
   I went to the garage and got two six foot planks and we stuck them under the back wheels. We were making progress. In three hours we would be in the yard where the van could turn around and carefully pick its way out to the highway. At last the tow truck came. He backed down the road, lights flashing and hooked up to the back of the van. As the truck drove ahead the van slid towards the ditch tipping so far the FedEx guy beeped for the tow truck to stop. I could see a consultation going on, and twenty minutes later a four-wheel drive tractor arrived. He plowed the road and pulled the van out of the ditch.
    The FedEx guy waved as he drove out of the yard. He's paid by the hour. I had the tractor guy, Andy, plow out the yard. I'm now on his list for snow removal after storms. His price is very reasonable and I have books to read.
The World Out of Time.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Month of One's Own

     People in nursing homes don't know the day of the month or, often, the day of the week. Even the undemented ones. There's no need. Knowing which season they're in suffices. After I retired, I started climbing into the same boat. Every day felt like Saturday, but it was annoying because I still had people expecting me to show up on time. I like the month of March because if I remember that Valentine's was on, say, a Saturday, I'd know for sure that March 14th was also a Saturday. It's because February has 28 days, four weeks, nice and neat.
     It would help everyone if all the months had 28 days. The extra days could be gathered into a new month, which I propose be named Mcdonnella. The new month could be slipped in anywhere except during winter. Winter is long enough. There are 29 extra days, so one of them should be made December 29 so as to mess up things as little as possible.
     Changes to the calendar are not  unprecedented.  In 1582, Pope Gregory changed the calendar to get Easter back to Spring where it belonged. We call his reform the Gregorian calendar. I plan to ask Pope Francis to help with my project. We'll call it the Francescan calendar as a way of saying thanks.  There's a February 29th every four years, which could also screw things up, so it will become the last day of the year when it occurs.  I suggest it be named "Teresa Day," in honor of my dear wife. That would really set her up for the new year.

Libera in toto orbe terrarum meum novum fastis*


*Deliver my new calendar to all the world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My So-called Retired Life

    Several months ago my California daughter-in-law, Ashley, who lives in Massachusetts with my son, sent us an email saying she had been perusing the Massachusetts Unclaimed Property website. She said she found my name on the list (but not her husbands). I try not to get too excited about these things. They're usually more trouble than they're worth.
    I followed the link just in case and found I was due $13.20  in insurance proceeds, probably from a small policy from one of my parents. I'd rather have my parents back, but sure, I'll take the cash. Another link led me to a form to be printed, filled in, and mailed back. "Please allow up to 180 days for processing." I'd also need to prove my tax identity so it could be reported to the IRS, and include a copy of my driver's license. Now I'm thinking: taxes, postage, envelope, possibility of paper jam.... I didn't hit delete, but I did allow the whole thing to sink under the daily accumulation of new emails.
      Every so often, Teresa would ask if I had done anything about that unclaimed property and I'd say, "yeah." Not a lie, but less than full disclosure.  Well today Teresa was cleaning out the in-box of her own account and found Ashley's email.  She asked again about the property. It was now so long ago I was able to feign forgetfulness. Teresa used to work for the State of Minnesota, and, being a loyal wife, she blamed the bureaucracy and not me. She clicked on the link and reached the same stage I had. I hoped she would continue with the heavy lifting, but she had plans for the afternoon. "You can buy groceries with that money," she said, using a non-sequitur that I could follow only too well.
     I printed out the two-page form with no problem and filled it in. I dug out my ancient Social Security card with my old Boston address and childish signature. I placed it atop the printer along with my driver's license and hit scan. Son of a biscuit! I should have hit copy. 'Scan' always causes a paper jam. From the bowels of the printer came the sound of crumpling paper. I had to rewatch the little video provided by the printer on how to remove paper jams. At last I got all my documents signed and in order. As I addressed the envelope, I imagined it being delivered with thousands of others to the jail behind the State House at the bottom of Beacon Hill. Processing these forms had to be the job of the prisoners with six month sentences.



Monday, January 29, 2018

Get The Iron Out

     Have you ever wondered why or when the Iron Age ended? We're still using lots of iron, but somehow we've moved on to whatever the current age is called. Take Britain. People have been in Britain for almost a million years. Right from the beginning they were using stones to make life better. The Stone Age didn't officially end until four thousand years ago when people figured out how to melt metal, copper mostly, mixing it with little tin to make bronze. Even with that breakthrough, lots of people kept using stone. It was free and was lying around all over the place.  The Bronze Age only lasted a thousand years. Iron was much stronger and more abundant. It was tricky to work with, but once they got the technique down, bronze was done.
     But what ended the Iron Age? My history book said the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD meant the end of the Iron Age. But the Romans used a ton of iron. Those swords, for example. But without further explanation, my book calls the next 400 years the Roman Age, followed by the Saxon Age, the Viking Age, the Norman Age, etc., etc.
     This really piqued my curiosity. I could call up the history department at my local college, but I'm too bashful. I could pore through my books for the answer, but that would take too much time. I knew the answer was out there somewhere on the Internet. I knew Wikipedia would have the answer. I just had to formulate my question correctly. After getting fancy with my google search questions, I simply typed in "Iron Age." Wikipedia had a gigantic article covering the Iron Ages in all the many corners of the world, but my answer was right there in the introductory paragraph: "The Iron Age is taken to end with the beginning of the historiographical record." So that's it! Once you start writing things down, you're out of the smoky, dirty Iron Age and into the lovely realms of paper and ink and memory palaces.
     No matter how sharp you are, if you don't take good notes, you're still a bit of a barbarian.
"We don't need no stinkin' books."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Poverty No-Name

      I read a profile recently of Ophelia Dahl, one of the founders of Partners In Health. For over thirty years, this organization has tried to establish health systems in poor countries. PIH attempts to get the local governments to expand the projects the organization starts. The governments are good when there's a crisis, but when things stabilize, the government will often cut funding.
     This is frustrating to Dahl. "Think about the airline industry," she says. "Can you imagine how complicated it is to run a passenger air system across this world?" She wonders why the same sort of thing can't be done with health care for the poor. The author of the article gently points out that the airlines operate on the profit motive.
     Here's my modest proposal to alleviate poverty. Let poor people sell their naming rights to companies as a form of advertising.  Half the annual fee would go to the individual and the other half to their country's health care system. There'd be lots of little Amazons and Coca-colas, but any company large or small could tap into this tax write-off. The poor could sign up for multiple names and whole swaths of the population would look like NASCAR drivers.
     Even us people in the first world can help. We'll sell our personal naming rights and donate our fees to the poor. We could search out names similar to our present names. I wouldn't mind being Joe's Crab Shack McDonalds if it would help eliminate poverty.
     




Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Rocky Road To London

(Part Three of Three Parts)

     We were down to the final few days of our three week trip around England. I have a friend who fills every minute of her travels with stuff. Much as I admire her stamina, I can't handle that kind of death march. I'm good for four to six hours of sightseeing per day, max. After two hours in a museum I can't absorb any more. I move on to plans B or C (Bed or Café).
     We had spent a week in the Cotswolds area and another on the Cornwall Peninsula. Now we would head east to Portsmouth and then back up to London and home. I wanted to see Lord Nelson's ship Victory at the Historic Shipyards in Portsmouth. 
     Portsmouth was 200 miles east of Penzance where we had been staying. The city of Exeter was about halfway to Portsmouth, a good place to spend the night. There was a big cathedral there so we could check "ancient cathedral" off our list. We had also been encouraged to get a cream tea while in England. A friend said the best cream teas were in Devonshire and Exeter was in Devonshire, so we could kill two birds with one stop.  
     Liz, our hostess at our Penzance B&B printed out directions for us which was helpful since there were over twenty roundabouts on our 100 mile trip to Exeter. We were booked into the Telstar B&B. in Exeter. With twenty rooms, the Telstar was more of an inn than a true B&B. I confirmed that there was no pub downstairs. Exeter was an even bigger city than Bath. I realize I've been complaining a lot about the driving here. but it was the elephant in the back seat. Teresa has a better sense of direction than me, but I'm a better map reader, so she should have driven while I navigated, but she declined to take the wheel, so we had the worst of a bad situation. Finding our way around a strange city was tricky. Whenever we took a wrong turn, which we often did, we had to pull over and study the map on the iPad and work our way back. This is exactly what it took to find the Telstar B&B. As I pulled into the narrow driveway of the Telstar I noticed the street we had been on got super narrow. Glad we don't have to go up that way, I thought. 
      I asked the manager if the Telstar was named after the communications satellite. He said no, it was named after the 1962 hit song that was named after the satellite, and pointed to a poster of The Tornados on the dining room wall. Our first job, once in our room,  was to log onto Wi-Fi and find ourselves a Devonshire cream tea.  A cream tea is not tea with cream in it (a sacrilege), but tea with a scone and clotted cream. And clotted cream is formed by slowly warming cream until it forms clots. It's more delicious than it sounds.  I googled "best Devonshire cream tea in Devonshire" and was directed to a cream tea website. There was only one tearoom listed in Exeter, located about a mile and a half from our lodging. This involved a walk through the busy, gritty  downtown area. On the plus side, there were numerous charity shops which of course we patronized. According to the iPad, our tea shop was across the River Exe, an area even grittier than downtown. In fact it was downright industrial. We passed a giant auto body shop. I could see a long line of wrecks inside. There but for the grace of God.... Teresa was beginning to doubt my map reading skills. A tea shop in this area started to seem improbable to me too.
      We recrossed the river and spotted three women having tea at the back of their apartment estate. They told us the best Devonshire cream tea was at a café across the green from the cathedral. As so often happened, we could not find the landmarks the women had given us. Luckily we could see the spire of the cathedral and we were able to guide ourselves by that to the aptly named Café on the Green. Our cream tea was excellent and now we wouldn't have to be ashamed if people asked why we had skipped cream tea when we had been right there in Devonshire.
Best in the world
     Revived by our tea and clotted cream, we headed over to the cathedral. There are several big cathedrals in the U.S., but the European models are in a different class. For one thing, gravity has been trying to pull them down for several hundred more years. And I may be romanticizing here, but they seem imbued with a more intense faith than their modern versions. Many of the cathedrals go back to the Norman period in the 11th and 12th centuries. The style then was Romanesque or rounded. When the buildings were expanded in later centuries, it was in the Gothic or pointy style.
     The 20th century added the guest welcoming area where you make your donation. Seniors get a couple of pounds discount. Sunday services are free. Near the entry was a large tent which housed the beginnings of an enormous Lego model of the cathedral. For a pound, you could buy a lego block to help complete the model. It's expected to take five years to finish. They've had to order some special blocks from Lego headquarters in Denmark.
   What's most striking about Exeter is the lack of pews and the ceiling vaulting overhead. There were a couple of baby carriages with mirrors instead of mattresses that you could push around to inspect the ceiling without craning your neck. Exeter has the longest uninterrupted vaulted cathedral in the world.
Grab a baby buggy, save a crick.
     One thing we noticed in most churches in England was that the faces of ground level saints and angels had been smashed in. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, and 100 years later during the Civil War, certain disgruntled people expressed themselves by picking up sledges. Cultural revolutions are always hard on icons.
     An employee invited us to stay for evensong at six. The organ had been warming up in a thrilling way, and we took our seats in the choir, an area of tiered seats in the center of the nave. Another thirty or so tourists and locals joined us. Promptly at six, the choir filed in, a mix of children and adults, mostly men, but with some women and girls. They all wore gowns and the kids had ruffs. The choir director was extremely lively. I could have heard the music just watching him. The singing was ethereal. It said the angel smashers would not prevail. As we left the church, we read a sign saying one of the side chapels had been hit by a bomb during  WWII. Modern angel smashers.
    Next morning, we studied our maps over breakfast at the Telstar. It wasn't going to be easy escaping the tentacles of this ancient city. At the second roundabout Teresa told me we were already off course. I pushed on a bit, and now we were being forced through a narrow passage with rumple strips, the kind I had trembled at yesterday. In fact, it was the other end of that self same passage, and there was dear old Telstar. I pulled into the driveway. People looked out from the dining room. Let 'em look! We studied the map again, and resolved to do better. It was nip and tuck for awhile, but soon Exeter was in the rearview mirror and Portsmouth was just 100 miles away.
    Much of the route to Portsmouth was on divided motorways so I could relax a bit. We spotted a McDonalds up ahead. McDonalds let's you use their bathrooms without buying anything, but we helped them out by getting apple pies. Taste of home.
    In Portsmouth, my goal was to see Admiral Nelson's ship Victory at the Historic Dockyards. I had booked a room at a B&B a couple of miles from the ship. This B&B only had two parking spots for its ten rooms so I planned to grab one early and walk to the ship. Victory is a major  tourist trap and they charge accordingly. My guidebook said I could save a few pounds by buying my ticket at the D-Day Museum on the side of town close to our B&B.  I figured I'd buy our tickets then park the car and hike over to Victory. It was raining hard now, and for the life of us, we could not see the D-Day Museum. I pulled into a parking lot and ignored the sign that said "Buy a Parking Ticket, Even If You're Lost and Just Looking for the D-Day Museum." I walked around trying to spot the museum but no luck. We drove to a fish and chips place and got vague directions, then tried another restaurant for more vague directions and finally pulled up to a bunker like building that had to be the place, except there were no signs saying "you are here." There was a guy in a van outside eating his lunch. "Is this the D-Day Museum?"I asked.
"Yeah, but it's closed for repairs."
"Are you working on it?"
"Yeah. It'll be open in the spring."
"Next trip," I said.
    By the time we got settled at the Blue Star B&B, Teresa decided she'd spend the afternoon visiting local charity shops rather than walk two miles in the rain to visit an old ship at great expense. "You'll enjoy it more than I would," she rationalized.
    After a quick snack, I headed to the dockyards. The rain had quit but there was a strong cool wind blowing in off the sea. I did not have Internet access, but my phone showed me as a blue dot traipsing through the town. Even with all this technology I still turned the wrong way. How did I find things in the old days? I would have used a paper map and a compass and a less torpid brain.
    You could spend days exploring the Historic Dockyards. I just wanted to see Victory, and mercifully, they let you buy a reduced ticket for just that part of the place. Once I arrived at the ship, I was glad I had come. It was immense. The ship has been in drydock since the 1920s so I could see its entire great bulk.  A cathedral of the sea. Victory was launched in 1765, but she is famous for her part as Lord Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. This battle put an end to Napoleon's ambition to rule the seas and to the possible invasion of England itself. Nelson was killed during the battle by a sharpshooter in the rigging of a French ship.
Where Nelson fell. He lived another three hours, bidding farewell.
    After the battle, Victory began a long period of decline. A couple of times the Navy wanted to demolish the ship. It was obsolete and there was no money for maintenance. Public outcries preserved the ship and Queen Victoria put in her oar too. It wasn't until 2005 that the ship was restored to it's look at the time of the battle, and it will be a few more years before all the rigging and topmasts are back in place.
    There are over 350,000 visitors to the ship each year but only a dozen of us were aboard on this cool, rainy weekday. Once aboard, I noticed the other visitors all had headsets and tape players. No one had offered me a headset, not that I would have taken one. They always cost extra and I prefer to read the explanatory cards. But the cards only said things like "Nelson's Stateroom, push #5." All the information was on the tape! Fortunately my father had taken us aboard the USS Constitution and to various nautical museums as kids, so I knew my way around a man-o'-war. One thing intrigued me though. Why was Nelson's bed placed between two cannons just outside his luxurious stateroom? Was he such a heavy sleeper it took a cannon to rouse him?  The German bomb that landed next to the ship in 1941 would have awakened him. The Germans claimed they had destroyed the ship. The British said, No you didn't.
     As I walked back to the B&B a young man approached me. "Excuse me sir, can you tell me the way to the barber shop?" Tall and thin, with a goatee and an umbrella, he looked like a character out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I gestured back toward the city center where I had passed a couple of shops. Teresa and I had noted that England has an inordinate number of beauty salons, open late into the evening, and usually filled with  men and women sipping glasses of wine as they awaited their turn. Very civilized.
     After Portsmouth, I had just more item on my list: Jane Austen's house in Chawton, forty miles south of London. There were no B&Bs in Chawton so we booked a room in the nearby market town of Aldon. Jane's father had been a clergyman and the family had a comfortable life, but when he died, Jane, her mother and her sister were left in genteel poverty. Fortunately an older brother had been adopted by a wealthy childless couple, and the brother offered a cottage on his estate to his mother and sisters. This "cottage" was a large brick house and the Austen women had servants to do the heavy work. Jane spent the last eight years of her life in this place (she died at 41). Once settled at the cottage, Jane had time to revise and publish her first three novels, one of which was Pride and Prejudice. She also wrote her final three novels here. Just before her death, she moved twenty miles to Winchester to be close to her physician. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral.
     Jane's mother and sister continued to live in the house until their deaths. The house was then used as lodging for farm workers, so there was no impetus to upgrade and alter the place. The house became a museum in 1947 and was restored to it's early 19th century look. Gathered in the house are many items from Jane's life including her small writing table. Seeing things like this is my idea of fun.
Jane left some big shoes.
    The Austen Museum gets a fair number of visitors, but nothing like Stratford-upon-Avon or Victory. It's close enough to London that tourists don't have to spend the night in the area, but we did. We spent two nights in fact. Alton was a fine little town and we felt we were seeing real English life away from the tourist track. The Swan Inn had reasonable rates and our room was much more spacious than at a typical B&B.
    The next day we ran over to Winchester to see the cathedral and Jane's grave. The drive over was not bad, but the streets in the town were narrow and confusing, and as soon as I could, I pulled into a small pay lot. I had not yet learned to pay initially for five or six hours right off and be done with it. I just paid for two hours and figured I could run back if we needed more time. I tried to memorize landmarks as we went so we could find our way back. "There's a Marks and Spencer store," I noted. "We're right down the street from that."
     We checked out the ornate city hall and admired the enormous statue of  Alfred the Great who lived in these parts back in the ninth century. He was one of the good kings. We walked along the pretty River Icthen and explored the ruins of the bishop's palace. As we headed to the Cathedral, we noticed the cathedral used bookstore housed in a large shed was just opening for the day. Wow! I love England. We each got a couple of books and the elderly cashier told us of his travels around the U.S.
     Once inside the cathedral, we claimed our senior discount ("concession" they call it). I wanted to see Jane's tomb, but Teresa thought we should join the one hour tour that was just setting off. I reminded her that our parking time would be up in 45 minutes. She suggested I stay for a half hour of the tour then run up and put more money in the meter.
     Roger, our guide, was an elderly gentleman dressed in suitcoat and tie. I believe that in his younger days, Roger had written a multi-volume history of Winchester Cathedral. It's amazing how much history can accumulate around a single building. We had only made it to the baptismal font near the back of the church when I had to leave. Roger was on a tangent about the carvings on the base of the font when I told Teresa I'd be right back.
     You know those dreams where you start off from home, sure of where you're going, but with each step you get more lost? Well that's what my search for our parking lot was like. I was totally disoriented.  I saw a Marks & Spencer logo in the distance. "Excuse me," I asked a woman. "Is that Brooks & Spencer?" "You mean Marks & Spencer?" "Yes." I said. "I'm trapped in this nightmare and wonder if there's a parking lot down the street from there." She said, "Yes, just turn left at the store and you'll come to the lot." Whew. I turned the corner and spotted the big blue P. Saved! But when I arrived, it was a much larger lot than the one we had parked in. I asked a man if there was another lot in the area. He directed me to another lot, but as I headed the way he pointed, I looked back and saw our original lot. In my frenzy, I had walked right past our lot. Talk about situational unawareness.
     By the time I returned to the cathedral I figured the tour would be well over, but Roger was still going strong, and the tour was only half way up the nave. People in the group seemed to take my return as a chance to fade away. Soon there were only three of us. I wanted to ask Roger where Jane's tomb was. The other member of our reduced group asked about an odd floor tile. Roger said an American tourist had broken through the floor here last year. Now this sounded interesting. Cavities under the floor. But before we could get the juicy details, we had to hear a dissertation on medieval tile making. There was never a pause or break in Roger's discourse. It was like falling through the floor with nothing to grab onto.
     Finally we broke away and headed for a group of tourists by a big plaque. At last the famous writer's tomb. A bunch of the tourists were standing, disrespectfully I thought, right on top of Jane's slab. What sort of acid would she have used to describe that? No, she would have seen the humor.
     In the gift shop I restrained myself from asking for a CD of the song "Winchester Cathedral." We had a pleasant lunch in a busy pub, then enjoyed our usual stomach churning drive out of town and back to Alton.  The highway itself was fine, but I never did master driving the narrow city streets. I needed a couple of more months.
Her words live on.
     Alton was not touristy at all. It was just a typical English market town and we liked it a lot. There were many charity shops to engage Teresa.  As we were walking along the quiet high street that evening, a vanload of lads drove by and one of them yelled "Oi," loud enough to make Teresa start, as the van swerved on down the street. Up to now, everything had been perfectly well mannered. This was a faint echo of Britain's dark side, of the likes of Jack the Ripper, football hooligans, Boris Johnson....
    When planning our trip, we hadn't made any provision for visiting London. Now, after seeing most of the things on our list, we still had two days in hand. I made reservations at a small hotel near Heathrow for the two nights before our flight home.
    What shall we do now? Windsor Castle's not far away. Nah, we're sick of castles and of paying a ransom to get in 'em. I saw on the map that there park on the west edge of London. We could go for a hike. We experienced our first traffic jam of the trip on the way to the park. Someone had told me the M-25 around London was always jammed. We left the motorway and headed to the park. On the way we noticed a gigantic flea market. Quite a comedown from Windsor Castle, but we decided to check it out. Parking in a big grassy field was three pounds; two pounds after noon and only one pound after two p.m. I pulled out a pound coin, but the keeper waved me on. Many of the vendors were packing up to leave, but there were still plenty of rags and bones to look at. This was the place to go for a cheap mattress or the materials to make a mattress. There were also tables of household goods and antiquities. One guy had a table of free stuff. I got an ancient egg beater that was probably used to mix up eggnog when Dickens was in charge of Christmas. I don't know where people get off saying London is expensive. I had just scored free parking and a free antique.
     We checked into our hotel and walked a mile to a pub for supper. Heathrow airport takes up a gigantic piece of land, but is surrounded by several small villages. Next to the Anchor Pub where we ate was a little field with two sheep grazing. You won't find grazing sheep two miles from LaGuardia or LAX.
    Our plan for London was to take a two mile bus ride over to the airport, then catch the Tube (subway) to the city center. But when we read the bus schedule that evening, we learned the bus did not run on Sundays. I confirmed this with a passerby. He said we could walk two miles to the bus terminal and catch another bus to the airport. I called a cab company. Twenty bucks! We decided to walk to the airport, though I didn't know if you could walk into Heathrow. Google didn't know either. Sunday morning we got an early start and saw there was a gate through the fence around the busy perimeter road that services Heathrow's five terminals. And there was a bike path next to the road. Most civilized!
    We had to dodge buses and trucks as we made our way through the parking garage and into the terminal. We bought our tickets and headed down to the Tube platform. It was only 12 miles into the city, but the trip took over an hour because of the many stops. At last we arrived at Piccadilly Circus. The 'circus' refers to a roundabout that's no longer there. There used to be a shop there that made piccadils, or frilled collars. That's gone too.
    We had breakfast in a crowded café. The meals are not more expensive in London than elsewhere, you just get less food. We made our way to Trafalgar Square, much of which was fenced off for an Indian festival. Many of the great museums are free, but we had no time for museums. We would just wander around goggling at icons. Then we saw Yoda, the first of many street performers we were to see. Yoda was levitating one foot off the ground. His feet were not visible, but the bottom of his robe rippled in the breeze of a little fan. He held a staff in one outstretched arm.  How did he do it? If you threw a pound in his basket he would nod to you, but speak he would not.
He never spilled his beer.

    We crossed the Thames on a pedestrian bridge. It's mind expanding to walk through sites you've seen on TV or read about. There was Parliament, and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, and, and..., what's that big crowd about? It was another performer, letting two members of the crowd wrap chains around him. This had obviously been going on for a while, and he dragged it out another 15 minutes, priming us to put money in his basket when he finally shed the mass of chains. "A five pound note would be brilliant! I've got  kids to feed back home in Australia."
All the other tourist were striking poses, why not us?.
     The bells of the Abbey were ringing joyously. Teresa recorded a bit on her iPad. On the other side of the Abbey we ran into our first fellow Minnesotan, a young woman from the Twin Cities. She had a map of Minnesota on her sweatshirt so it wasn't hard to make the connection. She was studying in Spain and hadn't been home in months. She said we made her day. Nice.
    We passed the heavily defended 10 Downing Street, and the Horse Guards parade ground, then back to Piccadilly for lunch at the fifth floor café of the amazing Waterstone's, the largest bookstore in Europe. We strolled through the funky Soho area. Teresa found a popup charity store and the manager brought me a chair to relax on while Teresa aided the children of Afghanistan.
    We made our way along Oxford Street to Covent Garden enjoying the street performers and the very diverse crowd. I had read that the old London had disappeared, but I kept spotting ancient pubs nestled under newer buildings. London still seemed to have plenty of old stuff.
     We found the Covent Garden Tube stop to return to our hotel. There was a big crowd at the elevators so we took the spiral stairs down to the platform. Right away we met some exhausted looking kids, then nothing. Round and round we went. Near the bottom was a sign. " Stairs for Emergency Use Only! 193 steps, Equivalent to a 15 Story Building." At least we were going down.
     As we walked back along the perimeter road to our hotel, we popped into a Subway Sandwich shop, attached to a gas station. The shop was exactly like Subway at home, except one of the options was chicken tikka.
     We felt completely acclimated to England as we watched the Great British Bake Off show while enjoying our takeaway supper. Teresa had been careful about her purchases at the charity stores, but it still took a couple of hours to get packed. I had bought a new pair of shoes and had to leave my old ones behind. Perhaps they'll end up at the London flea market.
     It was only four miles from our hotel back to Hertz. I planned our route extra carefully. No screw-ups on the last day. As we pulled into the car return area we gave each other a high five. We had just navigated a thousand miles of the world's most dangerous roads without a scratch. Yes, I could have made our lives easier with a GPS and an automatic transmission, but where's the glory in that? The glory was in getting out and about, seeing all kinds of beautiful and strange things, hobnobbing with the locals, and having any prejudices washed away. It was great!
     I do have one last question though. Why do they give you half a pint of milk to put in your tea, while the ketchup packets don't contain enough to cover half of one French Fry, I mean chip?
Flowery Kingdom