Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rediscovering Cumbria and Yorkshire

After my arduous flight, it was a relief to reach my mother’s house in Kendal, Cumbria.
I was sure that it would seem freezing in the north of England after Florida, but it didn’t seem too bad (although later on, the cold did seem to seep into my bones!).  I also had some winter weather clothing stashed at my mother’s place, which I dug out from the loft – woolly hat, raincoat, fleece, Doc Martyns, walking/running shoes... 

What impressed me most initially was all the Autumnal colors in northern England (Florida doesn’t really have a great deal of seasonal change), as well as the dramatic and attractive Lake District scenery.

I spent the first couple of days acclimatising and indulging in some of the things that are impossible or difficult to do in Florida.  I ate cheese and onion pasties and fish and ships, drank cider, and bought some North of England ale.

After the weekend, I went to a folk music club in Kendal on the Monday night, which was fun, listening to some traditional British and Irish music.

I bumped into an American singer from Nashville whilst I was there.  Rod Picott had just finished a European tour and stopped off for a night in Kendal on his way from Scotland to London, where he was due to catch his flight back to Tennessee. He told me that he wanted to experience some traditional music and this was his first time at a UK folk club

He was a lone American in a room full of Brits.  I am used to being a lone Brit in a crowd of Americans, so I felt a connection.  He was a really nice guy and I would highly recommend his music.

Having found my Blighty feet, I set off on my first major jaunt.

I worked and lived for many years in the Leeds area, so I embarked on a trip over to Yorkshire to see my old friends.  To get there meant driving through the narrow, winding country roads of Cumbria and North Yorkshire (my mother had kindly insured her car for me and offered me its use).  It was great fun and a definite contrast from the broad, straight highways of Florida.

I visited a few old work friends from the time I spent working for Leeds Libraries.

I drank with some old friends in the pub (I do sometimes miss the cosiness of the traditional British pub, living in the US).

I also went for some excellent walks with old friends through the parkland and woods of north Leeds.

Meanwood Park was visited by J R R Tolkein when he lived in the area and some scholars believe that it influenced his vision of Middle Earth that he used when he wrote The Hobbit.

My weekend in Yorkshire seemed to go by too quickly, but it was a great first trip.  

 I headed back to my base in Kendal and made plans to head down to the Brighton area, Sussex (south coast of England) next, and also Edinburgh, Scotland.   

I also drew up some plans for some more forays into Yorkshire and a mountain climb in the English Lake District.  

 My trip was off to a great start.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bad Flight – Crossing the Atlantic the Hard Way!

Before I set off for England, my wife asked me how I felt about my imminent journey?

I told her that I possessed a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.  I would enjoy being in England, but I wasn’t looking forward to all the flying, airport security, waiting around, anxiety over delays etc.

The last trans-Atlantic flight I went on was when I flew over to Florida from England to get married.  The plane made a short, first leg journey from Manchester to Dublin, where it proceeded to snow.  My main flight from Ireland to Orlando was cancelled and I spent an unexpected night in a hotel in a very cold and white Dublin.  

I finally got to Florida the following evening, but there was a lot of extra stress and worry – plus additional expenses relating to hotel fees and food, which it took over a month for me to claim back.

My Ill-Fated Dublin Flight in 2010

This time my wife reassured me that things would be better.  And it did start out very well.  My wife and I drove to Tampa, we had a nice meal and a drink, and we said our farewells.  Then I flew up to Boston.  From there I was due to fly overnight to Reykjavík, Iceland.  I was actually very much looking forward to arriving in Iceland the following morning.  Even though there wouldn’t be much to see apart from the descent into Reykjavík and the airport itself, Iceland has always struck me as a fascinating place to experience, even if just from the air.

The Reykjavík flight was due to leave at 8.30pm Boston time.  But just before we were supposed to take off they told that there was a mysterious technical problem – mysterious, because they knew that it existed but they weren’t sure exactly what it was.

An hour later they told us that they now knew what the problem was, but they needed a part to fix it, and that part had to be flown in all the way from Atlanta, Georgia.  Once the part arrived at Boston, the Icelandic air stewardess assured us, the engineers would fix the plane and we would fly out at 12.30pm.  At this point, the cynics amongst the passengers could be heard to mutter quietly their doubts that the plane would leave the runway that evening, although everybody wanted to hope for the best.

Anyway, 12.30 came around and they cancelled the flight.  That left more than 200 passengers with nowhere to sleep, and perhaps worse, no definite flights to their final destination (Iceland was just a stepping stone for most of us).  A slow, but chaotic series of computer bookings and general irritating nonsense ensued at the flight company’s checkout desk.

The nearest hotels that they could book us into were 30 or 40 miles away.  They managed to book me onto a flight to Heathrow (then on to Manchester) leaving later that morning.  In theory, I had a hotel to sleep at, but there wasn’t time for me to travel all the way to the hotel to rest and then still get back in time to check in for my early morning flight.  So I spent the night sleeping (or at least trying) beside the airport’s Dunkin’ Donuts outlet.  Fun fun fun, it was not.

Sunset Over the Atlantic Above the Clouds

To cut a long story short (I will miss out the incorrect boarding pass that I was given for the flight to Heathrow, followed by the delays with my final flight of the journey) I did eventually make it to Manchester.  But at such a late hour, there was no way that I could catch a train up to the Lake District.  Luckily, my mother and her partner had taken pity on me, and they came down to the airport to collect me in the car.  Otherwise that would have been another night in an airport.

Anyway, I am here now in (rainy) England and determined to enjoy myself.  Which I will.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Playing Tennis at the Nationals in Tucson

I planned to blog about my time at the tennis nationals a couple of weeks back, but due to time pressures, I’ve not had the chance until now.  That said, it probably isn’t a bad thing that I have a few weeks distance for reflection, as the experience was an emotional roller coaster, to say the least.

Saguaro National Park

Those of us making the road trip arrived a couple of days early, giving us an opportunity to explore, chill out, and acclimatize (or acclimate, as they say in these parts).  The four of us were joined by a fifth team member, Bobby, on the Wednesday, and almost immediately a plan was formed to visit one of the Arizona National Parks (this was just before they all closed for the government shutdown which began the following week).

We opted for the Saguaro National Park, famous for its giant saguaro cacti.  The scenery was truly stunning: a range of incredible cacti in a rocky, dry desert setting, with a fabulous mountain backdrop.  We drove and walked around and I got the Paul-stood-next-to-giant-cactus-photo which I had hoped for!

Me with giant cactus
Scott on a rock formation

Another interesting cacti, in bloom.

Stunning scenery
Buoyed by our visit to the park, we headed back to the hotel, where the rest of the team were gradually arriving in readiness for the next day.

Let the Tennis Begin!


Basically, all the men’s teams were split into 4 different groups.  There were three other teams in our group.  If we won all three matches, then we were through to the semi-finals.  If we won two out of the three, we could still make it through, but it would be tougher.

The Nationals Team
Erin kept everyone back home up to date on the scores via Facebook
Cam was supposed to be playing but got (unfairly) disqualified from the competition at the last moment.  Heather took most of the photos.
 Friday - First Match

Our first match took place ridiculously early in the morning, but it didn’t seem to matter, as we were all thrown out by the time difference anyway (thanks to the different time zones and Tucson not doing Summer Time, there was a 3 hour difference from Florida).  Our first match was against South-West, a team from Arizona composed entirely of players who were ethnically Indian (that’s the subcontinent, not Native American).  They were a friendly bunch but some of our team had trouble deciphering their accents.

The first match was close.  We lost both the singles courts decisively, but Daniel and I won our doubles match comfortably, as did John and Aaron on doubles #2.  The deciding match ended up being court #3, where Paul D and Erik, having narrowly lost their first set, were battling to win the second set and force a tiebreak – it wasn’t to be, and the Florida team ended up losing the first match 3 courts to 2.

Daniel on the attack
Bobby moving in
Scott striking out

Friday - Second Match

The first match was actually the first one that our team had ever lost and I think it’s fair to say that some players were downhearted after the defeat.  But we had to bounce back quickly as we had our next match in the afternoon against Texas.

Texas were a pretty strong team, certainly in the singles department, but their doubles pairs were beatable.  Historically, they generally seemed to win their matches by winning both singles courts and at least one of the doubles.  A number of our team strongly suspected that their captain employed a strategy where instead of putting the best pair on court #1, the second best on #2, etc., he mixed the order of his pairs up, increasing the chances of at least one doubles win.  This practice is against the spirit of the competition, but unfortunately so common in some circles, that many captains see the practice as acceptable. 

Anyway, suffice to say, we lost both the singles matches (I personally was slaughtered 6-0 6-1!) but our doubles pairs all won, including victories by Paul D and Erik, who returned with a vengeance after their defeat in the first match, and a nail-biting tiebreak where Bobby and Scott eventually triumphed!  That gave us a 3-2 victory that we badly needed.

Erik and Paul D

Aaron getting ready

John serves one up

To get through to the semi-finals, we now needed two things to happen.  Firstly, we needed to win our final match against the Ohio team decisively (i.e. 4-1 or 5-0) and  secondly, we needed Texas to beat the Arizona team 3-2.  This all seemed very feasible, so we entered the third match determined to give it our best shot.

Daniel and I steam-rollered our opposition on the doubles #1 court (they were nice guys and they put up stiff competition, but we were determined to not let them into the match), which meant that Daniel and I got to see all the other matches, as they gradually finished.  Incredibly, our team won all the courts, giving us a 5-0 victory.  Now all we needed was for Texas to do their bit.

Aaron volleys

Me in action shot

Paul D waiting to strike
Daniel and I watching a tiebreak

The Texas v Arizona match was close, and after four courts finishing, it was 2-2, then the fifth and final court went one set all (remember, we needed Texas to win 3-2).  The tiebreak decider was almost certainly the most nervy and emotional time that I’ve had at a sporting competition – I could barely watch, the anxiety and anticipation was so high.  The teams were neck and neck all the way to the wire, until eventually Arizona squeaked a 2 point victory.  

Florida were out of the competition.


After some overnight partying, most of us turned up the following day to see the finals.  The men’s competition was won by Puerto Rico.  I am not kidding, their team had its own traveling coach and a guy with an ice box who went around giving the players drinks during breaks.  The team build ups before their matches was like a national pride march, with songs, chants, and general jubilation.  Clearly the amateur tennis competition is a source of honor in Puerto Rico!  They were a well-oiled, professional machine and they demolished the Hawaiian opposition (certainly no slackers!) 5-0 in the final!

Arizona, the team that won our group (we finished second in the group), went on to secure third place in the competition, after losing to Hawaii in the semis and beating New England in the 3rd/4th place play-off match.

I certainly don’t think we could have won that competition, but we were so close to getting to the semis and maybe even getting third place.  Just being able to say that we were one of the top four teams in the US would’ve been something to tell the grandkids!  Oh well.


On the way back, I’d come to an arrangement with a friend, who owns a junk collection franchise, that I would drive a truck back from Austin, Texas.  He got the truck delivered, and I got a free journey back to Florida. 

We picked up the truck and headed into downtown Austin for lunch.

The Austin dump truck

On the road

Keep Austin Weird

The trip back was grueling at times.  Aside from the weariness of long-distance travel, it was more than a little lonely in the truck, driving on my own.  The radio didn’t work either, so I found myself doing a lot of a capella singing.  On top of that, the fuel gauge was stuck permanently at zero due to a fault, so I had to make regular stops at gas stations, rather than risk running out of diesel.

The others drove ahead of me in the car.  We stopped overnight in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Maybe it was a mixture of fatigue and relief at reaching my (temporary) destination, but the city and waterfront looked rather splendid, lit up under the night sky, as I rumbled in via the interstate.

From Baton Rouge, it was one last stretch to North Central Florida.  Back to my wife and daughter and the settled, mundane life.  I was tired, but satisfied to be home.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2000 Miles and 7 States - Adventures on the Road

As some readers will know, I journeyed 2000 miles across the southern USA in late September, mainly to play in a National tennis competition, but also to see some more of the US.  The drive took my three friends and I through the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico, before we eventually arrived at our destination, Arizona.  The trip was full of adventure.

New Orleans

We began our road trip early, 5.30 am, and after eating lunch with family of my friends, we spent the first night stop in New Orleans. We found our hotel, The Hilton, in the city centre, unloaded our bags, and opted to pay for valet parking, as it worked out only a few dollars more than doing it ourselves.  

It was only when we reached the checking in counter that we were told that there are three Hiltons in New Orleans and we’d gone to the wrong one!  Luckily we were given a free glass of wine and managed to catch the car before it was driven off to the park!

After finding the right hotel, we unloaded our bags, drank a celebratory glass of Jim Beam, and ventured out into New Orleans.  We headed straight for Bourbon Street and took in the ambience.  After eating a meal, watching the street from a balcony, and experiencing some live jazz music, we headed back to our rooms, tired but fulfilled.   

San Antonio

We hit the road again early the following morning and it didn’t take too long before we hit Texas.  Driving through the Lone Star State would take up most of the second day (and a large chunk of the day after that too!).  We arrived at our next stop, San Antonio, late afternoon and headed straight for its most famous building, the iconic, Alamo Mission.
I wasn’t sure how the boisterous Texans would present their most famous building, but it was all rather tastefully done and it was great to take in some history.

Afterwards, we checked our bags in at the hotel and headed to the River Walk, an attractive downtown development running along the San Antonio River.  We ate some Tex Mex food and ordered quite possibly the biggest margaritas in the world.  We opted to imbibe the drinks through straws, but had we brought our bathing costumes, we could quite easily have dived into the limey-tequilerish beverages and swum around in them, such was their size.

West Texas Birthday

The population and the vegetation thinned out as we drove deep into West Texas the following day.  There were some large, crazy rock formations and the first hills I’d seen for three years (Florida is pretty much totally flat!)  

It was also, by a strange coincidence, my birthday that day. It was decided that the anniversary of my arrival into the world should be celebrated with me drinking shots from a plastic cup in the shape of a cactus every time that we stopped, whilst a collection of hit songs from the year of my birth, 1965, was listened to when we were on the road.  

Unfortunately, the cacti shot cup leaked more bourbon than it held, giving the interior of the car, as well as my clothing, a whiskeyish flavour – perhaps not a good thing, given the strict Texas alcohol/driving laws. 

El Paso

We ate lunch in El Paso and caught a glimpse of the Rio Grande, the security border fence, and the hills and shanty huts of Mexico. 

New Mexico Customs

New Mexico turned into dry desert plains and mountains.  The bourbon and pop music led me into a satisfied relaxed state.  Then, in the middle of nowhere in particular, all vehicles on the road was funneled into a self-described “customs post”. This caused some anxiety, as my green card has lapsed whilst the USCIS process a replacement. They did send me an official letter saying that my permanent resident status had been extended a year, but I’d left it back in Florida, not expecting to cross through any customs posts.  There were officials with dogs flagging down vehicles, presumably looking for illegal Mexicans.
Despite my faultless immigration status, my concern was that we would be delayed for a long time - but to my relief, after removing our ponchos and sombreros, we were waved through without any problems. 

(Okay, I made that bit up about ponchos and sombreros!)

 Tucson at last!

The last stretch of the journey through New Mexico and Arizona seemed to drag a little, especially after the sun went down and there was no scenery to see.  Arriving in darkness, it was difficult to know what to make of Tucson.  We wouldn’t see its dry desert splendor until the following morning - the rocks,  huge cacti and stunning mountains in all directions. 
We would have a couple of days to rest up and do some gentle exercise, before it was time to play some serious tennis.

It should also be noted that during the last leg of the outward journey, the cap of my family-sized mouthwash bottle had come loose, leaking its contents into my suitcase.  Despite rinsing out my clothes, I would spend the remainder of the trip exuding a minty aroma wherever I went.