Sunday, 31 May 2015

Respect is due: Redhill and back alone and in the rain...

Pot of tea for one and a pain au raisin in West Central, Redhill
Yesterday I should have gone out cycling. The weather was fantastic, but I dawdled about. At 11 o'clock I thought it was time to hit the road, but I stayed put, and then, at noon, I almost left the house, but ended up not bothering. It was, to put it mildly, the worst possible example of apathy and general laziness made worse by the fact that I knew Sunday was going to be a terrible day characterised by rain and blustery winds.

Sunday morning and the weathermen were proved right: it was a mildly blowy and wet day, but the rain was almost invisible; the sort of rain that is only visible if I strain my eyes while looking at the trees – it didn't even reveal itself in the birdbath. But drizzle, as such rain is often called, is known to get worse and turn into full-blown rain. So I hesitated again.

Standing in the bathroom I stared at the shelf on which brightly-coloured toothbrushes, like alien flowers, stood to attention among the shampoos, conditioners and disposable razors. There was a bar of soap resting on the ledge of the sink and the shower curtain was drawn across exposing its colourful pattern to my tired eyes. Outside, through the frosted glass, I could see the green blur of the garden and I found myself thinking that I simply had to go out on the bike. The alternative was to have a day like yesterday of just sitting around the house not doing anything – other than reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (I'm nearly on page 900!). So I metaphorically slapped myself around the face and resolved to take a ride.

I didn't want to ride to Botley or the Tatsfield Bus Stop, or even Westerham, so I decided to head for Redhill. The drizzle had stopped, the skies were grey but bright and, crucially, it wasn't cold. I rode the normal way, as if I was meeting Andy at the green, but halfway along the Limpsfield Road I turned right onto Wentworth Way, followed the road to Warlingham School and then headed down Tithepit Shaw Lane and into Whyteleafe. I crossed the railway track and headed up Whyteleafe Hill, turning right into Burntwood Lane and then left into Caterham, past the Esso garage and through Caterham-on-the-Hill along Town End and then High Street, which turned into Church Road. I realised that instead of turning right into Burntwood Lane I could have carried on along Whyteleafe Road, emerging on to Church Road shortly before the right turn into Stanstead Road where I was greeted by a leafy suburban street characterised by gated communities full of right wing people so scared of the proletariat they have to lock themselves and their families away from what they perceive as the cruel world – not far removed, perhaps, from the Michigan Militia and those awful people who store tinned food in hidden caves in preparation for the apocalypse.

Rural roads between Redhill and Caterham
Whyteleafe Hill was long and tiresome and time-consuming and so was Stanstead Road. I kept expecting to see the pub, the Harrow, but it kept me waiting as the aforementioned gated communities and the odd private school caught my eye as the bike took me into more semi-rural terrain. Soon I found myself on White Hill Lane – murder coming the other way but a piece of piss when you're riding downhill. I turned right into Spring Bottom Lane and then left on to Warwick Wold Road, which took me down into Merstham on the Bletchingly Road where I eventually turned left into Nutfield Road and then a short stretch of Battlebridge Lane before hitting Frenchies Road, which took me out on to the A23 for a couple of hundred yards and into Redhill.

I got there at 1055, having left the house at 0930hrs, and decided to find somewhere to chill and drink tea. I hadn't brought the flask so instead I headed for West Central, a 'not-for-profit coffee shop run by the church – although it cost roughly the same as other high street brands, such as Costa. I padlocked the bike outside and then ordered a pot of tea for one (£1.70) and a pain au raisin (£1.80) and sat at a table that allowed me to keep my bike in sight, not that any thieves would get far; it's a heavy bike and they'd have to carry it so I knew it was relatively safe.

West Central in Redhill – quite pleasant
Soon it was time to head home. I glanced at the time, it was 1140. I unpadlocked the bike and rode out of town, heading north along the A23. I'd decided not to hit the back roads for the return journey – or rather not all of them. Instead I rode along the A23 and through Merstham, turning right on to Shepherds Hill, which turned into Alderstead Road and then Dean Lane, which took me into the leafy suburbs of Chaldon on the outskirts of Caterham. Dean Lane became Rook Lane and then Chaldon Road. I turned left on the Coulsdon Road and cycled down towards the pub where I turned right on to Westway and left into Money Road before turning right on to Banstead Road, crossing into Burntwood Lane and turning left on to Whyteleafe Hill. I coasted downhill and across the railway line and then crossed the roundabout on the A22, up Hillbury Road and then up Tithepit Shaw Lane, a steep hill. Unfortunately my gears were playing up. I couldn't crank it down to the smaller cog at the front so I had to dismount and walk a few yards before jumping back on and hanging a left into Wentworth Road and then another left on to the Limpsfield Road. I rode through Sanderstead High Street and down Church Way where I encountered tragic circumstances. A woman called Jennifer Waller lay face down in the road in a distressed state of mind. According to a man driving a white van she was jogging down the road and simply fell flat on her face. An ambulance was called and when it eventually arrived I continued my journey down Church Way, left on to Morley, right into Elmfield Way and home.

While drizzly rain was present for most of the journey – and I was wet through – it was warm and, I must say, rather pleasant, although there was a heavy downpour around 2 o'clock, but, fortunately, I was back in the house by then.

The journey time to Redhill was one hour and 25 minutes at an even pace (and the same coming back) meaning that if I  cycled to work of a morning I'd need to leave the house by 0715hrs at the very latest.

Rural surroundings on the return journey from Redhill to Sanderstead

Saturday, 30 May 2015

In praise of NH Hotels' Grand Sablon, Brussels...

Perhaps I’m easily impressed, but give me a canopy and a few flags out front and I’m half way to being convinced that I’m staying in a decent hotel. And for once it’s the truth – although, to be fair, most of the hotels I stay in are fine it's just that, after staying in two Best Westerns in Brussels – which were fine, don’t get me wrong – at last I’ve found a decent hotel with a restaurant. I know there are loads of decent hotels in the European Union capital with restaurants, that’s not the point, it’s just that, up until now, the hotels I’ve used on trips to this great city – Best Western Royal Centre and City Centre – have forced me to walk the streets at night in search of food (and I've not found anything brilliant).

I’m staying at the NH Hotels Grand Sablon, which is about 25 minutes on foot from Brussels Midi railway station if you use your smart phone’s GPS as I did and save the money (about 10-15 Euros) that would have been spent on a taxi.
Not a great view from room 334, but the hotel and room was terrific

First impressions do count. I’ve mentioned the canopy and the flags – always a good sign – but then there’s the grandiose entrance lobby, the polite staff on the front desk, free WiFi, free fruit juices waiting for thirsty customers opposite the front desk, polished floors, a business centre and all before I reach the room.

I take the lift to the third floor and room 334, a short walk from the elevator. It’s a very pleasant room with two single beds pushed together, a full minibar and proper coat hangers in a glass-doored wardrobe that is all part of one unit of furniture against the wall opposite the window. There’s not much of a view, but it doesn’t really matter as this is a good room with an easy chair, a decent flat-screen television on the wall opposite the bed and a decent bathroom with relatively subtle lighting compared to the usual floodlit affair. In fact, the one problem I did have throughout my sadly brief stay at the Grand Sablon was the shower. It was complicated. There were two options: a hand-held ‘rain shower’ or the wall-mounted conventional system. Both involved a lot of faffing about in terms of getting the temperature right – which proved impossible – and I had to endure a lukewarm shower, the alternative being scorching hot.

It was complicated, believe me...
Everything else about this hotel was amazing and I began to wish I was staying longer than just one night at this friendly, comfortable establishment. The best bit, however, was yet to come. While there were restaurants and bars a short walk from the Grand Sablon, none of them really appealed and I hate having the thought of walking back to the hotel after dinner hanging over me as I eat. So I dined in the hotel restaurant, a space part table-clothed for dinner with other tables showing bare wood. A redundant servery area indicated that the restaurant doubled as the breakfast room.

I took a seat by the window and met Emanuele the waiter – a proper waiter, I hasten to add, nothing half-hearted, this guy knew his stuff. I was on the verge of considering wine but, he informed me that in Belgium they drink beer and eat chocolate and I’d be missing out if I didn’t do the same. He was right. I ordered a La Chouffe with my starter and main course – soup followed by chicken – and then a Trappist Westmalle with my Belgian cheeses, the latter suggested by Emanuele. I was going to order pannacota, but he said I’d be missing out and he was right.

Emanuele was the star of the show? Why? Because of his passion for the job, his knowledge of the menu, his ability to capture the imagination of his customers and make them feel centre stage. I only wish I’d had another night so that I could enjoy the culinary experience and his excellent service all over again. The food was good, by the way, nothing heavy, just simple food and, best of all, there was no need to walk back from anywhere – just a short amble to the elevator and I was back in my room.

Yes, I know, it's a mess, but I was checking out.
On the way out of the restaurant Emanuele handed me a card inviting me to say something nice about the food, drink and service if I was considering a review for Trip Advisor. Slightly presumptuous, perhaps, but he needn’t have bothered asking as I had been writing this review in my head from the moment I’d taken my seat at the table. Good waiters are rare. The last one I remember was in an Italian restaurant in Geneva, near the main railway station, a couple of years ago, so Emanuele gets top marks from this reviewer.

Check-in and check-out were straightforward and this place comes highly recommended from me to you.

NH Hotels, incidentally, have 379 hotels in 29 countries. Click here for more.

This review is also on Trip Advisor and you will find a mention of NH Hotels in my recent post on Amsterdam, click here.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Overheard on the Eurostar to Brussels...

The Eurostar
"They call us roast beefs."
"Ooh does?"
"The French."
"Oh aye."
"Anybody want grapes?"
"I was looking forward to those crisps."
"Is that 50 Shades of Grey?"
"Ee wouldn't get past page one!"
"Tickets please!"
"Not very fast is it!"
"We haven't started yet."
"T'only takes hour an' 10 minutes."
"You what?"
"It's me left leg that needs exercise."
"Oh aye! Wait till we get int tunnel ant' lights go off!"
"Anymore of them grapes?"
"Ee 'ad nice soft hands, though."
"They might think you're an illegal."
"Me ears are going."
"Aye up! We're in France."
[We hadn't entered the tunnel at this point]
"We're all int same hotel – three nights."
"You never know, people might want to do different things."
"And ee never twigged?"
"I think the first one was your barbecue."
"I thought there was something stupid about that email."
"The Munich one?"
"Not sure, it didn't make much sense."
"But it was worth it just to see your face."
"Anne's got big sunglasses."
"They're the trend now."
"I used to 'ave big sunglasses but people used to laff at me and call me David Bowie."
"I'm just polishing up me French 'ere!"
"Bon jours!"
"She's got one of these smartphones from Sainsbury's: £12 a month..."
"Has 'e guessed anything yet?"
"He was saying to me 'do you know where we're going?'

Monday, 25 May 2015

A later start meant another ride to the Tatsfield Churchyard

Well, we'd probably have gone there anyway having riden to Westerham on Sunday morning, but the slightly later start – only 15 minutes later than usual – made riding there seem acceptable and besides we both had stuff to do.
Andy and Matt, Tatsfield Churchyard, Monday 25 May
The ride was pleasant and so was the weather although it was slightly colder than Saturday and Sunday – about four degrees colder. But there were still blue skies and cotton wool clouds.

As you can see from the photograph above, I'm wearing 'shades'. They're proper cycling glasses (a bit Lycra Monkey, yes) but they have a purpose. On Sunday my eyes were itchy (it's a summer, hay fever thing) so I figured that wearing the glasses would, in effect, keep my eyes from direct contact with the air and it worked. In fact I wore them later to mow the lawn and I managed to stay itch-free all day.

It's been a good weekend of cycling and roughly 55 miles were covered – good work!

Taking tea (and coffee) with Lycra monkeys

Sunday 24 May: For the first time this year we rode to Westerham, just Andy and I. It was a case of heads down and get there and we got there with the intention of taking breakfast at the Tudor Rose tearoom (Andy's treat – thanks, Andy).

When we reached the green after a pleasant ride, I noticed that Andy was looking for something and soon realised that he wanted to see the cycle shop and café combined that I had brought to his attention recently. Avid readers might recall that, a year or two ago as Andy and I sipped tea and munched cereal bars on Westerham's green we often fantasised about taking on the lease of an old Barclays Bank and transforming it into a cyclists' coffee shop, jam-packed with biscuits and cakes and offering a repair service too. But, of course, we were never serious about it and, as Andy said yesterday as we trudged morosely across the grass towards the roadside, our version of the Westerham Cyclery's caff and repair shop would have been half-hearted and certainly not as swish. I take the latter point about it not being as swish, perhaps, but would it have been half-hearted?

Amazing cake and cappuccino that's better than Costa.
I've already critiqued the place in a previous post, claiming it was too 'boutiquey' in its appearance, but that was based on standing outside and then having just a brief wander into the building before heading straight to the Tudor Rose – much more my cup of tea and, dare I say it, more in tune with what my version of a bike repair shop and caff would have looked like. But now, having experienced the Westerham Cyclery caff first hand, my opinion has changed. Let's face it, the guy in charge knows what he's doing and he's done a fantastic job. Yes, it is a bit 'boutiquey'. There are wooden floors and leather sofas and flatscreen televisions showing cycling on Eurosport, there are copies of Bradley Wiggins' autobiography, a few perfect-bound cycling magazines here and there, a range of energy snacks for Lycra monkeys concerned about 'precious grams' and putting in a good time and some signed Tour de France cycling shirts in frames on the wall. In other words, the place screams Lycra monkeys and so does the clientele – no ragged trousered mountain bike riders here... until now.

In fact, we did feel a little out of place what with me, unshaven and unkempt-looking in my tatty old Tesco ASBO specials and trainers, my right leg tucked into a grey sock. Andy, as it happened, looked relatively respectable as, unlike me, he'd taken the trouble to shave. It was as if two cast members from a Spaghetti western had bowled up to a posh restaurant with no intention of dressing for dinner. And we were early by about five minutes and were ready, had he not allowed us in, to make our way diagonally across the green to the Tudor Rose for a full English. But he opened early just for us, unlocking some wooden doors to the left of the caff proper to reveal parking racks for bikes and some comfortable outdoor seating at the back – this place covered all bases. There was a bike showroom upstairs, a bike accessories area to the right of the serving counter and, in addition to the energy bars, a selection of three tasty-looking cakes.

Andy ordered a cappuccino, I ordered tea and we both opted for coffee and walnut cake. It was all good. In fact, we both thought the cake was out of this world – very tasty. The cappuccino – which Andy said was better than Costa – had a chocolate bike stencilled into the froth (a nice touch) and, well, all-in-all, this was the perfect place for cyclists – especially Lycra monkeys. There was even a cycling club that operated out of the café and some of its members arrived as we enjoyed our cake, tea and coffee. Unlike us they were clean-shaven and clean generally: no Tesco ASBO specials just Lycra monkey gear, fresh complexions and perfectly combed hair. In comparison, we looked like a couple of vagabonds with bikes to match. We were, after all, from the other side of the tracks and let ourselves down by mentioning the C-word (Croydon). We should have said Caterham and Sanderstead, perhaps.

After paying £8 for two pieces of cake, a cup of tea and a cappuccino (extortionate, yes, but it's the going rate these days) we strode across the green towards the roadside.

"We wouldn't have done a better job," said Andy.
"No, you're right; that was perfectly in tune..."
"...with the Lycra monkeys' needs."
"Yes, it was," I said. "My coffee shop would have been a little more leftfield: underground music from the juke box, framed black and white prints of whacky existentialist novelists like Albert Camus, and Philip K Dick paperbacks on the tables," I said.

We mounted the bikes and headed out of town on the long haul towards the hill. As we neared the top we heard voices behind us. It was the Lycra Monkeys from the café – the junior greedheads and the senior management, as Julian Cope would probably have described them. They were headed in the direction of Botley Hill. When we reached the top we saw them parked up on The Ridge and wondered where they were going.

"Down Gangers, probably, and then along the A25 back into Westerham for tea and cake," I said.

Andy said nothing. We got our heads down for the ride along the 269 into Warlingham. It had been an enjoyable ride and we'd reached Westerham, which was good. Twenty two miles.

"Until tomorrow, then," I said.
"Yeah, I should be alright," Andy replied.
"Text me if there's a problem."

I rode the last four miles alone, riding up Sanderstead High Street, passing the pond, crossing the Addington Road and freewheeling down Church Way towards home and a hot cup of tea in the garden. Perfect.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Tatsfield Churchyard with Phil and Andy, followed by a drive to the coast

On Saturday we rode to the Tatsfield Churchyard on what turned out to be a tremendous day. Phil met me outside the house at 0700hrs and around 0730hrs we were at Warlingham Green debating where to go; Westerham was a strong possibility, but I was a little reticent as I was planning a day out in West Sussex. We set off, however, intent on reaching the Northern Kent market town, but a few yards into the ride I switched and said the churchyard would be best.

Felpham, late afternoon, Saturday 23 May 2015
Andy had been away on holiday and we chatted about the heat of the Canary Islands and the pointlessness of buying a time-share holiday and then moved on to the subject of 'Golden Ages' and how most of them – politics and pop music being the most obvious – had gone, or was that because we were getting older? If it's all just a matter of opinion, I thought afterwards, then the entire argument is redundant. In 20-30 years from now, perhaps there will be people mourning the relative quality of X Factor contestants and the charismatic David Cameron and Nick Clegg, although I would argue that today the only charismatic politician is Nigel Farage, the rest are faceless, 'career' politicians who, let's face it, are basically dull. We said goodbye to Andy at the green and then Phil and I cycled on to Sanderstead where we bade each other farewell.

It was a pleasant day but the really good weather was yet to break through. That would come later on the south coast with the family: a flat, blue, almost Grecian, sea and a kind of muted sunshine that hugged the coast for most of the day. By late afternoon, dark and foreboding clouds had gathered inland and contrasted with bright skies over the sea casting a magical light on the water.

We enjoyed a packed lunch on the beach followed by a walk to Old Point and then, after tea and a cookie, a bowl of chips and a hot chocolate in The Lobster Pot (my favourite restaurant) we headed home.

Looking east towards Littlehampton from Felpham

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Arise, Sir Lawncelot – and ride to Botley!

Despite wonderful weather yesterday I decided not to go cycling. When I switched on my mobile phone I received an 'abort' text from Phil and I already knew that Andy wasn't around this weekend or next. But in all honesty, the reason behind my laziness was simple: the past two weekends I'd been in the USA and I felt that a lie-in was in order – I got out of bed at 0900hrs. Also, there was gardening to do; two weeks without mowing the lawn had left the garden in a bad way so I had to get out there and sort it out – and that meant mowing the lawn.

A freshly mown lawn
It wasn't going to be easy. I'd have to start with a high setting and gradually increase the severity of the cut until the lawn was like a bowling green. It took awhile. In fact it took all day and by the time I'd finished not only was I sporting a healthy-looking tan, the grass was looking wonderful too – call me the Lawn Ranger, call me Sir Lawncelot. I rolled the mower back into the garage around 1730hrs and today (Sunday) I've got the top of the garden to do and I've got to dig out a few weeds in one of the flowerbeds.

There was a certain poignancy to gardening this weekend as Friday last week marked the fourth anniversary of my dad passing away. As mum commented yesterday, it didn't seem that long ago and when I think back to that time, it was very unsettling all round with plenty of job insecurity thrown in for good measure. Still, time moves on and dad is still there in all our memories. At the top of my garden there is small patch of parched grass where, back in April 2011, the month before dad died, I erected a small brick kiln to burn a few leaves. I remember making a small video of the fire to show dad – he loved bonfires and gardening – and then, a few weeks later, he was gone. That worn piece of grass, however, is still there and yesterday it reminded me of four years ago and the last few weeks of dad's time on earth.

My own personal flowerbed – eat your heart out, Monty!
So, as I mowed the lawn yesterday, bringing it down from around 10 inches to little more than an inch, if that, I thought of dad and how he used to say that the garden was a gym and how a day in the garden was the best work-out you'd ever get. He wasn't wrong. I was out there from dawn to dusk, pushing a lawnmower up and down the length of the garden, I was crouching down trimming the edges with a pair of rusty old shears and I was raking the excess grass from the lawn's surface – twice! The end result was fantastic and today, after a little bit more work, I'm going to make a pot of tea and enjoy reading my book – yes, I'm still ploughing through Ayn Rand's mammoth Atlas Shrugged and taking it a day at a time. It's a huge brick of a book that I've been carrying around for weeks and I'm looking forward to the day when I finish it. I'm certainly not going to give up as I hate the idea of not finishing a book.

To Botley Hill alone...
I wasn't going to go cycling today either, but when I awoke at 0605hrs and saw the sun shining through the curtains, I felt I had to give it go. For breakfast I had Weetabix, a banana, a slice of toast and a mug of tea and after dawdling a bit I was out there, without gloves. I headed up Ellenbridge, then turned left into Morley Road and right on to Church Way and soon I was powering along the Limpsfield Road heading for Warlingham Green – where I was going to turnaround and come back as there was no Phil or Andy. Instead, I carried on to Botley Hill, went around the roundabout adjoining Clarks Lane and then headed back down the 269 towards home. It was a good ride. At one stage on the outward journey I considered riding to Westerham. That would have been good as we've yet to ride to Westerham this year and it's almost halfway through.
Sir Lawncelot at Botley Hill, Sunday 17th May 2015
One thing is for certain, the summer is here. The birds are tweeting, the sun is shining and there are leaves on the once bare trees. There's also a pleasant smell in the air, the smell of cut grass and the smell of leaves. Here's to some great rides ahead.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Flying home...

After dinner I moseyed on upstairs to room 535 – a number that adds up to 13 (5 + 3 + 5 =13). I bring that up because the flight number of the American Airlines plane that was not going to take me to Chicago on Friday evening was AA3073, which also adds up to 13. Had the gate been 13 I might have re-booked and would probably have ended up in the Sheraton with my other self in the same restaurant, wondering why the bloke sitting alone in the corner reading USA Today was, in fact, me. But let's not go there, it gets too confusing.

I got a reasonable night's sleep, aided by the fact that, seven days since I flew out of the UK, I was now fully acclimatised with US time – and now I had to go home and re-acclimatise myself with BST. That glass of red wine and the meal (see previous post) also helped. I washed, shaved and showered and soon found myself back in the restaurant eating granola, fresh fruit, a yoghurt and a slice of bread, not forgetting a mug of black tea. I was tempted to go the whole hog and have the hot breakfast (sausages, scrambled egg, diced and fried potatoes, hash browns) but I decided to keep up with my regime of healthy eating.
My Jumbo 747-400 to London Heathrow at O'Hare's Gate M12

Back in the room, albeit briefly, I did my final checks. Had I left anything behind? No. And I was off. Check-out was simple and the shuttle bus took all of five minutes to reach the terminal. Then there was security. Security is weird because it's not consistent. Some airports demand that you take off belts and shoes, others don't. Cleveland wanted shoes off. The worst bit about flying is going through security because you have to take the lap top out of the case, put it in a tray of its own, empty your pockets and then walk through the scanner. Sometimes you have to raise your hands above your head, like a criminal, and be searched by one of the guards, other times not, and then you find yourself on the 'other side' in the strange world that exists beyond passport control where the shops sell expensive perfume, wines and spirits, not forgetting watches and stuff you rarely see people actually wearing.

I tend to ignore the shops and head straight for the coffee retailer, although I always order tea and sometimes a pastry of sorts. Then I sit down, realise that hell will freeze over before I manage to suss out how the WiFi works and simply resign myself to wandering around, looking at other people waiting for other planes going to other destinations.

I started chatting with a woman from Cleveland who was on her way to see her mum, to surprise her because it was Mother's Day on Sunday. We talked about mice and houses and gardens and she seemed very amused at the fact that I was looking forward to having lunch at Romano's Macaroni Grill on O'Hare airport (opposite gate H3 if you're interested and well worth a visit). I think she was amused because, apparently, Romano's Macaroni Grill is a chain. The woman, whose husband worked for American Airlines, has plenty of family in Chicago and will probably visit most of them while she's in the Windy City. She was on stand-by and managed to get on the flight. In Chicago we said our goodbyes and she hoped that I would enjoy Romano's. I did, but I shouldn't have ordered lemon drizzle cake.

In fact, the drizzle cake led me to spend around an hour, possibly longer, simply walking around the airport. I passed virtually every gate in an effort to burn some calories and I must have burned plenty hauling my hefty suitcase behind me. The walk not only did me some good, but it was an education. I discovered that I didn't have to go through security twice in order to access the international terminal and Gate M12 from where my BA jumbo would depart. There was a bus service going from Gate K12 and that, my friends, is worth remembering. When I say I went through security twice, I meant that I endured it at Cleveland and you'd think that would be it, but no; at O'Hare, having arrived at what was essentially the domestic terminal, passengers taking the transit to the international terminal then find they have to go through security again – but not if you take the bus from K12.

The international terminal was a lot swisher than the domestic side of the airport (although it didn't have Romano's). I decided to do some more walking but not until I'd asked for a better seat. They'd given me a seat in the middle row of the plane (a 747-400) and I wasn't at all happy. The thought of being sandwiched between two other passengers for seven hours was horrific, but I was in their hands and after leaving them my boarding card, I wandered off and once again found that I couldn't work out how to use the airport WiFi.

When it was time to board I found that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that I'd been upgraded. The bad news? I still had a middle aisle seat sandwiched between two passengers. But there was more room and I decided to endure it until after dinner and then stand up in the galley area for an hour or so. Dinner was good and because I'd been upgraded I got a real wine glass (made of glass) a menu from which to choose either pasta or steak and a cloth napkin instead of paper. I opted for the steak, listened to Money for Nothing by Dire Straits about half a dozen times (the music choice was awful) and then got up and went for a wander around. After standing in the galley area for about 30 minutes I walked to the rear of the plane where I a found a seat used by the air hostesses at take-off. I sat here for some time watching the sun rise outside as we edged our way towards daylight and chatted to an IT consultant from Bournemouth who, like me, has a 16-year daughter about to take her GCSEs.

The flight itself was relatively pleasant. No turbulence. I returned to my seat for breakfast (a chunk of cake) and found that my fellow passengers – the ones I was sandwiched between – were both asleep. I had to wake one of them up to take my seat.

We landed, I said goodbye to my IT friend and then headed towards departures to find my taxi driver who had called to say he was outside. I then endured a nightmare journey that involved said taxi driver missing turnings (clearly no idea of where he was) asking personal questions and playing his music miles too loud. I was so relieved to pay up and get out when I reached home.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The underlying misery of the airport hotel...

Downtown Cleveland at Lakeside
I've never been a fan of airport hotels. The thing is, they're always a last resort or a necessity and both mean the same thing: that you wouldn't stay in an airport hotel for the hell of it. Who would? No, the airport hotel is there for people like me who, for some reason, aren't going to make their destination, normally home, as originally planned. It happened to me last year and it's happened again and on both occasions it's involved the same airport: Chicago O'Hare. It's also because of the weather – storms basically.

I reached Cleveland Airport with plenty of time to spare and there was nothing to suggest bad weather. The temperature in Cleveland most of the week has been in the mid-80s, there's been blue skies and bright sunshine. It's been tee-shirt weather, far too hot to wear a suit jacket, just shirt sleeves will do. So I was expecting the pilot to say something along the lines of 'excellent flying weather', although that's something that only British Airways pilots say and my BA flight was going out of O'Hare to London. Leg one was with American Airlines and the American pilots are generally pretty matter-of-fact and fast talking. They say as little as need be whereas the British pilots talk about the weather back home and very often use that consoling phrase, 'excellent flying weather'.

But clearly 'excellent flying weather' is not what we have today. There are heavy rain storms over Chicago and they're delaying flights in and out of O'Hare. My flight was due to board at 1800hrs and take off at 1830hrs but oh no, not only is my flight nowhere to be seen (it's not left O'Hare yet) but the flight before mine is just sitting at the gate and going nowhere. It soon becomes clear that my flight won't be getting there in time for me to make my connection to London so, along with many other passengers, I have to weigh up the alternatives. Do I spend most of the night sitting at the gate in Cleveland only to reach Chicago late at night and then search for a hotel, OR do I simply stay put in Cleveland and start again in the morning? I opt for the latter, re-book my flight (I'm now due to depart for London at 1810hrs tomorrow evening) and then I need to work out where to stay for the night.

My immediate thought is to head back to the Doubletree, but that will mean a $35.00 taxi fare there and then another one back ($70 in total ignoring the tip) and that's not far off what it will cost to stay in a hotel near the airport (Sheraton, $119.00) so I take the free hotel shuttle, check in and here I am, along with a few other familiar faces, people who live in Chicago but have been advised to book into a hotel in Cleveland and try again in the morning.

View from room 418 of Cleveland's Hilton Doubletree hotel
The Sheraton is nice, there's no getting away from that; it's corporate and while it's pleasant enough, people like me – there's a few of us here – are not in any way 'enjoying' it. Airport hotels are not to be enjoyed, they're to be endured and, to be fair to them, they do their level best to make what is generally a fretful and very depressing state of affairs endurable. But while it's nice to know that the restaurant is open until midnight and that a hot dinner with a glass of wine is only a short stroll away, it's not as if I'm going to enjoy it. All I could think of was that the long flight I'd psyched myself up for earlier – which, at the time of writing would be around five hours from touch down at Heathrow's Terminal Five – hadn't even started yet and I had the prospect of a long wait at O'Hare which, I can assure you, is not pleasant. After lunch at Romano's Macaroni Grill there's nothing to do but wander around aimlessly, but while I could have taken a later flight to O'Hare, I didn't want to tempt fate and find that I missed my second attempt to reach London. So I'm out of here early (ish) in order to catch the 1025hrs flight to Chicago and then I've got to hang around until 1810hrs before heading across the Atlantic towards the UK where David Cameron has just found himself back in Downing Street after a surprise election result. All in all, then, pretty damn depressing.

I've emailed home to let them know the score but it's still early in the morning in the UK as I write this so they won't be aware yet that I won't be there at 1000hrs on Saturday morning and that, instead, it'll be Sunday morning. All very depressing.

Clippitty Cops – mounted policeman in Cleveland
And while the room is very swish and there's a flatscreen television, tea and coffee making facilities, a decent-sized bed and so on, none of it in anyway appeals to me because, in all honesty, I don't want to be here, I'd rather be on the flight home getting more and more uncomfortable but safe in the knowledge that within a few more hours, I'd be home and sitting in a taxi weaving my way back to my house, tired and exhausted. As it happens I've still got to endure the horror of a transatlantic night flight and I don't even know what seat I'll be sitting in – here's hoping it'll be an aisle seat as I need to stretch at least one of my legs and I can't stand having to wake up sleeping passengers every time I want to stretch my legs or visit the restrooms (alright, the bog).

In fact, the word 'depressing' comes nowhere near describing how I feel about being here writing this when I should be halfway home.

At the heart of Cleveland's downtown area
Even dinner – soup followed by roast chicken breast, mashed potato and kale accompanied by a glass of Cabernet and a cup of tea to finish – was tainted by the fretful nature of my predicament, although, thanks to the waitress, Juliette, things were a lot pleasanter than they might have been. She hails from England and is in fact, English, although you wouldn't guess judging by her American accent. She lived in Bishops Stortford for the first 13 years of her life and then moved with her mum and step dad to Cleveland where she funds college by working three jobs. Some people work ridiculously hard, I found myself thinking, not meaning that I don't, but some people really put themselves through it. Juliette lives with her boyfriend in the Cleveland suburbs. She works in a Doggy Daycare centre from early in the morning till around 2pm, then she goes home, freshens up, goes to work at the Sheraton, gets home around midnight and simply repeats the process day in and day out. And when she's not working she's studying. I'm tired anyway, but listening to her schedule I feel weary and slightly more depressed than I was already feeling.

We chatted about American cities and I said that I find them almost unreal as if they're masquerading as cities and are little more than facades, like those old cowboy town movie sets, which are propped up by pieces of splintered timber. Cleveland, Indianapolis, San Antonio, I always get that strange feeling that they're play acting at being big cities, creating, perhaps, a false illusion, a facade, just for me, by pretending that they're cities when, in reality, I'm miles from civilisation and alone in the middle of the desert because all the people aren't real either. Spooky. Alright, I know that there are places like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles, that are 'proper' cities because they have that suburban 'sprawl' you get in the UK – miles and miles of boring suburbs – but for some reason I feel mildly cheated when I look up at the vast skyscrapers of Cleveland and I can't quite figure out why I feel this way.

The last time Juliette was in the UK it was one year after the London bombings of 7/7 and Leona Lewis had won the X Factor. Oddly, I said, Simon Cowell has followed her around as there's America's Got Talent and, of course, an American X Factor. We talked briefly about Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan and the Hoff and then got round to discussing how Cleveland was going all out to establish itself as a tourist destination with some decent restaurants, theatreland and, of course, the downtown. And that word 'downtown' kind of sums up what I was saying earlier; those skyscrapers that somehow don't ring true are not so much characteristic of a city centre but a 'downtown' area. I get the feeling that somebody, somewhere, must have said 'we need to have a 'downtown' and if we're going to have a 'downtown' then we'll need some high buildings.

Cleveland's Doubletree – fantastic hotel
But, when all is said and done, I like the USA. I like the huge distances the Americans drive and seem to take in their stride, I like their attitude and the fact that while it might be 'no country for old men' the old men in question wear denim and putter around on Harley Davidsons and look a little bit more 'out there' than their UK counterparts who are much more staid and, dare I say it, boring. And again, I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think that countries offering their inhabitants vast distances to travel from one state to another somehow instil a kind of transient restlessness that influences fashion and attitude. I find it fascinating wandering around an American airport as I see such a wide and varied group of people all flying to strange places with romantic names like Sioux Falls or Grand Rapids.

I'm in my room and it's time to hit the sack, but before I do I need to inform the UK taxi driver that I won't be there tomorrow morning as planned.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Cleveland food and drink briefly appraised...

As the votes continue to come in back home in the UK, I'm here in Cleveland having just returned from dinner and almost ready to hit the sack. However, it's probably worth saying a few words about the food and drink here in the city.
Cleveland at night – not threatening

American beer
It used to be that American beer was almost just a choice of one brand: Budweiser. Everyone who likes beer probably can't stand Bud, I know I don't like it; I'd put it up there with Fosters as a horrible drink, but then again, I've never been a fan of 'lager'. So the Americans have been developing microbreweries and everyone with an interest in beer seems to rave about them...but not this writer. Look, I've enjoyed many, many different beers over the years, but my favourite TYPE of beer is good, old fashioned real ale. I've been drinking it since I was a teenager – and my favourite brand is Young's Ordinary Bitter because it has a low ABV and is generally regarded as a 'session beer' meaning you can drink around four pints of it without falling over and swearing at innocent bystanders. Fine. So the Americans have their microbreweries and they're all over the country but I can't say I'm impressed. Everytime I find myself drinking an 'artisanal' American beer I find it thick and syrupy. In fact I'd rather have a Bud.
Marks out of 10 (for American beer): 3.

Restaurants explored

Bar Louie, West 6th Street – not impressed. There's a lot of 'sports bars' over here, you know the sort of place: noisy, serves burgers, fries and beer and is peppered with flatscreen televisions. Well, this is that place and we went there twice. First time round I had a beer and thought no, not very pleasant, too thick and syrupy. As for the food, well, middle-of-the-road, burger-in-bun grub with fries thrown in. On our second visit, my colleague's burger was cold. Marks out of 10: 4.

Taza ll, West 6th Street – this was good and we visited twice. Or rather we went there once together and then I went back for dinner alone. Both times it was good. In fact, the second time round was best as there was a band playing a couple of doors down and they were good. I sat outside and enjoyed this westerned version of Lebanese food. Good service on both visits and decent, fairly light food. I will definitely return to this place if ever I find myself in Cleveland again.
Marks out of 10: 9.

Urban Farmer, East 6th Street – really not impressed, not least because we were ripped off and didn't realise until we'd left. First, this place is billed as a 'legendary' steakhouse – nothing could be further from the truth – but only has ONE burger. ONE BURGER! When we mentioned this to the waitress she bristled and was clearly upset. We didn't eat here because it was pricey for what it was – very pricey – we didn't like the attitude either and the small dark beer we ordered was just like the American beer we'd sampled at Bar Louie – meaning it was thick and syrupy and not pleasant. Marks out of 10: 0.

The Marriott Hotel – West St. Clair Avenue. We'd nipped in here for a beer and decided to return to try out the food. In a word, nice. My colleague ordered a pizza while I ordered a fish dish, don't ask me what kind of fish because I can't remember. The bottom line? Good food and service. My food was light, the pizza a little heavier, but I had a couple of slices and it did the job. I chose wine, my colleague had a beer, the service was friendly and we'd definitely return. Marks of out 10: 7.

Blue Point Grille – West St. Clair Avenue. In a word, unnecessarily poncy but not quite living up to its own poncyness. I had a potato and leek soup starter that arrived in a cup rather than a bowl – not a good start and a little too thick – more porridge than soup in fact. My main course was swordfish steak, which was fine but there was paste-like mashed potato (could have been sweet potato) and a few vegetables on top. Not the best food in the world and a little on the minimalist side. My colleague had a steak followed by S'mores for dessert and cappuccino. I won't return in a hurry, but the service was good. Marks out of 10: 5.

Brasa Grill Brazilian Steakhouse – West 9th Street at St.Clair. No, no, no, no, no! In fact we didn't eat here. There was a strange system in place involving a beer mat that was red on one side and green on the other. If green you get bombarded by waiters with skewered meat that they offer to carve at the table. If red, they leave you alone. There's a huge serve-yourself salad bar too. In fact, I had a cous cous salad with a couple of asparagus spears and a glass of wine and that was my lot. My colleague didn't even have that because he'd been stuffing his face on crap back at the hotel. We had a side of fries and deep-fried banana croquettes, which I ate, and that was it. We didn't fancy the meat at all so we flipped the beermat to red and asked for the bill. Top marks to the waiter who didn't charge us for anything but the beer and the glass of wine – a top man, in other words.  
Marks out of 10: 6.

Stadium 3 Bar & Grille, Hilton Doubletree Hotel Restaurant and Bar – 1111 Lakeside. A nice and friendly hotel with good staff and a pleasant, homely atmosphere. I had breakfast here most days (porridge, French toast, fresh fruit, yoghurt and tea) and on one occasion dined in the restaurant which was also fine, although I fell asleep at the table. I ordered Atlantic salmon with mashed potatoes and vegetables, a good, homely dish and not over-the-top pricey either. I also had lunch in the sports bar, which was also very good. Marks out of 10: 7.

Wandering around Cleveland's downtown...

As I write this it's just gone 10pm in the UK and it's just gone 5pm here in Cleveland, Ohio. At home voting in the General Election for 2015 is over. I voted by post prior to coming over here and when I wake up in the morning I'll know who's in charge of the country for the next five years. I won't say who I voted for as it would ruin the whole idea of the secret ballot that we British have enjoyed for so many years.
I love this art 'installation' near Cleveland's City Hall

The weather here – especially today – has been wonderful, although I'm told that this part of the USA gets pretty rough winters with snow and ice being commonplace between October and March and sometimes the temperatures going down to minus 30 degrees. That's cold. However, the people living in and around Cleveland tend to get good summers. Right now there are blossoms on the trees, the skies are blue and today the sun shone brightly. All week I've been walking to the Cleveland Convention Center in my shirt sleeves. Alright, I was also wearing trousers (otherwise I might have been arrested).

With my work done and after having lunch with a learned gentlemen I'd met earlier in the day who was connected to my line of business, I decided to take a walk around town and started walking in the direction I've been taking all week along St. Clair towards Louie's Bar, where the burgers are cold, incidentally, and the food, in my opinion, not that brilliant. On the same block, however, there are some excellent establishments including a Lebanese restaurant and a place called Johnny's, which is next door and which I visited the last time I was in Cleveland back in 2013. I headed up St. Clair then turned left along West 9th Street, left again on to Superior Avenue and then along Prospect Avenue, turning left on to East 9th and then joining Euclid Avenue and walking up towards Green Square and heading back towards the Convention Center where, I remembered, there was a Starbuck's in an office building. It was just what I needed and the fact that it was dark and shaded from the heat outside made it a good place to stop for tea and a biscuit and a read of the New York Times which I found rather boring and I got annoyed with the fact that All The Words In The Headlines Started With A Capital Letter.

One of many empty streets on Sunday
It was tempting to walk down East 9th Street to the North Coast Harbour on Lake Erie but I decided to head back to the hotel instead from where I write this post. It was equally tempting to just sit on the grass and take in some rays.

The area around Euclid and Prospect Avenues is different from the main downtown where office buildings dominate. Instead the architecture is very much like that depicted on Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album cover.

The 18th floor of my hotel offers a great view of Cleveland looking east. There's the Burke Lakefront airport (designed for small jets), there's Lake Erie and there's the railroad track along which some very long freight trains wind their way through and out of town. What you can't see, of course, is the FirstEnergy stadium. For the past few days my colleague and I have enjoyed relaxing on the 18th floor in the early evening with a glass of wine, but now that he's gone to Buffalo for a meeting and I'm alone here on Lakeside, I'll probably give it a miss as being alone is something you can do anywhere, although I might take another look at that view as I'm flying home tomorrow night.

Turn left for Burke Airport
I get the impression that Cleveland has more than it's fair share of crime and I've been told to avoid going East from the hotel and to keep West. The downtown is pretty safe but you do occasionally get the odd feral-looking person talking to himself and it's best to avoid making contact with them. I've also been warned not to use the trolley (a free step-on, step-off bus service that makes circuits of the city). Generally, though, it's okay and not dissimilar to Indianapolis in terms of the downtown, although I'm guessing that a lot of American cities look the same downtown and are surrounded by suburban areas that are either good or bad in terms of crime. That said, crime, in its various guises, can turn up anywhere.

Going back to office buildings, something quite odd is the office block I can see from my hotel window. All night and day there are lights on but I never see anybody in there, just empty desks. Last night the only sign of life I could make out was a wall-mounted television that must have been showing the basketball game between Chicago and Cleveland (a grudge match that obsessed the entire city – and no, I don't know the score, but I think Cleveland won). Anyway, today (about five minutes ago, in fact) I saw life in the building. There was some kind of meeting going on, but it's ended as the room is now empty, just the like the rest of the place. Where is everybody? Ah! I've just seen somebody in there, so it's not completely devoid of life.

Tulips outside City Hall
I thought there was a bike share scheme going on here in Cleveland, but I've not seen any bike stations and had there been such a scheme I was walking through the right parts of town where I might have expected to find the bikes, but there was nothing. Prior to coming here I read about Cleveland's bike share being the only privately-owned scheme as most are run by the local authorities – that might have something to do with the lack of bike stations and, indeed, the lack of bikes.

I arrived here late last Saturday and on Sunday morning the roads of Cleveland were empty. So empty that it would have been possible to simply lie down in the middle of the road and read a book – it's a similar story in Montreal and in San Antonio and Indianapolis (a luxury we can only dream of in the UK).

Sunday, 3 May 2015

In Cleveland, Ohio

Yesterday, as I wandered around Heathrow Terminal Five waiting for the 1120hrs BA295 to Chicago I spotted Jimmy Somerville watching the board for whatever flight he was due to take; it's funny as he's the second 'celeb' I've seen at T5, the other being Miranda Hart. Still, celebs are allowed to use the airports so it's nothing out of the ordinary, although I guess Somerville wouldn't take kindly to being described as a 'celeb' and who would blame him? I wouldn't want to be viewed as part the same clan that appear on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

After a bit of faffing around, the plane took off and headed West, out across Northern Ireland and then skimming the coast of Greenland before turning left, or heading in a South Westerly direction, over Canada then Lake Michigan and into O'Hare airport where, I discovered, I had a long wait ahead of me. We landed around 1.30pm US time and when I found myself at Romano's Macaroni Grill it was 7.30pm in the UK and, therefore, time for something to eat. It was roughly 2.30pm Chicago time and my connecting flight didn't leave until 6.30pm. This meant that I could sit and read the newspaper and catch up with editorial comment on the General Election 'back home' – for the first time in history I've made a postal vote.

The reason I was feeling so chipper? Not really sure. I can only put it down to a fairly 'easy' and relaxed flight during which I read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and dipped in to the newspapers. I tried to watch Birdman with Michael Keaton, but a mixture of the small screen, the noise of plane and the fact that, it seemed to me at any rate, all the actors in the movie were just shouting at one another and Keaton's character seemed to live back stage made it not a good movie to watch. That's my view. I'm sure if I sat and watched it at home I'd enjoy it, but there you go. I was going to watch Nightcrawler but, oddly, there was a warning issued that the movie contained scenes of a plane in distress so, being at 38,000 feet over the North Atlantic I decided not to bother.

An incredibly boring shot taken at Chicago O'Hare yesterday
The flight was smooth. Very smooth. The plane was a jumbo jet and my only criticism would be that they really cram in the passengers. I'd chosen an aisle seat – 45C as these days I'm not fussed about having a window seat. What's the point? It means I'm pinned against the wall and have to ask for permission to go to the washrooms. An aisle seat means no real restrictions and there's an opportunity to stretch my right leg, albeit at risk to those passing by. Fortunately, after reading, I did manage to wander about and stretch my legs, not to mention meet my colleague who had originally booked with American Airlines but the flight was cancelled. As a result, he was given a decent seat on the BA flight. We stood and chatted for a good 45 minutes in the galley area of the plane so all was well. Likewise the connecting flight with American Airlines was good and I arrived at Cleveland at 2030, roughly 0130hrs UK time.

Thankfully the taxis accepted credit cards and the ride from the airport to the downtown was brief. The check-in was good – I was given two complimentary cookies, one of which I've eaten, the other is going in the bin. I've noticed that my general intake of biscuits is on the increase and while I've always limited myself to two per day during working hours, it's got to stop as of now, although, as I write this, that remaining cookie is still in its wrapping and resting on the television cabinet to my left. Still, it's going in the bin. I've got to watch my diet as I've noticed that 'crap' is creeping in a little bit, possibly because I'm compensating for generally not eating that much. Not that I'm pigging myself. This morning I had All Bran, tea and a slice of toast. When I'd cleared security at T5 I had a cup of tea and, unfortunately, a Nutella cookie. I should have known. I thought it was just a cookie with a few nuts, but it turns out to be a cookie with a Nutella filling. I resolved to eat nothing more until the inflight meal was served.

Romano's Macaroni Grill at O'Hare
I love airline food and on today's menu was chicken tikka masala plus one of those little chocolate desserts, which I should have left well alone but I figured you never know what might happen at 38,000 feet and I wouldn't want anybody thinking I left the world yearning for a chocolate dessert, not that anybody would ever learn about my dilemma had the plane not made it. Those small bottles of red wine plus a bread roll made up lunch and I didn't eat again until I reached the aforementioned Romano's Macaroni Grill where I enjoyed Pollo Caprese and a glass of Merlot – but no dessert.

The Hilton Doubletree Downtown is alright, so far. There's a pool, but there's always a pool and I never use it, although I always bring my trunks. Perhaps I ought to get down there and swim off the cookies. But then there's the streets of Cleveland and the possibility of hiring a bicycle. I know that there's a 10-mile cycle ride around town today (Sunday) but who the hell am I kidding? I've worn myself out flying across the Atlantic to be here, the last thing I'm going to do is find a bike and ride in a 10-miler. No, I'm going to abort on that one, lads. But I might find a bike later, if there's a bike share scheme and I know there is because I read about it online. Perhaps a bike to the convention instead of a taxi, but first I need to find out where the convention is being held and to be honest I'm not doing anything until I've had a decent breakfast.