Sunday, 15 May 2016

Travelling to Pittsburgh, USA...

When the conveyor toaster collapsed in front of me I knew that breakfast wasn't going to be that memorable an experience. Then, when I noticed that the cutlery was plastic and the crockery made of paper, my suspicions were confirmed. This was basic. But in many ways it didn't matter; it wasn't that bad a hotel.

I'd checked in the day before, at around a quarter to eight in the evening, having taken a taxi from Pittsburgh airport. It had cost me $60 and my driver told me he was a recovering alcoholic who claimed he didn't sleep well because he drank too much diet coke. More fool him, I thought, as I bade him farewell and entered the lobby of the Hampton by Hilton.

Now that's a huge hotel room! You can't see the kitchenette!
The check-in was friendly and the man at the front desk guessed it was me by my accent. He gave me my room card and directed me to the elevator where I travelled all the way to the top and discovered that my room was huge. And by huge I mean enormous. It was the size of a small conference room and would probably seat around 50 people 'theatre style' if the need ever arose. I found myself wondering why a hotel company would waste so much space. There was only a bed and a sofa in the room, plus a television, and I figured they could have made around four average-sized rooms out of the space occupied by mine.

I've probably mentioned before that I don't like large hotel rooms – or large rooms full stop.There's something about sleeping in a wide open space that unsettles me, but I was so tired that I could have slept anywhere. Earlier I'd endured an eight-hour flight from London Heathrow to Charlotte, North Carolina, and it wasn't the smoothest of journeys. There had been prolonged periods of turbulence that required everybody to be seated and, if I'm honest, I wasn't that happy with American Airlines. I much prefer British Airways, but for some reason I'd opted for the former.

The flight was late for a start. We were supposed to take off at 1215hrs but I don't think we left the ground until around 1300hrs, if not a little bit later, probably 1330hrs. But what annoys me is that I always get the feeling that the Americans, while supposedly being big on 'service' and 'have a nice day' don't actually give two fucks about the customer. They seem to be saying 'like it or lump it' and work on the principle of the captive audience. So, the flight's late but there's no explanation as to why and it goes without saying that everybody accepts it. I think if people were more reactionary – and by that I mean if they simply, en masse, said, 'fuck you, American Airlines, we're going back to our hotel, sort your fucking lives out!' then perhaps they might change their attitude.

The view from my hotel room...
And then, on the plane, that whole class thing came into play; the whole notion that the further back you are in the plane, the scummier you must be and, therefore, the least service you get as a result. I was in seat 30D, an aisle seat, and when it was time for the food to be wheeled out, the 'trolley dollies' rolled past me and headed towards the front of the plane. One of the American airline hostesses was a big mamma. She seemed pleasant enough, but man she was 'wide', but more of her later. I knew then that I'd have a long wait until they reached me and sure enough I did. Eventually, however, along they came and there was a choice between chicken and pasta. I opted for the former and, as airline food goes, it wasn't too bad. What I didn't like was the wine. It was awful. Normally on planes I ask for a couple of those small 187ml bottles of red wine and I get a Merlot or a Cabernet, but this time I noticed that the trolley carried a huge bottle of red wine and they were dishing out paper cups of it. Now, that's fine, you might say, probably much more wine than in a small bottle, but the quality was piss poor. It was so bad that I handed mine back after a few sips.

The view from my hotel room looking left...
But let's get back to the trolley dollies. One of them had such a huge arse that she had to shimmy diagonally along the aisle and every time she went past me she nudged me, and I had to make sure that my tea or water or whatever I was drinking was in my right hand, otherwise it would have been knocked clear out of my hand and into my lap. It got very annoying and even if I had advanced warning – and by that I mean if I could see her coming at me from a distance – she still managed to nudge me. Her arse was so huge she'd do a fine job acting as a fender for ships coming into port.

There was plenty wrong with the flight. The screen on which I was supposed to be able to watch movies didn't work and the speakers they gave me to listen to music were shit, so I simply didn't bother. There wasn't even a map showing the plane as it made its way across the Atlantic. And that was another thing: time passed slowly; very slowly. I passed the time reading. I had a copy of The Week, an excellent publication, along with The Times and not forgetting a copy of GQ that I'd bought a couple days earlier. There was a good article in there about the Manic Street Preachers, and an interview with Chris Evans ahead of Top Gear reappearing on our screens, and not forgetting an article by Tony Parsons on Brexit, which, I must admit, took me closer to voting out rather than stay, although I still think I'll vote to stay.

A bill poster in downtown Pittsburgh
The turbulence didn't worry me as much as it used to, which was just as well because it was prolonged. As a consequence I remained seated for most of the flight with only brief sojourns along the aisles just to stretch my legs.

Towards the end of the flight I struck up a conversation with a guy across the aisle from me. He was a really nice bloke who reminded me of the television journalist John Sargeant, although he was an American from North Carolina who'd been on a Norwegian cruise. His day was much longer than mine had been. While I didn't leave the house in London until 0900hrs, he'd been up around 0400hrs, in Copenhagen and had flown to London to catch the flight we were both on. Our conversation was friendly and touched upon all sorts of subjects: Donald Trump, gardens (or 'yards' as he put it) cycling, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Norway and so on. His wife, who had the window seat next to him, looked tired and didn't say much and in a way I envied them because they were getting home whereas I was miles from home. They would get to see their 'yard' but I wouldn't see mine for another week.

We were warned that the approach into Charlotte would be bumpy, but having spent most of the flight seated due to turbulence, nobody really cared and soon we found ourselves on the ground and going through the hassle of American immigration, queuing in a long zig zag queue and eventually coming out the other end. I had a connecting flight to Pittsburgh and somewhere along the line I managed to say goodbye to the man and his wife before going through security again – I hate going through security – and then striding purposefully towards the gate for last flight of the day.

I reached Pittsburgh around 1930hrs and jumped in the aforementioned taxi to the hotel and then, after dropping my bags in the room I went to meet a colleague in a restaurant across the street. It was something like 0130hrs UK time, but only around 2000hrs here in Pittsburgh. The restaurant was called Eleven and it was dark and bustling and the food was good. I ordered chicken with risotto and greens plus a glass of cabernet and finally managed to relax a little. I knew I'd have a rough night's sleep later, mainly because of the journey and I did wake up two or three times, but eventually I could see daylight so I jumped up and took a shower and then it was breakfast and that conveyor toaster and the paper plates and then we took a walk around town and eventually a bike ride too, which, arguably, was one of the best rides I'd ever taken in a foreign country, mainly because it followed disused railroad tracks and skirted the river, passing many old relics from Pittsburgh's steel industry heritage. I'll write a separate post about that later.

Right now, as I write this, I'm not in my room (as I normally am when I write stuff). I'm in the hotel's business centre, which is very good. In fact, if you forget about the paper plates and that conveyor toaster that took it upon itself to simply collapse in front me, this is a nice little hotel. There's even a pool, which I'm tempted to use this week, although I've just had a tremendous bit of exercise on the bike. In fact, going back again to the paper plates, they're not that bad an idea. There's no restaurant in the hotel – always a bit of a bummer in my books – but at least that means we get to sample the delights of Pittsburgh's culinary scene.

I've been to Pittsburgh before. In fact, as we came into land I could see the 'cathedral of learning'. The so-called 'cathedral of learning' is Pittsburgh University. It's a tall, grey building that stands out, a bit like a cathedral, and was close to where I stayed when I was last in town, back in 2013. I remember the street where my Quality Inn was located, the Boulevard of the Allies. What a great name for a street. I crossed it earlier today as we, my colleague Paul and I, walked around town.

Weatherwise, it's not so good. While it was 70 + degrees in North Carolina, here in Pittsburgh it's cold and cloudy and spitting with rain. Yesterday it was raining too. The guy in the cycle hire shop said things were going to improve, but the ride we took earlier was, shall we say, a little 'bracing', but worth every minute. It's so nice to ride a decent bike. Well, not decent, but a bike that works, a bike with all of its gears, a soft saddle and fully blown up tyres. I don't think my bike back home is ever in such a state, it's always got faulty gears or dodgy brakes or something wrong with it.

I'm amazed at how many hotel brands are owned by the Hilton Group. There's Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Canopy by Hilton, Curio 'a collection by Hilton', Doubletree by Hilton, Embassy Suites by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton by Hilton (where I'm staying) Homewood Suites by Hilton, HOME2 suites by HIlton, Hilton Grand Vacations, Hilton HHonors.

Last year in Cleveland at roughly this time I stayed in a Doubletree. What a great hotel! The main thing there was the free cookies. And on that note, it's time for lunch, or it will be shortly. Today, Sunday, is our only day off. From tomorrow onwards we have to work so I've got to make the most of my time today. We've had a decent bike ride and now it's time for lunch.

Somewhere I can hear Don't You Worry Bout a Thing by Stevie Wonder.

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