Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ditton Park, Buckinghamshire, England

Ditton Park is a manor house near Heathrow Airport. It was owned by the crown at one point, but now is owned by an IT company. I've sometimes noticed it on the approach into Heathrow. Here it is up close:

The wet English summer has been good for the lawn and pond:

If you walk through the guard-house here, you walk over a bridge over a moat.

Picturesque. You could forget you are so close to Heathrow airport (though maybe the low-flying planes are a clue).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mark Rothko exhibition at the Tate Modern in London

For me, the "Rothko Room" at the Tate Modern is a must-see for any trip to London. Although it is a cliche to say it, the paintings do have a spiritual element, and to me are more spiritual than, for example, St Paul's Cathedral across the Thames. In the darkened Rothko Room, the paintings seem to shimmer.

Enjoying the September sunshine in London last Saturday, I walked over the Millennium Bridge across the Thames to the Tate Modern to see the Rothko Room. Here we see the Tate Modern silhouetted behind the glaring sun.

Once at the Tate Modern, I is hard to avoid noticing that the Tate is now running an exhibition around the Rothko paintings. This means that I pay 13 pounds to see the same paintings as usual (chiefly the famous 4 Seasons / Seagram Building paintings intended for New York). But, of course, there are more Rothko pieces than usual. And, this being the Tate Modern, more Rothko merchandise than usual to buy.

Tickets for the exhibition can be purchased in the cavernous Turbine Hall (is it possible to describe the Turbine Hall without using the word "Cavernous"?). The tickets are timed, as with "Fastpass" tickets at Disneyworld, so you have a set time to enter the exhibition itself.

The entrance is on the fourth floor. The quote from Rothko alludes to the "sacred experiences" which his works evoke, but also "profane experiences" too (you can also see in the paintings a womb-like evocation).

Looking down from the Fourth Floor to the Turbine Hall, we see people queuing up to get tickets for the exhibition:

I have not attempted to do the paintings justice with my mobile phone camera. Instead, here is
a video of Achim Borchardt-Hume, curator of the Rothko exhibition, describing the show.

Exiting the exhibition and looking back over the Millenium Bridge, we see the shadow of the Tate Modern stretching out halfway over the Thames towards St Paul's, connecting one modern, secular, representation of the spiritual with an older, religious, representation.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The land of the $46 breakfast

I just booked a hotel in London on Expedia. I notice that the breakfast option adds $46 (29 pounds, if you look at Expedia.co.uk).

You may think "For $46, it must be a great breakfast". But, this is a London hotel, so the breakfast most likely barely qualifies as a snack by American standards, and the coffee will taste like it was made on a frying pan.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Vonage Call forwarding to international mobiles

When I travel in Ireland, I forward my Boston number to an Irish mobile. This means that people in the US can continue to phone a US number, but it is my mobile in Ireland which rings.

In this way, I get the best of both worlds: No roaming charges in Ireland, and no international charges for family and friends calling me from the US, and no international charges for people in Ireland calling me when I am in Ireland.

I pay for the connection from the US to Ireland, through Vonage.

I use my Vonage number as my primary phone number. I do not give out my mobile number, even though I use my mobile phone a lot. When I am in the US, my Vonage number also rings my US mobile (what they call "Simulring") and I pick up whichever phone is closest to me. When I am not in the US, my Vonage number rings my mobile in that country (e.g. Ireland), and I simply do not use my US mobile (the SIM card is in my wallet now).

I recommend this approach to anyone spending any significant time in another country.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Flying to Ireland from Heathrow Terminal 1

For years, the Terminal 1 experience when flying from Heathrow to Dublin meant:

1) Security
2) A small Duty Free shop
3) A long walk through corrugated metal tubes to the Ireland gates (80 to 90), punctuated by an uninspiring cafe and a basic Duty Free shop.

Now, when you fly from Terminal 1 to Ireland, you can wander around the many shops and restaurants which previously had been off-limits to Ireland-bound travelers.

This means that now the Terminal 1 experience is:

1) Security
2) Many shops and pleasant places to eat (such as Giraffe, who do tasty breakfasts).
3) A long walk through corrugated metal tubes to the Ireland gates (80 to 90), punctuated by an uninspiring cafe and a basic Duty Free shop.

There is still no getting away from (1) and (3) unfortunately. But, it is pleasant to have much more space to roam, and shop, when flying from London to Ireland.

The map below does not show the corrugated metal tubes leading to the Ireland gates. If it did, the map would be twice as wide, with a long thin line stretching out to the left.

Image from BAA.com

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cadbury's Chocolate in the US

One lesson I've learned from frequent travel between the US and Europe is that if I take a lot of trouble to bring a hard-to-find item across the Atlantic, upon arrival I will find it in a convenience store and think "why did I go to so much trouble to bring it over with me?".

So it is with Cadbury's chocolate. I've often brought Cadbury's chocolate over with me to the US from Ireland. I have brought over bars, and in the Spring I've brought Easter Eggs (which, inexplicably, are not generally available in the US).

And, of course, I then find that Cadbury's chocolate is available in CVS. The package reports that it is made by Hershey's, not a good sign to someone like me who is used to UK and Irish chocolate (milk chocolate) and finds most Hershey products unpalatable. But, I tried the Hershey's Cadbury's chocolate and it is not bad. This means less chocolate being transported across the Atlantic by me, and less chocolate business for Tesco in Dublin, in favour of CVS in Boston. Another consequence of globalization.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Trinity College Dublin, Front Square

Back when I was a lad, I studied at Trinity College Dublin. Here are a couple of photos and a video of it. Trinity is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Dublin.

Here is the Front Gate of Trinity. It is locked at night, but when I lived in college I could come and go as I pleased. It was nice to have a place right in the center of Dublin.

When I see the front of Trinity, I always think of the James Joyce line: "The grey block of Trinity on his left, set heavily in the city's ignorance like a great dull stone set in a cumbrous ring, pulled his mind downward" (from "A Portrail of the Artist"). Joyce went to UCD, Trinity's rival.


Front Gate is always capitalized, and never called "the Front Gate" except by tourists or townies.

Walk through Front Gate, turn around, and you can see the Front Gate from inside Front Square. When I was a student there, the upper floors were taken over in a student protest by socialist students, but they were persuaded to end the occupation when it was pointed out that if they were arrested then the US Government would not give them J1 visas for summer work in the US.

Trinity College Dublin

Looking into Front Square from Front Gate, after rain:


The Chapel is on the left, and the Dining Hall / Commons on the right.


The Campanile and the Graduate Memorial Building (seen of many lively debates by Trinity's two debating societies, the Hist and the Phil):


The College Chapel:
Trinity College Dublin

It is, of course, free to stroll around Trinity's Front Square. If you want to visit the Book of Kells, an old copy of an illustrated bible housed in Trinity's Old Library, then you pay for that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tripadvisor donating $1m to good causes

Check out http://www.tripadvisor.com/Causes

I am registered with TripAdvisor, so I was able to choose which cause TripAdvisor should give money to. They are giving away $1m, and the money is spread out according to how people vote.

The causes are:
  • Conservation International
  • Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)
  • National Geographic Society
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Save the Children

More Ryanair news - You can't make this stuff up

Three quite bizarre Ryanair news items, courtesy of Bernd Biege at About.com:

- A can of mushroom soup, being stored in overhead luggage on a Ryanair flight, spilt down on top of someone who happened to be allergic to mushroom soup. According to the Guardian, "a passenger on a Ryanair flight from Budapest to Dublin needed medical treatment after a jar of soup leaked in an overhead locker, dripping onto his face. The man suffered swelling to his neck and struggled to breathe, forcing the aircraft to be diverted to Frankfurt, in Germany."

- And not only did Michael O'Leary make an off-colour reference in a news conference to the kind of "B&B" service to be offered on potential transatlantic flights (and I don't mean "Bed and Breakfast" service), but then Ryanair put out a press release about how it was a most-watched clip on YouTube.

- And, least bizarre of all, there was suspected hanky-panky in the cockpit of a Ryanair flight, as reported in the Sunday Times and relayed by Bernd Biege.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ronda, Andalucia, Spain

The Postcard a Day blog featured Ronda on Sunday. Ronda is in Andalucia, reachable via a very windy (and occasionally scary) road from Malaga. I'm sure there is another road, but that was the road I took anyway.

As people told me before I went there, Ronda is "all about the gorge", the 100m-deep (328ft) El Tajo gorge. In the photo below you can see the parador (a hotel) perched on the side of the gorge:

Here you can see another view of the gorge, looking down far below:

This part of Spain was one of the last Muslim strongholds of Al-Andalus during the Christian re-conquest (Reconquista) of Spain. The building below was the minaret of a mosque, and was made into a bell tower instead by Christians.

Ronda is also home to a spectacular bull-ring, whose entrance you can see below:

Monday, September 15, 2008

Apple stores in London and Boston

Even with the strengthening dollar and weakening pound, the difference in price between these two Apple Stores is significant.

London (Regents Street):

Boston (Boylston Street):

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Yummy Yummy

Who can resist a Vietnamese restaurant in Sunset, San Francisco, called "Yummy Yummy"

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The girls of Ryanair

Can't see a US airline promoting a calendar of their stewardesses like this (well, maybe Hooters Air, but they ceased flying).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Flying for free (but paying for luggage and taxes)

Last night I booked a flight from Dublin to London Heathrow with Aer Lingus, departing two weeks from now. The flight was free. As you can see, all Aer Lingus flights from Dublin to London are free, all that week. I paid for taxes (just under 23 pounds sterling, or $40 at today's exchange rate). And, I paid 8 pounds to check a bag ($14).

Just to show this is not an Aer Lingus only thing, Ryanair does the same thing. Take a look at the front page of their site.

Cheap flights are something I really miss from living in Europe. Let's say you live in Dublin and want a quick break to London (or France, or Spain). You can do that with Aer Lingus or Ryanair. But, living in Boston and thinking "how about a break to New York City sometime in the next few weeks", there simply are no flight options as cheap as this. And, further afield, what about a really cheap break to Quebec or Florida? Not as cheap as the European equivalent, no matter how early you book (unless I am missing something?....)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shopping at the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

One of the major sights in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates.

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

The Mall of the Emirates is often said to be the largest shopping mall in the world. It is certainly the only mall where you will see a sign which points to both an indoor ski slope (Ski Dubai) and Muslim prayer rooms (more about that indoor ski slope in a future blog post...).


It includes a great mix of shops, including the high-end shops which you would expect. Here is Harvey Nichols:


... and here is Louis Vuitton:

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

But also medium-end shops such as Benetton:


and Kenneth Cole:


Plus the obligatory Starbucks:

Starbucks in Dubai

and McDonalds:

McDonalds in Dubai

The mall also has a "souk" section, which, though of course not an actual souk (such as the Mutrah Souk in Muscat or Dubai's many souks) does contain some good shops for the souvenir hunter, like this one where I bought many predictable gifts such as oil lamps:


Prices in Dubai are linked to the dollar, so they do not vary for American visitors, but have recently gone up for British and Euro-spending visitors. Overall, i found it a little bit cheaper than what I'm used to in the US or Europe.

It is a massive mall. If you put the high-end Tyson's Corner mall in Virginia back-t0-back with the Westfield mall from San Francisco, then added a full-size Carrafour and a Ski-slope, you would have an approximation of the Mall of the Emirates. It is that big.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Flying from Havana to Miami

Somewhat surprisingly, there is an American Eagle flight MQ9513 from Havana, Cuba to Miami, Florida. Here is a photo I took of an arrivals monitor in MIA showing the flight has landed.

And, checking Flightstats.com, I can see that the same flight came in today to Miami from Havana:

So how do you book this flight?

If I do a search for a flight from Havana to Miami on Google, I see this:

So far, so good. So, what happens if I click on the Expedia link near the top there?

I see this:

When I click on the Orbitz link, I see "We're sorry, Orbitz does not support flights that originate from Havana, Cuba(Message 1031)".

Travelocity says "Unfortunately, no flights met your search criteria for the airports you selected. Possible Causes: * This could be a peak travel time for your destination. * Your search may have been restricted by airline, stops, fare class, or fare type."

When I click on Priceline, even the PriceLine Negotiator has to give up and says "We are unable to find flights that match your exact criteria. We recommend that you try another search using different dates, locations or options if you can."

So is it possible to book that flight? Hmm.....

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Oman Air

Ynotoman ("Why not Oman", gettit?) is flying from London Gatwick to Muscat, Oman today, and reports on the tasty on-board food (lamb, tamarind sorbet).

Gatwick sounds like a better option for Oman than my usual choice, Heathrow. The BA flight from Heathrow to Muscat departs at 9:40am, which makes for a tight connection if you're arriving into Heathrow from somewhere else that morning, as I usually am.

Oman Air recently rebranded their planes (more rounded imagery, more green) and revamped their fleet. This coincides with Oman's rise as a tourist destination.

I've posted my own tourist tips for Muscat, Oman here:

Monday, September 8, 2008

Erudite reading on the São Paulo metro

I photographed this collection of books in a book vending machine on the São Paulo metro in Brazil.

A somewhat odd mix of books on Nietsche, Plato, massage, driving, and Microsoft Excel.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"The best place to get crabs in Boston"

[ From Boston Irish ]

I think this slightly risqué sign for the Barking Crab is new, catching the eye of people (like me) exiting the Children's Museum.

But seriously, the Barking Crab is a great little informal seafood place situated between the Boston Children's Museum and the ICA.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What happens when a mother and three kids are bumped from an international flight (with onward connections)

This tale of travel woe in the Jerusalem Post is unusual since, as the author says, "Airline policy is to first ask for volunteers when a flight is overbooked. This was not done."


In a firm voice, the Swiss Air supervisor told her they had taken the four of them off the flight to Zurich due to overbooking. It wasn't that she arrived late, nor the absence of the boarding passes, simply that El Al, which was operating the flight, needed four seats for its platinum frequent flier members, and Hana and her three kids matched the required number.

Pleading with the supervisor, she pointed out that she was not flying just to Zurich, but connecting to Chicago. Her pleas were to no avail.

"You've been bumped," she was told. "So let's discuss your compensation."


Friday, September 5, 2008

What is this unusually tall building in Bristol, Connecticut?

This strange tall building in the town of Bristol, Connecticut stands out. It is the tallest building for miles around. What is it?

The answer is that it is the Otis Elevator Research Center. This is where Otis test elevators and research new ideas for elevators. Who knew such a building existed?

From http://utc.com/press/highlights/2003-08-27_tower.htm :

The Otis Research Center, featuring a 29-story test tower and Quality Assurance Center in Bristol, Conn., is one of Otis' worldwide facilities that test the company's elevators and escalators and their components in simulated real-world environments.

Otis tests the components to their limits, whether it's sending an elevator car up and down (and up and down and up and down) a 300-foot hoistway, or shaft, or deliberately corroding a microprocessor in a salt-fog chamber, a test that mimics conditions of a coastal environment.


While components are being tested at the Quality Assurance Center, elevator car (or cab) prototypes are actually dropped down the hoistway at the test tower in a free fall - just to make sure that the governor senses the car speed and initiates the car safety device to stop the elevator safely. Finally, specialists called ride-quality engineers ride the elevators to measure vibration, noise and acceleration.

If you are in Bristol, check it out. Well, you can't miss it since it towers over everything else.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Views of San Francisco from Nob Hill at night

One advantage of staying on Nob Hill in San Francisco is the view. Here are photos I took from the top of Nob Hill at night.

Looking towards Union Square, with the star on the front of The Mark hotel visible:

Looking towards the financial district:

Looking out towards Tenderloin, Civic Center, Mission, Castro, Haight Ashbury, and Twin Peaks:

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Shannon Stopover

Sarah Palin was in the news recently on Politico where her spokesperson is quoted as saying she has visited Germany, Kuwait, and Ireland . The trip to Ireland was a "Shannon Stopover".

So what is a "Shannon Stopover"? As a seasoned traveler between Ireland and the US, I am all too familiar with the "Shannon Stopover". Shannon was Ireland's first airport serving transatlantic flights, for the simple reason that it's closest to North America. Shannon used to do very well from this traffic. It also, interestingly, was in the 1980s a refuelling pitstop for Aeroflot flights from the USSR to Cuba. But, then flights started to go directly to Dublin. For a long time, airlines were forced by law to go through Shannon, in order to keep business coming to Shannon Airport. Now, that stipulation is largely gone, and I often now fly directly from Boston to Dublin. Shannon does, of course, still serve people who actually want to land in the beautiful West of Ireland, especially tourists and business travelers visiting companies such as Dell there.

However, the declining usage of Shannon Airport meant that it had to look for more business. Partly as a result, it now serves as a re-fueling spot for US military flights. In many ways, Shannon is ideal for that job. It's a quiet airport, away from a large city, with free WiFi, and features a Duty Free shop and the "Clare Cafe" (a bar which is festooned with US Army, Air Force, and Marines stickers). Last year I went through Shannon Airport on an Aer Lingus flight and saw a booth for BMW Military there. So, it has become in some ways a weird mix of civilian and military airport. It is amusing to see how the Aer Rianta Duty Free shop cashes in on the military traffic, selling "Genuine Irish Surname Crests" for names like Rodriguez and Sanchez, as well as desert hats alongside the Aran sweaters and Irish crystal. Poignantly, the bathroom grafitti at the airport often includes the names of soldiers who didn't make it onto the flights back.

Here is a photo I took at Shannon Airport of a rainbow beaming down onto one of the US military's distintive "North American" branded planes, carrying a load of soldiers off to the Gulf (or back home to the US) along with their new Aran sweaters, Irish crystal, and desert hats.

Rainbow at Shannon Airport

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The US J1 visa rite of passage

The Irish Times today features a piece written by a 61-year-old who traveled to the US this summer on a J1 visa. Now, usually J1 visas are used by considerably younger people, as it's designed for students who want to spend a summer working in the US. But, you can be a student at 61, so you can of course work in the US in the summer on a J1.

"Doing a J1" used to be a rite of passage for Irish students, and indeed still is. The popularity of the J1 visa took a bit of a hit post 9/11 when the US gained a reputation for heavy-handedness when issuing visas, but it's rebounded somewhat. Australia stepped in to become a favoured destination for Irish students. And, there is always the European mainland (a friend spent a memorable summer in Germany, in sweltering heat, cleaning the tin roofs of a former concentration camp under the watchful eye of a very conscientious foreman).

I "did the J1" in the summer of 1994, when I worked for a traveling carnival on the US East Coast. I spent time in Amish Country, on Cape May in New Jersey, Atlantic City, New York State, and rural Virginia and West Virginia. I have fond memories of meeting Oliver North (whose family is from Cork), calming down co-workers who had Vietnam flashbacks, and one night making an elaborate crop circle. After saving up money at the carnival, I hitched a ride to New York City on the back of a pick-up truck, then flew to San Francisco. From there I took a went down to Southern California and Arizona (Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino, like in the Route 66 song). Then Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon. Then up to the Mid-West where I met my friend John who'd spent his J1 on Cape Cod, and together we travelled to Chicago and then down to New Orleans for the jazz (John is a big jazz fan). After that, we headed to Washington DC, and spent some time there, staying in Georgetown. Then New York, and then back to Ireland to start college again.

Reading that last paragraph, I wonder how I managed to do all that in the days before I had a mobile phone, a US bank account, a credit card, or ready access to email. I wonder now "how did I book that flight from New York to San Francisco" (the answer, thinking back, is that I simply walked into a travel agency next door to the youth hostel near Columbia University in New York City, and paid cash).

I encourage any student in Ireland thinking of a J1 to take advantage of it. Although working for a traveling carnival was insane at times, it was a better experience than flipping burgers on the coast somewhere.

It is a little known fact that the J1 arrangement between Ireland and the US goes the other way too. US students can work in Ireland legally for a summer. We don't have traveling carnivals over there, or a Grand Canyon, but even with an economic downturn there is plenty of casual summer work to go around.

[ Cross-posted to Boston Irish ]

Monday, September 1, 2008

Exploring Banksy Street Art in London

I see there is now a book of Banksy Locations and Tours. This looks like an excellent way to create your own walking tour of Banksy graffiti in London (and the rest of England). One of Amazon reviewers says:

"A really brilliant book, sod jack the ripper tours. Given me Banksy Location Tours any day of the week me old china plate!"

I haven't read the book, but it would help me find more Banksy graffiti. To date, I've only seen Banksy pieces by randomly stumbling across them. I photographed this Banksy piece in Clerkenwell, London. For more on Banksy, including Banksy's bio, over 250 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Banksy exhibition listings, check out the Banksy page on Artsy.