Back in December, having emerged from the rabbit hole in which I had been grappling with the alternate reality of a large and wildly inaccurate database, I did eventually go to the USA on my work project. This post got repeatedly bumped by a procession of Wise Men and Foolish Bathers, but here it is now. Or the first instalment of the "travelogue" bit at least. My various scented escapades, including another meeting with Katie Puckrik(!), will follow in due course.
So, America... May I state quite clearly at the outset that I LOVE AMERICA. Have done since I first set foot in Cleveland in May 1984, even though it was a chilly 50F and I had brought all the wrong clothes. In the intervening years I have visited 30 states and would love to visit the rest some day. Okay, so I might skip one or two, like Iowa or one of the Dakotas, but my wanderlust is far from sated.
I flew from Birmingham on 6th December, and America began at the end of the jetway...You know immediately that you are on a US air carrier when the flight attendants are middle aged "and higher" (to borrow a row calling term of theirs), with attractive, lived-in faces normally considered to look better on men. But these cabin crew of a certain age wore them just fine.
The other way you know you are already in America is the terminology. The plane will be leaving "momentarily", and all hand luggage must be carefully "stowed" "at this time", in the hope that "items" will not "shift" during the flight. Drinks are always "beverages", and the plastic cups the drinks come in are known as "service items". Those derisorily small complimentary bags of Pretzels that come with the drinks would also be an example of service items, if they were still served. Sadly, mini-pretzels or indeed any other 3-mouthful snack item were conspicuous by their absence on the six hour flight from Newark down to LA, and I was forced to break into my emergency bar of Lidl chocolate somewhere over Kansas.
Another thing that concerned me on the flight was the sheer number of adverts for cosmetic dental clinics in the in-flight magazine. It may only be a matter of time before your teeth are submitted for inspection to Homeland Security as you enter the country, right after they have fingerprinted you and taken a photo of your iris. You will additionally have to declare anything less than a Hollywood smile on those landing card thingys, along with your secret stash of snails, assorted vegetable matter, and moral turpitude.
Speaking of security, the search procedures are as rigorous as the last time I flew to the States: there was the usual mass rummage at the X-Ray machine to extricate laptops from cases, and the semi-striptease of coat, jacket, scarf, hat, belt and shoe removal. I did hear a great story of someone who snapped recently at an airport, shaking an imperious finger at ground staff and shouting: "If you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested!"
The hire car
Once at your destination, there are a number of challenges when renting a hire car in the US: the first two are 1) adequately conveying the concept of "small" to the Avis representative, and 2) avoiding being upsold all sorts of features, ranging from snow chains to personal accident insurance to...a much bigger car.
These hurdles successfully negotiated - I set off from LA airport in a relatively minuscule Chevy Aveo - I reached my hotel an hour later, whereupon it took me a further hour and and a half and the combined wisdom of five passing strangers to figure out how to open the boot. (The answer? A catch cunningly located to the far right of the tailgate, not bang in the centre by the actual lock, as any reasonable person might assume.) But in the course of my fingertip search of the car's interior looking for concealed mechanisms, I did at least manage to find the fuel cap release lever, the bonnet catch, the seat adjustment rail, 10 cents and a discarded map of the greater LA area.
It would be a fair summary to say that "on this trip I have mostly been staying in Best Westerns." Best Westerns, a couple of Holiday Inn Expresses, a Ramada, a Quality Inn, a Comfort Inn and a Dynasty Suites. The exception being the Art Deco Cadillac Hotel where I spent the first weekend in LA, and which I booked myself. But don't get me wrong - I have nothing against chain hotels. Like Starbuck's, they are reassuringly familiar: when you walk into the room, it will always be in darkness, even in the middle of the afternoon, the closed curtains fluttering slightly in the vicious updraught of the air con. This appliance must be disabled within minutes of arrival to ensure a comfortable stay.
Then the en suite will invariably have a sunken boxy bathtub, with a clunky mixer tap that swivels 340 degrees in an anti-clockwise direction, never seeming to pass through an angle that loosely corresponds to "hot". That'll be down to the whole safety-conscious mentality, I'll bet. For the fear in hoteliers' minds of being sued by scalded guests greatly outweighs that of lost custom from their shivering unwashed ones. The litigious climate in America also explains why it is so difficult to find "hot tea" in the USA. Okay, there is partly a cultural element to this, because iced tea is the default variant over there, but even if you are careful to specify "hot tea", the catering staff often err on the side of tepid. Having registered this fundamental flaw with your beverage, you stop caring about the fact that the waitress overlooked your request for a "little bit of cold milk on the side, please."
Another distinctive feature of American hotel rooms are the beds. The size of the beds, like the cars, is more than generous - four pillows in a row is not uncommon - and the norm seems to be to put two giant beds in each room. I have long puzzled over the nature of the relationship between the 4 - or possibly 6 - occupants of this ample accommodation. A family with small children, perhaps? Migrant workers, keen to reduce their per head lodging costs? Swinging couples, even? But based on the average occupancy of cars on the road, most travellers are either alone or comprise a single couple at best. Or... perhaps the provision of two beds is to enable hormonal 50-something women like me to hop across to Bed No 2 in the middle of the night when Bed No 1 gets overheated - or intolerably rumpled by my involuntary limb-thrashing. Yes, that'll be it, then. How thoughtful!
Now you could be forgiven for thinking that the Best Western chain, typically costing between $80 and $120 a night, would attract a certain calibre of clientele: sales reps, retired couples on road trips and the odd maverick market researcher. Imagine my surprise over breakfast on that first morning, when I overheard fragments of a conversation that sounded more like something out of the TV show Deadwood, an altogether different type of "Western"...
A young Hispanic man in his late 20s was discussing a number of potential "lodgers" whom the two middle-aged women sitting at the table opposite him were considering housing - all expenses paid by the sound of things. The estimated accommodation costs for one of the girls ran to some $5000 a month - she expected a whole house to herself, apparently, not just a bedsit, which I initially found puzzling. The penny finally dropped when the man referred to this girl as "Ball Buster". I could see even on Day One that this was going to be an interesting trip...
...to be continued
Photo of plane from Wikimedia Commons, photo of in-flight snack from mealsonplanes.com, photo of a Chevy Aveo from latestpriceindia.com, photos of my hotel in Fresno from Tripadvisor, photo of a Deadwood prostitute from calpernia.com