Sunday, 27 March 2011

Back From The Bonkers Fly Drive Trip – Part 1: The Travel Bit

So I am just back from my whistlestop tour of the Mid-West, during which I managed to cram in eight meetings for work and seven for…er…leisure. Yes, between the before, the after and the weekend in the middle of my business trip, I contrived to meet Bloody Frida four times(!), ScentScelf twice and Beth of Perfumesmellinthings (which I have recently realised has only one “g”) once. Such a Grand Tour of Mid-West-based fumeheads deserves a post of its own, so I will confine myself to the travel aspects in this one. Well, I say “one” – my Californian trip in December spawned three separate travelogue-style posts, but we’ll see.

A lot of things were familiar from last time – for though I flew with a different airline, the flight attendants were once again reassuringly middle-aged and their teeth disconcertingly white. They still ran out of chicken within a few rows, and took to calling the pasta dish all sorts of different names in a bid to sex it up: “cheesey pasta”, “tortellini with mushroom” and so on. I overheard one steward observing wearily: “They should know by now just to cater 99% chicken and 1% whatever else”.

As before, the attendants passed through the cabin collecting “service items”, and the tannoy announcements were no less portentous. On the return leg, as we taxied along the runway towards the terminal at Manchester, a disembodied voice intoned solemnly: “This is the termination of Flight 54”, when it might have been more convivial just to have said: “Okay, everybody off now - we’re here!” I noted on this occasion that Manchester Airport has wangled an upgrade and is now known as Manchester International Airport. Now, I distinctly recall flying out of Manchester to former Yugoslavia in 1972, so it is not as though you could only fly to Glasgow or the Isle of Man back then. To dignify the airport with the qualifier “international” some 39 years later strikes me as a bit of an afterthought, but there it is.

While we are on the subject of announcements there is another type that amuses me, namely the admonitory sort, to which crew members have recourse when, in their eagerness to disembark, passengers start to get out of their seats before the seat belt sign has been turned off. Immediately this occurs, the captain’s voice comes through the PA system, ticking people off for not observing the seat belt sign for these few remaining moments of the journey. And that is the funny thing, because every time I have heard a captain intervene in this way, seconds after he has uttered his reprimand the seat belt sign clicks off anyway.

The Chicago subway system also does a nice line in cautionary announcements, come to think of it. I had barely scrambled aboard with my bags at the O’Hare terminus when I heard the following warning: “Soliciting and gambling are not permitted on CTA vehicles.” Bit of a conspicuous place to solicit, I would have thought, with 15 sullen fellow passengers looking on as you hoist the hem of your suit trousers suggestively to reveal a tantalising glimpse of snagged pop sock. And did the ban on gambling also extend to a vague hunch – in the absence of a map - that Washington might be the nearest stop to my hotel?

Hotels. Ah there was some crossover with the mid-range edge of town chains I frequented in California: the Comfort and Fairfield Inns, the Ramadas and Best Westerns, with their serried ranks of pillows and curtains billowing in the updraught of the air con. This time, however, thanks to a last minute deal on the Internet, I also experienced the extremes of four star luxury in a historic boutique hotel, as well as the more basic amenities of a one star motel with no reviews - a decision driven solely by the "luxury" of free on-site parking.

I must say that the overly fussy service that goes with smart hotels doesn’t sit well with me. If I have managed to lug my bags on the subway all the way from the airport for the bargain price of $2.25, why ever would I want to tip a bell hop $2 to take them the 10 paces from the hotel door to the lift? And no sooner are you left on your own in the room when the phone rings – it’s the front desk inquiring if everything is all right with the room. Now how would I know that yet when I am standing in the middle of it with my coat still on? Tomorrow I might get back to you to say the bath water isn’t hot enough (true), or the hairdryer has blown a fuse, but I can’t be expected to know if everything is all right with my room 30 seconds after stepping inside.

Then the next day I came back to the room to find a handwritten note from the maid on my pillow, introducing herself and saying that if I needed anything else I should not hesitate to contact her. She had added a smiley face at the bottom for good measure, and placed a tin of Altoids beside it. Altoids? Is that a hint? Not being a fan of extra strong mints, I thought to myself that if that is representative of the type of extra article the maid has stashed away in her housekeeping cupboard, I would rather pass, thanks!

So on balance, the one star motel with the free on-site parking I stayed in on my last night was probably more “me”. It was the sort of establishment where they take a photocopy of your driving licence the minute you arrive. The man behind me in the lobby as I was checking in turned out not to be a guest but a policeman. He reached past me and flashed a photo of a suspect at the receptionist, adding: “We think this is the sort of place he is likely to have stayed.” The clerk examined the photo with studious care and nodded gravely, before remarking: “Oh, and by the way, that female guest I called about – the one with the bad attitude who was causing all kinds of trouble? She just checked out, so I don’t need you to come get her.”

There are a couple more things about hotels in general that struck me this time: firstly, there is the fact that you can check in at 6pm or 1am and the person on the front desk will invariably hand you your key card and say: “Have a great night!” Now they may in fact mean “Sleep well”, but I have always assumed that this is the US equivalent of the German greeting: “Have a pleasant remaining evening”, except that when you are turning up at 10 or 11pm or so, there simply isn’t that much of the evening left, and ideally you want to be sleeping during the night part that comes after the evening. So this has always puzzled me.

Then there is that strange phenomenon of the proliferating hotel pens - you know, those cheap white ones with the green or maroon tops, and the hotel name and a 1-800 number along the barrel, if barrel is not too grand a word for their slight tubular form. Every time I go on these trips, I happily minesweep the toiletries, yet I always say to myself that I will not take the pens. I don’t need them, I don’t even like them, and I already have pots overflowing with the darn things back home. Yet somehow I have managed to come back with about six of these standard issue white biros, several with their tops already missing. They are taking their tops off and breeding, is what it is.

On the food front this time, there were a couple of disappointments, not least the dearth of Denny’s in the state of Iowa. I saw one lone Denny’s sign at a truck stop near Davenport, but that was the only one in 350 miles of meticulous scanning of the horizon. The strangest dish I had was a barbecued turkey platter at a restaurant, which may or may not be a chain. For the sake of the Iowan dining public, I am rather hoping not. I have decided that the word “platter” is not usually a good omen. It is a close cousin of the “school dinner”, and on more than nodding terms with the base ingredients of an in-flight meal.

Yes, my turkey platter consisted of a heap of cubed - presumably - turkey of the reformed meat variety, a scoop of grey-green beans and one of corn, both of which had both been boiled to destruction. Oh, and a side of garlic bread that didn’t taste remotely of garlic, though I was reliably informed by the waitress when I queried this that the butter is actually mixed with a pinch of garlic powder(!). In case you are wondering what happened to the barbecued aspect, this took the form of a selection of six industrial looking sauce bottles. They all tasted much the same, varying only in degrees of viscosity and acrid smokiness.

My other two gripes on this trip on the food front were the so-called fruit salads at the breakfast buffet composed 80% of melon (two-tone melon if you were lucky, but still melon), and the gelatinous gloop that passes for regular fruit yoghurts. American yoghurt (and I tried Yoplait, which is a premium brand back home) resembles a dessert I recall from the 70s that went head to head with Bird’s Angel Delight, namely Instant Whip. Sheeny-slimy and without a single drooplet* of fruit. (*a technical term for "bits" in yogurt I remember from marketing days at St Ivel!)

A quick word on the roads this time round: there was the usual slalom of HGV tyre shreddings, a fair few potholes and some tar snakes. A particular bugbear of mine on US roads is the SUV with tinted windows – high on the ground and completely obliterating your view and awareness of the road ahead. Also on this trip I was held up a lot by slow trucks taking forever to overtake even slower trucks on some of Iowa’s many hilly gradients. I guess I should be grateful that certain classes of vehicle were not compounding the problem – at the border with Illinois I spotted the sign: “Semis are not permitted in the state.” This may explain why there is a chain of gas stations in Iowa called Kum & Go.

But seriously, I had a great time, if not a great night, quite apart from my meetings with perfumistas - of which more anon. I thoroughly enjoyed the Starbuck’s artisan sandwiches and pumpkin bread, and never tired of the thunderous sound of Chicago’s monorail or the seagulls in Cleveland. In Des Moines I interviewed a man who had gone to school with Bill Bryson, while another respondent invited me to stay with him next time I am in town: “Now the kids are gone there’s only me and the wife and our chihuahua.” After the suffocating service of the boutique hotel at one extreme and the dodgy denizens of the one star motel at the other, the offer of hospitality from an older couple with a tiny dog sounds strangely appealing...

Photo of inflight meal from, photo of CTA train from, photo of hotel room from, photo of hotel pen from, photo of Denny's sign from wikipedia, photo of sauces from, photo of yogurt from, photo of gas station from, photo of dog from, other photos my own.


  1. "have a good night" hahahaaa! I never realised this - but probably because we don't stay in hotels that often.

    Yogurt is pretty bland here, but the new 'greek style" is a big hit.

    I love your travel-logs!

  2. Hey BF,

    This time last week, I was eating Moth-made scrambled eggs!

  3. :) I was doing the same thing this weekend - "last week at this time..."

  4. LOL! And I have the pen from the hotel in your town. Slight variation - translucent white barrel and top, with maroon writing.

    And of course I additionally cadged pencils from half the residents of Bloody Frida-ville, your good self included.

  5. Possibly the hotel ask about the room the minute you enter it, so that, if you say 'I HATE it!', they can get you out before you muss up the counterpane or - Heaven forbid - break the little ribbon of paper over the loo.

  6. Vanessa, I implore you -- don't stay in any more one-star places in the big cities of the US! They are -- well, just imagine anything that can be made, distributed or sold out of a room, and that's about it. They're very different than the one-stars in Europe. Very. And I'm no fancy traveler.

    Rule of thumb: if you're using a travel site (you know the ones) a two star is actually a one-star, a three star is actually two and so on.

  7. As crazy as I expected. I thought Bernard Matthews had died not gone to America ( I DID not say it was the same thing).That picture of the "underground" railway reminded me of when I was hooked on E.R . The maid might have been offering a service that would require sucking mints after inhaling and air fresh . You should have left a blank not for her with a winking smiley to see what happened !

  8. Hi Hazel,

    Goodness me, yes, those paper strips are arguably a ploy to enable hoteliers to verify that a dissatisfied guest requesting a room change has not used the facilities!

    Btw, were you or Sibling Bonkers Person No 2 on your census form...? : - ) Mr Bonkers was demoted to Person No 2, but if he won't engage with form filling (even online), what can he expect?!

  9. Hi Olfacta,

    Thanks for the inside track on star ratings! To reassure you, I have walked away from motels in the past that I had booked on the Internet, but which just felt plain unsafe when I got there, and this one actually felt fine, notwithstanding one or two colourful clients, whose stays didn't quite coincide with mine! I bumped into a number of perfectly normal tourists on my floor. But you are quite right that one should be vigilant.

  10. Hi Angela,

    LOL at your maid story - what a fertile imagination you have!

  11. I love your travel stories, I always wish to be on the road with you. I always travel through the US Motel 6 and Denny's style too. :)

  12. Wow Vanessa, sounds like you really packed a lot in! Can't wait to hear more about your meetings with other perfumistas. Oh and the bit about soliciting on the subway really made me chuckle! ;)

  13. Hi olfactoria,

    You would be welcome on the road with me - I could practise my German!

  14. Hi tara,

    Glad I raised a smile with the hem!

    Scented bit will be along as soon as work permits... : - )

  15. What a wonderful article! Really a pleasure to read. Particularly sad for you about the gross-sounding food. It's very difficult having a tasty meal in diners in the US, I guess. We were there last month with our two, small children and made every effort to avoid the scary "family-style" "eateries" :-)

  16. Hi lovethescents,

    Thanks for that! Family-style eateries are not the best there is, I agree, but I do at least know my way round the Denny's menu now and could have had a much nicer dish there. I think barbecue chain restaurants may not be my thing - for it was a chain, I have now learnt...

  17. I enjoy tremendously your travel reports! And am so envious that all y'all got to meet! :)

  18. Hi Marina,

    I am glad you like them! It was indeed great to meet the Mid-West "posse", and as you can see, I am making crab-like progress east...

  19. This post of yours really made me chuckle! And in the process made me wish I had been travelling to the US too. Lovely...

  20. Waaaaah!!!! Kum and go... semis in the forecourt...
    you know how to get me sniggering, Ms Bonkers!

  21. Hi Michael,

    You appear to be chuckling in your avatar, indeed! I never tire of visiting the US, and the perfumista pitstops were a bonus. : - )

  22. Hi Wordbird,

    I thought the US gas station chain "El Cheapo" was funny, but this tops it...

    Btw, it is a year since we four got together in Basel, can you believe it?