Thursday, 6 January 2011

California Dreaming: Another Bonkers Road Trip - The Travel Bit: Part 1

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.

The planes

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.

The hotels

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... be continued

Photo of plane from Wikimedia Commons, photo of in-flight snack from, photo of a Chevy Aveo from, photos of my hotel in Fresno from Tripadvisor, photo of a Deadwood prostitute from


  1. I enjoyed this very much. :)

    On the "hot tea"--in addition to fear of lawsuits, most Americans have absolutely no idea that the water is supposed to be boiling when it hits the tea. (It is, right?) Presumably if they did, they could build the tea in the kitchen and bring it out once it cools down a bit, so that it's at least brewed, rather than bringing out lukewarm water and a still-wrapped teabag.

  2. Do they still ask you if you intend to overthrow the government ? I refuse to vist any country without piping hot tea .

  3. Ah, the mid-range motel, extending across American in familiarity like the white stripe down the center of the road...

    But, hey, what it lacks in colorful characters, it makes up for with free shampoo. Besides, you managed to dig up a few nuggets of gold. "Ball buster." LOL.

    Speaking of LOL's in italics...imagine the befuddled American reader, making it through an entire paragraph chockablock full of "quoted" words/language, getting to the end, where they vocalize the thought that has been growing throughout: Well, SURE, that's what they said.

    Though I would have enclosed "ball buster," too. ;)

    As for assured, there are a few of us who bandy about words American-style who are nonetheless distressed by the lack of proper tea service. Steam comes out my ears when I see that I am expected to use water run through a coffee maker to prepare a morning cup. Would that I could apply said steam to a good cup of tea. And in diners? Waitresses forever coming by, making sure your coffee level doesn't drop by more than half an inch...but reluctantly retrieving more "hot" water when you've been dry for a while.

    But the citizens are free, and so are most highways. :)

  4. Too many good things for me to single anything out.

    Only I don't believe you're a 50-something gal, no way. (That fluffy haired photo showed a mere stripling of a lass.)

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

  5. Funny post! You're right the beds are huge in American hotels, and I've never really wondered why. My husband and I just take the opportunity to sleep separately like happy starfish.

    From the other side of the looking glass, I traveled in Britain for the first time in 2008, and I was shocked by a room with a narrow single bed. I didn't even know they made those anymore, except maybe for dorm rooms.

    Also strange in British hotels, their insistence on putting the hairdryer in a drawer somewhere out in the room, and making sure there is no electrical output it will fit into in the bathroom. As if it's somehow too dangerous to allow adults to dry their hair in bathrooms. Or lavatories, as the case may be ;)

  6. I am the latest lump of snot and misery in our house and will be going back to bed shortly...Mr Bonkers (who is doing a good job on the Ribena hunting front) insists it is not *his* cold I have caught but a special continental one. And goodness knows I was in contact with enough people in that changing tent on the beach...

    But anyway, yes, CF, Angela and ScentScelf, brewing is key. I may ask in future for "brewed" and "piping hot" water and see what comes back. And worse even than the lukewarm water and the still-wrapped teabag you evoke is the cold milk already in the lukewarm water, and the teabag on the side...

    And yes, I have observed that constant coffee topping up phenomenon, not that I drink the stuff myself. In some diners they did offer me refills of hot water for my tea, but of course it was never hot, and quickly cooled further on contact with the cold china of my mug.

    And ScentScelf, I do agree with you about the citizens and highways being free. Highways will be specifically featured in the next part, when I less lumpy.

  7. Hi Anna,

    You're too kind! The fluffy haired shot was somewhat out of focus as I recall, but that must have worked to my advantage... Conversely, when wearing the universally unflattering orange bobble we were issued with at the dive, I looked about 103.

  8. Oh, dear! To bed and Ribena with you!! Recover well, and quickly.

  9. kjanicki,

    "Happy starfish" is a great way to describe one's adopted sleeping patterns in American beds. : - )

    You are spot on about the lack of electrical sockets in bathrooms to prevent guest electrocutions. Indeed you were lucky to find a hairdryer in a drawer. Many's the time I have struggled to dry my hair with a Gideon Bible.

    Will catch up with everyone soon!

  10. What a HILARIOUS article! Thank you so much for writing it :-)

    Regarding the tea talk, I'm someone who often drinks hot not that gross hot water tap water, but boiled water. You should see the expression on waiters' or waitresses' faces when I order that. I always have to specify that it be boiled, though.

    We're traveling to San Diego next month and we'll be flying with an American airline. I'm not looking forward to that since American carriers tend to be less child/baby friendly compared to the European ones. Wish us luck!...and patience.....

  11. Re:

    "...the cold milk already in the lukewarm water, and the teabag on the side...

    Oh, my.

    I suspect that "brewed" will not be specific enough. You're probably going to have to give a full explanation: "Could you please put the teabag in the teapot in the kitchen, and pour boiling water over it, and then bring that out?"

    Maybe tea drinkers should have little cards of instructions printed.

    Of course, then you may get a teapot that's had the teabag stewing in it for several minutes in the kitchen. I'm not sure if that's better or worse?

  12. You probably know this, Chickenfreak, but some tea varieties require that you wait a minute or two before pouring the pre-boiled water onto the with white teas, for instance :-)

  13. Great post! I am a coffee drinker (thank god, I think after reading this), so the tea thing is easily overlooked. Fascinating to read your perception of American hotels and other quirks. I'm curious about the words that are used in Britain in place of those you have highlighted on the flight.

    As a fellow 50-plus year old woman, I can imagine me jumping from bed to bed as well!

  14. Hi lovethescents,

    "Boiled", "brewed", "piping hot"...I need to have every possible synonym for formerly boiled and still jolly hot water at my finger tips to rule out any more beverage mishaps.

    Envy you your trip to San Diego, even though I have just been! I was only on its coat tails this time, and would love to revisit at more leisure.

  15. Hi CF,

    Ah yes, tepid bagless water and overly stewed tea are the Scylla and Charybdis of tea-making. These are choppy waters to navigate, at any temperature.

    I may give some thought to the instruction card idea...

  16. Hi lovethescents,

    White teas need to wait before being mixed with water? I didn't know that. Can't help thinking that they should do their waiting in the pantry rather than holding up the important brewing process?

  17. Hi Josephine,

    I will endeavour to provide a translation, or rather a parallel mode of expression for those in-flight terms:

    Momentarily - shortly
    Stowed - put away
    At this time - now
    Items - things
    Shift - move around
    Beverages - drinks
    Service items - rubbish, to all intents and purposes

    I think "stowed" may be creeping into British English in this sense of "carefully put away". It was previously confined to "stowaways", a word that didn't get out much, hence the verbal line extension, perhaps.

  18. Oh and I do think "shift" variants are more widely used in US English - you do after all have shifters and stick shifts, whereas we just have gear sticks.

  19. Poor Vanessa - I'm wafting "Olbas for Children" decongestant oil your way, you poor soul.

    It's the business for reviving ailing bods by enabling them to breathe, which is always a boon in the health department! It's a bit fruitier than the standard Olbas oil blend, but still has the traditional heavy-duty cold-blasting oils in it.

    Take care, and get better before I have to deploy the "Fisherman's Friends", please!

    Cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

  20. Vanessa- it's not the white tea that needs to wait but rather boiling water should not be poured directly on the leaves. Once water is boiled, wait a couple of minutes before pouring it over the leaves. These tea leaves are very young and tender!

  21. Not the white tea that needs to wait? I see now!

    My mind may still be feverish... : - )

  22. Hi Anna,

    The threat of Fishermen's Friends being deployed may be just what I need to kickstart recovery... They are no friends of mine, but rather my throat lozenge nemesis, just pipping Cherry Tunes for the top spot.

  23. My sympathies, Vanessa -- I'm still sniffling from a cold-flu thing I got Thanksgiving weekend (5 or 6 weeks ago)!

    Hilarious article. On a recent flight to NY I noticed that ALL the flight attendants -- all women, most over 40 -- had noticeably whitened teeth. I mean blinding white, an enamel color that never, ever appears in nature. I wonder if the airline was involved in some sort of promotion with the cosmetic dentistry advertisers in the magazine...

    And yes, here in my great country one is more or less expected to have white teeth now. Big, blinding white teeth, like the big beds in our hotel rooms. (One is to sleep in, the other to drop your clothing on, btw, or, if you're under 30, for your friends to pass out on.)

  24. Hi Olfacta,

    Sorry to hear you have been ill for so long - that knocks even Mr Bonkers' protracted man flu into a balled tissue!

    This creeping teeth whitening phenomenon I find mildly sinister. Many of the smiles in these ads look incongruous in the heads they are in, even the young people. The promotional tie up you suspect sounds like a real possibility.

    Re the beds, I did drop my clothing on one, so I instinctively got that bit right! I also tended to watch TV on the other bed, just to vary things. But the wine by the glass was way too expensive for me to do the passing out thing, even had my age not precluded it...