Friday, August 31, 2012

It's UCF-ish, Yes It Is

It’s been quite a week here, as I try to get back into the swing of being a productive citizen.  The joy of being a teacher is that you can’t hide really – classes start when they start and there are all those faces staring at you, waiting for you to do something, preferably something a) entertaining, b) educational, and c) not all that difficult to grasp.  Since my tap-dancing skills are fairly minimal, I find it best just to be prepared for class.

Which is taking most of my time these days.

But there are things that are worth taking some time off for, even if you do end up paying for them later.  Most of them involve people you like.  I find that most worthwhile things in life involve people I like.  The rest involve books.

The UCF gathered in Chicago last night.

Well, a large chunk of us did.  We’re scattered all across the US and Canada, so getting everyone together in one place for a single event is probably never going to happen.  But a number of things came together to bring nine of us (and an assortment of spouses and partners) out of our lairs and into each other’s presence.

Any references to Nazgul in the comments will be treated with derision.


For one thing, it is WorldCon time, and the UCF is nothing if not full of SF/F fans.  In fact, there are a number of published authors in that field among our number, and one of them is actually on panels for this WorldCon.  So woo-hoo! 

For another thing, this was our way of honoring one of our own.  Wendy passed away last year, and somehow the idea of doing something in her memory morphed into the idea of having a Hollywood-style (because having been to Birka, I know that real Viking funerals were not that dramatic) Viking funeral involving some sort of boat soaked in Jack Daniels, set on fire and cast adrift in the Chicago River. 

So Dr. Phil, Wendy’s brother, made reservations at a Japanese steak house in the Loop, and we gathered in her honor.

Do you know when I figured out I’d lived in the midwest for too long?  When the idea of driving several hours each way to go have dinner with someone and then return that night stopped being absurd and started being something to do.  The first time this happened was shortly after Kim and I were married, when we drove up to see my dad while he was on a business trip to Oshkosh.  Last night was just the latest example.


I cannot tell you how much fun it was to see all these people in 3D-space for the first time, having gotten to know them as words on a screen.  I was expecting to find myself among real friends, and so indeed I was.

I stayed for the dinner and then had to get back onto the highway for the long drive home, so I don’t know how far the idea of the Hollywood-style Viking funeral actually progressed into the real world, but you know – it doesn’t matter. 

It’s far more important to know that the idea of friends progressed into the real world, there in a restaurant in Chicago, to share stories and create more of them.  You can’t honor anyone’s memory better than that.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Meetings and Challenges

It’s the end of the summer, and you know what that means, right?

It means that all across this great land of ours, in colleges and universities in every sleepy hamlet and humming metropolis, faculty members are edging warily out of their research holes and sniffing cautiously at the campus doors that they fled through in the late spring.  Administrative staff are peering around their office doors at the sounds, wondering what happened to the quiet of the last few months.  Maintenance people are wrapping up their projects from the summer, the only really peaceful time on campus to get stuff that needs to be done, done.

No, the students aren’t back.  Don’t be silly.  They’ve got, what, days before that has to happen.  They’ll come flying in on the first day of class, screech to a halt in an acrid cloud of burnt shoe rubber and slide into their seats approximately five nanoseconds before roll is called.  There’s still some time before then.

So it’s just the faculty and staff right now.  And to celebrate this fact, there are meetings.

All day, “welcome to the new year,” Power-Point and cheese Danish meetings.

This year, for the first time in over a decade, I was in attendance.  The girls are now old enough to spend the day with their friends, depriving me of my built-in “I’m on child-care duty!” excuse to avoid the annual get together, and my teaching load is – at least this semester – high enough to warrant my presence.

So I went.

It was nice to see everybody, and about as productive as you would expect from such things.  There were several long presentations in the morning, mostly having to do with the weirdities that one can expect on a college campus these days, plus a fair bit about budgeting.  Lunch was served, after which there were breakout meetings – meetings of like-disciplined faculty, followed by meetings of the various committees that handle some of the day-to-day functions of the place.  We all agreed that we had well and truly met – we had met like the wind, met like the gods had intended, met in ways our ancestors could not foresee and our progeny will never duplicate – and that this would serve as a fine foundation for future meetings.

All in all, a fitting start to the new academic year.

There was one thing about the day’s proceedings that struck me as odd, though in hindsight I suppose it ought not to have done, really.  This morning we spent a good twenty minutes discussing how to respond if and when we get a misfit with a gun on our campus.  Seriously – an entire section of Power-Point slides devoted to strategies for not being shot while teaching.

You didn’t know that teaching was now a high-risk profession, along with police work and being President, did you now?  You learn something new every day, if you’re not careful.

There was even a question regarding the future design of classroom space, since most big lecture halls have exits on only one side – could there be other emergency exits in the case of such things?  Tunnels, perhaps?  Refuges?  And everyone nodded – yes, that’s a real concern, isn’t it.  If we’re going to build new classroom space in the next few years, as indeed we're trying to do, we should consider that, yes we should.

Has it truly come to this?

I guess it has. 

We live in a country where we care far more about guns than people, where we’d rather live with the daily slaughter than take any meaningful steps to prevent it, where the innocent dead are lionized as martyrs to the cause of those in need of compensating and their gun fetishes – excuse me, to the right to bear arms and conquer tyrants, though mostly those tyrants seem to be children, spouses and bystanders.  We live in a country where the bodies are piled up high and the nonsense gets piled up higher.

Because all that happens, every time it happens, is that people insist that we need more guns.  Give everyone guns and the criminals will think twice about shooting, people say.  Well, no.  If I’m a criminal and I know that everyone is armed, I’m going to shoot first and shoot often and then rob the dead, and what was once a property crime is now a crime of violence and horror.  Guns don’t prevent violence.  Guns breed violence.

And Power-Point slides.

We have to think about these things, in our nation’s colleges and universities these days.  So we have meetings, make Power-Point slides, and try to be ready for the next time, because there will be a next time, make no mistake about it.

It’s the American way.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dark Knight Sinking

A while back the girls were off at a sleep-over, so Kim and I decided to go see the new Batman movie.  It was two hours or so of the latest in comic book hero mythology, dark and high tech, and to be honest I didn’t like it very much.

Oh, it wasn’t a bad movie, really, as those sorts of movies go.  Much of it was shot in Pittsburgh, at the same building on CMU’s campus where Kim did most of her graduate work and next to the Pitt building where I sang in the Heinz Chapel Choir.  Those pillars and stairs that the villain delivered his Russian Revolution speeches in front of, at the climax of the film?  The Mellon Institute.  It was nice that they didn’t edit out the soot on the pillars, the way they did in Hoffa.  Much of the Final Fistfight appeared to be in the lobby of that building, where I used to hang out with my friend Tracy when she worked there, before I met Kim.  The prison door that was supposedly across the street from it – they kept cutting away from the one to the other to give that impression – is actually around the corner and isn’t quite so heavily fortified in life, parking garages not being known for their need for high security.  This was a little disorienting, but still kind of cool.

The movie also had all sorts of Shiny in it for those who like gadgetry, and anything with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman can’t be all bad.  There were a few decent lines of dialogue.  Plus, for long stretches the camera was focused on Anne Hathaway, which is all I can really ask for in a film.  She may have even had some dialogue, now that I think about it.  I wasn't really paying attention.  The film had its high points, is what I’m saying.

And yet. 

It was muddled – there were long stretches of the film that didn’t really seem to go anywhere other than around and around, chasing its own tail. 

It kept trying to say Important Things but didn’t really have any coherent message.  Either have a message or don’t have a message – you don’t need to have one to have a film worth seeing – but pick one.

There were too many parts of the film that were only tangentially related to other parts of the film – in many ways it was more of a picaresque than a narrative.  Things happened and got resolved, and then more things happened and got resolved, and suddenly – BOOM! – credits.

And so on. 

But these are fairly common problems with movies, and I’ve enjoyed many a film that had one or more of these flaws.  The thing I really hated about the film, though – really, really hated – was the sheer overwhelming amount of consequence-free violence.

There’s a lot of it – from stabbings and drownings to a mass charge of armed men (and a few women) into the face of a mass of other armed men (and a few women).  For all the leaden preaching that Mr. Batman does about nonlethal weaponry, there was an awful lot of very lethal weaponry on display and in use in that film, plus a major plot element that rested on the possibility of a seriously lethal weapon being deployed and an entire sub-plot/backstory that hinged on the idea of awful violence being inflicted on others.

And none of it meant a damned thing.  Not to the audience.  And not to the characters themselves except when the key plot points called for it.

Nobody suffered, except a couple of major characters who were required to suffer in order to have plausible motives for inflicting more violence on others.  They did so with proper drama, and little or no actual effects on their persons beyond the acquisition of motives.

Nobody was shown injured, really, except one major character who needed to be on the sidelines for dramatic reasons.  He was well and properly sidelined, and spent the bulk of the movie with something very akin to what used to be called “movie cancer,” the sort of ailment that provides dramatic cover but doesn’t cause much actual suffering or keep the character from doing anything when they need to do so.  You could argue that the main villain spent the movie wearing the effects of violence on his person, but frankly that struck me as just a handy way for him to get to wear a mask too – a cool one, that made him seem so very deeply villainish.

Batman himself was treated very much like a rubber bone at a boarding kennel for most of the film – good lord, dude, whose girlfriend did you hit on to get this badly treated by the scriptwriters? – but was largely unscathed except when dramatically necessary, for as long as dramatically necessary and no longer.

And for all the bodily harm, death and chaos inflicted on minor characters by the bushel basket, nobody grieved.  This, more than anything else, is what bothered me – the sorry and thoughtless treatment of the minor characters, who were just so much chaff to be winnowed out.  Nobody missed them.  Nobody even noticed them – not, one suspects, even the characters themselves.  They showed up, violence happened to them, and they disappeared.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with movies that portray violence, not really.  Violence is a part of life, and in the US it is endemic – we have rates of violence in this country that outside of our borders you can generally find only in war zones.  If you’re going to make a serious film about modern American life – even if that film and the life it portrays is deeply fantastical, as with this one – you almost have to include some element of violence, real or threatened, or it just doesn’t seem natural.  I don’t have a problem with violence in films per se.

But it ought to mean something.

People get hurt.  People get killed.  Those people had lives, loved ones, jobs, responsibilities.  They were tied into a social fabric that has now been frayed.  Though not in Gotham, apparently.  Their deaths counted for nothing, meant nothing, affected nothing in the fictional little world of the film.

It doesn’t surprise me that the latest All-American malevolent loser compensating for his shortcomings by slaughtering the innocent with high-powered firearms chose to do so at a showing of this movie.  We glorify such losers in our culture, pious protestations notwithstanding, and he fit right in with the overall theme of the film: violence is cool because none of it means anything once the shooting stops.  It’s just empty action.

Except that it had consequences here in the real world, at least for the victims and those who cared about them.  That part was certainly different here.

There were no such consequences in the film itself.  People died and were forgotten as if they never existed.

I suppose you can argue I am making too much of what is, after all, quite literally comic book violence.  But that shortchanges the depth that can be achieved in modern graphic novels, the work that has been done on film, and the putative darkness that these new comic book films all seem to want to portray these days.  Darkness has consequences.  Darkness dwells on consequences.  This movie was not dark.  It was just poorly lit.

I’m rereading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series now, because I needed a break from the world as it is currently constructed.  I just started on Guards! Guards! – the eighth novel in the series and the first one to feature Pratchett’s best-drawn character, Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.  One of the things that endeared the novel to me the first time I read it was the dedication:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol.  Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered.  No one ever asks them if they wanted to.  This book is dedicated to those fine men.

Pratchett understood what the makers of Batman did not – that violence has consequences; that even minor characters have lives and loves and responsibilities, all of which and all of whom are affected by that violence; that not to show the consequences of violence is to glorify it and make it easier, more common and more acceptable.  It is after all the City Guard who suffers most in the Batman movie, but nothing is dedicated to them and their lives are simply grist for the mill, to be ground into dust as needed.

Violence on film isn’t degrading.  Violence without consequence, though, that is.

Friday, August 24, 2012

News and Updates

1. The problem with having Teh Best Summer Evar! is that all of the things you were avoiding by heading out of town are still there when you get back.  So the next week or two is going to be just a long, head-down sort of grind to catch up.  World’s smallest violin to begin playing in 3 … 2 … 1 …

2. Among the more pleasant of those things to catch up on is a backlog of blogging, so there will probably be some posts talking about things that happened a while ago.  Entertaining things, of course.  At least to me.

3. Yesterday we spent part of the afternoon getting Tabitha registered for 7th grade down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.  Seventh grade!  How on earth did that happen?  But at least they’ve got the registration pretty much down to a science at MCGMS.  You walk in and find the big table right up front in the lobby.  The volunteer hands you a sheet of paper with all of the stations that you have to hit listed in order, and you head off in a big clockwise circle, ticking them off one by one.  Eventually you end up at the auditorium, where they take the school photos for the yearbook, and then you’re done.  Start to finish: 25 minutes, including chatter and looking at optional clubs and PTA materials.  Would that all such events were that well organized.

4. I have registered for this year’s YWCA “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes” event, to be held on September 14.  For those of you not familiar with this event, basically they ask guys to wear high heels and walk around for a while in public, and the funds raised by this go to the YWCA’s programs designed to prevent and/or respond to domestic violence.  I have done this before.  It is worth the sore feet and fashion faux pas to me to support this cause.  If you agree and wish to make a donation, please contact me at the email address on the left or check out my Facebook page for a link.

5. My face is finally not numb after yesterday’s dental work.  This is a mixed blessing, as now my left cheek is free to communicate its bruised displeasure.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Home Again? Perish the Thought!

This has been Teh Best Summer Evar!

Oddly enough, this is in part because we have spent so little of it at home.  What this says about Our Little Town is, frankly, a little disturbing.  I mean, it’s a nice enough place, really.  Not where I ever thought I’d end up, but not a place where I spend my days volunteering for medical experiments or Navy Seal training in order to escape, either.

Perhaps it’s not where we weren’t that made this a good summer, but where we went.  Because we’ve been to some wonderful places this summer.

You thought you were through all that vacation stuff, didn’t you?  Well, think again!  Because we just got back from another one!  That’s right!  There’s yours truly, living the high life, partying it up like the 1%, if the 1% had just spent four of the last fourteen days in a 12-year-old station wagon with two kids, a spouse, as much baggage as I could tetris into the back, and a bag of snacks that could have fed most of a high school boys track team for a week.  Also, a fair amount of sand, at least on the return trip.  Of course, we had nothing strapped to the roof at any time, so I guess we don’t qualify for that 1% discount after all.  Just regular folks, we are. 

Regular folks on the move.

This time we went for our annual trip out east to the Jersey shore, where my parents have made a tradition of renting a big house for a week and calling a gathering of the clans, because we’re from Philadelphia, and that’s what we do.  We drive out from Wisconsin, my brother and his family come down from New York, and we spend a glorious week on the beach, hanging out with each other.  My mother worried that the girls would be jaded after their big trip to Sweden and England, but we reassured her that this was not the case – and indeed, we had a grand time.

The first leg of our journey took us as far as Pittsburgh, where we met up with Random Michelle and Michael, who may or may not be random but who was with Michelle.  We discovered the joys of Chipotle (seriously, where has this chain been all my life?) and hung out at the hotel pool while Tabitha swam and Lauren demonstrated her new “synchronized swimming” routine.  I put that in quotes because it was just her, which made it difficult to see what she was synchronized to, really – mostly it ends up looking like someone dropped a small electrical device into the pool, not big enough to cause serious bodily harm but enough to lead to early-80s dancing.  So it was very much like the Olympic original, in other words, and good for Lauren.  It was very nice to meet Michelle finally, after getting to know her on the web, and we look forward to getting to see her and Michael again soon.

We then went to Ocean City, NJ, where we were staying this year.  Ocean City is a nice town for kids.  It’s more active than Cape May, where we’ve been going for the last few years, and it has a real boardwalk – with all sorts of tchotchke shops and restaurants that sell semi-lethal food (what is it about boardwalk pizzas that they all have to be bigger than manhole covers?  Seriously – that’s some distorted pizza, that is) and even amusement parks nestled away in the back.  But it’s also a dry town, which means that it is entirely surrounded by liquor stores – every entrance into the city has at least one vast and several smaller establishments designed to supply what you can’t get once you cross the bridge into town.  It keeps it interesting.

We did it all, while we were there.

We hit the beach.

We (well, the girls and their cousins) went boogie-boarding.

You will notice that there is a wide array of boogie-boards there.  We were somewhat taken by surprise by the fact that Tabitha and Lauren have chosen this year to grow at prodigious rates – Tabitha is about two inches taller than she was on Memorial Day, for example – and last year’s boogie boards were just … antiquated.  Fortunately, there are places on the boardwalk that will sell you new ones.  Imagine!  Places!  On the boardwalk!  Selling you things!

Truly, this is an age of wonders.

And we did hit that boardwalk hard, yes we did.  There was one store in particular that advertised itself as the home of Official Licensed Minecraft Gear, and thus it became our beacon.  Tabitha and Lauren are addicted to Minecraft – a video-game where you build civilizations one 8-bit graphic at a time, from what I can tell – and this place had it all.  Tabitha found her “first day of school” outfit there, Lauren got a necklace with something called a “creeper” on it, and even Kim got into the act.

We also went to one of the little amusement parks, and since it was the middle of the day rather than the evening, we actually had room to move around and get on rides. 

In the evenings we mostly hung around the house and played cards (more Phase 10!  You need to go out and buy this game!) or engaged in acts of conversation.  And techno-gadgetry.

And on one night our friends Mike, Krista and Eli came over.  I’ve known Mike since we were graduate students at Pitt, back in the early 90s – we bonded over a WKRP in Cincinnati joke and Krista later determined that we must have been the same person in a former life.  This might explain how we managed to run into them at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on our way to Ocean City as well – it’s that homing sense.  They were staying with Mike’s family on the other side of town, and came up to have dinner with us: some UFO-sized boardwalk pizzas, a few imported adult beverages, and most of the polkagris that we’d brought back from Sweden.  Hey – we’re not training for the Olympics here. We were going to eat well, even if it killed us.

One of the things we like doing down at the shore is just walking along the beach.  Kim, Lauren and I did that on our first night there.

And on our last night there most of us went down.  Keith bought some flying devices that we spent a pleasant time trying to get up into the air, against the wind, and we made good use of the empty lifeguard stand as well.

As it got darker, we noticed a small animal furtively prowling the beach about fifteen yards away.  It gradually drew nearer until we could make out that it looked like a fox.  At this point the kids all jumped up into the lifeguard stand, but the adults figured that it was probably too skittish to get too much closer – it had closed to within about five yards by that point – and eventually it moved along.  We later decided that it might have been a coyote – it looked taller than a fox, but was definitely not a dog – but it was too dark to tell. It was pretty cool either way.

We left Ocean City and went up to spend the day with Aunt Lori’s parents at their house in Margate.  This always is a hit with Tabitha and Lauren, because Aunt Lori’s dad has a boat.  A powerful boat.  One that he likes to make go very, very fast indeed. 

Me?  I stay on the shore.  I like being on surfaces where if I screw up I can still breathe.

Margate also has Junior’s, which makes the world’s greatest donuts.  We hit them twice in a 24-hour period.  I may not eat sugar again until Halloween, but it was so, so worth it.

After Margate we drove back to my old neighborhood and spent a day with my parents outside of Philadelphia, hanging out and generally enjoying ourselves, before getting back on the road.  We got home Tuesday afternoon.

It’s been a great summer, filled with marvelous experiences.  But it’s nice to sleep in my own bed too.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: There and Back Again

We did a lot of traveling on this vacation.  Buses.  Planes.  Trains.  Automobiles.  Bikes.  Subways.  Ferries.  Even feet.  We were a moving target, and it was part of the experience.

The big travel mode for such a trip, of course, was through the air.  It’s about nine hours to fly from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.  Nine long hours in a dehydrated metal tube with as many seats crammed into it as humanly possible – the whole idea of cattle-car seating has moved out of domestic flight and into international airspace, unfortunately.  But we had a good time anyway.

We took the coach bus down from Our Little Town.

Oddly enough, we knew about half the people on the bus – friends, colleagues, former students, and so on.  Sometimes the town is littler than it seems.  The bus was crowded, so Kim and I had to sit several rows away from Tabitha and Lauren, which didn’t seem to bother them in the least.  Time away from parental eyes!  So cool.

O’Hare is an amazing place.  It’s huge, with planes taking off from a bezillion different places at once (that’s a technical term – it’s greater than a metric buttload but smaller than the number of angels who can dance on the head of a cold beer) and there is an astonishing array of humanity coursing through every available space.  It always astonishes me, how big and varied it all is.

When I was running the museum, one of my jobs was to talk with old people – people who had stuff they wanted to donate, stuff their families did not want.  I loved that part of the job, because those people had such fascinating stories.  Their families had tired of hearing them long ago, but I hadn’t – and they were glad to have someone interested to tell them to again.  One of my favorites was a woman named Mabel, who was well into her 90s a decade ago and has since passed on.  She had grown up in Chicago, and in the early 1920s she and her friends would take the trolley all the way out to the end, to Old Orchard Field (have you ever wondered why O’Hare’s code letters are ORD?  Now you know – “Orchard”) to watch the planes take off and land.  She told me that if you wanted to pay for your flight back then you had to walk up to the control tower.  They’d lower down a bucket on a rope and you’d put your money in the bucket, and then they’d tell you which plane to walk over to.

It’s different now.

We managed to check in and sail through security without any problems, which frankly amazed me.  But you know?  We went through check-in, customs and security in three different countries and never had a problem in any of them.  I think they’ve mostly gotten the hang of it now, or we have.  Or both.  One of my proudest achievements is the fact that all of our luggage was under the allowed weight, even with souvenirs and even when flying on Cheap Flight Airlines, which I will describe in detail later, oh yes I will.

We walked around for a while, since it would be a long flight spent not walking around at all, and then found our gate.

Eventually our plane pulled up.

It was a long flight, and we were well treated by the kind folks on SAS.  I appreciate full-service airlines a lot more now than I did.  There were free water bottles in the seat pockets, actual decent food for meals, and drinks in tiny little cans to keep us amused.

This was not the case on Cheap Flight Airlines.

We were originally going to make a circuit – Chicago, Stockholm, London, back to Chicago.  But Kim figured out that if we made two round-trips (Chicago/Stockholm and then Stockholm/London) we could actually save almost $500/person.  Why this makes sense to the airlines is a mystery, but then most of them are going bankrupt and that isn’t a mystery at all in light of such things. 

The trick to this was that the Stockholm/London legs were on CFA.  And CFA is an experience.

First of all, let me say in their defense that they deliver on their promises.  All they ever said to us was that they would transport us and (for an additional fee) our baggage from Point A to Point B on time and safely, and this they accomplished.  They never said anything about comfort, convenience, good signage or personal space, and none were provided.  Fred, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

CFA flies out of alternate airports, which are cheaper.  In Sweden, for example, you go to an old converted military airfield about an hour or so from Stockholm, and there you guess at which line is yours because there are no signs to tell you where to go.  Well, actually, that’s not true – there are many different signs, each telling you slightly different things.  The effect, however, is the same.

If you ever do fly on CFA and you’re not flying by yourself, pay for the Priority Boarding – it’s worth it.  CFA works on festival seating, and they process people slowly at the gate – even with Priority Seating I was convinced we would miss our flight back to Sweden.  As my grandmother would have said, if that man had been moving any slower he’d have been going backwards. 

But we got on, and even found four seats together on both legs of our round trip.  And then the action started.  CFA exists to wring every euro, pound, crown or other world currency out of its passengers.  (Not so much dollars – one of the things we discovered upon landing at Gatwick and being funneled through passport control is that Americans generally do not fly on CFA.  We were the only ones on the entire plane.)  They sell you food.  They sell you drinks.  They come up and down the aisles selling you lottery tickets.  I do believe they charge you to use the bathrooms, but it was a short flight so we never tested that.  One of the highlights of the trip was that Lauren actually managed to get something for free out of CFA – a cup of ice.  Nobody we told that story to believed us, but ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Yeah, it was just like that, but without the drummer.

Flying is an experience, but it wasn’t the only one we had.

We spent a lot of our trip in cars, being ferried around by our hosts – no small thing in a foreign country, especially where they speak a different language or drive on the other side of the road.  We got to know the roads very well. 

I’ve described the roads before – they’re small, twisty, and have generally limited sightlines, especially in England.  This means you may want navigational help.  Whether this means you want a GPS is another matter.  All of our friends on this trip had GPS units (“sat-navs” in England), and we were constantly a disappointment to these machines.  We’d blow by some turn or other and there’d be a pause, and then a tired computer voice would say, “Recalculating.”  It’s amazing how much reproach they program those voices to have.  Of course, when they insist that you’re in the middle of the bay, as Mats’ cell-phone GPS did on one occasion, then we have the right to be reproachful back. 

If you spend enough time in cars and those cars are full of a) technology and b) small children, you get interesting results.

Not bad for two kids who did not speak each other’s language.

Not only did we take planes and automobiles, but we also took trains – because you must have all three elements or the judges will dock you THREE WHOLE TENTHS OF A POINT!

Sorry. Had an Olympic moment there.

We took the subway in both Sweden and England, and they were fun.  They were full of people, relatively efficient, and – compared with the American subways I’ve been on – relatively clean.  Actually the Swedish one was absolutely clean – they are, I noted while I was there, a very neat culture.

We took an overland train to get to London.  It left from Swindon, as I said in an earlier post, and coursed its way through the Midlands, which was lovely country.  It was comfortable and clean and I wish the US would recognize that trains are good things to have.  We used to have a decent rail network in this country, but we’re too cheap to pay for it anymore.  It’s nice to be in countries that understand the difference between an expense and an investment, if only for a visit.

The other big transportation mode we took was the ferry from Stockholm to Birka.  I’m not much of a boat person – I find the whole experience generally unpleasant – but this was a big enough boat that it wasn’t bad, and the scenery was gorgeous enough to take my mind off the fact that I was on a boat.

Plus you could go down inside, where you were sheltered from the cutting wind, and purchase snacks.  Snacks make the world a better place.

But all things come to an end, and so eventually did our vacation. CFA delivered us back to Sweden, where we stayed overnight before flying the now-much-appreciated full-service flight back to Chicago.  We then got onto the coach bus and drove back to Our Little Town.

This meant that we couldn’t repeat our experience from the other time we went to visit our friends in Sweden and England, back in 2004.  We’d parked our car in a long-term lot in Chicago, so we actually had to drive ourselves back home.  About halfway there we got hungry.  The girls were little then – Tabitha was four, Lauren was about 18 months – and “hungry” plus “on the road” meant McDonald’s.  So we got off the highway and found one.  Somehow, without quite setting out to do so, we ended up going through the McDonald’s drive-through, driving fifty yards across the parking lot, and eating in the food court area of a Wal-Mart.


And so ends our trip.  It was a wonderful experience, made possible by the generosity of Mats, Sara, Julia, Richard and their families, and we thank them. 

And now back to your regularly scheduled blogging experience.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Hanging Out

It wasn’t all running madly about on our trip.  Sometimes we just hung around the house and relaxed.  Isn’t that what vacations are for?

For example, we played a lot of cards while we were there. 

One of our favorite card games is Phase 10, a progressive rummy sort of game.  We brought two decks with us to Europe, one for each stop, and we spent many happy nights viciously using the Skip cards against people we know and love, because that’s how we roll.  What’s nice about the game is that it is long and complicated enough to spread out the winners – over the course of the trip pretty much everyone who played won at least once – but short and simple enough to be played in an evening without interfering too much with conversation or suffering unduly after a glass of wine or cider.  And that, dear reader, is the definition of an ideal card game.

We also tried Mah-Jongg on our last night in England.  In my first practice hand I scored a 216, and if I play that game for the rest of my life I will probably never do that well again.  For comparison, most of my subsequent hands scored around 30.

Of course, not all games are so quiet.  There was foosball, for instance.

And fencing.

And a fair amount of just knocking about, making noise.

In craft-related activities, Kim bedecked our friends’ children with feathers.

There were also beads.  Lots of beads, in many configurations.  There were jewelry beads.

And there were perler beads.  For those of you who have not hung around with kids for the last decade, perler beads are essentially short plastic tubes about a quarter inch long and roughly the same in diameter.  They come in a bewildering array of colors, and you arrange them in patterns on plastic trays with little spikes sticking up that hold the beads in place, and then you iron them until the beads melt together.  Hours of entertainment!  And tchotchkes to keep when you’re done!

The UEFA Cup was being played while we were in Sweden, and we watched a few games.  And at this point all the Americans out there reading this are saying “What?  Is that a stock car race?”  But no!  It’s the European international soccer championship, and we watched Spain win.  Like the card games we favor, this event goes well with wine. 

The Swedes had a house full of musical instruments, which we did our best to make good use of.  Mats and I spent several evenings keeping each other in tune – him on the sax, me on the piano – and playing odd songs, much to the amusement of Maria.  I have infected Sweden with “I Am My Own Grandpa” and am now beyond the reach of their courts, so there.

In both Sweden and England we walked around in the woods surrounding our friends’ houses – they live in really lovely areas and it was nice to see them up close, even for this indoorsman.  Kim and Mats even took the kids geo-caching at one point.  I’m not entirely sure I understand what that is or why people would want to do it, but they had a grand time so my guess is that the shortcoming is mine.

At one point Julia tried to teach me how to chop wood, since it was cool and damp enough while we were there to warrant a nice cozy fire and they have both a fireplace and a stash of suitable wood in the back.  All I will say is that if civilization collapses and the supply of natural gas runs out, I am doomed.  On the plus side, though, nobody got hurt and that has to count for something.

When we weren’t relaxing or running about trying to see everything there was to see, we spent a lot of our time eating.  We like food.  Food is good.  And there is a lot of it there.

Sometimes we ate at home.

We introduced the Swedes to the concept of grilled cheese sandwiches – how this concept has not made it to Scandinavia I do not know, since it involves three staples of the Swedish diet: bread, cheese and butter. 

But American food translates only so well over in Sweden, it turns out.  For one thing, Swedish hot dogs – which are tasty, though different from the ones in the US – are very thin and about nine inches long, but the buns are only about five inches long.  I told Sara that someone could make a fortune selling buns as long as the hot dogs, but she said that most Swedes regard the buns as little more than organic oven mitts for holding the hot dog and that many don’t even eat the bun at all. This strikes me as just wrong - never mind cultural relativism: you're supposed to eat the bun! Oh well.

We were in Sweden for the Fourth of July, so we tried to put together an American-style meal.  We had hot dogs (with the tiny buns), watermelon, cucumber salad, and an assortment of potato chips, and the kids roasted marshmallows.  Swedish marshmallows come with a crunchy layer of sugar on the outside, which makes them ideal for roasting.

Of course, you can’t eat at home without grocery shopping, and I went to the supermarket in both Sweden and England.  I love grocery stores.  I enjoy walking around and seeing all of the various foods – so different from what you can find in the US.  It’s fun to see what the closest equivalents are to what you’re familiar with, and what things you consider basics that don’t exist in other countries.  The one thing that amazed me in both places was that they had shopping carts where all four wheels could spin.  Theoretically this meant you could maneuver the cart into tight spaces with no difficulty, but in practice it meant that I was constantly fighting to keep the cart from drifting off into oncoming traffic.

We also ate out.

Sometimes we just ate outside.

This is David demonstrating his strength by eating an entire mouthful of the oxalis that grows near his house.  It is very sour.  Really, do not try this at home unless you are Swedish.

Also: Swedish soft-serve ice cream is very tasty but basically Cool Whip with actual dairy products in it.

Mostly, though, when we ate out we were eating inside, just not at home.  We stopped for pizza in both countries, for example.

Pizza in Europe apparently only comes as a single-person meal – you don’t get a large and split it among a family of four (or one teenaged boy) the way you do in the US.  Everyone gets their own, which is about the size of a medium in the US but only comes in thin crust. 

In England we got hooked on cream teas, which are not “tea with cream in” but a whole meal consisting of two scones, a large dollop of clotted cream, an equally large dollop of strawberry jam, and a pot of tea (which, theoretically, you could then put cream in).

This one was at the Kitchen Cafe in Tavistock, on the outskirts of Dartmoor, which was quite possibly the most fascinating restaurant we found in Europe.  You park your car in the carpark (which, linguistically, makes sense) and then walk up half a block to the shops.  There you find a small sign that says “Kitchen Cafe" and an arrow pointing inside a door and up a set of stairs.  You go up, turn right, cut diagonally across an enormous empty room – the sort of thing that you could host fundraisers in – and there you find two doors.  You go through the left-hand one into the kitchen, where a number of women have set out examples of what you can order.  These are 1) cream teas and 2) Cornish pasties.  You place your order, go back out and into the right-hand door, which leads you to the dining room.  Eventually they bring you your meal.  It was good.

It was all good.