As usual, this LJ post will take the form of a collection of not-particularly-connected vignettes, usually reporting things which I considered particularly unusual. It may well be that US readers consider these all perfectly normal already; it might be that non-US readers were familiar with many of these things already too. Or perhaps I'll be bringing something new and hopefully interesting! How can I tell?
I'm getting more and more used to Meg's town, Athens. Parking in the centre of the city is frequently very difficult due to high demand and relatively low supply. Certainly there are very low barriers to parking in that the meters will set you back the whopping sum of a shiny quarter for a whole hour, with two hours for 50 cents the limit. Where I'm from, two hours will set you back the equivalent of five times that, with every hour after the second costing a similar increment. As cheap as the Athens parking charges are, the parking fines are even more eye-opening; some offences are charged at $3, others at $5. Surely the cost of collecting these fines must surely outstrip the revenues by a factor of at least ten?
There's also a certain element of avoiding many of the worse of the elements through parking, almost as if parking spaces more than a certain distance from the intended eventual destination don't really exist. Moving from one space to another within a parking lot (aargh, I'm speaking 'Merkin now - a car park, damnit) for any reason less than a two-person carrying operation strikes me as very, very American, somehow.
We managed to try out some more of the town's restaurants that we'd been promising ourselves we'd get around to, not least A Taste of India, one of two next-door-but-three restaurants that make up what might be considered the town's Indian Two-Hundred-And-Fifty-Sixth. The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet was a big winner; Meg ordered coconutless chicken korma à la carte which turned out well, but wasn't quick - I was onto my fourth (highly tasty!) half-full plate by the time Meg's food arrived. The Sri Lankan curry house near chez malachan/titanic_days features mutton curries, which I considered unusual, but the menu here included the usual variety of curry sauces with scallops as the central ingredient and another selection where the meat of the day was goat, served on the bone. Authentic, I'm sure, but I probably wouldn't. Indeed, I didn't.
Changing the subject, Meg took me to a drive-through bank one day. Drive-up cash machines are one thing, but this was a whole different level of banking. Meg drove up to a large pipe, which had a window cut into it. She could retrieve a plastic bottle from within the window and place a cheque to deposit into the bottle, plus ID. Upon replacing the bottle into the tube and pressing a button, a vacuum sucked the bottle up, up and away into the bowels of the bank, where it was processed before Meg's ID was returned in the same bottle with a satisfying thump. I was extremely impressed and amused by this, mostly because I can't work out whether it's an outmoded technology, a futuristic one, or an old-fashioned technology which remains state of the art yet for some reason has not achieved - retained? - the popularity that it might. I'm sure I've heard of the existence of such systems in theory, but I'm not sure I had seen one before in practice. In any case, it looked great.
Unfortunately we couldn't be with each other for February 14th, so we decided to celebrate it in our own way a few days early. We did this by booking the bridal suite at the Rivendell Bed and Breakfast for two nights. We had a huge room whose centrepiece was a remarkably tall four-poster bed, so high from the ground that it had its own steps for easier access. The bathroom was amazing, larger on its own than some rooms I've used in the past; a two-person shower and a jacuzzi which would take two people cuddled up to each other. The room had gorgeous, if impractical, windows, was beautifully dressed and had the largest walk-in closet I've ever seen in person. In fact, all we saw of the house was impeccably charming, particularly the gorgeous open fire.
The bacon-and-scrambled-eggs breakfasts upon demand were rather good, too. In truth we didn't perhaps get quite as restful a sleep as we might have done, "bridal suite" jokes aside, but it was still an extremely charismatic and comfortable place to stay. The cost for the entire room was $90 + tax per night, so a shade above £50 for the room and board. I can't imagine many places in the UK, where you'd actually like to stay, where you'd be able to get a similar suite for less than three or four times that. I bet it looks absolutely gorgeous during the summer, too. We had a non-Valentine's Day trip to The Last Resort, a grill that had also long been on our (happily by now reasonably quite short) to-try list.
On the downside, after a week of glorious weather, we had two days which were cold and extremely wet. Meg's father picked up a cold; Meg picked up a cold. This made sleeping a lot harder for Meg afterwards, unfortunately, which was no fun. Then I came home to discover that half the Western world had been having a cold; my cow-orker had one, and I developed a very bad case of the sneezes last week. Those predicting I might lose a week or more to the flu are off to a good start, alas.
Meg's cats Toby and Xander are both very well and continuing to grow at a remarkable rate. They may end up some of the biggest kittens in the world for a long time,because it seems hard to believe they will ever stop being silly to the point that we start to think of them as cats. Xander is incredibly playful and unusually intelligent; for months now, he has enjoyed fetching items that you throw for him. He has a particular liking for a certain sort of fruity taffy candy as a fetch toy, presumably because his teeth pierce the wrapper and he can just taste the sweet behind. Toby is more of a cuddler kitten, but they both like playing with the wiggle wand, a coloured streamer of soft fabric which we tend to flip out of the way and play with it as an extremely soft non-contact whip. Incidentally, there are lots of results on Google for cat "wiggle wand" that I wasn't expecting before you get to that.
We bought some catnip from the local serve-yourself-from-bins wholefoods store for the kittens and decided to make a play toy for the kittens by taking a stray black sock that had long ago lost its partner, tipping just a little into the heel and knotting it up firmly. The kittens, as expected, loved this. Unfortunately while we were sorting out clothes to be washed and dried, Xander decided it was time to play "fetch" and dropped the catnip sock into the pile, unnoticed. Accordingly, a sock with a hint of catnip was washed and tumble-dried with many of the rest of our clothes. We only learnt this upon sorting out the clothes, fresh from the dryer, to discover a knotted sock which had no mate. We certainly knew about the kittens' love for us after that.
Another highlight of the trip was a carload of us visiting the Duluth branch of Dave and Buster's. This is a combination snooker club, restaurant and amusement arcade. However, it is inordinately large by British standards - as large as the biggest out-of-town supermarkets I've visited and starting to rival the smallest airport terminals. It would take up at least a furlong of Blackpool's Golden Mile on its own. All this in just an ordinary single branch of a chain, not even in a resort destination town. Meg and all-comers had a jones for Skee-ball, so we all went off to D&B's. Most of us had combination deals whereby $15 got you a meal from a choice of about nine (I had a "Cheeseburger-Cheeseburger" without the cheese - very decent burger, lousy fries) and $10 of gameplay. However, when you add a fizzy drink, tax and a tip, there's not much left from $21 in practice.
About half the games were video games, and largely very impressive examples - for instance, there was an 8-player Daytona USA and a 6-player shooting game that I think may well have been a converted Galaxian3; didn't think I'd ever see one of those again. The remaining half of the games are considered "redemption games" - coins (or chips) in, some game of skill, then coupons out. Collect tens, hundreds or thousands of these tickets and exchange them for a faaaaabulous prize from the booth. Many of the games are simple matters of timing, plenty of others are sports games (most frequently "throw basketballs into a net"), some are as fun as skee-ball. Not sure whether the UK folk know skee-ball: roll not-terribly-spherical light bowls ten feet up an alley where they fly up off a lip into one of several holes. Ideally you want to aim for holes awarding 30 or 40 points, or the smaller 50 point hole; near misses earn 20 points, far misses 10 points. There are also ludicrous 100-point holes that can only ever be scored through freak accidents.
The Dave and Buster's economy is based around prepaid stored-value cards containing game credit. The unit of currency is the chip. Nominally $1 buys you three chips, but $10 buys you 48 chips and even that isn't great value - $12 gets you 60 chips, $22 gets you 125 chips and $27 gets you 168 or so. The cards are rechargeable, except the $10 one you get with your meal, and once you've played 1,200 chips worth of games then you are eligible to swap for a special card which makes everything 10% cheaper. Games cost convoluted sums; for instance, skee-ball was 2.4 chips per game, so anywhere between about 40 cents and 80 cents. The economy of cash-to-chips-to-tickets-to-prizes is not designed to be easy to follow.
However, skeeball was far more fun than envisioned because one of the machines was a Magic Skeeball Machine. (It's the fifth one along of the six - maybe sixth of seven? - but I fear they'll have fixed it by now.) Essentially it is broken, but broken in a way highly favourable to the player - specifically, if you hit the backboard somewhere near the top-right, between the 50 and the right-hand 100 - and it's not really exact where - then there's a loose connection on one of the internal switches in the machine that goes nuts and decides you have hit the 50-point target, often twice or more with the one ball, maybe even four or five times.
There was even one game where it decided to start giving me these bonus fifties just because I looked at it funnily; a hundred points before bowling a single ball. The more points you get, the more tickets you get; supposedly 550 points is required for the hundred-ticket-plus jackpot, but we definitely earned it with a score of 480 points. This exploit rather relies on the fact that the Skee-ball machine does not perform sanity checks on the scoring. You should not be able to score any points without bowling a ball, let alone 100; you should not be able to score 920 points in a 9-ball game, even with nine unlikely 100-point balls. We earned a looooooot of tickets from the magic skee-ball machine that day.
We also enjoyed a "Super Trivia" game very much, though. Up to six players sit about a large screen, each player at a podium with three big round lettered buttons before them. As many players as desired insert their coins (er, swipe their cards) within an unfortunately narrow 10-second window; five questions are asked with three-way multiple-choice answers. There are mild game show trappings - the flashing lights in front of each player who has answered correctly are particularly nice - but it's all very tastefully done. The player with most correct answers over the five, total time taken breaking ties, wins the game and earns most tickets; lower-ranking players earn fewer tickets. The more players, the bigger the prizes; getting all five questions correct also increases the size of the first place prize. It's fun - but it was 4.7 chips a shot, so not cheap.
Meg was thrilled to win enough tickets to get herself a fabulous mini food processor, with a little help from me and a little more help from our friend the Magic Skee-ball Machine. It's a nice little tool, perfect for chopping small amounts of vegetables, and Meg is convinced that it would have cost her more to buy it than we spent on the games. Pachinko-tastic! Things get a little more expensive when the skee-ball machines work properly, but I suspect that the Super Trivia machine is genuinely +EV for the winning player when you have six playing. (And -EV for the other five, naturally.) parkingmeters was likewise smitten with her Zoe Monster doll.
A good time was had by all. I developed a partial fear of arcades some years back, but good company and common sense meant that I enjoyed myself too. Oh, and dramawench and I played Pump It Up 2, Korean on-the-diagonals DDR. It doesn't help that the game doesn't make it very clear in advance whether the beginner versions of the songs are very beginner or not, but we were terrible. :-D
Running joke of the trip was a Saturday Night Live sketch about the invitation of an actor called Peter Sarsgaard to a pirates' convention, resulting in undue stress on any subsequent "are" sound. "Peter, what be ye favourite restaurant for roast beef sandwiches?" "Er... Arby's." omnes: "AAARRRRRRRRRRRRBY'S!" Someone uploaded the video of this to YouTube, but unfortunately it seems to have been deleted. I have a very hit-and-miss record at getting SNL sketches, even ones which crease Meg up, but this was silly enough for my taste.
It was lovely to see lots of folk, including Meg's parents, parkingmeters, her friend Teri, athenienne, dramawench and a special guest star appearance made by David Hammett, who has still not yet registered a LJ, flying all the way in from California to see us and to introduce a friend to his college alma mater. (Plus pick up merchandise from the Bulldogs' triumphant season and trip to the Sugar Bowl.) Meg, her mother and I also enjoyed a trip to Georgia's new aquarium; predictably, it swims the trunks off The Deep, the new one in Hull which was meant to be a major attraction. Bigger budgets mean bigger fishtanks, which mean bigger fish and a longer tunnel to let you walk "underneath"/"through" and see the fish from beneath.
I flew with Northwest on this occasion; most usually I have flown with Delta direct to Atlanta, but this time a route through Detroit proved cheaper. I really liked it and wrote a longer write-up for another forum I'm on. I flew back on the day of the Eastern Seaboard snowstorms, but happily Detroit was far enough away that my flights from ATL to DTW and from DTW to LGW weren't affected. Phew!
Lastly, one other strange thing: on the airport shuttle back from Athens to Atlanta, six cars in front of us all pulled over to the side of the road, and we did too - then, a minute or two later, we all drove off again. Apparently this was to pay respect to a funeral, though I couldn't see a hearse in either direction and there wasn't any other visible indication of any sort of memorial. Is this practice common? Do you get taught about it in US driver education classes? There was discussion inside the van and apparently some cops will even pull you over if you don't show sufficient respect. My driving instructor over here knew nothing about this, and I must say that I'd never encountered this before even on discussions of cultural differences between the UK and US. Perhaps US folk will be surprised to hear that it doesn't happen over here!
Another wonderful trip! Next up, Meg comes to the UK in April; we're counting the days already!