2. One bright point is that pegkerr points out that John Walton, who is the friend of many here, is out of surgery and that the operation went well. Lots of good thoughts from this direction.
3. Talking of John, I think he is to be credited for the explosion in people interested in the San Juan Seagulls Quidditch team. You kids scare me. :-) I suspect that the world will find a way for the Seagulls to fly again some day; tall_man has also mooted an Orlando Ospreys reunion. However, I suspect that the Intergalactic Champion Cape Canaveral Kestrels will probably remain undefeated champions, unless Roger Highfield ever has another book to plug.
4. One unexpected but pleasant consequence of my US trip is that I lost weight. I gave blood on the Friday before I left, just in case it was the last opportunity I got to do so, and discovered that my weight on Saturday was down to 204 lbs., the lowest it had been all year. (I theorised that a pound of the drop might be ascribed to having 0.8 less pints of blood flowing round my veins.) Despite eating what might be reasonably referred to as "a load of crap" on my trip, evidently the helpful effects of the exercise overcame the smaller number of meals I had, for on return my weight (as measured at the start of a day before a shower) had dropped to 203 pounds. Now I recognise that fluctuations are natural, but a fall certainly beats a rise. If I stay below 206 next time I weigh myself then I declare myself to have at last worked off my "big Christmas". About time too.
5. Looks like I'm not going to get round to doing the full chronological account of my US trip, but I can at least talk about the travel.
It was with not a little insufferable smugness that I asked the driver of the local number 465 bus "Disneyworld, please... or Middlesbrough Town Centre". It got a chuckle, though he didn't ask where I eventually would drag my chunky case.
I flew between London Heathrow and New York JFK with British Airways. Most BA flights go from Heathrow Terminal 4, which has been described in the past as having fewer facilities than Victoria Coach Station. LHR4 is strange even by airport standards: landside, its facilities are indeed remarkably spartan; airside of the security check, it is the match of any other airline terminal's airside I've yet visited. Furthermore, it has unusual moving walkways to be propelled along - unusual in that the walkway surface is made from remarkably bouncy Dunlop rubber, as opposed to the usual metal tracks.
The flight with British Airways gets my thumbs up. Upon boarding the plane when travelling westwards, the check-in assistant said that I had been placed to split up a family group and that she had moved me to a seat I would enjoy more. Translation: bulkhead seat! Bulkhead seats don't have further rows of seats directly in front of them - instead, they have aeroplane internals (in this case, cabin assistants' stores of food and drink, I think) and accordingly get a good six inches of extra legroom. (The standard seats' 31" was on the pokey side.) We were on a 747-400, with seats arranged 3-4-3. The airline meals were pretty good - a choice of beef or chicken either way, accompanied by salad, a roll and the usual. (I had both beef; potato out, rice back. Both entirely decent.) There was about half an hour delay on the tarmac before we left.
BA seatback entertainment is very good: twelve channels of video, twelve of audio. The audio channels are live long before the video ones start and have the selection most to my taste. The film selection was less good; I saw The Jungle Book 2, which was Disney very much by the numbers and little more than an inferior remix of the original. I also caught a little of some movie called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but I didn't stick with it. BA have a pretentious four-class operation system; as well as the usual Economy, First and Business (featuring half rear-facing seats, which are meant to be quite pleasant) there is also World Traveller Plus which carries a small premium over full-price economy in return for 38" legroom and a few extra frills. BA really rub it in to the cattle class by actually offering 18 video channels plus games, but denying the cheap seats access to 6 video channels (to be fair, dull ones) plus the games.
In-flight video entertainment is supplied by a company called Spafax, who have wonderful little interstitials and jingles between the features. I was humming them for about two days after each journey, but have forgotten them by now. Incidentally, JFK is not a great airport; there are many small terminals with poor facilities, compared to Heathrow's few terminals with extensive, expensive ones. The improvements in terminal-to-terminal (and terminal-to-subway) transport coming in about a year or so will help considerably, though.
Between my two flights with BA, there was a wildcat strike by their check-in staff at Heathrow. Happily, it didn't affect my experience at all, though I understand I got very lucky and some people ended up losing three or four days of holiday. The flight back was similarly problem-free, other than a 45-minute delay on takeoff; however, the pilot claimed that he was flying particularly fast and made up the entire deficit en route. Crossing the Atlantic in as little as 5 hours 40 was a first for me; almost too short, considering the better entertainment line-up. (I chose Toy Story 2, which I hadn't seen. Thumbs up for simple overnight flight family fun.) The return overnight flight (scheduled to depart at 2300) was no more than half full; some people who asked for a window seat ended up being able to stretch down three adjacent seats from window to aisle.
I checked in for the return flight very early and asked for a bulkhead seat; this was denied, but they put me in the row of seats directly behind the bulkhead row. These bulkhead seats were largely unoccupied, though, so about 15 minutes after we took off, I asked the attendant if I could swap to the empty seat directly in front of me once the seatbelt light went off. He agreed happily, almost incredulous that I asked. Definitely a tip I would recommend, though, for those who want to upgrade themselves to an empty bulkhead seat in the future for extra legroom. Ought to work pretty generally on every airline, too. Overall impression of BA: very good, almost as good as Virgin. However, my airline decisions are 90% based on price and destination, so it may be some time and/or another special offer before I try BA again. (However, see below...) Possibly not as fun as titanic_days's trip on Kuwait Airways, but certainly practical.
While at New York, the subway there is very nearly as good as the London Underground. On the downside, most lines have a mixture of fast and slow trains - sort of like the Metropolitan line, though the Met keeps its confusion to one end alone. The NY ticket machines are a couple of years ahead of the British ones and their cost structure is a little simpler. However, New York's stations can be very hot, quite dark, the platforms are surprisingly narrow and the turnstiles mean that access with hefty luggage can be tricky. (The British sense of design and style is more consistent and attractive, though I'm judging from a small sample.) London station names win in terms of poetry, New York in terms of practicality, frequently being based around the sensible street numbering system. I suspect the British trains' seats are generally slightly more comfortable, but the trains may possibly be a shade slower; US trains are air-conditioned but attract more attention-seekers (saleskids one way, preachers the other). Our map is a design classic, theirs is disappointingly literal.
Several Americans remarked on the madness of my travel plans, with a long Greyhound leg between the flights and Orlando. (New York to Orlando - 1220 miles on the road, about 21½ hours.) When you've travelled by coach in the UK as much as I have, Greyhound's coaches are a full class ahead of National Express ones. The main improvement is seat width - US seats are possibly 2"-3" wider, plus definitely have arms on either side. US seats tend to have a couple of inches more legroom, too. Add to that tinted windows, proper air conditioning, softer suspension and a much more restful, even engine tone and Greyhound is markedly superior to National Express' offerings in this country.
Both journeys were extremely restful; you get on the coach and drop into a state of pseduo-cryogenic suspended animation, for there is nothing for you to do other than to look out of the window. Time loses all meaning; suddenly 70 miles (and the old image of the 55 speed limit no longer applies, for at least most of the I-95 route we took) becomes "not long enough for you to want to do anything ambitious like listen to a tape" and you're happy to just wait the miles out. Each journey took something like 21frac12; hours, with about 18 hours on the road. I would estimate that I spent 14 hours trying to sleep and slept for about 9 of them - sometimes in half-hour spurts, sometimes two hours or more at a stretch. The rest breaks offered a better variety of food than I was expecting (I remember a 48-hour Greyhound journey which seemed to be a McDonald's monopoly) and even the proper interchanges (Baltimore, Fayetteville) were a lot nicer - and a lot cheaper - than Birmingham Digbeth Hellhole, let alone Milton Keynes Coachway Abyss Of Despair I'm Not Joking.
Brits who know National Express, I proactively recommend Greyhound as a cheap way to get around the US. (My return journey cost me US$151, through 2ndavemusic as intermediary, or about GBP 90 for 42 hours of travel. To be fair, my within-the-UK travel was GBP 25 for about 11-12 hours, so about the same rate, but I got a sweet deal on the UK leg.) The journey is smooth and easy, compared to Britain's stop-start-y, jam-packed roads. Conversely, Americans who complain about Greyhound really oughtn't to think too hard about the possibility of getting around the UK by coach... :-/
Another manner in which to compare Greyhound and National Express is the way they are driven. The majority of drivers are completely straightforward and humourless in their work. However, every now and again, you get one who thinks he is a chilled-out entertainer doing a bus driver's job. The New York to Fayetteville leg had a driver who deliberately switched "good morning" with "good night", departed the rest stops about a minute later with "I forgot to ask. Anyone missin'?" and woke us up shortly before arrival at Fayetteville with a blast of '60s rock'n'roll before declaring he was goin' fishin'. (Fishin' for a pillow.) It's certainly interesting to note that he drove a 10-11 hour stint, alone and unassisted, with only a couple of short breaks for relaxation. I suspect our laws would mandate more frequent driver switching.
One disappointing aspect of Greyhound, though, was a lack of integration with the local bus transport system in Orlando. (The Greyhound terminal there wouldn't talk about it at all; I had to ring the Orlando bus company and navigate their menu of phone options.) The buses themselves were some of the nicest I've used, with their own in-bus entertainment, information and advertising system. The bus station was extremely rudimentary, though (outdoors, so no air-conditioning - eek!); pleasantly incongruously, it had a railway line next to it down which came a huge great goods train with a really loud, old-fashioned whistle. (Safety issues?) On the downside, the buses were annoyingly infrequent (half-hourly) and the wait was unpleasantly hot. Still, nice to travel on the gorgeous buses once - though a lot more convenient to have tall_man kindly give me a lift back!
6. Just for the record, here is my assessment of the cost of the trip.
Flight ticket GBP 278.20 Insurance GBP 33.99 Sundry clothes GBP 20.80 Cash: $315 GBP 203.70 (Greyhound, Wed-to-Thu night room, US transport, meals...) Cash: $200 on 21 Jul GBP 129.70 (Meals, Sun-to-Mon night room, $30 to PayPal...) Room cost GBP 66.20 (Thu-Fri, Fri-Sat and Sat-Sun nights...) Transport within UK GBP 35.00 (National express, Middlesbrough local bus, London Underground) Con ticket ($110) GBP 68.00 (Paid for with leftover t/cheques) Total GBP 835.59I suspect it's not quite fair to ascribe all those costs to the trip; after all, I'll carry on using the clothes for some time. (I bought a very nice belt to replace my old, knackered one, which itself was new at Christmas.) I'm also not certain whether using two left-over travellers' cheques should count as "real money" or not, because I paid for it so long ago. However, I suspect there are things I've missed out, so the real cost is going to be something like "750 or 800 pounds". I've definitely spent more than that on holidays in the past, albeit longer ones.
I don't post this as a boast about how expensive or how cheap the trip was, more as a record for myself. I will admit that I was very pleased with the flight price I got at the time and posted about the special offers that were then available. However, British Airways have another special offer on at the moment; it's entitled "Big Sorry, Small Prices" as a response to the delays and difficulties caused by the strike discussed above. I'm particularly taken by the look of the return flights from London to Boston, New York JFK, Newark, Philly or DC for GBP 179 including taxes, which is about as low as you ever see these days, to within GBP 10 or so. They must be booked by the end of August 5th (so by the end of Tuesday night) and they're only available at certain times (November and early December - probably Tuesdays and Wednesdays only, too). Still, a bloody good price for a bloody good airline.
I'd love to take advantage of this offer but, well, after realising just how much the Nimbus trip cost and just quite how hard I have been pressing my credit card, it's not going to happen. (Barring an unexpected and significant influx of cash in the next 24 hours.) At least I'm better-informed about my financial situation now, which is this: perilous but positive. I vaguely expect similar prices, if possibly not quite as good, to be available again at the start of 2004, so perhaps that might be a more realistic possibility. Rough plans for 2004 include skipping any North American HP convention but going to a non-Potter convention in Columbus, OH in April instead. (Going to see nice people in Boston first if at all I can swing it.)
7. Penultimately, take a look at pictures of swag from my trip. In roughly chronological order, with one exception:
the_maenad sent me on my way with the gift of printed 'zines - a craftswoman's work at her finest. (More about printed 'zines some day, but I've been planning to write on the subject for about a year now.) Issue 3 is posed upside-down for jollity.
2ndavemusic sent me on my way with the gift of a CD of his songs and an OotP review. Giving hand-made gifts (also as above!) always makes me feel awkward, but I love getting them from others.
heidi8 sent me on my way with the gift of Fiction Alley mugs, as modelled on top of our toilet in our bathroom. The wall markings are deliberate style, not cobwebs.
Amy who doesn't have a LJ sold me two pillowcases for the Double Double Feature non-slumber party. They are absolutely gorgeous, especially compared to (as per the side of the pic) my rather dull ordinary ones. They don't quite fit standard UK pillows, but are still lovely.
gwendolyngrace sold me an official XL T-shirt, which was a little tricky to get hold of for I hadn't pre-registered. Whee!
Left: a Quidditch team pennant. Not saying which team's - I'm staying completely neutral, me. Centre: anya_writer sent me on my way with the gift of a bracelet, which is the first time I had ever been given one by a lady. V. special, v. nice, v. much liked. Right: ari_o sent me on my way with the gift of an official, unique, badge. Well, I wore it all weekend for identification - that too.
Greyhound sold me a map of the routes they serve. Yo, big mapgeekness!
Saving the best for last:
Amy who doesn't have a LJ sent me on my way with the gift of the one and only team banner of the champion Cape Canaveral Kestrels. Aw yeah! This thing is big - over four feet wide at the tips, a good 2'6"+ at the stripe. Definitely my favourite souvenir, again made all the more precious by the fact that it was hand-made by the donor, so it's not for sale - not even to Kestrels beater Roger Highfield himself!
8. As everyone else in the fandom is doing it, ask any of my original characters a question and they'll give you an honest answer. Possibly nine of you might even know who my original characters are. ;-)
EDIT 9. Those who bear scars - or even grins - from fandom's kerfuffles (any fandom which takes its kerfuffles too seriously) are particularly likely to enjoy today's installment of /usr/bin/w00t.