The Train To Cardiff

“Take off your shirt!”

This is not what most people want to hear while traveling through the British countryside on a train. That’s especially true if you are, like me, in less-than-model shape. But first…….

Trains are a great way to travel in Europe. After a few days visiting a friend in Swansea, Wales, I decided to take a train to Bath, England. It looked fairly straightforward with only one change of trains in Cardiff, Wales.

My friend was leaving for the weekend but said it would only take a few minutes to get to the train station by taxi since it was Saturday morning. The station would be quiet and the trains fairly empty, or so he thought. He booked me a taxi the night before my trip. Naturally, it arrived late. I had no way to contact my friend as he’d gone off into the woods. I also had no idea what taxi company he booked. So I waited and waited until the taxi eventually showed up.

I told the driver to go to the train station. He said okay but smirked, which I found odd. As we drove to the station I realized we were cutting it close but expected I could find my train quickly. I’d bought a reserved seat and only needed to pick up the ticket to board. We pulled up to the train station with about 5 minutes to spare. But there was a problem.

The station was packed with people. Hence the reason for the cabbie smirk, I suppose.

I rushed around trying to find the ticket machines, which I did with the help of a security guard. I retrieved my ticket and joined the mass of people piling onto the train. Everyone was wearing red clothing sporting the words “Cardiff”.  Wow, I thought to myself, now there’s civic pride!

I boarded the train to see that all seats were taken and the aisle was completely full of people. Completely. There was simply no more room and there was no way I was going down the aisle with my suitcase, especially given the stares of those standing in the aisle. I put it on the shelf at the front of the train, next to what appeared to be a cider bottling plant as there were dozens of bottles of cider already piled up at 11 AM.

I worked my way down the crowded aisle to my window seat, which was naturally at the opposite end of the train car, and saw it was occupied by a college-aged girl.  She immediately recognized why I was looking at her inquisitively.

“This your seat?” she asked.

I told her yes, so she got up to let me have the seat.  And with that, I became a verbal target for a large number of cider-infused gents.  Though honestly I think I was a target the moment I got on in my black-and-not-red shirt.

“You aren’t seriously going to make her move, are you mate?” asked a college-aged gent sitting at a table on the other side of the aisle.

The girl interrupted to tell them it was my seat and I should have it. Now, normally I’d gladly have given up my seat, but this was my first trip through this part of the world and I wanted to see the sites. Had I known it would be mostly industrial areas or shrubs planted to hide the train I would have let her have the seat. The guy who had spoken up offered her his seat at the table (one side of the train had tables for four people, the other side had regular train seats).

And cut. End of story. At least that’s what I’d hoped. After all,  the girl was now sitting with them instead of across the aisle, thanks to me, with her friend in the aisle seat. At this point I tried looking out the window and pretending they didn’t exist.

“Nice hair,” one of them said derogatorily.

Here we go. My hair is spikey and blond, so this wasn’t the first time someone had made a crack. I replied that my hair dryer blew up and shocked me thanks to the higher voltage in the UK.

“Where are you from?” another asked.

Well, I’m from Los Angeles, which to the rest of the world means Hollywood.  As soon as I told them, I had a new name, “Hollywood”. Wow, so original

“You going to the ballgame at the ballfield, Hollywood?” one asked, again derogatorily.

By this time I’d heard enough chatter to know that the red civic pride shirts were actually for the Cardiff rugby team, and everyone was heading to see the finals between Ireland and Wales for the Six Nations Championship.

“If I’m not mistaken it’s a match played on the pitch,” I replied.

This brought quite a few laughs and ooooos from their table. Then the girl who had been in my seat asked me where I was going. I told her I was going to Bath. This brought another chorus of laughter.

“You mean Baaahhhth? You going shopping”?

I guess naturally someone who lives in the region would think of shopping instead of sightseeing, but I don’t look like the shopping type. I think the hair really threw them. Before I could answer, I heard a command that struck fear in my heart, and I heard the banjo from the movie “Deliverance” in my ears.

“So Hollywood…….take off your shirt,” one of the men shouted.

This was such an odd question I just stared at the guy who asked it. I mean, all it takes is a simple glance at me to know I’m not shirtless material. Maybe all the cider had caused cider goggles in this gent. What the heck was I supposed to say to that? What do they do to foreigners on the train who aren’t wearing the red shirt?

“Fine, I’m from Canada!” I yelled out.

“So, uh, Canada…..” the gent slowly started to ask.

Thankfully, before he could get his question out, the train rolled to a stop, and dozens of empty cider bottles rolled around on the floor. When I reunited with my suitcase, I found that it had been used as a table, with many, many apple ciders spilled on top. I’m just glad it wasn’t beer because the cider smells better.

I changed trains and headed to Bath, an eerie silence enveloping the nearly empty car, all the while waiting for someone to yell out, “Hey, Hollywood”!


The Tyranny of Choice

PictureActual results from my wallet search

I received an email promotion for backpacks a few days ago. They were 65% off, and while I didn’t really need a new backpack, the deal seemed pretty good. I clicked through to the site, did a search by gender and received 1429 results. Applying as many filters as I could, like “laptop” and “men’s,” dropped the selection to a mere 739 choices.Oh joy! So many to choose from! Great! Um, no. Not great.

Think about that. If I were in a store and saw 739 different types of backpacks (and I’m excluding color as a type) it would be overwhelming. It’s even worse online. First, the photos aren’t very good. Second, I have to read the dimensions for each item I’m interested in because there’s no filter for dimensions and I have to make sure it will fit under an airline seat. And of course I have to read all the reviews because review number 698 from Bob in Ohio will have the one comment that enlightens me as to why I shouldn’t buy that particular backpack.

I spent a few minutes looking at backpacks, reading reviews and sorting by various parameters like price, rating, etc. Then I quit. The site had so many options that I spent enough time realizing I don’t need a new backpack and this was just too time-consuming. They had inadvertently caused me NOT to buy a backpack by having too many choices. This reminded me of an article I’d read in The Economist magazine some time ago that cited numerous examples of how having too many choices can actually cause one not to buy a product, and how companies had increased sales by reducing varieties. You can read it here, but not until you finish my blog.

Now, back to my backpack.

There’s absolutely no need to go through 739 choices. I guess I could have decided based on photos and narrowed it down to a few, but that’s like dating based only on a photo. While that’s great for Tinder, my relationship with a backpack is intended to last longer than a Tinder date and therefore needs to be based on more than a nice photo and a couple of good reviews.  Besides, as I mentioned the photos aren’t very good in most cases, and are probably misleading just like dating site photos!

The same thing happened when I decided to look for a new wallet. I went to Amazon and searched for “men’s wallet”. How many results? 3,321,743. Read that again- out loud. THREE MILLION THREE HUNDRED TWENTY-ONE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED FORTY-THREE! Yes, I’m shouting. Don’t believe me? Check out the screen capture. There’s absolutely no point in returning a result like that. If I spent 20 seconds reviewing each item, I’d spend 768 days deciding on a wallet.

I added a filter for “accessories” and got 61, 144 results. That’s SIXTY-ONE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED FORTY-FOUR freaking wallets.  And the filters I actually want to use, like the color black and RFID protection, don’t even exist. But I can search by brand. Whoop-dee-do. I don’t even know what brand I want.

I gave up and drove to my local Target store. Certainly they’ll have a decent selection of wallets, I thought. After wandering around for some time I finally found one small shelf with 4 wallets, all the same brand and mostly the same design. None that were even remotely close to anything I’d want.

Drat. Defeated again. I took out my wallet, looked it over, and realized I don’t need a new wallet anymore than I need the backpack, and with that, left the store and abandoned my search for both.

At some point in life I’ll need a new wallet, and probably a new backpack, but for now the ones I have are perfectly functional. And every time I think about buying a new one, I’ll just remind myself that I need to set aside a 2-3 weeks at minimum to go over just some of the options Amazon will offer me.

Too bad the airlines don’t offer as many flights as Amazon and others offer for their products. That’s one industry I’d be happy to see too many choices!

But for now the same thing is happening in everything from apps to hotel travel sites. Too many choices for any rational consumer to make a decision. And that is a problem, because modern economics is based on the theory of a rational consumer.

The apocalypse is upon us……

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So You Think You Want To Fly First Class?


So you think you want to fly First Class? Do you feel bad that you are stuck in coach, squashed into the back of a plane while the First Class cabin citizens enjoy free drinks, good food and wonderful conversations with other successful people? It must be one heck of a good time.Not so fast………

I’m a casual traveler and actually hate to fly, with most of my flights being from Los Angeles to the East Coast or Europe. In my early flying days, coach was just fine. The people I met were generally polite, if not actually friendly. And yes, even the food was decent (as much as people complain about the food on planes, I rarely see people decline it). But I had always dreamed of being one of the chosen few who gets to sit in First Class.

“What is it like to be among the elite?” I thought.  Well, I finally got my chance a few years back . I received a sacred “mileage upgrade.” Wow! I get to board first, enjoy a cocktail, talk to interesting people (maybe even celebrities!) and even get a hot towel before dinner. And in fact, I did occasionally sit in a cabin with celebrities (LA to Atlanta, or LA to New York tend to have the most). I even recall one flight in which the Backstreet Boys boarded and I sat there wondering why they were carrying guitars, as I had no idea any of them could play instruments. Celebrities don’t really impress me anyway- I’ve been in the biz and the shine wore off long ago. But still, I was flying First Class!

After the first trip I was somewhat addicted. I scrambled to get miles for upgrades and when that failed, I’d pony up a few extra dollars to pay for an upgrade. After all, if I’m going to be on a plane for four or more hours, it’s a small price to pay for a slightly larger seat and a few extra amenities. But what mattered most was that by being in First Class, I felt like I was First Class. I needed to board before anyone else, just to show everyone in the waiting area that I was First Class! I could imagine them thinking “who is this guy with the spikey hair and funny clothes, what band does he play in?” I often got asked that by other First Class cabin mates, as well as an occasional airport screener.

And then it happened- the day I had to fly in coach again. How could this happen? What will I do? I’ll have to suffer with the common folk, in the back of the plane, eating bad food and enduring endless babble about the latest tabloid sensation. I won’t even get to board first. This was a disaster.

So I worked myself into the back of the plane, with a window seat so I could look out and dream of being up front, with the chosen ones. And then a gentleman sat down next to me with a DVD player, looking as far from rock musician (which is how I look) as one can get. Great, he’s going to watch some mindless DVD and probably won’t even be polite enough to get up when I need to go pee. I say hello and as we’re about to take off, which is the part I hate most, he tells me he’s a flight engineer from the Coast Guard and if something’s going to go wrong with a plane it will be right about NOW. He doesn’t seem concerned so I relax. I end up spending the next couple of hours watching his DVDs. It turns out he was a flight engineer on a helicopter that did rescues during Hurricane Katrina, and his DVDs were of their missions. It was the most entertaining movie I’d seen on a plane, and he turned out to be a really cool person to chat with. The flight ended, I got off, and dreamed of getting back to First Class. But…..

A funny thing happened on the way back to First Class. I flew coach a few more times, including all the way to Europe. Sometimes people were friendly, sometimes quiet, but no one ever griped when I woke them up so I could go to the bathroom (remember, I like window seats), or made the flight attendant reach over them to pass me a drink or food. But, I still dreamed of First Class…..then it happened.

UPGRADE! I got an UPGRADE! I was back. I was going to get to fly with my people! The chosen ones, who deserve bigger seats, better food, and free drinks. So I flew First class, next to a person who wouldn’t move so I could go to the bathroom (this was apparently a very important person with a VERY large discount store chain that shall go unnamed so I don’t get sued). One the second leg of my flight, the gentleman I sat next to was able to muster about two full sentences in 2 hours, both about him. And then it hit me. First Class wasn’t very pleasant.

I started to think back on my First Class experiences. Sure, the food was decent, but not much better than coach (maybe 10 years ago but not now). And yeah, the seats were bigger, but I still had to get the person in the aisle seat to move if I needed to use the restroom. And for some reason, in First Class, people don’t want to do that. Why? Because they are Important! Yes, they are the movers and shakers, the people who pay the wages of the type of people who sit in coach. They also seem to be some of the unhappiest, uncommunicative people I’ve ever met. No, I don’t want to spend 4 hours on a plane talking to every stranger. But I do want a modicum of politeness. Maybe it’s the economy, and a lot of these people are worth a lot less than they used to be. I’m not sure. What I can tell you is that while there may be more comfort in the seats, it’s offset by the discomfort of the personalities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some nice, relatively normal people like me (my friends would disagree with that statement) sit up there- I just haven’t met them.

So next time, I might just save my miles and fly coach. The odds of having a pleasant neighbor seem to insist on that. And the next time you feel bad that you sit in coach and not First Class, just remember that, based on my experiences, most of those in First Class don’t really seem to be that.

Back to the MRI

PictureGetting better!

I recently went for an MRI at a facility near my home. It wasn’t my first. In fact, I’ve been there four times this year. It gives me a nice feeling to walk in and hear the staff call out “Ken”! It’s probably how Norm felt whenever he walked into Cheers back in the day. For those of you who don’t know, Cheers was a show about a bar that had a few regular customers, including Norm. Whenever he walked in, everyone would call out “Norm!” because it was a place where “everybody knows your name”.

Anyway, that’s what it’s like for me to go for an MRI. It’s also usually a lengthy process- this time took 4 hours. If I were at Cheers I’d have gotten completely drunk given that much time at the bar. But they don’t serve drinks. The entertainment is provided by a giant TV that is set on either soaps or terrible afternoon talk shows.

On this visit I suggested they implement loyalty cards, like a sandwich shop. That way I could get my fifth MRI free after the purchase of four at regular prices. They smiled at my suggestion and asked me to step away from the desk. I requested they give it some thought, at which point the receptionist asked me why I was there so frequently.

“My brain thinks I’m more athletic than my body actually is,” I said, “so I tend to hurt myself when I’m doing something athletic, like surfing”.

“Then why don’t you get better at surfing?” she said.   Ouch.

She’s right, though. I’ve always been somewhat athletic, though I don’t look like it. One of my surfing buddies told me that I’m “like an ox wrapped in a marshmallow covering” because I can easily outlast him when surfing. I think if I had that type of marshmallow covering I’d end up with less visits to the doctor.

I could be more like my friends who smoke and drink. They never go to a doctor because they never hurt themselves. Sitting on the couch watching TV with a beer is apparently not very risky.

I’ll eventually get the results of my latest MRI, but I’m sure I’ll be back because my brain and body are never going to be on the same page. When I do return, I sure hope they’ve implemented the loyalty cards, or at the very least added a bar.

“Ken!” they’ll call out, right before asking me for my insurance card and beer choice.

No selfies

PictureBy the Danube in Regensburg.

I like to show my travel photos to captive audiences, like friends and family. One day while showing my photos I realized I wasn’t in any of them. Not one. They were just photos of scenery and buildings. I might as well have taken the photos from the internet and claimed to have taken them myself. In fact, I had no proof I’d ever left my apartment. If I’m not in the photos then my friends and family will think I never visited those places and am delusional. I needed a plan to get photos with me in them, but how, since I usually travel alone? As much as selfies can be useful in this case, I refuse to use them if possible. First, they’re just sad and narcissistic. Second, my arms aren’t long enough for me to get shots with lots of scenery, which is what I’m mostly interested in showing. My friends and family already know what I look like. They want to see where I’ve been. And so do I, frankly, because when I’m old the scenery will help me remember. And no, I’m not going to use a selfie stick. Those look ridiculous, and while one can get a slightly wider view, the stick still isn’t going to allow me to have a well-framed shot.

There is one other solution- ask a stranger. But wait! Isn’t that dangerous? Won’t I have to hand my phone to someone who might be a thief? What if they steal my phone?

Ah, good old paranoia, which in the case of a phone is perfectly warranted while traveling.  But I have a solution.

Make sure you can run faster than whomever you hand your phone to. Then you can chase them down and get it back.

Just kidding! But seriously, this can be done with minimal risk and you will get better photos and have more fun. There are two keys to making this work. The first is to buy a camera.

Buying a camera completely removes the risk that someone will steal your phone, because you are handing them your camera and not your phone. This has a few advantages. First, if someone does steal your camera, it will be a bummer but won’t wreck your vacation like losing a phone would (as long as you’ve been backing up your photos regularly). Second is that even an inexpensive compact camera will take better pictures than your phone. No matter how many billions of pixels your phone claims to have, there is no substitute for a real camera lens and purpose-built components. And last, who’s going to steal a camera anyway? Most people don’t even remember how to operate one.

The next thing you must do is identify your victim….uh…..I mean photographer. There are three categories: the single traveler, the couple, and the local.

Let’s start with the single traveler since this person is most like me.

Look for someone who isn’t using a selfie stick. They are a narcissist and won’t care how your photos turn out. Try to find someone who is using a camera, preferably nicer than yours so they won’t want to steal yours and they’ll know how to use a camera. Most people will, however, be using their phone. Do not scoff at them for their failure. Instead, observe them for a minute or two without staring or being creepy. See if they are in a hurry. If they aren’t, walk over and show them the camera, say “photo”, point to yourself and what you want in the background, and hand them your camera. Also show them where to push the shutter button. That’s it. If they agree, offer to take their photo as well- it’s only fair.

Choosing a couple follows most of the same rules as the single traveler, and if given a choice I’d choose a couple over a single person because odds are I can catch at least one of them if they run with my camera. The only real difference from the single traveler is that it’s often best to offer to take the couple’s photo first, especially if they are taking photos of each other. However, DO NOT choose a couple that appears to be on their honeymoon as they will want to get rid of you as quickly as possible. Remember, they are oblivious to anything but their wedded bliss, and won’t care how your photos turn out.

The local is a bit different, because they are often an employee of a bar, restaurant or store that I am patronizing. In those cases, find someone who looks bored. They’ll be happy to have something to break up the monotony of the day. Do not take a waitress’s kindness as an opening to ask her out. Remember, she’s bored and you need a good photo, end of story.  If I’m asking for a clerk’s time, I’ll usually buy something before asking for a photo. Trust me on that.

There is one other category and that’s the professional photographer, though you will only see this rare animal in major tourist cities like Prague. You’ll know the moment you see them because they’ll have multiple SLR cameras and often tripods and spare gear. I asked one on a bridge in Prague to take my photo and even though he spoke no English whatsoever, was delighted to take many, many photos of me at every conceivable angle.

That’s the way to do it if you have a camera. But wait? What if all you have is your phone?

You can still do this but have to be more cautious. Phones are more valuable to steal than cameras since people know how to use phones and they have decent resell value. But I’ve used my techniques even in cities that are renowned for tourist theft and have not yet had anything stolen.

For example, I was walking in Barcelona and noticed a hill with a castle. I hiked up to the castle but since I’d been in town a few days wasn’t carrying my camera. I wanted photos of me in front of the castle, but this was a dilemma. Who could I trust with my phone- especially given what I’d been told about Barcelona tourist theft (by the locals!)?

I scanned the people milling about the grounds until I spotted a single man looking up and waving towards the top of the castle. I looked up and saw what appeared to be his family waving back at him. Either that or he was their taxi driver. I assumed it was his family as I didn’t see a taxi nearby, and decided he’d be a good choice because should he steal my phone and run away, he’d be abandoning his family. That didn’t seem likely as he seemed to be quite fond of them.

Once he stopped waving I approached and asked him to take my photo, which he happily did, multiple times. He had apparently gotten bored with waving to his family and I was a respite.

I later approached another father after he took photos of his kids. The trick with asking families is to make sure they are calm and having a good day. That will be rare, as there is usually at least one child or parent in a bad mood, and you do NOT want to get caught up in that.

I admit to occasionally taking selfies when there are no other options. But I will never, ever be seen with a selfie stick. If you do spot me with one, please take it and beat me over the head with it until I come to my senses.


The castle in Barcelona.