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”!


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.

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.

Does Your Dog Really Want To Fly?


Two straight couples, one gay couple, two single women, six dogs and I were checking in at the airport.  That’s right- everyone in line had dogs with them except me. The gay couple had two. Only one dog was wearing a service-dog vest. Umm……..why all the dogs? And before I start, I love animals. I support animal rescues, have my own rescue pets and on one occasion even climbed a cliff in a rainstorm to rescue a Rottweiler. When did everyone decide that their pets should travel with them? It was recent, and it was sudden. I travel a lot, though the holidays only come around once a year and this was a holiday trip. So at some point between last December and this December, traveling with your dog apparently became mandatory during the holidays.

I commented to the couple behind me in line, who had the service dog. I suggested that next time I need to bring my cat. The gentleman said “Oh, man, I’m allergic to cats, so that wouldn’t be good!”.

Well lah dee dah! What if I’m allergic to DOGS? Some people are, so what about that? It’s a valid point but in the interest of holiday decorum I stopped myself from asking that aloud.

The airport was Los Angeles International, which is an older airport and as far as I can see, has no dog areas for the little ones to do their business. So where do they go? Are these dogs all trained to use the human restrooms? And what on earth do they do on the planes? Only one of the people checking in had a carrier, so I assume these dogs all just roam the aisles or tuck in under the seat in front of their owner?

I realize people need their emotional support animals, and I completely understand having an actual service dog- you know- the kind with the vest that actually has a job and is trained as such. But I’m hard pressed to find any reason the majority of people in my line had dogs with them, other than they just didn’t want to pay for a dog sitter and felt their dog REALLY wanted to go visit family in….wherever.

But what if I take this step further? None of these people had to pay extra to have their emotional support dog travel with them. So could I take a human, since we’re also animals, and claim my human was an emotional support animal? That way I could take a companion without paying extra. It might be a little tight to share a seat in coach, but I could book first class and split the cost of the seat with my companion human. I expect the airline would say no but it might be worth a try.

Back to the dogs……

Do you really think your dog wants to fly? Between the airport chaos, air pressure changes on their ears, loud noise and other delights of air travel, I think it probably doesn’t. No matter how much you think your dog wants to be with you 24/7, I would bet that most would be perfectly happy having a dog sitter come by to feed, water and walk them while they get to stay at home in a familiar place, instead of dealing with the trauma of air travel.

It’s bad enough to be a human in today’s air travel system, so subject your dog to what people suffer? Next time, give it a little thought and let the little guys chill at home. They’ll still love you when you get back!

Lift the window shade, people!

PictureObviously my seat has the open window.

I boarded a flight recently and thanks to an upgrade was in first class. It was midday when we boarded but cabin was dark, and for good reason. Every single window shade was pulled down. That seemed weird to me.I realize that frequent flyers are usually in that cabin, so I expect they get bored with watching the earth pass by below. They probably have very important things to do on their computer/tablet/phone/whatever. Or even better, they need to watch movies they never had an interest in until they were stuck at 30,000 feet, and then they became the most interesting movies ever.

I decided to look back into the main cabin to see if the shades were pulled down there as well. And yes, a large percentage were. Why? Do these people have any idea what they are missing? Or does no one care anymore because everyone is addicted to their device and are looking at some electronic screen at all times?

Whatever the reason, they are missing a lot. The world passing by outside the window of an airplane deserves a look now and then. I realize when it’s night or one is flying through weather it might not be terribly interesting. And yes, even I get bored looking at clouds on a long flight, but I almost always find something interesting at some point. On a recent flight I even watched a drone go right under our wing after takeoff. That was followed by an expletive and made for some interesting discussions among my seatmates, the crew and eventually the FAA. But most of the time, the sights are much nicer. Here’s just a sample of what people are missing!