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Monday 22/04/2002 15:44
I've decided that America is the land of the surreal.
I've only been here a week but already I feel like a Martian on the face of the moon. It's not that the US of A is so strange as to be shocking. In fact, what's missing is the culture shock. The US is so familiar, through the images of television and silver-screen, that it's like walking into a fairy tale.
In my first week here, I've been on a whirlwind trip down to Memphis (via Atlanta) and back (via Cincinnati). I got to meet a full range of American stereotypes; from the surly, steroid sucking, monosyllabic guard who mangled my suit while pretending to search my bags; to the friendly Memphis cab driver who looked so aghast when I picked up my own bag, that I promptly dropped it in case I was breaching some deeply held custom of southern hospitality.
There was one stereotype, in particular, that stood out.
The blue-shirted, lesser spotted commuter.
The commuters infest the US domestic air system in swarms that make locusts look attractive. However, whereas a horde of locusts will strip your plantation bare in twelve mintues, all these guys do is inhabit airport lounges and talk in loud nasal voices about some mindless corporate claptrap.
They can be distinguished by their distinctive plumage : a blue or white business shirt without a tie; crumpled, soiled suit pants; and a breast pocket stuffed with boarding passes and ID. Their habits are odd. They stand around in throngs, calling unmusically into their cell phones and alternatively picking their noses or scratching their bums. They peck aimlessly away at vending machines or laptops and venture out only in search of an open bar.
No wonder most of them seem mortally depressed. How would you feel if you were forced to inhabit an airport lounge for 18 hours a day?
During one particularly lengthy stop in gate lounge C22 in Cincinnati, I jotted down some of the random twaddle I could overhear :
"...the risk for Colin is zero and if i can find out what Joe Rock is doing with flares, Navy-wise it would help. He might be restricted on industrial base but we've got him by the numbers..."
"... who's the server guy over there? You've got to get his name or thing will never fly, network guys are okay but you need the server guy, the server guy is the key to the whole thing without him it just won't fly, I'd be really worried if you don't know who the server guy is..."
and my personal favourite,
"You're doing well on ham but your hotdog numbers are dragging you down. I have a real issue with that and, Jim, I want you to spend the next couple of days looking into hot dogs..."
I've never looked into a hotdog myself. Never been brave enough.
Being surrounded by mindless corporate drones was depressing but not nearly as depresseding as the realisation that I was a mindless corporate drone myself. In fact not only was I a mindless-corporate-drone but I was also the only mindless-corporate-drone in the lounge wearing a suit and tie.
This depressed me so much I went off to look into a hotdog myself or, possibly, a steak.
Saturday, 18 May 2002, 15:34:09
Well, here I am winging my way over America again.
This time from sea-to-shining-sea. I've just come from San Francisco via Phoenix (and another gate lounge) and now I'm heading back to Boston. This was my second visit to California.
About eight years ago, I got a chance to attend an technology conference in the heart of that techno-paradise, Silicon Valley. I spent a week amongst 4000 fanatical Apple geeks, at the Apple World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) in San Jose. I had a ball.
The conference was held in a massive convention centre and the keynote speeches featured on forty-foot high screens so that everyone could get a glimpse of the latest revelations from Apple. Every evening a different company hosted a late night drinking session in one of the local sports bars, complete with video games. I did my best to uphold the honour of the Australian contingent by beating all comers on the Formula One style, Virtua Racer.
But things are not looking quite so rosy for technical companies these days. On the back of the "dot com bubble" lots of companies are shedding jobs in expectation of leaner years. This might be for the best, because some of the Silicon Valley startups were worth more than American giants like AT&T or Microsoft. It makes no sense.
California itself is still booming though and shows no signs of slowing. A documentary I saw last night predicted that California's population would hit 60 million within 20 years - about three times Australia's current population.
Some people say California should be a different country, some people say it already is. The easy going lifestyle and individuality you seen in California make it an easy place to like. California's tend to be a fraction less parochial and annoying than some of their American cousins.
One of the reasons I like California, and San Francisco in particular, is that it reminds me of Australia. San Francisco has a lot in common with Sydney. They are both built around a harbour, they both feature massive bridges as centrepieces of the cities and they both sport year-round, outdoor lifestyles.
This time my trip to SanFran was pretty much all work but I still found time to enjoy the city. The first night we had dinner and a couple of beers at a micro-brewery under the Oakland Bay Bridge. Just like I'd do in Sydney.
The next night we turned it up a notch and went to Cityscape, a bar atop the heights of the San Francisco Hilton. From there the views are panoramic and one giant glass window faces the bay and the Golden Gate bridge while another looks out over the bulk of the city to the Oakland side. We stayed long enough to watch the sun sink down behind the bridge and then headed off in search of dinner.
Sadly I didn't have time to visit all the places I'd been before but even after eight years the place seem strangely welcoming, as though it remembered me. I wonder if it will remember me again in eight years?
Saturday 22/06/02, 23:02
As part of my ongoing pursuit of new experiences I decided to learn to sail. The decision was largely sparked by a book a picked up at the Portobello Markets in London. It was called "Sell up and Sail". Written by the cruising couple, Bill and Laurel Cooper, it's a practical guide to ditching in the rat-race and taking to the water.
My original plan had been to learn to sail in the UK. I'd started lessons off Portsmouth and was aiming for a Skipper's certificate but then my company needed me to go to Boston for a couple of months.
Luckily Boston is sailing town. I managed to pick up where I left off, taking lessons with a cruising class from the Boston Sailing Club. The graduation exercise for the course was a night cruise from Boston down to Provincetown on Cape Cod.
We left Boston on Friday night. In Boston harbour we were discussing some finer points of night navigation when an ocean-going block of flats crept up on us and gave us 'five short blasts' to let us know we should probably move aside. The tanker thundered past at its customary 15 knots and my instructor wagged a finger at it, saying something to the effect of "that's why you've got to keep a lookout!"
Out to sea, we turned west out through the islands off Boston and then south towards Cape Cod. The skipper had been on back-to-back runs down the coast and ducked below to get some sleep while Paul, the other trainee, and I kept watch through the night.
Sailing at night is an extraordinarily serene experience. The gentle motion of a yacht under sail is normally peaceful enough. At night in a light breeze, it becomes sublime.
With the absence of any visual references, your vessel wafts along and only the quiet transit of distant beacons marks your passage. Occasionally you may pass close to a buoy and the dim green light will illuminate your boat and it's horn will sound like a love sick Lock Ness monster in the dark.
Navigation was easy and we made a couple of course corrections in the night and rounded Cape Cod in the light of a flat-grey dawn. We picked up a mooring in the Provincetown harbour, handed over to the skipper and grabbed a couple of hours of sleep.
We headed into Provincetown for a well earned and extensive breakfast. I knew nothing of Provincetown and found the mix of tourists, quaint period churches and gay fetish shops most amusing. We left before lunch and headed back to Boston in what the nautical types call 'light airs'. Eventually, the wind dropped and we were forced to resort to the 'iron topsail' and motored most of the way back.
To polish off a perfect trip were rewarded with a small pod of pilot whales and a lone, but playful, seal. A perfect way to travel...