USA

Travel Books- Big Sur by Jack Karouac

Big Sur is a stretch of California’s coast between Carmel and San Simeon. Driving along the State Route 1, known for winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the often-misty coastline is quite captivating. I visited California in 2014, on a long awaited trip to the USA.  Part of the plan was always to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco along the coast, stopping off at a few little towns along the way like San Simeon and Monterey.

Monterey has literary fame as it was once a major player in the ‘canning’ industry (canning fish), and written about by Steinbeck.  Now it’s holiday town, full of gift shops, restaurants, and people jogging along the beach.  I loved Monterey.  I didn’t care so much for ‘Of Mice and Men’ by Steinbeck though!

Before we went to America, a friend lent me Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, mainly for his description of the terrifying bridge high up over the water.  Well, in the end it was dark when we drove through much of it, and I never got around to reading the book.  Well actually, I tried but got bored quite quickly.  But it was on my to-read pile so I tried it again…I was right the first time!

books2Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style was hard to follow at times (especially as his consciousness was drunk most of the time).  Tired of his Beat fame following the success of ‘On The Road’, he decides to spend a quiet six weeks in his friend’s cabin in Big Sur.  Things don’t go to plan right from the start, as he fails to secretly return to San Fransisco as he ends up loudly announcing his arrival and going on a bender.  His self-destructive nature is, I suppose, what makes him interesting to people, I found it tiresome.

He does spend three quiet weeks alone in the cabin, feeding squirrels and writing boring poetry about the sea.  But the isolation offers him too much time to think and he starts to crack.  He heads back to the ‘gooky city’, meeting his friends again and heading out on another bender.  He gets word from his mother than his cat has died, a cat that he strongly associates with his late brother and he is plunge into a fresh depression.

He ends up heading back to the cabin but this times with friends and their kids.  Before they have to leave for a children’s play which Kerouac gets them thrown out of for being drunk.  But his friend Cody doesn’t mind and takes him to meet his mistress.  Which brings me to the misogynistic undertones running through the book.

…beautiful blonde wife of his in her tight blue jeans that makes Dave say ‘Yum yum’…

The book was written in 1963 and so is a product of it’s time, sure I get that. But all the men have mistresses, and share their women about.  Cody encourages some young idiot to join him wife on the beach, much to her general irritation about having men and sex forced on her.  There are a few nice stories about dancing girls.  I just felt a wave of sadness for the women in this book, stuck in marriages to drunken, idiot, philanderers.

Anyway, Kerouac meets Billie (the mistress) and they have an immediate mutual attraction, although he finds her equally fascinating and boring it would seem.  He spends the days sitting in her arm chair smoking and drinking while she is at work, and they spend the nights having sex.  She has a young son who occasionally wanders into the bedroom and she thinks it’s fine for him to watch.  Karouac, to his sort of credit, is a bit creeped out by this, but goes along with it anyway.  Later on, they go back to the cabin and the poor child tries to pull his mother of Kerouac so she takes him outside and beats him.  Good, cheerful, stuff.  She also has a delightful friend, who creeps onto little girls and threatens to kid nap them.

Basically, I would just really hate to be stuck in a lift with any of them…I was very curious as to how much of this actually happened.  Like, really, how messed up is the little kid in the book now, and does he enjoy reading about he flaky mum’s affair with Jack Kerouac? A quick google tells em the names were changed, but it also tells me the characters real names so screw you anonymity!  I assume he took some liberties with the truth as this is a ‘fictionalised autobiography’.  I don’t think Beat literature is for me.

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2017 Travel Review

My biggest trip this year was not that far in physical distance but represented a major change in my life.  In February I moved in with my boyfriend which was exciting and, as it turned out, not too dramatic!  But I have been on a few more interesting journies this year too.

March

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Victoria and Albert Museum Cafe

In March, I received an early birthday present from my mum in the form of a trip to London.  We took an early(ish) train down there and headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I always seem to end up at when I visit our fair capital.  We left early so that we could see a bit of London, mainly just the walk from the V and A to the train station but still…

April

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Manhattan from The High Line

April 3rd this year was my 30th birthday so we took a special trip to America. We hit New York checking and Washington DC.  Highlights include checking out The High Line (an old railroad turned park), taking a trip out to Brooklyn, $4 a slice pizza, The Capitol Building which I fell in love with, and The Postal Museum (no, really, I love stamps).  The major lowlight were a three day migraine :(, the torrential rain, and being harassed by a waitress for not tipping her enough.

July

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Arthur’s Seat

After a big (expensive) trip to the US we spent our summer holiday in a very rainy Edinburgh.  I guess it was classic British summer weather but it was still quite miserable, we were soaked as soon as we arrived.  We managed to climb up to Aurthur’s Seat, eat sushi, and enjoy a stroll through the Botanical Gardens so not all bad.  Also got to see my sister and niece!

October

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National Art Museum

For my mum’s birthday, which is in December, mum, sister and I took a trip to Riga, Latvia in October.  Anyway, it was very cold but enjoyable.  We visited the National Art Museum and the, slightly less cheerful, Museum of Occupation.  The Eastern Bloc countries had such horrible experiences in the second half of the 20th century!  Riga has a lovely old town to explore, and I recommend crossing the river to visit the National Library.

November

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Sunset over Greenwich Observatory

I finished my 2017 travels the same way I started with a trip to London.  We celebrated boyfriend’s birthday there in November.  Another holiday, another illness befalls me. Not really an illness but I had period pains throughout this getaway that seriously undermined my enjoyment, and put me in a slightly grumpy mood.  But we got to visit the Greenwich Observatory and see a Planetarium show, checked out a bunch of museums, bought expensive chocolate at Fortnum and Mason, and experience my first crushed avocado with poached egg on toast.

 

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New York Vs Washington DC

I guess New York City is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the USA, apparently it gets 50 million visitors a year.   Washington DC was also full of visitors when I was there recently, but it seemed like most of those were domestic tourists and kids on school trips.  They are both incredible cities and worth a visit, but they had very different vibes. Manhattan is densely populated, and the constant bustle of people gives a sense of excitement but also a feeling that the city is moving around you.  There’s definitely a lot to see and do.   Washington Dc on the other hand is much more laid back affair.  The people here are an odd mixture of suit-wearing officials heading to work, and t-shirt wearing families heading to the museums.

Incredible Architecture

New York                                                                     Washington DC

Both cities have incredible architecture and buildings.  In Manhattan, the Empire State Building is a real landmark, but one you could easily walk past on ground level.  It’s only impressive from far away or high up.  A trip up to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre is a great way to see it.  In New York it’s all about height, One World Trade Centre is the tallest in New York mainly due to it’s spire.  It’s the main structure in the rebuilt World Trade Centre, it’s height of 1,776ft is a reference to the year that the US signed the Declaration of Independence.  In Washington DC, these are buildings of governance.  The Library of Congress was founded in 1800, and is the largest library in the world.  The library has three buildings, the oldest is the Thomas Jefferson building.  The main stairs have figures of little boys representing the different occupations like musician, astronomer, student etc.  The frescos on the ceiling and walls represented the arts and sciences.

The Suburbs

New York Washington DC

New York                                                                       Washington DC

Obviously, most people heading to New York visit Manhattan, for good reason.  But I was pleased that we could get out to Brooklyn and see something different.  There was greenery in Prospect Park, and sand and sea at Coney Island.  There’s space to breathe in Brooklyn when the city gets a little too much for you.  In Washington, we took a trip to Georgetown which is a nice, slightly gentrified, centre.  Both Brooklyn and Georgetown are pretty hipstery.

The Landscape

New York                                                                       Washington DC

In Manhattan, a lack of vertical space meant people very quickly started building upwards. Even the apartment blocks loom over you, and the city constantly impresses it’s grandeur and reputation on you.  There’s a real mixture of the old and new.  New skyscrapers are constantly being built and now there are many areas where the buildings all crowd each other.  In DC, the landscape is much more open.  Here the government buildings are the tourist attractions. Each one is still a working building but they seem to have to lot more breathing room so you really get a good look at each one.  Really shots of Washington make more sense in landscape rather than portrait.

Food

New York                                                                   Washington DC

Well these pictures are pretty similar!  These are both big cities, full of lots of different immigrant groups meaning lots of different foods. Obviously, if you wanted to just eat MacDonald’s you can, but we were looking for something a bit different.  I don’t eat meat so in Europe that can just straight away rule out entire restaurants.  In the US, veggie food was easy to come by, but it was still nice to visit places that specifically cater for us types.  New York has more deli places where they sell food by weight I would guess, and just has more of everything generally because it’s much more densely packed.

Street Art

New York                                                                  Washington DC

You could call this street are or just weird stuff you find on the street…New York definitely had more of that.  For no reason there were some dog photographers in the middle of Chelsea.  Of course they have the bull on Wall Street, and now the little girl opposite.  Around Times Square there are a bunch of odd colourful animal statues.  In Washington DC, there was one or two colourful additions but lacking some of the mad whimsy of their NYC cousins.

 

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Washington DC- The Mall

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It was a pretty grey day when we arrived in Washington DC, and wandered along The Mall.  The pointy Washington Memorial is pretty noticeable from anywhere on the mall, and surrounded by American flags and cherry blossom trees.  The obelisk was finished in 1888 to honour President George Washington.  The Memorial has been closed since December 2016 (until 2019) to fix the lift system.  I did managed to get a few comedy selfies.    Collages21

Heading due West you hit the Reflecting Pool and then the Lincoln Memorial.  The Lincoln Memorial is more what you would expect from a Memorial than the Washington one, but then takes a bit more finding.  It’s a Greek style, columned building, inside there’s a larger than life (actually he was pretty tall) statue of Lincoln and panels of Lincoln famous speeches chiseled into the walls.  Apparently, Martin Luther King Jnr gave his ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ here in 1963.

Day 52

And, of course, we also caught a glimpse of The White House!  We were a little disappointed at first because there was something going down and security had roped everything off.  We don’t think it was anything too exciting, more likely to be an important visitor arriving or leaving.  So we wandered down the rest of The Mall and then back again.  By the time we got back we could get a lot closer, and enjoyed some of the protests outside.  I seem to recall that one guy kept banging a drum or something extremely annoying, and I felt quite sorry for the security guys having to listen to it all day.

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Washington DC- The Botanical Garden

Day 51

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On a whim we popped into the Botanical Garden in Washington DC.  We are strolling past the Capitol Building and wandered in.  It’s free admission, and not huge so it was a fun 30min detour.

 

Some of the areas were closed when we were there, I think they were refurbishing bits.  Inside the Conservatory there are different areas for the different climates, like the tropics, desert, and Mediterranean.  There is also a section for medicinal plants, endangered plants, and a primeval garden recreating the Jurassic era (complete with little dinosaurs).usa2

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Washington DC- The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress in Washington DC was founded in 1800.  The terrible British burned the building in 1814, and destroyed 3,000 volumes.  Those rotters.  But the following year Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library.  The LOC is the largest library in the world with more than 164 million items.

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We went for a visit, but didn’t bother with a tour and just wandered around with a info leaflet.  It’s the interior decor and murals that are particularly impressive.  Along the ornate staircases in the Great Hall there are figures of little boys, or ‘putti’.  The represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life (that’s contemporary to 1897 when the building was completed).  Above it depicts a farmer, bacchanalian, hunter, and mechanic which is an interesting mix.

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The ceilings and walls were all covered in depictions of the arts and sciences. The lady in red (bottom right) is a mural representing understanding.   The lass in the blue represents understanding.  Above the Main Reading Room is a Government mural (top right), which reads ‘A government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

In the Main Reading Room (below) there are eight giant marble columns supporting 10ft high figures representing: religion, commerce, history, art, philosophy, poetry, law, and science.  But, unless you’re an official library person, you can’t actually go in the Main Reading Room and just have to look at it through glass from a balcony above.

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Virginia- Air and Space Museum

Whilst in Washington DC, boyfriend suggested we ‘pop’ across to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Virginia.  ‘Popping’ turned out to be about an hour on a train and 30 mins on a bus but anyway…

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There is already a Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC which is also worth a visit.  But they had so many flying machines they to build another one, and the Washington Mall was getting a little crowded.  Anyway, the Udvar-Hazy centre is basically in the middle of nowhere next to the Dulles airport.  Since it was a 3hr round trip we didn’t actually have much time to spend in the museum.  There is a lot to see, mainly planes in two large aircraft hangars.  There is also an IMAX theatre and an observation tower. We didn’t do either of those, so I can’t report back.  We did peak into the Restoration Hangar where they do restoration one I assume, although no one was working in there at that moment.

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I had some issues with the white washing of any negative elements of aviation.  Each plane had a little plaque usually with minimal information, but some gave a little more of the history.  None of them really suggested anything bad had ever happened.  Included the Enola Gay from which the an Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing about 70,000-80,000 people.

One of the main reasons that we went there was to see the Space Shuttle, Discovery. According to boyfriend, who knows these things, there was a controversial launch when the government put too much pressure on them to launch before they were ready.

usa1My major annoyance was the lack of places to eat.  The only place in the Museum was a McDonald’s, which did not have any vegetarian options!  Or any options for any other special diet.  So I ate fries and a cookie and felt sick.  You are not allowed to take food inside (not at all, so you would have to eat it before you go in).  If you drive there I guess you can drive somewhere to buy food but that breaks up the visit.

 

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Washington DC- Georgetown

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We left the Mall and headed out to Georgetown, the university suburb or Washington DC.  We tried to walk along the Potomac but the route turned out to be less than inspiring and our path along the the river was blocked at one point due to construction work.  Also one of us (erm me) really needed to go to the toilet…So we headed into town and stopped at the first place we saw pretty much!  It was Los Cuates, a decent Mexican place with massive portion sizes!

After lunch we wandered around the town a little in the sunshine, and it’s very charming.  They have the lovely, colourful townhouses, and sweet independent shops.  I found a tea and spice shop where I got some loose leaf tea.

Day 62

 

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New York- JFK Airport/American Airlines

After my week in USA I wasn’t thrilled about returning to the real world and going back to work, although I was looking forward to a night in my own bed.  Anyway, the second half of our trip was in Washington DC, but we got the train back to New York to fly home.  So we had an early start, then a 3.5hr train ride to NYC, then we had a few hours in Manhattan before getting the train back to the airport.  And had the silliest most stressful 2hrs in an airport I’ve ever had.

We had purchased our tickets through British Airways, but they were selling on behalf of American Airlines.  Apparently, this is a common practise but seems a bit weird to me.  It meant I checked in through BA for our outbound flight but couldn’t change our seats because it was an AA plane.  It also meant that out boarding passes said we were ‘Class M’, and yet they allowed people on the plane in groups 1-8.  A bit confusing on the outbound journey but not too bad.

Anyway, we couldn’t check in on our return journey so we had to do it at the airport.  We entered a queue with a sign at the front which said ‘Check In’, naively thinking that was where you checked in.  After getting to the front we were told we had to use the ‘kiosks’, which were the computers next to us.  So we got into another queue to use the ‘kiosks’, which didn’t work.  It couldn’t find my reservation, then refused to scan my passport, then printed out a ticket telling I needed to speak to an AA agent instead.

So we got back in the first queue to speak to the agent, only to be told ‘over there’ or something else equally unhelpful.  And we had to go the other side of the walkway to join another queue.  This queue was getting longer and longer.  All the kiosks were breaking, and there was only three staff members dealing with us (after 30mins there was just one person).  They were taking 15-45mins to process people.  We queued in this queue for an hour and got roughly 1/3 down the line.

American Airlines is obviously a huge airline, that runs lots of domestic US flights.  The people queuing in our line were taking all different flights, in the olden days different flights would have different lines so if there was a problem the plane would probably wait because it would be missing half it’s passengers. These days they didn’t seem to put a call out for anyone.

For domestic flights you only have to arrive 1hr early, we had to get there 3hrs early.  With the crazy (broken kiosk) system I don’t know why there are different timescales as we were all in the same queue.  And in the queue we were surrounded by people who had missed their flights as a result of the chaos.  After an hour boyfriend decided to try again at the kiosks and thankfully it worked for him.  The stressed out young woman in front of us went to try again too but it rejected her again, this time though it was because her flight had already taken off.

We got through security and still had 30mins before boarding so we were ok really.  But my experience of American Airlines is that the system is dumb and the staff were really unhelpful.

 

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New York- Brooklyn and Coney Island

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Brooklyn Bridge from the Subway Carriage

Day two in New York and we decided to leave Manhattan and head out to Brooklyn.  This was my first trip to NYC but I’d never been to any of the other boroughs before, Brooklyn seems huge by comparison.  There were a few places I had starred on my map to visit but trekking back and forth around Brooklyn was too much.  It was about 4 celsius (google says that’s 39.2 F), and I had a terrible migraine but other than that it was a fun day out!

Day 23

We took the subway to Prospect Park, we passed the carousel but it was closed.   So we headed into the zoo.  It was $8 each which seemed reasonable given how expensive it must be to house animals (bit suspicious of cheap zoos and roller coasters).  It’s not very big but was nice to look around, and thankfully most of the animals were inside where it was nice and warm!

Day 24We walked across the park to find somewhere for lunch.  There were some other things in the area like the Brooklyn Public Library, and a fair at the Grand Army Plaza but I was dying of jetlag so we had to give these a miss.

On 7th Ave we found a burger place to get lunch, Bareburger, which is a hippy eco-friendly hipstery place that did a pretty yummy milkshake.  7th Avenue had some cute shops, a lot of which had anti-Islamophobia signs up, something of a theme of the trip as a whole.

We headed up to the top of the street to get the subway again, this time further South to Coney Island.

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Coney Island isn’t really an island, more a little man-made sticky out bit.  Unfortunately, the theme park, Luna Park, was closed.   I think the snowstorm they had delayed the Spring opening but there were people cleaning the park, presumably in preparation for opening.  This meant most of the shops and stands along the water front were also closed.  This Brighton Beach area has a lot of Russian-speaking immigrants, and there are a lot of Russian shops and signage.

Manhatan is so built up it’s easy to forget it’s an island surrounded by water.  And even in Brooklyn it seemed weird, to me at least, to be walking along an actual beach.  Like I said it was a little (a lot) chilly, but in the summer I can imagine it would be fun down here.

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