Day 15 of Trip to Land of Free

Day 15 was our last day in the US. We had to wake up early to get our flight back from SFO to Chicago. Of course it was still foggy in SF. I remarked to Helen that I would be very grumpy if I lived in a place where it was cold during the middle of summer. Even England isn’t like that. We had to leave for the airport at 7:00am. I hadn’t told the kids but I had actually booked a stretch limo to take us to the airport. It was only $10 more than a standard taxi and as Michael and Chloe had been counting the ones they saw during the trip, I thought it would be a good experience. They were really chuffed but it wore off quickly especially when we were driving on the motorway and it felt like we were on a boat. Helen couldn’t look out the front window as she was getting so car sick (or maybe boat sick would be better) and Michael was totally pale by the time we arrived. I don’t think the end came quickly enough for them! The long wheelbase and suspension does make you feel like you’re on a boat. I have been in one a few times before and I remember this from every time I have driven in one. On the way to the airport I remembered another observation from the trip – Americans love outdoor sculptures. They are all over Chicago, LA, SF and even St Louis. Some are weird and some are fine but it is just incredible how many they have.

We were able to check our luggage through to London so that worry was gone and all we had to do was to wait for our departure. We were able to use the Admiral’s Club lounge which is the American Airlines lounge. Who knows why they call it the “Admiral’s Club” – do they not realise you’re taking a plane and not a boat?! The flight left on time and we had breakfast on board. The flight was quite comfortable again except that the airhostess was relatively “grumpy” though I think it was her mannerism. Helen said that if that is her manner then she should find another job! It really wasn’t that bad though and as they don’t give much service it didn’t really bother me. We actually landed early. The temperature at Chicago was 30 degrees so a little shock to the system versus the cool SF. We had a mammoth walk as we had to change terminals (and Chicago is the biggest airport in the US) and there are no walkways or escalators. We also had to take a small people-mover train to go from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5. We again managed to check-in easily and as we were travelling on British Airways we were able to use the lounge (with, mostly importantly, free wifi, as we had 4 hours to kill). The duty free shopping is the most disappointing I have ever seen. It is just a small series of fold-up displays which stretch over about 20 meters and that is all there is. Quite amazing for America as (as you should know by now), Americans take every opportunity to sell you something so this is a bit of an anomaly.

As the flight is was a sleeper flight (i.e. they don’t serve dinner), we ate in the lounge. After we got on and the plane took off, it was 8pm and we all put our chairs down and went to sleep straightaway. Unfortunately none of slept brilliantly. I woke up at 11:10pm and pretty much didn’t get back to sleep again before about an hour before we landed. Michael woke up at 11:30pm and also fell asleep around about an hour before we landed. Stephen seemed to sleep the best though he also slept in fits and starts and both Helen and Chloe woke up early and didn’t get back to sleep again. I reckon I never got more than 3 hours sleep. Factor in the change of time and we landed at 9:30am after taking off at 8pm and with just 3 hours sleep it doesn’t make for the easiest of days.

We went and had breakfast (after landing) at the British Airways arrivals lounge. They have a great breakfast including even pancakes which Helen felt she should have just for old time sake. We then took a taxi into London to spend the day at the flat. Helen had a shower and immediately went out to do some shopping (like she didn’t do enough in America). The rest of us stayed in the flat. Stephen spent the whole time on his laptop (and I probably did too besides the odd phone call) and Michael and Chloe mooched around. Stephen went with Chloe to Pret to buy us lunch (oh the pleasure of letting your kid out in a major city without the fear that he will get mugged or nabbed). After lunch Michael fell asleep on the couch and Chloe joined him just after Helen got home. By that time it was time to finish the repacking of the suitcases and adding another bag for Helen’s purchases in London today (and our internet ones that I had sent here to the flat). Only Helen, Michael and Stephen are heading home as Chloe and I are still in London for another week. Helen and the boys left in a taxi at 4:15pm for the airport and at 6pm Helen SMS’d to say they were in the lounge and at 7pm they SMS’d to say they were on the plane. They should be over mid-Africa by now.

Chloe and I both fell asleep for a hour and a half and then at 7pm we went out for dinner. This is the first time ever that Chloe and I have been alone together. We went to a Spanish tappas restaurant for dinner. Over dinner we chatted about this and that including remarking about well dressed the women are (and no very short pants though some short skirts were evidenced but everyone I saw wearing one had the right to wear one – don’t tell Helen I said that). I love London and being here now feels like a second home to me so I feel very comfortable here. I have managed to stay awake until 11:10pm tonight and now I am going to bed. Tomorrow Chloe and I go down for the weekend with my parents in the New Forest and then on Monday it is back to work (though my first meeting is in Bournemouth which is very close to my parent’s home).

This is the last you will hear from me from this trip. Hope you enjoyed getting the updates. Thanks for everyone’s comments over the last 2.5 weeks. I know that I didn’t respond to everyone but it is enjoyable getting comments back from you to!

Until next time, that’s all folks ….

P, H, M, C & S

Day 14 of Trip to Land of Free & Wealthy with Lots of Choice

We were up early today (7:30am) as we had to catch a specific boat to Alcatraz Island. We walked down to Pier 33 which was about a 20 minute walk and picked up our tickets. We had about 40 minutes to spare so we grabbed some pastries and juice for breakfast and then got ourselves into line. Americans take every opportunity to make money off of you and so at every tourist attraction they take your photo against a fake backdrop and then you can purchase the photo when you come back, get down, finish the ride etc. If we had taken it up we would have had photos from about 10 different places so far! It does slow the lines down though and today was no different. We just skipped the photo shoot today but they looked at us strangely because it clearly isn’t something that is usually done.

The weather today was pretty much the same as yesterday – fog & cold. That didn’t stop us from getting onto the top deck of the ferry (it had 3 decks). It only takes 12 minutes to get out to Alcatraz but a lifetime to get back. The island is now a national park and apparently the biggest urban national park in the world. The brochure and also the national parks guide that spoke to us as we got off the ferry, tried to dispel some of the myths about Alcatraz including the one that it is impossible to swim to San Francisco because of the tide/currents/cold water. Every year they have the Alcatraz to SF swim and this year it was won by an 11 year old. So much for prisoners not being able to make it! From all the attempts though over the years, only 3 people were unaccounted for. The official line is that they drowned but the prisoners who were on the island at that time all believe they are in Latin America as they were all learning Spanish before they escaped.

The walk from the ferry dock up to the prison is quite steep – the equivalent of climbing up a 13-story building. We all made it relatively comfortably which speaks to our superior fitness and agility as a family. Of course my atheletic build gives me the edge in these sorts of walks. Inside the prison you pick up an audio tour which is done by previous inmates and prison wardens. It takes 45 minutes and guides you around the prison. It is by far the best audio guide I have ever heard. It is entertaining and filled with interesting facts. Chloe didn’t want to listen to the audio guide but we told her to take it anyway and she was very grateful we told her to as she really enjoyed it too.

I have visited a few prison’s now and every time I do I am struck but how uncomfortable and unpleasant it must be. Just seeing a prison is enough to put me off doing anything that might get me into one. Hopefully it has the same effect on the kids! At the end of the tour they take you through the gift shop (another American tradition of making a few extra $ from the sightseeing trip). One of the previous inmates had written a book of his experiences including meeting notorious criminals such as Robert Stroud – better known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. I glanced through the book and it was interesting to note that he had become a Christian after completing his sentence. He was actually in the gift shop doing a book signing and so Michael went over and asked him what made him rob a bank and he said “The Money”. Alcatraz had numerous other infamous people including Al Capone. They only accept high risk prisons i.e. those likely to cause trouble or likely to escapees. The prison was closed in 1963 mainly due to the cost of upkeep (they have no sewage on the island for instance) but also partly due to the fact that SF residents weren’t comfortable with a major prision on their doorstep and they became even more uncomfortable about it when one of the prisons actually made the swim over the bay (even though he was recaptured).

We took the ferry back to the mainland and picked up hot dogs on our way back to the room. We got back just in time to watch the end of the first half (and the rest) of the Spain v Germany game. I had a splitting headache (probably the thought of going back to work did it) and so had a short nap in the afternoon. As it was our last evening here we found a more upmarket restuarant for dinner. SF is a crab area and every meal I had been tempted but hadn’t taken the plunge but today both Michael and I ordered crab. In fact Stephen and I agreed to split 50/50 – he had a steak. However, it turned out Michael only managed to eat half his crab so we got the other half of his crab as well. It was a good final meal in the USA for us. The setting was particularly spectacular as well – the setting was over the water looking over the fishing boats. Helen and I got some last minute shopping in while the kids decided to head back to the hotel.

The rest of the evening was spent packing and watching TV. It is now 12;14 and we have to leave tomorrow at 7am to catch our first of 3 flights back home so I need to go to bed now! Enjoy the day – when I write next we should be back in London.

P, C, M, H, S

Day 13 of Trip to Land of Choice

We have settled it now – it is fog and not cloud. The tour guide today said you only get it in the summer months and it never rains. The weather was exactly the same today as yesterday – about as cold but maybe slightly less windy. The sun tried to peak out a few times but never really came through with any force.

We had another late start today. I eventually got tired of being awake alone and so woke up Helen and the kids at 9am. It turns out the kids were awake to after 12 last night! Hopefully they will get to sleep a little earlier tonight. We had walked past Ihop (International House of Pancakes) yesterday and already designated that as the place for breakfast. We couldn’t come to the USA and not have breakfast at Ihop and so that is where we headed. Of course there is a myriad of possible choices of breakfast – pancakes of all sorts, with or without eggs, bacon etc. They had a special on – kids eat free with any adult purchasing a breakfast off their main menu so Chloe got her breakfast at cost. She had the kid’s pancakes with scrambled egg and bacon. She had 5 pancakes sort of the size of a flapjack. It would have been enough for me actually. The rest of us had pancakes of some sort or another. Helen and Michael had chocolate chip pancakes and they each got 4 and only ate 2. IHop seems to be more health conscious as they kindly put the calories of all the breakfasts on the menu so you can see how much of your daily allowance you are consuming on breakfast. One of the breakfasts (the steak, egg & pancake option) was your entire days allowance in one sitting! Not surprisingly we were all full afterwards and lunch became incidental.

After breakfast we strolled past some of the shops and headed for Barnes & Noble (a US bookstore). We did some browsing but ended up purchasing a whole lot of DVDs as they had a buy 2 get 1 free deal running. We did a bit more shopping and then headed back to the hotel to watch the soccer – Uruguay v Netherlands. After watching the game the plan was to catch another tour (we had a multi-day ticket) that took us west and then north and over the Golden Gate bridge. It took us through the some of the wealthy suburbs of SF. Small, semi-detached houses go for between $1m and $2m (and I mean small). We then headed over the Golden Gate Bridge and on the Northern side we stopped for a few minutes to take some photos back towards SF. As you already know it was foggy so not the best view or photos but still quite impressive. The tour then continued on into the town of Sausalito. The price of these homes is slightly higher and you can see it not only from the houses (some of which were massive) but also by the Ferrari’s, Porsche’s & Mercedes parked outside. In fact the poorer homes only had a Mercedes parked outside. We had a 10 minute stopover and then we headed back across the bridge and back to SF. The wind was blowing so hard (open top bus of course) that I couldn’t keep my cap on and in fact could hardly keep my face on. I had to close my mouth otherwise I might have expanded up like a balloon and floated off the bus. My face felt like it was getting a workout.

When we got back everyone wanted something to drink to warm up and we ended up at Ben & Jerry’s again. Michael had a milkshake and the others had Warm Shakes while I had an Espresso. It was late afternoon already so we came back to the room and the inevitable happened – Helen fell asleep. Eventually at 6:30pm we got a call from Chloe saying she was starving and in fact so was I and we agreed to leave for dinner at 7pm. We found a local Italian restaurant on the Pier and had another good meal. Helen had a Crabmeat Pizza – only in SF have I ever seen that. There was so much crab on it that Helen couldn’t finish eating it. After dinner we all felt like a walk to get the food settled and so we walked along the Pier and popped into a few stores as we walked. Stephen (the frugal family member) has managed to buy two T-shirts for $4.99 each which is (quite honestly) ridiculously cheap.

And that was the day. A nice relaxing day especially since we know we have a full day tomorrow (with the trip to Alcatraz) and then early up on Thursday as well to catch the first of 3 flights to get home. We have had some amusing moments so far that are worth sharing. The first was in St Louis when Stephen flatly denied that the only pair of shoes in the room were his. He said they looked like his and they were the right size but the tread was different. As no one else had the same shoes or size the rest of us quickly figured out that they were Stephen’s shoes. He might still be denying it but that is just so we can rag him a little more about it. Helen then dreamt that my parents set her up to meet the Pope. Mom & Dad – Helen wants to know why on earth you arranged for her to visit the Pope and whether you have converted to Roman Catholicism. The worst thing is that she never got to meet him because when she arrived he was too busy playing with a skull! What is amazing is that she shared this with us (I would have quite frankly kept quiet). The on the evening of the fireworks in SF (that would be July 4), Michael comes in from outside and proudly says someone left there drink outside and so I brought it in for them. Everyone said they had their drinks and so we quickly figured out that it was actually Michael’s drink! So you can see, that leaves two sane people in the family only – Chloe and me! Please remember us around the loonies….

Until tomorrow.

P & C H, S & M and the loonies (H, S & M P & C)

Day 12 of Trip to Land of Free

For those of you back in Cape Town envying us because we are enjoying summer when you are enjoying winter – don’t. It was like a winter’s day in Cape Town in San Francisco today and this is mid-summer for them! Helen remarked yesterday already that there are a lot of people in SF wearing SF branded merchandise. I speculated that it was because people came here expecting warm weather and they ended up having to buy a jacket of fleece. I am now convinced that is the reason especially after we have now bought 3 ourselves! It was a grey day the whole day. We never quite worked out if it was mist or cloud. Around lunch time it cleared slightly in the South but within an hour or so it was covered up again. It was also very windy and that bit through any clothing you wore.

None of this prevented us from taking an open top bus tour though. As I only managed to rouse the rest of the family at 9am (I was awake from 7am working on my laptop in the dark!), we only had breakfast at around 9:30am. We then got our tickets for the bus tour and as we were first on we got the front row seats. We were fortunate in that our tour guide told us we had the best driver in the fleet (amazing how lucky we are because every time we have had a tour of some sort we have been told we have the best driver). The tour guide was actually quite good and without a doubt the best we have had so far. Stephen remarked that he was good despite not being able to speak English. Everyone who seems to run anything in SF seems to be of Asian descent and so you can guess what descent our tour guide had relatively easily now. There are 860000 people living in SF (all of them were on the Pier yesterday to witness the fireworks) and it also has the biggest Chinese population of any city in the US.

The tour takes you along the Bay (pretty much where we had walked yesterday) and then turns into the City itself taking you the financial district and continuing up to the shopping area, City Hall and then back down again through Chinatown, North Beach (which isn’t on the beach), past Lombard St (Paul has walked up to that because it is his nickname – you can ask him what it stands for) and then back down to the Pier again. As an aside, Lombard St is amazing in that it is the “crookedest” street in the USA and tourists come just to drive down it. It is one way and it is pretty much one hairpin to the next, each hairpin being about the length of a car. As I mentioned the tour was very entertaining (even though a tad cold) as the tour guide had a good sense of humour and he gave interesting information. For instance he told us that last year there were 4 incidents in SF where people shot at the cars in front of them because they were driving to slowly (not kidding!). What also made it entertaining was that our ‘excellent’ driver almost managed to knock down 10 pedestrians (on separate occasions – Stephen was counting), came very close to taking off a car door and almost rear-ended two cars parked at the traffic lights. No one got the least bit excited (except Stephen, Michael and me) each time of these events occurred so it is obviously standard driving technique in SF. I would hate to know what the damage would be by the other ‘lesser’ drivers!

We got off the tour at Pier 39 and managed to actually walk down the Pier this time. There were quite a lot of people still but nothing like last night when you just couldn’t move it was so packed. We did a little tourist shopping and then found a place to have lunch. 3 of us wanted Clam Chowder for lunch so we found a suitable place and enjoyed our Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bowl (which you can eat once you have finished the soup. After lunch we ambled back to the hotel and stopped in at a luggage shop to buy another suitcase as there is no way we can get everything we have bought into our current suitcases.

This afternoon we visited Ghiradelli Square (Ghiradelli is a chocolate based founded in SF) which is just a few blocks from our hotel. We then walked back again and did some more shopping on the way back as well. The plan was to take the Night Tour departing at 6pm and then get off in Chinatown and have dinner there. However by the time we got to the bus the line was so long it was clear we weren’t going to get onto the bus. We decided rather to take a taxi up to Chinatown and got a restaurant recommendation from the concierge at the hotel (who of course is Chinese). The taxi drive was probably the most entertaining thing we have done. We had an Italian taxi driver and he tried to persuade us that Little Italy had good food and restaurants. I nodded and said thanks. He was an extremely aggressive driver and as it was rush hour we weren’t moving much. He shouted out the window and honked constantly as if by honking (hooting for the SA people) the cars would miraculously move out of the way. The poor guy in front of us (who in my view wasn’t doing much, if anything, wrong) took the brunt of the honking and abuse and pointing. Half way through the trip the taxi driver turned on the radio and what channel did he select – the Classical music channel! It was a clear antithesis. Every time I looked back (I was in the front seat) everyone in the back seat was grinning. I really had to contain myself. I reckon an outbreak of laughter might have gotten us thrown out of the taxi.

He did get us to the restaurant safely though but he was quite disdainful of the restaurant. We gave it a try and really enjoyed the food. We had some excellent, tasty dishes including Peking Duck. It was probably the best value for money meal we have had so far. We then decided to walk back to the hotel. It was about a 20-25 minute walk. What is noticeable is that SF could do with a wash. It is quite grimy especially when you compare it to other major cities like London. Even Chicago was cleaner than SF (though SF is much better than LA). There also seems to be more vibrancy about SF in comparison to LA (even though SF has far fewer people living here). When we got back to the hotel we nipped into Ben & Jerry’s for a quick Sundae to round off the day.

It is now 12:15am and I need to go to bed and to sleep. Helen (of course) managed to squeeze in another few hours nap in the afternoon today so she will be up for another hour or two reading!

Enjoy your day.

P, C, H, M & S

Day 11 of Trip to Land of Free

I had to put the ‘Land of the Free’ in the header today because it is July 4. There is a lot less patriotism on the West Coast than the East Coast (or at least in Helen and my view). I suspect that it might have something to do with the demographics of the population in California.

We decided to leave the hotel slightly earlier than necessary and rather have breakfast at the airport. The taxi ride was about 40 minutes back to the LAX airport and the check in process was relatively painless again. Security was much tighter though. They took longer to screen our bags and the visible presence of police and security staff was increased. They frisked search Helen because she was wearing a dress and they said that even though she had gone through the scanner there was a risk she was concealing something. By the time we had cleared security it was 9:55am and the restaurant we wanted to go to said they only serve breakfast until 10am. I pointed out that it was 9:55am and so they should serve us breakfast and they looked most disinterested. I was up for an argument but Helen just walked out and said their loss. We won’t hurry back to that chain anytime soon and I hope they feel the pinch! American service is generally quite good but this was the 2nd ridiculous bit of service we had in 2 days (we had an incident at the Rite Aid as well). We ended up just getting pastries & fruit from the bakery take-away and eating them at the gate.

Our plane left on time with no issues at all. We flew on American Airlines again and I have to say that we have now had 3 flights on them and all 3 have been really good. I am probably tempting fate by saying that and no doubt I next flight on them will be terrible (let’s hope not!). We arrived in San Francisco at 1:20pm and we collected our bags and headed into the City. We were at our hotel by 2:00pm which shows you how quickly everything went. Our hotel is the Courtyard Marriot at Fisherman’s Wharf right near the Pier. It is a newly renovated hotel and probably the nicest room we have had out of all the hotels we have stayed in. We are also in walking distance of everything.

We immediately went out to find a place for lunch and ended up at Denny’s which is a Wimpy type restaurant. We all had burgers (what else could you have?!). The service was terrible which is also not something you generally experience in America. It was so bad that I never bothered to tip at all. I hope they got the message. I think they sensed our irritation in that when they did eventually come to take our order they apologised for not coming sooner but they were very busy. There was only one other table of people in the restaurant so I would hate to know what they would have done if there were 3 tables! They must have been busy doing their nails or something that kept them that busy because it was noticeable what they were doing.

After lunch we went for quick walk around the Fisherman’s Wharf area much to the general & loud complaints of Michael & Stephen. The reason being they were in short sleeves and it was freezing cold. The weather in San Francisco was beautifully clear but a cold wind is blowing off the Bay and so it is quite chilly. The temperature is around 17 degrees but it feels more like 12-13 degrees because of the wind. Of course this encouraged us to look at sweatshirts etc and I ended up buying a really nice jacket and Michael got a San Francisco tracksuit top. The shop assistant wanted to put it into a bag but Michael said ‘No, No’ and grabbed it out so he could wear it. We got back to the hotel at 4pm and enquired about his evening and we were told that the Pier would be choatic so we should try for a restaurant at around 8pm so that we got a table by 9:30pm for the fireworks over the Bay.

We followed their suggestion but they were totally wrong. There were about a million people in the Wharf area. The line for the toilets were the longest I have ever seen (maybe 50 people in line outside the toilets). I gripped Chloe’s hand as there was a real risk we would not see here again otherwise. The Pier area was just teeming with people and we very quickly figured out that we were not going to find a restaurant at all. After trying one in the Pier area we thought we should try a few in the roads behind the Pier but those also were totally jammed full with waiting lists of 20 groups. We found the grocery store and found ourselves cheese and cold meat and biscuits and salad and fruit and just had that instead in our hotel room and we watched the fireworks from our balcony of the room. The check out clerk was an education for the kids. This being San Francisco you get all types and I am not sure he/she knew what type he/she was. We think she was a he and is now on his way to becoming a she. Very wierd – I would have preferred to select another check out till if I had noticed earlier. I almost made Helen pay so that I had the minimal amount of contact with he/she.

The fireworks started at 9:30pm and probably weren’t as spectactular as they could have been because it was quite misty tonight. However they were very loud (probably because of the mist) and we could feel some of the booms from some of the fireworks going off. The fireworks went on for 20 minutes and it must have cost them a few million dollars. In Chicago they told us that they had cancelled the July 4 fireworks this year as it cost the city $30m each year. I wondered why they just didn’t rather down scale and spend say $3m instead? Surely you can get an amazing display of fireworks for $3m (that’s over R20m in fireworks). I have no doubt we (South Africans) could have easily put on an excellent show for that money and still have managed to expropriate a few Rands to smooth things for those in decision making positions! The display was quite impressive here despite the misty conditions. At the end we could smell the fireworks even – Helen said it was the smell of burning money!

We also discovered today on checking in that the Alcatraz Tours were fully booked until Thursday (and we leave on Thursday). I came straight up to the room and checked online and fortunately found a multi-island tour that includes Alcatraz and we could get on it on Wednesday at 9:30am. It was double the price of Alcatraz alone but we couldn’t come all the way to San Francisco and not go to Alcatraz. We are hoping tomorrow is a little calmer in the Wharf and Pier areas and that we can get to see them without risking our lives by being squashed by 1 million people or risking losing one of the kids (though Stephen is hard to lose now that he is bigger than Helen it is more likely we will lose Helen first).

As the kids only went to their room at 10:15pm this evening I doubt that we will be up early tomorrow. We will no doubt take a City tour tomorrow (Monday – today for most of your already as my computer clock says it is 8:30am in SA – and I have just spoken to my PA who is already at work when I am about to go to sleep!).

Enjoy the day!

P, H, M, C & S

Day 10 of Trip to Land of Make Believe

Today we took it relatively easy in that we first watch Germany thump Argentina before going out to have breakfast. This was good news for Stephen and I as we both support Germany. We then ambled down Santa Monica Blv to find a place for breakfast. The waitress was wearing a German flag in her hair and so we knew where her allegiance lay. In LA I don’t think we have yet been served by anyone with an American accent and today was no different. The waiter seemed to be from Italy or some such closely related country. Of course we had a breakfast that could have fed the 5000 thousand from our plates. Stephen (who usually has a ferocious appetite) could even finish the scrambled eggs. Either they use 2-3 Ostrich eggs in their scramble or a whole box of chicken eggs. Helen, Michael & Chloe had French Toast – 4 extra large pieces with a cup of fruit (when you think cup think usual standard size cereal bowl and when you think slice think twice the width of a normal slice).

After breakfast we ambled back down Santa Monica Blv and passed a drug store called Rite Aid. In America they do everything big (as you should know by now) and so when you think drug store you have no idea what this place looks like. What you need to imagine is a Clicks with a pharmacy and medicine area about 3-4 times the size and then add in a liquor store and a small convenience store as well. That would give a better idea. Yes – I am not drunk – I did say liquor store. The boys were highly amused that they were selling Vodka right alongside headache tablets. You can also get a lot of medicine over the counter (or actually on the shelf) in American that you can’t get in SA unless you have a prescription. For instance, anti-histamine and allergy tablets can simply be purchased off the shelf along with drugs such as Ponstel which are scheduled in SA. Being such hypochondriacs (no wait – that’s Paul that is always sick), we did take the opportunity to stock up. Helen found a whole lot of useful travelling miniatures. The best find was liquid band-aids – you just squeeze it onto the cut and it forms a plaster supposedly. No one has cut themselves yet so we will have to wait to see how it works.

We came back to watch Spain v Paraguay and then shortly after that Helen was so exhausted from the breakfast (it is hard work to get through all that food in one sitting) and the extensive time spent in the Rite Aid store that she needed to take a nap. Mid afternoon we decided to head down to Santa Monica Pier which, not surprising, is on the Pacific Ocean. We were told it was a quaint place with a lovely Promenade and 300 stores and restaurants. What they never told us was that 1 million of the 15 million people living in LA were also there this afternoon. The Pier was built right into the Ocean so after walking all the way to the end we can now say that is the furtherest point West we have ever been as a family. Santa Monica is right at the end of the famous Route 66 and in fact the Pier is the end of it (of course someone was selling end of Route 66 memorabilia). Helen said about half way down the Pier “I don’t want to see ungrateful but this is really tacky”. Imagine Hout Bay Pier with about 200 000 people on it on a Sunday afternoon, with stalls all the way down it and a Ferris Wheel, roller coaster etc also on it and that would give you about half the picture. We walked to the end and walked back again bypassing about 400 000 people on the way.

We found the ‘Third Street Promenade’ which is a pedestrian shopping zone and wander down that. Some nice stores including a Quicksilver store which had a 50% off already marked down prices of 50% (i.e. 75% off). Michael (the brand conscious son) took full advantage of that and bought himself two pairs of boardshorts of a mere $15 each. He was delighted as he knows how expensive they are in SA (usually around R400 each). Now I just need to get him to repay me! In the middle of the pedestrian zone were numerous street performers including musicians, magicians, belly dancers and the mandatory psychics. I was disappointed to note that one of them was packing up as she should have sensed that I was coming over to have my palm read or my cards read. She obviously was a fake that she didn’t know I was coming her way.

We had dinner in the zone and then headed back to the hotel. The taxi trip cost us half of the taxi trip back – how does that work? (We do know enough to know that the guy did take us back to our hotel on a direct route.) The boys and I figured out that the fare per mile was much higher on the Santa Monica taxi meters than the one from Beverly Hills. Go figure – I thought Beverly Hills was meant to be expensive. That reminds me, on our walk back from breakfast this morning we walked past the Beverly Hills car rental company. What kind of cars do you think they rent out – why of course this is Beverly Hills – Bentley, Porsche, Ferrari’s etc. No Merc or BMW to be seen – those would only be driven by the maids here in Beverly Hills.

The rest of the evening was spent watching TV and seeing which of the latest running shows take our fancy so that we can buy the DVD series. We watched on called ‘The Forgotten’ which immediately gripped both Helen and I so I think that will be one worth getting. We also had to pack up and despite Helen doing so in St Louis she didn’t make any move to help in this regard this time so yours truly got to do the packing. We are all packed and ready to go to San Francisco tomorrow for July 4. Fireworks of the Bay should hopefully be on the cards tomorrow night!

That’s all folks; Hasta Lavista Baby!

P, C, H, M, S

Day 9 of Trip to Movie World

In case you are wondering what happened to Day 8, it was actually yesterday despite my blog heading saying Day 7. I managed to repeat Day 7 twice and we never even crossed the date line! Today we decided to go to Universal Studios the home of movie making. Even though we are staying in Beverly Hills which is right next to Hollywood, it still took us 35 minutes in a cab to get to Universal Studios. You have to go up and over a mountain (or large hill) which pretty much reminded us of the drive from Constantia to Hout Bay actually. We decided to have breakfast at Universal and rather get there for the opening at 9am. That turned out to be a very good decision and we also managed to time it very well in that by the time we had purchased our tickets it was 8:57am and 3 minutes later they opened the park. Everyone who was waiting made a dash for the Studio Tour and we joined the throng of people doing that too. As we were early on we managed to get onto the 3rd tram ride of the morning and we only waited around 10 minutes for it. Later when we left (at around 1:30pm), the line was so long for the tour that it would have taken at least an hour to get on.

The Studio Tour is a 45 minute ride on a tram and they take you around the back lot and Studios. The studios are really just big warehouses which they kit out for whatever production they are making. The back lot is quite interesting as you see facades of buildings and nothing behind them at all. You realise very quickly that what you see in movies is really not real at all and is just an illusion. That is really what Hollywood is all about – an illusion. The tour also takes you through a few special effects including a brand new ride which only opened yesterday – King Kong in 4D fighting dinosaurs. The first time we went through it didn’t work and so we went around and tried a second time and then it worked. The result was that I still have the nail marks in my leg from where Helen gripped it when the dinosaurs came right up to the tram and we could smell it’s stinky breathe. Chloe (who was sitting on the other side of me) eventually closed her eyes and gave up watching.

They also showed us how they make rain the movies including a flash flood, took us past Jaws swimming in the sea and then into an underground tunnel that was a subway set where an earthquake hit us. When the sparks started to reply and the door of the electrical box ripped open Michael almost climbed on Stephen’s lap and whatever nail marks weren’t made from the King Kong visit, Helen completed when the subway train derailed in front of us and started to crash directly toward the Tram. The whole ride was entertaining. We even got to see Wisteria Lane – it is from a show that I don’t watch but I bet some of you do and probably won’t admit it! We didn’t get to see anyone important or impressive though. The only annoying thing was that the family behind us had brought their 1 or 1.5 year old son on the ride and he was crying hysterically after the first King Kong bit and never let up as each time a scary thing happened (which were interspersed by about 5 minutes each time) he just lost it again. Parents like that should be banned from (a) theme parks and (b) being parents as they were simply traumatising the kid.

After the ride we got our long-awaited breakfast and then headed back to see the Shrek 4D. The theatre seats move, when Donkey sneezes you get wet etc. We also saw the special effects show during which they show you how special effects make the movies. It was probably the most entertaining of all the things we saw. As you walk between the various rides and shows there are people performing mini-shows all the time and we saw Zorro sword fighting and Marilyn Monroe singing (or doing a cabaret actually). A number of cartoon/kids characters are also walking around and so we got to see Bart, Homer & Marge Simpson (they were bigger than I imagined them to be) and my personal favourite – Sponge Bob Square Pants. After visiting the lower lot (via a series of escalators which are the longest I have ever seen), the crowds have multiplied to such an extent that we felt it was time to flee the crowds. On the way back up and out, Helen said, ‘Give me a game park any time’!

We spent a quiet afternoon in the hotel reading but not after watching Ghana throw away the World Cup with their missed penalty in extra time. They really did throw it away. Tomorrow is the big Germany v Argentina game and I am definitely getting up at 7am to watch that! This evening we walked down to the local mall. It is the first ever mall that I have seen with a valet parking service – but then I shouldn’t be surprised this is Beverly Hills 90210. A lot of the shops have sales (another sign of the recession I guess) and Helen and I both managed to buy some clothes. We again killed another few minutes in the Apple store playing with the Ipad and latest Iphone. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant in the mall and the food was excellent – probably the best we have had so far this holiday. Helen and I even shared a half bottle of wine though at the price I could have bought a case back home. The only disappointment (besides the wine price) was the one waitron who was wearing those ridiculously short shorts when she had “thunder thighs” (Helen’s words not mine).

The rest of this evening will be spent reading. I now have a Nook (which is an e-book reader like the Amazon Kindle but only better – Helen has a Kindle). It really is a great invention as it is much easier to travel with it rather than multiple books. I wonder about the future of printed books with these devices.

My closing observation for today – if you want to make money in LA/Beverly Hills/Hollywood you better own a Beauty Salon, Tanning Parlour, Laser treatment centre etc. Every 3rd shop (no I am not exaggerating) is one of those. In a place meant to be filled with beautiful people it seems a lot of people need to be made to look beautiful. I have never seen so many of these Salons per square mile anywhere else in the world. It is so ridiculous that today at the mall in the walkway there was a teeth whitening service being offered. Sit down for 20 minutes with everyone watching you while you bite onto a mouthpiece and your teeth are whiter than when you arrived at the mall. Why on earth would someone do this in public (and there were 4 chairs available!)?

Yours from the Land of what you see if probably not real.

P, H, M, C, S

Day 8 of Trip to Land of Coca Cola

One of the CBD staff gave me the idea to change the heading today and signed of their email comments to me with ‘From the Land of the Vuvuzelas’. I think yesterday’s blog solicited the most return comments so far on the trip – not sure why – maybe the frozen custard was what did it.

We all managed a good night’s sleep and seem to have adjusted quickly to the 2 hour time change. It is now 10pm and I am feeling like an early night is probably called for. It is incredible to think that we are going to sleep just when everyone else is waking up. I get to see the effects of it when I wake up tomorrow morning again. This morning I had 35 emails on my CBD email address and 48 on my Gen Re email address (and I am meant to be on holiday!). I am being ruthless with my Gen Re email and so in about 10 minutes I managed to reduce them down to 2 that will need actioning when I get back to my London office.

We eventually managed to get the kids up and out of their room at 9am this morning. We decided to skip the $25 per person breakfast at the hotel (must be gold dust in the food or something at that price) and we took a wander down Wiltshire Blv until we got to Rodeo Drive. The problem we encoutered was that there were no places to have breakfast on either road and there was no way we were going to do any shopping in Rodeo Drive anyway. All there are are branded stores such as Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Dolce & Gabana etc. Most of the stores only allow you to visit if you have an appointment and they only accept 5-10 customers per day. Most merchandise isn’t price marked and asking would be out of the question. These people live in another world!

We did eventually find quite a nice place on Santa Monica Blv to have breakfast and on walking back to the hotel realised that the restaurants are on Santa Monica Blv and not Wiltshire. We won’t make that mistake again. We decided to go on a city tour which left at 2:30pm and lasted 4.5 hours and so we just relaxed in our hotel rooms for a few hours before going out for the afternoon. The weather is very pleasant here in LA at the moment – 27 degrees and tomorrow is meant to be 25 degrees. The tour driver says it is like this 300 days a year.

The tour was a small bus – like one of the new taxi minivan’s in SA. There were 2 other groups with us and in total we were 12 people excluding the driver. The driver’s weight though probably exceeded the 12 of us put together. The driver instantly irritated both Helen and I with his weak jokes and after he would say something that he thought was funny he would immediately say ‘only joking’ like we didn’t know. The tour took us first around Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Effectively it was a tour of the suburb and various famous movie stars homes were pointed out. We went past the houses of Robert Redford, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Ozzy Osbourne, Harrison Ford (Helen swears she saw him through the fence), The Beckhams (who are apparently back from their trip to SA) etc. A number of the houses are quite close to the road and we weren’t that impressed with them actually. While they might be large, they were often on busy corners (like Samuel L Jackson’s house). Apparantely the building code in Bel Air is that each house must have a swimming pool and tennis court. It is also illegal to walk around Bel Air unless you are resident or on official business (like cleaning pools or mowing lawns). Bel Air homes were more impressive than Beverly Hills ones. The Beverly Hills one were similar in size to Constantia or Bishops Court but actually weren’t as nice in our view. The Bel Air ones were just ridiculously big. The Beckham’s home (for example) cost $35 million and the most expensive home we passed was valued at $190m and is owned by David Geffen who is the co-owner of Dreamworks (the movie company). He has a 9-hole golf course inside his property with a driving range from his bedroom window. It reminded me that they are clearly storing up treasurers in the wrong place as they ain’t going to be able to take it with them one day.

After the famous houses tour we went into Hollywood itself and down Sunset Blv (also known as the Strip). This is the place where all the nightclubs are. In our view they look very run down but I can only assume that the interior looks better than the exterior as we have no plans to check them out. The tour driver gave us 30 minutes to look at the sidewalk stars (of which there are 2300 filled so far and another 700 blank). You have to be in show business of some sort to get your name on one and it costs you $5000 as well for the priviledge. We also looked at the handprints & footprints in the cement outside the Chinese Theatre. The most recent one to be made was Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI producer amongst other shows) which was still cordoned off as it wasn’t fully dry yet. We also took a few elevators up in a shopping complex so that we could get our first view of the Hollywood sign. Michael remarked that it was so small that unless he knew it said Hollywood we would not have been able to read what it said. I heard one person next to me, ‘Thank goodness for my telephoto lens otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to see that”! It might be big but it is a long way away as well. As we still had a few minutes to kill before needing to be back, ice creams were purchased for everyone except me (I want to keep my trim and finely toned physique). The tour guide had probably taken the full 30 minutes to refuel himself as well.

We then headed into downtown LA and found out what it is like to live in LA – lots of traffic. It was 5pm and so we were caught up in rush hour. Even yesterday on the way from the airport (at 10pm), there were traffic jams. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of the day or night you get traffic jams here. It probably has something to do with 12 million cars in LA for the 15 million residents. That works out to about 1.5 cars per licensed driver. Everyone has a car and nobody uses public transport. I noticed that even during rush hour the public buses only had a limited number of people on board and plenty of seats available. Some other interesting facts about LA and California are:
• They register 10-12 tremours per day as LA is on the San Fernando fault
• California’s total exports are 5 times what the UK exports each year
• California would fit into the top ten economies in the world if it were it’s own country
• 1:4 residents in California are illegal residents
• LA is has the most diverse population of any place in the world – more nationalities live here than anywhere else
• The average length of marriage of a resident of Beverly Hills or Bel Air is 5 years (I am surprised it is so long actually)
• California’s cows produce 5 times more milk than from cows living in other states (California’s cows are obviously very happy living here)
Some of these I know personally but some of them were gleaned from the tour today (this is the only time my actuarial persona comes out).

On the downtown section we had a quick stop at Little Mexico (our driver was hispanic and I think he wanted to stock up on some food again as it had probably been around 30 minutes since he last ate anything) and then we moved on past Chinatown and a less wealthy area (the driver in Chicago called it the similar area there ‘marginal’). Helen said she wondered as we passed various stores how many of them were doing actual business and how many of them were merely fronts for crime syndicates. Our final stop was at the Farmer’s Market which I suspect was needed so the driver could refuel himself again (especially since he was the last one back to the vehicle). It was a really nice market selling fresh produce (veg, fruit, cheese, meat etc) as well as numerous stores offering foods of different types. We got some fresh fruit and cheese and biscuits as this was what everybody was missing. It is incredible how after being away from home and eating restaurant food all the time how you start to crave certain foodstuffs. On this trip it seems that fresh fruit is what we are all craving. At least in California you can get good fruit.

After this last stop we headed back to the hotel and got back around 7pm. We would summarize the trip as underwhelming. In fact it is not the trip that was underwhelming but actually LA. I asked Helen if she wanted to come back some time and she said definitely not (sorry Rachel). Helen would jump at a chance to go back to Chicago though. The city is grimey and the architecture is a total mix. It is sometimes modern and sometimes old. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern. There are some impressive buildings but in the main there aren’t many. Once again we have noticed the numerous empty and boarded up shops even in Rodeo Drive. You really can see the effects of the financial crisis and it is almost as if you can feel the economic depression.

We finished the day with dinner at the hotel restaurant as we were all too tired to bother about going out for dinner. Tomorrow we plan to out by 8:15am as we want to go to Universal Studios and they open at 9am.

Enjoy your day.

P, H, M, S & C

Day 7 of the Trip to Land of Free & Friendly

Helen told me to change the title as we got onto the plane to fly to LA today. The reason is that people are really friendly here – at least on the surface. The gate lady was incredibly friendly to us as we boarded the plane which prompted Helen to make the remark. Though it hasn’t been a once-off thing for us. Almost every day that Janet and I have walked to or from the exhibition we were greeted by people in the street. In England if you try make eye contact with anyone they very quickly look away and would most certainly not say hello to you in the morning. In America (or at least in both St Louis and Chicago) the people have always made eye contact and always greet you.

As I type this we are now in LA and it is 11:10pm here and my computer clock says it is 8:10am in SA. Just as I go to sleep, everyone in SA is starting to work (don’t think about calling me!). Yesterday I got a cellphone call at 4am in the morning – fortunately whoever it was never left a message and I also had my phone on silent so I never heard it until this morning. We arrived in LA at about 9:30pm after leaving St Louis at 7:30pm. The flight takes 4 hours and there is a 2 hour time change. Of course it feels like 1am for us at the moment and so I hope the kids have actually gone to sleep already. They have their own room again which gives Helen a separate room for ourselves after having to share with Chloe for the last 3 nights.

Today was the last day of ICRS for Janet and I. Our first appointment was at 9am and we had 5 during the morning. Most of them were catching up with people we usually do business with but the last one of the day was establishing some new contacts. The attendance had dwindled significantly in comparison to Days 1 & 2. We managed to knock off our meetings quite efficiently and we headed back to the hotel at around 2pm. By that stage Helen had checked out and packed up. I usually do the packing so this was a novelty for Helen which I am sure she enjoyed (I am not going to ask her I am just going to assume she enjoyed it so that I can get her to do it again). Everyone was crammed into Lynne & Jeff’s room (11 of us in total). St Louis is famous for its frozen custard and so the girls & Jeff (excluding Chloe) headed off to go to the famous frozen custard shop in town. It was actually flavoured frozen custard and they all had ‘mini’s’ (which in SA would be equivalent to a large) and everyone said it was quite rich (though I never heard that from Janet as they dropped her off at the train station on the way back so she could get to the airport for her 5:30pm flight to Orlando).

The family had in the morning gone to Union Station which is a fully restored old station. Helen said it was interesting even though Jeff had led them on the scenic route (by foot) to get there. It is probably a good thing because she worked off a few of the calories from the frozen custard she ate later. Another thing we have noticed (especially in St Louis) is the number of boarded up shops. I noticed it on the route to the exhibition each day and Helen says that it is noticeable in each of the malls she has visited and it was again noticeable at Union Station today as well. I guess places like St Louis are the hardest hit by the recession in America.

They got back from the frozen custard sortee at around 3:30pm and at 4:30pm we headed off the airport. Jeff very kindly took us which again saved us on cab fare. The check-in process was smooth and easy and we after going through the pedantic security check (sans shoes, belt, watch etc) we headed off to our gate. Helen wanted to check out the shops (what else is there to do in an airport) and I wanted some food as I hadn’t eaten much for either breakfast or lunch. After that was completed I noticed that the gate had changed for our flight and so we moved to the correct gate. A number of flights had been delayed particularly those to Texas due to the Hurricane. As we were heading West our flight was not affected at all and we boarded and left pretty much on time (I think we were 10 minutes late).

The flight was pretty non-eventful. Chloe, Michael & Helen managed to sleep almost the whole way while Stephen and I read. We are now staying at the Beverly Hilton on Wiltshire Blv in Beverly Hills. In SA we would call it a ‘larny’ hotel. When I booked it I got a great rate on the internet. The downside is that they charge for everything extra so (for instance) the internet costs extra and as I am internet dependent there is no choice but to pay the money for the connection. It gets expensive when Helen, Stephen & Michael also want to connect though! As we got out of the cab I told the kids to make sure they held onto their bags otherwise I would have to part with another few dollars to get the luggage to the room.

As we are all tired we will take it easy tomorrow and just spend the day wandering around Hollywood and Beverly Hills. There is quite a lot to see around here by simply walking there and that is what we will probably do.

Enjoy your Thursday!

Yours from the Friendly Temples

P, H, S, C, & M

Day 6 of Trip to Land of Free & Big

The first hurricane of the 2010 season is about to hit the US. I know this (of course) because the Weather Channel is on. Unfortunately this isn’t good news for Janet and family as Janet is heading to Cancun with her family on Friday. Hopefully it will be past by that stage as they are predicting that it will hit land by tomorrow pm. We are, on the other hand, heading West to LA where the weather is much cooler. However, that is tomorrow only!

Today was pretty much a repeat for Janet and I, in that we left for the exhibition at 8am and got back to the hotel at around 3:30pm. We had about 6 or 7 meetings and some really productive ones. I felt it was a better day than yesterday. What probably swung it for me was a very good meeting with Crossway (one of the large USA publishers) and the owner’s son met us and we immediately made a connection. A 30 minute meeting pretty quickly turned into more than an hour with Janet nudging me and pointing at my watch. In the end Janet went off for our next meeting and I stayed behind a finished off the discussions. Even though we have been really careful about what we have collected, we still have a lot of catalogues and freebies and so tomorrow when we pack we might have to be a little more ruthless and get rid of some of the stuff.

The family went off to Grant Farm (I believe owned by the Busch family who used to own Anhauser Busch) and is a place with lots of different animals that have been rescued. I got to see a few photos only but the kids seemed to enjoy it. After that they went to the Mall and watched movies. The boys (including the big boy Jeff) watched Iron Man II and the rest watched Toy Story 3. The first thing Michael told me about the movies was the size of the Medium coke – we would classify it as Extra Large in SA from what he showed me. Helen later told me the same story as well. When they got back (which was after Janet and I got back), the kids went up for a swim on the roof top pool again. I went up briefly to have a look at the view and it was extremely bright up there as well. The kids were all having a great time together in the pool. Daniel (my nephew and Stephen’s cousin) has been with us as well and it is incredible to see how quickly he and Stephen have picked up their friendship again. It is a pity that they couldn’t see more of each other.

This evening we went to the St Louis Waterfront for dinner. If you have visions of the V&A in your mind then scrap that idea. It is a very small area of town which is very pleasant but is actually also not really near the water (it is at least 2 streets away). We had dinner at the Spaghetti House which Jeff says he remembers coming to 25 years ago. Obviously it was pasta for dinner tonight and it was another enjoyable evening together. After dinner we walked down to the river which has risen even further since Sunday night. Janet says she was done today at the River and where the kids had paddled in the water on Sunday afternoon was now off limits and in fact cordoned off. It is amazing to see how much it has risen in 2 days. We walked back to the hotel through the park and under the Arch (which looks even more impressive at night) and back to our hotel.

It is short and sweet tonight for 2 reasons, firstly I am incredibly tired and need to get to bed and (2) I didn’t get to the do the interesting stuff!

Yours

P, H, S, M & C