Uncle Frank’s Family Holiday or, The Lake District

Do you remember when I could post about holidays like they were yearly occurrences? Well, in 2012, a year of change and flux, a holiday was something that was missing from my year-bingo card. It was something I’d aspired to organise, but it was put on the back burner since May due to a move of city and change of flat. Now that that has all settled down and a slight level of understanding has been made between Frank, Connie and I, and the intended location for his… toilet business, we moved forward with plans for a “family” holiday. I decided that it would not only be a family holiday, but a surprise one, one in which all organisation was under taken by myself, and Connie was left entirely in the dark. This was working perfectly until my mother accidentally let slip that the intended location was… the south, rather than north or west. In any case, the final reveal was welcome, and was met with a visible beaming smile and a tiny little yelp. So, win-win then.

Before our final destination of Keswick I planned to tease Connie with a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, assuming she’d remember the significance of the structure from our watching of the History of Scotland series. She was less impressed at first, I guess, but the Biroswald Fort that we went to see was very nice, if a bit wet. It was punctuated with Frank falling off of a wall from a fair height and then managed to pull away from me on the leash, which resulted in a full pace 100m sprint after him to get him under control again… which amazingly didn’t end up with me slipping on my arse, sitcom style, but did give Frank a nice bit of exercise, as he was beaming with glee at his fleeting brush with freedom.

The Lake District, it would seem, is England’s Scotland – lovely hills, great pubs, good food, fabulous walks, and more Bed and Breakfasts than street lights. The first impressions were good – rolling landscapes, a road blocked by a caravan, the tiny streets that give lorry drivers nightmares. Once we were “settled” in the B&B, I took Frank for a walk along…

Oh yes, we took Frank with us. Indeed, we went to Keswick specifically because from my initial research it seemed the perfect place for novice pet-owners (only me, I guess). The bed and breakfast owners were more than accommodating, cleaning up his pee when he went on their stairs and polity telling us to not bring him into the dining room at breakfast. Indeed the bed and breakfast was absolutely sterling; which reminds me, I do need to write a review on Trip Advisor. For reference, it was the Lynwood Guest House inKeswick.

Anyway, after settling, I was walking into town with Frank in tow when I noticed a rather peculiar sight… tons of dogs. Literally hundreds of dogs. It was like Planet of the Apes, in a way, but in a town, and with dogs. Dogs and dogs everywhere, in the street, in the shops, in the pubs. It was marvellous. And Frank was treated like a celebrity; his good looks making most people stop as we passed to admire his Adonis-shaped body. Apparently he’s got the same level of attractiveness as a dog that Ryan Gosling* has a human being.

Taking him into the pub on the first night was an experience; we weren’t 100% sure they would allow him to sit with us, but sure enough, he was and he sat under me as I ate a glorious burger and Connie sent back her steak. Frank appeared to enjoyed it, I think, because there was about six other dogs in the bar food area and he enjoyed watching them, and they all appeared to enjoy watching Frank. After taking him on a long walk the next day along an old railway line, he was far more tired the second night, and this allowed me to sample a few of the local beers in the famous “Dog and Gun” pub, which was exactly as good as I’d read about. The food was lovely and the beer was served hastily. I love Cumberland sausage at the best of times, but sitting there, talking to a Doctor whilst he ate goulash was a great way to cap off the holiday.

Our drive home was uneventful apart from my strange detour through Wigton on the A595. After stopping to let Frank out to pee and poo, we re-entered the car to be greeted with what smelled like pure shit.

“Can you smell that?”
“Yeah smells like shit”
“Smells like Frank’s shit in the car!”

After pulling over to check the damage, we were greeted with an ecstatic puppy in the back, wondering why the humans had graced him with his presence so soon after the last time – we found no shit, and later deduced it had probably been a rather disgusting fart. I almost had to pull over I was laughing so hard as we were driving away, tears in my eyes. It was a memorable moment.

In the end, the Lake District charmed Connie and I. We will be back.

*Or Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing a suit.

Wheels Go Round: Rentals / Reviews

I have a fantasy.

No, not that one... one that involves owning a Volvo Estate. Yes, seriously; I'd love to drive a Volvo Estate car, and my betrothed agrees with me – they are a functional and stylish solution to the problem of finding a car that is spacious and safe. One that will be able to give me everything that I would want from a long term car purchase.  On top of this, I'd quite like to own a Land Rover Defender, but that's more pie-in-the-sky than the normal Volvo ideal.

Unfortunately, in my current lifeplan a car is not on the top the priority list. Many who had been told that we planned to not have a car when returning to Scotland were quite surprised, as it appears to be a measure of wealth as much as anything else, or a status symbol. You don't have a car? How ever are you going to survive?  The answer is quite easily, it would turn out. Aberdeen is fucking tiny compared to the sprawling span of Houston and is manageable. Even the commute has actually been worthwhile.
There are, however, no matter how righteous I bang on about it, positions and situations that are not conducive to public transport. My affiliation with rental cars came in late 2010 when I travelled to Canada for a family engagement – picking the keys up to a 3.6l HEMI V8 Dodge Charger SXT AWD (woop) at Toronto Pearson Airport was nothing but the coolest thing I had done in a long time – I felt like a Top Gear presenter. The next time was a rental in the UK at Christmas time, this time a Hyundai i30 1.6l Hatchback. Ugh – the car was drab, dreary and pretty boring to drive.

Since then I have driven a smorgasbord of cars, North American and European. And here lies the list and thoughts on the cars.

Ford Taurus
I hated the Taurus, over time, because it was a gas guzzling boat of a car. It felt like you had timewarped into the late 1990s, despite the car being a model year after my own Punto.  It still is the largest car I've ever driven, being longer and wider than BMW 3-series, and it probably is also the least desireable of all the cars I have driven, but I had it for a year – and it never really gave me any problems. The AC took too long to cool down in 100F heat, and the driving of it felt like you were driving it from 5 minutes ago, but it worked, served us well, and didn't cost me anything. So I suppose that counts a lot in it's favour. I should point out that in Texas the "large" Taurus is actually quite small and sent shivers of giggles down anyone spine who dared ask Joe or I what car we were driving.

Dodge Charger (first time)
In September I flew out to Canada to see my extended and now close family for the first time. This would be the first time I had hired a car and it was a beauty – a 3.6l V8 HEMI Charger SXT All Wheel Drive – a man's car, for sure. It handled okay, had a distinct bought of vroom when I put the pedal down, and was a sumptuously spacious vehicle. I really enjoyed throwing it about the mean streets of Parry Sound in the fall.

Hyundai i30
Christmas time, for me, will now forever be renting periods – in the 2010-2011 period I rented two cars – a small Hyundai in Scotland and a Mitsibushi Lancer in Canada (see below).  The Hyundai would rank at the very bottom of all the cars I have driven, and the drop from even the Taurus was a shock. I did almost kill the little car when I forgot how to use the clutch pedal. The problem with the i30 was that it was obviously supposed to be a medium class hatchback for a family yet it lacked a nice dashboard, space, and most importantly it rode like it had been built in the 1990s. I felt, unlike the Taurus, that instead of going back in time in terms of style that this was a car from the present built on top of an old car. I really didn't enjoy driving it.

Mitsibushi Lancer
In Canada, in December, all cars need to have some sort of ability in the snow – this is a fact. It is also the same fact that has convinced me to get a 4x4 car in the UK when I finally do end up getting a car.  I reckon that it is the most offroad capable of all the cars I have drive, and probably my favourite car I've rented – even Connie liked it, driving it and me for the first time on Highway 11 in Ontario. Pretty nifty. Interestingly, the car is not available in the UK – the only Lancers that you can get here are the hatchback ones which are beastly, and the saloons are reserved only for the Evolution X, the high powered (and high insurance) model of the car. Which is a shame.

Dodge Charger (second time)
When traversing the western states of the US we hired a car for three whole weeks, an impressive feat by any account. At the rental desk we were asked if we wanted a Chevorlet Impala (ugh) or a Dodge Charger. I said Charger, after the experience in September. He warned us it didn't have Californian plates, something I didn't quite get.  In that car for 10 hours at a time was pretty good, considering. If we had been in the Tarus i think we would have killed each other. Instead, it was much more amiable and happy. And the car was a good drive along the Pacific Coast Highway despite it's rather mental juddery brakes.

Hyundai Elantra
The North American version of the i30, i fear – the Elantra was nice enough and felt good to drive on the roads, but is unremarkable. The car is well proportioned and would sit well in the UK against the Focus, but being a small saloon the boot is a tiny bit restrictive.  Still it served a purpose (and swallowed our Wild Beasts album, the cheeky bastard. I hope the person who rented it after us enjoyed the sounds of the band).

Peugeot Partner
A VAN! It was ordered to help us get all our clothes and gear that my parents had nicely stored away in Glasgow during our Texas stint. Empty, the van was mental, bouncing and fast and high. Good fun. Laden it was less fun and more workman like, as it should be. I didn't hate driving it, but going from driving on the right and having an automatic to driving on the left and having a manual shifter is hard enough, but coupled with no back window, no blind spot view, and a weird arm rest... haha, that made for some fun times.

Chevrolet Spark
This is the worst car I have ever driven, yet it was also some of the most fun. It was tiny, yet still had three doors, and coped kind of well with the long roads and the long drives. It performed better in town, zipping into spaces like a magnet and generally being quite a nice little thing to throw about – trying to accelerate in 5th gear was laughable, and the dashboard looked like it had been ripped from a snow machine. Trying too hard is how it felt.

Volkswagen Polo
This felt like a bit of karmic resonance, being given to hire – only three weeks ago had I told a few friends of mine that I hated VW and their designs, as they are boring. Driving the new Polo I realised that yes, that might be true, but to drive and sit in the cars are the best I've ever seen – the polo was solid, fun, sharp and classy. The interior was simply exactly what I like in a car – symmetrical, not fuss, and quiet. 

I miss driving, but I love walking.

The Beginning of the End

I posted this back in August 2010. It marked the 'Beginning of the Beginning' and detailed the start to my time in Houston. Now, in the middle of May in exactly three short months until my Return, the end has really started. When I first started to write this post it was to be a two parter - one part of things that I am going to miss about the US, and a second part about things that I have missed about the UK - or things I am looking forward to getting back to.

This seemed quaint until I started to put pen to paper (so to speak) and it became clear that they are pretty much mutual - both lists need each other, intrinsically.

I miss buses and trains a lot. This is also compounded by the fact I just like them anyway, and whilst it's been good to try some of the Metros over here the simple fact that you can barely go anywhere without having to drive is just beyond my own ability to comprehend. I grew up with a bus stop outside my house and a train station 15 minutes walk away. These two types of transport get me into the City Centre so quickly it's almost negible - I could be leaving my parents house at 8.30 and be in town at 9.10. How good is that? It's even better in Aberdeen where the city is so small that unless you've chose to live outside the main city you could walk almost anywhere.

That said, I do like the level of streets and parking the USA offers - the massive freeways means that getting to and from various major parts of the city is quite easy, if indeed a million miles on average everytime I try to go anywhere. Compared to the old fashioned system that Aberdeen uses it is a breath of fresh air. I will miss the scope of the roads, but not the actual roads and not the actual drivers.

I've talked about weather four times, so this is the start of the summer and as such there will likely be a really long winded post about how I feel like I am going to die in the humidity. It is already quite high even now in the middle of May, but I am not to be scared as it is only going to last for a short while in the morning and in the evening - no, the weather's not going to stop, but it will prohibit my excursions to the outside to only the short distances between the airconned palaces of my car and the inside.

I miss Scotland's temperate climate. A lot. Just the fact that I am sitting on my sofa in a Boards of Canada tee and a pair of Skinny Corduroy shorts but I'd be rather sitting in my purple hoodie, black skinny jeans. Many people say that we are a product of our life and my fashion sense, and my comfortable clothing, is not made for this weather. It's hard to look like a indie try hard bellend in 100F heat.

The Texans like to drink a lot more than the equivalent Scot and the same age. I am currently working on a theory that might suggest or explain why, but that's a while off being ready to be posted up here - what is shocking is that they drink and drive with aplomb. I hate it. I have to bite my tongue amongst almost friends when they bring up that they were wasted and then drove home, because it's almost pointless even contesting it. Much like the antisocial features of doing it in the UK, imagine the exact opposite reaction when talking about it here. It's almost talked about in the same sentence as falling in the bath or being sick as if it's just another part of getting drunk and living here.

It actually worries me. Everytime I drive on a weekend at night, I am wary of drivers who might be over the limit. As I said in my previous blog there's a gulf between the two countries, but it's quite astonishing how far the gulf widens the longer you live here. I cannot wait to get home and not be asked why I am not coming to bar that's 20 miles downtown to stand and watch other people get hammered. Instead, I'll be able to pop into a bar on the home or just after work and not worry about getting there or getting home, and not have to worry about the other people there getting home.

If one of my friends here was to ask why I didn't go out for drinks in Houston as much as I'd like to, it's not because of any other reason that I cannot be bothered driving somewhere to not drink. That's not fun. I'd rather go home, watch a movie and have a few beers without the worry of travelling anywhere.

This is a technical reason so my co-chemical engineers (and other engineers) will understand this, probably - the US uses, almost inexplicably, the Old English units for everything. This doesn't just means Fahrenheit for the temperature (which is fucking stupid, more on that in a second) but also:
lbs instead of kgs (for mass)
feet instead of metres
psi instead of bar (for pressure)
BTU instead of kJ (for Enthalpy or Heat)

The reason they use them is historical. To make my mark on the job that I am working on in I have, with the other engineers, stopped giving them documents in both units, only using the CORRECT units, the SI units. I say correct because Mass, Heat and Pressure are not given anywhere else in the world in these units. Infact, I shocked a colleague by showing them a version the API (American Petroleum Institute) guidelines in SI units rather than the English units.

The reason why Temperature is so fucking stupid and is worse than the rest by a million miles is that Fahrenheit is a made up unit. It has no fucking place in engineering at all. The Celcius unit is linked to the Kelvin unit, which is the unit used in almost all applications in engineering. The fahrenheit? Useless. Honestly.

Rant over.

In summary, i have really enjoyed living here, in Texas, but I cannot wait to get home. Where that is, I am not sure - Aberdeen, or Canada, or London, or Paris... who knows the future, but I can't live in Texas. It's not Texas' fault either, it's me - I am not Texan.

Author's Note:
I have a few other thoughts about things that I dislike and I like for later posts, this is a catch-all post about some thoughts.

Driving: Gas

As an experiment, I refuelled my car last Saturday. This is not the end of my experimentation, as I have done this before. I also reset my trip computer on my car. This was done to see exactly how much driving I do in the US and how much “gas” I am using. In a week I drove 177.8 miles. This was several trips to work, to restaurants, to a friends to play with his child and watch football, and a few trips to the garage (don’t make me say it out loud) for a technical problem with the other car. Not too out of the ordinary for a week. This used ½ of my tank of gas. This, in the UK, would turn my hair grey. The reason for my strawberry blonde locks surviving is price and measurement.

Current gas prices are $2.50 a gallon in the US. A gallon (US) is approximately 3.8 litres. A dollar is approximately 67p. So, $2.50 = £1.67 for 3.8 litres, or 43p a litre. My references are not important. The UK is a rather high £1.16 a litre or, more comparatively, $6.61 a gallon. At anyrate, this isn’t news to anyone related to the oil industry. What is interesting is the size of my cars tank.

You see, to fill it from empty costs around $45. This means my tank is around a 19-20 gallon tank. (According to the fact sheet it’s actually 18 so we will use that) With some more mathematical acrobatics a 68 litre tank in real money. This means that to fill this tank in the UK it would cost me a stunning £80. Yikes. Luckily I don’t have to. Especially when you realise that my trip computer is telling me that I only managed 177 miles from half of that tank - £40 for 177 miles is insane. With a few more punches of my calculator i can work out that for my $45 input, assuming a 18 gallon tank, i managed an amazing 177 miles on 9 gallons or, 19.7 miles to a gallon. That’s the economy on the Ford Taurus I drive.

In the UK I manage a pretty respectable 38-42 miles to the gallon in my little 1.4L 77bhp frugal Fiat Punto compared to my 3.0L 152bhp Ford Taurus. It’s not surprising that I get half the economy. But that “half” economy is actually (truely) economical - ie better than my Punto – for the same amount of gas in each car, I will get further in the Punto – for ease let’s say 1 gallon in the Punto would take me 40 miles, where as in the Taurus it would take me 20 miles: exactly half. But in the UK that 1 gallon would cost me £4.41. In the US that gallon costs me $2.50, or £1.65. So, for half the distance travelled it’s costing me 37% of the price – in real terms that means that even though my car in the US is giving me half the “economy” of a UK car gallon for gallon, pound for pound it is give me better money results.

So, when I see my tank emptying I need to realise that I am actually paying less than I would in the UK for the same amount of gas – and in fact, I am paying much less for the same distances even when I am filling up more! And you wonder why people drive 5.7L Trucks out here. When you see that the new 2011 Ford Mustang GT is saying that it’s 31mpg is a selling point when in the UK I would baulk at such a rate, it is actually much better for my wallet than i could imagine.

Just don’t mention the environment.

(For the record, i am slowly changing my vernacular to suit the surroundings. I quietly whisper God Save the Queen each time I say “chips”, “lot” or “ride” rather than “crisps, “carpark” or “lift”, but gas other than petrol is the correct term in my eyes – Gas is short for Gasoline, which is the name for the refined petroleum, where we get the name petrol from. So, it’s technically more accurate to use the refined name rather than the unrefined name (in the technical sense of the word, not the refined nature of us) but that’s splitting hairs. Note that other countries use “benzene” and “naphtha” so maybe there’s no point in discussing it.)

Driving: Drinking and Driving versus Driving Drunk

According to the law in Texas (and in the rest of the US to an extent), if you are stopped behind the wheel of a car under the influence of alcohol you will go to jail. This doesn’t stop people trying it. Indeed, I’ve taken to driving after a few beers because there is no other way to do it. A few weeks ago Joe and I headed out for a drink and dinner while watching some football. A pitcher of Miller Lite between us we had a big massive burger and then I drove home – it was probably a pint plus some, but not much more. It was only a couple miles down the road (literally, in fact) and I was nowhere near over the limit (the Lite in Miller Lite suggests that not only does it taste like lukewarm pish, but that it has a lower than normal level of alcohol compared to the other bbers on tap). However, the reason why I can reconcile this total difference to my opinions in the UK towards alcohol drinking while driving is threefold.

- It is socially acceptable here. This isn’t the reason why I did it, but it does mean that there are less people wondering why you are doing it.
- It is almost impossible to not do it. I can’t jump into a taxi and drive to the nearest pub because there are so few taxis around.
- You can’t walk anywhere. This isn’t a joke – my apartments are situated on a main street but we are miles from the nearest bar. In the Houston scheme of things this is nothing, but in my UK style of things it’s crazy not to just be able to “pop off to the pub”. It is a big difference.

On Friday night I got drunk on beer and gin and tonic. It was the first time that myself or Joe had been able to drink together since noramlly one of us had to be “the driver” every time we go out. That night, on the roof top bar looking over downtown, we witnessed a couple of banjoed girls trying to get into their car. The valet let them, and then the police pulled her out of the 4x4 and made her take a sobriety test – the whole “walk the line” thing. It was interesting to see, and she got booked for it. Seeing as she fell onto the hood/bonnet of a car in the lot/car park it probably wasn't an edge case.

In all fairness, living here isn’t going to make me drive drunk. That’s just being stupid. But whereas in the UK I wouldn’t even consider driving after one beer, it’s impossible not to here. I can’t figure out if that means that there are more designated drivers here (that the propensity of people need a driver means that, like myself and my friends, there is always someone explicitly chosen to be so) or that there are more drink drivers (people who drink, get drunk and then drive) than in the UK. People drive after drinking less, so there’s less chance of a designated driver, but does that mean less or more drink drivers? Iit’s a strange question.

The Holiday 2008 (Part Three) - The Wrong/Right Way to Drive.

(Better late than never...)

On Holiday I took my first steps in becoming a true Brit on holiday - I wore sandals, got sunburned, and drank Beer directly after breakfast. I also complained at the sausages and the exchange rates. I also took my first hand at driving in a country not Blighty, and on the wrong side of the road.

On the Right I found some interesting changes in the way I drove. Firstly, it seemed a little too natural changing sides, as for the last couple of weeks I have been immersed heavily in the world of Grand Theft Auto and driving (mostly) on the right hand side of the road.

Also, the mentality is different - shouting at drivers is great fun and in the heat it makes for rather sporting actions. When you overtake it appears that the general thing in Turkey is blast your horn and push the other car over into the side whilst you power ahead wavering between the two lanes, hoping that the other car gets out of the way. This was most productive, and is a habit I might take to the streets of Scotland.

The hardest part of driving abroad turned out to be a round about which, in the other orientation, is quite the tricky prospect. My head was looking the wrong way for cars, my hands were wanting to turn to the right not the left, and my givway-ing was all off kilter.

The funnest part of driving though was the car in which I was driving - a two seater open air buggy. Hazel found it rather terrifying, having her heart in her mouth when I driving my 5 star NCAP Fiat Punto on a deserted street at 30mph found driving at 50kph in the pen air, 3 feet below the car in front quite the adrenaline ride. Graeme and I took to the cars like Robbie Coltrane and a plate of chips, diving along the same roads endlessly, and even taking them off road and uphills that the owner of the cars said specifically not to do.

Graeme's car was faster and more reliable. After 20 minutes my drive chain had came off and with the help from a Turkish Taxi driver and some messy oily hands later, we were up and running again -until in the middle of the town on the main road, in front of the man who owned the Chinese restaurant that we always said we would dine "tomorrow night" the chain slipped again. The man fixed it, and it worked for the rest of the day.

Until just before I was taking the car back and it broke. I didn't tell him about the rather large boulder that dented the under carriage or the 50ft rock scramble that I had just slide down out of control, and he didn't mention the massive oil stains all over my T-shirt.