Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bill Bryson and I Agree: Durham is a Fantastic Place

Last night i got to listen to a lecture, here at Durham University, by one of my travel heroes, Bill Bryson.

Who is Bryson, some of you may say?  My god, you sad, sad people.  It is clear that you neither read travel literature nor consider yourself a worthy member of the human race; and clearly you are not at all, in any sense of the word, British--as you would know him--and so you are deserving of a right and proper flogging.

Well, truth be told, Bill Bryson is actually American (from Des Moines, Iowa).  But, in his defense, he has spent most of his adult life in the UK, in a small town called Wramplingham (population 110), which is about four hours southeast of Durham University.

Bill Bryson A Walk In The Woods.jpg Bryson is also, perhaps, one of the most famous human being alive to walk a good chunk of the Appalachian Trail--it, is, after all, really long and nobody in their right mind walks the whole thing.  Most important, Byrson completed his walk without being eaten by a bear and therefore lived to write A Walk in the Woods.

He is also famous for writing an additional list of incredibly humorous and wonderfully self-deprecating travel books, including In A Sun Burned Country (about Australia); I'm a Stranger Here Myself (about moving back to the states after living in the UK for twenty years); and, Notes From a Small Island, which is about his travels throughout England. 

Wdogart.jpgIn terms of his humor and insight into some of the wonderful absurdities of the human condition, I think that, for social scientists, Byrson is the equivalent of the natural science's humorist, Gary Larson.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonSpeaking of science, Byrson also wrote the very useful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything: a popular science review of what scientists have to say (circa 2003) about the universe, our planet, and how we, as humans, managed to not get eaten long enough to create late night television.  I have, in the past, recommend this book to my students as a good primer.  As a taste, click here to listen to an interview with Bryson about his book.       
Finally, and most relevant to my time here at Durham, Bryson was University Chancellor from 2005 to 2010.  In fact, that is why he was at Durham this past week.  They dedicated the new library in his name--click here to read a bit on his work at Durham.  I think this was just right.  As the Dutch philosopher, Kierkegaard pointed out, humor is one of the highest forms of communion we have with our fellow beings.

Anyway, for his evening lecture, Bryson decided to make a few comments and read a few stories on traveling, his time at Durham University, and life in general.  I want to share a few of the things that impressed me the most.  Also, I am sharing these insights for selfish reasons: Bryson said that, every time he says something nice about Durham, they bring him back.  So, hey, did I tell you all how much I really like it here?

First, as I have posted elsewhere, he reiterated something Americans really need to consider.  Europeans really know how to have fun.  I mean it, they really do.  As an example, remember that picture of the students at Durham passing me along to the Dining hall at Castle? (Look to your right.)

Now, mind you, when Bryson says Durham knows how to have fun, he is not talking about partying.  (Although, in all fairness, the recent edition of the Durham University Student Paper was depressed over its standings in the new British poll on per-capita drinking at UK universities.)  No, what Bryson was talking about is having fun.   The students here work hard, but they also play hard.  As an example, Durham has no theater program.  And yet, since I've been here, I have seen several plays, including Peter Schaffer’s Lettice and Lovage and Molière's Tartuffe--all performed at an incredibly high level.  And, I have seen some great music, including Mozart's Requiem, performed in the Cathedral.

Also, twice a week, here in castle, they have formals, where everyone gets together and has dinner and drinks (See upper right picture).  For my students in the states, who I am sure are wondering, yes the drinking age here is 18.  Damn, the students in Castle even have their own bar and karaoke machine.  In fact, I sang Loverboy's Turn Me Loose at the top of my lungs until the students kicked me out.  Common, they're a Canadian band!  To the right is what permanently happened to one student's face upon hearing me sing.

Second, the students at Durham University put a lot of time into social causes, charities, and so forth.  I cannot tell you how many times I have walked across the campus, or through the town market to find students raising money for this or that event.  In fact, some students even set themselves up on the street, wearing signs that say, "Give me Money to Go to Such and Such a Place to Help People."  I thought it was an interesting con at first, until I realized these kids were serious--or, at least I hope so, cause I gave them a considerable amount of my British coins.

Third, the students are thinking about the environment and our global future.  For example, I saw the world-famous sociologist, Anthony Giddens speak on the environment and our ecological future.  My students should be familiar with Giddens, as he wrote the Intro to Soc textbook you use.  I even asked Giddens a question, so that, upon returning to Ashtabula, Ohio, I can be a rock star.  See, they taped his lecture.  Click here and go to 52 minutes.  The only problem is that my question is a real "Debby Downer."  In fact, people moved away from me after I asked it.

Bryson has also been moved by the student's social consciousness.  During his lecture he read a very funny bit about flying in a twin-engine plane and running headlong into a major storm and almost dying.  His travels through Kenya were on behalf of the CARE organization, which students at Durham got him involved in.  It is a very cool place here.

Finally, Bryson, prompted by a student's question, ended with some lessons for life--seven, I think, in total.  Here is my best memory of them.  First, he said, be happy.  Life is too short and, particularly for those of us in the middle class, we live a pretty privileged life.  I forgot the second and third.  The fourth was buy all of his books in hardcover as soon as they come out.  The fifth was, do not come up behind people and scare them.  No matter what you think, it is not funny and you should be shot. Sixth was something about killing anyone who littered.  And seventh had something to do with making the world a better place; or maybe it was about drinking; I cannot remember, but you get the point.

What a great night and what a great place.  I cannot believe I only have two weeks left here.      



Saturday, November 24, 2012

Don't Stand So Close to Me-

You know that song by the British rock band, the Police?  Don't stand, don't stand so.  Don't stand so close to me.

Well, I find myself suddenly bursting into this melody in various crowd situations here in the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

"Why?," you say.  It's their sense of social space; it's just so much smaller and more condensed than ours is in the states.  And, it's funny, because you wouldn't think such a thing would be that big of a deal, right?  In fact, some of you are probably reading this thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah...  sure, Europeans are more comfortable walking around like sardines in a can.  So what?"

Well, let me just give you a recent example.  The above photo is a picture of me, as I attempted last week to make my way across the garden to the Dining Hall.  To be fair, it did end well, as a couple of really athletic students lifted me and another professor up so they could body-pass us across a few hundred students to the front of the line, simply because they like me so much and think professors should get their meals first.  In fact, as I passed over, I had quite a lovely chat with several people who were holding hands and singing "kumbaya my lord."

For the luv of whatever your god, stop standing so close to me....

Personal Space Deconstructed

Here is a typical walk in provincial Europe, particularly here in northern England:

1.  To begin, you've got single lane roads and pathways, which are treated as if there is plenty enough room for cars and pedestrians and wildlife.

2. Next, you've got garden-walls and town-corners and hedgerows everywhere, just high enough so that even me, a six foot American, cannot see over them.

3. Then, you've got these Brits, who thoroughly enjoy walking into each other.  They're like heat-seeking missiles: you do all you can to evade them, but it is to no avail---t minus 3 seconds to target---then, bam! suddenly a mob of college girls slam into you, looking at you like its your fault.

4.  And, don't forget the cars, all driving on the wrong side of the road, taking any angle possible to come as close to you, the pedestrian, as possible.  In fact, it's so dangerous crossing streets here that they have taken to writing on the sidewalks LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT.  And, let us not forget the advice of the nice young Brit at the car rental place, "If it looks like they are going to hit you, stop!  Because they will."

5.  Now, add to all of this an amazingly close sense of personal space and you've got a recipe for disaster for someone, like me, who is paranoid enough to be begin with.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the issue
Body contact and personal space in the United States shows considerable similarities to that in northern and central European regions, such as Germany, the Benelux, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. The main difference is, however, that Americans like to keep more open space in between themselves and their conversation partners (roughly 4 feet (1.2 m) compared to 2 to 3 feet (0.6–0.9 m) in Europe). Greeting rituals tend to be the same in these regions and in the United States, consisting of minimal body contact which often is confined to a simple handshake.

My Atlas Needs to Shrugged

I have to say, though, something significant is lost in the states, with our protected public sense of boundaries--particularly amongst professional and upper-class Americans, with our big lawns, lonely parking lots, drive-to-get-there culture, and our private sense of enjoying ourselves.

To me the loss is simple enough to summarize: we struggle to have and share fun in public and to have nothing to do but have fun.

In the states, the only time people have fun together in public is at a formal event--with a clear sense of when something begins and ends.  We consider someone really hip if their invitation to a party says something like, "7:00pm until whenever!"

"Really, do you think they mean that?,"  I often find myself thinking, "Should we take them up on it?  Well, probably not, because, after a few drinks one of us has to got to drive the rest of us home."  No fun.

It makes me think of Gogol Bordello, a largely eastern European, gypsy punk band from the lower east side of NYC in the States.  They have this song called American Wedding--click here to listen to it, as it absolutely rocks!  The lyrics go like this:

Have you ever been to American wedding?
Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Where is the supply that gonna last three days?
Where is the band that like Fanfare.
Gonna keep it goin' 24 hours

In the song they go on about how all the proper couples need to be getting home and how the whole thing just winds down.  The lead singer is lost; he cannot understand why.  Then he realizes, in the end:

I understand the cultures
Of a different kind
But here word celebration
Just doesn't come to mind

Bottom line: The Brits and much of Europe are much, much better at having fun together in public: sitting around; having a few beers on the train; families picnicking and kids running around all over the place; all well ordered albeit highly nonlinear to the American eye; everyone laughing and talking and walking into each other and just having fun.

Here, for example, is a video and some pictures of people having an absolute blast in Dusseldorf.  It is a Sunday afternoon, not a single department or specialty store is open in the down-town--which, mind you, is lined with the top fashion stores one finds throughout the world--and yet the whole place is filled with people, for no good reason, eating and drinking and laughing and walking into each other like very, very happy sardines--check out, for example, the massive amount of wonderful meat I ate.

It is a hard pill for me, as a professional class, mid-western American, to swallow....

But,... I know what I am going to do when I get back to the states.

Yes, I know exactly what I am going to do.

I am going to start walking into everyone, and, when they get mad, which I know they will, I will start singing at the top of my lungs:

Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring?
Where is the supply that gonna last three days?
Where is the band that like Fanfare.
Gonna keep it goin' 24 hours.... 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If Travel Is an Indicator; The East is Becoming a Major Global Player, While Parts of Europe Struggle

Well, if traveling is an indicator, it seems that Asia (particularly China) is becoming the major global player everyone is predicting it to be, while many parts of western and eastern Europe are, as they have been over the past couple years, struggling.

Here is my anecdotal evidence as a traveler.  Throughout the U.K. and in Germany, where I was last week--and, increasingly, in my other travels throughout Europe--the main tourists I see are German, French, British, American, and, at increasing levels, Asian, mostly Chinese.  Behind these countries is a much smaller group of Scandinavians and Italians.  In contrast, however, one does not see many Spaniards or Greeks or Eastern Europeans.  For example, I think I have heard one person speaking Russian in my seven weeks here.

Statistics at the macro-level seem to support my traveling experiences.

As the chart above shows, the increasing economic power of China is finally beginning to be realized in Europe.  For those of us in sociology and economics and political science--or just anyone who reads the darn world news and is paying attention--this is not a novel or sudden realization.  It is more a confirmation of what we have been saying, for example, in our classes, as professors.  "Hello folks!  The world economy is much more massive and dynamic and global and now eastern and southern than you think it is."

What has gotten people in Europe to suddenly taking notice and actually acknowledge the shifting dynamics of global economics was a report released on the 9th of November, by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  While Europe and the states struggle, the report basically shows that China, along with other developing economies, such as India, are fast rising to become the new economic super-powers in the world.

Here, for example, is an article in the Guardian, on the increasing number of Chinese tourists in Europe, where they like to go, and what appeals most to them, in their travels--Click Here.

Perhaps even more than the story, though, are the comments made by readers in the online chat room below it.  Here one sees how everyday people are thinking, and it is not very nice.  It is a combination of pride, prejudice and hate, with very provincial views being expressed by people who struggle to realize they live in a global world.  To be fair, some of the comments are by good minded people who are trying to think through the global economy in which they now live. 

To get a good, overall, sense of the OECD report and reaction to it, read this Guardian article--Click Here--and watch this video put out by the OECD, on YouTube--Click here.

Europe and the states face new challenges as the rest of the world seeks to live western-style middle-class lives.  With these changes come some very good things: increased political freedom, increased rights for women, improved health and economic well-being.  And, with these changes come some very troubling things: massive population growth, over-usage of resources, environmental challenges, cultural clash.  It is time we paid attention.

It's funny, as I sit here writing this, because I just realized that I got "Friedmanized." What is that, you say?  In a series of books, over the last decade or so--The World is Flat; Hot Flat and Crowded, and That Used to be Us--the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman has been making the case for what is currently happening globally.  In fact, my students know my point in this posting, as I teach Friedman's work in my Intro to Sociology and Global Social Problems courses.  Funny how things happen.

Anyway, if you are interested in more of this, read his books. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oh Shawarma, Oh Doner kebab; How I Luv You

If you asked someone living in the states what they thought might be the #1 fast-food item that, no matter where in the world they were, they could get it; and, equally important, that such a food item would almost always be reasonable great?  Most would probably say something like the cheese burger or perhaps a burrito.

And, in part, they would be correct.  But, not really.

Doner kebap Istanbul 20071026 crop.JPGI am sorry burger and burrito, as I luv the both of you very much.  But, as a gentleman, I must confess, in good faith, that my heart lies with another.  It is truly embarrassing having to confess this in front of you, my wonderful burger and burrito, but it is finally time you knew.  Here is it.

Throughout the world there is another fast-food item that competes for the hearts and minds of millions and millions of people, as they move through the streets of the cities and countries in which they live.  And, it is the food I seek out everywhere I travel; and I mean everywhere.  It is the Shawarma a.k.a the Doner Kebab!

Oh Shawarma, Oh Doner Kebab; how I luv you!
If we are to understand the beauty of this food, we have to begin with its etymology.  As stated on Wikipedia, the Arabic word shawarma (play /ʃəˈwɑːrmə/) comes from the Turkish word çevirme [tʃeviɾˈme] “turning”, and has its origins in Anatolia. It is similar to the dish called döner kebab, “turning kebab”, in Turkish, and the Greek gyros, "turned", formerly called ντονέρ /doˈner.. A related Armenian dish is tarna, literally meaning “to turn”.

These distinctions are key because a Turkish shawarma is not the same as a Greek shawarma.  In fact, on Wikipedia alone, for example, under the heading of Doner Kebab, they list over 60 regional variations, broken down by continent.  I am not kidding, CLICK HERE and look.

Next, we need to address how the meat is prepared and cooked. As stated on Wikipedia, a shawarma is made by alternately stacking strips of fat and pieces of seasoned meat (beef, lamb or marinated chicken) on a stick.  An onion, a tomato, or a halved lemon is sometimes placed at the top of the stack for additional flavoring. The meat is roasted slowly on all sides as the spit rotates in front of, or over, a flame for hours. Traditionally, a wood fire was used; currently, a gas flame is common. While specialty restaurants might offer two or more meat selections, some establishments have just one skewer.

Third, we have to talk about vegetable items, which can vary considerably, and sauces.  Most come with cabbage or coleslaw, peppers (all varying in degree of heat), pickles, etc.  And the sauces.  Oh, the sauces.  Lots of heat, garlic and sour cream or yogurt. 

Finally, we need to talk bread.  Here, again, I have seen lots of variations, from pitas to tortillas to baguettes.  And, I have even see the whole thing served as a meal, with each part separated from the others.

So, you see, you have all your food groups.  It is a perfect meal!


London Calling

Dear Diary, my brother Warren has been in the U.K. now for eight days.  During his time here we have eaten a shawarma/doner kebab twice in Durham; twice in Edinburgh; and once in London.  This is what happened today.  It was about 11:00am in the morning, Warren's second to last day.  "Warren, are you hungry?  Cause I am getting hungry.  Oh, look, shawarma!"  "I'm sorry, Bri.  But I think I have had enough shawarma.  I don't think my stomach can take another one, with all the spices.  They're good though."  "Nuff said. How about I grab a shawarma for myself for our walk.  But, we can get you whatever you want for dinner."

And, so, off we go, spending the next eight hours walking all over London, including eating a quick french dish in Harrods of London.  Only the French can do this.  It was a combination of smoked salmon and salmon pate infused into a two-foot long croissant.  Great day.

It is now, however, after 7:00pm in the evening and Warren, who has not really had much of a meal yet, is still hungry.  We walked around, here and there, looking at different restaurants. but none of it seems to be doing the trick.  Suddenly Warren looks at me.  You know what he is going to say.

"Bri, you are going to kill me.  But, you know what I want to do?  I want to go get a damn shawarma."  "YES!" I say. "Let's get shawarmas, get lots of spices and garlic sauce, and a ton of chips, and go back to the hotel and pig out!"

I think someone, if they have not already, needs to write a song or a poem in homage to the shawarma!

Oh, shawarma, how i luv thee.
To what shall I compare you?
I know.  A Doner Kebab--all sixty versions of it!
Yeee ha!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

If Your Value Your Life, Do Not Drive in the UK

Look at my face to the right.  Does that look like a calm man?  No, no it does not.

So, I am telling you right now.  If you value your life--which I am sure you do--never ever, under any circumstances, drive a car in the U.K.  These people are crazy.  I mean, you think my postings on how British people will walk right into each other was upsetting, wait till you see what they do in cars.  Ever heard of the car game called chicken?  Holy crap!

So, here is the story,

My brother Warren just came to visit me.  Like my brother John, Warren loves cars.  I, on the other hand, despise cars.  Warren, being who he is, really wanted to rent a car.  And, because he is too smart for his own good, he had me.

"Brian, you said yourself, the train system here is not the greatest; and so, if we rent a car, we can see lots of things you cannot from a train, including the moors!"

Damn, I said to myself.  He's right.  I love the movie American Werewolf in London--stay out of the moors--and I love Bram Stocker's Dracula.   So, here was a chance to drive to Whitby, about a hour's drive from Durham, so we could drive through the famous Yorkshire Moors to the sea coast and see where Bram Stocker spent some of his summers.

"Okay, fine.  But if we die, Maggie is going to kill you."

Nuff said.

So, off we went to rent a car for three days.  Our destinations Whitby, Hadrian's Wall and York.

We went to get the car at one of the local rental joints.  So far, so good.  As we are about to leave I do a typical "brian thing" which drives both my brothers crazy, but i do not care, because i like living rather than looking cool.

So, i say to the rental guy, "Excuse me, but if you do not mind me asking, given that we have never driven in the U.K., do you have any words of wisdom?"

Amazingly, the guy took my question seriously.  He paused.  I mean, he genuinely paused, as all good Brits do, and just looked at us for what was probably a good minute.  Meanwhile, Warren is looking for any way to leave.

Finally, he says, "Well, I guess the rule of thumb, particularly in the turn-arounds, is if it looks like the other car is going to hit you, then stop."

Warren just looked at him like, that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

But, I will tell you right now, no sooner were we in the car ten minutes when this gentleman's rule applied.   By the way, look at how crammed into the driver seat Warren is!  Wow 

Suddenly!, there we were, in a turn-around.

"Sh*t Warren, that guy is not stopping."
"I know, look at that; what do we do?"

We both laughed.  Again and again and over again, the rule applied.  If it looks like they are going to hit you, then stop!"  Why?  Because they will hit you.

Absolutely flustered by almost dying at least five times, Warren and I had what we thought was a brilliant idea to go out to the countryside to 'warm up' a bit, as they say.  It actually was a dumb F'n idea

A bit of background.  Back in 1982, when I turned 16--which is the legal age at which one is allowed to drive in the states--my dad took me out to the countryside.  He figured, as most sane people would, that the countryside means less traffic, more relaxed driving conditions, less likelihood of me killing anyone, including my dad, and therefore more room for beginner error.

Anything could be further from the case in the UK.

No sooner did Warren and I get off the highway when we realized we had made a very bad mistake.

First of all, the Brits, being the austere people they are, seem to have had the brilliant idea that, given that country roads are less traveled, one does not need two lanes.  So, they got rid of the one.  I am not kidding.  The damn road is just a little wider than your driveway.

Then, to 'up' the video-game feel of the whole thing, they planted hedgerows on both sides of the road so you cannot, no matter how hard you try, see anything coming until it is about to slam into you.

And, remember, also, the most important part: you are driving a car on the left side of the road but from what, in the states and the rest of the rational world, is the shot-gun seat, the passenger seat!"

And, to top things off, because of the odd placement of the driver, you as the passenger cannot be of any assistance, as you cannot see in the rear-view mirror or much of anything in your own side-view mirror.

In short, it feels like you are on a carnival ride that is about to go horribly wrong!

"Whoa, look out Warren!  You almost ripped off the side view mirror"
"Okay, okay, calm down.  You are freaking me out!"
"I'm serious.  Whoa!"  Baamm! We just scrape the side-view mirror.   Phew! 
"Where did the damn road go?"
"I don't know!" 
"Look out, stop!"
"That car is going to slam into us!"


We pull over.  Warren needs a cigarette and i need to throw up.

Don't dive in the UK.  it is a bad idea.  

Here, by the way, are some pictures of the moors and Whitby--where, we did not know, Goth weekend was going on.  Twice a year Goths descend on this town to celebrate Bram Stocker.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Easy-Jet Ain't So Easy; But Good Fortune Keeps Going My Way

For those who know me, one of the struggles I have in life is accepting joy.  Things go too well and I just start "freaking out."  I know it is neurotic and i take my medicine daily and meditate.  In fact, when I left for the UK, my family and friends told me, in very stern terms, "Don't F it up, Brian. You had better enjoy yourself or we will hurt you real bad"  

Okay, okay, so I am working on it.  I thought everyone worries about such things. Right?  Wrong.

So, for the past six weeks, while being here, I have worked to, as my family says, "Not F it up!"  And, I am proud to say, I haven't.  In fact, ever since my second day here in the UK--when that wonderful off-duty police officer found my lost passport--I have been riding a wave of good luck.  Even my friends, family and colleagues have laughed, commenting that my stay seems to be going rather well.  In response to my good fortune I have tried to send back to the world good karma, taking no extra advantages of anything and just trying to stay in a Zen-like posture of joy and acceptance of all that I am getting to experience.  My former students Stephanie and Tina know what I am talking about.

Then I decided to fly Easy Jet.

Everyone here warned me.  Don't do it.  Yes, the flight is cheap, but if it goes wrong, you are, as they say, "done for."  I was unswayed.  Like some drunken gambler I rolled the dice.  I was flying from London to Dusseldorf to visit my friends and colleagues, Jürgen and Christina Klüver, who live in Essen--they are just brilliant, by the way, and I had great fun visiting them.  Anway, the flight is an hour, roughly 655 kilometers.  How bad could things get?

To begin, I did my homework.  I read a bunch of "survival guide" postings on how to travel Easy Jet and other such discount airlines all over Europe.  To be fair, when things go well, these discount airlines are the best deal in town--my round-trip flight was 55 pound.  However, like health care in the United States, when things go wrong, they really go wrong. 

I also made a slight change to my travel luggage this trip, expecting to make a few short flights.  The big thing amongst seasoned travelers now, given the crazy increases in checked-in luggage, is to go with the backpack.  The one I got--which is made by Patagonia--is awesome: no wheels, hardy, durable, full of lots of smaller compartments, easy to access, etc.  And, most important, weighs no more than a feather.  No jerking my arm out of its socket on stone roads or pulling a muscle carrying my bag up three flights of stairs to catch a train. 

So, I was ready.  I would fly out of London, as that is where my brother Warren's recent visit with me ended. 

First hurdle.  Easy Jet doesn't fly out of London.  Sure, they say that, but they actually fly out of a smaller airport to the east, called Gatwick (nice airport by the way).  So, I had to book a train from London to Gatwick.  Done.  Common, is that all you got?

Second hurdle.  The flight times are either insanely early or late.  To fly to Dusseldorf I had to get up at 3:00am in the morning, catch the train, and get to the aiport.  Again, done.  I am kicking butt.

Third hurdle.  Flying back from Dusseldorf (another wonderful airport) I had to leave late.  I would arrive in Gatwick at roughly 18:45pm (6:45pm).  Once at Gatwick, I had a train booked to get me back to London, via the Victoria Station--leaving about 7:45pm.  From there I had to hop on the Tube to Kings Cross, about a 15 minute ride.  Then, catch the train out to Durham--about a three hour ride--arriving in Durham about 1:00am in the morning the next day.  Phew.  Okay, this one is a bit of challenge.  But done, train booked.  I am still hanging in there.

Then things went horribly wrong--but, more in the fashion of slowly turning up the heat on a lobster.  I got on the plane in Dusseldorf, so far so good.  "Ladies and gentlemen, sorry, but we are going to be delayed.  A bla bla bla is not working."  Okay I can handle that.  No big deal.  Breath. 

Fifteen minutes later, now the engineers are here to fix it.  Okay, we are still good on time. 

Half hour later, now we have to get gas.  What?  When did they suddenly realize that?

Okay, now the ground crew is gone.  They got bored and left and sometime soon they will be back.

What?  Aren't they on the job?  (By the way, the pilot on this plane was the nicest guy and so were the stewards and stewardesses.  No complaints from me.)  I decide to close my eyes, take my medicine, and fall asleep.  Maybe this is all a dream.
Over two hours later we finally leave.  I am panicking now.  There is no way I am going to make my train.

We finally get to Gatwick.  But, here it comes again, I can feel it.  "Ladies and gentlemen, due to our delay we have nowhere to dock."  Another delay. 

At this point, i think to myself, if i run like a gazelle with my peg-leg knee, which won't be pretty, i have about eight minutes to work with and can make it all happen.  Okay, just breath.

Things are moving along.  I think this is going to work.  Nope.  Delays in passport then customs.  It is now all starting to fall apart.  What am I going to do?  I run through my statistics again.  While the margin of error is about 30 seconds, I think I have, actually, three minutes to work with and still make it.

Sweating and out of breath, I get to the Gatwick train station at the airport.  I look up at the board as I am running and see that the train to London I need leaves in two minutes.  However, I have to stop, first, and get permission to board, as my ticket was for two hours ago.  It is now 9:00pm.  The last train out of London to Durham leaves Kings Cross at 10:00pm.  I rehearse in my head, once again, the statistics: the train from Gatwick to London (Victoria Station) is a half hour and the tube ride from London (Victoria Station) to Kings Cross is fifteen minutes.  I can make it.  But, now, talking to this guy, I have less than a minute to get on the train and he is taking his bloody sweet time. 

"Yeah," he says, "You really need to get on the next train.  Yes, I see, okay, you are going to Durham.  Yeah, you really need to get on the next train."  Inside I am losing it  45 seconds, 44 seconds, 43 seconds...  3 seconds, 2 seconds, times up. 

"Yeah," he says, "You should have just gotten on the train that left.  Now you are not going to make it."


Okay, the next train is at 9:15pm.  I get on it.  Again, one last time through the new statistics I compute.  I would get into Victoria Station at 9:45pm and have ten minutes to work with to get to Kings Cross--even though, the ride can take 15 minutes.  Then I hear it.  Nooooooo! 

"Ladies and gentlemen, sorry but there is a train delay....."

Everything has fallen apart.  So, on the train to Victoria station I book a hotel and call it a day.  At least I can go get a shawarma and free internet in the hotel.  I pass out from too much vodka at 1:00am

I wake up at 7:00am in a sweat.  I need to get out of here.  Quickly I pack and am off to Kings Cross.  What I do not know awaits me, though, is a bit of bad news, as I was told incorrectly by the train guy last night that I could still use my ticket the next day.  WRONG!  I get to Kings Cross with a half hour to go; I can have some breakfast and relax.  Phew!  I lost 87 bucks on a hotel, but that is life.

Then, in the back of my brain comes pessimistic me.  There is no way your ticket is going to work today, Brian, despite what the guy at Gatwick train told you.  You had better go find out. 

Ten minutes later, "Sorry sir, that ticket is no longer valid.  You will have to buy another one." 

"How much," I ask? 

Now, mind you, up to this point I have bought all of my tickets online and paid about 10 pound to 50 pound for a train ride, as British trains are expensive.  Because the ticket I now need is for the same day, it will be 150 pound (that is 238 American dollars) to travel three hours.  I freak.  I don't have that kind of money. 

"Well, sir, if you wait for the 9:30am train, it drops to 116 pound."  "Thank you," I say, "that is a bit better."  I buy it.

By the way, the people at East Coast train are very helpful and caring. 

Okay, so it is time to board the train.  I get on and, it just so happens, one of the professors at Durham that I have gotten to know is on the train.  We have a lovely chat for about an hour.  Then the train stops.  I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Then I hear it: "Ladies and gentlemen, sorry, but there is going to be a significant delay.  In fact, this train is not going one foot further.  It seems the train track up ahead has broken.  Sorry, but you need to get off the train and hope for the best." 

What?  How does a train track break?  Short of Superman waving it around like a pencil, is that even possible?

Here, however, is where my story goes quite a different direction.  I am in the UK, not the states.  If I was in the states, it is at this point that just about everyone would start losing it; the focus of all conversation on what just happened and how awful it all is.  Not here, however.  These are the British.  So, what do they do differently?

They just get up and get off the train.  No whining, no complaining, just queuing and waiting.  I luv these people; I really mean it; they are teaching me so much, particularly how spoiled I am as an American!  In fact, it is even raining outside and everyone just stands there, sucking it up, and waiting for a train to come--which, by the way, we have been told, is already filled.

Almost a half hour later the train on the other track arrives.  We all get on, and there I stand, in the isle, for the next four hours--as we now have to take a detour, adding an hour to our ride--every now and then getting a chance to sit down when someone leaves.  What is amazing to me is that, all around me, folks are making calls to this person and that, all in a rather pleasant mood, letting others know that their entire day has just "gone to hell;" so, would they be so kind as to make other arrangements and, well, perhaps a pint at the bar tonight will make things better.  Yes!

So, almost 24 hours later, I finally arrive in Durham.  It is 3:30pm.

I am tired and worn out when I hear, from behind me, a lovely sing-song British voice, female, saying to me, "Sir, your train was delayed, yes?"  "Yes," I say.  "Well, you can get reimbursed."  "All 116 pounds?"  quite!

"Say that again," I clear my throat. 

"Yes, sir, as the station agent here I am letting you know that if you call tomorrow morning they will fix everything and send a check for your full reimbursement." 

Too wild.  Turns out that the train track breaking, like so many things here, has turned fortune back again in my direction.  The next day I call; they handle my situation without issue; the check is on its way.  I think to myself, see Brian, your friends and family were right.  Life is what it is. So, enjoy yourself and don't F it up."  I am trying.