London Program 2018


The London Program at Susquehanna University (S.U.) is a semester long “study abroad” program for business students. The program is somewhat unique since the students all live and attend classes together, rather than being “on their own” as is true of many student exchange programs. The program is about twenty five years old now, and although it has changed a bit over the years (improved, I think), it remains a combination of academic and real world work experience, and short trips throughout Europe. S.U. is physically rather isolated in rural Pennsylvania (Amish country in fact) and our students are both small town locals and from the large coastal cities like New York and Philadelphia.

For the last ten years or so, the university has required travel abroad for all students to graduate, but these are usually short trips of a few weeks, not months and often involve some work in a not for profit organization rather than a business.

The last time I was here, instead of having internships, the students worked as a group on an intense consulting project involving research and presentations to executives of European companies looking to enter the UK or US markets. This year they all have two day a week internships mostly with UK based startups – each student is with a different company. This means the students experience work related stress all semester instead of a few weeks midterm (insert evil laughter here).

Most parts of the “welcome to London” events during the student’s first weekend here are worked out, with only small changes year to year: The main events are

  1. First there is a dinner and a pint at an traditional English pub the evening after their redeye flight in, including some comments directed at people who are not old enough to drink legally in the US but are legal here. Basically just common sense, pointing out that this is a drinking culture, but you don’t have to drink. If you don’t drink, don’t make a big deal out of it and embarrass your host; if you do drink, don’t get drunk and embarrass yourself. More about pubs here
  2. On Saturday an introduction to the underground train system called the “tube”, (not the subway, In Britain, you walk in a subway and ride a train in the underground) passing out their travel passes with a week’s credit on them and instructions on how to buy more , and try to get their phones working in the UK., followed by a trial trip via the tube to a museum and/or an afternoon “High Tea” and wandering in an upscale shopping district. The idea is just to go somewhere and return successfully on the tube when traffic is light. Riding it for the very first time on a morning when it is crammed cheek to jowl with commuters is just cruel. More on getting around London here:
  3.  Always on a Sunday there is a crash course bus tour of the major tourist attractions (on Sunday the traffic in the old city financial district called “the square mile” is light enough to permit driving slowly and stopping often) More about the bus tour and “The City” here
  4. On Monday there is an orientation by the housing and classroom provider covering security and rules of the buildings , doing laundry, buying food and other necessities, getting around London by bus and by train, and filling out paperwork like time sheets for their internships, their visas, and their travel forms. It’s all a bit daunting, but the students seem to deal with it well enough.

A Pub is Not Just a Bar

pub emptyNor is a pub just a restaurant, although in the tourist areas a restaurant or bar may well be as close as you will get to a pub. A real pub (the word comes from Public House) is an extension of the local residents homes, a kind of communal living room for the neighborhood, no matter who actually owns or operates it.

As an aside, I find most American bars to be pretty depressing places,  where in Billy Joel’s famous phrase ” the businessmen slowly get stoned”, but I quite like many English pubs.

They are a peculiarly English blend of socialising and privacy.  What matters is good beer, friendly service, and the hard to describe “atmosphere”, which is totally different from a high volume bar where people stand around high tables, amid glitter-balls, and mirrors . A pub has it’s origins in the kitchens of wayside farmhouses, where a man exchanged his own hearth for another.

Although food hasn’t been traditionally been a big draw for most pubs, some have even gained a Michelin star for food. One pub owner noted for it’s food said “A Michelin star boosts trade, but also complaints, as customers tend to have higher expectations. We like everything to be laid back and we aren’t that expensive. You can still have a beer in the bar and if someone comes in and wants a sandwich or some soup it’s no problem.”

Traditional.Sunday.RoastA  Sunday Roast  is a British and Irish main meal that is traditionally served on Sunday (Duh), consisting roasted beef, pork, or chicken, fried or mashed potatoes, served with  Yorkshire pudding,  mixed vegetables and gravy.

A pub’s customers are people who like to drop by to talk with friends and perhaps play a game of dominoes, darts, or billiards. But for the big brewers, an old man nursing his pint all night is a disaster, and they try to modernize into a bar atmosphere. ‘“Ninety-nine per cent of change in pubs is for the worse,” says one twenty-something, cheerily enough. “Attempts to modernize a pub always fail.”

The Problem

Hilaire Belloc, a Frenchman said: “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”.

But traditional pubs have been having a rough time of it lately in Britain and all across the UK. The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) estimated that a third of all shuttered pubs were converted into secondary businesses. Another third became residential properties. The final third were demolished. There is a “domino effect” when pubs close. Darts and football leagues start to thin out, customers get into the habit of socializing or drinking at home. More pubs have to close their doors. By far the biggest problem, according to pub-goers and publicans in Blackburn, is cheap supermarket beer , and the 2007 smoking ban drove regulars onto chilly benches outside, or into the street, or simply home.

At the turn of the century, big pub companies  such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns rapidly expanded their portfolios, and by 2008 owned more than 16,000 pubs between them. A  ‘tied lease’, where the tenant would pay the pub company rent while also being obligated to buy beer and cider from it, made it difficult for  the tenant to make enough money to reinvest in the business. Around 24,000 pubs, roughly 40% of the total, are tied to those giant “pubcos”.Closures began on a pandemic scale around the time of the 2008 financial crash, when spending in pubs dropped with the recession.

Some buildings reopened as pubs, but the majority were remade as restaurants, cafes,  community centres,  shops, offices or flats (lots of flats). Pubs in areas of high housing demand are sought after by developers, especially in London and south-east England .

How to destroy a pub

1) Identify a site. Not far from the Golden Lion, on Plender Street, there was a pub called the Parr’s Head.  In May 2011, Admiral Taverns sold the pub to a private individual, Antony Stark.

2) Buy it. As Stark did, paying roughly £500,000.

3) You will by now have set up a limited company with a benign, impersonal name – an obliging layer of distance between developer and development while the pub is managed through its final months. In the case of the Parr’s Head the company was called Essien Properties Ltd, incorporated by Stark in 2010.

4) Hire a planning consultant to fill in forms, sketch out proposals, and write the sort of hustling and entitled cover letters that council planning departments receive every day. In May 2011, a consultant named David Kemp from DK Planning, under instruction from Stark, sent the first part of a planning application to Camden council. Six new flats, please.

5) Shutter. One evening in October 2011, a goodbye party was held at the Parr’s Head. The grandson of the pub’s longest-serving landlord, John Carnaby, who ran it from the 1930s to the 1970s, attended. Stories were told – about Empire day parties and egg-and-spoon races off the front step, the performing elephant from a nearby music hall who in the 1950s made regular stops at the pub to be fed biscuits. There were tears. Then the 150-year-old pub closed for good.

6) Wait for objections from locals. One formal complaint was made about the closure of the Parr’s Head, a neighbour pointing out that it seemed a shame in an area that was undergoing so much change. The letter was level-headed, accurate, and, by itself, completely disregardable. Cuts have diminished council planning departments to the point that, sometimes, only controversial or fiercely contended applications are truly scrutinised. Plans for the conversion of the Parr’s Head were approved by Camden in November 2011.

7) Consider reselling. With planning permission locked in, the value of the property will have risen. Sixteen days after the Parr’s Head conversion was approved, the pub was sold on by Antony Stark to another private developer. Stark received more than twice what he had paid for the building, six months earlier.

8) Build! Scaffolding went up around the Parr’s Head in early 2012, its doors doubly barred by chipboard and a four-metre-high perimeter fence. Trespassers were warned of prosecution. By 2013, the Parr’s Head, painted cruise-ship white and with its address stencilled in easily-read font above the door, was ready to return to the market as six flats.

9) Sell. In deals brokered by the estate agency McHugh & Co, flat three at the Parr’s Head went for £279,950, flat four for £349,950, flat two for £460,000, flat six for £575,000, and flat five for £630,000. In April 2014, the estate agency tweeted that the final and most expensive flat, flat one, had “#Sold”. It went for £675,000.

10) Do the maths. As a pub, the Parr’s Head was worth roughly £500,000. With approval for it to be de-pubbed, the building was sold on for £1.3m. As six separate flats, it ended up going for a total just shy of £3m.



English tea time

One of the cherished British traditions (at least among the tourists from the US) is the High Tea. Most of us have a set idea of what English tea time means: a formal dress party , featuring delicate crustless sandwiches, crumpets and scones, and hot tea all served on the best china. Little girls in America (or their mothers) add stuffed animals, fake British accents, and freshly picked flowers (often dandelions) to the “tea party”.

There are really two main types of tea time in England, Low tea or afternoon tea that originated among the upper classes who had the time and the money to have an extra meal served in the parlor on low tables, between lunch and supper(served in the dining room and often served quite late). This was the period of heavy hoop skirts(very tiring to wear all day) and tight corsets(that prevented eating very much at a time) and the ladies really needed something to eat so they didn’t collapse.

High tea originated in working class homes, where it was the main meal of the day. They didn’t have time for snacks and gossip between lunch and dinner, so high tea was an early supper served at the same high table as all other meals.

Today tea time is mostly a memory. A British office worker will often make due with a candy and a “cuppa” in front of their computer screen, and tourists are sold a package of “tea time on a bus tour”.

These tours seem to run during the work week  on congested streets so you can enjoy the smell of smog with your scones and spill your tea when the bus finally moves. Very efficient, old chap.

Last posts from Europe

Coming from the US, it’s hard to wrap my head around how small Europe is. I can be in Paris, Amsterdam, or Brussels from here faster than I can travel from Selinsgrove to Philadelphia back home. The front line of the war in Syria is an overnight trip, about the same distance from me as the San Bernardino shooting would be from home.

My cold is improving enough that I finally went out and got a much needed haircut yesterday. The barber said he was a Turk. On the way home, I stopped at the fishmongers and bought some salmon from a Pakistani man. The man I buy my vegetables, milk, eggs, and cheese from twice a week is from India. At least, I think that where he’s from, I never asked. I asked directions at a bus stop from a black woman in a hijab – she sounded like she grew up in London.  We had a fancy holiday dinner with the students that same night, and the manager helped serve our group herself. I thought she had a French accent, but she said she was from the Czech Republic. I’ve had waiters and waitresses from Italy, France, and North Africa in various restaurants in London, plus others who never mentioned where they were from, but it certainly wasn’t England. The guy who fixed my hot water boiler was from South Africa. The woman I buy my bread from works at a French Deli across the street. She is Italian. Etc.,etc..

So why am I telling you all this ? It doesn’t matter. And that’s the point. It just doesn’t matter. I think the reason these people tell me where they are from is that they can recognize an American tourist at a glance, and are reacting to a TV stereotype.

The whole of Europe is open – there are no passport checkpoints or entry fees to cross a border. The news is full of lots of place names that I don’t know about, and often can’t even pronounce. Europeans grow up speaking multiple languages and seeing people in foreign clothing every day. And the local economy, at least here in London, depends on that free flow of people, of capital, and of ideas from all over.

So a couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece about Syria since Syria was everywhere in the news over here. I don’t know if anyone liked it, but WordPress tells me that half of you read it, so this week I wrote another newsy piece about the Paris climate talks. It’s in Culture Shocks , you can read it here if you wish.

As  both the Paris climate talks non event and the endless war in Syria both show, the odds of politicians from either side accomplishing anything internationally varies from slim to none. And the less said about Her Royal Majesty Hillary or Donald the Haircut the better.

What I would like to know is if you want me to continue to babble on about these affairs? Or stick to things I’ve actually seen and done? Or just archive it and save the electrons?

I’ll be coming home in 2 weeks and I’m not sure about keeping this blog going,  and I am aware that “nobody blogs anymore” but I’m finding that I rather enjoy the writing, emails and comments. And I will follow European news and culture when I come home.

What do you think? If you don’t like the form, let me know in the comments or drop me an email. Thanks for reading.







Climate Change is Boring

Paris is in the news again this week, but at least it isn’t about guns. It’s about a “Historic Agreement”. I think a “historic agreement” means something like the UK’s Magna Carta or the US’s Declaration of Independence. Download the COP21 agreement here. Is it really in the same class?

The stated goal of COP21 is to reduce global warming, so in this post I’m  just looking at how effective this “historic” agreement is in relation to that stated goal.

So where do we start? Where are we right now? Mitigation or Adaptation? This conference is mostly about mitigation, about dealing with the causes of global warming by trying to stop putting more crap into the atmosphere. So it’s mostly about air.

Adaptation is the next step, dealing with the effects of global warming: flooding on the coasts, and droughts and famines inland.



So it’s mostly about water (or the lack thereof).

Mitigation is generally less expensive than adaptation.  Air is light and reacts quickly, while water is heavy and has a lot of inertia. Think about the difference in the costs of building and running fans and air filters versus building and running pumps and cooling systems; the difference in the cost of running an air duct versus running a pipeline.

When mitigation is delayed and problems get worse, more expensive adaptations are needed. After decades of denials and procrastination, we are already  one degree warmer than pre-industrial times, so it seems that moving as quickly as possible is a good idea –  but this agreement doesn’t even take effect for another five years.

Atmospheric impact is really just population times average energy consumption (modified by the technology used). India and China together constitute about 37% of the world’s population. India has the world’s largest population, but China has higher per capita consumption and is currently the worlds biggest polluter. The US and the West have a much smaller population and better technology, but make up for it with ridiculously high consumption (and waste).

India is insisting that its huge population of rural poor needs lots of coal burning electricity plants to run call centers and server farms for overseas banks and software companies. Even the cheapest, nastiest coal fired power plant is an expensive asset that takes many years to recover it’s building costs.

And India plans to build as many as it can in the next five years; estimates are they could build one per month. And they wisely refuse to say when they’ll stop (just in case they take longer to build than expected). india floodBy the time those coal burning plants reach break even, Mumbai will probably have more water in its streets than Venice.

I suspect India’s population of rural poor people need clean water, toilets , and (especially) contraceptives a lot worse than they need electricity. As their rural development minister said” India is the world’s largest open air lavatory with three fifths of the world’s people forced to do their ablutions outside”.

China, soon to be the world’s largest economy needs to be sure it is still counted as a “developing nation” when people are pointing fingers to whose fault this mess is, and who should have pay to clean it up. To be fair, China has already hit the brakes hard on its atmospheric impact at least twice that I know of – once with the ‘one child’ policy of twenty years ago, and more recently when the people in Beijing simply couldn’t breath anymore. China’s total population is less than half of what it would have been without the one child policy, but at the cost of losing an entire generation of young women and raising an entire generation of young men as unsocialized “lonely onlys”.

The US and the other”developed nations” claim they could not possibly foot the huge bill that will be involved for the developing nations to acquire less polluting technologies, and won’t even discuss paying for adaptations like seawalls and irrigation systems, or the costs of resettling entire populations from flooded islands and desiccated croplands.

And it is a huge amount of money – the agreed upon $100 billion per year by 2020 is allegedly somewhere between 25% and 75% of the subsidies we already provide the giant fossil fuel and power companies. It’s your money – where do you think it should go?

So let us look at this historic and no doubt inspiring document. Like any legal document, it starts with the preamble where we identify “the parties of the first part, and the parties of the second part”, and the purpose of the document and so forth. Here is just one sentence from the preamble:

“Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions,

Also recognizing that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasizing the need for urgency in addressing climate change,

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women, and intergenerational equity, …”

Enough.  I admit that it doesn’t have quite the same snap as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, but at least I won’t have to memorize it for sixth grade history class.

And it does sound like like they have included everybody (except maybe the Lorax , and whomever it is that speaks for the seas). So what will it do? According to the politicians, it’s supposed to keep global warming below two degrees centigrade over pre industrial (1850s) average temperatures. According to most scientists, two degrees of global temperature increase is baked in to the agreement, and two point seven degrees is more likely.

Well, that won’t “save the polar bears”. It won’t save Pacific Island nations from being flooded out of existence. It won’t prevent Namibia from becoming a permanent dust bowl. It won’t stop the wildfires in California, or the floods in China, or the bleaching of the Great Barrier reef. It won’t stop the El Ninos, or bring back the glaciers. In fact, it doesn’t address water at all, just air. Mitigation not adaptation, remember?

But adaptation isn’t always expensive (think plants) and can really be effective at solving problems (think technology), but just like the pundits in Paris, I’ll have to talk about that at another time. Meanwhile, check out the sustainable suburb we visited here in London for a clue.


Of Refugees and Rebels Or Syria’s Main Exports

This is intended is a quick guide for confused Americans – the last thing Europeans need is another clueless American talking about the issues in Europe – the American RepubliCrats have done quite enough of that. The example of the “time of troubles” in Ireland shows that a political solution can be found to sectarian violence.

Legitimate Army or Terrorist? Hard To Tell.
Legitimate Army or Terrorist? It Is Hard To Tell.

First the people doing the shooting:

At one end we have the so-called “legitimate government”  of Syria headed by Bashar Al-Assad. He seized power fifteen years ago on the death of his father, the previous president. Reelected twice since then by over 95% of the vote each time, he doesn’t think his election victories have anything to do with the fact that he ran unopposed each time, or the fact that it is illegal to run against him under a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1963.

Protests in Syria started January 2011, and quickly developed into a full-blown civil war. In January 2013, Assad made a major speech and said that the conflict in his country was due to “enemies outside of Syria who would “go to Hell”. The last government military bases in Raqqa province fell to ISIL in September 2014, and in June 2015, United Nations special envoy to Syria stated that Assad must leave power and petitioned the US to militarily pressure him to do so; a year later, the Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that Russia was “already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers”, while President Barack Obama reiterated that Assad must be removed from office to end of the Syrian Civil War: “because it is unimaginable that you can stop the civil war here when the overwhelming majority of people in Syria consider him to be a brutal, murderous dictator.” Under Assad’s rule, the Syrian economy has been ruined, half of the population lives below the poverty line, and the human development index has fallen back to where it stood 37 years ago.

At the other end we have the Islamic State of whatever desert they have managed to grab. (ISI – Islamic State in Iraq, ISIS – Islamic State in Iraq and SyriaISIL  – Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), headed by Al-Baghdadi, who sized power as leader of the ISI on 16 May 2010, when it was still part of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  In June 2014, ISIL announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, with Al-Baghdadi its caliph, and in July of 2014 al-Baghdadi declared himself the world leader of all Muslims and called on Muslims everywhere to support him.

Now, there are approximately 178 million Muslims in Pakistan, 133 million Muslims in India, 44 million Muslims in Europe, and 23 million more in China, for a quick total of over 388 million without even including the rest of the Middle East, Africa, or the Americas, while the total population of Syria and Iraq (counting all faiths) is less than 60 million people.  I think that this guy has no more right to speak for all Muslims than Jim Jones had to speak for all Christians.

But it is not just Assad vs Al-Baghdadi. In between these forces we have literally a thousand different armed groups and well over a hundred thousand fighters shooting at each other, as well as at the legitimate armed forces and ISIL forces.

The main groups (made up of coalitions of smaller groups) have had their names translated into English: The Free Syrian Army, The Islamic Front, Syrian Islamic Front,The Army of Islam, and The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front,the Kurdish group Popular Protection Units (YPG), and many more. The only thing they seem to have in common is the belief that neither Assad or Al-Baghdadi can stay in power or bring peace to Syria since both men claim to control territory where the people who live there hate them, and both kidnap, torture, and murder civilians.

What is a Caliphate? As I understand it, a caliphate is a medieval concept of a government that recognizes no permanent borders, and is prohibited by law from making permanent peace treaties with anyone. In essence, it is the “grow or die” philosophy of a cancer cell applied to governing, and although ISIL claims that it is based on the caliphate of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century AD, Mohammed was able to take Mecca and rule an area of millions of square miles with the loss of only a few dozen lives, while ISIL killed more than a hundred people in Paris alone and controls only a tiny patch of sand in Iraq and Syria.

Getting Through Security Is Tough
Getting Through Security Is Tough

Second, the people doing the running.

Almost three million people have fled across Syria’s borders to escape the bloody civil war that has engulfed the country. The exodus has become one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

There are multiple groups fleeing their homes to different destinations over the last few decades, and many who have fled their homes but are still in Syria, just a different part of Syria depending largely on their ethnic background and religious views. And the migration has occurred in waves, not a steady exodus.

The refugees are Arabs, Alawites and Nusairis, Christians( plus Leventine /Armenian Christians) , Kurds (Sunni/Shia/Yezidi), Shias (Ismaili/Imami ), Druze, Turkomans, and others: Turkey has taken in almost two million, Lebanon over a million, and  Jordan over half a million. And these are tiny countries. Meanwhile, only about 1,500 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since the start of the conflict in 2011.

PS We Haz Kittens:The cat pictures above came from the Brussels twitter users who buried the hash tag #BrusselsLockdown  with cat pictures so the terrorists couldn’t track where the police were during the round-up. The BBC has the story here  . Many thanks to all the kittens and their owners.



Just Say No to Sleazy Jet and Gatwick, Getting Around Europe 1

sleazyjet3Gattwick and Easy Jet – Just my experience minus the four letter words that filled my first draft of this post. If this post seems confusing and disorganized, you should have seen it in real-time on the spot. We start with a half hour tube ride to Waterloo to meet the students and get them on the bus to Gatwick Airport. It takes two and a half hours on a bus to get to Gatwick vs maybe forty-five minutes to Heathrow by the tube. So at 6:30 we left for our 9:30 flight to Prague in the Czech Republic .
I was pulled out by security at Gatwick  as always happens when I fly – take off shoes, belt, hat, jacket, shirt, open my bag and let guy go through it twice even though it’s one small rolly bag and there’s nothing special in it. Several students got charged more for excess luggage than the basic flight cost, even though the university had paid extra for a checked bag for each of us which some of us didn’t even use. The students mentioned had tried to carry on both a small backpack and a rolly bag because they didn’t realize that they had to check their bags downstairs instead of checking them at the gate – something they had been able to do on a prior Easy Jet flight to Germany.

Plane one hour and fifteen minutes late for takeoff for a 1 hour forty minute flight.
Arrived in Prague over an hour late with no greeter, no bus, and no word from our contact who wasn’t even aware of the delays, since neither Easy Jet or the airport officials notified them. No English speakers at the airport, no working cellphones, another hour wandering around the airport in Prague trying to contact our bus to get to our hotel in Prague.

Our contact doesn’t know that we finally arrived. There is a guy called a coachmaster at the airports whose job isn’t to help people get to their bus, it’s to keep the buses out of the airport  so they don’t block traffic, he must contact the bus and let them in to pick up their groups, but no one can find him either. Not a disaster, after all we all walked away, but a disorganized mess, none the less.

You can read about our week in Prague – Life after Communism, but for now I assume that the return flight to London, Prague to Gatwick has to go better. We arrived Prague airport via our bus early, with lots of time for security and a nice meal – we are told by Easy Jet that we can’t check our bags until 1 hour before scheduled boarding time. So we schlep luggage to a Starbucks nearby to wait, and several students order sandwiches, but before they had a chance to eat them Easy Jet announces that baggage check for our flight is now open. A mad rush by everyone to get to the front of line to check their bag, only to stand in queue for half an hour.

Other students trying to choke down a sandwich while dashing back so they can get in line because they don’t know that the announcement only means they can check luggage now not that they must.

No one comes to the counter to check anything until after a huge line (hundreds of people) forms. They announce their first delay of 40 minutes while we are standing in line to check luggage. So we find a decent restaurant that is still open – the food court is long closed. I score a good bowl of goulash soup, a baguette with ham and cheese, a real Budweiser, and even an electric outlet to charge my laptop, and all is good for about 10 minutes. Then they post that they are now boarding my flight, instead of the hour and half from now shown on the board – my students are scattered all about the airport – We have a mad scramble to find every one and get them to the gate . They check boarding passes then post another 40 min delay once there are a hundred people queued up on the other side of the gate: no food, water, or rest rooms available Finally lift off at 10:40 pm.

So we arrive at Gatwick after everything is closed. Takes over an hour to get the coachmaster to let our bus driver enter the terminal to pick us up;  Two students have to go back to their flat to do laundry and be back at Gatwick in 6 hours to fly out again to meet friends and families for fall break so they have to take the Gatwick Express train and pay for taxis to their flat at Waterloo, since the express doesn’t go there and the tube has already quit running.

We were lucky that an experienced traveler from the university ‘s GO program joined us for the week in Prague. She was organized, knowledgeable, helpful, and of course, overworked: but she had a friend who worked at Gatwick that she could call on her cell phone and the friend could call the coach master.

Next time I travel I’ll see what the guy in seat 61 has to say.

Keep Calm and Take the Ferry: Getting Around Europe 2

Keep Calm
Keep Calm

After our Gatwick to Prague experience, we decided to try a civilized method of travel by train and ferry. It involved the same half an hour on the tube to Waterloo station, where we changed to a train and rode it about two and a half hours to Portsmouth Harbor, Hampshire in the south of England, then a five minute taxi ride to the ferry terminal, and took a Brittany Ferries boat across the Channel to France. The trains have large reclining seats and tables like a first class airline seat, toilets, and a guy that comes through with a food and drinks cart like an airline. Long distance trains have cabins with ensuite baths and dining cars but I haven’t ridden those trains yet, so I know nothing about that. They don’t care about luggage within reason – they have large luggage racks in every car – and if you want to bring a picnic with wine or beer they see no problem with that either.

I talked with a local businessman who commutes forty five minutes from his home in Gilfordshire, Surry to London daily for about half of our trip.  He has visited America many times: New England, Chicago and the Great Lakes( which he calls an inland ocean), and loves California (except L.A., of course). The train was very quiet and the motion almost imperceptible except for countryside rolling by beyond the huge windows.

We arrived about an hour ahead of our booked departure for an overnight voyage (about seven hours) in a private cabin with ensuite bath. The receptionist noticed my wife’s cane and arranged a minivan to take us into the ferry to the lift so she wouldn’t have to climb the five story gang plank and assigned us a cabin very close to the lift without me even asking about it. These ferries are more like cruse ships; three restaurants at different price levels from white linen and waiters in black tie all the way down to airline food level plastic wrapped sandwiches, five cinemas with different new release movies, a children’s playground, several duty free shops, bars, and lounges,  and a video game room and reading room that I noticed. We had a shower, dressed for dinner, ate a great meal of beef provincial with mashed potatoes, drinks and french deserts, while a young woman played a grand piano in the bar close to our table. This was in the mid price restaurant (we would call it a cafeteria, they call it a self serve restaurant), then we watched the sun set and the bright three quarter moon light up fish scale clouds above the decks with Bass ale and Cotes de Rhone red wine and snacks on the table, slept well on our individual bunks, and awoke to sunshine and blue skies in Saint Malo in France. We wasted over an hour trying to find our rental car office less than a five minute taxi ride away. The taxi driver and the car rental agent speak very little English, barely better than my awful French. I signed the forms that I could not read and depended on the GPS in the car to find our hotel. It worked fine; but only speaks French, so turned the voice off, and followed the map.

We checked into our hotel right inside the city gates (also booked through Brittany Ferries on a holiday deal) had an omelette and french fries in a sidewalk cafe,  then explored the cobblestone streets of the old walled city on foot.

I drove a car for the first time since leaving the states (bad idea) and also realized that my schoolboy French from half a century ago wasn’t just rusty, it was completely useless. What do you call a person who speaks two languages fluently? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three or more languages? Multilingual. What do you call a person who speaks only one language? A Stupid American.

Guilty as charged. And driving without understanding the difference between a sign meaning “don’t park here” and one that means “one way, do not enter” or the direction signs (in French only) on the roundabouts while whizzing along at up to 130 kilometers per hour isn’t just being a stupid American, it is dangerous.

You can read about our tour of the incredible Mont Saint Micheal, the famous thousand year old tapestry at Bayeux France ,  the walled city of Mont Saint Malo  , the beaches of Normandy at Ouistreham here. It was a wondrous experience, and we obviously survived the driving since I am alive and writing to you from London, instead of from a well deserved French jail cell, but first a bit about the return trip.

For the return trip, I had a rare moment of wisdom and paid upfront to drop the car at a different location than I picked it up from and sail from a different ferry terminal instead of adding hundreds of kilometers of death defying driving to make a big loop the way we would typically do in the USA. But I hadn’t realized that my last hotel at Bayeux where the Bayeux Tapestries are, the car return office in Caen and the Ferry terminal in Ouistreham were over an hour’s drive apart rather than the five minute taxi ride I expected, so there wasn’t anyway to return the car and catch the early ferry I’d booked in the morning. Oops, Stupid American, Google maps, bad English and my awful French got me again.  Believe it or not the young woman receptionist at the Hotel de la Bellfontane  (also booked through Brittany Ferries on the same holiday deal) called the ferry office for me and after about fifteen minutes of fast and furious French and about an extra twenty pound charge they booked me on the next available ferry about four o’clock instead of eight in the morning. Problem solved. She certainly didn’t have to do that for me so I gave her a tip. She refused it until I insisted, saying that she would expect that someone would do the same for her if she was in a foreign country. Hopefully she won’t go to New York or Washington until she learns better.

Check into a ferry is rational: show your passport and boarding pass ( which is also your room key if you have a cabin) run your luggage through the scanner, and board. None of the airline nonsense: the strip search and people rummaging through my underwear to protect the world from five ounce toothpaste tubes or fingernail clippers that I get every time I fly. Ships have been dealing with pirates and terrorists for a thousand years and they know that all the crap at airports is just for show, and doesn’t really protect anyone, except the food monopolies. The return on the late ferry was uneventful, the cabin bigger and nicer with a three foot diameter porthole and a small TV, a good free wifi connection, and lots of free flat  screen TVs on the walls in the lounges. They had a magician put on a free show for the children, and I got a better meal (Entrecote Grillee – steak grilled to order with red wine and mushroom sauce) puffed potatoes, an eggplant, tomato, and onion side dish with a Belgian wheat beer),  but no piano music this time.  My steak was perfect and I went back just to tell the chef so. When was the last time you complemented the chef on an airline? And they don’t gouge on the prices for food and drink because they know that passengers would just bring their own food if the prices are too high. After the sun set the sky was totally clouded over. so we took a shower and a long nap in our cabin

We were running tight on time to catch the last tube out of Waterloo since we had rescheduled to a late ferry, and the receptionist said we would miss our train unless we hurried and  told us where to wait to be first through customs and where to hail a taxi to “the hard” which is what they call Portsmouth harbor, so my wife walked down the ramp with me hauling the luggage, walked through customs in a few seconds, and were in a taxi to our train in minutes literally. Our regular train was canceled due to construction so the train company had another route already arranged: a train to a bus around the closure, to another  train to Waterloo, that took about a half hour longer. Which meant missing the last underground from Waterloo to our flat, so we had another unexpected taxi ride clear across London from southeast to northwest at midnight for another twenty five pounds.

ferry routes to franceSo the total trip via underground, trains, ferries, taxis, 2 nights in luxury hotels with breakfasts included, two day of rental car use,extra drop off fee, fuel, and re booking the ferry cost just under six hundred pounds (everything except dinners, drinks, entrance fees, and souvenirs) with the ferry cabins and included bed and breakfasts being three hundred of that. About a hundred pounds could have been avoided if I’d just been smart enough to book the car rental and return at the ferry terminals, thereby avoiding extra taxis and fees. This was a last minute booking and if I’d booked a couple weeks ahead the way I would have had to do for an airline, I could have knocked another hundred pounds or more off the trip.

Sure beats flying sleazy jet out of Gattwick.