Friday 14 August 2015

Those without whom ...

... this trip would not have been possible:
  • my nephew Éamon, his wife Pamela, and their family in San Jose, California;
  • Mary Beth Dietrick in Chicago;
  • Ralph Cox in New York;
  • my cousin Róisín, her husband Victor, and their family in Toms River, New Jersey.

To all of you: thank you very much!

And you know where I live ...

Thursday 13 August 2015

Jersey Shore

The last leg of my US 2015 trip took me from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to the rather quiet town of Toms River, New Jersey, where I was hosted by my cousin, Róisín, and her family.  Once again several young people were kind enough to bunk in together in one room so that I could have a room to myself.

Toms River (no apostrophe) is on the Atlantic coast, about half way between New York City and Atlantic City, and suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  The town seems to have recovered well but the nearby beach resort of Seaside Heights is still under repair.  The boardwalk was apparently once lined with restaurants and amusement arcades; very few are visible today.

One thing that surprised me at Seaside Heights is that they charge a fee to use the beach: $10 per person up to 5pm.  It's free after that, so we timed our visit accordingly!  Although I had paddled in the sea at Coney Island in Brooklyn to officially complete the coast-to-coast journey, I had a proper dip at Toms River in waves that were strong enough to knock me over.  Great fun!

Superman: Ultimate Flight
at Six Flags Great Adventure
(photo © Six Flags)
That evening, the entertainment continued at the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park.  I got on several roller coasters – for the first time in about 30 years – including the pretty scary Superman: Ultimate Flight.  This contraption takes you – face down and head first – through a ten-storey climb and almost vertical drop, then throws you into a double inversion called the "pretzel loop". Some of the young guys and gals who accompanied me claim I screamed – they certainly did! – but I consider my utterances as more of a manly roar of excitement.

Back at home, my cousin and I chatted tête-à-tête until quite late into the night about the good old days and the not-so-good old days.  We had a lot of catching up to do!

Monday 10 August 2015

Nasty and nice

This is only my second time in New York, my first being a brief visit in 2008 just after Obama was elected.  I've seen and done a lot more this time.

Among the nicer things I did this time: visited the Museum of Natural History (I somehow managed not to pay – I think I just went in the out door by mistake); walked along the High Line (a tree-lined park on a disused overhead railway line); drank a beer in the Stonewall Inn (where Pride started) and cocktails in Chelsea and Soho; lunched in Brooklyn (vegetarian); strolled along the boardwalk and beach at Coney Island, (where I officially completed my coast-to-coast trip by paddling in the Atlantic Ocean); had hot and spicy soup in Chinatown; ate a fab hamburger in TriBeCa (where they serve beef, pork, dairy products and vegetables from their own farm in up-state New York); dined in the Princeton Club (very plush!); viewed the city from the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center (it's hard to write that word like that); saw a Broadway musical (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder).

On the down side: I got stung at the French Roast café for a couple of rounds of cognac at $5 more per glass than the previous night ("we served you the ordinary one last night but we've none left left so we served you the Hennessy VSOP" – without warning me).

But that was minor compared to the ignorant shits who drive buses in this town! I know it's not good to generalise, but anyway... I thought the first one was bad enough when he wouldn't let me on the bus about one metre past the bus stop, where he was stopped at a red traffic light. But the second just astounded me with his meanness: he told me I had to swipe my card in the machine beside the stop before entering. When I stepped off to do so, he immediately closed the door and pulled off. I wish I believed in karma.

But overall, I have to say I found New Yorkers to be helpful and polite, even those who were not expecting a tip.

Now I'm crossing the Hudson to New Jersey to visit my cousin.

The guys on Broadway, in Herald Square and on 42nd Street can rest assured that I'll be there again ere long!

Saturday 8 August 2015

My kind of town ...

... Chicago is!

The guide on the bus tour in San Francisco kept telling us how big/old/wonderful this or that feature of the city is by comparing it to something similar but less big/old/wonderful in other cities. I was tempted to tell him his inferiority complex was showing.  It got particularly tiresome when he started to boast about how windy it gets: "They call Chicago the Windy City, but it's windier here!"

Perhaps he'd be disappointed to learn that the sobriquet does not necessarily refer to the meteorological conditions in Chicago. There are several theories, but my favourite is that the politicians are so full of hot air, and the businessmen such braggarts, that the nickname is more metaphorical in origin than literal.

On my arrival by train from San Francisco, I was met at Union Station by my friend, Mary Beth, and driven in her convertible to her lake-facing apartment. There, she installed me in fine style in a private "wing" of what she calls Mrs. Dietrick's B-sans-B. In other words, the bed is provided, but breakfast is do-it-yourself. That's similar to the conditions under which I receive guests in my own place, though the standard of the accommodation chez moi is several stars lower.

Crown Fountain, Chicago
The next day we took a bus downtown and walked through Millennium Park.  There we saw Crown Fountain, where two giant electronically projected faces periodically purse their lips and spit jets of water, to the delight of the many children playing in the reflecting pool between them. Near it is The Bean, as everyone calls it rather than by its official name, which I've forgotton.
"The Bean"

The music pavilion in the park was designed by Frank Gehry in his very distinctive curved metallic style.  He also designed the adjoining foot bridge, which also serves as a buffer against the noise of traffic.

The highlight of the day was the Art Institute of Chicago.  There are so many fabulous works of art – mostly paintings, but also prints, sculptures and pieces of furniture – from all parts of the world and all periods, that I couldn't begin to describe them, so I won't even try.  If you visit Chicago and have time to see just one thing, let the Art Institute be it!

As Frank used to say, Chicago is one town that won't let you down!

One of my ideas when I decided to do a coast-to-coast trip in the US was to swim – or at least get wet – in the Pacific Ocean, Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean. Two down, one to go!
In Lake Michigan

Tuesday 28 July 2015

On a train bound for Chicago

This is my longest train journey yet. The timetable says 51 hours from San Francisco to Chicago. It's likely we'll be three to four hours late.

People asked me before this trip if it wouldn't be quicker to fly. Indeed it would be quicker, and cheaper, but that's not the point.

The train itself is very comfortable. My sleeper "roomette" is a cabin made for two. The two facing seats fold down to make a bed and the other bed folds down from the ceiling. The seats are wide and soft, made to fit the more ample arse. (And boy have I seen a few of those!) I can shut my door and pass the time as I choose: reading, sleeping, writing this...

Or watching the fabulous scenery: from San Francisco Bay through the forests of the Sierra Nevada, over the high desert of Nevada and Utah, past Salt Lake City into the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of Colorado, then across the Continental Divide and on into Nebraska.

As I write, we're sweeping through the rolling countryside of Iowa. This looks for all the world like Ireland so I'm not gazing wide-eyed out the window. It's raining too, which completes the effect.

When it comes to meal times the crew assign you to a seat at a four-person table in the dining car. Who you end up sitting with is a matter of luck. But that's part of the adventure, and I've met people I wouldn't otherwise have met. Okay, some of those people could have stayed unmet and I wouldn't feel the loss, but overall it's been a very pleasant experience.

There was Sue from California who takes care of other people's pets as a semi-retirement occupation. As she left home on Sunday morning the forest fire was a long way from her house, but she left the keys of her packed car with the neighbours just in case.

Then there was a really boring couple from South Dakota who thought everything I said – where I'm from, where I live, what I do for a living, where I'd been on previous holidays – was awesome. And indeed it is when you compare it to their wretched, dreary existence. I'll spare you the boring details.

Mike from Nebraska is in the oil business. He taught me that fracking does not cause geological damage; it's all to do with how you dispose of the waste water. Or something.

Brent from Colorado is an anaesthetist, but his conversion was far from sleep-inducing. He was seeing the canyons from the inside for the first time. You don't see this stuff from the highway.

The only foreign people I met were two couples of German-speaking Swiss. I met them at two different meals, but I don't think they met each other.

Sandra looked about 60 years old. She was taking her sick son home. He was a fitness instructor, in perfect health. Had a stroke at the age of 37.

And finally, I came across some very nice crew members. The teams of conductors and engineers changed several times along the way, but the catering staff stayed throughout. On the first morning when I was putting my name on the list for lunch I gave my last name. From then on, every time I went to the dining car – two breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners – Reggie greeted me with a loud and cheerful "Hello, Mr Maguire!" If I was first at a table he'd invite/instruct others to "take a seat beside my friend Mr Maguire."

So long, Reggie, Mr B, Pete, Brad, Melissa, and the roster lady whose name I didn't get. You helped make my journey a pleasure.

Monday 27 July 2015


The house in Berkeley turned out to be a hovel!

Having confirmed my reservation for a room in a house, the owner then emailed a few hours later to say it was no longer available and there was only a mattress in the living room. I really had no choice at that point, so I accepted for a (slightly) reduced rate.

The owner wasn't there when I arrived, but his flatmate let me in. The room was filthy: dirty wall-to-wall carpet, bicycles parked on one side, empty pizza boxes on the floor. I was shown the couch, which looked as dirty as the floor, which had several blankets on it but no sheets. I took a look in the kitchen and found the counter tops strewn with unwashed cooking pots and pans, the sink piled high with dishes. The bathroom was as bad, and the shower cubicle clearly hadn't seen a squirt of Jif for years.

The flatmate called someone to come and prepare the room while I went out to dinner. When I got back there was a mattress with sheets, though I couldn't tell how clean they were. I used my shirt as a pillowcase and slept in another one. I also wore my jeans to bed.

This morning I couldn't find fresh towels so I used the cleanest looking white one I could find hanging up. I put another towel on the floor of the shower cubicle in the hope that whatever bacteria lived on it were less offensive than the community that inhabited the mouldy cracks in the tiled floor.

Needless to say I'll be leaving a review on Airbnb. It will probably be a copy-and-paste of the above.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Yes, I know the way to San Jose, thanks!

San Jose is a pleasant town in the San Francisco Bay Area. It bills itself as the capital of Silicon Valley, and indeed, Amazon, eBay, Cisco, PayPal, Google, Adobe, Facebook and many others have their bases here or nearby.

The downtown area is quite small, but the city spreads quite far around the core.  My hosts – my nephew, Éamon, and his wife, Pamela – live with their three children in a leafy neighbourhood called Evergreen Valley.  

And very good hosts they are too! They ferried me to and from the train station several times, took me around some of the sights downtown – Santa Clara mission, the Winchester Mystery House – and drove me to the beach at Santa Cruz to fulfil my my ambition to get my arse wet in the Pacific for the first time.   But they also made the ultimate sacrifice: instead of giving me the expected mattress in the baby's room, the they bunked in with their youngest and gave me their own room. No greater love hath nephew than to give up his bed for his uncle!

I strongly recommend Maguire's B&B in San Jose! 

Tomorrow, Sunday, I take the train from San Francisco to Chicago.  Originally, the idea was to leave SF on Tuesday but I had a change of plan. Unfortunately, when I changed the date of my train I didn't take into consideration Sunday schedules on the connecting trains from San Jose. The only option was a bus at 4.20am, which would get me to the main stain three hours before departure time.

So, tonight (Saturday) I'm staying in Berkeley, a ten-minute walk from Emeryville station, the departure point of the California Zephyr.

I don't believe there is WiFi on the train, so the next post will be published when I arrive in Chicago on Tuesday.

Saturday 25 July 2015

If you're going to San Francisco

The best way to get an overview of a city you don't know is to take a guided bus tour. There are several options from competing companies in San Francisco. I chose the Big Bus tour because it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge as part of its circular route.

Unfortunately, the day I took the tour it was cloudy and chilly so the conditions were not ideal for photos. The ticket cost $45, which I find a tad expensive, but I saw a lot of interesting things and places that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. It also gave me a good idea of which areas I'd like to visit and which I'd prefer to skip.
There are also several cruise tours of the Bay on offer, with varying routes and durations. Most of them announce "spectacular views" of the city skyline, Alcatraz, and the two bridges (Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge).  The ticket prices for those are also quite hefty, so I didn't bother.  There is a cheaper option, however, which I found by chance.
Yesterday was my last day in San Francisco. After a late lunch I had several hours to kill before my train back to San Jose, where I'm staying with my nephew and his family.  I took an electric streetcar (not to be confused with the city's cablecar system) on a whim to see where it would take me. I ended up at the Ferry Terminal, so I went in to see what options they had. I was told the best trip for sightseeing was the Sausalito ferry. It costs $20 return ($14 if you have a public transport Clipper card). Starting near the Bay Bridge, it goes past Alcatraz to the pretty coastal town of Sausalito. On the way, you get a great view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. On the way back it goes closer to Alcatraz island and shows down to show you to take photos.
And that's for less than half the price of a cruise tour that offers more or less the same thing.

That's the Tip of the Day, folks.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Service with another smile

So I had a bad experience with "service" last week. I'm happy to report that I've had many examples of good service since.

Apart from the hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and waiters who've been genuinely helpful, I've been pleasantly surprised by the honest advice given in shops in San Francisco. More than once I've been told "I wouldn't by that here. You'll get a better deal a few doors down."

This happened when enquiring about sim cards, fruit, and  tickets for guided tours.


Wednesday 22 July 2015

The Streets of San Francisco

I remember as a child watching the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, with Karl Malden and Michael Douglas as police detectives.  In it, cars racing up hills would glide through the air when they came to a crest, then crash to the ground before climbing the next unfeasibly steep section of  street. Camera trickery, I thought. Not so much, I've discovered! The hills really are very steep. 

No wonder they use cables to haul the trams up and down.  I had thought the name "cable car" was a misnomer, by the way, as there are no apparent cables. They are actually below the street, connected to the car through a slit in the street surface between the rails, driven by electric motors in a central power house.

My first observation of the streets of the city was on the way from the train station to my hotel. I could have taken a ten-dollar taxi but I decided to walk so I could get a feel for the place. Market Street is appropriately named, lined with department stores and boutiques. The shortest route took me from there along Turk Street to Polk Street in the Tenderloin district. There was a dramatic change in atmosphere just around the corner from the chic shopping street. Turk Street is dirty and delapidated, and the corner shops have metal grills on the windows. 

I happened to be there mid-morning, which is just as well; I would have felt very uneasy there at night. There were many people hanging around, in doorways or on corners, smoking and drinking. I'm not sure how many were drunk and how many stoned, but they all looked equally oblivious to me passing by, though I put my smartphone away just in case. 

Later, I asked the hotel receptionist for suggestions for places to have lunch near the hotel. "Whatever you do," she said, "don't go down Turk Street!" That evening I decided not to walk home, so I got an Über. The driver advised me to put my camera in my pocket before I got out of the car. He dropped me at the door and watched until I was safely inside.

There is a surprising number of homeless people in the city. Down by Fisherman's Wharf almost every lamppost is manned by someone with a cardboard sign and a plastic cup; some in wheelchairs or on crutches, others with obvious mental health problems.

The contrast is sharp between the poor and the non-poor, not to mention the rich. 

An eye-opener.

Monday 20 July 2015

Service with a smile

The cliché of the aggressively polite American waiter is pretty accurate. I've met a few over the last few days. And while they're usually very professional, there are, of course, exceptions. I met one of those the other night. 

At dinner with my hosts in an Italian restaurant, the service was chaotic: my starter and main course were delivered at the same time; other main courses came 20 minutes later so I had to have mine reheated; the white wine was at room temperature; the pizza of one of my companions was lots of puffy bread and not much else; the waiter presented our bill with a cheery "whenever you guys are ready" despite my having asked him earlier to hold it for me so that I could go discreetly to the desk to pay.

All this was not a disaster, but slightly annoying. I made my point to the manager who apologised and offered me a discount, which I gratefully accepted as reasonable amends. I asked her to add 15% to my credit card as a tip to show my appreciation of the gesture and that there were no hard feelings.

An hour later I got a text message from my credit card company showing the amount billed. They had added 30%. 

When I went back the next day, another manager handled my complaint. I demanded a refund of the double tip, not just the excess. He didn't argue.

 He handed me the cash with a smile and instructed me to "have a nice day!"

Saturday 18 July 2015


Sarah Winchester, widow of the gun manufacturer, considered herself cursed after the death of her baby daughter and, soon after, several members of her family. She consulted a psychic who told her that she was being haunted by the spirits of all those who had ended up at the wrong end of a Winchester rifle.

The only way to appease them was – obviously – to build a house. And keep on building, adding rooms and annexes constantly for the rest of her life.  The result is a sprawling, chaotic mansion with crazy features such as a staircase from floor to ceiling, leading nowhere; a door that opens on to a brick wall; a window with crystal insets designed to diffuse the sunlight, installed on a north-facing wall.

Whether these incoherent features were the result of Sarah's incompetence as a designer, or of her desire to confuse the spirits she believed were haunting her, is a matter of speculation.

As our bubbly tour guide at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose told us, you can decide which version is true.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Plan B

I've had to change my plans for various reasons and the Seattle leg of the trip has been cancelled.  This is a big disappointment as I was looking forward to discovering the city and visiting my cousin, Gillian, and her family.

On the upside, I was able to bring forward my train trip to Chicago by two days at no extra cost.  I'll now be spending four days in the Windy City instead of just two.

So the new plan looks like this:

16 July Paris – San Francisco
16 – 25 July California
26 – 28 July San Francisco to Chicago aboard the California Zephyr train (3924 km in 51 hours) – via the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Utah Desert to Salt Lake City, across the Rocky Mountains, past the canyons of Colorado, through the plains of Nebraska and the rolling hills of southern Iowa, over the Mississippi River to Illinois and the Windy City
California Zephyr
28 July – 2 August Chicago
2 – 8 August New York
9 – 11 August Toms River (New Jersey)
11 August NY – Paris

Monday 29 June 2015

The Plan

Last year I visited five countries on holidays: Iran, Turkey, Serbia, Hungary, Germany. In the first four I understood almost nothing of the local languages. My vocabulary was limited to the basics of politeness that I had learnt before the trip (and have since mostly forgotten): please, thank you, how was it for you? and so on.

I decided that my next holiday would be to a country where they speaka my language. So, in the immortal words of Al Jolson, California, here I come! Followed by Seattle, Chicago, New York and Toms River (New Jersey).

The itinerary is as follows:

16 July Paris – San Francisco
16 – 20 July California
21 – 23 July Seattle
24 – 27 July California
28 – 30 July train from San Francisco to Chicago (3924 km in 51 hours, that's two nights on board)
30 July – 2 August Chicago
2 – 8 August New York
9 – 11 August Toms River (New Jersey)
11 August NY – Paris

One of the advantages of being Irish is having family in the US. My nephew and two of my cousins are hosting me, as are some (non-Irish) friends in Chicago and New York.

I'm going to see some great cities and fabulous scenery.  And I'm hoping get my ankles wet in two oceans and several lakes!

So open up that Golden Gate,
California, here I come!