Tiny Travelling Tales: A Note on the Summer of Covid

Holiday and conference season are done, so it’s time to take stock of how things went in a year when the press have been full of stories of travel nightmares.

In total I made three round trips by plane this summer, to Miami, Tunis and Chicago (for those new to this blog, between 3 and 5 trips a year is about normal for me, so, despite my saying I would cut back after covid, this clearly is not happening).

Of those, the most disrupted was the outbound trip to Tunis, with the outbound trip to Miami running it second. Both of them were going through Heathrow, which I suspect isn’t a coincidence (third place is the inbound trip from Tunis, but the disruption was entirely down to me lacking knowledge of local culture, of which more later).

The problem on the Miami trip was that the flight was delayed for four hours. Which initially didn’t bother me much, as I didn’t have any real tourism plans for Miami (it was a conference) so I might as well write papers in the airport lounge as anywhere. As the delay crept up to the four-hour mark, though, I realised that this would take me past the point where the hotel would hold my booking, so wound up making a series of panicked phone calls literally on the runway and terrified that any minute a flight attendant would come and tell me to put my phone away (they didn’t, and I’d like to shoutout to Yotel for holding my booking till midnight).

The outbound trip to Tunisia involved a two-hour-long queue for the security queue at Heathrow. This was at a point where defenders of the travel industry were blaming delays on large numbers of people going on post-pandemic holidays. However, when I got to the front of the line another narrative became obvious: they had too few staff to run the X-ray machine and search the bags, so they would run a few bags through the X-ray, search anything that needed searching, and so on. The second leg of the trip, through Rome, was trouble-free and fast, and clearly the Italians were not having as much trouble handling the numbers of people, large or otherwise.

The delay coming back from Tunisia? It was down to two things. First, that most of the people in the passport queue were doing it in large groups, stationing one member of each group in the queue, and then, when someone got to the front, the rest of the group would join them, meaning a very small queue would suddenly get very large very quickly. And second, that when I got to the front of the line the passport checker sent me to the back for not filling out my customs form. Available from a very small box on the other side of the room, with no signage to indicate what they were or that one had to fill them out. So as I said– lack of knowledge of local culture.

The Whitby and the Whitby

I’ve just come back from my first holiday outside the house since 2019, namely a week in Whitby, Yorkshire.

Unexpectedly, Whitby turns out to be very much like the overlapping cities in China Mieville’s novel The City and the City (Wikipedia link if you haven’t read it and want a quick summary). In that you are either Here For A Seaside Holiday, or you are a Goth. And people from both groups walk in the same spaces, go to the same attractions, eat at the same restaurants, and yet do not acknowledge each other’s existence.

This insight brought to you after the umpteenth time of being blanked by a citizen of Ul Seaside, since apparently I live in Gothzel, and to see me would cause them to commit Breach.

This is also not a matter of self-assigning necessarily, nor is it possible to belong to both Whitby simultaneously. I expected to be able to speak with the citizens of Ul Seaside at least when I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but it seems that if those jeans are purple and the T-shirt depicts Dolores Abernathy from the television series Westworld, you are too Goth for Ul Seaside and are immediately consigned to Gothzel.

There seems to be one time when it’s legitimately possible to do this (apart from if you’re a shopkeeper, who seem to be able to sell to anyone), and that’s when you’re admiring someone’s dog. You can cross over and say “who’s a lovely Staffie then?” But after that it’s back to your Whitby, and stay there.

Tiny Travelling Tales: About St George

23 April is St George’s Day. He’s patron saint of a ridiculous number of places, only one of them England, and, having been born in what is now Turkey, the veneration of him by White supremacist English people seems a little ironic.

My last trip abroad was to Athens in 2019, and I fled the UK with Brexit and nationalism and all the usual appeals to St George ringing in my ears.

After a few days of exploring classical ruins, I woke up one morning feeling the strain of all the walking and hill-climbing I’d been doing. Checking the guidebook, I opted to visit Mount Lycabettus, the highest hill in Athens, because various sources assured me there was a funicular railway up and down, so I wouldn’t have to walk.

One-third of the way up Mount Lycabettus, I began to question the existence of this funicular railway.

Halfway up Mount Lycabettus, I discovered the site where Google Maps said it ought to be, and questioned its existence further.

Two-thirds of the way up, I looked up to the top, said to myself, “should I just say I’ve made a good effort at it and go down right now?”

I could see there was a chapel at the top, so I said to myself, “If I can make it to that chapel, I’ll buy an ikon of its patron saint there.”

One-third of the mountain later, I hauled myself on to the plaza, sweating and exhausted and sore of limb, and went over to the chapel to find out who the patron saint was.

It was St George.

And yes, I bought an ikon. Not just to mark the achievement and to support the upkeep of the chapel, but as a nice reminder that he transcends his nationalist following to link the English, whether they like it or not, to Europe and beyond.


Tiny Travelling Tales: Where Not To Go For Ramadan

I’ve visited majority Muslim countries during Ramadan four times now, and, generally speaking, would recommend it.

The standout experience was undoubtedly Istanbul. On my first day, on my first visit to the city, I was walking around the Blue Mosque around four-thirty and noticing that the lawn outside was filling up with families with picnic cloths and baskets, and a small market of food sellers were stealthily firing up their grills. The moment the call to prayer went out at five, a huge cheer went up and, shortly thereafter, everyone set to work.

Other visits, in Izmir and in Singapore, were rather more low-key, but still entertaining. Singapore is a city of multiple religions and one where everybody loves a party, so Ramadan is a time when it becomes harder than usual to book a restaurant, but it’s even more than usually worth it if you do. Izmir had special holiday bread loaves, fireworks at sundown, and a team of young people who would walk through the streets at 5 AM banging a drum to let everyone know the party was over and it was time to go back to fasting.

The one exception in my experience? Surprisingly, Cairo.

I’d booked a trip deliberately during Ramadan of 2010, based on my positive experiences in other majority-Muslim countries, and Cairo’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, cheerful city.

And the place closed the shutters for Ramadan.

Although it’s tempting to put it down to this being 2010, less than six months before the revolution kicked off, the reaction of local people was that this was normal. Everything shut for Ramadan; this was just what one did.

On the positive side, the Coptic establishments all opened up in the evenings, which led to some very exciting culinary experiences, including the best Hongkongnese food made by a non-Hongkongnese that I’ve ever had, and the discovery that Egypt, one of the inventors of beer nine thousand years ago, has definitely kept up the brewing tradition in the meantime.

But if I get to travel during Ramadan again, I’m going to Istanbul.

Tiny Travel Tales: The Globetrotting Suitcase

One summer, I arrived in Milan to discover that I’d travelled to Milan Malpensa Airport and my suitcase to Milan Linate Airport. The case could not be transported across town from the one to the other because it had not been checked out. As I had, however, passed through security, I could not go to Milan Linate and physically retrieve my bag. So close, and yet separated by an invisible, intangible barrier, no less powerful because it did not actually exist.

On the one hand: disaster! I was meant to attend a conference at STA Bocconi the next day, and had only a T-shirt and jeans to do it in. On the other: even on a budget, there is no better place to need to do emergency clothes shopping than the fashion capital of Italy, and therefore the world.

In the end, the airline returned it to my address in Oxford, via Moscow and Helsinki (according to the stickers on the bag). Since I had spent the week alternating between trying to get a job at a busy Academy conference, and trying to sleep in a residence room that overlooked a busy street, I think my suitcase had a better time than I did.

And the suit I panic-bought at a discount fashion emporium down the road from STA Bocconi is still hanging in my closet, emerging periodically for formal-dress occasions.

Time Travelling to Disneyworld

I’ve been on leave from work this week, which has meant I’ve been looking for fun travel-substitutes to do while in lockdown. And my main activity has been a time-travelling visit to Disneyworld.

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What does that mean? It means, I’m watching ride-through videos from Disneyland Florida and the EPCOT Center. But the catch is, I’m only watching vintage videos from rides which are either no longer in operation, or have changed substantially from their original conception.

If this is something you’d like to do too, I’ve compiled a little tour of the best ride-throughs I’ve been able to find (will update if I can find better), plus some useful documentaries and sites on the history of Disney theme parks that I’ve picked up along the way.

Disneyworld

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Snow White’s Scary Adventure

Mr Toad’s Wild Ride (this one’s USP was that you get a slightly different ride on each track, unlike other dual-track rides; the linked video goes through each multiple times).

America Sings

Original Space Mountain post-show, The Home of Future Living (straight ride-through here) (compilation here)

EPCOT Center

Journey Into Imagination

Captain EO

Horizons (straight ride-through, with a little bit of documentary footage; ride-through without the documentary, but lower quality, here)

Horizons (extended ride-through complied from multiple sources)

Universe of Energy (straight ride-through; poor visibility warning but this is literally the only copy of the original version of the pre-show and ride I could find)

Universe of Energy (extended ride-through complied from multiple sources)

Kitchen Kabaret

El Rio del Tiempo

Maelstrom

And to conclude your day, the IllumiNations fireworks show from 1991….

 

Background Stuff

Martin’s Tributes to Universe of Energy and Horizons (with background and history as well as ride-throughs)

The Mesa Verde Times (behind the scenes on Horizons)

Defunctland

 
Now, go stand in a shower with the heat on full blast, eating an overpriced hot dog and drinking a Pepsi, and buy a T-shirt with mouse ears or the CommuniCore on it or a stuffed toy of Figment, and your visit to Florida in the 1980s will be complete.

Universite de Paris-Est in the Twenty-First Century: A Photoessay

I’m currently adjusting gradually back to life in 2020, but one of the things I did over the December/January break was to make a collaborative visit with colleagues at Universite de Paris (shortly to become Gustave Eiffel University). The campus architecture is simply amazing, and I want to share the highlights: