Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Just Take A Taxi!

A London Cabbie

Sometimes the simplest solutions are not only the best but the cheapest.

On our first trip to Europe, way back in 2001, we had just landed in Amsterdam and taken the train to central station. We had successfully navigated the tram system and been deposited in the museum neighborhood (Museumplein). According to our trusty Streetwise maps--this was long before we had Google Maps on our phones--our hotel was supposed to be right there. But it wasn't. We circumnavigated several blocks, exhausted and grumpy, getting more exhausted and more grumpy by the minute, until we found it. And then we had to scale three floors of stairs, but we'll leave that griping for another day.

Finally checked into our room, Lori looked at Chuck and pronounced, "Next time we take a taxi." It seemed a simple rule to make: whenever we arrive in a new place, just take a taxi to the hotel.

Pronouncements and declarations aside, it's surprisingly hard to follow your own advice sometimes. On occasion we actually have followed the rule, but other times we've been tempted by the apparent simplicity and obviousness of how to get to the hotel, museum, or wherever we're going. Admittedly taxis don't often seem the most cost effective option, and in cities like London or New York that might truly be the case. Why pay a taxi $30 to take you somewhere public transit can for $5? And of course we feel ridiculously guilty for taking a taxi three blocks for a fare of $3 (here you go, mate, now your mum can have that surgery she's been needing).

On the other hand, consider your time and effort--the cost of being exhausted and grumpy, basically--and paying that cab fare starts to make a little more sense. Just a few weeks ago, once our day in Toledo Spain was up and we were ready to head back to the train station, we set off on foot down the hill. We had hoped it would be a lovely walk down, laden with photo opps. But we were repeatedly thwarted by road construction. It was Chuck who invoked the rule this time, and we hiked back up the hill and took a $5 cab ride down to the train station.

On another occasion in Florence, we would have loved to take a taxi, especially since the place we were staying was a mile uphill outside the city, except that Italy was playing in a tournament soccer match that evening and every cabbie in the city had simply parked their cars to watch the match. We should have just rolled up our sleeves and joined one or two of them to watch the game, but it was late and we hoofed it. Uphill. A mile at least. But it makes a story worth telling.

Anyway, even if you think you know where you're going, and even if you fear paying the cabbie in change, if you're tired, hungry, or grumpy, just consider biting the bullet and taking a taxi.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Century-Old Toilet

The Oldest Loo You Might Ever Use

When the John Rylands Library was built in the late 1800's, flush toilets were all the rage in new construction. It's not surprising then that the library's design included mens and ladies restrooms. With the same meticulous care devoted to their collection of books also dedicated to their toilets, the original toilets--now 115 years old--are still operating.

This got me thinking about the invention of the toilet. A quick turn to the modern-day store of knowledge that is Wikipedia (if it's in Wikipedia, it must be true) reveals that the design of the flush toilet evolved over centuries. Despite the myth that the toilet was invented by the aptly named Sir Thomas Crapper (perpetuated, no doubt, by Bette Midler with a certain song from the movie Beaches), more credit might be given to Sir John Harrington, who, in the early 1600's, published a paper (no, really) on a design that included a valve and bowl that allowed a washing action. He even installed a royal toilet for Queen Elizabeth I to use, but alas! she thought the modern contraption made too much noise. Without the royal "blessing", widespread acceptance of the toilet was delayed a few centuries.

Crapper doesn't even earn second place for the advancement of the toilet. That distinction would have to be awarded to businessman George Jennings in the mid 1800's. Jennings installed "monkey rooms" (I much prefer this term to bathroom, restroom, loo, or water closet, so I think I will attempt to revive it) at The Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. In true European style, he charged a penny for access. No doubt the extras he threw in, including a shoe shine, enticed many a wary Victorians to "give them a go".

The monkey rooms were a swooshing success, with thousands of Victorian men and women enjoying blessed relief and shiny shoes at the exhibition. After the exhibition, Jennings convinced the powers that be to leave the toilets, which earned up to £1.000 (that's one thousand pounds to you Americans) per year.

The highly over-credited Sir Thomas Crapper can really only be attributed with the invention of the floating ballcock valve, which remains to this day the frustration of millions of do-it-yourselfer plumbers. Another crucial component of the modern toilet--the siphon action of the water in the bowl--was invented by Albert Giblin, though it was indeed Crapper who popularized its commercial use.

So the next time you are perched atop one of these modern marvels in your monkey room, remember all those ingenious men, even knights and titans of business, who have contributed to your being where you are today.

Simple Chain-Pull Valve and Gravity-Fed Water Line

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

Last Monday, our first full day in Manchester, England, was the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. We didn't plan it, it just worked out that way, so serendipity allowed us to participate in the lights-out moment all across Britain. The War To End All Wars, of course, didn't actually start on a single day. It was more like a storm gathering force and spreading around the world, touching different countries at different times. This was the centenary of Britain's entrance to the war.

Shortly after the war's end, the British government founded the Imperial War Museum to collect artifacts and stories from the war. The museum's efforts have continued to this day, resulting in both a museum system across Britain, of which the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester is a part, and an impressive collection of materials from armed conflicts for the past century.

This was likely the most moving museum experience we have ever encountered. It seems a challenge to accurately present the horrors of war without either glorifying it or politicizing it. The only way to do it is just to tell the historical facts, which the Imperial War Museum North does exceedingly well.

A Display of British Home Guard Artifacts from WWI

A German Trench Mortar from WWI

Two things struck us during our visit. First, that the World Wars were a much different experience for Europeans than it was for Americans. This wasn't really news to us, of course, and we know that war is totally different when it's conducted in your own backyard. The American sacrifices were indeed high, and we don't mean to diminish that fact, but the difference became clear, became entirely poignant, as we read about how British parents sent their children out of the cities and to the countryside where they would be safe. Our parents were children during WWII, and we remember their stories of rations and relatives sent across the oceans to fight, but absent from their stories were tales of children fleeing American cities to survive. For England, it was the last line of defense to ensure the future of their nation.

The second observation to strike us during our visit was that war requires a commoditization of human life. Millions of people died in each of the world wars, millions more were affected, millions more displaced. At no time is the price and value of life more cheap than in war. Yet millions of soldiers volunteered to pay the price because they believed there was--or is--something even more valuable, something worth dying for.

It's this equation, this concept that there are some things worth dying for, that gives strength to the survivors: the parents, the spouses, and the children left behind.

Gerry Judah's "The Crusader", Sculpture at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Manchester United 2, Valencia 1

Football is a gentleman's game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen. Or is it the other way around? I forget, but if either way is true, then American football, in comparison to both, might be said to be a hooligan's game played by hooligans.

Manchester United--the greatest football club in the world!--has a perfect record of 2 wins and 0 losses in my history as spectator of the sport. They beat Eindhoven in the first match I ever saw back in 2008, and they beat Valencia this past Tuesday night. Granted it was a friendly match--that's "preseason" in American English--but given the attendance, it was either an important friendly match or United fans truly love their team. The more I think about it, the more I think it was the latter.

It's been a summer of football (and I use the term in the European sense, meaning "soccer"). I (Chuck) wasn't personally as engaged with the World Cup this year as Lori was, nor as much as I was engaged back in 2010. I'm not sure why that is, but I have been very much looking forward to attending this friendly match between Manchester and Valencia. If you consider how much time we've spent in these two cities, you'd think our allegiances would have been toward Valencia, but as in-the-moment as we are, we could only be cheering for our home-for-now team.

I'll spare you of the blow-by-blow and advance straight to the end: Manchester won. They were tied at 1 at the end of regular play, and just as Lori and I were wondering aloud if a friendly match would warrant going into an extra period, United scored the winning goal half a minute into extra time. Valencia hardly had time for the ensuing kickoff and a desperation kick toward their goal from midfield before the game was over. Even United's friendly matches are exciting.

Instead we'll note the differences we, in our Americans-in-Paris sort of moment, witnessed attending this match in the legendary Old Trafford stadium, a name which invokes decades of football legacy even for a couple of hooligans from the states.

  • There was no jumbotron. In America, even some minor league sports teams have a jumbotron. This is Manchester United, the greatest football club in the world! It felt a little odd not to have a giant screen to see closeups and replays.
  • The crowd was polite, even subdued. Perhaps it was because this was a friendly match versus true league play, but gone seem to be the days of rowdy, drunken fans. Beer is not allowed in the stands. The crowd was mostly men, but there were quite a few young boys with dads; it, in fact, seemed to be a great opportunity for British father-son bonding.
  • We had expected--had hoped, actually--to experience those famous team songs from the crowd, perhaps even learn a few of the mysterious lyrics. "They're really quite rude, some of them," Pam, our host, had told us last week. Seems we sat in the wrong section. A few times during the game another section to our right burst into song, but we couldn't make out the rude lyrics from where we were.
  • For that matter, we couldn't make out the simplest of chants for quite some time. From time to time, a chant would suddenly break out. The fact that it was so sudden and so perfectly in unison without the benefit of a jumbotron to entice and coordinate people was impressive. It wasn't until late in the first half that we realized they were chanting "United": you-nigh-TED! you-nigh-TED! The you-nigh was run together and the TED was emphasized; they even chant with an English accent.
  • The crowd throws the ball back. On occasion, not surprisingly, a ball gets kicked into the stands. Jubilant fans jump up and vie to catch the ball and...they throw it back. Not only do they throw it back, but they toss it to the correct player. In America, the baseballs and footballs that wind up in the stands are kept as souvenirs: United fans have to settle for buying giant team flags, scarves, and banners from the hawkers outside the stadium.
This friendly match tidily wrapped up by "Our United", we only had to make the twenty minute walk home, though with a pub stop for a pint or two in the midst, it took a little longer than twenty minutes.

Post-Match Pub Crawl

Throngs of United Fans on the March Home

A footnote: today marks two months since we began our full-time travel. That it only warrants this footnote is a sign that we hardly think of our travel lifestyle anymore.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Girl's Head

George Clausen's "A Girl's Head"

Unfortunately I didn't capture a great image of artist George Clausen's "A Girl's Head", but it's good enough for you to get a sense of the warmth in the unknown subject's face. She wears a simple blouse--it might even be dirty, perhaps because she's a laborer. The look in her eyes, her simple hair style, seem to support the theory that she's from the working class.

"She's beautiful," Lori said to me. I nodded agreement.

You might not have ever heard of George Clausen, but his "Mona Lisa" puts him on par--in our book--with Da Vinci.