Thursday, 28 August 2008

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

London, Day 1

The flight was unremarkable. I was seated beside a violinist only slighter larger than her instrument, and limited to a very narrow seating space due to the reclining, dozing hausfrau in the seat before me. This necessitated a bodily form of Tetris every time I returned to my seat, and so got very little sleep.
I saw almost nothing of Heathrow. The clouds were soup-thick on the descent, and progress through a series of tunnels led from a two-minute Customs check-in to the London Underground.
It is not entirely underground. For ten minutes of the one hour journey the train rises to ground level and to the sun. Unfortunately looking outside is not an option, as is raising your eyes above the level of other passengers' feet. Despite the mechanical jostling and rattling, the men either side of me sat frozen, as still as porcelain.
This is not sloth, however: it is a state of cat-like readiness; the stillness turns to alacrity when Londoners perambulate. It is the one place I have been where people walk faster than me: men, women, boys, girls, grandmothers in walking frames all zip past in the mole-world of underground tunnels, pushed on by the great whooshing of wind which follows every train.

My hotel, the former Huntley&Palmers factory (biscuiters to the Queen) seems to be founded on one premise: that a cat may be swung at all times. Had I a cat, or indeed two, I could twirl them like batons through the wide hallways, lounges, dining room, stairs and rooms of this palatial building. The staff and guests seem not to have realized this, and rather spend their days buying snow-globes of the Tower of London and drinking expensive beer.
The pound sign is vicious. It is the scorpion which makes a poisonous betrayal of any number: £2 for coffee seems a pleasant number, but-the scorpion stings!-it is $5.30 in NZ currency, and almost $4.00 Canadian. Items presenting themselves as £47.50 ratchet up alarmingly in translation.

I spend the first morning wandering the streets, jet-lagged and unable to check in for seven more hours. Stores open precisely at 9. The McDonalds will not accept my credit card. The convenience store, prohibitive in other places, is shockingly priced here, in a street with stained pavers, rushing black cabs, and hand-scrawled window signs. I stroll around a pleasantly air-conditioned Marks&Spencers. Milk, so highly-valued in Canada, is practically given away here. Cheese abounds. Ready-made meals occupy a quarter of the store. French wines command higher prices than Spanish wines, but both are outpriced by New Zealand and Australian offerings, which in this environment turn from verandah-swillers into promises of sun-drenched idleness. I mention in passing to the cashier that McDonald's wouldn't accept my card, and ask why this might be so. Her doughy Anglo-Saxon face implodes in an astonished guffaw. How would I know, she says three times in the next minute. You'll have to ask them. Her alarm at the possibility she might possess such general knowledge, or be interested in the roles of others, was palpable.
The dust, and mire, and cultural entrenchment of London resists stirring and cannot be shaken.

It's a dump. Don't make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty. What a shit hole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face, shuffling about, moaning, all worried.No thanks, not for me.
Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast

Friday, 22 August 2008


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Thursday, 21 August 2008

Flee, Before The Ageing Gets You

To celebrate my birthday on Monday, I'll be flying to London.
Last year I went to Los Angeles, but this year it's England and France. I'm in London and surrounds from 26 August until 2 September, when I take the bullet train to Paris. I'm there for nine nights, then it's one night back in London before coming back home to Toronto.
I plan to visit enough museums to the point where I start yawning at Picasso (it takes about seven decent galleries). Also I'll be going to Versailles for a day, but mostly just strolling around Paris and grumping around London. I have a ticket to the Globe Theatre the night before I fly out.

I've been playing with my camera over the last week. I've never really learned much about photography, and this trip I'll be experimenting with aperture, exposure, shutter speeds, film speeds, all that stuff. Paris is ridiculously full of photogenic things, my camera will be filled most days.

I'm taking many tiny travel things:
Asus EeePC (7" screen laptop)
VX nano mouse
iPod nano (Chinese knock-off, 4gb)
Mini travel voltage adapter
2.5" 100Gb external hard drive
Fujifilm F30 compact camera
Tiny tiny phone
Inside-Out expanding map/guides: London, Paris
Tiny toothbrush&toothpaste&mouthwash&shampoo&conditioner&many tiny packs of stuff that I'll never use
Earplugs, eye mask, Nyquil (= dreamy sleepy night snoozy snooze) the usual travel stuff: twice as much money and socks as I think I need, and no books or work stuff. All in a single carry-on bag.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

In Canada & Not In Canada

America and Canada have the longest non-militarized border in the world; almost 9000km. Somewhere in that huge border are bits that aren't completely resolved. The most interesting one is Machias Seal Island.

The American state of Maine borders the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Let's zoom in:

The blue area is definitely America, and the red area is definitely Canada. But there's this bit which isn't definitely one or the other. That's where Machias Seal Island is:

British and American forces established a rough border in 1783 after the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris. Even after that, British ships set up safe harbours along the Maine coast (in the 'definitely America' part), charging other ships for the right to visit. They stopped after a while, but most of this area was pretty wild and woolly at the time so no-one wanted to start a new war over it.

The first time people took notice of Machias Seal Island was in 1832 when the British put up a lighthouse to stop ships crashing into it. The island was just 20 acres in size, about the area of a medium-sized school. When Canada became Canadian in 1867, they took over lighthouse duties and have continued for 150 years.

The area has always been heavily fished, and fishermen from both countries take advantage of the 'grey area' to overfish the waters. Both Americans and Canadians have claimed mineral rights over parts of the zone and the Island. During WW1, a detachment of American Marines encamped on the Island to watch for German U-boats for a short time.

The lighthouse remains manned—the only staffed lighthouse in eastern Canada. It doesn't need to be, but you have to watch out for those Americans.

Machias Seal Island

Monday, 4 August 2008


Imagine that you run a haunted hotel. When a ghost shows up in someone's room they freak out and demand their money back. You bring in a ghostbuster, and for a while there's no hauntings in that room for a while, but then the ghosts start coming back. Not only that, but some guests bring their own ghosts with them, blame you when they get haunted, and re-spookify every room they're moved to.

Now replace 'ghosts' with 'bedbugs'. Welcome to my world.

There are nice things about being in an ancient building: rustic charm, overscale rooms. The downside is that most of the building's internal structure is an absolute, unholy mystery. I swear to God there is a family of raccoons living inside the drywall on the third floor (or whatever passed for drywall in the late 19th century). Water drips into the basement level after travelling sideways ten metres, making problem-solving harder by an order of magnitude.
The ramshackle nature of the building creates a slightly lazy atmosphere, meaning that items with no fixed address are put to one side. Then a second thing is put on top of that, the first thing gets wet, the second thing get mouldy, and a third thing is put down beside the first thing. Repeat the process for more than three years before introducing one manager (me).

Bedbugs are a particular problem because they reinforce existing prejudices about low-cost hotels: dirty, unkempt, diseased. It doesn't matter that this is an false connection (high-class hotels in Toronto have newspaper reports of bedbugs every year), because when it happens it's as close to a catastrophic failure of hospitality as one can get.
The main way to kill bedbugs is by steam. The second way is with chemicals, the third with professional gassing, and the fourth with powders. We use the first, are moving on to the second, are delaying the third, and planning the fourth. Any treatment is only temporary—like hair removal—techniques differ only in price, labour, and period of effect. Steaming takes a few hours and lasts for a few weeks, but can be done at a moment's notice. Chemicals take 24 hours and therefore require planning. Professional gas lasts longest but is also the most expensive. Powders are used to extend the period of effect for other techniques.

Bedbug bites itch. They are white in the centre with a red affected area, like a hard thumbprint, on your skin. They show up in lines of three or four on your arms, or side, or back. I have seen them on the face and neck: this ranges from,"What's that?" to "Jeez, what happened to you?" While a scientific, investigative process may lead elsewhere, the blame invariably comes back to the hotel.

Of the twenty projects I currently have for the hotel, bedbugs are about number four on the priority list. I'm trying to stop the staff from saying or writing the word 'bedbug' where guests can see it. We now have code words. I prefer 'insects'. One guy says 'infestation'. Another writes 'BB'. The Spanish-speaking staff call them 'internationals'. I still haven't figured out why.