Do Eye not like that

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I woke up early on Sunday morning feeling (and no doubt looking) a bit like the “littlest hobo”.  I had done more travelling in 5 days than Michael Jordan in an NBA finals but at last it was time to take things easy.  We had a traditional English breakfast to start the day.  I had actually forgotten what bacon tasted like until my Mum dumped the remains of half a dozen pigs on my plate.  In the USA “bacon” consists of small hard strips of something that smells kind of like burnt cherries and tastes like wood.  The bacon in England actually originates from real pigs and has a meaty taste and smell.  My wife didn’t like it because it was unfamiliar to her but for me it was like manna from Heaven.  I ploughed through my rashers, some eggs and the customary piece of freshly incinerated toast before heading off to Mass.  Church was as I remembered it being give or take a few old folks who’d since been replaced by previously young folks who had aged since I last saw them but all in all it was your typical Sawbo service.  The main event of the day though was the birthday party.

My sister was pragmatic enough to make sure her second son was born around the same time as my daughter so that if we were ever to live in the same area we could kill two birds with one stone by having a joint party.  The time had arrived for her plan to come to fruition as we celebrated my lonely only and her youngests big days at the same time.  I dragged along my fellow Who fan Dorney and his new girlfriend to liven things up a bit.  He fitted right in to the otherwise strictly family affair by starting an impromptu class for five year olds in the art of stage fighting.  My sister can sleep more soundly at night now knowing that her 3 year old can pull off a convincing right hook and that his older brother knows how to dodge a sword blow to the head.   My sister laid on a lot of food which was something of a relief as she had in the past had a reputation for taking a Mr Bumble approach to meal times.  Once when I was younger my parents had left her in charge of making dinner and she literally sliced peas in half so that we all got four and a half peas to go with the egg sized jacket potatoes she had made for us.  Somewhere along the line I assume the penny dropped when her house guests kept dyeing of malnutrition so on this occasion she laid on quite a feast for us. 

I had wanted to end the night with a visit to the local pub quiz but the folks I used to go with were either on the road in camper vans doing audits for B & Q, studying sheep herds in Aberystwyth or in the case of my younger sisters were just old fashioned cheapskates.  We went to bed early without so much as a pint of the nasty stuff from the pub where the landlord would dump the drip tray overspill back into unsuspecting punters glasses.  I mean I guess avoiding the risk of contracting hepatitis from the most unsanitary ale house in England should be a good thing but when you’re accustomed to something you miss it.

Monday was the day I had been dreading.  It was time to ride the “London Eye”.  I really hate heights and  I am claustrophobic.  Only the sickest of individuals would therefore think it was humane to force me to endure an 40 minute “ride” in a fragile looking glass bubble millions of feet above London.  The guide book said it was 135 metres high but that was a lie.  I know for a fact it went higher because when we were near the top we passed through two meteor storms before the roof got dented by some debris from Saturn’s outermost ring.  They say that you can get some nice pictures from the “eye” but I really couldn’t tell you because I spent the entire ride with my feet firmly planted right in the centre of the capsule with my eyes glued to my camcorder as I pretended to perform emergency repairs on said item.  I wasn’t alone.  Another guy older and uglier than me was pulling the same stunt much to the chagrin of his even older and even uglier “life partner”.  The old guys excuse was a faulty Mp3 player.  Not much of an excuse really as it wasn’t exactly critical to make sure you got your dose of Lionel Ritchie to enjoy the ride.  More people believed me than him and I think it was a nice touch when I feigned disappointment at missing the sights as the camera miraculously “came back to life” 30 feet from the ground. 

Once we were off the ride I got away from it as far as I could because I have an irrational fear of giant bicycle wheel shaped objects falling on me.  We quickly made our way onto some kind of ferry boat thing that looked a bit like the starship enterprise and made our way down the Thames.  Our next stop was the Millenium Dome.  It was pretty massive.  It would have been ideal for the tent parties we used to have after school plays each year as there was no shortage of room in it and it looked liked it would take all of 2 seconds to knock down when you were done with it.  The reason we were there was to see the Tutankhamen exhibit.  The Egyptian authorities had also entered in a secret pact with me and my sister which tied King Tut tours to the birthdays of our offspring.  The display itself was very impressive.  The colours of the artefact’s had lasted much better after 3000 years then even the reds on the brightest sweaters on Persil automatic commercials.  I was kind of sad that Tut himself wasn’t there but they did bring his coffin which was probably more aesthetically pleasing that his withered remnants plus we didn’t have to worry about the curse of King Tut killing us and that was a blessing on a day when my nerves had already been put to the test. 

That was that and after a couple of pints of Guinness with Grandad, a visit with my old piano teacher, a bottle of bubbly with family friends and the customary squabble with a sister we finished our trip and came back to Gainesville.  If I had time I’d tell you about how the airline lost our bags for a week and laughed about how stupid I was to expect to safely get 4 bags there and back but that would be unkind since they did give a $350 of gift vouchers after I (falsely) told them I had started legal proceedings but lets let bygones be bygones and aside from that I am knackered.

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No rest for the wicked

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My family live about 25 miles from London and yet to get there was a struggle.  My parents were of the opinion that since we had “been there before” that there was no need to go again … ever.  In my opinion not going to London on a UK visit would be rather like waiting in a long line on “free ice cream day” at “Ben and Jerrys” only to decline a dessert and ask for a water on reaching the front of the line. 

London is kind of like Budapest if you disregard the absence of 3 million Hungarians, cold war era buildings and the fact that Buda and Pest are actually two cities and are on either side of the Danube rather than one city on the Thames but aside from all of that it is similar.  It is also rather larger and has a much fancier looking business district and they have red double decker buses as opposed to orange trams and black taxis as opposed to papier mache trabants.  The restaurants are different too and the Hungarian women are prettier but anyway aside from all of that the two cities struck me as much of a muchness I mean for one thing it rained in Budapest last time I was there and it always rains in England but anyway since hardly anyone has ever been to Hungary I guess it is actually a bit of a crappy comparison so I’ll get to the point.  London is arguably (along with Budapest ?) the greatest city in the world.  In fact if the ancients were to come back and re-evaluate the “7 wonders” of the world today they would surely ditch the Lighthouse of Alexandria and replace it with the city of London.  That being said they could probably replace that boring lighthouse with the Odeon in Harlow and be onto a winner but my point is that London has everything you could want in a city and the best way to see it is on a badly driven red bus. 

Many tourists flock to the capital and get ripped off by Eton drop outs who act as tour guides on cramped single level coaches that plough through pedestrains at Leicester square but the savvy cockney knows that the actual local transport system is the way to go.  I’m not a cockney so I didn’t know this but since my old man grew up singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles” he was well aware of this so our first hour in the capital was a rapid fire whirlwind tour of the main tourist spots courtesy of Red Ken.  My daughter liked it because she got to see “the Peter Pan clock” (Big Ben), the Mary Poppins Bank (Eddie George’s place) and the Cyberman church (St Pauls).   

We had lunch at an Italian restaurant where we unwittingly took part in a Guinness book of records attempt to squeeze 4000 tables into and 20ft by 20ft room.  The meal was nice and certainly nicer than the one I once had at the pub opposite some years back when Deacon got drunk on 2 Harp shandys and humiliated himself by singing “Stayin’ Alive” on karaoke in the style of Pee Wee Herman. 

Lunch was followed by the days main event which was the stage musical “Wicked”.  To those who don’t know it is the leftie apologist back story of the wicked witch of the west and her house flattened sister.  The star looked uncannily like Elaine from “Seinfeld” but greener and with a voice more like the “Super Nanny” and the role of “Glenda” was played by a Bonnie Langford wannabee with a blonde wig.  The show was very entertaining and allowed my Mum the opportunity to see something that she wanted to see under the guise of it being someone elses birthday present.  Mine actually.  Fortunately for her I am easily pleased but my Mum has a long history of this kind of behaviour.  The most famous incident occured when my Dad decided to leave the post office after 20 years of service and his co-workers threw him a big party.  He was mortified on receiving nothing but expensive books on pre-Raphaelite art as goodbye presents .  His naive work colleagues had called my Mum and asked what he might like for a farewell gift.  When they called to ask she set down the picture book of Italian art work she was reading, thought for one second and then told them that my Dad loved nothing better than to come home after a long days work and look at pictures of limbless nude Florentine statues.  They must have thought he was a right weirdo but it didn’t stop my Mum and she used that as a starting point to acrue a vast collection of antiquituies that she bought for people only to see them re-gifted … to her.  “Wicked” though was one occasion when everyone was happy and after a rousing ovation we left the theatre and whilst my parents took my daughter back to Sawbo my wife and I ventured into unchartered territory…South London.

My Dad had tried hard to discourage us from visiting “Sarf London”.  The reason of our visit was to see an old school friend I had known since I was 4.  My parents showed us newspaper cuttings about headless Ukranian women being thrown from tower blocks, rampaging gangs of Neo Nazis and hordes of Satanist roaming the streets in search of flesh blood to feast on.  My friend had called and told me that he lived in a “dodgey high rise” which didn’t help matters but undetered we caught the tube and headed closer to the equator and into the mystical land they call Crofotn.  We exited the train and as the mist slowly cleared and the crows gathered over head I heard what sounded like the faint croaking murmur of a dyeing man.  I stopped dead in my tracks and held my breath.  The voice was getting fainter but I could just about make out some words.  “mind…………mind the ……..” I could almost hear it but the pitter patter of rain was obscuring the last word of this haunting message.  Then abrupdtly the rain stopped and the baying crows went silent long enough for me to hear the mysterious words ….”Mind the gap.”  It turned out that they had a faulty speaker at the train station so the tannoy operator was trying extra hard to make himself heard !  

The area was actually very nice once we left the station.  The scary image my parents had painted was about as accurate as a “fair and balanced” debate on Fox news.  My friend Aidan lived up to his reputation as a wind up merchant and far from living in a high rise he actually lived in a pretty expensive and nice looking house in a quiet neighbourhood.  The next 3 hours were a chance for me to meet his family  and he mine. We both had children which was scary since neither of us even had a girlfriend last time we met up.  We discussed how we’re haunted by memories of our sadistic primary school headmaster and still amused by childhood incidents such as the birth narrative of James Canning (He claimed his Mum never knew she was pregnant and took a sepository the day he was born) or the fact that there is a hotel resort in Orlando named after Gaylord Nathan.  It seemed like we hadn’t been there for long when it was time to leave as my parents had put an effective 10pm curfew on us.  Granted I am 31 and so what if I live 5,000 miles away from them and only speak to them via phone once a week, in their minds I can’t be trusted to be out after dark and so we said our farewells to our hosts and made our way home.  We were back just in time to see the Everton highlight on “Match of the day” which has always been the prefect way to end a day.

Life on Mars

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My and my bank buddy

 

We exited the plane and I headed for the EU arrivals whilst my entourage joined the lengthy Non-EU arrivals line.  Bizarrely the Non EU line was quickly handled but the passport control bloke in my line seemed intent on nailing at least half a dozen terrorists that day and he was going to harass everyone until he found a would be suspect.  I tried as hard as I could not to roll my eyes or make loud comments about him being a self important jobsworth but inevitably he cottoned onto the fact that I was the person responsible for the loud sighs and he cast a steely glare over me.  Rather than punishing me directly by holding me up he decided to drag out the inquisition of the Finnish family in front of me.  They didn’t fit the stereotypical image of terrorists.  Their group consisted of Miss Marples frailer sister, a couple of Macauley Culkin clones and  a married couple who looked uncannily like Bjorn Borg except for the fact the wife had slightly less facial hair.  As far as I could tell the only crimes they were likely to commit were against fashion but then I am not a security expert.  “What is the purpose of your trip ?” the guard asked them.  “Where are you staying ?”, “For How long ?”, “Where are you people from ?”, “Finland ? Is that near Fatland ?”  It went on and on until Marple feigned spell of dizziness and a supervisor of the guard waived them  through.  Sly old Marple was probably the one carrying the explosives.   A few dirty looks and mumbled insults later and I was finally through to the arrivals area. 

My Mum came to greet us because my Dad was trying to find somewhere to park.  Well in fairness he hadn’t had long to find somewhere since the flight was only four hours late.  We slowly hauled our luggage outside onto the concourse.  There were only three of us but we had outfits to keep the Partridge family clothed for 3 national tours.  I had insisted on packing all of our winter clothes because from my experience England was cold in February.  My parents had tried to convince us that global warming had altered the climate there to such an extent that south east England was now competing with the planet Mercury as the hottest patch of land in the solar system so we brought all of our warm clothes too.  Finally the day before we left my wife had noticed that we still had some money in our bank account and so she went on a spending binge to buy even more clothes just for the fun of it.  The end result was that I was struggling to carry two bags that felt like lead lined coffins.  My Dad finally emerged from the parking lot but rather than help with the carrying he decided to film our suffering with his camcorder.  At first it was funny but after the first few tendons in my lower arm snapped I started to get annoyed.  It made no difference to him since he was determined to get every second of our trip on film.  His actions seemed to confirm rumours started some time back that he was in fact the paparazzi who hit Diana. 

 We all packed into their compact relatively fuel efficient car and set off for home.  My parents were upset that their 33 mile a gallon car wasn’t fuel efficient enough for the leftie tree huggers running the country and they’d been hit with a penalty tax.  Imagine if we made rich snow birds pay extra for gas guzzling RV’s in the US ?  That being said imagine if we made rich snowbirds pay taxes period ? Anyway I digress but it is funny how very little changes over the course of time.  As we drove by I bored my wife with stories about every street corner.  “That is where Deacon claims to have been abducted by the UFO,”I said “and the roundabout is where Mark almost got hit by former England International football player, Peter Beardsley…allegedly.”  I am sure that my wife was delighted to hear my running commentary most of which consisted of myths and half truths that had developed down the years to disguise the fact that in reality absolutely bugger all had ever happened there.   It was good to be home though in the mildly warm country of my birth where you can have a beer without having to have a follow up counselling session on “Dr Phil.”

For the first 24 hours I felt a bit like Sam Tyler from “Life on Mars.”  I had been awakened from my coma and the bizarre life where I was surrounded by larger than life characters with whom I had nothing in common.  Playing ball in the yard with Pop, high school proms, mulletts and fish cookouts are as alien to me as rocks on the red planet and needless to say the Gene Hunts and Rays of Gainesville had even less interest in learning about the world of Ceefax, Wombles and Kenny Everett that I grew up in. 

I had to remember not to use words like “soccer” “sucks” and “awesome” any more because I didn’t want to be accused of being a “fake American” although supposedly I now have an American accent which is hilarious since nobody in Gainesville seems to think so.  At work I guy I worked with for 3 years revealed recently that he thought I was South African and most of the customers at the bank seem to think I am either Australian or German.  There isn’t any logic to their mistaken attempts at pinpointing my origins it’s just that their idea of an Englishman is a bloke with a top hat and tails who rides around hunting foxes with a blunderbuss and so since the only other countries they know are Germany and Australia they assume I must be from one or the other.  Another thing that was strange about being back in England was that people would start conversations about sport … and actually have some knowledge of them so conversations lasted for minutes at a time.  At work in the US the sports discussion usually follows this pattern:

American male#1: “How about those Yankees huh ?

American male#2″How about them ?!!”

American male#3″Yep.  Those Yankees !”

American male#1″Did you watch the game ?”

American male#2″Nah”

American male#3″Me neither.”

Kjohn “I did so does that mean they’re going to win the world series ?”

American males 1,2 &3″Don’t know we don’t really keep up with it that much….Loser!”

Sports talk seems to be one of those strange rituals American men go through like looking at each others cars or boasting about upcoming drink fests that they have no intention of attending because they have to spend the weekend downloading software for the blackberry’s.  Englishmen on the other would cease to exist without football.  Every man over the age of 25 vicariously lives through his favourite team and it’s that kind of ultimately meaningless existence that I have come to miss.  It was good to be back but before I knew it David Bowie was reverberating around my skull and it was time to head to Ireland ….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueUOTImKp0k&feature=related

 

The Return

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One thing that really buggered me off last time I visited England was the fact that we had to fly to Heathrow airport.  Heathrow for those not familiar with it is like a giant greyhound bus station packed with sun burnt prematurely bald English soccer fans, Asian businessmen a small smatering of Hare Krishna book pushers, homeless hippies and at least 3 nuns reading Agatha Christie books.  The journey from Heathrow to my parents house is one of the most miserable experiences you could ever imagine.  You can get to their humble abode either by a series of filth ridden, rickety tubes and trains or in my Dads car with him driving.  I prefer the former because at least the train drivers typically travel somewhat faster than a snail across salt and you don’t have to watch out for white van drivers or deranged truckers trying to run you off the road.

We hadn’t been to England in four years for a number of reasons a) My family keep coming here to go to Disney every time I am off work.  b)The exchange rate is terrible so my mickey mouse money is worthless there c)Because due to my own self importance I think my visits should be a major event like the Olympics and come only once every four years although hopefully without condemnation from Richard Gere.  Since our last visit a certain airline had started flights to Stansted which is about 20 minutes drive form my parents house which means only a 2 hour round trip with my Dad driving.

The thought of flying direct from Orlando to Stansted seemed too good to be true … and it was… thanks to probably the worst airline in the world.  I know lots of people complain about airlines but my last trips with Airtran and Maleev had gone very well and I naively expected the same treatment from the airline I shall refer to simply as Crankey Yankees but was I in for a surprise. 

The intial arrival at the airport went fairly smoothly and after brushing off the saliva that was propelled in my direction by the phlegmatic check in clerk I was only moderately irriritated by the mute security officers who communicated only with eye rolls and sighs.  On arrival in JFK I was surprised to see that the weather forecast which had predicted “sleet and rain” was a little off track.  In fact we landed in a scene reminiscent of the opening part of the “Empire Strikes Back”.  Everything was covered in feet of snow which meant the Wookie ground crew were working over time as their human counterparts sought shelter.  Now I am not an aeronautical engineer but I did think that it might be a good idea to remove the 4 feet of snow that buried our plane before we took off.  How wrong can you be ?  The staff told us the flight was running on time.  The only qualm I had at this point was that for some reason they had separated our party.  Someone incompetant or evil (Darth Vader ?) had decided it would be a good idea for my daughter to sit by herself three rows away from my wife and I and between a couple of geriatric brothers from Guadalope who couldn’t speak English.  After being told by the stewardess that we couldn’t switch seats we soon discovered that the airline used a lottery system to decide on seating and NOBODY was placed together with their own groups.  Despite protestations from the cabin crew we revolted and everyone amicably moved around until we were back alongside our own families.  There were one or two suicidal teenagers and lecherous old men who were less than happy about being reunited with their kind but for the most part a degree of relief descended across the cabin.  Just then the captain spoke.  “Ladies and Gentlemen we are waiting to be de-iced but we will lift off on 15 minutes.  Until then I will be turning off the AC because of the fumes from the de-icing process.” We didn’t realise it at the time but this was the start of an Andy Kauffmanesque comedy routine that would last for four hours in the hot sweaty confines of the dingey plane.  Without fail and without a hint of a laugh the pilot repeated the same line every fifteen minutes for the next two hundred and forty minutes.  To make the situation more humourous from his sick point of view he kept the “seat belt fastened” sign on the entire time to ensure that all the incontinents on the plane could add their own fresh scent to the already stale air.  I thought at first we were on an episode of “You’ve been framed” until I saw the headline of the “Sun” newspaper being read by the guy next to me which read “Beadles not about.”  With him off the suspect list I figured this must be the work of either Fox TV or former presidentail candidate John Kerry.  There is no reason to think that John Kerry would have the ability or desire to delay a flight but since I routinely blame him for everything I decided to stick him with this one as well. 

I was in the midst of suffocating myself with a “complimentary blanket” when we finally took off.  I would have been dead already but for the fact that my obviously second hand blanket had a series of holes on it that were either bullett holes or evidence of a new breed of polyester eating maggots.  The ironic thing was that I had spent all day saying private “Hail Marys” to myself and praying that our plane would not crash but by the time we were airborne I was so so sick of being on board that I viewed a potential crash differently.  “Shit happens” I thought to myself as the engines stuttered away from JFK. 

The rest of the flight was pretty unpleasant.  The stewardesses were not the Hollywood variety of old.  Instead the blonde hair and tanned skin were replaced with wrinkles and toupees.  The glistening white smile was replaced with a raised middle finger.  The passengers were made to feel about as welcome as a Bill Clinton speech at a Hillary rally.  Finally though as my ninth set of earphones packed up during my third viewing of “What’s new on CBS this fall” I saw a glimpes of green outside the window.  We were finally there.  This was it.  This was England.  God save the Queen ………

To be continued ……..

 

Are Europeans closer to God or just cheapskates ?

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dollars.jpg 

I know a guy who attends a “church” here in Gainesville where he is required to bring his annual tax returns so that the church “elders” can decide how much money they need to take from his account each year.  He was complaining to me that they plan on taking about 15% of his annual income this year to use for “blessings”.  The “blessings” include cinema sized plasma screens among other things ohh and the guy who founded this church has gone from living in a friends garage to residing in a million dollar mansion within a short space of time.  The guy who is a member told me though that the beneficent church leader encourages his members to “bless” each other frequently and even suggests that they ask each other to be “blessed” when in need. The only times I can recall asking to be blessed were during confession and the “blessing” I received was forgiveness in exchange for three swfit “Hail Mary’s”  This guy though told me that he asked a friend to “bless” him recently by buying him a $100 dollar pink shirt for nightclubbing.  If I asked one of my friends to “bless me” with a pink shirt they would probably think I was gay and definately think I was a nutcase.  I don’t recall reading anything in the Bible about assisting fellow believers by enabling them to go to discos.

The church in America though is very different from the version I recall in Europe.  Back in the day before hitting up the pub I would go to the 35 minute Sunday night mass where I would donate a quid or even a fiver to the basket being passed round by the old blokes just before the offertory.  That fairly stingey donation was my only financial commitment to the church and just for the record I checked the Vatican and Diocese of Westminster websites and didn’t see anything about having expectations for donations.  The same cannot be said for the local Catholic church in Gainesville where they have a salary calculator to help you figure out how much 10% of your annual salary is so that you can make your “fair contribution” to the church.  10% seems pretty steep to me after federal tax, state taxes, mortgages, car payments, healthcare and gas expenses I probably only have about 8% left as it is so I guess I need to get some credit cards to make up the shortfall.  The Catholic church here though is nothing compared with the local Baptist church where new members have to attend an “audit” (Kind of sounds like Scientology to me) to make sure they give “at least” 10% of their wealth over before being admitted to the church.  I don’t know why it costs more to go to church in the USA than in England but 10% is the magic number here whereas the Church of England website asks for a meagre 5% but concedes that most people give no more than 3%.  Anyone who has ever been to a C of E church knows the place is full of loaded hooray henrys with more money than sense so if they are good at 3% than 1% is all you’re getting from me. 

I understand the logic behind donating to church and if the money was well spent I wouldn’t have such a problem but here the churches invest in cinema sized plasma screens, luxury seating, video and sound recording equipment for making church movies, basketball courts, and many many other frivolities.  It is all a far cry from the days when Francis of Assissi wandered the streets begging for alms or John Wesley stood out in the cold wind with a rock as his only pulpit.  I don’t mind giving money to the poor but I do mind giving money to self important yanks who think that the church should be as comfortable as their own home.  No church here is complete without cushioned seating and a nursery like a mini Disneyworld.  What happened to people just wanting to pray ?  If old wooden benches are good enough for Catholics in Ireland or Anglicans in Essex then why are they intolerable to Christians in the USA ?

The worst thing about church in the USA is that every few weeks someone breaks away from the church and starts a new church that is not money orientated.  As the months pass more and more people who are disgusted at the excesses of their old church join the new pastor until such a time as they realise they need a new church.  Guess what ?  He then tells them they all need to hand over 10% of their wealth to finance the new building  and so the cycle begins again.  One old lady I know just built her own church which she calls the “United Christian Center” which is a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one for a breakaway group ! 

I really don’t know what they do with all the money between pointless refurbishment projects.  In my town the church organ would break and we’d raffle off a few “Chaz and Dave” records to raise the 500 quid to buy a new one.  Over here the organ would never break because they replace them every year and even if it did break they could get a live link up on the satellite system with the neighbouring church when it was time to sing.   The problem here is that there are too many self important people to go around and so each one of them needs to be a “deacon” at some church somewhere to feel good about themselves which means the rest of us have to cough up the money to finance new churches on every street corner.  It reminds me of the Roman empire where the rich and well to do built temples to their favourite gods except here they are to the same God (supposedly) and they have far less historical interest than the Pantheon.  Maybe yanks have to donate more money to church because they are more of a credit risk or a sin risk in the eyes of God.  That would seem to make sense since people with bad payment history pay more for their mortgages so I guess it should be the case that self absorbed people should pay more for salvation.

The weirdest thing you encounter here though is the notion that “God wants us to be rich”  This is a new phenomena sweeping the “evangelical churches.”  Personally I think that the pastors want you to be rich so that you don’t mind paying for their mansions quite so much.  As far as God is concerned I seem to recall Jesus stating that it is “harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven.”  The problem is that no one here really cares much about God or Christianity as church is a social event where/nursery/baby sitting service/dating club.   As for the 10% thing well apparently that comes from the Bible when Jacob promised to giev God 10% of everything he had in return for having a safe journey.  How that translates to me paying 10% of my annual salary for a bunch of 18 year olds to go on “bonding” trips to Cancun is beyond me.

“To Rome or not to Rome ?” – That is the question

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Next year my wife and I plan to visit England.  The last time we went was 2004 so we decided visits should now always coincide with Olympic years not so much because we like watching athletics on the BBC but more so because the exchange rate means that the UK is so bloody expensive now that we can only afford to go there once every four years !  Anyway my wife would like to take advantage of one of these Ryanair “fly for the price of a bag of crisps ( which is more food than you can ever expect to be served on our cheapskate flight)” deals to visit Italy for a day or so whilst over there.  She has never been there and my daughter is pretty excited about meeting Pinocchio since she seems to think we’ll run into him in Rome.  The fact that she has already met the string-less wonder at Disneyworld hasn’t dampened her excitement.  I have been to Italy more times than Paris Hilton has been drunk so I am trying to convince my family members that if we do take a trip within a trip that it should be to somewhere else.

I would like to visit either Bulgaria or Denmark for the simple reason that I have never been to either nation before.  When I was a kid I had a weird obsession with Denmark which lead my Dad to think I had some kind of trace memory from our ancient ancestors who were marauding vikings that made their way to Ireland and started our clan on the emerald isle.  He seemed to think there must be some deeper reason behind my desire as a 7 year old to move to the Nordic nation but in reality the only motive behind my childhood plan was to go there and buy a soccer shirt.  Back in the mid 80’s Denmark had a shirt that was red on on side and thin red and white stripes on the other.  Somehow in my mind this seemed like the most attractive looking piece of clothing ever created and that coupled with the fact that Preben Elkjaer scored a hat-rick against Uruguay in the first world cup match I ever watched was the driving force behind my first emigration bid.  When I was 19 I almost went to Denmark once when my mate Deacon found a deal to go on a “cruise” there for 40 quid round trip.  It sounded great but when I realised that it actually involved sharing bunk beds with 3 other people (two of whom would be complete strangers – probably Swedish chef looking style serial killers) and a grand total of 4 hours ashore in the land of bacon I decided it was better to pay 129 quid to ride on a rickety old bus to Prague for 5 days instead.  I am sure that in reality Denmark has more to offer than classic Hummell soccer shirts but beyond bacon, legoland and a recently defaced statue of the little mermaid I am not exactly sure what !  Therefore the only way to find out is to show up there and asked the first basin headed blond that I run into where the party is.

Bulgaria is another country I have never been to despite the best efforts of a NYC based “Bulgarian” dentist to lure me there and pay 16 times the price I ended up paying in Romania for my recent mouth renovation.  Back in the day I recall Bulgaria was little more than a place for weightlifters, Papal assassins and people who use poison umbrellas to kill Russian dissidents but apparently today it is a Mecca for Brits.  You know a place has come of age as a tourist destination when even some of my parents less than worldly neighbours have been there and at the last count they knew at least 3 sets of middle aged Sawbridgeworth based couples who have recently made the trip.   When I first went to Eastern Europe in the 90’s these same people reacted as if I had just visited Alpha Centuri so either Hristo Stoichkov and co. have come a long way or the good people of Sawbo have been priced out of their usual haunts on the Costa-Lotta.   For my part I did once eat a can of Bulgarian luncheon meat in Budapest that was covered in green fungus and more recently I discovered that the father of one of my daughters pre-K friends once represented Bulgaria as an Olympic gymnast so I am not totally in the dark about the place.

Bulgaria like Denmark was a place I wanted to visit as a child.  I had no desire to purchase the rather bland looking Bulgarian 1986 world cup soccer shirt but I did think it would be a good idea for me to go there as a 9 year old and explain to the people that being communist was pretty stupid.  Luckily for me the people there realised that long before I showed up and since then it fell off my radar until this whole Ryanair thing came up with my wife.  She seems to think that the basis for choosing where to go should be what the country has to offer as a destination.  I am more concerned with satisfying my obsessive compulsive desire to have a red dot on my world map showing that I have been to every country in Europe and I don’t want to “waste” an opportunity by visiting a country I have already been to a thousand times.  I guess we will see what happens and in reality we will no doubt discover that the cheap flights have more stipulations than loan from a Scottish bank but hopefully my wife will realise that whilst we could climb the leaning tower of Pisa, marvel at the piazza Michelangelo or stand in awe at the size of the Coliseum that we could also more importantly tick one more country off my “must visit” list and surely that is what travel is all about.

Experts view of EPCOT : Skip the Golfball !!!

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 I was having a bizarre dream during the early hours of Saturday morning about a demon that had somehow possessed my parents house in England.  I cunningly tricked the hellish beast into manifesting himself in human form so that I could kill him (clever huh ?) when the annoyingly shrill sound of my alarm clock woke me from my slumber.  I had a really bad headache, my nose was running and I felt close to death and yet whilst it was still dark on a Sunday morning my wife had decided to have an early start.  This could mean only one thing :  We were going to go to Disney for the day !

Living in Gainesville we’re able to pop down to Orlando pretty frequently since it’s only a 2 hour drive or $37 dollars worth of gas in today’s terms.  As Florida residents we have “seasonal passes” which basically cost a couple of hundred dollars each and allow you to go to any Disney park all year long with the exception of certain blackout dates. (Christmas week, Easter and mid summer)    Since I am a fairly rational human being I have no desire to ever be at Disney on say 4th July with a million sun burnt and sweaty yanks and Englishmen waiting in 4 hour lines for “It’s a small world” and complaining about the humidity so the blackout dates suit me down to the ground.  This Sunday was our last day chance to go before the summer blackout commenced and we decided to spend the day at the least (?) popular park, EPCOT.

I actually like EPCOT because it’s a bit more laid back than the other 3 parks.  During the “Food and Wine Festival” in October you can buy cheap Czech beer and of course Carlsberg which is “probably the best lager in the world.”  Other selling points include a gift shop that sells “Mr Men” books and an awesome restaurant that revolves whilst you eat.  I had read about a similar restaurant in North Korea and was trying to negotiate my way to Pyongyang when I heard that the “Garden Grill” had the same capability and not only that but rather than eating lunch with evil dictator Kim Jung Il you get to eat alongside Goofy and the chipmunks !!!

Most newcomers to EPCOT are drawn towards the giant golf ball as they enter the park and that is where a little Disney know how comes in handy.  Whilst the naive fools are waiting in a long line for the first ride they see I head to “Test Track” and get a few quick rides in before anyone else has even finished learning about Michelangelo and cavemen on “Spaceship Earth.”  If you wait until after about 10am then you can expect to wait for a good hour at the major attractions but the smart people (that’s me) get a few early rides in AND then get “fast passes” to come back later.  I love strolling past the newbies in their long line with my “Fast Pass” but in truth if they actually opened their eyes they could do the exact same thing.  For some reason many people feel like they are cheating or something if they use fast passes but to me it is a no brainer.  Recently we were at the Magic Kingdom and it was 4pm.  The wait time for the ride was 1 hour and you could get a fast pass that allowed you to return at 5pm !  OK so I could either stand here for the next hour and go on the ride or get a fast pass, go away and have fun elsewhere for an hour before coming back here and walking straight onto the ride ?!!!  Oddly enough about 4000 people decided to wait in line whilst I went on another ride and got an ice cream before rejoining them on the ride at 5pm.

One ride I dislike at EPCOT is “Soarin” and that is because it is bloody scary !  I suffer from vertigo and somehow I can’t get my brain to realise that it is just a fake hang glider in front of a giant TV screen.  The ride sways a little and they have fake wind blowing you around as you pass over California but the stupid thing is that when we seem to be high over the mountains I feel really nervous and when we seem to be nearer to the ground I relax.  In truth the fake glider is at the same height all along but somehow even though I know this I still freak out that I might plummet to my death or be eaten by a grizzly if I survive the fall ! 

For people who want something more mellow you can ride on “El Rio del Tiempo” or as I call it “The Mexican ride”.  The ride takes you inside a pyramid and features sites and sounds of the country that rednecks most fear: Mexico.  The ride has been updated recently to feature video footage of Donald Duck and a couple of other birds that at one time featured in some kind of b-movie Disney flop that I’ve never heard of.  I used to like the old version of this ride because it was so dated.  There used to be video screens showing you what vacations where like in Cancun and they featured sleazy men from the seventies with huge sideburns and bouffants of curly hair slithering their way to swim up bars where a bevvy of blonde’s who made Charlies Angels look unkempt waited impatiently for their over size cocktail glasses to be filled by a man who looked like Manuel from “Fawlty Towers”.  There also was a video montage from the seventies of some weird people doing an Aztec ceremony which used to seem nice enough until I saw “Apocalypto” since when I am glad it has gone because I can barely look at a pyramid these days without picturing either a headless body or Mel Gibson and I am not sure which is worse but either way that video has been replaced by a cartoon now.

The day at EPCOT is never complete without a ride on “Mission Space” which is the most intense ride in Orlando.  Gary Sinise gives the same speech each time before you board the flight to Mars and no matter how many times you ride it the G-force never gets any easier to deal with.  I always liked Gary Sinise even if he is best known as “that bloke who always has a role in Tom Hanks films” and if I were ever going to leave the planet Earth he is the kind of guy who I would trust to train me for life in space.  My daughter seemed to think we actually went to Mars and I jokingly praised her for helping us avoid the asteroid field we had encountered on the way.  She admitted to having been worried we’d crash but the she explained that “Astronauts never give up.”  I didn’t even know she knew what an astronaut was but evidently at age 5 she has already decided upon starting a career at NASA.  I guess at least that will allow her to make regular visits to Disney 20 years from now !

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