Category Archives: Travel

It’s a Toyota!

Island Blue Metallic Toyota Yaris, photo from Hodgson Toyota Newcastle (Note: I redacted the number plate myself)I’ve just arrived home from the Toyota dealer — with a contract to buy a 2016 Yaris. (It’s a 2014 model, design-wise, but was first registered in 2016.) I had considered getting an earlier model for less money, but I looked at the emissions and the fuel efficiency and the road tax and the insurance rating and the length of warranty remaining, and I decided to go for the more recent one even though I think the front grille makes it look like Yosemite Sam. I settled on the color Toyota calls “Island Blue Metallic” (do all auto manufacturers come up with such romantic color names? My last Toyota was a dark green they called “Woodland Pearl”), chosen from similar ones because I liked the color. I had been to the bank earlier and arranged a loan (my bank was offering an interest rate even lower than Toyota’s lowest and was also willing to consider my US income), so I was all prepared.

I had been pondering whether to buy a car this weekend or next, considering that I won’t be moving house for another three weeks, and it turns out that doing it today was perfect timing. The dealer has to arrange the road tax, which they can’t do on a weekend, so I test-drove it and put down a deposit, and I’ll pick it up next Friday. I still have to arrange insurance, but the dealer offers a three-day insurance policy that gives me time to sort my own, and I’ve got a couple of quotes already that I need to pursue.

The sales guy was explaining the controls, telling me that they were all pretty much where I would expect them, from having had Toyotas previously. “Except”, I said, “that the gearshift is to my left.”



It never gets old

I’ve lived in the UK for more than four years now. At the moment, I’m doing a fair amount of travelling for work — mostly from Newcastle to Cambridge or Macclesfield and back. As this morning’s train passed through the misty hills of County Durham, I found myself thinking, yet again, that travelling within the UK still gives me a sense of being on vacation. People often ask me why I feel more energized living in the UK, and I think this is a large part of it. I had visited the UK a couple of dozen times or so before moving here, so even when I’m working hard or spending time in a less-than-idyllic setting, life here always brings me a faint whiff of holiday. Even when I’m grousing about separate hot and cold taps or being called “Mrs” without being asked, there’s just something about the atmosphere…

Update: Wheelchair assistance issue at Global Entry

Early last week I wrote a long post about my first experience of airport wheelchair assistance during my recent trip to the US. The following day I wrote to Bruce P. Heppen, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), as the incident where the wheelchair assistant had inappropriately tried to help me with Global Entry had occurred at Washington Dulles Airport. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Mr. Heppen,

I received wheelchair assistance at IAD after arriving on BA 293 from LHR on the 28th of April. I am writing to alert you of a problem I observed that may indicate the need for additional training of your wheelchair assistants.

When the wheelchair assistant picked me up, I told her I had Global Entry, and she seemed to know what that was. We got there and she wheeled me up to the kiosk. Two or three times while I was using it the assistant tried to tell me what to click. The second time it happened, I assured her I was very familiar with how to use Global Entry, but I’m not sure she believed me. The third time, she did it while I was thinking about whether what was displayed was correct (I decided it was), but evidently she thought I was confused, and when she said “Click ‘Next'” I lost my patience and said “Don’t rush me!”

It later occurred to me that her behavior was highly inappropriate. Wheelchair assistants have absolutely no business watching what travellers do with Global Entry, let alone trying to help — it’s a matter of both traveller privacy and national security. If the CBP personnel monitoring the area sense that a traveller needs help, they will offer their assistance. CBP is authorized to do so, wheelchair assistants are not.

I hope you will take steps to address this urgent matter without delay.

Thank you for your consideration.


Elizabeth Buie

Mr. Heppen replied very quickly, apologizing on behalf of MWAA but saying that under Federal law it’s the airline’s responsibility to provide wheelchair assistance and the airlines have subcontractors for this service at each airport.

Now, I have no clue how individual airlines could be responsible for hiring their own wheelchair service providers, and I really thought it was the service provider that needed to be providing the training. But he said he would pass it along to BA, so I waited.

Tonight I heard from British Airways. They completely misunderstood my complaint — they apologized for the behavior of the wheelchair handler, and they got her to apologize too. I will grant them an attempt at empathy — they said they understood “how upsetting this must have been” for me — but even this statement misunderstood the issue. BA got in touch with Air Serv Corporation, the service provider, who had the assistant’s manager talk to her, and they all relayed to me an apology from the assistant, who “was just trying to help” but “now understands she overstepped her boundaries” in assisting me with Global Entry. BA told me that if I didn’t feel the matter had been resolved I could file a formal complaint with the US Department of Transportation. BA told me that according to my account her behavior

…did not comply with US Department of Transportation § 382.141 which states (a) As a carrier that operates aircraft with 19 or more passenger seats, you must provide training, meeting the requirements of this paragraph, for all personnel who deal with the traveling public, as appropriate to the duties of each employee. (2) You must also train such employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability.

Hmmm… The regulation says that the carrier must train all staff in how to treat people with disabilities, but it says nothing about a requirement to train them in how they should behave while a traveller is using Global Entry.

Admittedly, I did not convey to Mr. Heppen that I thought the responsibility belonged with the assistant’s employer, who had failed to provide adequate training for her regarding this area of assistance. And I really didn’t mean to get the assistant in trouble! I suspect it had never occurred to her that she should not even be watching me use Global Entry, let alone helping me with it, and I don’t blame her in any way for not being aware of the privacy and security issues. The only thing I fault her for is intruding into something that was none of her business, but that pales in comparison to Air Serv’s failure to train her properly.

So here’s what I sent to British Airways in response to their email:

Dear Ms. Altadonna,Thank you again for your substantial email. I see that my concern has been misunderstood, so I am writing to I clear things up.

Wheelchair assistants cannot be blamed for trying to help when they have not received adequate training in their duties regarding how to behave when someone they are assisting uses the Global Entry kiosk. “Global Entry is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” (from I feel fairly confident that most wheelchair assistants have not been pre-approved as low-risk travelers and thus I maintain that they should never see, let alone influence, what a traveler enters into the kiosk. If they sense that a traveler needs assistance with Global Entry, they should summon a CBP official to provide it.

Yes, the wheelchair assistant made an incorrect assumption about my abilities. (I admit I was tempted to tell her I had arthritis and not dementia.) But her assumption was not the real issue, and the burden of apology does not fall on her. That burden falls on Air Serv Corporation for failing to provide their staff with adequate training. I really do not want an apology, however; I want a change in behavior, a change in the system. I want an acknowledgment from Air Serv that they have the responsibility to ensure adequate training in this area; I want a commitment from them to provide it. This sort of behavior compromises not only traveler privacy and autonomy, but US national security.

I do wish to file a complaint, but against Air Serv Corporation, not against the assistant. Please let me know how I can do that.

FYI: I have reported this incident to CBP.

Please see my blog post about my wheelchair assistance experience:
I am about to post an update.

Your cabin crews were all marvellous, by the way. Nobody patronized me, and they all provided exactly the help I needed when I asked for it.

Elizabeth Buie

The “update” I mention at the end of my letter to BA is the one you are reading right now. Stay tuned.

Note to Air Serv: Your website is dreadful. And have you noticed that your logo and typeface look eerily like Global Entry’s? Hmmm…

Airport wheelchair assistance: a first experience

I recently travelled to the US and back, spending time on the East Coast with family and friends and then going to California for a conference. My trip involved six flights total, two for each change of location. Since the last time I flew I’ve developed osteoarthritis in my left hip, which restricts my movement somewhat and makes it painful to walk, and most of the time I use a cane (UK: stick). When I’m not burdened by luggage (even a rolling bag can make things worse) I can usually walk short distances with little pain, but transatlantic travel involves both a carry-on bag and a checked bag, and many airports (especially London Heathrow) require substantial walking. (I’ve learned that when I use Heathrow I often end up having walked a total of five miles on that day.) So I decided to request wheelchair assistance in getting through the various airports. Although this was a necessity for me under the circumstances, it wasn’t all roses.

Herewith the story of my experience.

Newcastle to Washington

For a noontime departure I would ordinarily have taken public transportation (bus and Tyne and Wear Metro) to the airport, which with my senior pass would have been free for me. With two bags and a cane, however, I needed to take a taxi, which cost me about £15 each way.

Newcastle (departure)

Specialized airport wheelchair (link will open in a new window)I managed to get my two bags to the bag drop, walking gingerly, and went to traveller assistance to request a wheelchair. The agent asked for my boarding pass, did something on his computer, and gave it back to me and directed me to a waiting area. Not long thereafter a woman arrived with a specialized wheelchair for airport use (see photo), which was narrow and with a shelf underneath for a carry-on bag. The arms lift to let the person sit from the side, where access is easier. It has a basket in back for a small handbag or something, but mine was too large for it and in any case I also had my cane and the poster I was to present at the conference. The wheelchair got me fast-track through security and boarding. The aide wanted to help with my security baggage management, but this is the sort of thing I have to do myself because I know where my electronics and liquids are and I needed to get them out and put them into the security bin myself. I guess they don’t expect wheelchair passengers to have a laptop, a tablet, a pedometer, and three cell/mobile phones. :-)

London Heathrow (transfer – leave UK)

Wheelchair assistance passengers are asked to wait until all other passengers (I hate hearing transportation companies call them “customers”, but that’s a rant for another time) have deplaned before they leave the aircraft. I guess they think we’ll be slower to get off and will slow the others down, which is probably a reasonable assumption. But they give us aisle seats, which means we have to get up to let our seatmates off and then sit back down to wait. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been completely unable to stand.

I was pleased to note that the wheelchair assistance agent at Newcastle had arranged for assistance at Heathrow as well, and they were waiting for me at the entrance to the jetway (UK: air bridge). That part, at least, is well organized. One aide pushed me to a waiting area inside the airport, where I sat for about 15 minutes, then another one came to get me; he took me to the Special Assistance Lounge in Terminal 5, where I waited for more than two hours for boarding. The description in the airport guide (see link above) is not quite right: the lounge is not “fully catering” because they have a very small number of electrical outlets/sockets in one area of the lounge and because all they have to eat or drink is water and you have to go around the corner a hundred feet or more to get anything else. I didn’t find out about the outlets until I was about to leave the lounge, as the aide didn’t mention them but just placed me in front of one of the TVs. Sigh.

The aide who took me to the lounge insisted that I needed a paper boarding pass (I had checked in online and had a mobile one), so he got one printed. That was probably OK, though, because the lounge staff held onto it while I was there, so that they could ensure another aide was available when my flight was about to board. This time I needed to go to a different area of the terminal, so they sent me with another passenger in a beeping electric cart. We descended in a large elevator to the bowels of Terminal 5, where the ceilings were full of pipes and tubes and the walls were replete with doors that required a badge to open. That was the most interesting part of this experience — getting to see a part of the airport that must be off-limits to most passengers.

I showed the gate agent my mobile boarding pass, and she exclaimed at how high-tech I was. Nobody has ever made such a comment while I was walking without assistance; did she expect me to be senile as well as disabled? Grrrrr…

Washington Dulles (arrival – enter US)

Again, an aide was waiting for me when I arrived. I told her I had Global Entry, and she seemed to know what that was. We got there and she wheeled me up to the kiosk. I know the kiosks accommodate travellers with various disabilities, but I didn’t see any that were low enough to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, so we used a regular one. Because I wasn’t standing, the photo that was supposed to show my face showed instead the crowd in the background behind me. Oops!

Two or three times while I was using the kiosk the aide tried to tell me what to click. The second time, I assured her I was very familiar with how to use it, but I’m not sure she believed me. The third time, I had been thinking about whether what was displayed was correct (I decided it was), but evidently she thought I was confused, and when she said “Click ‘Next'” I lost my patience and said “Don’t rush me!” It later occurred to me that she shouldn’t have been watching at all, let alone telling me how to answer — it’s a matter of both traveller privacy and national security — so when I had my Global Entry renewal interview a couple of days later I reported the incident to the CBP officer (who strongly agreed with me) and said I thought it was probably an issue of airport training of wheelchair aides. I hope they manage to do something about it. In any case, if it ever happens again I’ll be prepared to insist that the aide not even watch. (I hope I don’t need to cross the Atlantic again before I get my hip replaced.)

The same aide got me to the Hertz shuttle bus, whose driver asked if I wanted to give her (the aide) something. It had not previously occurred to me that I needed to tip these people in the US, and I’m afraid that what I gave her was a wee bit less than what is customary. I later looked it up, and the consensus in the discussion forums was for at least $20 for this amount of service. Yowza!

Washington to San Jose

The wheelchair assistance folks were expecting me, and they didn’t have to enter new info into their system. Kudos to the Newcastle folks for arranging the whole shebang.

Washington to Dallas / Ft. Worth (outbound)

TSA Pre-Check logo (will open in a new window)This time they were using a regular wheelchair, and the aide placed my carry-on bag between my feet and I had to hold it with my knees. I sailed through security because for this flight I got to go through the TSA Pre-Check line. (Note to readers and especially to the Transportation Security Administration: Pre-Check has the stupidest logo in all of government (see image). The graphic checkmark fails to convey the word “check” and leads most people to call the program “Pre”. Also, not everyone calls that graphic a “check” — Brits call it a “tick”, for example — so even if it did imply a word it wouldn’t necessarily be “check”.)

Except for the logistics of the carry-on bag, this was the smoothest of all my wheelchair adventures so far. My tip this time was, I think, commensurate.

Dallas / Ft. Worth to San Jose (transfer)

A long ride in mostly regular wheelchairs, again with my carry-on between my knees, and with two different aides. The first one was surprised at how far I had to go to my next gate, and he started weaving quickly in and out of the foot traffic, trying to get me to my gate as fast as possible. I asked him not to do so much back-and-forthing, and he said he had to hurry back for another passenger. I pointed out that that was no reason to make me uncomfortable, and he agreed and stopped doing it. The next trip was just from the gate to the door of the plane (down two ramps and a jetway), and I tipped both aides according to the length of the trip.

San Jose (arrival)

Regular wheelchair, as I recall, to the airport shuttle pickup point. No problems.

San Jose to Newcastle

San Jose (departure)

This was the best of my airport wheelchair experiences — although the aide was new and somewhat inexperienced, she was so nice and not in the least patronizing, and as she pushed me we talked about our respective studies. This one I tipped a little more than what I understood was customary for the work and she appreciated it very much. At the gate she put me where I requested, next to an outlet, and I got an hour’s worth of work done. The same aide came back to wheel me to the plane, and after I boarded I felt bad that I been so focused on getting myself to my seat that I hadn’t said a final good-bye to her. What a lovely young woman.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to use Pre-Check this time, as I was on British Airways and they don’t participate in the program. That will make me think twice about using BA for future travel to the US.

London Heathrow (transfer – enter UK)

Again, an aide wheeled me from the plane to a wheelchair waiting area. Since I had four hours before my next flight, I waited there about an hour before they got someone to take me to the Terminal 5 lounge. People kept arriving who had flights earlier than mine, and they were taken first. I agree that people should be taken first who might otherwise risk missing their connections, but I don’t think that someone who has 3.5 hours should be taken before me at 4 hours if I got there half an hour before they did. This waiting area had no sockets and no amenities except toilets. The staff member asked if I had any liquids, and when I said yes she started reciting a list. I looked at her blankly, wondering why she was going on about it, especially as most of the ones on her list are not the kinds of things I carry (odd that she didn’t mention contact lens solutions :-), and she must have thought I didn’t know what she was talking about. I assured her that I was accustomed to flying, saying that I had crossed the Atlantic more than a hundred times (this is true), and then I showed her the plastic bag of fluids from my handbag, which is the way I always carry them. (Strictly speaking they aren’t all liquids, but why quibble with airport staff over physics? :-) I wanted to say to her, “Look, I’ve got arthritis, not dementia.” Grrrr…

The first aide who came to get me in that waiting area was smallish, and she complained about the heaviness of my carry-on bag, so a manager came along and insisted to me that my bag was too heavy and her people were pushers only and not lifters of bags. She said I’d have to lift it myself through security and advised me not to bring so much stuff in the future. This was the only time anyone had complained about having to lift my bag. It doesn’t make sense to me, as most people have carry-on bags and I’d think wheelchair assistance would automatically include assistance with the baggage. The aide didn’t ask what kind of passport I have and automatically took me through the “normal” (UK/EU) side, but fortunately the Border Control agent was understanding (no doubt because I was in a wheelchair) and everything went smoothly from that perspective.

I finally got to the Terminal 5 special assistance lounge, but as I had a lot less time there than I had expected I decided not to dig out my laptop and try to work. Having just come off the longest flight I’d ever had and not having gotten the 3+ hours of sleep that I usually manage to get on transatlantic flights, I was rather jetlagged.

This time it was a shortish distance to the plane from the gate, so I agreed to walk while a BA gate agent wheeled my bag on board.

Newcastle (arrival)

The aide here was chatty and pleasant, and everything went smoothly. He wheeled me out to the passenger pick-up area and helped load my bags into the taxi.

Overall Observations

The pluses of this service were more or less what I expected, except for the first one on the list below. The minuses were much greater than what I expected.


  • Having to arrange the service only once, not at each airport for each flight
  • Fast-track security and boarding
  • Speedy movement through airport
  • Not having to do all that walking (duh!)


  • No real way (as far as I could tell) to arrange the service to begin on arrival at airport, had to get to bag drop first
  • Tips in the US (I think I spent at least $75 in total)
  • Waiting in areas and “lounges” with no real amenities
  • On landing, being last to deplane
  • Heathrow wheelchair assistance manager requiring me to lift my own bag
    (not all staff did this, but even if it had been only one it would have been too many)

I’d also like to say that on all six flights all of the flight attendents were wonderful. They cheerfully stored my CHI poster in the closet up front, and they treated me well. Thanks very much to British Airways and American Airlines for their great staff.

On the whole, I don’t think I could have made this trip without wheelchair assistance. But I do wonder how I would have managed if I hadn’t been able to stand or walk at all. Something to ponder.

An amazing story of loss and recovery

I’ve been in Aberdeen for a couple of days. It had come time for me to use or lose some East Coast (Trains) Rewards points (due to their takeover by Virgin and Stagecoach and their rebranding as Virgin Trains East Coast), so I decided to pay a visit to this city. I had never been here before, and it was the farthest I could go from Newcastle in a northerly direction. I won’t go into detail about what I’ve seen and done — that’s not the point of this blog post, and besides, this isn’t a travel blog. But something happened today that I think is worth recounting because it was so amazing.

East Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near AberdeenI had booked a rental car for yesterday and today, as I knew I’d need one to explore what I wanted to see in the surrounding area. Today I visited the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle first, just outside Inverurie, not far northwest of Aberdeen. (And nicely cared for by Historic Scotland, I might add.) As I was returning to the parking lot, I noticed that a car was having trouble parking, so I told them that my car was just next to the space they were trying to squeeze into and that I’d leave to make more room for them. But when I plopped into the driver’s seat, I realized that it was not, in fact, my rental car (although it was eerily similar). So I jumped out and got into the correct vehicle, and we waved as I left and they parked.

About an hour later, what with meandering and all, I arrived at my next destination, Huntly Castle. As I was gathering my stuff to get out of the car, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t find my camera. Oh no! I thought, and realized immediately that I must have left it in the car-that-wasn’t-my-rental-car. So I had a quick run-through of the castle, but I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was worried about how I was going to see about finding my camera. So I spoke with the very nice man who was staffing the shop, and he advised me to call 101, the non-emergency number for the police. I did that, and they took my details and said they’d keep an eye out in case someone turned it in. I decided to stop by the site again just in case — perhaps someone had gone hiking and the car was still there, I thought; or perhaps they had left the camera — and besides, it was only a five-minute detour from the route back to Aberdeen. My head was full of ways in which I was going to try to let the finder know how to contact me. I was, for example, going to tweet some of the photos I had already copied to my laptop but had not yet deleted from the camera. I was going to write a blog post here, describing the incident and begging the finder to contact me. As I arrived back at the stone circle, my head spun with possibilities, both positive and negative. (Did I ever mention how good I am at catastrophizing?)

The car was gone. I looked around for the camera, but nothing was to be seen. (I didn’t really think someone would have taken that approach anyhow.) A couple was walking down the path to the car park, so I stood at the gate, ready to ask them if they had seen anything. All of a sudden I noticed that the rock that was sitting on top of the information board had something white sticking out from beneath it. I went to take a closer look, and lo! it said: “Lost camera found! Call me <mobile number>”. So I rang, and got voicemail. I left a message of effusive thanks — accompanied by my own mobile number, of course — and headed off to a nearby cafe for a well-earned break. I hadn’t gone 50 feet when my phone rang. I pulled over, grabbed it, and answered it eagerly. “I can’t believe you found my note!” the young American woman exclaimed. We arranged to meet in half an hour.

It turned out that Stephanie, the woman who had left me the note — the one who had my camera — was the driver of the car I was trying to help park. The other car was rented by an Australian couple, and since Stephanie and her husband are living in the Aberdeen area for a couple of years, she offered to take care of finding the owner. The Australian woman, she said, was miffed at her husband for not locking the car, but laughed that usually you expect to find something missing from what you had left in it. You don’t expect to find a nice camera added to your things. Stephanie went on to say that she had looked through the pictures, hoping to find one of me that she could use to search Facebook, but she found none; and she commented that I take gorgeous photos and not selfies. (I admitted that I do take the very occasional selfie, but I use my phone to do that because when I do, it’s just something I want to post to Facebook and the photographic quality is not very important.) So she decided she would use Google’s reverse image search — an excellent idea once I had uploaded to Flickr the previous days’ contents of the memory card (which I would have done this evening if we hadn’t found each other this afternoon). We had a good chuckle over all of the high-tech ideas that we had both had for putting ourselves together, when it was good old low-tech pencil and paper that really did the trick.

After I got back to my hotel I phoned 101 again and let the Scottish Police know that I’ve got my camera back. During this process I spoke to three different people at the help center, and all of them were extremely nice and personable. The last one was warmly glad about the positive outcome. Tomorrow I’m going to phone Historic Scotland and ask them to thank the man at Huntly Castle for his help.

In any case, all is well. I have my camera back and my faith in humanity nudged up a notch; and I’ve had glimpses of two Scottish castles that I want to return to visit when I have time to do them justice. All in good time; all in good time.

UK Registered Traveller: my first experience

While I was in the US last month I received an email from British Airways informing me that I was now eligible to apply to be a UK Registered Traveller. Under this program, people who are citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the USA, and who have a UK visa, can use the UK/EU queue when entering the UK. It also removes the requirement for filling out a landing card1, which asks the purpose of your visit, where and how long you will be staying, and what you are bringing into the UK2. I applied right away, and the approval came through while I was gone. So when I returned to the UK, I completed my enrollment at Heathrow. After confirming my details, the border agent gave me a card and told me to write my name and RT number on the back. The whole process was pretty easy, and I was delighted that they approved me in time for me to enroll when I returned. It costs £70 to apply for one year (of which £50 is refundable if you are denied), but I don’t know whether subsequent years are £70 or £50. I hope I will find out. :-)

I was surprised to read, in my approval email, that my card would be valid only until mid-January because my visa expires at that point. (I had missed the fact that to apply you have to have a UK visa.) But I’m working on staying anyhow, so once I have either a work visa or an extension to my student visa I will update my visa details and hopefully the rest of the year will be added.

Yesterday I used my card for the first time. I had gone to Switzerland to lead a workshop at UX Lausanne, and although the queue at the UK border was no shorter for UK/EU passports than for “other passports”, I wanted to try out my new privileges and see how it worked. While standing in the queue, holding my passport and my card, I caught the attention of the queue monitor, who asked if I was Canadian. (Evidently, Canadian passports are the same color as US ones.) I moved my hand so she could see my Registered Traveller card, and she said it was fine. The border agent did ask me what brought me to the UK (I replied that I live here — I love doing that :-) and I said, as I always do, “My visa is on page 20.” On this flight it didn’t really save me any time (although it was nice not to have to fill out the landing card), but on flights from the US it undoubtedly will, as most of the passengers are American.

1I wanted to include an image of a landing card, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one that offered the right to use it. Odd that the UK government doesn’t make it available.

2Fortunately, one can bring up to 2kg of mayonnaise, so my supply of Duke’s Mayo is safe.)

Senior bus pass!

Travel Pass photoThis week I received my “Concessionary Travel Pass“, the pass that allows older people to use local buses free after 9:30am and on weekends. Each country in the UK has its own pass, and since I live in England mine is good for any local bus service in England. (This includes the London buses!) The pass is free to anyone who has resided in the UK for at least six months — easy for me to show, because my UK driving licence, one year old, has my address on it — but you have to give them a passport-style photo, and that costs £5 in a photo booth. (You’re not supposed to smile, but I think it’s just that you’re not supposed to show your teeth, and I’m happy that I managed to get a faint smile into mine.) After my pass arrived, I took it in and paid £12 to have one year’s travel on the Tyne and Wear Metro (same hours) added on to it.

Folks, this is an incredible deal, especially for people who live in a city such as Newcastle, which is very well served by local buses and not badly served by a subway/light-rail line (Newcastle’s goes directly to the airport, for example). My pass arrived on Tuesday, I used it for the first time on Wednesday night, and in less than 48 hours it saved me more in bus fare than the £5 I spent on the photo. Now, I admit that two of the bus journeys I took were for trips I probably would have done on foot if I hadn’t had the pass, but in my defense I’ll note that those bus trips saved me at least half an hour and I spent that time working on my thesis.

One thing I like about the UK is that senior pricing generally starts at age 60. You are probably aware that I’m a little beyond 60 at this point, so you may be asking why I didn’t get this pass until now, especially since Nexus calls it the card “for people over 60”. Well, UK residents used to become eligible for these passes as soon as they turned 60. Several years ago, however, the government started increasing the age of eligibility, such that for every month your birthday is later, you have to wait an extra two months to get your travel pass. For example, my friend Sue is four months older than I am and she’s had her pass eight months longer.

I do have to be careful not to let this make me lazy.

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

And a few days in Rome

After a week in Torino I went to Rome for four nights. I was supposed to have four days in Torino and three in Bologna before proceeding to Rome, giving a seminar at UniBo, but something came up and Bologna had to be cancelled. Next time.

I didn’t get as much work done in Rome as I had in Torino, probably because I had less time there and there’s more to see. I know Rome very well, as my late husband had lived there for 20 years before emigrating to the US, and he and I went there together many times (his brother still lives in the area). I don’t carry a map when I visit Rome. Once in a great while I need to ask directions (usually if I’m looking for something specific that I haven’t visited before, or not often), but most of the time (and especially in the centro storico) I know very well where I am and how to get to where I want to go.

Detail, Fontana delle TartarugheThis time I walked some streets I hadn’t walked before. I wandered the Ghetto — I had been there before, but not all around it as I did last week — and I discovered (again) the Fontana delle Tartarughe (the Fountain of the Turtles), which Antonio and I happened on once and he exclaimed that he could never remember just where it was. Well, now I know, and I’m not likely to forget. This makes me happy. I also walked some of the streets of the area called Monti — north of the Foro Romano and south of the Termini train station. I was early for an aperitivo with a friend and took advantage of the time to wander. I love wandering and exploring.

I tried three times to go to St. Peter’s, and never made it. The first two times, the queue to get into the basilica was too long. The third time, Wednesday the 24th, Piazza San Pietro was full of people and Pope Francis was riding around the piazza in the Popemobile, greeting and blessing the people. I didn’t go inside — I didn’t feel like removing my backpack/handbag and my camera for the security scanner — but I watched from outside the barricades and I did see the pope (although from a distance). So that’s three popes in a row that I’ve seen in person, and I’m not even Catholic. :-)

I was sad to notice that my Italian has deteriorated a bit in the two-years-plus since my previous visit to Italy. I was aware of not pronouncing the words as easily and of working harder to get the grammar correct. This time, although lots of Italians complimented me on how well I speak the language, no one asked me if I was Italian. Guess I’ll just have to go back more often. :-)

I have returned to the UK energized and ready to get moving on finishing my PhD. I have to complete AR-2 (my second annual review) in just over three weeks, and then to plan and execute a couple of workshops. After AR-2 I go to Finland (Helsinki) to present at NordiCHI 2014 the paper that Mark Blythe (my primary supervisor) and I wrote on science fiction, design fiction, and imaginary abstracts for techno-spirituality research. I’ve never been to Finland before (not been anywhere in Scandinavia, actually), and although I won’t be taking any time before or after the conference to travel around I’m looking forward to seeing what I can of it.

The most difficult thing about coming back to the UK was remembering to speak English to strangers (on the street, in shops, etc.). Haha. But I’m over that now. :-)

Oh, and I lost three pounds in Italy.

A refreshing week away

I’ve just spent almost a week in Torino, Italy, a city where I spent 25% of my time for 18 months, 25 years ago. I learned some things about the city that I had not known before:

  • Torino has 18 kilometers (more than 11 miles) of portici (covered sidewalks), and many of them go along what were the old city walls. Many were built when Torino became the capital of Italy, to add a common façade to a row of buildings and give the city a clean, unified look.
  • Some streets have continuous portici over the cross streets on one side but gaps across them on the other. This is because the side without the gaps was intended for the use of the nobles.
  • The city does have a medieval section (which I had never noticed before, if I had seen it at all), although it is tiny compared to those one finds in many (if not most) other Italian cities.
  • The Borgo Medievale (in the Parco del Valentino) is not only a reconstruction (which I knew), but is one that reflects what the 18th Century fantasized that the Middle Ages were like.

I’ve walked and walked and walked. On the side of the river where most of the city lies, Torino is almost completely flat, and one can walk forever without tiring (except for one’s feet). I walked eleven miles on my first day, then seven, five, six, seven, and four. I thought I wasn’t going to do much today because some friends took me to a nearby town for lunch, but I did manage to do nearly four miles after I got back. And even with all of this walking, I still managed to transcribe three interviews for my PhD research. (If you have any idea how long this takes, you’ll be impressed. :-)

I feel refreshed. And slightly lighter, perhaps. I may do this again in the spring. I certainly want to do it when the air is clear and the Alps are visible.