Friday, September 30, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - A Shameful Admission of Failure

Failure!  Ah, the bitter sting of an ambition unfulfilled.  Keen followers of this blog will know that I travelled to St Paul, Minnesota for the sole purpose of visiting a vegan butcher in Minneapolis.  There I intended to take a selfie of myself consuming a meat based product and send said photo to certain vegan friends of mine who hopefully have a great sense of humour and wouldn't murder me on my return.

Well karma didn't like this (admittedly slightly malicious) plan and gave me a thorough bitch slapping as a consequence.  First Amtrak delivered me to St Paul some six hours late.  As I result I arrived in mid afternoon rather than in the morning.  After dropping my bags I then had to get to Minneapolis.  That was easy, unfortunately that's where easy ended.

Minneapolis seemed deserted when I arrived.  There are broad streets and big solid looking buildings but with the exception of those who got off the light rail with me (who rapidly vanished) there didn't seem to be any people.  Part of this was no doubt due to the fact that it was the middle of the week and most people were at work, school or court ordered rehab programs.  However part of it was to do with the fact that Minneapolis is obviously an indoor city.  Winter probably plays a large part in this.  Those big solid buildings all seemed to have shops inside them, taking up the first few floors no matter what else the building might be used for.  They also have sky bridges to allow people to get from on to the other without actually having to leave.  I crossed three blocks and managed to get a bit lost without actually going outside.  In fact towards the end I got a bit panicky trying to find a way out, I think I may actually have used a service access.

Back out on the streets I looked for public transport.  Minneapolis has plenty of this and the bus route map looked like a plate of tortured spaghetti.  One route ran straight past where I needed to go but I couldn't tell which one or where it started (and to be fair I was only aware in the broadest sense of where I actually was at the time) with shoulders slumped I admitted defeat.  It was cold and getting dark, hoping none of the handful of people around could sense my inner shame I slunk onto the light rail back to St Paul in utter defeat.  On the other hand...

I ate an elk!  At least I ate part of one.  As I slouched dejectedly back to my accomodation I passed a burger bar my host had recommended.  I entered and there it was on the menu; elkburger.  How could I resist?  Gator burgers were also on offer but I stuck resolutely to elk.  With onion rings of course.
For those vegans who have been chuckling at my tale of woe and are now horrified at my random elk butchery I offer this comfort.  Compared to the size of a full grown elk the amount I ate was sufficiently small that it is at least theoretically possible that the elk in question is still alive somewhere.  And what a story he's got to tell his kids.

Travelling Hopefully - Missing Everything of Interest

There is beautiful scenery going through the Glacier region of western Montana.  I know this because my rail car attendant told me so when I mentioned that I'd been asleep in my cabin for the past two hours.  I couldn't help it, I'd been awake for the previous thirty hours due to various Amtrak related issues and I desperately needed to sleep.  I did see some nice scenery when we left Spokane and followed what I believe was the Kootenay River through scenic mountain stuff.  The water was a glassy green and apparently thronged with salmon.  Mind you they could have been piranha for all I know, I didn't exactly get a good look at any from the train.

A person familiar with the area announced that a swing bridge and some picturesque falls were coming up.  I waited, camera in hand but unfortunately somebody had parked a massive freight train at that point and I didn't get so see either of them.  I did get to see an extremely long freight train mind you.  Then as previously mentioned I went to bed.

I woke up to rolling cattle country.  One can always tell when you're passing through a rural area.  The twin markers of rusting vehicle wrecks and sheds that are falling apart tells you that civilisation has arrived or at least thrown away its crappy cars and collapsing sheds on its way past.  I think I saw a tumbleweed but it may just have been a bush that had fallen on its side.

After passing through rolling cattle country I passed through more rolling cattle country and then some more after that.  Eventually the rolling cattle country ended and I went through corn country instead.  That went on for quite a while.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - City of Squirrels

Portland really does have a lot of squirrels.  My hosts must have been getting sick to death of them by  the time I left as I insisted on mentioning them every time I saw them.  They were genuinely surprised that Australia doesn't have any squirrels of our own.  I mentioned that we have rabbits which cheered them up a bit until I added that we've been trying to murder them all for the last couple of centuries.

I appalled my hosts by dining at Applebee's one night despite the plethora of nice restaurants in the vicinity but they were more approving of my breakfast choice which was a rather nice diner/cafe five minutes walk (squirrels!) from where I was staying.  I had waffles with syrup, a side order of peppered bacon and a gallon jug of not terribly good coffee.  I felt incredibly American, I even left a tip.  Of course I pushed my cultural assimilation a little too far the next day (squirrels!) when I ordered French toast with peanut butter and grape jelly.  After that experience I scuttled back to the waffles and bacon.

My first day in Portland had been all about Powells Books.  On the second day (squirrels!) I just wandered around town.  I hit a couple of market which were selling the sort of things you get in markets; hand crafted this and ethically sourced that.  Plus elephant ears!  There was a food cart selling elephant ears and I bought one out of sheer curiosity.  Elephant ears turn out to be a monstrously sized wodge of deep fried batter dusted in sugar and cinnamon.  One diabetic episode later and I was ready to return to my accommodation.

My hosts, Meaghan and Kaylee were a charming couple who gave helpful advice, tolerated random squirrel rants and my Amtrak induced unreliability.  Amtrak would get a chance to redeem itself the next day (you already know how that worked out) but for now, squirrels!

Travelling Hopefully - A Book Store Surrounded by a City

Although due in at 3.30 pm I didn't get to Portland until after sundown.  Night had fallen and was sprawled inelegantly across the city like a drunk in a gutter by the time I arrived by which time my hosts could have been forgiven for thinking I wasn't going to turn up at all.  I got into a cab and gave the driver the address,
"Where's that?" He asked.
"Portland," I replied in a fit of helpfulness.
Eventually he found the place and my hosts arrived just in time to stop me tearing the lockbox containing the house keys off the wall.  Dog noises emanated from inside the house and were revealed to belong to a pair of pug like animals who were disposed to be friendly.  There was also a cat whose attitude was a lot more ambiguous.

Squirrels!  I saw squirrels!  I was so excited I started taking photos of them.  Hopefully the neighbours whose lawn the squirrels were frolicking on realised it was just the squirrels I was interested in.  My hosts informed me that squirrels are quite common in these parts and they were a little bemused by my fascination with all things squirrel.

With the squirrel generated excitement temporarily over (it would recur throughout my stay) I took stock of my plans for the day.  Powell's Books!  Wow, that didn't take long.  Yes the truth is I only really came to Portland to check out this bookstore which was said to cover an entire block (spoiler alert, it does).  In keeping with my newfound sense of direction I didn't get lost on the way there.

Portland is a city I could get used to very quickly.  It's reasonably small with an unreasonably large amount of public transport.  Plus they also grow roses (and did I mention the squirrels?) although I didn't see any until I was actually leaving.  The Amtrak station has a rose garden out the front but of course I didn't see that when I arrived due to it being pitch black.

There were at least two street fair/market things happening when I entered the city both of which I ignored as I headed towards Powells.  Powells is as big and impressive as expected with colour coded rooms to help guide you around.  It also has a cafe so you can gloat over your new purchases with the assistance of caffeine.  The one criticism I would make is that while its broad it isn't necessarily deep.  It's sections on the Habsburgs and Byzantium were easily outmatched by what I have on my shelves at home.  Still I was able to pick up a few items (plus a birthday present for my brother), all in all I was lucky to get away with only spending a hundred dollars.

I hate Apple stores, large square glass boxes filled with people and tables and no apparent customer service centre.  I find them intimidating to enter and infuriating to experience once there.  Part of it is probably because I only go there when I want something specific, a discrete purchase that should be a five minute in and out job.  I'm not interested in getting my tablet to boil eggs or synching up my toilet so it can download my favourite songs from Netflix or whatever the fuck it is they do in these stores.  In this case, at the behest of a work colleague, I wanted an iTunes card (see what I go through for you Liza?).  Failing to find one (my fault, they were there) I walked to a table and waited to be served.  When that didn't work I did something clever.  Rather than look for a staff member I just looked at the nearest customers.  When they had finished talking to someone I grabbed him on the (accurate) assumption that he must work there.  Cornered, he gave me directions to the iTunes cards.  He couldn't serve me himself, apparently he wasn't that kind of shop assistant.

Of course once it looked like I might finger the merchandise a helpful young man detached himself from the throng so I could pay him.  He was a little thrown when I attempted to pay with green slips of paper signed by the US Treasury Secretary instead with a device that went "beep" but he rallied magnificently (having the correct change helped) and even provided me with a paper receipt although I do get the impression he had to pop out and cut down a tree in order to do so.

I emerged from Apple's Temple of Obscurity purchase triumphantly in hand and discovered something amazing about the Portland Apple Store.  It was less than a minute from the light rail that would take me back to my accommodation.  I'm really starting to like Portland.

Travelling Hopefully but with Increasing Impatience

Amtrak, my cross continental steed of choice introduced itself to me at Emeryville, a town across the bay from San Francisco.  It being nearly 11pm at night all I can say about Emeryville is that it's dark and not terribly well lit.  Amtrak got off to a bad start by being forty minutes late still for someone who's travelled the Lunatic Express a delay that can be measured in minutes seemed inconsequential. Remember the preceding statement, I will be paying for it.

The train itself was a big double decker thing which looked even bigger due to the American habit of designing their railway stations to look like vacant lots.  Thus rather than looking at the station from the level of a platform you peer up at it from the ground as it looms above you.  The staff were a strange combination of brusque efficiency and cheerful incompetence but eventually they loaded us up and got us rolling through the California night.

I travelled Coach (peasant scum) class to Portland and I have to say I am impressed.  There were big comfy seats that reclined, there were footrests, a little table and general comfort.  Sadly I had been placed in the brightest spot in the carriage so sleep was a little difficult.

We'd started forty minutes late, by the time morning came we were two hours late because apparently they had to nail the track down in front of us or something.  Somebody took advantage of our immobility to attach their own railway car to the rear of our train which I can only consider a piece of damned cheek.

Despite the delays the driver had obviously redlined the reactor or whatever powers the train (illegal immigrants in hamster wheels I suspect) as the train was due in Seattle, it's final destination seventeen minutes early.

And it turns out that sentence was written in a fit of blind optimism.  Apparently some clown at Union Pacific had managed to derail a freight car ahead of us.  As a result while waiting for the track to clear we waited for several hours at Salem, Oregon a town whose principal claim to fame is the fact that our train was delayed there for several hours.  I was supposed to get into Portland at 3.30 in the afternoon.  I arrived at 8.30 at night.

To derail one train might be accounted a misfortune, to derail two smacks of carelessness.  I left Portland for my three day journey across the American northwest.  I had a sleeper car and was feeling rather pleased with myself.  The train left Portland on time and made all the way to Pasco, Washington some hours up the track when the announcement was made.  Some halfwit freight jockey had jumped the tracks again and it was a doozy.  He'd actually managed to put the engine unit on its side and cranes to recover it wouldn't reach the scene for several hours when recovery work would begin.

In the meantime we were stuck in Pasco.  Amtrak rose to the occasion, they sent out for pizza.  Have I mentioned that our dining car was due to join us in Spokane on the other side of the derailment?  After four hours of sampling the delights of Pasco railway station ("an enchantingly long stretch on concrete artistically pitted with an abstract display of extinguished cigarette marks" gushed one excited critic who may have been somewhat sleep deprived at the time) Amtrak decided to take its bat, ball and train and go home to Portland.  Those of us with an irrational desire to reach our destination were herded onto buses to Spokane.

Spokane seemed nice if you take into account the fact that it was dawn, I was exhausted and would cheerfully have burnt Spokane to the ground if it put me back on time.  Kindly souls told me it wouldn't help and wrestled the lighter out of my hand.

We've all seen those anti terrorist ads about encountering abandoned parcels in public places.  Well they have them in America too.  So what did we do when we noticed an abandoned case on our bus? Grabbed it and tossed it to the driver on our way out.  In our defence if we had got Homeland Security involved we'd probably still be in Spokane.  And we're not, at the time of writing we're rocking and rolling (literally, the side to side motion on these things is a little disturbing) heading points east.  We're all grumpy and sleep deprived but Amtrak has gone one better.  They've pointed out that none of the train staff have slept for twenty four hours and could we please have some patience?  I hope that no sleep for twenty four hours statement doesn't include the driver.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Emperor Norton

I met an emperor!  Well, not really I met a man dressed as an emperor.  Well, not really I met a man dressed as a man who thought he was an emperor.  I've given Norton I, Emperor of the United States, Protector of Mexico a shout out before on this blog.  He was a failed businessman who went bankrupt due to an injudicious rice speculation and who appears to have gone completely out of his mind as a result.  One day in the 1860s he walked into the offices of a San Francisco newspaper and handed over a proclamation announcing his accession to the non existent throne and summarily dismissing the president and both houses of Congress.  The newspaper published the proclamation the next day and Emperor Norton had arrived.  Anywhere else he would probably have been locked up or completely ignored but not here.  He became an instant favourite with the people of San Francisco.  He dined in restaurants free of charge, had box seats for every opening night and paid his bills with "imperial treasury bonds" which were accepted as legal tender.  Incidentally if you ever come across one of these bonds keep hold of it.  Wells Fargo Bank has one on display in its company museum, it's valued at US$7,000.

I was going on a historical walking tour around San Francisco with an Emperor Norton impersonator as my guide.  The instructions were simple, go to Union Square and find Emperor Norton.  You wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find someone dressed as a madman dressed as an emperor would you?  Actually I found it difficult to locate Union Square.  The whole area around it is being dig up for a rail line and Union Square is surrounded by fences, boarding and what looks like hessian.  Inside all of this Union Square is still functioning but I walked past it twice before I realised it wasn't a construction site.

Eventually I found both Union Square and the emperor and along with a group of like minded individuals trotted off on a walking tour of the city.  Our guide, decked out in shabby, semi military finery worthy of the emperor himself guided us through the financial district, Barbary Coast and Chinatown with a fund of historical information about San Francisco in general and Emperor Norton in particular all related in the first person.  We went to the small park which was the site of the boarding house he lived in and the spot where, on his way to a meeting, he suffered a stroke and died.

Norton's funeral is still the largest to have happened in San Francisco.  Some two hundred thousand people turned out to pay their respects as his coffin was escorted to its final resting place.  I left my version of Emperor Norton alive and well and went to collect my luggage from my hosts.  A word about my hosts: Adrian & Kevin were amazing.  Anyone wanting to use Airbnb in San Francisco should check them out.

But now I was leaving San Francisco, ahead of me was a trolley ride, a brief walk, a bus ride and a train journey which collectively would deliver me to Portland, the next city in the US to be blessed with my presence.

Travelling Hopefully - Fire Engines and Prison Islands

I rose early the next morning determined to sample the breakfast delights I had missed out on the previous day.  Full of confidence I strolled down to the diner, it was closed.

After this auspicious beginning I hit the streets of San Francisco, my objective; a fire engine.  Open top bus tours of a city are nothing new but in this case the open top bus was a shiny red Mack fire truck, built in 1955, retired from the SFD in 1989 and now carting tourists with an actual or mental age of six through the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back again.  It looked exactly like my childhood impression of what a fire truck should look like, proof that American cultural imperialism is the bit of their imperialism that actually works.

Perhaps there is a goatherd in Tajikistan who doesn't know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  That goatherd is no doubt mocked mercilessly by his fellow goatherds for his provincialism and ignorance.  Suffice it to say that everyone else on the planet including the aliens who secretly rule us and the netherworldly demons who conspire against them know what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like.  And it doesn't matter.  It looks exactly as you think it's going to look and it's still breathtaking.  Sydney Harbour Bridge is pretty impressive but it is, and looks, massive.  Raw power is evident in every hulking inch.  The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a weightlifter, the Golden Gate is a gymnast.  The muscle is there but it's clothed in elegance.

After goggling appropriately at the  bridge we rolled back into town passing real or rather, current fire engines along the way.  Fire trucks are something you can always see in San Francisco for a very good reason according to our guide.  After the last major earthquake trapped a lot of the SFD's engines in their buildings a law was passed stating that a third of the departments vehicles must be on the streets at any given time.

But enough of fire engines, I had other, soggier fish to fry.  Alcatraz beckoned.  Pausing only to eat some chicken fried chicken in a restaurant decked out to be the worlds most implausible rainforest imitation I presented myself at the appropriate pier and was directed to the back of a very long queue.  San Francisco is still a working port (they import a third of their pollution from China for example) and while I was there a monstrous cruise ship turned up.  It's name was the Infinity Explorer which certainly takes flatulent pretentiousness to the level of an art form.

My transport to Alcatraz was a box shaped floaty thing of much more modest dimensions.  It was called the Alcatraz Flyer, a name I was prepared to dispute on aerodynamic grounds alone.  They poured us in through a hole in the Flyer's side and when it was full it struggled gamely off in the direction of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz wasn't always prison.  We are informed of this fact so that the boatload of human freaks with a ghoulish interest in what was effectively a human zoo feel a little better about themselves.  "We are going for the history," we tell ourselves, "part of the rich tapestry of human existence in the San Francisco area and we totally don't wish there were still a couple of prisoners around that we could prod with sticks."

Once there of course the mask was thrown off and we all charged for the cell block as quickly as a pack of out of shape, largely middle aged people could, ie not very swiftly at all.  The actual cell block is right near the top of the island unlike the dock which, for reasons of water accessibility, is located somewhere near the bottom.  Warnings abounded informing us of the arduous climb ahead of us and also mentioning that spaces on the little vehicle provided were limited and should be restricted  to those genuinely in need.  A brutal free for all erupted between the obese, the lazy and the occasionally genuinely disabled.  People who looked like there mere effort of drawing another breath would give them heart failure clawed and bit at each other in an effort to get on board.  I was halfway up the hill when the staff deployed the fire hoses but I believe they got it sorted out in the end.

"You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical assistance, everything else is a privilege."  Thus spake the welcome pack every prisoner received on arrival.  As a paying guest I was also entitled to an audio tour.  The voices on the audio tour were provided by a group of former guards and a group of former inmates.  This led me to conclude that the retirement provision for former guards must be disturbingly close to that for former violent criminals.  The audio tour was excellent and spiced with anecdotes from both sides.  Since Alcatraz, like most disused government buildings, is essentially a series of empty rooms (albeit many of them quite small) the audio tour was essential for adding the necessary colour.

After exhausting the interest value of the cell block (which took nearly two hours) I made my way back down to the dock where I joined another very long queue waiting for the ferry to leave.  Disaster!  There were too many of us for the boat.  If this was West Africa the captain would have pocketed a little baksheesh and let us on anyway but here in San Francisco the captain spitefully adhered to the safety regulations and departed leaving those of us stranded on the dock cursing the Fates (and in one case the IRS but that was because a close friend was gaoled for tax fraud).  Just when all hope seemed lost a boxy, borderline seaworthy shape appeared.  It was the Alcatraz Flyer wallowing gamely to our rescue.  I'm getting rather fond of the Alcatraz Flyer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - Not Getting Lost in San Francisco

My host directed me to a spot he said was superb for breakfast.  I went to the wrong place and demanded food.  Fortunately I had walked into a sports bar rather than a dry cleaners and the staff were quite happy to accommodate me, particularly as the rest of their clientele wouldn't be turning up for another eight hours.  After a breakfast of spicy chicken burger and garlic fries I wandered off down Market Street.  Feeling vaguely compelled to not let my host down I managed to find my original breakfast destination.  All I could manage by this stage was a cup of coffee but I like to think they appreciated the effort.

Replete with coffee, albeit some twenty minutes after breakfast, I went for a walk and didn't stop for quite a while.  Working on the theory that it's impossible to get lost if you don't know where you're going I struck out with confidence.  An imposing building caught my eye and I altered course to intercept it, fortunately it wasn't moving very quickly.  The building got even more imposing as I approached and it was eventually revealed to be the San Francisco city hall.  It graciously paused for a photograph before we went our separate ways.

After that I headed down Larkin Street (see, still not lost) in the, as it turned out, justifiable belief that I would eventually reach the bay.  Several eventuallys later I was indeed overlooking San Francisco Bay.  I invite you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine the scene; the tang of salt in the air, fishing boats unloading the days catch, sailors of a dozen nations races and creeds rubbing shoulders as they go about their business.  Have you got all that?  Good, because it was nothing like that.  Instead there were souvenir shops, more seafood restaurants than a location at the water's edge could possibly justify and honking big sea lions.  Or if you prefer it big honking sea lions.  Also there were some of the most impressive looking seagulls I've ever seen.  At least I think they were seagulls, they definitely weren't ducks.  Some ducks had been provided for easy comparison.

Having reached Fisherman's Wharf I wandered along it checking out the sea lions, ducks and probably seagulls until I reached the Musee Mechanique.  It was free to enter so I did and checked out at first hand how people entertained themselves before the invention of play stations.  Not far away a World War II submarine isn't on display.  To explain that last sentence I should point out that a World War II submarine normally is on display but some time prior to my arrival it was taken away to dry dock, something they have to do from time to time to maintain it at peak readiness or at least stop it from sinking permanently below the waves.  There was an audio-visual tour of the submarine shaped hole in the bay but I decided to give it a miss.

Since I was in the vicinity I decided to justify my presence by checking out the starting points for my next day's tours.  That done I bought an ice cream and left the sea lions, buskers and souvenir sellers alone in their domain.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Travelling Hopefully - American Customs

My plane was late arriving in San Francisco due to the aforementioned issues hosing the straw off it in Sydney.  Once it spat me into the terminal building I found myself being closely questioned by a customs officer.  "Why have you come to America?" is fair enough as is "Where are you going in America?" But "Why are you going to New York when your return flight leaves from San Francisco?" seemed a little much particularly since after sitting on a 747 for seventeen hours I couldn't come up with a coherent explanation.  I think I said something like, "New York, big buildings, yay!".  As for the coming back to San Francisco part the real answer is that I was making up the holiday as I went along but I doubt if that would have impressed him.  Eventually after making me sweat for a while he released my passport and waved me through.  I'm still not sure if he was genuinely suspicious or whether as a proud San Franciscan he honestly didn't know why anyone would want to go to New York.

Through absolutely no skill on my part I've managed to fall on my feet in San Francisco.  I'm staying in The Castro a predominantly gay part of the city.  My host, a charming gentleman named Adrian greeted me with Bloody Marys and a lunch invitation.  Just the thing at midday on a Monday when you're trying to stave off jetlag.  It worked so well that I'm currently writing this blog entry while clinging to a table top and holding my eyelids open with paper clips.

First impressions of San Francisco?  It's hilly, quite hilly.  If you climb to the top of a hill you will be treated to the sight of another hill.  Possibly it's just the area I'm in but the people seem quite friendly.  At least the restaurant staff were quite happy to serve someone whose jetlag status had reached drooling on a plate stage without any qualms.

After a semi delirious car ride (I was semi delirious, not the car) I was released onto the streets where I proved that near terminal brain disfunction wasn't enough to stop me from finding and buying coffee the consumption of which is the sole cause of any passing resemblance to coherence this blog entry possesses.

Now, however I am done for the day.  The afternoon sun is warm and my eyeballs are contemplating claiming asylum in someone else's body.  My body thinks they already have.

Travelling Hopefully

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Which is proof if proof were needed that all you need to do to gain a reputation for wisdom is state the bleeding obvious in a sufficiently portentous voice.  A foreign accent also helps.  If you can achieve the latter you will find yourself in the happy position of having a wide eyed pack of awestruck acolytes treating your miscellaneous collection of desk calendar quotes as holy writ.

A somewhat less well known corollary to the piece of wisdom disseminated above is that if that single step had been at Sydney Airport the philosopher in question would probably have turned around and gone home.

I actually think Sydney Airport has improved since I was last here.  It still manages to be aggressively bland (an impressive trick in itself) but it seems to have been decorated or at least cleaned since the last time I was here.  Everything is the same but it all seems a little brighter.  As I sat there I was able to imagine that my soul might not get sucked completely out of my body.  This turned out to be fortunate as I spent an hour longer there than I intended.  Apparently the stable boys had some difficulty coaxing my plane out of its stall.

Eventually though we were herded onto our noble steed of the stratosphere and catapulted in the general direction of San Francisco.  A menu was handed out offering us a choice between Texas beef and chicken cacciatore.  I received duck a l'orange and the woman next to me who had asked for a vegetarian meal was given cheese sandwiches and an apple which seems to be stretching the term vegetarian (to say nothing of the term "meal") to breaking point.  For dessert I had what was probably an ice block although it was a little difficult to tell with my tongue and lips stuck to it.

Despite these minor inconveniences (I can call them minor because I wasn't the one starving because they forgot my meal) the plane is about to deposit me on the tarmac in San Francisco.  Now all I have to do is figure out how to get from the airport to The Castro, something I might have been wise to work out earlier.  I tried to look out the window as we came in to land but all I saw was the back of my neighbour's head.  Since she was half mad from hunger by this stage I didn't consider it wise to press the point.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Silly After Action Report Part 3 - Right Down to the Wire

It was with a small measure of despair that I picked up my game with Ivan Kent for the final few turns of Polish Panzerjagers.  With my centre force crushed I could see little hope of victory.  Still I resolved to fight on at least for a while in the hopes of better fortune.

Better fortune arrived, for Ivan.  Over in the north a pair of PzIIs had been facing off a pair of Ivan's tanks and looked set to remain in frozen immobility for the remainder of the game.  Then I had managed to introduce an atr toting squad to the occasion and Ivan decided it was time to move.  He started up one tank, and rolled it past my atr squad.  I fired and missed but I wasn't too downhearted.  He only had one way to go, straight past a PzII (with an 8-1 armour leader).  He moved forward, I fired and broke MA.  Ivan trundled his tank away with impunity placing it where it could overlook the battlefield then, with nothing left to fear he did the same with the other.  I may have offered to concede at that point but I regained my nerve and played on.

The rest of Ivan's turn consisted largely of slinking out of my line of sight with one dreadful exception.  Over in the south he had a HIP unit that had sternly held its fire while pretty much the entire German army had rolled by on either side of it without ever entering the hex.  Now with my troops up on the hilltops he revealed it and made a dash for my already captured level 3 hexes in the south west.  I may have screamed just a little.  Fortunately my incompetence now came to my assistance.  I have already noted that I felt I had brought on some of my troops too late in the game.  One 5-4-8 squad with an mmg and 9-1 leader was thus lagging behind my main push from the southern hills.  I needed them forward but needs must and they set out in pursuit of Ivan's squad.  I'm pleased to say they caught it and broke it before it could capture more than one hill hex which they then managed to retake.

Back in the main battlefield a brief lull settled over the centre as various officers of mine tried desperately to cobble a battlegroup together out of a mess of shattered units.  In the south however I eased forward, capturing a few more single hex buildings and a couple more hill hexes.  I pushed forward a PzII to provide at least a pretence of protection from the trio of Polish tanks now rolling up the village street to add some weight to his defence.  I had other plans for my PzIV.  Single hex buildings were all very well but if I wanted any chance to win I had to grab a couple of those big multihex five pointers.  One of them was well within reach in the southeast.  There was also one well within reach in the centre but I had nothing to reach it.

While my troops hopped nervously forward to capture the most apparently vulnerable of his single hex buildings I managed to build up a multisquad force to take the southeastern building.  Unfortunately it was defended by an elite squad with an hmg and an 8-1 officer.  Sleaze from my PzIV was the order of the day.  Capturing that building was actually a little anticlimactic as bounding fire broke the squad and I essentially just walked in.

Not far away Ivan poked one of his tanks around the corner to challenge my guarding PzII.  My PzII opened fire, and broke its MA.  In return Ivan gained a shock result.  I recovered from that the next turn whereupon Ivan shocked it again.  With the big building captured my PzIV moved on to the next target pausing only to break its MA along the way.

You may recall to the left of centre Ivan had a squad, 9-1 and hmg guarding a building (and a flank) which had cheerfully slaughtered a tank and anything else that had tried to approach.  It followed this up by shooting an adjacent squad of mine out of a building it had taken and recapturing it.  They say that doing the same thing again and expecting a different result is a sign of insanity.  I did the same thing again (vehicle sleaze followed by squad assault) and this time it worked and I managed to take back both the building I'd lost and the hmg squad's original home.

Meanwhile my 81mm mortars were proving that bringing them on late really was my worst mistake.  After dropping smoke onto both of his remaining 75mm guns they then shot up and managed to shock both of Ivan's tanks that had swanned past my PzII guards.  This was helpful as my one remaining PzII over there and my heretofore impotent atr squad had done a run down the northern side to try and snatch a couple more level 3 hexes.  Thanks to my mortars they were able to do so, a few more VPs for Neil.

Which only leaves the centre.  I had managed to rally a squad and a half hiding in trees and another halfsquad hiding under the dubious protection of one of my burning tanks.  Ivan shot at these worthies and they promptly went berserk and charged the full squad that had had the temerity to open fire on them.  I said a quick prayer and didn't expect to hear from them again but bless their little berserk cotton socks if they didn't shrug off all defensive fire, plunge into close combat and kill an entire squad thus delivering up another building to me.

With one turn to go a quick count up of VPs stunned us both.  I was only about four short of the total I needed.  One multihex building would win it for me.  There was one (just) within reach.  In the centre just past the small hill which had been the grave of so many of my hopes.  Ivan had it garrisoned with a squad but yet another of my PzIs was sitting in bypass in the hex preventing it from firing out.  To boost his firepower Ivan had brought up one of his tanks from the southeast which was now sitting exactly where I needed to run if I were to reach the building.  To add to the fun he had a squad and mmg covering the road I would need to cross.  I had a crew with a captured mmg right next to his tank, I opened fire and blew the thing up in a mass of flames, now I had a little cover.  I CXed a squad and leader forward, over the hill and into the newly created smoke.  Ivan fired his mmg but didn't get a result.  I had more troops coming in from the south led by an 8-1 leader, they seized the other hex of the building and to add the final touch I brought forward the crew of my 37mm gun (which I never even bothered unhooking from its truck) to also go for the building.

It all came down to the final CC.  Ivan had a squad.  I had a CX squad, a crew and an 8-1 leader.  Ivan rolled, snake eyes.  He promptly withdrew from CC into the other hex of the building and I was left just a point or two short.

This one had some wild swings of fate.  I honestly thought I had no chance after my centre was destroyed, Ivan and I seriously discussed a concession at the end of turn 6, I'm so glad I kept on despite losing by an eyelids width at the end.  Cheers to Ivan for an awesome game.  Incidentally no photos in this one as I was too gripped to reach for my camera the entire time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Silly After Action Report Part 2 - My Panzers are Getting Jagered

I scarce know how to begin.  My cheeks are wet with tears and the groans of my heart are fit to drown my words.  Nemesis has descended among my troops and it turns out she's a real bitch.

As you were probably expecting things haven't gone so well for me in the second part of my game of Polish Panzerjagers with Ivan.  In fact things have gone rather dreadfully and a fair amount of it was my fault.  That too probably won't surprise you.  Things started on a hopeful note.  My artillery got back in action and I dropped a smoke concentration on Ivan's recently revealed third 75mm gun.  With hopes of extending the screen the next turn I was feeling mildly cockahoop a feeling that increased when Ivan broke his 81mm mortar.  Sadly the next couple of turns would prove my hoop to be well and truly cocked.

I can deal with the flanks first and gain what shreds of comfort I can from the achievements there.  On the southern hill mass I extended my position, snatched a few more level three hexes and starting moving a few squads down towards the village.  In response Ivan has sent a platoon of tanks in that direction and soon I suspect there is going to be a bit of an armoured bloodbath but for right now the flank is looking good.  Over on the northern side I achieved a certain amount with skimpy forces.  A squad toting an atr dashed up to the hill mass and advanced up courtesy of some well placed smoke from one of my PzIIs currently facing off the rest of his armour.  A lone halfsquad meanwhile is making a suicide run deep into Polish territory and has so far survived despite my expectations.

So much for the good news.  Now for the bad.  My centre has been destroyed.  All that is left is a group of shattered squads whimpering amongst the trees.  How did this happen?  Partly my fault,  feeling the pressure of time I pushed a couple of units forward looking to draw some fire, if they survived they would be well placed.  They didn't survive, Ivan shot them to bits but even so I was sanguine.  The shots had revealed some positions, the last of my reinforcements were arriving and I had a decent force prepared to assault in the centre.
Things are looking very briefly up
Then everything went terribly wrong.  A PzI was reduced to a burning wreck by an atr.  Ivan scored a critical hit with a 46mm mortar and followed it up with a snake eyes on the effects roll.  Over to the left (south) he had a squad, hmg and 9-1 leader in a building behind the wheat fields, I roared another PzI up and bypass sleazed him hoping to move other troops up to hit him in CC.  Nope, didn't happen, the other troops got broken and my tank was left to deal with the squad itself.  It surprised me by surviving two full turns but then Ivan killed it without taking so much as a scratch himself.  Meanwhile I was getting desperate to capture the small hill in the centre.  Not only did it have three buildings worth a VP apiece but I needed it as a platform for an assault on the village proper.

Having learnt my lesson from the reckless charges of earlier I eased forward, assault moving and being as tactical as I could.  It didn't really matter, Ivan managed to roll a succession of threes which smashed this second attempt and left me back at my starting point.  Even now I thought I might gain success.  My smoke FFE2 proving to be less than useless I decided it was time to bring the artillery down on this centre hill itself.  It was risky, my troops were close but I picked my spot,  there were five hexes where the artillery could stray to Ivan's detriment and only one where it might hurt me.  Do I need to mention what happened at this point?  Suffice it to say I've managed to break two and a half squads of my own troops plus an officer and I have virtually nothing left to take the hill.

The hill looks undefended but getting there was virtually impossible

I say virtually nothing, I managed to divert one squad from its previous task of attacking his hmg unit and a crew toting an incredibly heavy atr headed towards the hill as well.  My own 81mm mortars have finally arrived (bad mistake on my part delaying them so long, I should have brought them on a turn or two earlier) and after the carnage in the centre my own little 50mm mortar decided to go on a rate tear.  It pounded the hill and broke all of the defenders on it.  The hill is mine if I can actually find a living soldier to take occupancy.  Naturally the good news couldn't be completely good.  The mortar shot which broke his last squad on the hill also generated a sniper which broke the mortar crew.

Over on the north hill Ivan revealed a 46mm mortar which promptly managed to massacre a squad and a half of my troops over on the south hill.  Vengeance, however, was swift as my atr squad in the vicinity gave up thoughts of tanks for a moment and slaughtered the impudent little beggars in close combat.

The last point at which it looked good.
Over in the south my troops have started moving towards the village and have actually snatched a couple of buildings but the core of his defence remains and sooner or later his trio of tanks are going to do something unpleasant.  This is where we left it for the night.  On paper I look well poised to push forward but my casualties have been so high that I daren't take risks and the time for risk taking is now.  I've finally managed to get a unit onto the centre hill but I'm not really placed to take advantage of it now although I have finally taken one of the buildings.  In the south a somewhat incoherent move forward looks impressive but I'm not sure if I really have the firepower to produce a result.  Somewhat to my surprise I still have some tanks left and I rather suspect they are all going to have to be sacrificed if I have any hope of getting a result.

I'm almost as good at killing my troops as Ivan is
Friday is D-Day, I'm leaving for ASLOK on Monday and would dearly like to go there on a win.  I rather suspect I might have to sell my soul.  That isn't a problem, the difficulty is finding a buyer.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Silly After Action Report Part 1 Polish Panzerjagers

By the 2nd of September 1939 the Polish high command had come to the conclusion that yesterdays invasion wasn't just an elaborate practical joke on the part of their wacky German neighbours and had started to take serious countermeasures.  Down Krakow way things were getting increasingly awkward as the Germans demonstrated the benefits of a heavy manufacturing base.  Chunks of self propelled steel rolled inexorably forward as dramatic music played over scratchy black and white newsreels.

The Polish general in command turned to his aide,
"Fetch me panzerjagers!"
"No problem," replied the aide, "I think I've got a couple of bottles out back."
"I said panzerjagers you idiot!"
"Sorry, you confused me by speaking German."
"Have you seen the Polish word for panzerjagers?  It's fifteen syllables long.  What have we got in the way of reserves?"
"A bunch of guns and mortars and some vehicles that look like scaled up dinky toys."
"Fine, get them and tell them they're now panzerjagers."

So, this is Scenario BFP110; Polish Panzerjagers.  Here I command a large, well equipped German force trying to prove that the first day of blitzkrieg wasn't just a fluke.  I have twenty first line squads, four squads of elite assault engineers, seven officers, a clutch of machine guns and antitank rifles, two small mortars, two big mortars, a 37mm anti tank gun, three trucks, some motorcycles plus artillery and air support.  Oh yes, I also have sixteen AFVs ranging from open topped armoured cars to a pair of PzIVs.  What more could I want?  How about a few less Poles?

To counter my panzerkeil in miniature Ivan Kent has an eclectic but seriously formidable Polish force.  Six green squads, six first line squads and five elite squads kitted out with a wide array of antitank rifles and heavy and medium machine guns.  Supporting this force are two small mortars, one really big mortar, two 37mm anti tank guns and three 76mm artillery pieces.  As if this isn't enough he gets his own armour support on turn three in the shape of five modestly sized but not unimpressive Polish tanks.

The battlefield is a village in a bowl surrounded by high hills on three sides.  All of this territory is under Ivan's control at the start.  Two win I have to amass 85 victory points.  VPs are awarded for territory taken; specifically each level 3 hex is worth three VP, each single hex building on board DW5 is worth one and each multihex building is worth five.  My forces enter on the south-west corner and immediately have to decide whether to plough through woods and gullys (slow) or open ground (deadly).  Ivan's set up wasn't particularly helpful to me as his most deadly weapons are all hidden.

I decided on a staggered approach, I would bring on a small (expendable) force to probe his defences and draw some fire while holding back my main forces until things were a bit clearer.  So my initial attack force consisted of a handful of squads and halfsquads plus a few expendable AFVs (armoured cars and PzIs).  I had already decided that my main point of attack would be down the south to capture the southern hill mass and launch an assault into the village from there.  Diversionary forces would occupy his troops in the centre and north.

Naturally my campaign opened with a disaster.  Ivan had two concealed stacks in the southern woods that I needed to clear in order to move forward.  One was rapidly revealed as a dummy but the other was a full strength green squad which proceeded to cover themselves with glory.  Firstly they killed the half squad I sent to strip their concealment, fair enough, but then I advanced a squad into CC (and bypass sleazed them with a PzI command tank).  Naturally they killed my squad and I had to go through the entire process again taking two turns before I finally wiped them out.  Along the way the PzI broke its MA and a failed repair roll sent it slinking to the rear.  Not bad for a single green squad.

A somewhat circumspect advance but I'm capturing lots of forest
Across the open ground I sent an armoured car to reveal another of his squads and he responded with fire so effective that that car fled for the rear as well.  There are going to be some drumhead courts martial when I'm finished here.  Still I pressed forward, essentially advancing until he shot me in the face whereupon I came to a halt.  My air support astonished me by being useful, breaking one of his squads and giving him nervous moments before they went home for breakfast.  In the north a small group pressed forward, mainly to occupy the attention of his troops there but also to start guarding the entrance points for his armour.

The first couple of turns were quite slow, possibly I should have risked the casualties and brought on more troops but instead I brought on a batch more with some more tanks (PzIIs) in the second turn and bulked up on the south.  He held me for a turn there and inflicted some nasty casualties from positions up in the hills including a 76mm gun but then my artillery pounded him off and I was able to ease forward.  In the centre he took out a tank with an atr but return fire finally had its effect and I broke his forward crust.  Along the way I tripped over a 37mm gun he had hidden in the forest and just for once killed the crew in CC.  At least that's one less thing to worry about.

Starting to move

In the centre I pushed down the road between the two recently cleared hills towards his next defensive position in the woods.  In the north what I mostly pushed was my luck resulting in another armoured car getting killed but my infantry trotted forward, angling south to catch his position in the woods between two fires while I brought on a pair of PzIIs up there to give any reinforcing Polish tanks something to think about.

Artillery has broken his position on the hill in the south.  Things are a little more ambiguous elsewhere.

The next couple of turns were, I think, ones of missed opportunity.  I held back the rest of my force in turn three rather than bring it on, a mistake in retrospect, bringing it on in turn four put me behind schedule.   Also Ivan revealed another 76mm gun on the northeastern hill mass and nailed one of my precious PzIVs before it could fire a shot although the crew hopped out providing me with a little more expendable infantry.  The other, flanked by a pair of PzIs has sidled up behind the southern hill mass to give my intended assault a little more punch.  Ivan also revealed his 81mm mortar, likewise on the northeastern hills which is started to cause serious concerns for my infantry.  On the plus side I've captured one of his 76mm guns and I  blundered into his second 37mm whose crew I also killed.  A combination of bypass and firepower has neutralised his position in the centre woods (although a CC still rages and I fear for my squad despite the fact that its only facing a half squad) and my infantry are now starting to move towards the village from the west as well.  My artillery has been a bit silent since its early moment of glory but now I really need to get back in touch with the battery to shoot my troops forward.

Ivan's tanks have rolled on (my northern PzIIs weren't quite in a position to stop them).  One pair of his tanks are sitting on the other side of a hill from aforementioned PzIIs and both seem quite happy to let the war be decided without them for the time being.  The other three are rolling down deep in the east, no doubt looking to cause my southern troops embarrassment should they ever get into position to assault the village.

I think I'm about a turn behind and I have to suffer another turn of pounding from Ivan's big guns before I can move forward.  I'm hoping he rolls a lot of boxcars.  Hoping Ivan rolls boxcars has been my most successful tactic so far.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

This Blog Now 100% Gluten Free

I ate a gluten free cupcake this morning for the very good reason that no other type was available.  I must admit I had no idea why "gluten free" was supposed to be desirable or indeed what gluten actually was.  I offered five dollars to anyone in the staff café at the time who was able to tell me what gluten actually was but I got no takers.

Now, however, I am an enlightened man.  I know what gluten is, in a practical sense at any rate.  When you eat a cupcake or slice of bread or whatever gluten is the stuff that stops it from dissolving into a soggy, sticky mess that coats you from finger tips to elbow while simultaneously gluing your keyboard to your hands and your mouse to your wrist if you've been silly enough to attempt eating the thing at your desk.  My supervisor is remarkably tolerant of snacking at one's desk.  He's less tolerant of my having to spend forty five minutes de-adhering myself from the tools that permit me to do my job.

Like most pieces of socially acceptable silliness a gluten free diet is of very great benefit to the small number of people to whom it is of very great benefit.  It's usefulness to anyone else is debatable which is a politically correct term meaning "bullshit!" 

Now, permit me to be clear, if you have celiac disease you should be totally into the gluten free diet.  In fact you should get guns, organise hunting trips and go out shooting gluten in your spare time just to be on the safe side.  If you have one of these vague, non specific anti wheat type things which are charmingly called "non-celiac gluten sensitivity" then perhaps gluten isn't for you either although once medical diagnosis gets that fuzzy you might as well say you're allergic to "stuff".

For everyone else its unlikely that the consequences of bingeing on gluten are sufficient to warrant having to wipe cupcake off every exposed surface whenever you want a snack.  It must be said that as our diet improves and we get healthier and longer lived our bodies seem to be compensating by turning into bunch of whiny arse cry babies.  I can't imagine a peasant in the middle ages getting non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Plague yes, but not non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Is it possible that we become more careful about what we put into our bodies and said bodies react by becoming ever more precious and finicky?  I personally have a minor (and I suspect largely psychosomatic) aversion to seafood but I rather think that if I lived in a seaside village in the middle ages I would have been hitting the seafood every night without too many ill effects.  It's amazing how broad your diet can be when the alternative is starving to death.

Of course its equally possible that non-celiac gluten sensitivity was rampant in the middle ages which is why most people died at an early age.  This does raise the ugly possibility that by improving our lifestyle we are essentially encouraging genetic weakness and promoting the breeding of people who would otherwise have been safely dead before hitting puberty thus ensuring that the next generation of people will be able to eat even less.  Does this matter?  Probably not as long as our civilisation manages to keep staggering along.

Come the zombie apocalypse though it isn't the walking dead that are going to wipe out mankind.  Most of us will die from our inability to source gluten free, vegan, low fat, sugar free, ethically raised foodstuffs.  That gurgling noise you hear is the zombies laughing at us.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Banking the Way It Should Be

I strolled through the teeming streets of our busy city at lunchtime today.  It was a pleasant Spring day and the sun shone down through a convenient gap created by a recently demolished building.  There was a sign from the property developer out the front apologising for the sunshine and promising to build something tall and ugly as soon as humanely possible.  Whether that will be any comfort for the next of kin of those office workers who burst into flames due to their unexpected contact with Vitamin D remains to be seen.

My objective was Martin Place where despite the best efforts of modern property developers there are some rather handsome old buildings.  There was the object of my journey a magnificent edifice in terracotta and pink granite.  Inside was a vast sweeping area replete with scagliola columns, exposed metal and marble counters.  Nowadays such magnificence would indicate the building was a dog kennel belonging to a rap stars favourite hooker or possible the latest wallet hoover in Las Vegas.  But no, this building dates from a bygone age when there were more traditional and socially acceptable methods of removing money from people than selling them dreadful music or encouraging them to bankrupt themselves amidst shiny lights and performing tigers.  This building is the headquarters of a bank.

Specifically it is the headquarters of Macquarie Bank, Australia's answer to Goldman Sachs, which tells you everything you need to know about Macquarie.  Conversely if you've never heard of Goldman Sachs saying they're like Macquarie tells you everything you need to know about them too.  Macquarie bought the building from the Commonwealth Bank a few years ago and kindly lets the former owners squat on the ground floor.  In preparation for my journey to America I had come to see the Commonwealth Bank in an attempt to persuade them not to cancel my credit card if they suddenly noticed it being used in the United States.  I've used it in Luxembourg and Tanzania without issue but you never know, the bank might wake up at some point.

Despite the fact that they no longer own it the building is obviously a showcase for the Commonwealth.  Everything is lovingly restored (or possibly just not screwed up in the first place) and everywhere smartly dressed people wait to attend to your needs.  Smartly dressed and perhaps ever so slightly desperate people.  It's obvious what the bank is trying to do.  It's trying to bring a 1920s level of service to go with the 1920s décor.  Unfortunately they're not getting it quite right.  In the actual 1920s this level of service at a bank's main branch would have been standard and carried out naturally by all concerned.  Today its obvious that the staff have been told to provide such service while not really understanding why.  The end result is a desperate and slightly creepy parade of people constantly accosting you as you stand in the queue to see if they can provide any service.

If this was America I would assume they were being paid in tips.  Since it's Australia I can only assume their employers are holding their families hostage somewhere.  There was a definite whiff of "my sick child's life depends on you smiling in satisfaction as we look at the cameras together" about the whole affair.  I toyed with the idea of frowning and shaking my head in dissatisfaction when one of them approached but the look of sick terror on their face when I started made me stop.

In the course of a not particularly lengthy stay at the bank I was "assisted" five times by various people all of whom wound up telling me that I would have to wait in the queue for a teller which I was doing anyway.  The tellers themselves were far more relaxed.  I suspect its because they get to sit down and the customers come to them.  Its a change in the power dynamic and in contrast to the terror stricken floor staff my teller was, smooth, confident and efficient.  Or at least she seemed efficient.  If she wasn't I won't find out about it until I try and charge something on my credit card in the United States by which time the teller will have forgotten all about me and the floor staff will all have had nervous breakdowns.