high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Vacation Part VI: Gobsmacked! (or, Getting My Ass Kicked In The Welsh Countryside)

The Bog Snorkeling Triathlon that I referenced in the first of these Summer Vacation posts and subsequently alluded to in other posts is an annual event held in Llanwrtyd Wells.   Llanwrtyd (pronounced lan-er-tid or lan-er-tif) claims to be the smallest town in the UK, and in a brochure that we picked up states that it intends for things to remain that way, at least after the annual cull.  Knowing that their status as the smallest town in the UK may not be enough by itself to draw people to the town and fuel a livelihood for the townsfolk (a relatively high percentage of which own bed & breakfasts), Llanwrtyd has gained a bit of a reputation for hosting unusual annual events, including the Bog Snorkeling Triathlon.  A lineup of the annual events can be viewed here.  The Bog Snorkeling Triathlon actually plays second fiddle to another of the town's events: The World Bog Snorkeling Championships.  The Championships consist of contestants snorkeling just one length in the bog, with each contestant racing against the clock to see who will come away with the best time.  The event now attracts a few hundred participants each year.  In contrast, the Bog Snorkeling Triathlon gets less than 30 participants (and only about 16 this year), and is, as you might expect, and much longer and grueling affair.

If you're wondering about the bog itself, think about a muddy, water-filled ditch, like you might see on the side of the road.  Or just refer to the picture below.  The bog isn't a vast swamp, with web-footed creatures and gnarled trees and a perpetual mist hanging over it.  Rather, it is basically farmland, spongy with water, and a few ditches have been hacked out of the ground to create long, narrow pools of water that are about six feet deep.  The water is very cold, even in summer, and the reason people ever decided to snorkel in it, as the townsfolk will gleefully tell you, is because in the absence of other things to do in Llanwrtyd, people hang out at the local pub (the Neuff Arms) and think of odd ways to entertain themselves.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer Vacation Part V: Bartering Abroad (or, Playing With Monopoly Money)

I live in Paree and I am quite le wealthy.  That is why I have
a sculpture just standing out on my balcony!  Hoh-hoh-hoh!
As we continue on in our bloggy jaunt into France and the United Kingdom, we shall focus today on that most prevalent of staples of the modern world: beaver pelts.  Or, their substitute.  I am of course speaking of currency.  Cash.  Coin.  Money.  That stuff that you give to a person in exchange for some item, rather than simply taking the item, to effectively avoid a confrontation with the police.  It's that great medium through which we value things, and feel fairly traded with when we offer some of it up, often accompanied with a hearty "Thanks!" returned by a corresponding "Thanks!" from the person on the other end.  Or, if you're in France, "Merci!"  Or, in certain parts of England, "Fanks!"

Prior to traveling over to France, I had heard many times that things were much more expensive in Europe, and especially in Paris and London.  Thus, as I set about purchasing train tickets and making the few reservations we would need, I came to rely on Google's handy conversion calculator.  Of course, I couldn't use one consistent calculator for the trip, because the United Kingdom chooses to do the equivalent of biting their thumb at the rest of the continent, conducting exchanges in their traditional "pound sterling" rather than the newer euro, despite the many attractive features of the euro, such as anti-lock brakes, CD player, and moon roof.

But despite having to switch back and forth between Google's dollars-to-euros calculator and the dollars-to-pounds calculator, it was fun to do business in two types of currency while abroad.  Riding the Eurostar from Paris to London really brought it all together, as they conducted transactions in both euros and pounds.  However, whether the metaphorical oil lubricating the engines of the economy was euros or pounds, it was all foreign to me.  It looked roughly the same as American currency in that it consisted of coins and paper, but it also looked different.  Rather than a standard greenish hue, the money came in different shades.  The paper money was not the same size as our dollars, and instead of Andrew Jackson grimacing back at you, there was Queen Elizabeth, smiling pleasantly.  In short, going to the ATM and making a withdrawal in Paris or London was like replenishing your supply of play money.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Vacation Part IV: Dining In Style Across The Pond (or, It's Difficult To Eat When You Have Your Shirt Over Your Nose)

The French are truly craftsmen when it comes to confections.
Yes, this toolbox is made of chocolate.
Despite being a first-time international traveler while on my trip to France and the UK, I expect that someone who has traveled internationally with some frequency still maintains the same enthusiasm I had for sampling the cuisine abroad.  Seeing art and the countryside and engaging in athletic endeavors is all well and good, but in the end, life is about the daily cycle of obtaining sustenance, replenishing your energy stores, and imparting to your body its nutritional needs.  And at least in Paris, that may or may not mean a foot-long hot dog on French bread, smothered in three kinds of cheese.

While the title of this post alludes to food that smells bad, or, as the case may be, reeks like rotting flesh, it could just as easily have been titled "Will It Float?"  If you aren't aware, the phrase/question "Will It Float" is the title of a recurring comedic segment on The Late Show with David Letterman during which Dave and his crew drop various objects into a pool of water, with great fanfare, to see if the objects will float.  And although the segment is absolutely absurd, which is the whole point, there is some anticipatory build-up for each object to see if it floats.  And just as there is this ongoing, amused curiosity among the audience members at the Late Show to see if various objects will float, there is a similar ongoing, amused curiosity when dining abroad.  Of course, the question being asked when dining abroad is not "Will if float," but "Will it taste good?"

With that question in mind, and applying the same anticipation that is exhibited in the "Will It Float?' segment on the Late Show (because you really aren't sure if something will float or not), let's take a look at a few of the culinary delights that Jen and I sampled as international travelers...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer Vacation Part III: Great Britain By Train (or, The Sheep Lovers Tour Package Deluxe)

So big.  So Ben.
As I noted in my previous post, getting into France ended up being far less involved than anticipated.  Therefore, as Jen and I embarked on the "British leg" of the trip, we expected a fairly similar experience, departing Jen's apartment on the way to Gare du Nord international station with thoughts of how easy everything would be once we were back amongst fellow English-speakers.  The first step in traveling from Paris to the UK was to take the "Chunnel," which is the nickname for the most popular way of traveling between the two countries, formed by combining the word "Channel" (that is, the English Channel) with the word "funnel."  Thanks to advances in transportation technology, travelers now have the ability to cross the English Channel by means of a specially designed funnel-like transporter.  You simply step up to a swirling vortex of water, created by high-powered fans on both the British and French shores, hold your breath, and step in.  Voila!  Or, once you pop out on the other side and need to quickly change tongues, There you are!  Nothing to it, right?  That's what we thought...

Let me first say that there have to be thousands, if not millions of tourists who travel from Paris to London each year.  There may even be some people who make the journey as a daily commute, if they are rich enough and want to live in one city but have their job in the other.  At the very least - the very least - businesspeople must frequently make the journey between these two major metropolitan areas.  But judging from the reception we got, you would think that Jolly Old England had a massive problem with vagrants coming across via Eurostar (the transportation company that operates one of the Chunnel portals).  Vagrants with lots of expendable cash with which to purchase tickets, apparently.  There is the usual security, including metal detectors, scanning machines for bags, secret passwords, etc, but then we hit the real roadblock, which was the border security agent.  For a few moments I honestly thought we were going to have to turn back and regroup, or if all else failed, create a diversion.  After passing all the initial security and determining that we weren't carrying weapons or posing an imminent threat, the border security agent wanted to know where we were going.  No, I'm not talking about "tourist attractions," or "Wales," or even "the Holiday Inn in northwest London."  She wanted a specific address.  She wanted details.