England - Round The World Tour 2003 T-23



Tuesday 18th February

Time for a bit of a recap of the events of the past few days. Although not public knowledge back in Jacksonville, I’ve been researching and planning for this RTW (Round The World) trip for well over a year now. It follows, then, that I had plans for leaving the comfortable and mostly secure confines of my job with CSX Technology long before the subject was formally broached with my boss. We put the house up for sale long before anyone but my most trusted inner circle of friends knew anything about our worldly, and perhaps lofty, travel plans. Looking back on things now, we struck exceedingly lucky with the timing of everything. As it happens, CSX Technology were slowly but steadily reducing their dependence on contracting staff and it was only a matter of time before it was my head that was ready for the chopping block. Had I not made it clear to CSX that I had plans to travel the world and thus resign my post, they would have terminated my position anyway. Good timing and good luck, you might think. Well, that’s not all. CSX and I mutually agreed that my contract would terminate on November 22nd of 2002. In September of the previous year (fourteen months earlier), I put my house up for sale. We had been entertaining the odd, curious window shopper here and there but never really had a serious buyer for some time. By the time November of 2002 rolled around, the house was still not sold yet my departure from CSX and the income derived there from was fast approaching. The shenanigans of exactly how it came to pass that we ultimately sold our house are a subject for a completely different novel altogether. Suffice it to say that we closed on the sale of the house on November 22nd of 2002 – the very same day that I booked my last hours with CSX. How about that for timing! What the consequences might have been if we hadn’t sold our house when we did, no longer having the luxury of a sizable income to support it, is something that I dared not even consider. However, things turned out well in the end and everything just seemed to fall into place after all.

Not that this of this has anything to do with the past few days but I needed to set the background to put into perspective some of the events of late. One of the by-products of the generous income that we enjoyed whilst in the US was that we were able to indulge in certain luxury items from time to time. One such item was a computerized embroidery machine. Sandy had hopes for a small, home run business and would put the machine to good use making bits and pieces for friends and neighbours. Although we left (sold or gave away) all electrical devices back in the US (somewhat of a necessity since the electrical and TV systems between the US and Europe are incompatible with each other), this particular machine was one of those items that we would not leave behind. Whether we were going to invest in a re-fit of the power supply or a power converter was not clear but we knew that we would not leave this particular device behind. So, what do we do with it whilst we are travelling? For some time, there was somewhat of a light-hearted tug of war going between some of my siblings as to who would ‘look after’ certain things such as our DVD collection, our computers and, of course, our beloved embroidery machine. Not wanting to drag the story out too long, let’s just say that Jacqueline would ultimately be the recipient of the all singing, all dancing marvel of modern technology. She was one of the more vocal and outspoken proponents of the ‘Jacqueline deserves to get the machine’ camp and regularly came up with various transparent reasons why she should be the lucky recipient.

And so it was with enormous enthusiasm that Jacqueline watched as we slowly put the pieces of the machine together in our cramped broom cupboard of a bedroom. First the machine needed to be plugged into a power converter. No problem, since we came home from Jacksonville with no less than two of these devices, thanks in part to some good friends who foresaw this need and saw fit to provide one as a parting gift. Thanks Gerald! It was only after a few minutes of playing around with machine like children playing enthusiastically with their new Christmas toys, that we noticed a weird smell in the room. After nosing around a little, we concluded that this was simply the machine slowly awakening from the slumber of the past several months. The computer that accompanies the embroidery machine is loaded with special applications that are required to take full advantage of the machines capabilities. Sure, the on-board functions of the machine are nice but to be really creative, you have to use the pattern designing and digitizing software. The resulting designs are then transferred from the computer to the machine using a proprietary card reader.

After I hooked up the computer and we had stolen the monitor and accompanying power cord from Kevin’s work computer (we had to leave the original monitor back in Holland because it would not have fit in the car – much to Sandy’s mother’s delight as she was the lucky recipient of a new monitor as a result), I noticed that the screen resolution would not expand beyond 640x480 – the lowest possibly resolution configurable. Sure, this made all the icons on the screen nice and large but an unfortunate by-product of this fact was that the specialized software, to which I earlier eluded, would not have enough screen real estate to display most of the necessary buttons and such needed to perform its task. Shit! Only after about 30 minutes of fiddling around did was I finally able to rectify the problem. At last we could now see everything necessary. The victory was short lived, however, as the weird smell I mentioned earlier had slowly grown in intensity during all this and had reached and surpassed the point of concern. It wasn’t till later in the day that we noticed that the power converter had, in fact, blown out and was now completely dead. Shit! No problem, we still have the second power converter, right? OK. We plugged everything back in and tried loading the special software again. “Please connect the card reader!” read the perplexing message that now flashed across the screen. “But it is connected already!” the three of us replied in sarcastic distain. Ah, but the little light on the card reader is not on. Shit! Without this card reader, there is no way of getting designs from the computer to the machine and 95% of its usefulness is suddenly rendered inaccessible. You have to admire the creative ways in which manufactures engage in to develop a captive markets for themselves. Using a standard floppy drive or a simple serial connection directly from the computer to the machine would be all too easy, wouldn’t it! No, by using a proprietary card reader, the bastards have you by the short and curlys.

Now, there can only be two possible explanations as to why the card reader is now non-functional. Either the card reader itself has blown of the power supply has blown. But which is it? If it’s the power supply, this is simply rectified with a new one. If it is the card reader, however, then this is a major catastrophe as it turns out that this particular card reader is no longer manufactured. Shit! Worse still, there isn’t a single service centre across all of Europe that has one in stock. Shit! To make matters even worse, you can only buy a new card reader (assuming first that we could even find a shop that still had one in stock) in conjunction with the manufacture’s extremely poorly written and user-unfriendly software at a combined and ludicrously extortionate price of about £1,000.00. Shit, shit and double shit with cream on top! At this point, Jacqueline is starting to look more and more like a deflated balloon. Each time we think we’ve reach nirvana with setting up the new toy, another roadblock erects itself right in front of us. We’ll just have to order a new power supply and hope for the best. Well, the new power supply arrived in the post this morning. Well, you could tickle me pink and knock me over with a feather because, sure enough, the little light came on after plugging it in. For Jacqueline, it was one of those moments where sheer happiness was accompanied with tears of joy. And I thought I was on holiday!

All throughout the saga of the embroidery machine, we have been trying to navigate our way through another minefield. Family! Don’t get me wrong, I’m very pleased to be here and love each and every one of my family members to death. Issues such as where are we going to stay, who are we going to visit and in which order are we going to visit them, however, are still best dealt with tactfully and diplomatically – as almost anyone with a large family will no doubt be able to attest to. It’s often a fine balancing act trying to appease everyone. Actually, ‘not offending anyone’ would be the more accurate description. As ever, however, my political and diplomatic skills have excelled again and I remain upright on the tightrope. So long as I don’t move too quickly, or look down, I should remain in balance until I reach the other end of the rope. In our current situation, the other end of the rope is in just three weeks from now, on March 12th, when we depart for South Africa and our next challenge begins.

Anyway, back to the present and our relatively successful daytrip to London, today, with myself, Sandy and Jenny-Lee. Both Sandy and I are very much trigger-happy with the digital cameras. So when Jenny-Lee first mentioned that she needed to go to London to take some photos for one of her school projects, we jumped on the opportunity to spend a day with her in our nation’s capital.

The first chock of the day was purchasing the tickets. A whopping £32 for three tickets to London and back took me a little by surprise. Although it did include unlimited travel on the London Underground, it was still a lot more than I remember having to pay for a cheap rate day return. During our 6-7 years in America, I often slated the US health care and mass transit system. “Things are much better in this regard back in Europe”, I would say. I still think that statement holds true but talk about sticker shock!

Our time in London was well spent, nevertheless. We went to Covent Garden, the Embankment, the London Eye and a couple of other spots. Jenny-Lee’s brief was to take photos of people at work, so when the opportunity arose to take a few snaps of a London Underground staff worker, Sandy jumped on the chance. “Do you mind if I [snap] take a photo of you [snap] please”, she asked. “No, I’m afraid flash photography is not allowed here”, came the reply. “Oh [snap], are you sure [snap]”, Sandy replied. “I just want [snap] a couple [snap]”. “Sorry”, the worker replied. So, off we went with our 6 photos safely acquired 🙂

Whilst in London, I was keen to visit some outdoor travel shops. We are often looking to improve on our travel gear and Sandy still needs a daypack that she is comfortable with. When I was in London last year, I remember visiting a place where there are 4 major outdoor travel specialist shops right next to each other. I couldn’t remember exactly where it was but I knew that the tube station that I got out of at the time had a highway denomination in its name. A brief skimp over one of the many thousands of underground maps that are posted on almost every wall throughout the meandering tunnels that link the various tube station platforms together, revealed ‘Tottenham Court Road’. Excellent! Off we trundled through the depths of the city in relative comfort on the cities pride and joy metro system. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was which direction we had to walk after emerging from the underground city. The fact that there were several exist all facing different directions did not help much either. It wasn’t till after we had spent the next hour and a half walking up and down in all directions from the tube station that it dawned on me that it was actually ‘High Street Kensington’ that we really needed. Shit! Oh well, at least we got to spend some time nosing around the plethora of digital camera shops that line the Tottenham Court Road.

Having spent the day in London, we returned home somewhat exhausted from all the walking and Jacqueline picked us up from the train station at Leigh-on-Sea. Just as well as I don’t think I would have survived to climb back up the hill to Tattersall Gardens.

Upon our return, I heard the news that one of my brothers has announced his intention get a to divorce. I can’t say that I’m completely surprised but this kind of news is never very welcome. He has two children. It seems that there is always something happening somewhere within, or in relation to, the family that is in some way shape or form cause for concern or anxiety. Mostly, these are things and situations, such as this one, over which I have little or no influence. The feeling of helplessness is never welcome.

Today, I will be off to see the doctor. I have had a persistent, recurring, dull ache in my left eye. This has been annoying me now for the past several weeks. As I mentioned earlier, I often quote with pride the socialized medicine system here in the UK. After about 15 years away, I’d almost forgotten about how bureaucratic and frustrating the system can be. Not being registered with the local doctor, there were some forms that needed filling out. I had to fill in a permanent and temporary address. Since my current temporary address was with Jacqueline, I put her address down. But I don’t have a permanent address at all so what do I out in the ‘Permanent Address’ box? The nurse just told me to put down my old America address and all would be well. I wasn’t able to book the actual appointment at the time because their computer system was down. Not to worry, I would call back later to finalize things. This I did later on in the day but all was not well. Firstly, their computer system was now up and running and there was no more availability to see the doctor for the next two days! Shit! As if that wasn’t bad enough, the administrator on the phone informs me that I will have to pay for the service since I was an American resident! Shit! After explaining the situation and pleading for about 20 minutes, she finally gave me an appointment. We’ll see if they want any money from me after all when I attend my appointment this afternoon.

It just dawned on me that the past few pages of writing have nothing to do with travel. I’m actually trying to discipline myself to write about ordinary events of the week. If I can keep this going, I will subsequently be better conditioned to write a more accurate record of events as we are travelling. Several people have commented on how much they have enjoyed my travel updates and my writing style. Nobody has been more surprised about this than I. I almost never read books myself (the last one I read from front to cover was over 10 years ago). Perhaps I can take up writing as a profession later in life 🙂

I’m now in the routine of putting thoughts down from time to time and then expanding upon them when I find the chance to sit and write.