Friday, 28 August 2009

Road Trip: Washington DC

We arrived in Washington by train, the Amtrak living up to the good things that I had heard about it before the journey (I had heard some bad things as well, about long queues, late trains and so on, but all of that proved unfounded; in nearly every way Amtrak was better than the best national rail journey I've had in the UK). Union Station was beautiful, and the taxi ride to our hotel in Arlington was short and sweet, taking us past the Pentagon and giving us glimpses of distant monuments that we knew from news stories and political thrillers.

I was still feeling ill at this point, so I took myself off for a few hours to an urgent care centre to get checked over, while Dave went off to explore the local streets and see how well connected we were to the capital. As it turned out, the Doubletree Hotel was just a few minutes from a metro station that took us straight into our first tourist stop the next day, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Dave and I were like kids at Christmas walking around there, just gawping in wonder at things that quite literally are incredible. I haven't been able to convey this to my family, who smile bemusedly at my proclamations: " we walk in and there, right there in front of us is the Apollo 11 capsule that brought Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins back from the Moon!!! Can you believe it??? And upstairs was the 1903 Wright Flyer!!! How cool is that???"

They didn't get it. But no matter, we were happy, and the whole morning passed by in a state of bliss looking at fabulous and wonderful things.

After lunch in the Smithsonian Food Court (brought to you by McDonald's!), we set off for our long walk around the Mall. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but I was already starting to feel better, and so the long trek wasn't too bad. We started outside the Capitol Building, looking down the Mall past the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial and the pool, all the way to the distant building of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a pleasant walk, really nice and really beautiful actually. The World War II Memorial gave us pause for thought on our way down, but the real breath-taker for the day was the Lincoln Memorial.

There is something incredibly powerful about the Lincoln Memorial; even before we went to the USA I knew that it was something that I was really looking forward to seeing, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why. Of course, the impact of Abraham Lincoln on history couldn't not have effected me in some way - but I'm just a 28 year old guy from the UK, born nearly 120 years after he was assassinated, so why should it matter all that much? Because the Lincoln Memorial is not just 'another place to tick off' on the list of tourist attractions... There is a power to it, the eyes of the statue follow you, stare at you and through you, and the wording above the monument is so beautiful:

"In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."

I still can't find the words to explain just what it is about the Lincoln Memorial that has put a pull on my heart and mind, but nor can I dismiss it. Maybe the simplest thing that I can do is to encourage you to go and see it for yourself if you have never seen it; I hope that it has the same impact on you that it had on me.

From there we moved on to the Vietnam Memorial, and then from there we made our way out to Arlington National Cemetery. This was also quite a powerful place to visit, especially the grave of John F. Kennedy; from there we went on to the Iwo Jima Memorial, which was awe-inspiring to look up at. The shadows were lengthening, and we were both feeling the length of the day on us, so it was time to head back to the Doubletree Hotel (which, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone with plans to visit Washington DC; just over in Arlington, superbly located for taxis from Union Station and easy to get to on the Metro as well, and which is just stunning inside - and was really, really good value) and a good night's sleep.

We would need it: the next day we would begin four weeks of driving.


Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Some Films!

I saw quite a few films while I was in America, and one since I've been back, and it dawns on me as I sit here that I have been extremely remiss in not saying something about them. So then, join me in this condensed review post!

A bit more scattershot than Borat I thought, but oddly with a more cohesive story that doesn't break the fourth wall (where was Borat's cameraman all the time that he was poor and penniless? How exactly did that work?). If anything many of Bruno's exploits are even more sensational than Borat's, and it's a wonder that people didn't realise what was happening before their eyes more often. Bruno's sexual escapades are crude, but quite clever in getting a laugh, and his attitudes and lack of intelligence do make for some fun moments. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Borat, and Bruno is not as likeable as Borat, but it is still quite funny in an oh-my-gosh-I-can't-look-what-is-he-doing-with-that-midget sort of way.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
A good effort, and possibly the best adaptation to date in the Harry Potter films, but once again falls short by removing important plot points that feel key to the overall book (if not the series). Visually the film has never been better, and finally Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe have caught up with Rupert Grint in the acting stakes, turning in performances that finally capture the young people that Hermione and Harry are growing into. The major death and betrayal lack the punch that they had in the book, but hopefully the two parts of Deathly Hallows that are to come will be a good (if probably not great) conclusion to the movie adaptations.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
The occasional decent action sequence cannot make up for the plothole-ridden terror of the story. Special effects seem as if they haven't moved forward for years. Otherwise good actors give career-low performances and the only thing that saves it from being a one-star movie in my back are the sometimes incredible martial arts/sword-fighting scenes between Snake Eyes and the other ninja (see, I can't even be bothered to remember his name).

The Time Traveler's Wife
A good adaptation, brilliant performances, and beautiful music. The film lacks some of the power of the book, and as with Harry Potter there are changes or omissions which don't make sense to me (but of course, I've never adapted an acclaimed book into a feature film, so what do I know?), but I would say that this works even better than the adaptation of Harry Potter does. Every now and then there is a flash of brilliance in something that it manages to convey and in those moments you sit in wonder at what has been achieved: a genuine romantic fantasy.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Road Trip: New York, New York

We spent two full days wandering around New York at the start of July; it's a city that fascinates, from the outside looking in, arguably the city that people think of first when they are confronted with the idea of the USA.

We started on our first day of sightseeing by heading for Times Square, where we both were faced with mammoth breakfasts and people trying to rip us off (at least I only ended up with two rap CDs by young stars, one of who gave me the 'rap name' N-Banga; Dave paid over the odds for a battery charger and complained bitterly about it for days); from there we wandered down Broadway more or less, heading downtown. Grand Central, Macy's, the Empire State Building and more, we looked for the New York that jumped out of the collective unconscious, the New York that we were told was waiting for us.

Hustle and bustle doesn't begin to describe the movements on the streets, but away from the main crowds there is a lot of space and quiet in New York City. The promenade leading to the Staten Island Ferry (which is perhaps the greatest free tourist attraction/public transport I've ever heard of) was lovely and chilled out, the occasional runner or roller-blader, and the ferry itself gives spectacular views. Central Park too, is utterly glorious, an oasis of calm in the centre of a fractured metropolis, itself a patchwork piece of quiet (reservoir, lakes, gardens, paths, so much quiet, so much space, so much beauty).

The memorial centre for the World Trade Centre was a very difficult place to visit; it almost felt as if I was trespassing on the grief of others, as if I had no right to be there because I hadn't been present when that awful day eight years ago happened. The Guggenheim was a joy, a celebration of what it means to create - from the amazing collection of famous art to the incredible explosion of talent on the top floor with works by school children, this was perhaps the highlight of the city for me.

Looking back seven weeks or so, New York remains a difficult place for me to reconcile in my mind. In many ways beautiful, in many ways quite challenging with its constantly shifting boundaries and areas, it was a shock to the system from stepping off the plane to when we caught the train to Washington DC, at once familiar with language and culture and at the same time very alien.


Friday, 21 August 2009

Thing 41: Done!!!

I have been meaning to write for so, so long, that I just have to write something and then that will get the ball rolling again on writing here!

So yes, I have completed possibly one of the biggest things on my list, to visit five US states. In the end I visited eleven states, and passed through several more eastern states when I took an Amtrak train from New York to Washington (but that doesn't really count as "visiting" in my book, all of these I actually spent time at). I kept a journal as I was travelling, but I'm not going to write that up here, instead, over the coming days and weeks (hopefully not months!) I'm going to be writing some of my musings on each state that I went to. Some will be longer than others, as I spent longer in some states and cities than others; some states we passed through in a day, but all of the ones on the list, and the cities, are places that we stayed in on our five weeks of travels.

I've got some films to write short reviews on, and some books, and they should come soon too. I'm also going to be pulling some pieces of flash fiction from my experiences I think. As a run up to this year's NaNoWriMo, I think that I am going to make September and October a warm-up exercise, to write a piece of flash fiction at least every other day. Because I will be away in Japan for three weeks during that time I might not be able to post them on here during that period, but I will definitely be writing. And I'll be experiencing more and more that I can plow right back into my writing.

Although I had promised myself that this year I would be writing non-fantasy/sci-fi for NaNoWriMo I can feel myself at the event horizon. Different ideas are pulling on me, and they're all connected, all of them part of the story that is seething away behind my eyes. I might start writing before NaNoWriMo, and write something different then, because these ideas are pulling on me so strong.

But anyway, I digress: America was fantastic, I'm happy to be back and I'm also happy to be off travelling again soon. I will be writing again very soon, and this blog will become a hive of activity again, I promise.