Monday, March 26, 2018

First World, Third Age, Thirteenth Trip

Years ago, before the notion of leaving the States occurred to me, if someone had said to me that, one day, I would be sitting on the quay-side, in Malta, gazing over the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and thinking to myself, “I liked Cyprus better,” I, literally, could not have believed them. It would have been akin to attempting to convince me that one day I’d be sitting in a café on Mars thinking, “They don’t do a grilled cheese here the way they do on Moon Base 7.”

I am here to tell you, however, that it is so. Not Moon Base 7’s famous grilled cheese sandwiches, but the fact that I have become such a world-weary traveler that I can sit in an extremely desirable Mediterranean destination, compare it to another, and find it wanting.

This opinion, I hasten to add, is not Malta’s fault. Malta is, in fact, a perfectly adequate island, in possession—I am certain—of many fine qualities. Those qualities, however, remain eclipsed by factors that, not long ago, would have been incidental, but which now loom large enough to derail an entire holiday. The first, and most pervasive of these, is the hotel.

Time was, a hotel was just a place to store my stuff while I went out and did things. More recently, however, I have come to appreciate certain qualities that most tourist hotels offer, these being an assortment of the following:

  • A decent sized room, sometimes large enough for a table and chairs.
  • A balcony, or outdoor seating area.
  • An adequately sized bathroom.
  • A café/restaurant/lounge area where you can sit with a drink and relax with a book.
  • Maid service that has your room cleaned by, say, 2 PM.
  • A view of something, anything.
Our hotel in Malta had none of these.

View from our room.
The room was tiny, with an archer’s slit of a window that looked out onto a brick wall.
The bathroom was so small that, after you showered, you had to dry off in the bedroom.
And there was no place in the hotel to sit an relax, which was a shame because the maids didn’t clean the room until 5PM, which made it less like a hotel and more like a B&B, where you were expected to get up and leave and not return until the end of the day. This wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the second factor: The Area.

Malta is lovely. On our wanderings we found much to admire, but the half-mile on either side of our accommodation was tourist hell. It was on a busy road, one side of which—the hotel side—was packed with restaurants, one after the other. And the dining rooms of these restaurants extended onto the sidewalk, so you were essentially walking through an endless string of dining rooms, dodging waiters, diners and other pedestrians. (We did, in fact, step into a restaurant's dining room when we stepped out of the hotel.)

The other side of the road—once you found a crossing—hugged the waterfront and might have been idyllic had it not been for the barkers. Every ten feet you encountered someone touting bus tours or boat excursions, making what should have been a nice stroll into something reminiscent of a county fair midway.

"Step right up! Buy a trip for the little lady! C'mon now, best deal in town!"
Even this might have been manageable had it not been for a third factor: we were both sick.

I felt bad on the flight, and worse when we arrived. Then my wife got a cold. And being forced out of our room and not allowed back in until 5PM and having not much to do except wander around and pose as bait for barkers did not make for pleasant days.

Valletta, just across the bay from us. We went twice. It is a 2018 European City of Culture.
It was marvelous; you must visit!
I realize all the above smacks of First World Problems (Whaa! I went to Malta and didn’t have a marvellous time!) and the fact that I am older than I used to be (give me identical circumstances—illness and all—shave 20 years off my age, and I’d have had a brilliant adventure) but privilege and age aside, you can’t deny that this holiday did not stack up favorably when compared to others we have taken, and I put that down to the final factor: triskaidekaphobia

Midway through the holiday, I began to suspect that triskaideka-trickery was at work, and as soon I go home I checked my holiday spreadsheet (you knew I had one, didn’t you?) and found, to no surprise, that our Malta trip was our thirteenth excursion to the Continent.

I am not superstitious (much) but, I can’t deny the evidence, or the outcome.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Perfect Storm

I freely admit to being a Weather Weenie. I proudly tell people I haven’t had to clear the snow from my roof in 16 years, and I respond to complaints about Britain’s famously dreary weather with the boring but true observation of, “I don’t have to shovel drizzle.” The idea of spending another winter in conditions similar to Upstate New York is not something that inspires warm nostalgia, and I have been grateful for the past five or six years of agreeably mild winters.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded going through some of what happened to the rest of country this past week. I’m not a masochist, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Here’s what happened:

This winter has been agreeably mild, as well. It would be cold for a few days, then it would go into the 50s or 60s, then we’d have some cold, rainy weather, followed by a string of 50-degree days. It was, in short, a normal winter, and spring was already within our grasp. Crocus, snow drops, even daffodils were blooming, trees were budding, and the air smelled of damp earth and the promise of new growth. It was lovely.

But we are Brits, and we love to complain about the weather, often to hyperbolic degrees, therefore, when an “Arctic Blast” was predicted for last week, I figured we’d just get a few days of chilly weather before, once again, enjoying more spring-like days. I wasn’t alone in thinking this: the weather is so routinely dramatized that many of us were surprised by just how cold the Arctic Blast –dubbed The Beast From the East (the Brits do love word-play)—was.

When it gets down to Zero here, that’s just 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don’t consider that cold. It rarely does get down to freezing, by the way, and when it does, it doesn’t stay there for long. This Arctic air, however, brought the temps down into the low 20s F, which is cold by anyone’s definition, and they stayed there, day and night, which, in my experience, is unprecedented.

This resulted in the ground freezing and ice forming on puddles and ponds. I know you people from back home are reading this thinking, “Yeah, so what?” but there are school-aged children here that have never seen ice in the wild.

The cold caused some disruptions because we’re not used to it being that cold for that long. Then, after a few days, something unexpected happened: Storm Emma came up from the south, met the cold air from Siberia, and the snow started.

Storm Emma meets The Beast From the East.
No, it's not a WWE Wrestling match, it's what happened this week,
with a helpful hand to explain it all.
I’ve seen it snow here before. I’ve even seen it snow a significant amount (meaning two or three inches), which would wreak havoc and cause panic for a few hours until it melted. But those incidents, in addition to being ephemeral, were also localized, so it was only one bit of the country struggling while the rest got on with their day.

This storm, however, covered the entire British Isles, dumping snow—as much as a foot and a half in places—over England, Wales, Scotland (but they’re used to it) and Ireland. The frozen ground kept the snow from melting, as did the frigid temperatures and the bitter, driving wind. What resulted was a New York Style winter, visited upon a land with a traditionally mild climate. The results were predictable.

Major roads were closed; people spent the night in their cars.
Trains stopped running, trapping people in cold, stationary carriages for hours. Roads became blocked, trapping people in their cars, sometimes over night. Airports cancelled flights or shut down completely, stranding thousands of people who couldn’t get to their destination, or go back home due to the weather.

Farmers struggled to keep their herds fed, watered and, in the case of dairy farmers, milked. To add to their misery, the daily milking had no place to go as the trucks couldn’t get to the farms, so the farmers had to dump the milk. People who could get to shops found them empty, and unable to re-stock. And at least one baby was born in a stranded car.

You generally expect to see drifts like this in Upstate New York
But people came out to help. They brought food and water to stranded travelers, they cleared snow, pulled cars out of snowdrifts, services—hospitals, police, social workers and even the people who fix your gas heating—made heroic efforts to continue running and get to people in need. A man booked a string of hotel rooms so homeless people could sleep someplace warm. They struggled, but they persevered.

During all this, I learned (there has been NOTHING on the news except reports about the weather all week) that Sussex, where I live, has been the least effected county in the country, and I’m a little bit disappointed by that.

This is the extent of our winter storm.
We’ve been, at best, inconvenienced. We have had only a dusting of snow, which made the roads slippery for a while. You can get to the shops, and there’s plenty of whatever it is you want to buy there. The trains are running (and for Southern Rail, they are running as well as they usually do, which is not very well), the roads aren’t closed, no one is stranded anywhere nearby, and we even had choir practice during the worst of it.

We’ve been lucky, but I can’t help feeling, as I watch the misery in other parts of the country, that we’ve missed out on something special, a chance to step up to a challenge, to prove ourselves in the face adversity, to re-live a little of that Blitz Spirit. Instead, we’ve just hunkered down, complained about the cold and gone about our business.

In years to come, when talk turns to the great winter storm of 2018, everyone else will have an unending supply of snowstorm-from-hell stories to tell, while all we’ll be able to do is say, “Yeah, I remember; it got cold for a while.”

Snow: it's a bitch, but it can be pretty.