The new Neatstep website

I knew it would happen one day and sure enough, it did. Whilst I was away on vacation my website stopped working…

Why did it stop working? Because the web server was upgraded and therefore it would not function with my old software (which was working very nicely!). It’s like when you buy a new coffeemaker and it won’t work with your old coffee jugs (which is also annoying!).

Why did it really stop working? For all you techies out there, it’s because I was running an old Drupal version using old PHP (which I was very happy with). However, I’m still recovering from the last time I upgraded Drupal so in future, I will be using WordPress (for good or for bad!).

All I really wanted to do was display some comics but Murphy’s Law says “before you can do something, you must always do something else”. This being true, I embarked reluctantly on a quest to rebuild my whole website as quickly as possible, cutting the usual corners. It didn’t take too long, all things considered, so now that it’s finished I can go on vacation once more and… await the next upgrade!

A Cruise Guide for Beginners

Every cruise is a new experience and our recent one was no exception. On the first day, before sailing, there is always a lifeboat drill – just in case! The whistle sounds and the instructions are, “Please go to your cabins, collect your life vest, DO NOT put it on, grab a toolkit, then proceed to your assembly station!” It’s amazing how such precise instructions can quickly result in complete and utter chaos, but that’s a story for later. Personally, I was okay with the life vest instructions but I did wonder about the toolkit!

Meanwhile, on our second cruise day the ship’s whistle sounded the alarm so loudly that I nearly fell off my chair and some elderly folk had to adjust their hearing aids. “This is an emergency drill for crew only. Please DO NOT go to your cabin and get your life vest.” Needless to say, enough people missed the vital words “DO NOT”! We were actually in our cabin at the time and about to leave, but since our lifeboat was directly outside the window I thought it would be instructive to watch it being deployed. After all, it would only take a few minutes… or so I thought.

The whole process was most enlightening. I now know exactly how many crew members it takes to launch one lifeboat and why a toolkit might be needed. One person on the left winds the winch whilst another stands on the right. Then there’s the important looking guy wandering around with an intercom and the even more important guy offstage who is summoned when something goes wrong – which of course, it did! The winch got stuck and the lifeboat became crooked. More manoeuvring made it even more crooked. Then there was lots of telephoning, shouting, shrugging, gesticulating – just like in an Italian restaurant. Well, after all, it was an Italian ship! Time is of the essence when the ship is going down. In this case fortunately it was only the lifeboat – going down the side of the ship. I believe it was the hammer which finally unlocked the winch and with a sudden lurch the lifeboat began its descent – after a really long time. I took a photo through the window, which didn’t impress the crew members. Subsequently, I felt it was prudent not to hang around and observe the reverse process.

One highlight of cruising is the wide choice of dining options. On this ship we decided to first visit the main cafeteria. It was very busy, lots of people milling around but not many waiters in sight. I saw one waiter in the distance so I waved to him and he waved back as he disappeared. (The staff are always so friendly on these cruise ships). Finally I spotted one staff member standing in the corner, so I approached him and asked, “Can you serve us?” to which he replied, “No I can’t! I’m new here. They said they were too busy for me, so I should just go to the restaurant and wait!”

It’s well known that crew members on board a cruise ship work very hard and some of them even have multiple jobs. You might recognise your server in various outfits at different locations. You may even see him/her on stage sometimes in a particular feature show. Crew members are very versatile indeed, which leads me to the next episode.

If you’re a lucky passenger you will get invited to the captain’s champagne reception. Nobody is quite sure what the selection criteria are but we received an invitation which we gratefully accepted. At the reception there was a food buffet but once again no waiters anywhere, only self-service. I said to the captain, “This is a nice ship” and he said, “Thank you. Welcome onboard – do you have any questions or concerns?” I said, “Well there is one thing which bothers me. While you’re here meeting with us, who is steering the ship?” He replied, “Why do you think this buffet is self-service?”

After the first two days I felt really comfortable aboard our ship – especially when we were in port! For me it’s a bit like flying – I always feel most comfortable when I’m at the airport. Still, there is never a shortage of things to see or do and it’s hard to get bored so if you’ve never tried cruising before it’s something to consider. We recommended cruising to some friends of ours and if I ever see them again I will ask them how they are enjoying it. If you’re curious and want more detailed information about cruising then “Cruise Critic” is one example of the many online sources available. I mention this website only because I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but it works for me. Happy cruising! This blog comes to you from a lifeboat somewhere in the Caribbean!

Keep Calm and Carry-On – if you can!

Every time we depart from our local airport it’s a fiasco going through security with our carry-on baggage. I thought I would be able to stop writing about this long ago, but the saga just continues with every trip. The question is, “how can you keep calm if you have carry-on?”

We knew already, before we entered security, there would be problems and sure enough, we weren’t disappointed. I dumped everything possible in the little tray but the detector still beeped persistently. Then came the good news. “You’ve been randomly selected for an additional security check.” “Oh, no! Not me!” “Would you like the full-body scan or the pat-down?” “I have no idea. What works best?” “We’ll do a pat-down. Just strip in front of all these people and leave it to me!”…..

Okay, I’m exaggerating now, but not much! The guy went to work with his hands and his baton. Beep, beep, beep! Something wasn’t right. Apparently I had a metallic knee, a metallic elbow and a metallic shoulder. If that was true, I would be worth a fortune to a scrap metal dealer. Every beep was accompanied by a pat-down and I was wondering – or should I say worrying – where it was going to beep next! I was saved at the bell only because the queue of inquisitive people was backing up too far.Then I went to join my wife who was having her own discussions. “What’s the little white object showing up on the screen?” “It’s the remainder of our bottle-opener set. You confiscated the mini-knife, last time!” “Well, what’s the little black object then?” “It’s our manicure set. You allowed it through, last time!” “I’ll have to discuss this with the supervisor!” “You did that too, last time!” “Keep calm!” “Carry on!”

We finally exited from security and relaxed with a coffee, but not for long. “Would Mr. & Mrs. U-No-Who please report to the airline desk immediately!” “OMG”, I was thinking. “We must be overbooked!” I gulped down my coffee, nearly spilling it all over myself and we headed to the airline desk. The lady scrutinized our boarding cards and declared, “I’m only interested in you!” “Who? Surely, not me again! Is there a target on my back or something?” “You’ve been randomly selected for an additional security check!” “I’ve just had one!” “Not according to the computer!” “How do you know?” “Because, there’s a little circle and no stamp on your boarding card!” came the triumphant response. “You’ll have to come with me back to security!” “Oh! No!” “Oh, Yes!”

We returned to security, where a list of names was checked, which should have included mine but of course, didn’t! Apparently, the guy was so engrossed in his bleeping pat-down that he neglected to put my name on the list or a stamp on my boarding card. Maybe he was hoping I would come round again, but fortunately, this time, everyone was too busy and nobody wanted to inspect me at all. There were various discussions and eventually they decided to improvise. One person did the finger powder check, just for a change, while another person attempted a pat-down but gave up in the end and added my name to the list with a sigh of relief which I echoed.

We made it to the US flight with our carry-on. The return Canadian flight insisted we check-in the carry-on! Did somebody once say, “Keep calm and carry on!” All I know, is if my experience is any indication, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn. It’s not possible to keep calm, if you have carry-on!

Europe: Going… Going… Gone!

We recently decided on a last-minute trip to Europe. There was a pretty good flight deal which made the decision easy. On departure, all was well until take-off. The engines were fired-up, the plane lurched forward for a while and then we suddenly slowed down and taxied comfortably back towards the terminal building. Then the pilot announced, “Sorry about that. We had a minor technical issue, but we’ve fixed it now, so we’re going around to have another try!” I was curious. What kind of technical issue can be fixed while you’re coasting along and anyhow, what does he mean, “have another try?”…..

So it was, that we went around again and joined the back of a very long queue. Well – I thought, at least that would give them plenty of time to re-check the “minor technical issue” before we “have another try!” This time we were successful – fortunately! Once we were airborne I was pleased to see just how many flight attendants were on-board. It looked like we were going to get some really bonanza service. There were dozens of uniformed staff whizzing up and down the aisles, following instructions from more senior-looking colleagues. Whilst it was entertaining observing all this, I was getting slowly hungry and I was glad that I’d brought a reserve sandwich with me because it was about 2-3 hours later that the in-flight meal was finally served. Then it dawned on me that this must be a training flight and the extra crew were the trainees.

The flight was certainly different from our last European trip with another airline where we were treated to a lesson in German efficiency. At that time, it was takeoff, food-up, then lights-out… everybody go to sleepy until… lights-on, wakey-wakey, music, breakfast and off-you-go – aufwiedersehen! This time it was more like, “Where’s the light-switch? I don’t know – I’m new here and I don’t sleep well on-duty!” “Where’s the food? I thought you were getting it!” Where’s the breakfast? No time for that, we’re already landing! Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating – we did get to eat breakfast, but the lights definitely weren’t out for very long!

Of course, there’s always an upside to everything. The plane had lots of leg-room and the flight itself was very smooth. Then we arrived in Europe where much has changed over the years, since I left. It’s still crowded, but even more so now. This was especially noticeable on the German autobahn where we had the pleasure of witnessing hundreds of kilometers of tail-to-tail trucks, all shuffling goods backwards and forwards in line with the EU (European Union) master plan! Too bad if you want to actually get anywhere these days because there’s not much space left for anyone else on the highways. Of course, you can always spend your vacation at one of those nice autobahn rest areas – which you may well have to, if you get really stuck!

In the UK it wasn’t much different – lots of traffic and lots of people doing lots of traveling. One thing hasn’t changed there, though – people are still trying to decide whether they are part of Europe, or not! Everywhere we went there were little plaques on various structures, which read, “This project was financed by the European Union”! Hmmmnn! No wonder they don’t have any money left!

Several years ago whilst I was residing in Europe, there was a travel agent advertising on billboards all over the city. The posters read, “See America While It Lasts!” At the time, I thought that was pretty funny and a rather neat way of attracting customers. Having lived in North America now for quite a while, I’m wondering if we’ll soon be seeing our own billboards with the caption, “See Europe While It Lasts!”

I left my shirt in San Francisco

It’s always fun to visit San Francisco – assuming, of course, you can afford it! The fascinating thing about being a tourist is that you are immediately recognizable as such. So you get to speak to all kinds of interesting people and also, some rather interesting people get to talk to you! But you know there’s a problem when the street guy complains that living here is not so affordable anymore and the next one tells you the tax break doesn’t help because he doesn’t pay any tax…..

It’s clear that San Francisco is getting progressively more expensive. However, with some careful planning it is possible to enjoy the city on a budget. Getting around is easy and inexpensive with the public transit system which offers a variety of passes and travel cards. For casual dining, there is a really nice food court near the tourist info center and one can stretch the travel dollars by frequenting some reasonably priced bars and cafes “outside of” the city center. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any of these places. Why not? Because then they wouldn’t be reasonably priced anymore, would they and anyway, my name is not Rick Steves, is it? So go ahead and enjoy the city, but hang on to your shirt!

No travel blog of mine would be complete without my regular airport security story. True to form, our local airport gave us the usual hassle. This time it was my wife’s luggage which was re-screened and minutely scrutinized. After much deliberation the guy finally said she could keep her nail-file. This episode highlights the difference between guys and girls. I would have just thankfully moved on. My wife however, delivered a parting shot. “No one ever queried my luggage before”! The guy began to reconsider his position. I was nudging and prodding my partner to stay silent. Eventually we just about escaped with our luggage intact.

On the trip home though, my wife apparently enjoyed the security check so much that she decided to do it all over again. We were in the transit zone at Seatac airport when I suggested we head for the food court “over to the right”. My wife’s response was predictable. “We’re going to the left – through this door”! We suddenly found ourselves in the main terminal, having just exited from the secure area. Despite my pleas, there was no way the uniformed lady was going to let us back through the exit door. We were directed to a very long line-up for – what else but – the security check! Fortunately, our flight was delayed and we were not on the last minute like some people. So, in the end, the good news was, I may have left my shirt in San Francisco, but not my pocket-knife, my scissors, or my nail-file!

Carrying On – At The Airport

They say, lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but whoever said that, obviously hadn’t been through security at our local airport. The last time I tried, my almost empty tube of toothpaste was confiscated. This time, they focused on my travel sets, including a nail-file and a mini-knife, so small that I couldn’t even use it to attack a politically correct dwarf – that’s one of those guys with the pointed hats that Snow White used to hangout with, before they were confiscated (the hats, not the dwarfs – well maybe the dwarfs too, because I haven’t seen them around lately)!

I protested that I wasn’t planning to attack anyone (except possibly the security guy if he didn’t return my property) and eventually he said, you can keep the nail-file but we’re taking the mini-knife. On our previous trip, the airline kindly provided us with solid stainless steel knives and forks onboard, so I was thinking maybe they wanted to give us some better implements on this trip too, but it didn’t happen. I suppose the idea is that next time they will confiscate my mini bottle-opener and after that the mini corkscrew, so they eventually have a complete travel set. I guess, there has to be an upside to every job!

I don’t really enjoy flying, but this time we had a direct return flight, so I thought, for once, we could purchase some duty-free liquor. I was wrong, of course. Our flight apparently had the lowest priority of all flights, so just getting to the plane itself was an adventure, never mind the duty-free. We arrived by rail at the International Terminal. Then we had to walk to Terminal 3 for check-in. From there, we were directed to the duty-free shop at the very end of Terminal 2. There we were told that, since our flight was leaving from Terminal 1, the duty free shop would not deliver any items to us and of course, in Terminal 1 there is no duty-free shop – surprise! I was not so happy. I hadn’t planned on a guided tour of SFO, I only wanted to get to my plane and organize some duty-free on the way.

On this trip, we had specially taken only hand luggage to save time and trouble, but we really shouldn’t have bothered. First, we had to carry our bags all the way around the different terminals. Then, for the final leg, we had to climb up and down various stairs, then onto a shuttle bus and up and down even more stairs to access the departure terminal. On the way, we did register some disapproval at the customer service desk, but our only satisfaction was that other people were having much bigger problems. When we finally landed, it had been raining so the airline announced they would save us the discomfort of carrying our hand luggage by delivering everything to the conveyor belt!

So much for the benefits of carry-on luggage! You can carry it “around” and you can carry it “on”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can carry it “off”! I think, next time, I will check-in absolutely everything I can. Then I’ll probably be flagged at security as a very suspicious person indeed!

Achtung – Everything is Kaputt!

It’s been a long time since we last visited Germany so it was no surprise to find that, in the meantime, a lot had changed – some things for the better and some things, well… not for the better! The most obvious change was the extent to which automation has crept into every aspect of modern day life. Everything which could possibly be automated, has been automated, together with every other thing which should definitely not have been automated, but has been anyway. The results of this are exactly as could be expected…..

Germany is often late to the game because they traditionally wait to see how everyone else fares before jumping into something new. However, when they finally do join in, it is with an unrivaled enthusiasm which knows no bounds. After wrestling with the airport ATM’s which worked out surprisingly well, we headed for the airport train station to confront the ticket machines. All three machines were, of course, out of service and the repair guys pointed us towards the subway, where we found one machine and a long line-up. By the time I had figured out how it worked, our train had come and gone. Then the next train was cancelled and the station began to oveflow with people. I asked a policeman for advice. He said we should board any train which arrived and not wait for an emptier one because cancellations were a regular occurrence.

Our next brush with automation was when we disembarked at the central station. I had read that obtaining and registering a prepaid mobile phone card was a swift and painless process. It wasn’t! After more than two hours in the phone shop, watching the clerk wrestling with both his computer and our mobile device, we emerged exhausted. When we subsequently tried to use our smartphone, the automated system responded with, “Your available balance is zero. To speak with customer service, press 0”. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next. “Customer service is 30c per minute. Your available balance is zero!” Grrrrrr!!!

Our next challenge was the hotel, where internet access “should have been” but “was not” free. Getting access was complex and they wanted a separate paid account for each device. So, with no mobile and limited wifi access, we were beginning to really wonder about the usefulness of technology. The automated, energy-save system was free though. You insert the room key card into the slot behind the door – if you can find it in the dark – and then the light goes on – or not! At breakfast, I searched in vain for the coffee pot, but in Germany now, everyone has an espresso machine, so why would a hotel be different! These machines are great fun if you know which buttons to press. If not, then you end up like me, with an empty cup and a large pool of unspecified liquid.

If we thought the phone card process was exciting, we hadn’t yet experienced the rental car pickup. I had an online reservation and as I approached the counter, the girl said,”We have everything ready for you!” Being both a skeptic and a cynic, I was pleasantly surprised – too soon, as it turned out. The girl hacked at the computer and then compared my order form with the screen. “This doesn’t agree! The computer wants more money”, she said. She tried changing terminals, changing cars, changing everything, but the computer would not be beaten. Finally after an hour or so and a heated discussion with her boss (not to be recommended) the boss said, “Let me try!” and it worked first time (Ouch, that really hurt!) The car we got was not the one we ordered but we were glad to finally escape – out onto the congested highways.

The next challenge was the Autobahn service station where we had to navigate the futuristic washrooms (not advisable if you’re in a hurry!) You have to buy a ticket at the automated entry gate, then try using the automated facilities (if they are working) and then try to exit. It was not easy, neither were we impressed with the discount coupon for another visit (why would we want to go back there?)

Everywhere on our tour, we discovered that everything possible had been automated and the operational success rate was fairly discouraging. The famous German phrase, “Das geht nicht!” (that doesn’t work!) seemed to be following us around wherever we went. It left me wondering why nobody had come up with the idea of an automated repair company, but then, on reflection … maybe they have! Think about that!

Trains Versus Planes – The Amtrak Experience!

Everybody wants to travel these days, but as Neatstep always says, “traveling is expensive and dangerous!” What people don’t tell you about their holiday, is usually much more interesting than what they do tell you. Having said that, we just returned from a family reunion in California. After a week in our favorite city, San Diego, we needed to get to our meeting place in San Francisco, a short flight away. That was before my wife had the brilliant idea of going by train…..

I did some research and all the online reviews confirmed my suspicions that this was a really bad idea. The average opinion was that traveling with Amtrak is not so much a journey as an adventure. We even met some people whose train never made it (but that’s another story!) After studying the timetables from every possible angle, it took me six weeks of valuable time to figure out how we could manage it. Even though I am an absolute train enthusiast, I didn’t fancy a 15 hour train journey, starting early morning. Then, I had the inspiration of breaking the trip into two days and staying at Santa Barbara en-route. The timetable suddenly fitted perfectly for us.

We collected our pre-booked tickets at the station and the clerk said, “Good job you’re not traveling today because all our trains have been canceled”. Fortunately that didn’t happen to us a week later and our train was dead on-time, all the way. We had traveled with Amtrak only once before, from Boston to New York, which was really easy. This is the West however and California Amtrak is a little different. Everyone had to wait in the main building until they were called to lineup and follow instructions for boarding the Pacific Surfliner. It worked surprisingly well. In fact, it was a wonderfully relaxing first stage of our journey and the scenery was beautiful.

The next day, we boarded the Coast Starlight train for the onward journey, looking forward to some spectacular views. I had read online that one thing you should never do aboard Amtrak is change your seats. The conductors apparently don’t like it. As soon as we were shown our seats, it was no surprise when my wife said, “We’re moving over there to get a better view!” It wasn’t long before the attendant noticed. “Is there a special reason why you changed seats?”, she said. The correct answer would have been, “Because my wife said so!”, however I wasn’t sure this would qualify as a special reason. “There’s a better view from this window”, I replied. The conductor was not impressed. “Are we okay here, for the moment?” I said, knowing the next station was three hours away. “For the moment!”, was the only response. All was well until the next stop when a passenger boarded and we had moved seats again. “Where’s my ****** seat?”, said the new guy. We quickly slid back into our old seats and the conductor, hearing the commotion chimed in, “That’s what happens when you people change seats!” We completed our journey and the train was right on-time, only the restaurant seatings were getting later and later because the train was full.

The Amtrak experience was still fresh in our minds when we reached the airport for our journey home. On our inbound journey, the computer had surreptitiously changed our selected seats and dumped us at the rear of the plane on both flights. So, it was no surprise to find the same thing had happened again for the return journey. The only problem this time was, the computer had placed us both in the same seat. The check-in clerk said she had never seen that before (maybe it’s a world first!) however it didn’t matter because our flight was delayed anyway, so she would need to change everything and rebook our connecting flights. Everything seemed to be wrong with our booking and the clerk spent a long time hammering the keys on the check-in kiosk, breathing deeply and looking anxious. Then she announced triumphantly, “We got the last two seats on your connecting flights”. What do you mean connecting “flight(s)?”, I asked. “Well, there’s just one seat on one plane and one seat on another plane!” she said. Oh, well – maybe that computer was smarter after all, putting us both in the same seat on the same plane!

So it was, that the flight home took almost as long as the Amtrak journey and not nearly as comfortable. Would I recommend this Amtrak experience for others? Absolutely! It was wonderful!

Watch out! Be careful!

Ever since we moved to our district, I always joked that little old white-haired lady drivers were the biggest threat to my existence. Unfortunately, I just discovered that this is not necessarily the case. We had recently returned home in my wife’s car when she complained about an engine noise. I left the car running, got out and flipped the hood open. Then I instructed her to get in and press the accelerator pedal whilst I take a look. She obliged. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next…..

Before I could shout, “holy smoke”, I felt a whack in the knees and was landing flat on my back in the driveway – ouch! Apparently, it was my fault (nothing unusual about that) because I had left the car in “drive” position and only applied the handbrake. My excuse is that I was really tired and obviously not concentrating. I’m pretty sure I won’t do that again (next time I will try something different!)

My wife and I are a perfect driving team. I remember the incident a few years ago when I drove into a service station to fill up with gas. I was really tired on this occasion too, having had a late night and driving several hundred kilometers. The car behind us was being really impatient, so against my better judgement, I quickly completed the fill-up and instructed my wife to pull forward, whilst I go to pay. Unfortunately, as she drove off, I realized there was one thing I had forgotten – to remove the nozzle from the gas tank. Too late – there was a snap and suddenly I was standing in an ever increasing pool of gas. Not a good start to the day! The nozzle remained in my gas tank everafter as a rattling reminder not to do that again!

The moral of all this seems to be that a car is most dangerous when it’s standing still on the tarmac and you are not the one in the driver’s seat!

Rain, Rain, Rain

I just looked out of the window and guess what – it’s raining again! That’s been the picture all along the West coast for months now. Fortunately, we had an interim vacation and managed to find some sunshine in California. Whilst we were in San Diego we even missed out on all the snow back home. How lucky was that!

Of course, traveling these days is not without its challenges, especially if you are flying. So it was no surprise when we had the usual excitement at the airport security check…..

There’s hardly any item these days which will pass unnoticed through airport security. I needed five separate bins to process all my belongings plus the things I forgot to remove and was ordered back for!

To combat the growing queues, airport security decided to fire-up their brand-new body scanners. Since neither the staff nor the passengers knew how to use these machines, the queues became even longer and the chaos was complete.

I now know, that when they say, “empty everything from your pockets” before the body scanner, they really mean “everything”. I was sure that paper tissues in both pockets wouldn’t affect the scanner. They did and security was not impressed!

In future, I think the best way to handle airport security will be to wear a swimsuit and carry everything else in a large bag. On second thoughts, maybe it would look too suspicious, since there isn’t a swimming pool at the airport. Perhaps they should provide one, so that passengers will have something to do while they are waiting!