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Tougher checks can take longer


So I flew to Mannheim this weekend to see my cousin Jamie - a routine visit, from my perspective, just a quick jaunt across to the Continent.

Both Ingrida and I had a great time (see earlier post), but coming back in from Germany was a nightmare.

It wasn't the plane journey, for once. Security was a breeze at Frankfurt Hahn, although the requisite security theatre was in place, the lines were short and the people kind.

No, the problem occurred once I landed at Prestwick. As we were walking towards passport control, we noticed some new signs, up in blue that said "Tougher checks can take longer."

I filled out a landing card and went to talk to the passport control.

She said some fairly standard bits and I travel so often that I was on autopilot with my answers: here's my address, I work for the company to which I'm contracted, etc.

Then she said something pretty out of the ordinary: "Do you have your work permit on you?"

I said, "There's one sewn into my passport."

She said, "That's an entry clearance. I have to check on something. Please go have a seat around the corner and I'll call you." She made a phone call.

So I did. And the entire plane went through the line and I sat there, waiting. When they left, I walked around the corner again only to have her say: "Go take a seat."

Another two planes worth of people disembarked and went through passport control.

Finally, after about half an hour, during which I didn't have my passport and Ingrida was on one side of the passport control and I the other - and we weren't permitted to use our mobile phones, or even look at each other - another woman came and gave the passport controller a bit of paper. She came and got me and said: "Come on through." There were a couple more routine questions, but I was pretty shaken.

I've never needed any additional paperwork before and the entry clearance is also a work permit. I'd show a picture of it but I'm feeling paranoid now.

When I asked what I could do to avoid this kind of trouble at a border crossing in the future, she said: "I just needed to check something, but it checked out, so don't worry about it."

Right. Easier said than done. There's a set of rules that I have to follow and no one will tell me what they are. The consequences for not following them are to forfeit everything I own and be forced to return to the U.S.

I still want to make my home here, but this was seriously unpleasant.

Spiritual Revolution


Saturday evening, Ingrida and I went to see Jamie's show, Elements. Outside of Germany, it's called Spirit, but since this is German for alcohol, they decided to give the name a skip and call the show Elements until they were in France.

Watching the show was a great time; if you're in Paris next week, go catch it. We're planning on seeing it again when it gets to Bordeaux, since we can match it up with a visit to our French cousins. It has several solo numbers, three precision numbers and some mixing, where the precision number is interspersed with solo artists. There were also some "special acts," performed by couples or groups of couples that were great to watch and looked fantastic but wouldn't have been competition legal.

The show was divided into several themes. It had a strongly Chinese flavoured set of numbers, a street dancing number, a Native American number and a finale. The Chinese flavoured set - which had overtones reminiscent of Mulan - lasted for most of the first part of the show.

Holiday on Ice Chinese dragon A precison component

Jamie fell during this number Jamie is wearing a yellow skirt and a teal headband

The Finale

There was an intermission, where we discovered that if something just isn't the worst around, you can always rely on the Germans to make something extra worst.


My favourite number was the street dance, which was set to Macy Gray's Sexual Revolution, but because the song is filthy and this is a family show, they changed the title and the lyrics and then had someone re-perform the song. They called it Spiritual Revolution and replaced all of the dirty words. Despite this bit of musical emasculation, the number was well choreographed, the performers had great costumes and everyone looked like they were having fun.

All in all, it was a great show and a great weekend!

Afterwards, we stayed up with Jamie until 6(!), drinking champagne and chatting. She had to get up to skate at 0930. I have no idea how she did it; I slept until noon and still felt tired all day.

Hangin' out with Jamie in Mannheim


Ingrida and I are in Mannheim. It was a dual purpose trip: see my cousin and take Ingrida on a date.

The handy synergy comes from the fact that Jamie is in a show, Holiday on Ice, exactly the kind of thing that Ingrida loves.

So we checked into the Cruise Cafe Hotel Mannheim, a little three star hotel just a five minute walk from the central commercial district of Mannheim. The hotel has a lot going for it and a few drawbacks; the drawbacks are minimal and I highly recommend the place. It was €99 for two nights plus two nights of parking for two people, or the equivalent of €25/night per person - about £19/night per person. For those of you reading in the UK, this was a three star hotel, not a backpackers hostel. And that price comes with a free buffet breakfast every day. It goes beyond good value, actually; it was amazing.

They didn't have room service, so we ran out of wine on Saturday night and Jamie had to sneak off and blag a bottle of whiskey off a mate - and we had no mixers except peach nectar - but at this price, I'd be churlish to complain about the fact that the bar closes at one a.m.

Here's one oddity: there was a doorway that lead to nothing in our room.

Of course, our room also had a fridge, a stovetop, a pot, a colander, a spatula, one set of flatware and ample space to set up for a long stay, so it would be a great base for exploring Mannheim, just don't try to walk out onto the balcony, because it's not a balcony, it's just a three story drop.

Mannheim itself feels delightfully relaxed and was comparatively clean. The streets had a few dots of gum on them and occasionally you'd see a cigarette butt. That's it. It was the cleanest place I've seen outside of Scandinavia, coming in pretty close on the heels of Uppsala for cleanliness (nothing touches Trondheim, the world's cleanest city, where I felt bad wearing my boots outside, for fear that I was trudging dirt all over their pretty Norwegian idyll).

In a touch that I found simultaneously an example of German organization and idiosyncrasy was that the streets are all lettered and numbered instead of named. Our hotel was on C7. The main drag is D1. It is an incredibly efficient system; the letters run north to south, the numbers east to west. You not only know where you are in respect to your hotel but have a good idea how far you are. On the other hand, it is the sort of thing my cousin Caitlin might call "adorkable."

The tram system was exactly on time every time we used it and immaculate; perversely, this made me bitter about the rail system in Britain, which now seems so shabby as to be a disgrace to the third world, let alone a rich first world nation like the UK. I can't speak for all of Germany, but Mannheim has it right.

The trams run on time in Mannheim

Since trams are coming to Edinburgh, I'm interested in how they work. Certainly, they worked well in Mannheim. There are a number of key differences between Germany and Edinburgh, though, that I think will have to be addressed. In Mannheim we saw a demonstration of neo-Nazis. They were more polite and I felt safer walking past the demonstration back to my hotel than I do walking from Haymarket to my home on Queen Street after taking the late night train back from Glasgow. Neo-nazis aren't my favorite people in the world, but it was enlightening to me that they were less threatening than the neds who keep kicking in my door. Edinburgh will have to address this problem if it wants people to use the trams. Police and a couple of very public, humiliating arrests of the undesirable elements who disturb the public would go a long way towards discouraging the anti-social behavior - which would in turn encourage common folk to use the public transport.

In the center of Mannheim there's some kind of monument. I have no idea what it's for, but it was cool looking, so I took a picture. You can see it below as well, at the end of D1. Note how the trams run on the street. They actually work remarkably well. I hope that Scotland has learned from the lessons of places like Mannheim but I suspect not.

The trams criss cross the city centre

Friday night, we drove down from Frankfurt. We arrived at the hotel at 0230 Saturday morning - and stayed up talking to Jaime until 4 o'clock. Naturally, one of the first things we did Saturday morning was find a cafe. This place, down D2, had absolutely magnificent coffee. Although their English was as good as our German, we still managed to negotiate our purchases with considerable alacrity. Caffeine deprivation and their desire for our business were powerful motivators that worked to our mutual benefit.

Oh, yes, coffee!

The coffee here was fantastic; best latté I've ever had. The name of the place was either Bäckerei or Coffee to Go. This was based on the idea

The only person who wears as much pink as Jamie is Rachael. Jamie says: "I don't normally wear this much pink." Below is a picture of her and Ingrida in front of the fountain in Mannheim city square. One of the interesting things for me is that the sun managed to perfectly catch the lens coating and made a rainbow flare that crosses the entire photo. It's not what I was looking for, but it would be nearly impossible to reproduce.

Ingrida and Jamie look so cute! If only I could have taken the picture while they were sitting in a field of bunnies, with butterflies resting on their fingertips, hummingbirds and swallows flitting about singing. Jamie had to head off to her first performance of the day, so we were on our way to the tram stop.

The guy in the background is random

Ingrida and I were standing next to the fountain in the square in the middle of Mannheim. I put on my best German face, trying to look like my stern ancestors from Mecklenberg.

It's my American Gothic look

After hanging out in the city centre, having the world's best coffee and then seeing Jamie off, we went shopping. By accident, we found a German farmer's market. It was filled with brown bread, cheeses, sausages, fruit and vegetables - and since we were staying in a room with a kitchenette, we bought enough for our supper. One of the best finds was Normandy butter, salted with Fleur de Sel de Camargue. We spread this on massive chunks of sourdough rye and happily munched the afternoon away. We bought our bread from the stand below.

Fresh bread

We bought cherries, plums, oranges and Sharon fruit from the place below. The fruit was uniformly of a high quality, though the cherries were strangely bland.

The prices were very reasonable.

What's it like being an Uncle?

Well, it's pretty cool. There are all sorts of things that I understand now that I didn't understand before - like why Uncle Phillippe would have spent an entire afternoon, when it was sunny outside, to teach a seven year old about division.

I'm still grateful to him.

I look forward to being able to talk to Liam. At the moment he sleeps and eats and poops. Mark assures me that he also pees; my mother assures me that he cries.

Speaking of my mother, she was on TV last night on the Discovery channel! I don't know how it went, but presumably it was fine. Leroy Sievers is Ted Koppel's executive producer and has been battling cancer for a long time. He has a blog about cancer and my mother and sister posted on his blog for a long time.

Discovery put together a show based on Leroy's blog and led by Ted Koppel; it's apparently a special edition of a regularly scheduled Ted Koppel show called Koppel on Discovery. In any event, it was on very early this morning, 0100 my time, or about 8pm EDT.

I haven't seen it yet; no one I know gets Discovery. But my mother has a DVD copy and so I'll see it eventually.

Today is a Bank Holiday in Scotland so my place of employment is closed; what would you do with a windfall of leisure?

Well, I'm headed to Glasgow to hang out with Ingrida, a friend of mine who's going to the University of Strathclyde. Glasgow's a rainy city, much rainier than Edinburgh, and I'm not cheered by the idea of the rain, but that's where Ingrida is so that's where I'm going.


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I went to visit my friends Roddy and Francesca in Rome a few weeks ago, and wanted to share with some of the fine people who didn't get to come with me.

Here are a few pictures:

Roddy, on our way into town
That's Roddy. I moved back to Edinburgh to be closer to a number of people - and Roddy was one of them. He's a great guy; we were flatmates for a while and had a good time while he was here. Now he lives in Valletri, just south of Rome.

Can you believe it's this fertile in October?
These gardens were actually Francesca's parent's next door neighbour's. She is about eighty years old and permanently hunched over; it's possible to grow everything you need to eat for a year on about an acre of land in this part of Italy. I've never seen anything like it, even in places I'm used to thinking of as being rich and fertile. Of course, they have 2000 years worth of topsoil built up - and it was about 20 degrees.

Ack, ack, ack! Where's me spinach?
This is one of Roddy and Francesca's olive trees. They'll probably get 15 or 20 litres of olive oil off of their trees - and they'll probably use it all in a year. This is all the more amazing because they are both in pretty good shape; 20 litres of olive oil is about 162,000 calories, or enough to put 50 pounds of fat on you if you have it in excess of your requirements. They haven't had a chance to try the oil from these trees yet, but we had some from their parent's trees, and I was grateful for having lived long enough to have tasted such a thing. It was nearly clear, with a slight green tint and a pungent olive aroma. My tongue sang as the oil swam past it; I put it on everything - bread, pasta, salad, tomatoes, steak, bruschetta. I wanted to drink it straight, but that seemed a bit much.

Come and taste!
They had a two persimmon trees in the back yard; they had told me over the phone that they had fruit trees, and kept saying they had a particular kind of tree that I hadn't heard of before. They new the name in Italian but not in English. They were persimmon trees. The persimmons were ripe globes succulent flesh, dangling from each branch begging to be tasted. So sweet, so sensuous - I couldn't resist taking frequent breaks to wander down to the larger of the two trees and gently coax a bundle of bright orange snack from its branches. They were so ripe that the skins were splitting, so full of juice that my face got covered in it, the sweet sticky nectar caught in my beard.

Persimmons were Grampa's favourite fruit. He would have loved these.

Some are sweet and some are sour, some are silk and some are leather
They had an apple tree, and lemons, too - and a hazelnut bush and oranges and grapes and artichokes. Roddy brought fresh artichokes over from Italy once and he and Ingriida and I steamed them and ate them with Hollendaise. It was a moment of bliss.

They had date palms as well, heavy with fruit not yet ripe.

Very pretty, and the flower is sweet.
It very rarely freezes, so citrus fruits fare well; this tree was so heavy with fruit that it's branches were starting to sag.

I always wondered: if Caesar composed music, would he have written an Etude Brute?
The forum, where the senate met. This was the one night we went out drinking. Well, eating and drinking. We weren't able to get a hotel and the trains stop running at midnight (ridiculous, isn't it?) so we took a taxi back to Valletri. Roddy and Francesca made me sit in the front seat, next to the driver. Their logic was that I was comparatively huge, so the guy would be initimidated into taking us on the journey. As it turned out, their logic was impeccable. He didn't want to drive us that far (it's about forty minutes) and tried to chuck us out. I gave him a glowering stare - and he drove us home.

This was one of the twin churches built right next to each other. They were majestic and solemn and the photo doesn't do them justice.


Rome was gorgeous, a sensuous treat, the echoes of a decadent empire and still audible on the streets. I'd say that it was a sad place, but the truth is that it was only me who was sad, so the beauty of it was haunting rather than joyful.

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