US Entry Requirements for Aussies

I meant to write a “transitional” post, one that outlines how this blog proceed from here now that my European trip is over, but today I spotted this news item which is very relevant to my last posting. Please note that if you’re an Aussie and travelling to the US, you need to obtain an “electronic travel authorisation” via the ESTA website. So much for being friends and allies!

More later on how and where we’re heading with this blog.

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Funny Americans

My flight from London to Sydney involved a stop for 5 hours in Los Angeles. I really wasn’t looking forward to my brief visit on US soil and that was mainly because I’d heard of horror stories about US airports and, especially, the treatment handed out my US immigration officials to visitors. Well, my experience didn’t turn out too badly, in fact. It was certainly ahecofalot better than my departure from Heathrow’s Terminal 5. The lines at LAX moved quickly (though to be fair, the Americans had more people manning the customs counters and had fewer passengers to process) and the officials were actually respectful and friendly.

I even had a little reason to laugh, albeit only quietly.

Just before arrival, the British Airways flight crew began to hand out the customary landing cards. For me, there was one small white-coloured card and a green “I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record” card. The latter asked the following question:

Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?

At first, I thought that they couldn’t possibly be serious. But, yes, they really are!

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Leaving Europe

After fairly painless and hassle-free experiences across a number of airports during my trip, luck finally ran out at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. It may not have been the chaos that plagued British Airways’ T5 opening earlier this year, but thanks to the inconsideration and incompetence of their staff, my experience (as well as that of others’) came very close.

As they say, “rules is them rules”, and most will understand that, but being charged 25 quid (AUD$62) for exceeding the baggage limit by just one kilo struck me as being a bit on the extortionate side. Surely there’s a “grace” weight range, say from 1-3 kilos, that’s forgiven – I pleaded. Nope, no can do, this determined BA check-in rep insisted. I must absolutely have to pay and to do that I must make myself available in Zone E.

Not wanting to get into a heated argument in my holiday’s finale, I agree to pay the price, march off to Zone E, but still determined to avoid paying if I can.

Here’s the next problem. Over in Zone E was a short but slow queue. Waiting time before I’d see anyone was about 30 minutes. Then, something weird happened. One of the BA staff, a fat English woman with a walking stick and in her late 40’s, suddenly anounced that the last three people in my queue should move over to counter 25 in order to be served. So off we went to counter 25. On arrival, there was no one there!

We turned to the fat Engliswoman and asked what’s happening. “Oh, she’s gone to a meeting”, she said, “I didn’t know. Sorry”. With that she just shrugged her shoulders and walked off. Stupid woman. We stood there for a second like stunned mullets with no choice but to return to our original queue.

After a long wait, it was finally my turn. My customer service rep, also a another older woman of about late 40’s, appeared to be more sympathetic. So I sweet talked.

“You seem like a nice lady”, I said to her with a smile. “And you know, it’s only like one kilo. It’s my last day in Europe”. All spoken with a sort of innocence ala Oliver!

As if like an understanding mother who only wants to calm her distraught little baby, she answered, “C’mon, let’s have a look.” She checks the bag, punches in a few keys, prints the labels and with all that done, “OK, that’s it!”

“That’s it?” I asked. She confirms. No fee, no nothing! I got let off. My luck hadn’t ran out yet, after all.

With 25 quid safely still in the wallet, how else to finish off my European tour but lunch in Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food” restaurant in Terminal 5. It was the first place I spotted right after passing through the x-ray machines.

Despite the name behind the restaurant, nothing can change the fact that this joint happens to be right smack in an airport. The decor is about as cold and ordinary as gate A18 where I boarded my plane bound for LAX. However, they compensate by employing a bunch of the friendliest waiting staff that I observed in my 2-month holiday. On walking in one is immediately assisted by an attractive young English lass who will helpfully asked what time your boarding will be. I tell her that’s in 40 minutes. That was plenty of time, she assured, and that she’ll also inform the waiter appropriately.

I opt to keep it simple and affordable, ordering a crab and misso salad (13.50 GBP) with a glass of OJ and bread. The salad was ridiculous. It’s exactly as it says – crab meat, with some sort of beans, and cabbage. But, it’s nothing special. Near tasteless, in fact. The crab must have been AWOL. I kept thinking that this was yet another specimen of an overpriced, overstylised food foisted by an equally overrated celebrity chef, a foul-mouthed one no less, and consumed mostly by people who really haven’t got a clue about what good food actually is!

Still, I walked away at least happy that now I can say that I’ve eaten at Gordon’s joint. That was good enough for me.

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A Dog in Action

In Paris, I spent most of time photogaphing people instead of buildings and some particular scenery. One such image I took was of a dog performing the number 2 in the middle of a Parisian street. And now it has been my most popular image over the last couple of weeks.

Here it is!

Parisians love their dogs. Way too much, I think. I thought the Spanish were bad, but these Parisians are even worse. One side effect of this is the numerous dog poo lying around, so you do have to watch yourself.

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Saving Britain by Shopping

At last, back in London where some 2 months earlier I began my little European tour. I never tire of this place. It is, in fact, my second most loved metropolis after, of course, my home – Sydney. London has everything I need: the arts, the few thousand watering holes, parks, a whole world of beautiful women and, despite their occasional pestilential ailments, a metro system that is far superior to that of any Australian version. The only things of note that are missing are good cafes with good coffee.

I’m staying in Piccadilly Circus just behind the much photographed neon signs.

With the possible exception of Hong Kong (where I’ve been) and New York (where I’ve not) – no other city tickles the instinct to spend like London can. As I strolled along the trafficless Regent St, on Saturday it seemed like the whole of “W1” (this part of London’s postcode) was more crowded than usual. There were large hordes in almost every store and perhaps the most impressive was that outside of Hamley’s – a toys store. You wouldn’t think that this was the country, no – the city, that’s presently in the midst of the “credit crunch”. But with plenty of street theatre and fancy lights to dull people’s senses, it’s easy to forget a crisis of any kind.

As it turns out, the weekend’s shopping frenzy had a perfectly rational explanation. Encouraged by the UK government with cuts to interest rates and the VAT plus aided by big price reductions from retailers, Londoners, along with their EU neighbours, turned out in hundreds of thousands. But are sales actually up? Well, apparently not, said the GM of John Lewis. While stores are busy, people aren’t necessarily spending more than last year. That is, except myself.

In the midst of this craze I couldn’t help it. Even basic maths went out of the window. Looking at the prices, I totally ignore the pound symbol and calculate the numbers back to Australian Dollar based on the euro! My brand new coat is ahecofalot more expensive than I thought it was.

And so, whatever economic recovery Britain may have as a result of consumer spending, PM Gordon Brown can at least thank silly tourists like me.

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Frogs’ Legs

On my last day in Paris, I decided to treat myself: lunch at the famed Les Deux Magot (6 place Saint Germain de Pres), once a placed frequented by French intellectuals.

However, on my arrival for lunch and after a morning’s walk in the rain, and quickly noticing the already seated diners – I’m suddenly intimidated! They all seem to be dressed in the finest couture. Feeling myself decidedly out of place, dressed in a wet parka, slightly soiled jeans and mud-covered hiking boots, I stop just some 2 or three metres from the door and veer off. “I can’t go in there looking like this”, I thought.

Instead, I head for Cafe Le Petit Pont, just across from the Notre Dame. If I can’t lunch at the famed Les Deux Magot, then I might as well compensate myself with at least a better view.

Cafe Le Petit Pont (1, rue du Petit Pont) is a bit of a tourist trap. It’s literaly where no one can miss it! Even the Shakespeare & Company bookshop is just right next door (the aging George Whitman, founder of Shakespeare & Co., actually walked past me as I took a sip of my cheap bordeaux). While popular with tourists, some locals, too, are there. This place is busy at virtually all hours. As their business card says, “non-stop le week-end”!

I figured that I was probably saving a few euros here than by being at the other place, so I don’t hesitate. For starters, I order frogs’ legs (what else?) and for mains, I settle for beef stew (apparently, as it says on the menu, the cook brings to me the finest in French cooking). Well, I just couldn’t wait.

The frogs arrived first, of course. My initial tasting tells me they’re like fish! A few more bites later, I change my mind and now I think these frogs taste more like chicken. Sauteed to perfection and with a liberal amount of sauce, the frogs are sufficiently enjoyable, if only at least for their novelty to the pallet. As I finish them off, the waiter delivers my main – the beef stew. This one comes with spaghetti pasta that tasted as if it was already a day old. I’m disappointed. The beef, too, was nothing special. What is this so-called French cooking all about? Still, I persevere and being civilised I finish off the plate.

With a little espresso to complete, all up I got slugged for €30. Not too bad, I thought, but it seems that I was really paying more for the view.

And here’s a recommendation for a little bar with some good funky music. Le Caveau des Oubliettes (52 rue Galande) is a tiny pub where the basement has been transformed into a second bar and jazz venue. It’s so small that some folks are piled out onto the staircase during a performance. But no one seems to mind; the French are far too patient. Cool young crowd without the pretentious atmosphere.

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Essential Guide to Paris

On first arriving in Paris, make sure to drop in at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, just across from the Notre Dame and on the left bank of the Seine. For there you will find the legendary Shakespeare & Company bookshop. Walk in through the doors and immediately to your left is the travel writing section. Pick up a copy of a small guide to Paris, “Plan de Paris par Arrondisement et Communes de Banlieue avec la station du metro la plus proche”. For €12, you’ll have a handy map of Paris that lists all the streets, from large to small, across every corner of this city. Both the RER and metro lines are also covered. It’s better than those poster-sized maps and make for an appropriate reminder of your visit to Paris and to the bookshop.

As for Shakespeare & Company, well, one must certainly visit, at least once. Everyone is welcome for as its founder’s motto reads, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”. Browse around but always ensure to walk upstairs. There, for a brief moment, you’ll look straight into a little piece of Parisian history. I leave the rest to George Whitman, the shop’s founder

I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions – just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre-Dame for all of you to enjoy, and my little rag and bone shop of the heart whose motto is “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”. I may disappear leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.

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