Florida notes

A few final random notes about the recent trip to Florida, and the “little differences” I noticed.

Of the towns we saw in Florida (Cocoa Beach, St Petersburg, Fort Myers, Homestead) most of them were fairly visually uninteresting, at least to my European eyes. Wide and flat, with little in the way of distinctive architecture. Now admittedly we were there for the wildlife and theme parks, so this wasn’t a deal breaker. And we stayed mostly in chain hotels in probably the least interesting parts of town. We were usually just off a large through road surrounded by malls and fast food restaurants, so not the kind of place where you’d just want to go out for an evening stroll, but we did see the downtown areas too and they looked like more of the same. Our final stop, Miami, was wildly exotic and full of imaginative design in comparison, even though I’m not that big a fan of ostentatious, pastel-hued Art Deco.

Speaking of hotels, we had contrasting experiences with two big chains. Hampton Inn was fine, but considering how much they charged you’d think they’d be able to provide proper crockery and cutlery at breakfast. Instead I felt like I was at a children’s party, eating off of paper plates with plastic knives and forks, all of which gets thrown away at the end of the meal, of course. Large trash cans dominated the food area. Tacky and incredibly wasteful.

On the other hand the Staybridge in St Petersburg was very good. Not only did they have proper, grown up plates and cutlery, but they even gave us free food to put on it. I mean, not every meal, but Monday to Wednesday evenings there was a free buffet dinner and glass of wine for all guests. And a free DVD rental on our first night (although our kids insisted on watching The Phantom of the Opera). And a free shuttle bus to anywhere within a three mile radius, which meant most of the main sights as the hotel was centrally located.

St Petersburg, by the way, is known for its excellent Dalì museum, but there’s plenty of free art in the streets too, with murals all over the place, and especially near Central Avenue. These two were spotted near Haslam’s bookstore.



Finally, I was struck by the flight attendants on our American Airlines. No, they didn’t hit me. I mean I was surprised at how old they all were. This was true to a certain extent of Disney World staff too, and I’ve noticed something similar in certain sectors in the UK. It seems much more common these days to see people near or even past retirement age working in the service industry, no doubt caused in part by the pensions crisis and a generally ageing population in the west. Considering that we were in Florida I’d expected to see fewer of these senior citizens serving me food and drinks and more of them sunning themselves on the beaches.


Five mugs

A friend recently posted five consecutive photos on five consecutive days on facebook. The photo had to be of a mug and he had to tell the story behind it. As the month draws to its close and I run out of blogging material I present to you here, and not on facebook, my Five Mugs.

The Shakespearean Insult Mug, from the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. I bought this in San Diego. The only mug I own which is worth reading. I keep this one in my office.


The famous Orange Two-handled Mug. I bought it in Den Bosch in 2007. I use it less than I expected to because I’m not so keen on the feel of plastic, as opposed to ceramic, in my mouth.

The “I heart NY” Mug. Bought in Newark airport in order to use up a few remaining dollars before heading home to Yurp. But then of course the sales tax was added on (because Americans don’t like to include that in the display price) bringing the final price to more than the amount of cash I had left, so I had to pay for it with the credit card and so I still had a fistful of dollars afterwards. Obviously I only use this mug when I’m in a New York state of mind.

The Darth Vader Mug. This came free with some kind of confectionery. I rarely use it because it’s surprisingly capacious and I don’t need coffees or teas that big. No good for drinking from if held in the left hand.

The Ball-handled Mug. Bought in a small shop in Genova. The handle is actually less comfortable to hold than a normal one but I just like the way it looks.

Bonus: Anne found a wacky beer mug the other day in a bar in Brussels.

Shut that door!

This door is just opposite the door to my office.


As I’m located at the end of a corridor I see a lot of people coming and going during the day, and most of them pass through this door to head out into the atrium and take the stairs or the elevator or exit the building. And about 70% of the people who pass through this door leave it open once they’ve gone through. This not only lets in cold air from the atrium, but also distracting noise of one kind or another from outside.

See, I’ve had to interrupt drafting this post three times already to get up and close the door again.

But I can understand people’s confusion in this situation. If only there were some kind of large, simple, visible reminder of the necessity to keep the door closed, then everyone would know what to do and we’d all be happy.

Drinking alone

Last night I spent two hours sat in a bar, alone. I don’t just mean that I didn’t have any drinking companions: I mean I was the only one there.

I’d taken my daughter to her stage musical rehearsal. Usually this happens on a Tuesday night but because of Armistice Day they shifted the date, which also meant using a different location for a change, so we found ourselves in the cultural centre of a small town half an hour east of Brussels. Like our usual location the centre had a bar. The difference this time was the the bar was on the ground floor and the stage was on the top floor, so I was the only one who stayed down there while everyone else stayed upstairs singing and dancing, only occasionally coming down to buy a drink and take it back upstairs.

I had a good book to keep me company, but still something about the place’s ambiance kept distracting me. In many respects it’s a typical Belgian café/bar. Not one of those places that attracts the tourists because it has 300 beers on tap, but one of the plainer neighbourhood bars which cater almost exclusively to locals, run by an elderly man or woman, decorated in varying shades of 1970s-era brown.

The barman spent most of his time pottering around in the kitchen at the back, although at one point he sat down at one of the tables, coughed repeatedly for about ten minutes, and then leant on the table as if to have a brief nap. Later a friend of his came in and all of a sudden he came to life and became garrulous and gregarious.

We have one of these bars at the end of our street. I only went in there once; just after we’d moved into our house. Everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at me, and the lady behind the bar eyed me with barely-concealed contempt. I haven’t been back since, although whenever I pass by, whatever the hour, I see guys inside nursing their pints, playing on the fruit machine. Some evenings I see one of them stagger out the door and weave his way up our street.

Some time back I found a website full of great photos of this kind of bar and I posted it to Facebook, but Facebook makes it very difficult to search back through your own timeline to find things again, so you’ll have to make do with the iPhone pic below of the seat and wall behind me. If I find that link again I’ll post it here.

EDIT: found it!

Snark Jerk

I remember back in the early days of blogging when it seemed (to me) quite brave to raise your head above the parapet and leave a comment on a blog. I mean, who was I to say anything in public about something someone else had written? Who would care what I thought? Obviously once I started my own blog I realised how pathetically grateful bloggers (well, this one at least) were for any kind of response or interaction which proved that people were reading what you’d written. And so I moved from lurking to commenting on a fairly regular basis.

Once social media took off this kind of behaviour became normal, as interaction was the whole point, and also maybe because it involved responding to people with whom you already had some kind of relationship. You knew what you could say and how to behave within the context of a pre-existing relationship. Lurkers still exist: probably only about a quarter of my facebook friends (if that) ever comment on my posts there, while the rest either read but keep silent, or just scroll past me.

But this freedom to respond has another side. As you get the immediate feedback and validation of comment “like”s and other responses, you get a little addicted. Your ego swells a little and you find yourself wanting to comment more and more. Even when perhaps you don’t really have anything interesting to say. What’s more, in my particular case there’s often an instinctive tendency towards snark: the temptation, when you don’t have anything really constructive or substantial to contribute, to simply make some sarcastic or snide joke.  It’s a kind of knee-jerk response (which I have christened “snark-jerk”). Trying to be the first one to say something funny or clever (in a superficial way) can often backfire, and while I think that most of the time I manage to walk that fine line without falling on the wrong side, occasionally in my rush to say something witty I’ll end up writing something which could be taken as mean-spirited or rude.

I’m working to reign it in, but please feel free to point it out to me if you feel any slip through the net (he said, mixing his metaphors).

Say “ah”

I had my annual medical examination today. I get a different doctor every time, from among the dozen or so who work for my employer’s medical service, and this time he was a pleasant, softly-spoken man. Nice bedside manner. Didn’t do anything unpleasant other than hold my tongue down with that little wooden stick which I always hate because it makes me gag. On Friday I do blood and urine tests (as I do every year) and this time I’m also doing a chest x-ray, as I had some bronchitis last year.

He seemed to think there was nothing whatsoever wrong with me, based on a cursory examination and conversation, apart from a certain amount of Michelin-starred flab around the middle.

My only question for him was about ergonomics (he referred me to a separate Ergonomics Unit within the medical service). I use graphics programmes fairly regularly and this involves a fair amount of mouse work, which in turn can sometimes lead to tension and soreness up my whole right arm and even into my neck and back. A colleague had a similar problem and managed to get hold of a vertical mouse (like this one) which apparently helps enormously, once you get the feel of it, so I’m hoping to get one too. I’ll keep you posted.

Otherwise, nothing to report. I’m unlikely to keel over and die any time soon. Although that’s not to say I won’t get hit by a bus. Especially considering what Brussels bus drivers are like…

Signs of the times

We just got back from the UK where the kids collected sweets and chocolate while trick or treating. For the grown-ups meanwhile, this morning meant a trip to the supermarket in order to stock up on fruit and veg in an attempt to make amends for the blow-out of the past week (full English breakfasts, cream teas, fish and chips…).

Approaching the small neighbourhood supermarket I noticed this image painted in the window. I’ve seen murals there before, notably Christmas and Easter themed ones, but this was the first time I’d really noticed that they changed it regularly to reflect the seasons. It’s a nice idea.