Archive for October, 2009

Dallas Day Twenty Five

Friday, October 30th, 2009

When I am at home, setting my video (yes I know, a video recorder – how 20th century – but it works for me), it always seems to me that I watch quite a bit of American television.

I am now in America, the home of American TV. The television in my hotel room has 79 channels. So have I enjoyed my tv-watching experience?

I have to say, no, it’s been pretty underwhelming.

Here are the main things I’ve been watching over the past 4 weeks:

  • Robot Chicken – this is just extremely silly and childish. It’s made up of a series of very short sketches, many of which are parodies of other tv shows. I suppose it’s a cartoon for teenagers, since it appears in the Adult Swim part of the Cartoon Network. It hits the mark enough to be watchable, and the individual sketches are so short that it’s not too painful when a sketch is rubbish.
  • Family Guy – I could watch this at home any time on BBC3, but I usually don’t. Here it seems to be the most watchable thing I can find between 9:30 and 11:00. An amazing fact I recently discovered is that Seth MacFarlane does the voices of Peter the dad, Brian the dog, and Stewie the baby. They don’t sound at all alike – I’m impressed.
  • Stargate Universe – this is a new programme from the people who previously brought us Stargate and Stargate Atlantis. I’m not convinced that it’s going very well.
  • King of the Hill – again, I could watch this at home, but usually don’t. But at the end of a hard day’s work, it’s a much more gentle comedy than Family Guy, and a reasonable background for blogging.

So where is the quality television? Heroes, Fringe and Dollhouse are all being shown, but I haven’t caught any of them. There must be some funny scheduling going on. Oh, I did catch a repeat of Lost one night too.

So it’s true what they say – there’s 57 channels but there’s nothing on.

Dallas Days Twenty Two to Twenty Four

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Some random facts about being here in Dallas.

  • I’m actually in the city of Irving. It’s a part of Dallas County, as opposed to being a part of the city of Dallas itself.
  • The taxation system here is inordinately complex to an outsider. When you go to a shop, the price on the price tag doesn’t include the 8% sales tax which is added on at the till. So you never know how much you will pay for anything.
  • But taxes are all payed separately, so you have a federal tax, a state tax and a city tax. There may also be county tax, and there’ll be a tax for your local school district. So taxes are set at a very local level.
  • And that’s because lots of things are organised at a local level. The local police are the Irving police, paid by the city of Irving, from city taxes, and not from state or federal tax.
  • And the taxes on internet purchases are fascinating. If I buy a DVD from Amazon, I pay no sales tax because Amazon have no shops in the state of Texas (or anywhere else, of course). But if I buy a DVD from Best Buy or Frys Electronics, I will have to pay sales tax because they both have shops locally. I didn’t buy it from the local shop, but because I could have done, sales tax must be applied. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I am a simple man…
  • And the road labelling system is opaque too. Roads have so any different designations. An Interstate will have a interstate number, and a number for each state it passes through. But some of these roads get names as well. So the John W Carpenter Expressway is also state highway 114. I like names, as does Mrs Satnav. But the big road sign says 114, and the name only appears on a small green sign about 1 meter from the junction, so it’s almost impossible to know when you’re due to turn. Likewise, he sometimes tells me to stay on Interstate 35, but at that point in time, all the road labels refer only to state road numbers. As I say, I find it confusing.
  • And I went back to the IHOP last night, because I think it’s great.

Dallas Days Nineteen to Twenty One

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Friday and Saturday were fairly busy days, especially since I worked for pretty much all of Saturday.

But that meant I was free on Sunday, so to make up for a boring day, we had a road trip. Everyone had recommended Austin as a good place to go to, so we headed for there. Unfortunately, it’s a 200 mile trip, but we got up early, and headed off.

Unlike some of the previous driving expeditions, it was a nice straightforward route, on Interstate 35 pretty much all the way, so there weren’t any arguments with Mrs Satnav for a change.

The first exciting event on the way was when we found Willie’s Place.

Willie's Place!

Willie's Place

There’s not much can compare with the surprise of suddenly seeing a billboard with an enormous picture of Willie Nelson by the roadside. It turns out Willie runs a truckstop with a general store, a theatre for his country and western mates to play at, and a filling station specialising in biodiesel. They also run a radio station out of there, which we listened to, but only very briefly…

Then off we went, through the Texas countryside. Once you’re out into the country a bit, it becomes a little less repetitive than the cycle of clusters of fast food, petrol stations and hotels on either side of the road. We saw stereotypical American farmhouses, with white fences, and interesting looking local restaurants. We passed through the Czech town of West, where all the names have a lot of “k”s and “z”s in them, and the speciality is kolaches (the strawberry and cream cheese one I had wasn’t bad at all). We saw the interesting skyline of Waco, but I have to admit we didn’t stop to admire it.

Austin itself wasn’t what I had expected it to be. We went to the state capitol building, which was very impressive. They have some excellent paintings of the big events in their history, like the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. They’ve got a lovely dome, with a great mosiac beneath. And some excellent staircases. They also have pictures of all their past governors, like George W. Bush.

We then had some lunch, where we had the worst service I’ve had since I’ve been here, and walked along the river. My colleague, who is used to the Ganges, was a little surprised that the Colorado wasn’t bigger (after all this is Texas). It turns out that it’s not actually the same Colorado river that fuels the Hoover Dam, and carved out the Grand Canyon, but a different one with the same name (those Americans and their re-use of names – honestly!!).

One of the more unusual attractions of Austin is the colony of Bats that live in the expansion joints in the bottom of the Congress Street bridge. At sunset, the bats get restless, and then fly out from under the bridge to go and eat insects all night. We got ourselves a standing spot by the bridge, and sure enough at about half seven, the bats started to come out to play. And there were loads of them! Thousands and thousands! It was very cool, but didn’t photograph well, since they waited until it was dark.

We then headed for the 6th Street area, which is meant to be where the action is. Unfortunately, Sunday afternoon isn’t the most hip hop and happening part of the week, so it was pretty quiet. We did hear some live music, but not a lot. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we had to leave fairly early to get back to Dallas.

But the journey home turned out to be the most exciting part of the day. As we drove, we could see lightning in the distance, to our left. We kept driving, but we kept seeing it – we weren’t leaving it behind. Then we were driving straight towards it. It was proper big Texas lightning – lots of forks, that completely lit up the sky. And then the rain started – big Texas rain, absolutely hammering down, with the wipers on high speed just to see the cats eyes on the road and keep us in our lane. We slowed down to try and stay on the road, but the trucks had no intention of taking it easy, and when they passed us the wake and spray made it impossible to see anything. It was really scary.

Worse still, it’s very sore on the eyes to drive like that for any length of time, and it had been a long day, so I was getting pretty tired by the time I got back to the hotel, and it was a struggle to keep my eyes open. In retrospect, it was a good day, but at the time I was just relieved to get home safely.

Dallas Day Eighteen lunch

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

I forgot Thursday’s lunch!

We went to a sandwich shop, and I tried a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I don’t believe I’ve had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before. It was much nicer than I had expected.

To me, it sounds like it mixes sweet and savoury in a dangerous way – like jam and cheese, or sugar and ham (warning I ust made those up – do not try them at home). But actually, it really works. It’s pretty heavy going mind you, but was delicious, and I’d eat one again.

Dallas Days Sixteen to Eighteen

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

American food!

Since there was a large group of travellers, and one of them was celebrating their birthday, we went to an expensive restaurant on Wednesday, and I had a really good steak.

Last night I had tea on my own, and went to the IHOP. I think the IHOP is fabulous, as it represents a genuinely American cuisine that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Their pancakes are really, really yummy, and my omelette was spotty dog too.

So then this evening, my dining companion is only in Texas for one night, so he wanted to do something really Texan. So I had a chicken fried steak, which turns out to be a steak that has been treated like southern fried chicken by being battered and fried. It was rather good. And then pecan pie for dessert.

I like food. And when I get home, I’m going to have to diet for a long time…

Dallas Day Fifteen

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

The Mexican restaurant round the corner is called “Mi Cocina”.

Apparently if you pronounce it the way I have been, as “Cochina”, it means “dirty”. It should therefore be pronounced “Cosina”, which means kitchen. Well, at least I didn’t embarrass myself or anything!

You live, you learn…

Dallas Day Fourteen

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

What a cool day!

I went out to the same church as last week, which once again impressed me. Then I had lunch in Sweet Tomatoes, the soup and salad place where I had lunch on Friday, and as on Friday I really enjoyed it. I never thought I would choose to eat in a salad buffet, but there you go – it’s a funny old world!

Then I headed for White Rock Lake Park for a Sunday afternoon stroll. It was a lovely sunny day, and the park was full of people enjoying themselves doing their thing, whether it be cycling, jogging, sailing, canoeing, canoodling, or just watching the world go by. It was a great place to be. Though I have to admit I was very jealous of the many cyclists, and it took all of my determination to resist mugging a passing cyclist and riding off at high speed on their bike. Except of course that they were going past very quickly on their nice bikes, and I was only walking, so I’d never have caught one to mug anyway.

But walking brought its own benefits. I stopped and had a long chat with Roderick, who has been there every Sunday for the last 14 years with a sign saying “free advice”. We didn’t quite talk “of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings”, but we certainly talked about a lot of different subjects. As for the advice, “people aren’t short of facts – they just need to think about the possibilities”. Roderick is clearly very well-read, and just happy to spend time with people. Good for him I say!

Then, on the way back I met Captain Smokey, sailing and driving his amphicar around and in the lake. Needless to say he attracted a crowd, and I have to say his vehicle looked looked much cooler than the Belfast equivalent.

The Amphicar!

The Amphicar!

At this point, I thought my day was complete. But then on the way back to the hotel, I saw the biggest second-hand book shop I have ever seen. Due to the strong gravitation pull of that many second-hand books, the car practically steered itself into the car park – I had no choice. And the shop is just enormous – big enough to have it’s own coffee shop, fish tank, help desk (with 3 people at it), and about 6 tills. It turns out that this isn’t just a “they’re bigger in Texas” thing – it’s the flagship store of a second-hand book shop chain. And they have a very simple pricing method – the books are half the original price, so everything is really good value (since older books are cheaper to begingwith). I managed to get out with only 2 books (for less than $7!!), but if I hadn’t been limited by my suitcase space it could easily have been a dozen.

Then I went to the cinema, and watched Bruce Willis’ new movie “The Surrogates”, which wasn’t bad.

So a great day in Dallas.

My new superpower!

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Before I headed out to Dallas I bought a new pair of sunglasses, since I managed to wreck my last pair in Lanzarote. They were a fairly cheap pair, since they always break or get lost sooner or later. When I put them on during the week, I realised there was something odd about them. And today I worked out what it is – they have polaroid lenses, so they darken by blocking light that is polarised in a different direction to the glasses.

Which means that you can see polarised lighting. This is usually LCD displays (my blackberry looked like the display was broken), and offices with clever windows. But most surprisingly, the sky isn’t uniformly polarised, with the depth of blue changing as you turn round in a circle. I don’t know why this is. I guess some googling will be required.

But anyway, as a result, I feel like I’ve got some kind of superpower – the ability to see polarised light. It’s a very minor superpower, I admit. I don’t expect to get my own plot-line in Heroes or series of comics or anything. But it is kind of interesting. Well, it is to me anyway.

Dallas Days Eleven to Thirteen

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

I didn’t go to the gym on Thursday night, as I got distracted by the TV. When I finally decided to go out, I was going to go out to the House of Pancakes, but then decided to carry on with the non-repetition rule, and try somewhere different. So I went to the Steak and Shake, where I had the most amazing milkshake – the left half of the glass was banana flavoured, and the right half was strawberry flavoured. It was pretty fantastic.

On Friday we had a fantastic lunch – we went to Sweet Tomatoes, a salad and soup buffet. I am not traditionally a fan of the salad, but I have to admit this place impressed me. The salads were fresh, with interesting ingredients (like strawberries), and they were all good to look at. The soups were fantastic too. We’ll be back there, repeat rule or not!

Saturday saw us off to Fort Worth, the other half of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Where Dallas has the whole JFK thing, Fort Worth instead makes a big deal of its cowboy heritage. And so we saw cattle, horses and cowboys, and heard country and western music at the Fort Worth Stockyard area. C&W isn’t particularly my scene, and so I was able to resist buying a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, but it was a cool place to visit. We then headed off to the outlet mall at Allen in the evening, which was full of shops and bargains. However, it reminded me that I am not really into clothes shopping, so I bought nothing and now don’t want to see another shop for a month.

I also managed to successfully buy petrol, which is always an achievement when I’m away from home. Three-quarters of a tank cost $26.38, which is probably just under £20, so that turned out to be the bargain of the day, rather than the outlets!

Dallas Day Ten

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

When we went out for lunch today, we nearly went back to somewhere we’d been before. But a last minute change of plan took us to a different deli instead, keeping our unbroken run of a different place to eat every lunchtime and teatime.

That’s pretty impressive, and we’re not showing any signs of running out of places yet. Mexican has been popular (3 different ones), as has Indian (also 3) and the Deli (3).

Roll on the next mealtime 🙂

Hmmm. To take the bad look off this post, let me point out that I’ve been to the gym twice this week. Not for very long admittedly, but I did go.