Dead Car Bounce

I took the runaround to have it’s MOT inspection yesterday, and on the way there I could tell there was going to be trouble. The oil light flickered briefly and then stopped, it coughed and stuttered as I queued in nose to tail traffic, and it really didn’t like reversing round a corner.

And yet it was still a shock to hear that it had catastrophically failed the test, especially because of all the plans for the rest of the day that I’d sort of arranged in my head.

The minute I heard the words cracked head gasket, I knew that our sixteen year old Ford Focus would not be rolling back into the road with me. The litany of other faults that seemed to have materialised out of nowhere were a little more alarming – and gave me the impression of the car having coughed and wheezed its way on to the ramp before letting all its guts fall out.

A bit of a pain, and one that feels like it cut my feet out from under me a little. Plans are afoot to sort out a replacement, but it seems to have now made this week rather more busy than expected

Oh, So You Want To Talk Stressful Journeys?

Just to prove that the best laid plans absolutely will fall apart even for the most organised of us, our return trip took double the expected time.

In retrospect, believing our satnav when it first said there was an hour’s delay and that it knew a short cut was our big mistake. We knew there were roadworks ahead, and news reports started coming in of multiple crashes in multiple roadworks areas along our route. The in-car satnav and Googlemaps on my phone were both metaphorically screaming and flashing big red lines over significant portions of the roadmap of the North of England.

So we did the stupid thing and began rat running parallel to various motorways down and across the country, with occasional dips back onto main routes. Lady M did the first half but then the tiredness and stress triggered her fibromyalgia, so I took over. In the BMW with which I have been struggling the last few days.

Now, in a bout of desperate anthropomorphism, the car and I seem to be coming to a wary truce; but even so the experience of driving through unlit country back roads at speed in an unfamiliar car was perhaps a little more excitement than I had anticipated.

At least nobody got more than a little startled, and there was only one roundabout I drove round more than once – but I was still very pleased to finally reach the Magic Roundabout – also known as the M25 orbital because that meant we were only 20 or 30 miles from home.

We had intended to go to #Tuesday as usual, based on our original estimate of being home around 5pm at the very latest, but the combination of getting home long after 8pm, plus no food in the house and the local fast food places so busy they weren’t delivering was too much. 

We picked up a simple pizza from the supermarket, made our apologies to the unusual suspects, watched a bit of telly and opened our Christmas presents to each other while supping some whisky.

Back to work in the morning. Who needs sleep anyway?

Christmas Travel Stress

We’re on the road again, on the second leg of our whirlwind tour of the North of England. I did the driving yesterday, but I’ve taken a back seat today, largely to give myself a rest ahead of our long run home tomorrow.

I’m still adjusting to the very different driving style required by Lady M’s car, some of which feel counter-intuitive when it comes to accelerating and braking. I’m not even counting the higher bite point for the clutch, or the extra gear which means shifts are needed at different speeds and engine feels to the old rustbucket.

As you might expect, it’s been exhausting, especially on roads I’m not familiar with, so my witty repartee and naturally sunny disposition have been somewhat muted the last 48 hours or so. The lingering remains of the headcold aren’t helping either.

So if my communications with friends and family have been lacking over this Christmas period, I can only plead a bear-like sore head. If you’ve not noticed any difference, then I’m sure I’ll get round to annoying you soon enough.

To Lady M and Mre B I can only say thank you for continuing to be marvellous. Just kick me as I need it.

Being British in Florida 5

If there’s one thing that struck me while we were in Florida, it was the difference in driving speeds. Driving on the opposite side of the road, and the rules about turning right at red lights were easy enough, but I found myself taxed far more adjusting to different speed limits.

This makes me sound like some sort of speed obsessed petrol head, I’m sure. As with most observations here, it is a matter of nuance though.

Painting with a very broad brush, my observation of US driving is one where people generally see speed limits and drive up to them, unless they’ve decided to not bother and just push past, mostly on the freeways. The roads are so large, and the amount of space swallows up so many vehicles, that the experience generally feels quite laid back. There’s rarely a sense of rush, just constant motion.

Driving in the UK however… well speed limits are often seen as minimum speeds, and there’s a lot more aggression. It may be sometimes quite restrained, because we’re British, but the tailgating, lane weaving and silent imprecation-mouthing traditions that can be seen up and down our country are a wonder of focused hostility, angst and rampant blood pressure.

Its probably because we don’t have as much space here. The physical boundaries of our vehicles give the illusion of personal space, but there’s just no great space between them.

One of the secret glees of our trip was overhearing a conversation between two Texans wondering why all British cars were so small. The number of facts, figures and conjectures summoned up from thin air were highly amusing, and will almost certainly be mined for dialogue in a story at some point

Being British in Florida 2

Now obviously I’m going to be employing some broad brush generalisations along the way with this small series, and they’re generally for comedic effect.

Today’s musings have come about through my observations around the experience of driving in the Orlando and Tampa area, but I think there’s something rather common about relearning how to drive that may chime with people who have driven on both sides of the Atlantic.

The biggest difference seems to be in each country’s general preference for how their cars manage gears. In Britain, the overwhelming majority of drivers learn in a manual geared vehicle and stick with it from then on. If you drive anything else in Britain, there’s often real puzzlement as to why, and an implied accusation that you can’t be very good at driving if you have to rely on an automatic gearbox.

By contrast, here in the US the overwhelming preference is for using an automatic, and manual gearboxes ( “driving stick”) are viewed with deep suspicion, though no one seems to be able quite to articulate why.

The difference as a driver is that when you drive manually you are making the conscious effort to make your car move. The car will not generally move unless you tell it to, and you don’t need to stand on the brake unless you are already moving. Switch the engine on,  select first gear and balance clutch and accelerator until you put your foot down to move away.

In contrast, the effort in an automatic is in stopping it from moving. Your conscious decisions are about stopping the car moving off (switch car on, put foot on brake as you select drive or reverse and take off handbrake, then lift foot off brake to start moving)

Now, speaking slightly tongue in cheek, I’d contend that this tells us something interesting about British and US drivers. The British are choosing to commit to an action (often being that of driving dangerously fast in narrow streets), while US drivers are trying to guage whether they should stop as they are already in motion, which probably also accounts for this turning right at a red nonsense which is just wrong.

Maybe its a legacy of all that horse riding into the gold rush. Haven’t got time to stop and assess what’s going on, just dive in and work out what needs fixing later, there’s money to be made.

As a British driver retraining myself on US roads, I can only describe the experience as being simultaneously stressful and chilled out compared to driving back home.

In London, driving is like warfare, everyone aggressively focused on the target. Here in Orlando you all seem either rather laid back, or totally out of control as if your horse(power) has surged for the finish line.

It probably shouldn’t amuse me.

Disney Day Four

Waking up this morning, everything hurt, and the thought of a ninety minute drive to Tampa really didn’t appeal. We forced ourselves up and out to hit good old Interstate 4 though, in search of Busch Gardens.

I’m pleased to report that the journey was relatively unremarkable despite a couple of satnav hiccups, and we made good time.

Busch gardens was always high on our list for thrill rides, which was why we made ourselves get out there despite being tired and footsore. The actual day was a bit of a mixed bag.

First, the good: the rides are great. Cheetah Hunt was a fast, long joy of a ride. We did wonder what the acceleration at the start would be like, but it was quite relaxed compared to the lightning fast shocks of Stealth and Rita (at Thorpe Park and Alton Towers, respectively). As a result, the 4000m track was long and smooth enough to appreciate rather than be endured.

Montu was also great fun, tucked away from the rest of the park so we basically just walked straight on. Its like a double length Nemesis Inferno ride with Egyptian stylings.

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The train ride around the park gave us great views of the animals and helped us get round quicker on what was one of the hottest days yet – over 93F/34C. We hit both the big water rides, the Flume and the Tidal Wave, and managed to sneak in a bone-rattling spin around Gwazi, the wooden rollercoaster.

The problem is that we’ve come away feeling underwhelmed. The park wifi seems to be limited to just by the entrance rather than being park-wide or even just hotspots near rides.

Given that you are expected to use a smartphone app to use queue holding rather than a physical device like the ones used at Universal or Disney it completely blocked us from doing anything clever.

Instead we had to queue normally as we were using Lady M’s Hudl tablet by default and I turned off data roaming while abroad to save on charges, so only get data services when connected to wifi while we’re out here.

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Lunch

Customer service was patchy and the food was, well we’ll settle for okay, as we went for salads, fruit and a cupcake rather than the pasta with meat and slopped sauces that were the alternative.

In addition, if you’re going to force people to use lockers before they come on a ride, take a leaf from Universal’s playbook and invest in the tech to provide free short-term storage, or some sliding door free storage monitored by the platform crews as offered pretty much everywhere else, rather than force customers to spend a couple of quarters a go.

This doesn’t sound much but it quickly mounts up, especially if the locks eat your money and the staff look at you like you’ve just told them you’ve poured typhoid in the water fountain when you ask for assistance/your money back. It’s just part of a drip-drip-drip that made me realise that it all felt tired, and done better elsewhere.

I’m aware this sounds harsh, and to be fair there were plenty of happy and helpful staff there, but the disappointments linger longer in my brain than the joy of the rides and the beauty of the animals. It just underlines how important customer service is, and how just a few people being downbeat or distracted can strip away goodwill and good memories.

Okay, rant over. There’s just one more memory of note for today: my satnav is trying to kill me. I can prove it:

We were on our way back when Lady M happened to notice a Confederate flag flying through the trees beside the Interstate. I immediately made a Game of Thrones-related quip along the lines of “The South is Rising, but The North Remembers.” There may also have been a “Winter Is Coming” joke along the way.

From that point on, our rental satnav revealed its Lannister colours and started giving late, unclear or downright wrong instructions that had us going in circles between exits 65-68 eastbound on I4. In the end, after one too many sudden lane shifts to correct course I ordered the unit’s switch off/execution. I fully expect to see Made in Casterley Rock embossed in its casing somewhere.

Tomorrow brings a quieter schedule, and one firmly back on Disney turf: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon, with an evening meal booked at Le Cellier Steakhouse at Epcot. Can’t wait.