New Jersey, New York City, Washington and Boston, USA
04.05.2006 - 30.06.2006
I haven’t updated my blog in a while, not because I haven’t been doing any travelling, but because I haven’t had much in the way of exciting events to write about. Sadly, that hasn’t changed. But I now have enough boring events to string together to make a full entry. So welcome back.
Summer in New Jersey
It seems that summer is upon us here in New Jersey. I work on a corporate campus in suburban New Jersey that has pretty, modern buildings in an idyllic grassy and treed environment. It has always reminded me of Europe, and I haven’t been able to figure out why. But it just hit me as I was walking along today – zebra crossings! The intersections within the campus have zebra crossings instead of the more standard North American double white lines to identify where humans can cross the street.
Exactly why pedestrian crossings are needed is a bit of a mystery to me, as there are few cars allowed on the campus, relegated instead of periphery parking lots. Beside for giving me some much needed exercise walking back and forth to my car every day, it provides a safe and quiet place for wildlife. I have on a few occasions seen cute little bunny rabbits hopping around in the bushes, and just the other day came across a falcon drinking water deposited in a puddle from a recent rain shower. I stood watching the falcon for a good 5 minutes before a security van, the driver interested in seeing the bird as well, drove too close and the bird took flight. The falcon flew low along the ground for about 50 feet, swooping up and landing deep in the foliage of a leafy tree.
It’s quite a shock to leave the quiet campus, get into my rental SUV and merge directly into thick traffic along one of the New Jersey highways.
Mr. Wesson Goes to Washington
The first weekend in May I travelled down to Washington D.C. from New Jersey. I drove down I-95 in my rental car, the windows down, sipping on Diet Cherry Pepsi and listening to U2 in the CD player. The drive is about 5 hours, and luckily other than just outside Newark and a few backups due to traffic construction, it was mostly open highway driving.
It’s been a long time since I took a solo road trip in a car. The last trip was probably back in 2004 when I was in Atlanta, and that was just a day trip to a nearby outlet mall to try and find a dressy linen shirt for my friend’s upcoming beach wedding. The last decent road trip probably dates back to 2002, when I would often set off on the weekend from St. Louis or San Francisco.
I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the road trip drive, which is strange, because I hate city driving. I can’t stand the stopping and starting and the constricted feeling of being surrounded by cars and constantly watching brake lights. If I can get out on the open road however, I am overtaken by a great feeling. It’s the same feeling that I have described in the past that I get sitting in airport lounges. The feeling that something new and interesting and originally is waiting for. It’s also the feeling of putting distance between myself and my weekday troubles. I don’t have to worry about due dates or project delays or resource constraints. All that can wait for Monday. All that is behind me, and each minute I put another mile between me and those issues.
Washington is a very interesting city. I’ve never been before, so it was all new for me. I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Embassy Row at 1600 Rhode Island drive, which was about half a mile north of the Whitehouse and the National Mall, and just a few blocks away from Dupont Circle, which is a trendy area of restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
I had heard many bad things about Washington, D.C, how it was a city that had been “handed” over to the poor, and was a rough and scary place. I didn’t see any of that in my wanderings, and felt perfectly safe at night, even walking back and forth from Georgetown, 2 miles west of my hotel. It was a very pretty city, and has more photogenic buildings and monuments than any place I have ever been. I could write all about them, but instead I present a few thousands words worth of pictures.
Capitol Building, Washington, DC
Vietnam War Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background, Washington, DC
Teens from Illinois playing music in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
National Mall, Washington, DC
We are the Knights Who Say Ni!
Mid-month in May, I saw Spamalot in New York at the Shubert theatre. Spamalot is a musical written by Eric Idle, based on the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
King Arthur was played by Harry Groener, who I recognized from Las Vegas (the TV show) and Star Trek, and apparently he played the mayor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. John Cleese, in obviously a recorded bit, played God. Otherwise, I didn't recognize anyone in the cast, though they playbill said that they had all been in Law and Order. Apparently every actor in New York has been in Law and Order.
The show was good - I'd give it 3 stars our of 5. The first act stuck pretty much to the movie, with a few changes here and there. Camelot is a lot more Las Vegas, the knights actually went there, there is a role for the Lady of the Lake, and we get to see where the knights are found. The third act (second act, sire)... right second act is very different from the movie (which, of course, means a different ending), though there are still the knights who say Ni!, Hurbert in the castle in the swamp who just wants to sing (stop it, stop it... they'll be none of that!) and the killer bunny. But these recognizable elements are reconfigured into a very different plot.
The songs were up and down. On the good side, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life has somehow migrated from the Life of Brian into this show. There is a song called "The Song That Goes Like This" which I enjoyed. Nothing else really stands out - they are alright, but not the kind of song you come out of the theatre whistling. In fact, you'll probably be whistling "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life," which you could all whistle now as you all know it from a completely different movie. There are a couple times when the show is mocking traditional Broadway "show" music, but it only half comes off because they do it so much that the joke starts to become tedious. There are only so many times you can make fun of the Phantom of the Opera by aping it before you are just doing a show that is Phantom of the Opera-ish. The Lady of the Lake's part suffers the most from this, as she is supposed to be a caricature of the traditional Broadway Diva role, but by her third song I was starting to think the Lady of the Lake was just a traditional Broadway diva role. There is only so much winking and nudging one can do before the joke grows tired.
The sequence, though, with the French guards taunting the English Ki-Nig-Hits is excellent. It ends the first act, and really brings the first act to a close strongly.
So, all and all, worth seeing. However, I don't think I'll go and see it in Toronto. It's not worth seeing twice.
Final note: the Playbill has a "fake" playbill for a Finnish Moosical, "Dik Od Triaanenen Fol (Finns Ain't What They Used To Be)," which is apparently "the story, in music and song, of Finland's transformation from a predominantly rural agricultural base to one of the most sophisticated industrial and entrepreneurial economies in the world." It's definitely worth reading these pages.
Happy Towel Day, Interstellar Travellers
May 25th is Towel Day, a day to celebrate the life and works of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Why, you might ask, is it called Towel Day? I’ll let the works of Mr. Adams explain it to you:
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels. A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value—you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you—daft as a brush, but very, very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag [non-hitch hiker] discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have 'lost'. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The first weekend of June, I decided to visit one of the other major east coast cities I have not seen, Boston. I’m glad to be working in New Jersey for the opportunity to strike all these “must-see” destinations off my list: New York, Washington and Boston.
By way of contrast to my self-driving road trip to Washington, I take the high speed Acela Express train from Newark, New Jersey to Boston. The Acela Express, while not up to the speeds of the TGV in France, has a top speed of 241 km/h, which is still pretty quick and it is the fastest train in North America measured by top speed.
Interestingly, though, The Acela Express is not that much faster than normal train service in North America, due to constraints with the track, power supply and regulations. The Acela trains can do the entire trip from Washington to Boston in 6 hours and 36 minutes, which averages to 109 km/h. The fastest portion of the trip, from Washington to New York, is covered in 2 hours and 48 minutes, averaging a speed of 143 km/h. A non-high speed train, Via Rail Canada’s train 66, an express train from Toronto to Montreal (stopping at both Montreal’s Central Station and Dorval station) covers the 520 km between the two cities in 3 hours and 44 minutes, averaging 142 km/h, only 1 km/h slower than it’s high speed brother.
Based on the speed, I would have gotten a much more “high speed” trip had I reversed my plans, driving to Boston and the train to Washington, but things worked out much better for me the way I did it. The weather for the trip down to Washington in the car was beautiful. It was sunny and warm, and I had the window down and the tunes cranked, arriving back in New Jersey with a smile on my face and a driver’s tan (left arm red, right arm pasty white). On leaving on Friday for Boston, the weather all up and down the north-east coast of the USA was horrific. The rain was pelting down, causing rivers to burst their banks and roads to flood. The 20 minute drive from my office to the station took close to an hour as I strained to see brake lights and foot deep puddles through the flap of increasingly pointless wipers. Arriving at Newark Penn Station with a sweat soaked shirt and clenched teeth, it was nice to sit back on the train and let someone else worry about the driving.
The train, while perhaps not Paris TGV fast, is very comfortable and relaxing. I wasn’t able to get a window seat for the trip from Newark to New York (about 20 minutes, mostly underground), but in New York almost all the passengers got off, allowing me to switch to a east facing window seat for the ride along the coast. There is some pretty scenery along the way, with the train sometimes running right beside the ocean and through a number of quaint, New England sea-side fishing villages. The train is comprised of 6 cars and 2 engines, one at either end of the train. There are 4 “business class” cars, 1 café car and a “first class” car. The business class seats, which I took, are very comfortable and provide enough room to cross your legs, even if the person in the seat in front of you has fully reclined. There are massive luggage compartments above your head that will fit most suitcases, and luggage racks at either end if your bag is too large. One car is designated as a quiet car, where no cell phones or conversation is allowed for those that want to get a little rest.
I alternated between reading a book and staring at the scenery passing by, and the trip passed quickly. We arrived at Boston’s South Station 15 minutes behind schedule, but I didn’t mind. The sweat on my shirt had dried, my teeth had unclenched and I was ready for a weekend of relaxing and site seeing.
I used my Marriott Rewards points to book a hotel in Cambridge, right by the MIT campus and just across the Charles River from Boston proper. The hotel was very nice, and because of my status I got an upgrade to a suite room, with a separate sitting room and a flat-panel TV. My view looked out over the Charles River towards the south end of downtown, including a view of the famous CITGO sign that is visible in all the highlight reels of baseball games at Fenway Park.
On Saturday, Peter, who is a friend of mine from my days back at Andersen Consulting and a long time Boston resident, took me on a tour of the sights of Boston. Boston is full of historical sites related to the Revolutionary War, many of the details of which Peter (who was a history major) was able to provide to me (as an Canadian educated in the exploits of fur trappers and mounted police and not about Paul Revere and Samuel Adams). The only damper was the rain, which fell in varying strengths the entire weekend.
I was prepared for the rain, though, as I had the spiffy travel umbrella I bought for 10 Euros back in September in Paris. I’m not positive that I really know how to use an umbrella. I see other people walking around with umbrella held steady and level above them, keeping them dry. I find myself struggling with keeping my umbrella above me as the wind reaches underneath the lip of the umbrella and lifts it up and away from me. I get wet, my arms get tired and the umbrella gets battered. On Saturday night, the wind took its final toll on the umbrella, snapping 3 of the arms of the umbrella, collapsing the umbrella. I deposited the umbrella in a garbage can and calculated its utility to me. I bought it in September, used it perhaps 4 times in France, a couple times in Toronto and twice in Boston. 8 days of use for 10 Euros doesn’t seem like a fantastic deal to me. I think in the future I’ll stick with raincoats.
Fenway Park and the Green Monster, Boston, USA
The Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Glass panels etched with numbers, like the Nazis tattooed on the prisioners in the death camps
Trinity church and the I.M. Pei designed Hancock Building
The bar that was used as exteriors for the T.V. Show. The inside looks nothing like the TV show, and they charge you outrageous amounts of money to eat or drink there.
On Sunday, after a lovely lunch with Peter, his live-in girlfriend Kelly and her son Will and a quick site-seeing tour around downtown Boston, I caught the Acela at 4:10 back to Newark. The train was again comfortable, and we got a good clip going through Rhode Island that made it really feel like high-speed rail travel. I even caught a glimpse of a deer standing on an embankment watching the train roll by. The sun had finally come out, and people were walking along the beaches and sea-sides, stopping to watch the train speed by.
It’s been a great month of east coast USA travel, knocking off a bunch of places I’ve never seen before, seeing a good show, snapping some nice pictures, and, perhaps most importantly, falling back in love with travel by train.