the south rim

The Las Vegas lifestyle does not lend itself easily to a 5am wake-up call. Getting to bed at 5am is more the plan. Yet we find ourselves standing under a palm tree well before six in the morning waiting for our tour bus. Orlando is reeled in by an extraordinarily chatty young woman in red tracksuit pants who manages to reveal quite a bit about her life before we are saved.

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By seven we have bright orange tour wristbands on, sausage and egg muffins in hand and a large coffee on the go as we settle into our chariot for the day. Richard Gere is the name of our driver (he says). He is shorter and a lot more Pacific-Islander-looking than he appears in the movies.
We are headed for the south rim of the Grand Canyon, to the heart of the Grand Canyon National Park. It is five hours there and five hours back, but my research tells me it’s by far the best view of the Grand Canyon compared to the so-called “west rim” which is an attraction manufactured by the local Hualapai tribe to offer a shorter day trip for Vegas tourists. The Grand Canyon itself is about 277 miles long; the “west rim” attraction (including the heavily-advertised Skywalk) is at mile 260.
We drive out of Vegas past the homes of the rich and famous; our driver points out the homes of Barbra Streisand, Tom Selleck and others on the outskirts of a Boulder City as we head for our first stop at the Hoover Dam. It’s a brief stop and the engineer in me wishes I’d driven up here myself; sure, we get a pretty good photo opportunity, but we stop nowhere close to the dam itself and I would have liked to walk it and take it in a little more slowly. But I’m happy with the viewpoint and we drive on.
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A couple of hours later we have another break in Seligman, a small rundown village on a section of the now decommissioned Route 66. A few friendly cafés and gift shops are cashing in on the Route 66 obsession, with all kinds of memorabilia, tee shirts, fridge magnets and so on, sweetened by the offer of free coffee and restrooms. It’s kitsch but doesn’t take itself too seriously, and all the shops proudly advertise that they sell only products made in the USA. I like it.
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Back on the bus we settle down to watch a movie as the landscape continues to change. We are deep in the Mojave Desert here, with endless miles of rocky treeless hills. It’s beautiful. Close to noon we see a thunder storm in the distance; the driver tells us that is the beginning of the Grand Canyon.
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Five long hours after leaving Vegas, a handful of us are deposited at the Grand Canyon airport for our helicopter flight. I’d always promised myself that if I made it to this part of the world I’d do it properly, so we forked out the extra US$200 a head  for the aerial view. At check-in we are weighed and our small daybags are taken and locked away: we’re allowed nothing on board except a camera. Flotation devices are strapped to our waists (what are the chances??) and we are led through a safety briefing video by the charming JR, an elderly tribesman with a twinkle in his eye who clearly loves his job.
Minutes later we are standing by a tiny helicopter and I remember with alarm that I have a touch of vertigo. Heights I am pretty ok with; descending from any height, including a steep flight of stairs at a train station, I get very nervous. Was this really a good idea? My nerves are confused by the honour/horror of being shown to the front seat by the pilot; Orlando goes in the back with three others. The floor of the cockpit under my footrest is glass. I’m going to have to do this.
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Tony, our pilot, welcomes us on board and we take off gently above the ponderosa forest. I’m doing ok so far. Soft rain begins to fall as “Riders on the Storm” plays through our headsets. Three or four minutes along we are cruising above the trees and I’m getting the hang of this heights thing.
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Tony points east and the music changes for the big reveal: the theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey plays as we approach the southern rim of the canyon. No words can describe the next few moments as the enormity and majesty of the canyon is revealed through dappled sunlight and misty rain. The music is exactly appropriate. It’s an extraordinarily emotional moment for me, and tears well up in my eyes. Spectacular.
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For twenty minutes we do a clockwise circuit across to the north rim and back, towards Dragon Head and then back past Isis Temple and Hermit Rapids. The North rim is about a thousand feet higher than the south rim, and the difference in vegetation is marked. The canyon spreads out as far as the eye can see in both directions, towering peaks vying with impossible vertical drops for our attention, glimpses of the river itself always tantalisingly fleeting. Layer upon layer of reds and browns, mixed with patches of misty rain, make the views even more atmospheric. Tony tells us that although the river looks small, it is around 300 feet (91 metres) wide as it winds through the canyon. At its deepest, its depth is around 85 feet (26 metres). Makes the flotation devices a little more sensible, then.
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All too soon we are back over the forest and heading back. We can still see glimpses of the canyon behind us as we retrace our flight path, hiding below ground level like a divine vision waiting to be fully revealed. I reflect that my Dad always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and I am grateful to have been able to do the trip on his behalf.
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Back on the ground, we are picked up and taken to two different viewing points within the national park. After our helicopter ride, we feel able to take our time and take it all in at a much more relaxed pace than our fellow travellers, but I still try in vain to take one or two photos that will go some way to showing the extraordinary beauty of this place.
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The rain persists but the beauty of the place is not for a moment dimmed. The lodgings in the National Park look like a fantastic place to spend a couple of days. I imagine waking up in the morning and watching the canyon all day as the light ebbs and flows and the colours change from moment to moment. We meet a small family group who have just completed a hike from the rim to the river and back: it’s taken them around nine hours in total. I’m kind of glad we took the lazy option.
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It’s past eleven at night when we are deposited back on the Strip in Vegas, almost eighteen hours after pick-up. We’ve spent more than half that time in a coach driving through the desert, but we will look back on this day as one of the highlights of our US trip. If you can manage a trip to the Grand Canyon, try to spend at least one night at the south rim in the National Park lodgings; if this isn’t possible just bite the bullet and do the long trip to the south rim. This might be the only time you ever get to see this natural wonder, so you might as well see it from the best vantage point.
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venice to santa monica

As I’ve confessed in the past, my hobby is walking on very long beaches. So when we got to LA one of my first priorities was to head to the sea. Technically Melbourne sits on Port Philip Bay, which is off Bass Strait, which is off the Southern Ocean, so a glimpse of the Pacific was high on the list.

We turn the Mustang south for a couple of miles until we pick up Venice Boulevard. Even in morning traffic it takes much less than an hour before we turn into the car park right on the edge of the beach.

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Orlando wants to stroll down the boardwalk but he knows I am impatient to get to the water’s edge. We kick off our shoes and walk through a hundred yards or so of sand. It’s a hazy morning and the surf is not huge, but I paddle in through the waves wishing for a moment that I’d brought my swimsuit.

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A stop for brunch, LA-style. The Venice Ale House does organic brunch which means that alongside the “free-range eggs your way” and bacon with everything there is chia pudding, a vegan scramble and valerian omelette. Their waffles are multigrain or gluten free, and they only serve a specific brand of water described as “powerful, hydrating, alkalinised and micro-structured.” Well, I am certainly glad it is micro-structured, otherwise all I’d they would give you is a messy pile of disassociated hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a glass, and nobody wants that. I opt for the kombucha instead.

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It’s a three-mile walk to Santa Monica Pier, shimmering in the distance through the morning haze. We stroll along Venice Boardwalk, glancing at the street vendor art stalls and dodging tourists getting the hang of their two-wheel driftboards. The bloke outside the Venice Beach Freakshow tempts his customers inside: “Hey girls, have you see our two-headed turtle? He’s right here!”

An old man with a hat and a guitar gives the memory of BB King a run for its money; moments later a young man with an adoring girlfriend and a guitar makes me want to give him “$ for gas” just to stop him playing. But then we see Harry Perry and our lives are complete: this white-clad turbaned dude is a living legend who’s been playing electric guitar whilst roller-skating up and down the boardwalk since 1973.

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The row of stalls, bars and medical marijuana shops stops abruptly and the nice apartment blocks start. We are thrust onto the more residential setting of a palm-tree-lined footpath curving alongside the beach.

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Families cart boxes, bags and beach umbrellas through the sand to their favourite weekend spot; sunburnt tourists roll along on their fancy resort bikes alongside tandem riders and skateboarders. Two women navigate their elderly mother onto the sand on a beach wheelchair. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen but it won’t be the last today.

Santa Monica Pier is pretty busy on a Saturday afternoon. The shops sell the usual beach tat alongside a raft of Route 66 merchandise: Santa Monica Pier is where the legendary route ends in California.

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We wander through the Pacific Park fun fair right to the bottom of the pier where friends and families are fishing for halibut, herring, mackerel and sardines.

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The wide sweep of the beach fans out behind us, the Santa Monica Mountains behind. It’s time to head back.

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Back at the Venice end, the boys at Muscle Beach are still busy working out, although it’s not a busy as I thought it would be on a Saturday. Fangirls take selfies or ask for photos with the athletes. I’m not sure if any of them are actually famous or whether the girls just like their men extremely well sculpted.

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A small group of street performers near the skate park are being challenged by a couple of police officers. The performers look like young students, dressed in dance practice clothes. We’ve not seen the performance, nor can we understand what they are being arrested for, but they look a little bewildered and shocked rather than defiant or aggressive. The officers have already called for backup, it seems; within two or three minutes the original two officers are joined by another two on horseback and four more screaming to a halt in their cars.

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Some of the performers are made to sit on the ground with their hands cuffed behind them. Onlookers take photos and videos with their mobile phones, calling to the police officers to explain why they are being arrested. The performers themselves are being very compliant and quiet. There is now at least one police officer for every individual being detained, although only some appear to be getting arrested and cuffed. But just in case, a police helicopter appears overhead, adding to the noise and the drama. I suppose this is the USA and any of the performers might have had a firearm, but they just look like enthusiastic, earnest students keen to put on a street performance of something they’ve probably been rehearsing for weeks. I simply can’t fathom why this whole episode required the police presence and action I see unfolding.

Back near the car we turn inland towards the picturesque enclave of the Venice canals.

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Orlando is interested in seeing where the characters from Californication live, but I just want to see the houses and imagine what it would be like to live in a place where I could moor a boat outside my front door. It’s a beautiful, peaceful setting, or it would be if there weren’t hundreds of tourists walking along every footpath and over every bridge.

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I look enviously at the verandahs, gardens and balconies, making mental notes of things I like. I decide to give our own tiny back garden a makeover when I get home.

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The sun is far over the yardarm by now, so we head back to the beach for a drink.

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We score a couple of bar stools on the balcony of the Venice Whaler and watch the sun sink towards the horizon.

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Walking back to the car along the water’s edge, the evening colours are perfect and I take a thousand photos trying in vain to capture the beauty of the moment.

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Back on the boardwalk the evening crowds are out, bikinis and boardshorts swapped for only slightly less casual attire. The bars are filling up and the palm trees are beautifully silhouetted against the darkening sky.

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We have a one-night stopover in LA planned for December. I might change our boring airport hotel booking and see if we can come back here for 24 hours instead. All life is here!

the best view of the Hollywood sign

Go to LA, and you know that one of the top ten things to do is get as close as you can to the Hollywood sign.

It’s not that easy to walk right up to it, and anyway the closer you get to a forty-five foot tall sign, the less you will really see of it.

The most famous and most accessible viewing point is probably the Griffith Observatory, but the sign is still a good distance from there and it’s easy to get closer if you have a car.

From Hollywood itself, a good moving vantage point (if you are not the driver) is to drive up North Beachwood Drive, a north-south residential street lined with tall palm trees, because the sign is pretty much right in front of you the whole way. It’s still tricky to get a good photo of it from a moving car, but it’s fun driving through the Hollywood homes with palm trees swaying and the sign always in view. Especially if you’ve hired a convertible.

IMG_1073One excellent vantage point is at the end of an anonymous cul de sac, outside somebody’s house on another quiet residential street. Punch 5825 Green Oak Drive into your car’s GPS and it will take you up a steep winding street that gets narrower and narrower until you reach the last home and a gated entrance. Stop and take a look north-west – there she is. If you’re lucky there won’t be anybody else there and you will be able to take lots of shots unencumbered by photobombers.

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Another (likely busier) spot is at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive, which is a bit closer again. If you can get parking nearby you can also walk towards the sign, which is probably less than half a mile away at this point. That, of course, is illegal but I’m told it’s unlikely that you will get stopped. The 24/7 security guard is stationed elsewhere at the gated roadway to the sign, and not looking your way.

But the most fun place to view the sign is from – wait for it – the original Batman’s Cave.

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Type 3000 Canyon Drive into your car’s GPS, which weirdly will take you into a park where you can park your car and walk the ten minutes or so up to a set of caves. Follow the walkers – it looks steep but it’s not far. At the end of the walk you will find a couple of shallow caves and a small clearing, where somebody has set out lots of concentric rings made of small stones and rocks.

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These are the Bronson Caves, most famous (to people of a certain vintage) as the exit of the Bat Cave from the original TV series. Standing by the concentric stone circles you will have a pretty great view of the Hollywood sign, and lots of opportunities to take photos with nobody but you in them.

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The best thing about this vantage point is that it’s a really accessible remote-looking setting, so it’s been used in lots of TV shows and movies, from low budget to blockbuster. As well as Batman this natural setting has been used to film everybody from Zorro to the Lone Ranger, Wonder Woman to the Might Morphin Power Rangers. As a Star Trek fan I was delighted to find out that almost every Star Trek TV show (and at least one Star Trek movie) has a scene filmed at the Bat Cave. Where better to view the iconic Hollywood sign?

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deck the halls

Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.

With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.

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In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.

There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.

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We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration.  Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.

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Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.

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The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.

A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.

the joys of time travel

There is something delicious about that last-minute seat upgrade, right at the departures gate. We’d started our long-distance journey with champagne in the Qantas first class lounge, courtesy of Orlando’s platinum frequent-flyer status. A dismal fifteen hours of cramped coach conditions looks less and less inviting with every sip. Then a flashing red light at the gate as they swipe our boarding passes. The Qantas lady smiles and says “There you are – some nice seats for you.”

We inadvertently do a victory lap of the A380 before finding our new home on the top deck in Premium Economy. It’s not the rarefied atmosphere of Business Class, but we stretch our legs and congratulate ourselves on our last-minute salvation.

We are good travelling companions, Orlando and I: on long-haul flights we rarely speak, communicating silently with the ease of those who have spent many hours in the air together. I always save the chocolate on my meal tray for him, and he knows the only place I drink apple juice is at 35,000 feet. I sleep a lot and later I can recall little of any entertainment I choose; he sits through a movie marathon and remembers every line.

This trip I am so tired I sleep through a good half of the Melbourne to LA leg, waking with just enough time for breakfast and a change of clothes before we land. Before long the LA skyline emerges from the clouds. I wave excitedly at the window. “Hi America! We’re back!”. Orlando shakes his head at my exuberance, but I see the smile in his eyes. He appreciates every milestone of our journey too.

The magic of the International Date Line means we arrive at LAX a good twenty minutes before we left the house in Melbourne. I love time travel. The ground crew hand us a big orange EXPRESS card as we disembark and we are whisked through immigration and customs in less than half an hour. The immigration guy is serious but courteous, and his smile seems genuine as he welcomes me to the USA and wishes me an enjoyable vacation. Seems the US Immigration Service has left behind their aggressive, suspicious and downright rude approach that used to mar every visit to the US in years gone by.

Before long we are sitting by our departure gate waiting for our last leg to JFK, mesmerised by the enormous high-resolution screens in the centre of the duty free mall, displaying a slow-mo wall of water one moment, then transforming into a beautiful clock full of synchronised dancing girls at the top of the hour. I am reminded of times when I was a child and my parents would exclaim at the sight of anything new: “It’s like America at home!”. Orlando, himself not known for his displays of wonder and excitement, nods approvingly. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Three hours later we share a taxi shuttle with three other weary travellers. As we emerge heading east from a spaghetti junction of freeways, the Manhattan skyline appears like a mirage in the distance. I can make out the green and red of the Empire State Building.

Through the country roads around Greenwich, Connecticut, the weatherboard houses look like something from a Christmas movie with their beautiful door wreaths, white garland lights and perfect outdoor Christmas trees. I chat to a fellow traveller, on a flying visit home to family from Tonbridge Wells in Kent. He points out his childhood haunts as we meander towards his home town of Milford, and swap food stories. I feel confident now about finding decent pizza in New Haven.

After what feels like forever we finally park outside our final destination. We are greeted by two small alarmed dogs, a wildly excited Englishwoman and an incredibly gentlemanly American man who hauls my impossibly heavy suitcase up four floors of stairs to a warm and welcoming flat.

The talk doesn’t stop for the next four hours, and neither does the rum or the red wine. Neither of us feel that we have just travelled for 28 hours flat. Until I finally give up and head to bed, that is. I sleep for ten hours straight, my body and mind finally relaxing after a marathon day and a strenuous five months.

Let the holiday commence.

washington dc for dummies

Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.

I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.

The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.

Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.

The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.

Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.

Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.

Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.

It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.

Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?