My hearing isn’t great at the best of times, but I was pretty sure that the Spanish lady at American Airline’s check in desk was asking me if I had brought Esther with me. I don’t know anyone by that name, so I was thoroughly confused. Why was Esther in charge of my travel arrangements?
The frustrated official wrote a web address on a scrap piece of paper and waved vaguely towards the rear of the cavernous departures terminal at Birmingham airport.
Fortunately I had my MacBook with me, so I typed in the address and all became clear. I needed an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) permit before the check in desk could process me.
With the clock rapidly ticking down to boarding gate closure, I filled in a seven page form. I paid $14 for the two year permit, sprinted back to the check in desk, and then waited impatiently to be processed by airport security.
I set off the alarms of course and had to endure the most thorough frisking I’ve ever had before I could collect carry on bag and pocket contents, belt and shoes, and then sprint for the departure gate as the tannoy system announced the last call for passenger Paul Smith on flight AA130 to New York.
I made the flight with minutes to spare, but my luck changed as soon as I walked into the business class cabin. This was my first taste of business class, thanks to Cynthia’s heavily discounted flight passes. It’s very different from flying “in coach” as Cynthia calls it.
“Can I offer you a complimentary glass of champagne sir? Would you like a pair of noise cancelling Bose headphones for your flight? Are you settled in? Would you like an extra pillow? Have you decided what you want from the menu yet? Would you like red or white wine with your meal?” See what I mean?
The flight in a peaceful cabin far removed from screaming children and fidgeting adults was heaven, which is more than I could say for the bus ride which followed.
The scheduled hour long bus ride from JFK to New York’s Grand Central Station took two hours thanks to a series or roadworks and heavy traffic. Thankfully the bus was air conditioned to help combat the sweltering thirty two degrees.
I made Grand Central station with just minutes to spare before my connecting two hour train journey eighty miles to Wassaic on the Metro North’s Harlem line. My most enduring memory of my transit through New York was a sea of yellow cabs fringed by a sea of scurrying commuters. Just like London then, but yellow rather than black cabs.
I enjoyed the train ride out of the city. After an hour densely packed buildings were replace by equally dense but far more aesthetically appealing trees. There are a lot of trees in New York state. England has a total of 7,754,166 forested acres. New York state alone has 18.9 million acres.
Over the border in Cynthia’s home state, Vermont, there are a mere 4.46 million forested acres, an area ten times the size of Warwickshire. And then there are the mountains.
The highest mountain in England is Scafell Pike at 3,209 feet. Wales does slightly better with 3,560 feet tall mount Snowdon. In Vermont state there are thirty mountains higher than Snowdon and fifty higher than Scafell Pike. England is six times larger than Vermont but has eighty four times the population.
Vermont feels very rural.
Vermont felt even more rural each time we encountered the stereotypical “good old boys” driving battered pickups complete with gun racks bolted to the cab rear. I didn’t see any deer carcasses draped over bonnets, but probably only because the hunting season hadn’t started.
On Thursday we drove to Manchester to shop for wedding clothing. There’s plenty of New York Money in Manchester with hundreds of second, third or fourth homes costing $1,000,000 or more.The area is a mecca for well-to-do skiers in the winter months. Manchester’s pavements, sidewalks, are made of marble.
Manchester is posh and, because it caters for well-heeled Americans, it’s expensive. There are more designer outlets in Manchester than you can shake a stick at. We visited Polo Ralph Lauren looking for seconds that looked like firsts. After spending my year’s clothing budget on two pairs of shorts, a pair of trousers and a belt, we drove half a mile to Ponce Bistro to meet Cynthia’s friend and Tai Chi instructor Rich Marantz for lunch.
For the American readers among you, Ponce is not a restaurant name that would go down too well in the UK. In the 1960’s it was a slang term for a pimp. These days it refers to someone who dresses better than his breeding. There are plenty of ponces in the UK, but you can’t eat in any of them.
After lunch we drove five miles down an indescribably picturesque gravel road next to Vermont’s Battenkill River through torrential rain as a storm swept down the valley, reducing our speed to slightly less than walking pace.
The following afternoon we cycled down the same road. You can see Cynthia in the photo above in her outlandish “bug suit”. It looks a little over the top, but it’s a neccesary evil for someone who suffers an extreme reaction to mosquito bites. The bites swell to the size of a golf ball, a remarkable and disconcerting spectacle I witnessed at our overnight parking spot next to a reed fringed canal close to the 1,100 square kilometre IJsselmeer in the Netherlands. The three bites took weeks to heal.
That evening we had dinner with Cynthia’s close friends Jim and Gary. They very kindly offered to host our wedding ceremony in their exquisite two and a half acre landscaped garden a short drive from Cynthia’s house in Arlington.
Our wedding ceremony the following day was a very laid back affair. About twenty of Cynthia’s closest friends joined us. Non of mine were there because (A) the ceremony was being held 3,300 miles from my home town of Southam and (B) I don’t have any friends.
Both Cynthia and I were overwhelmed by the generosity shown both by her friends and by complete strangers before and after the wedding.
A $10 bottle of locally brewed beer gifted to me by larger than life in every way friend Chris who we met by chance in a Vermont country store, the wedding cake baked by a local business owner who Cynthia didn’t know, the $100 wedding fee paid for by Tai Chi instructor Rich, discounts at local clothing and shoe shops offered rather than asked for and, of course, use of a stunning Arlington garden complete with buffet and flowers. We couldn’t have hoped for more… but we got it.
On Sunday we drove north towards the Canadian border to Burlington on lake Champlain for a complementary cruise on a gaff rigged sloop belonging to another of Cynthia’s friends, Mathias Dubillier.
When an American tells you that you need to go on a short drive to reach a destination, you can normally bank on the kind of drive which an Englishman would reserve for a two week holiday. Cynthia’s short drive was three and a half hours each way, but the time passed quickly as we threaded our way through endless pine clad mountains.
As we headed north on route seven, we stopped briefly at Charlotte’s lakeside Brick Cafe for a light but wallet emptying lunch. Fifteen pounds for two sandwiches was a little over the top, but at least we were able to stand at the counter with boaters wearing designer clothes and haughty expressions.
Everything in the US is so BIG. Lake Champlain is no exception. One hundred and twenty five miles long, fourteen miles wide and four hundred feet deep, the lake straddles the USA/Canadian border and provides recreational opportunities for thousands of water sports lovers.
The day was perfect for a gentle cruise around the lake’s islands; the hot July sun shone from a cloudless sky of the deepest blue. Barely a breath of wind disturbed the glassy water. Perfect conditions for duck pond toy boating, but absolutely hopeless for filling the sloop’s sagging sails.
We motored for two hours across the calm lake, enjoying the engine’s gentle throbbing as we passed dozens of becalmed sailing boats and listened to the crew’s knowledgeable guide to the lake’s geology, history and people.
The long drive back to Cynthia’s Arlington home was followed on Monday by an equally long but far less pleasant drive to Wassaic the following day to catch a train for my two hour journey to New York. The sadness I felt leaving Cynthia and her wonderful friends was made much more bearable by American Airlines. The flight back to Birmingham was a joy. Once more, Cynthia had managed to squeeze me into business class. Not so much of a squeeze actually as only four of the sixteen business class seats were taken, so there was plenty of room for me to recline my seat horizontally and sleep most of the way across the Atlantic.
Back in Birmingham, I collected my car and drove back to Calcutt Boats to reality and a full day up to my chest in the marina’s frigid water hacking through razor sharp reeds.
I’ve finally managed to overcome the necessary obstacles to marry Cynthia. All I need to do now is work out a way for both of us to enjoy married life living in the same country.
Cynthia will fly to Amsterdam in two weeks. She’s rented a house there until mid October when I can finally join her after finishing work as a groundsman. Our plan is to then slowly head south towards Spain and a much warmer and drier winter than I’m used to.
I’ll be sad to say goodbye to the colourful characters I’ve worked with for the last seven years, but I will be very pleased to leave wet and dreary winters behind. I’m looking forward to exploring Europe in our Hymer very much, but we’re also considering the viability of taking our motorhome to the USA. My very brief recent visit has only allowed me to explore a very small part of a very small state. I look forward to returning one day for a much more leisurely tour.