Swings and Roundabouts

Right. It may have come to your attention (or rather it probably hasn’t) but I haven’t written a blog for absolutely bloody ages. And it’s definitely not because nothing has been happening – life certainly is progressing full steam ahead round these parts of late…

Just over two months ago the lovely lovely boy asked me if I would marry him. It wasn’t entirely a surprise but I had no idea he was going to ask when he did. Of course I said yes and seeing as it was the school holidays at the time I spent pretty much every waking hour looking at wedding websites and had a date set and venue booked within 2 weeks! So almost a year to the day after we got engaged we’ll be getting married at a lovely hotel in the Lake District. Preparations are continuing apace – I’ve even done some dress shopping although I don’t think I’ve found ‘the one’ yet.

As if getting engaged wasn’t exciting enough, a week later we also decided to buy a house. My flat wasn’t even on the market but it was a bargain and exactly what we wanted so we just decided to go for it. Unfortunately the housing market isn’t working quite so much in our favour as far as selling the flat goes but hopefully we won’t be stuck with it for too long. If it comes to it we can always rent it out but I’m kind of hoping it’s not going to come to that. The one benefit to the fact that it’s looking very unlikely we’ll sell the flat before we get the new house is that at least we aren’t under any pressure to move everything on one day. We’re moving during the summer holidays which will make things easier. And speaking of school holidays we come to the less positive aspect of life at the moment…

I am now just three weeks away from completing my probation year as a teacher and I have achieved everything I need to to become a fully registered teacher. I am lucky that I live in Scotland where the government runs a teacher induction scheme which guarantees a teaching post for everyone who successfully completes a teacher training course. However, what the government doesn’t seem to have is any sort of plan as to what will happen to these teachers after they have completed their probation year. Quite simply there are far more jobs than teachers. In these current tough economic times teachers aren’t taking early retirement at the rate that was predicted and over the last 5 years or so the government vastly over-estimated the number of teachers the country would need and so allowed many more people on to PGDE and B.Ed courses than was needed.

For me the problem is compounded by the fact that in recent years many schools have taken the decision to allow pupils to stop studying a modern language after two years of secondary school, further reducing demand for language teachers. This means that some schools have teachers who are now surplus to the needs of their school but as the council has employed them on a permanent contract they are obliged to find them a job elsewhere. This leads to teachers on temporary contracts finding themselves without a job as they are replaced teachers on permanent contracts subject to a compulsory transfers. 

On top of all this Spanish is rapidly overtaking French as the language of choice in Scottish secondary schools and although I’ve been learning Spanish myself since February I’m certainly not going to be in any position to teach it for a good few years yet. What all this means, for me and for many other probationers, is that I am three weeks away from being a fully qualified, unemployed, teacher. The last time I wrote a blog I had just submitted my application for a permanent post to the council. I had an interview towards the end of April and then after a long wait I finally found out this week that although my application was successful there is a ‘lack of appropriate vacancies’. I am able to sign up for the supply teaching list but that’s certainly no guarantee of regular work or indeed any work at all. I’m going to keep looking, the councils round about are advertising new vacancies almost daily and I just have to hope that something suitable will come up – and that I can beat all the other people out there looking for jobs. 

But the simple fact remains that if it comes to the start of the school year here in August and I still haven’t managed to find a teaching job then I’m just going to have to get a job doing something else. With a up coming wedding and a new house I just can’t afford not to work. Which sucks. And above all it just seems like a big fat waste of my time, the time of my university lecturers and the time of the great teachers who have supported me through the last year. Not to mention the cost to the Scottish government of training all these teachers who are possibly never going to teach in Scottish schools. It’s a bloody crazy state of affairs. And one that I have been stupid enough to put myself in the middle of.

Holy crapballs Batman!

I’ve already written this blog once, but I made the stupid mistake of doing it on my phone late last night using the crappest blogging app out there – Blogpress. I should have known better, I’ve been stung by Blogpress before. Oh sure, it acts all nice and pally, like it’s your best friend and would never do anything to hurt you, then before you know it instead of publishing your blog like it said it has done, it’s just sent it off into the ether never to be seen again. I imagine my blog is currently shooting around inside the cables of the internet, like the time travelling bits in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. According to the Blogpress feature list it does ‘Support Draft Auto Saving: saving writing text every minute to iTunes shared document folder, easy to recover if app quit abnormally’. So even if we ignore the badly written English for a moment, it would seem the app developers have a different definition of ‘easy’. For me, having to boot up my netbook, sync my phone to iTunes only to discover that all that’s saved is a blank text file, isn’t exactly ‘easy’. Especially not at half past midnight when I should have been asleep.

But I didn’t come to tell you about that, I came to tell you about the big moving in day.

Last night was the last night I’m going to spend alone for a long time, for the foreseeable future, or at least until the boy goes for his first visit back to Manchester without me. Rest assured I made the most of it by star-fishing myself across as much of the bed as I could manage. I still can’t quite believe it’s happening to be honest. Even though in a few hours the boy will be setting off from Manchester and will turn up tonight with a van full of stuff, I can still see me turning to him on Sunday and absentmindedly asking ‘So what time is your train home?’. I know it’s going to take a while to get used to living together full time after six months of only weekends and holidays. I know it’s going to take a while to establish our own domestic routine. It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze in my wee flat until we can put the master plan in action and hopefully buy a house in the summer, but for now it’ll do just fine. To paraphrase Han Solo: I’ve got a good feeling about this.

And finally, in a brief update of other news…

  • School is still really hard work. I had two days off this week with some sort of coldy/fluey/buggy thing which basically manifested itself as exhaustion and a really really bad headache. But I’m back now, and next week I get two days off in what passes for half term around these parts. The kids are still badly behaved and sometimes I still don’t know what to do about it, but I spoke to my mentor and some of the other teachers and I know I’ve got the support out there that I need. I’m still not enjoying myself a great deal but I haven’t cried in over two weeks and I don’t feel as overwhelmed by it all as I did a few weeks ago. So things are improving, slowly.
  • The weight loss/management is going fairly well. I managed to lose the weight I put on over Christmas and my weight has been fairly stable since then. I’ve been doing a lot more exercise since Christmas (well until the last week when I’ve been ill) and I’ve been eating sensibly too (again until the last week when I’ve had a bit of an illness and PMT fuelled chocolate meltdown). But I’m doing OK. I’m not beating myself up about what I’ve eaten. I’ve done it now so there’s no use worrying. And as long as my one pair of size 10 jeans still fit me, I’m happy. I’m just hoping that my efforts to demonstrate my domestic godessness to the boy (starting with baking oat & raisin cookies tonight) doesn’t send us both to hell in a handcart.

And really that’s it. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m looking forward to lots of weekends at home, not having to spend 9 hours of my weekend on a train, and generally just getting used to my new life of domestic bliss.

(Don’t worry I’m sure I’ll be back in a few weeks ranting about the lights being left on, wet towels on the bed and someone never remembering to buy milk.)

The Lives of Others

Today I had to change my Twitter privacy settings to protect my tweets from the eyes of anyone other than my existing followers. Frankly, I’m annoyed I’ve felt the need to do this – not being visible kind of defeats the object of Twitter but something happened today which made me feel I have no choice. Let me explain…

As regular readers will know, I am in my first teaching post since completing a PGDE in June. I have written about some of my teaching experiences in this blog and on Twitter, but I have never mentioned the school I am teaching at, or any of the pupils that I teach by name or even in any detail. I’ve heard stories about kids Googling their teachers and those teachers getting into bother for things they’ve said online, or photos of drunken nights out or inappropriate behaviour. But I wasn’t too worried; my Facebook privacy settings are as strict as they can be, and as the kids didn’t know my first name they weren’t going to get very far in searching for me. Until today that is. I don’t know who was responsible, but today every single pupil in the school was given a newsletter to take home to their parents or carers. And in that newsletter was a list of all the new teachers to the school this year, including our first names.

It was bad enough that I then had to put up with cheeky 14 year olds walking into my classroom saying ‘hello Sarah’, but now it won’t be long before those 14 year olds, and probably some of the other kids, go searching for me online. Maybe I’m over-inflating my importance in their lives here but already they have been asking me if I’m on Facebook, or MSN, or Bebo (although actually Twitter seems pretty low on their radar), and I’m sure there will be a few who go looking for me.

On the one hand I think I have every right to my own life and my own opinions, and why should I feel I have to hide those from the world at large? But on the other hand I know that by taking on the role and responsibilities of a teacher I have an obligation to conduct myself in a certain way. And more than anything else I think that the more personal information my pupils have about me, the more ammunition they have to use against me. So by protecting my identity online, I’m really trying to minimise any impact on my working life.

This is a relatively new phenomenon due to the recent explosion of social networking, not too long ago, the worst a teacher had to fear was being spotted by pupils in the supermarket or even on a night out (incidentally, despite my early moans about my 20 mile drive to school every day, I’m actually quite glad I’m not teaching in the town where I live and am therefore unlikely to bump into pupils outside school), but now there are so many other ways for pupils, and even parents, to find out more about the private lives of teachers. When I was at school I knew most of my teachers’ first names, and I remember a brief moment of hilarity when we discovered our science teacher was called Kimberley; Mr Kimberley Caunt that is. But the worst we ever did was try (usually unsuccessfully) to look teachers up in the phone book.

Throughout my teacher training I was warned of the need to be wary of how much my online presence revealed about me…and now my full name is out there amongst my pupils I am certainly more cautious about what I say. I am also mentally going through what I have said online previously, and I’m seriously considering deleting some of the posts from this blog. Although it makes me sad that it might come to that – I don’t know that it’s really necessary, am I being unnecessarily worried here?

More than anything else I am angry that I had no say in my full name been given to pupils and their parents. The first I knew about it was when I found a discarded newsletter in my classroom, which was luckily just before the third years came in and abandoned their usual form of address in favour of the more familiar, and inappropriate, Sarah.

I suppose this has made me think a bit more about other Twitter users; people in the public eye, or people in other public facing professions. How worried should we be about the cross over between what we say or do in our private lives and how that may affect our careers or working life? Does being a teacher mean I’m no longer allowed to have a life of my own and participate in the online communities which I so enjoy being a part of? I know there are a few people who read this blog who are teachers or in other public facing jobs and I’d be interested to know what they, or anybody think about this issue. Is it an issue at all? 

Please Miss, am I doing it right?

This week will see me complete my first full month of teaching real life children as a real life, paid, teacher. And it’s gone remarkably well all things considered. Admittedly, as a probationer, I’m only teaching 0.7 of a full time teacher’s timetable, which means I only teach 18 of the 30 periods in a week and I have it a lot easier than a full time teacher. As the year goes on I’ll be using a lot of my non-contact time in school for CPD (or Continuing Professional Development); things like observing other teachers, going into the Behaviour Support unit, shadowing learning support assistants and the like, but for the moment I can use the time to plan my lessons, find resources and mark exercise books. It certainly feels easier than when I was a student on placement. Now I have my own classroom too, I’ve got somewhere to work when I’m not teaching, and by essentially treating it as a normal full-time job (I’m usually in school from 8.30am to between 4.30 and 5pm) I’m getting all my work done in school and not having to bring stuff home with me. Of course there’s the odd thing I have to do at home, mostly when I need to get something from a website that is blocked by the council firewall, or if I need to print stuff (the school has no money and therefore I’m not really allowed to print or photocopy anything unless it’s absolutely essential). 

So, it all seems to be going well. I’ve not been punched or had a riot in my classroom yet. I’m still struggling with a couple of classes who just can’t seem to stop talking but I’m getting there. The kids are starting to get used to me, and realising that they like me more when I’m nice than when I’m annoyed with them, and to get the nice me they have to behave. They’re starting to realise that there are consequences to their bad behaviour, and that I will follow through on those consequences. I’ve also pretty much learnt the names of all the pupils I teach (and 180 names in less than a month is no mean feat), and that helps with discipline no end.

But I suppose the big question still to be answered is did I make the right decision in giving up a year’s income, and taking on a load of debt, to retrain? The simple answer is that, at the moment, I still don’t know. Someone asked me the other day if I’m enjoying it…and I don’t even know that. At the moment I’m just doing it, and trying to get better at it as fast as I can. I’m certainly not not liking it. I’m not waking up filled with dread at the prospect of going to school. I have had a few random school-based dreams, and a few nights of lying in bed thinking about how I’m going to deal with certain kids, or deliver a particular lesson, but I’m by no means stressed about it. And time is flying by, I swear a week only lasts three days, which is always a sign that things are going well. Of course, my lack of stress probably has something to do with how happy I am with my life in general at the moment, that my weekends really are something to look forward to, and that I have someone to talk to every night who is willing to listen to me ramble on about naughty kids for hours on end. The other teachers at school are great too, and for now I’m mostly being left to my own devices to just get on with it. I’m not under the same constant scrutiny that I was on placement and that makes a hell of a difference. I am even getting glimpses of the ‘job satisfaction’ that everyone talks about. Occasionally, I feel like I’ve made a breakthrough with a pupil, no matter how small that breakthrough may be, and it actually feels like I might be making a difference. And I suppose that’s what it’s all about.

Of course, I’ve still got a long way to go to get through this year, and after Christmas I face the prospect of having to find a new job for the start of the next school year, (I was guaranteed a job for a year on the probation scheme in place in Scotland but after this school year I’m on my own) possibly somewhere entirely new. And then I’ll have to deal with moving, not only jobs, but moving house too and all the complications that will bring. But do you know what? I feel like I’m ready for the challenge. I’m excited about my life and whatever the future might bring, and I certainly never said that when I was working in telephone banking!

It’s nice to be important

…but it’s more important to be nice.

So it turns out that this having a boyfriend lark is pretty darned cool. It was the boy’s birthday yesterday so he came up here on Friday for a weekend of celebrations. I had a few surprises up my sleeve as well as the plans that we’d already made, if you’re interested in what we got up to (and what he thought of it all) you can read the details in Barry’s blog over here, although I think I should add that my friend Claire decided the birthday boy should henceforth be known as Bazza, and I think it might stick!

As you’ll see from his blog, the boy really enjoyed his weekend (as did I!) and all the birthday treats I provided (among other things; fancy gin, real coffee for breakfast, a few choice birthday presents, and a fun night of food, booze and SingStar, including a home made birthday cake), and it made me realise just how much I like doing nice things for other people. I remember thinking the same thing a few years ago when I realised I was more excited about my family opening the Christmas presents I’d bought for them than opening my own presents. And it’s not about spending a lot of money and buying expensive gifts, but more about finding things that the other person would really like, without them having to tell you. I love listening out for little hints or comments and then storing them away in the recesses of my brain for an opportune moment to use them. Or just letting someone know you’re thinking about them – I’ve become a fan of late of finding cool and appropriate cards to send to people out of the blue…who doesn’t love getting post after all?

And of course I like it when people do nice things for me too. It doesn’t have to be anything massive – a timely text message when I’m feeling low will do the trick, or the kid who despite having been disruptive and annoying during the lesson, stayed behind to help me clear up, or of course just being there to give me a hug and tell me that I’m great (and that’s something that wasn’t so easy to come by until recently).

Maybe taking pleasure in pleasing other people is a grown up thing, rather than the selfishness of childhood that unfortunately I see more than I’d like to in school, but I think the world would be a better place if we all just followed the advice of Bill & Ted; 

Be Excellent to Each Other….and party on, dudes!

Everything Changes

I know some of you have been reading this blog since I started writing it, and even for those of you who haven’t… do you remember this? That’s right – back in April last year I sent off my application to get on a teacher training course, and now, just 17 short months later I’m teaching every day and I’m even getting paid to do it! It’s bloody hard work of course, and I’m already counting down the weeks until I get to have a holiday again, but generally…I’m loving it. 

I have been sent back, for my probationary year, to the school where I did my first teaching placement at uni. I was a little bit disappointed when I first found out if I’m honest but now I’m back I’m glad I got to go back somewhere where I already knew all the teachers in my department and where everything is. There are two other probationer teachers in the school as well which is brilliant because we all have a sympathetic ear to bend whenever we need it!

I’m suffering a bit today though – with the cold that I was bound to get sooner rather than later. And the cold that everyone warned me new teachers always get at the beginning of term. There are a lot of kids in school, and that means a lot of germs. When 4 kids in 4 different classes kindly informed me they had ‘the cold’ (for a cold requires a definite article in Scotland) I was pretty certain it wouldn’t be long before I succumbed, which I duly did. And of course as I now have a boyfriend with whom I can share the best parts of my life….I shared the cold with him this weekend too. However, after going to bed at 8pm last night and getting a pretty much solid 11 hours sleep, I’m fighting the good fight and appear to have shaken off the worst of it.

Speaking of my lovely boyfriend – I don’t think getting drunk on a mixture of cider, wine, champagne and Southern Comfort, and staying up until 4am on Friday night, was the best support for my immune system. It was, however, a helluva lot of fun! After the boy making a couple of trips north to Edinburgh and a weekend apart, I was back in Manchester this weekend. How is it that a 4 hour train ride to get there felt like no time at all, but the 4 hour journey home felt like the longest trip known to man? I reckon there’s something dodgy going on with the space/time continuum somewhere round about Carlisle. Or something.

Anyway, I had a lovely time down there, even if we spent most of Saturday bemoaning our hangovers before starting to drink again at wedding reception where Barry knew very few people and I knew precisely him! It was good fun though and I enjoyed rocking the little black dress look, and having a sexy boy on my arm (he really does scrub up well you know!). And that’s my travelling done for a few weeks anyway. The birthday boy is coming up here this weekend, we’re going to go out with my friends Claire and Dave, and then I’m going to kick everyone’s asses at SingStar. It’s going to be awesome.

I’m still getting used to the idea that I’ve got a boyfriend at all though. It is, of course, very lovely but 8 years is a long time to be single and I got used to being on my own, doing my own thing, and not having to plan for anyone or anything else. I’m sure I’ll get used to it though, as will he, and we’ll make our merry way in the world together. And what a busy way it’s going to be!

Crikey Moses!

It’s been a hell of a month since my last post. In fact it’s been a hell of a two and half months. When I got back from America I spent a day at my brother’s house in London where I mostly, slept, washed clothes and repacked to go to Latitude Festival.

I’ve never been to a music festival before (apart from Greenbelt – the ‘Christian’ festival when I was about 15), and I was really looking forward to it, as much for the comedy on offer as the music. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, mostly because it feels like it was so long ago and I can’t remember too many details! Suffice to say I had a fantastic time; musical highlights were Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons and Tom Jones, and there was plenty of comedy too – I loved Doc Brown and Abandoman, and Robin Ince did a brilliant job, seemingly never off stage in the Literary Tent. My favourite things of the whole weekend though were Mark Watson’s drunken book reading which was absolutely hilarious, and Stories for a Starlit Sky which happened on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at midnight. These stories by Daniel Kitson are accompanied by music from Gavin Osborn – how could I not love something from my two favourite performers?!

After Latitude I spent another couple of days in London and managed to fit in Edinburgh previews from Stewart Lee, Tiernan Douieb, Carl Donnelly and Jon Richardson. All but Jon’s shows were as close to finished as they could be and I really enjoyed all of them. I was particularly surprised by Donnelly’s show – I’ve only ever seen him do a five minute set before which I wasn’t that enamoured with but I loved his hour long show.

I eventually got home exactly a month after I left, but I only stayed in my own flat for two nights before I went to Manchester for my much anticipated first date with the man I’d managed to fall in love with, despite only having met him in person for a couple of hours two months before. We were both nervous about how the weekend would go but we needn’t have worried – it turned out we liked each other just as much in 3D real life as we did online. So after an amazing couple of days in Manchester I was back in my own bed for another two nights before getting the train down to my parents’ house in Blackpool. I managed to squeeze in another night in Manchester before making my way to Great Tower Scout campsite near Windermere in the Lake District for a week of helping at Red Rose 2010, an international camp organised by West Lancashire Scouts.

Both my parents have been involved with the Scout Association for a very long time and so was I until about the age of 18, in fact I was only 14 weeks old when I went to my first Scout camp, and I went every year until I was 15 when my Dad wouldn’t let me go any more because as the only girl, I was too distracting for the Scouts! I was a leader myself for a couple of years before leaving home for university and I’ve helped out at a few things since. However, after a slightly drunken conversation with my Dad at Christmas I had volunteered to help out as staff on this camp, and had some how ended up becoming a fully paid up member of the Scout Association again, with necker, woggle and all! I had a great time at camp, and only a couple of weeks before I went back to school it was brilliant to get some experience of working with kids again, and it reminded me why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place.

The only downside to camping, despite my Dad’s technical wizardry in managing to set up an internet connection in a tent, from a phone line in a tree, I felt somewhat disconnected from the world again, and from one boy in particular. So when Barry offered to come up to the Lakes on Friday night I jumped at the opportunity. It was also give me a chance to introduce him to my Mum and Dad. It was a little bit weird to see him in this situation, and after having made an effort to look my best for our previous meetings, lord knows what he really thought when he turned up to find me unwashed, and wearing my waterproof jacket with shorts, hiking boots and knee high socks! But then I always find looking slightly ridiculous is a good test of a man’s love, don’t you?

After a rain-battered night in a tiny tent, our mental lives continued as Barry drove back to Manchester in order to on a train back North to Edinburgh and I got the train back to Dunfermline, where I spent exactly two hours before I was also back on a train bound for Edinburgh. I’d invited Barry to come to the Fringe for a weekend of comedy, booze and fun before I’d even gone to America but I don’t think either of us could have guessed how far our relationship would have come by this point. We had a brilliant weekend together, I love Edinburgh at any time of year but it’s even better when there’s comedy round every corner. I will review the shows at some point but I can’t marshal my thoughts enough to do it at the moment. Highly recommended though are Michael Legge and Robin Ince’s Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire, Jonny Sweet, Loretta Maine, Helen Arney, Alex Horne, Sarah Millican, Des Bishop and of course Daniel Kitson.

I spent a couple more days in Edinburgh for finally making it back to my own flat on Wednesday, but only because I had to attend a council induction day for all the probationer teachers in Fife yesterday. I can’t believe I actually start school on Monday! At least the kids don’t come back until Wednesday so I’ve got a couple of days to try and remember how to be a teacher again. But first, it’s back to Edinburgh this afternoon to meet my lovely boyfriend again (it still feels a bit strange, and wonderful, to say I have a boyfriend) for another couple of days of worry free comedy and fun…before I return to the real world with a bump on Monday.

If there’s one thing I can say about this summer, it’s that it certainly wasn’t boring. No-one can accuse me of wasting time, that’s for sure! It’s been the best summer I can remember for a very long time, and one I’m not going to forget in a hurry.

Bright Light City

Frickin’ Vegas baby!

After my trip to the Grand Canyon, the next day saw me heading back west, over the Hoover Dam into Nevada, and to Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the many places in America I’ve wanted to go to for a long time, and I probably would have been going on this trip anyway, but happily my trip to the States also coincided with The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 (TAM8), the critical thinking and skepticism conference organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). 

TAM8 was held at the South Point Casino which is about 2 miles south of the main strip. That didn’t matter though, when I pulled up outside and walked through the front door, right into all the sounds and lights of a real Las Vegas casino. It was another one of those real ‘just like the movies’ moments. And when I’d checked in and seen the size of my (£28 a night) room I actually jumped up and down like an excited child.

I met up with my friend Liza (@wickedlibrarian), who had travelled down from her home in Illinois with her husband Bill (@billtannica) for TAM. It was great to see Liza again having met her previously on her trip to the UK last autumn, and to meet Bill. And after 10 days travelling alone, as much fun as that had been, it was lovely to see some familiar faces.

Although I was mainly in Vegas for TAM, and to experience all that it would have to offer, I was also determined to see ‘Las Vegas’ too. After checking into the hotel I had to take my now beloved Dodge back to the car rental place at the airport, but before I did that I had just enough time to take a drive down the strip and see some of the world famous hotels. There really is something very surreal about an almost life size Eiffel Tower in the middle of the Nevada desert! 

I got a chance to see some more of the strip on my second day in Vegas – we met Bill’s cousins for lunch, next to the Trevi Fountain in Caesar’s Palace (like you do) and then after getting a lift down to the Stratosphere at the north end of the strip then walked back through some of the other hotels – notably the Venetian, Paris, and the new City Centre. Luckily a lot of the hotels are connected, requiring minimal time to be spent outside in the ridiculous desert heat – I swear the soles on my Converse were actually melting!

The three days of speakers and events of TAM were brilliant – if you haven’t heard of TAM and have no idea what I’m talking about there’s a good summary here. I’m not going to go into masses of detail about what happened and who I saw here but I will mention a few highlights. After about 18 months of listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe it was very exciting to be witness to two live recordings (even if they were at 8am and I was still eating breakfast at the time) and I got to speak to one of the hosts, Jay Novella, when I was buying an SGU t-shirt. Also, getting to hear James Randi himself speaking (particularly his very interesting reminisces about his many appearances on the Johnny Carson TV show) and to see the tiny man himself in the corridors (although I didn’t have the balls to actually speak to him) was pretty awesome. Other great speakers for me were Michael Shermer, Simon Singh (as always), Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, Paul Provenza and the now infamous ‘Don’t be a dick’ speech by Phil Plait (you can read a transcript here). 

And of course, I can’t forget to mention the Skepchick‘s Bordello Party, which took place about a mile from the hotel at a cabin in the desert. It was a lot of fun and I got to speak to current JREF president DJ Grothe, and talk to fellow Brit, Sid Rodrigues.

On my last night in Las Vegas (which was also my last night in America) I headed back down the strip to get the full on night time Vegas experience. And I loved it! I saw the pirate show at Treasure Island, went into even more of the hotels including the Luxor, Excaliber, New York, New York and my favourite; the Bellagio. I also saw the fountains at the Bellagio a couple of times. They are amazing, and I think probably my favourite thing in Vegas.

And that was it. I left Vegas and flew back to the UK (spending two hours in Houston, Texas on the way). It was the end of my American adventure but not the end of my holiday. I still had another ten days to spend in London and at Latitude Festival before I finally made it home.

This really was a trip of a lifetime. I knew when I was planning it that it was going to be brilliant but I didn’t realise just how amazing it was going to be. I packed so much into my 19 nights that it felt like I had been there months. And there was another thing that made my trip even more amazing than I could have imagined….and that was something that has turned into an entirely new adventure….

You see, I had company on my trip. Not actual physical company, but virtual company from a boy; a boy I had met on my last trip to London and had started chatting to online before setting off on my trip. All the time I was 5000 miles and 8 hours away, we exchanged emails and tweets and texts, then phone calls for hours (oh, how I love the wonder that is Skype), and somehow, despite the strangeness of the circumstances our friendship and later mutual admiration grew. And this weekend, 8 weeks and 10500 miles after first meeting, I went to see him at home in Manchester….and we started our new adventure together. It seems you really do find love when you least expect it after all. 

I get my kicks on Route 66

I’ve totally neglected this blogging thing…but it’s such a pain in the arse to do on my phone, and I’m guessing most of you who read this have seen my updates on Twitter and Facebook anyway. Still, I’m going to try and do a quick round up of what I’ve been doing since that last blog post.

Wednesday – Shannon and I went and did the tourist thing in LA. We drove down the coast past the stupidly expensive beach front houses of Malibu, and the amusement park on Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach, with the delayed reaction instructions of the satnav on my phone causing much hilarity along the way.

We saw all the sights of Venice Beach – a man wearing tiny shorts and working out at Muscle Beach, skaters and cyclists, hippies and street traders, and not forgetting the several offices of Marijuana Doctors! And I bought a new hat from a man who called himself ‘Hat Dog’ and kept randomly making me try on different hats while telling me, several times, how nobody new more about hats than him, and how Angelina Jolie had bought 17 hats off him! He was hilarious, but I think if I hadn’t been with Shannon I would have been a little bit terrified.

After some lunch we drove to Hollywood Boulevard through Beverley Hills and past Rodeo Drive – which I was very excited about due to their prominence in Pretty Woman! On Hollywood Boulevard we looked at the Walk of Fame stars on the sidewalk, saw the Kodak Theater where the Oscars are held and, my favourite bit, saw all the hand and footprints outside Graumann’s Chinese Theater. You could spend hours there just comparing the size of your hands and feet to all the celebrities!

After a quick glimpse of the Hollywood sign and (more) ice cream we headed back up to Shannon’s house. But a bit bizarrely to a different house to the one we left in the morning. I have to thank Shannon and Jeremy so much for their hospitality – I don’t think I would want a guest when I was literally in the middle of moving house! And despite my worries I wasn’t even very allergic to their cute little dogs Austin and Marvin.

I loved LA and it was great to see all the famous sights and the places you recognise from the movies, but I don’t think I could spend any longer than a day there!

Thursday – A fairly early start, a little bit if shopping at the outlet mall where I wanted to buy new Converse but ended up with a Gap hoody too, and then I was back on the road heading for Palm Springs, a place I’d heard of but didn’t know much about. A pretty boring drive down the Interstate later and I was stepping out of the car into 110 degree heat – that’s about 43 centigrade. I’ve experienced that kind of heat before, in the heatwave of 2003 when I was working in the Dordogne. But this was desert heat, and it’s like actually being in an oven! A quick enquiry at the visitor centre and I’d landed a room at a fairly swanky hotel (with a pool) for the bargain price of $40. In the evening I had a wander round the street market they have on the main street every Thursday evening, and along with some corn on the cob and fresh lemonade, I also got a massage from a Chinese man. Excellent.

Friday – The reason I was in Palm Springs was to go the 2.5 miles up Mount Saint Jacinta on the Arial Tramway as recommended by my friends Claire and Dave. And boy am I glad I followed their recommendation.

I was up and about early enough to get the first car up the mountain at 10am, with an assortment of ill-prepared tourists and over-equipped hikers, and I’m glad I did, because when I went on the 1.5 mile Desert View loop there was no-one else around to spoil my enjoyment of the absolutely awesome fucking views. It was just staggering – we just don’t get vistas that…big in Europe. It’s really hard to explain just how breathtaking it was, hopefully when I get home and get the photos off my actual camera some of them will do it justice. And it was also a blessedly cool 20 centigrade up there. I spent an hour or so admiring the views then came back down and set off on my drive to Yuma, right on the California/ Arizona border, and the Yuma of the film ‘3.10 to Yuma’ fame. I found a motel, had some food and got I think the earliest night of my whole holiday. Man I was tired!

Saturday – After a look round the Quatermaster’s Store, a preserved military depot from the 19th Century and the Yuma Territorial Prison museum, I set off on the drive North to Kingman on Route 66. And the first few hours of that drive were up the US 95 which runs up through Arizona. It is one of those roads that looks like someone has drawn it on the map with a ruler. Running perfectly North/South in the straightest line you’ve ever seen. I turned on the cruise control and rested my fingertips on the wheel, and that was about all I needed to do!

As I drove further north the road got a bit more interesting as it ran alongside the Colorado river (which seemed to be full of people in speedboats and on jet skis enjoying the holiday weekend). When I hit the I-40 I actually had to drive a little way in the wrong direction so I could get on to ‘Historic Route 66’ and yes, I did play the song at full blast as soon as I hit my first actual bit of the old road! The bit I drove winds its way through the Black Mountains and the town of Oatman, which really is still like the the old Wild West, wooden sidewalks, wild donkeys and all!

It’s amazing to think that this steep, winding, probably somewhat treacherous road was once (and until fairly recently – well the late 70s/ early 80s anyway) the main thoroughfare across the States. After driving through the hills from Oatman I arrived in Kingman. Which in the words of the song sits between ‘Flagstaff Arizona, don’t forget Winona…’ and ‘Barstow, San Bernadino’. Kingman has a rich Route 66 history and I stayed in the properly old school Hill Top Motel, and further indulged my love of 50s diners at Mr D’s.

Sunday – Independence Day
After a look round the excellent Route 66 museum and the pancakes for breakfast that I’d been holding out for. I was intending on driving east to Meteor Crater then back west to spend the night in Flagstaff but I mentioned it on Twitter the lovely Liza (@wickedlibrarian) did some research online for me and found out the July 4th Fireworks had been cancelled due to the high fire risk. She suggested I try Sedona which is about 30 miles south of Flagstaff.

But first I went to the Arizona Meteor Crater, another thing I wouldn’t have done were it not for a recommendation, this time from the awesome @BarrySkellern. The crater was formed 50,000 years ago by a 150 foot meteor and it was really impressive to see. The little museum there was great too, with lots of interactive exhibits.

So then I set of back west heading for Sedona, what I didn’t realise was that once I left the Interstate at Flagstaff I would be driving right through Oak Creek Canyon, another spectacular experience. It took a bit of driving about to find a motel and when I did the only room they had left was a ‘jacuzzi room’ so they gave it me at a discount and I actually had an anteroom off the bedroom just for the jacuzzi!

A short drive down the road took me to Cottonwood and the fireworks display. I managed to find it somewhat accidentally then found myself in a field full of hundreds of Americans and more glowsticks than I’ve ever seen before in my life! I had a hot dog and ooh’ed and ahh’ed with the rest of ’em. It was almost like being a native!

Monday – Back to Flagstaff and a look round the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was first discovered. When i arrived they were doing solar viewings with a specially filtered telescope and I got to look at the sun and see a tiny black sunspot which is actually the size of the Earth! We got to in one of the domes and see the original telescope Lowell himself used when he was looking for life on Mars in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. That was really cool and then I had a very quick look round the exhibits…but I think I’m a bit over -spaced at the moment, certainly at the level of space information available in tourist attractions!

After the observatory I carried on west to Williams and to the first accommodation I’d actually booked in advance since San Francisco. It’s a little B&B called the Canyon Country Inn right on Route 66. I did make a bit of a school boy error when booking because it doesn’t have wifi but then when I booked I didn’t realise how much I would be relying on internet access during this trip. Still all it took was a short stroll down the main street to find wifi spilling out of all the other motels.

Before I went out for dinner I sat out on the little porch outside my room, playing my ukulele and drinking a beer. Living. The. Dream.

Tuesday – I took the old Grand Canyon Railway which has period cars and provides information and entertainment en route to the Canyon. It takes about two and a half hours to get there, and it was a joy to have a day off from driving.

The Canyon was pretty much exactly as I expected. It’s very impressive, especially the first five minutes of staring at it in wonder. And it’s also heaving with tourists, exactly as I expected. From the train depot (which is at the South Rim) I walked west along the rim trail then followed the Bright Angel trail down into the Canyon. This is one of the trails that leads all the way down to the Colorado river, if you follow it long enough. I only walked down a mile or so and found a little spot in the shade, just off the trail to eat my lunch. While I was there I saw a mule train coming back up the trail. That’s got to be the easy way to do it! Once I came back up I walked a bit further along the rim trail then headed back for the train back to Williams.

The Grand Canyon is an impressive place and if I ever went back I’d love to the overnight hike right down to the river. But because it was precisely what I was expecting, and because it was so full of tourists it can’t beat that view and the peace and quiet at the top of that cable car above Palm Springs.

Tomorrow I’m entering into Phase 3 of my trip. I’m driving to Vegas, dropping off my Dodge and spending the next four days at The Amaz!ng Meeting. I’ll be meeting up with Liza (and Bill, her husband too) which I’m really looking forward, especially since I’ve not seen her since October!

It feels like a month since I was in San Francisco, not a week. I don’t think I could’ve crammed any more into this holiday if I tried. It is officially The Best Holiday Ever.

For now, thanks for reading and I bid you adieu.

Adventures in Southern California: The Return

Oh dear blog reader, how I’ve been neglecting you…but I’ve just been so gosh-darned busy over here in the US of A.

So, when I left you it was Friday and I’d just spent my first full day in San Francisco. Here’s what happened next (in brief)…

Saturday –
I hired a bike and rode from Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge (only about 3 miles). I only rode to the middle of the bridge and back because despite it being really sunny and hot at sea level it was still misty (and freezing) on the bridge.

There was a great spot to take photos on the way down though with brilliant views over the city. A nice man offered to take this photo for me but I’m sticking to principle that every photo of me on this holiday will be taken by me with only the views in the background changing!

After that I had a wander in Fisherman’s Wharf which is really tacky- just like the Golden Mile back home in Blackpool really! Then I rode the cable car all the way back downtown. I was hanging off the side like a real tourist which is pretty scary when you start going down those hills!

The weather was really hot, but quite windy so you didn’t notice it so much. When I was on the bike I had leggings and my converse boots on and managed to sunburn the 4 inches of exposed flesh! And my nose a bit too… My legs now look completely ridiculous with their stripy sections!

Sunday –
I was awake at 7am to watch the football (don’t know why I bothered!), then I went to watch some of the Gay Pride parade which was cool – very flamboyant! One whole section was just cheerleaders and they were my favourites, even when it seemed like they were about to throw people into the overhead electric cables that the buses run on!

After that I walked miles to the Golden Gate park and went to the Academy of Sciences – the guy working on reception at the hotel had recommended it. It was good too – the planetarium was my favourite bit, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg no less! And it has a ‘living roof’ which was really cool, and, I believe, inspired by the Teletubbies!

After that I got the bus to the pier for the boat to Alcatraz. And there it is…The Rock.

It was brilliant- there was an audio tour of the cellhouse narrated by former officers and inmates then a talk about some of the escape attempts. And I spent most of the time trying to spot film locations!

I went on the evening tour so the boat back was at 8.40 just as the sun was setting- the views were amazing. Then on the way back to my hotel I had pasta in Little Italy then went to a bar as recommended by Michael Legge…where they filmed a bit of Basic Instinct apparently!

Monday –
I checked out of the hotel and picked up my rental car – a Dodge Caliber…it’s pretty big but not massive. And I managed to drive out of San Fran without crashing or dying, despite the best efforts of the satnav to make me turn left when I wasn’t allowed… and I keep trying to change gear! From San Francisco I went to Walnut Creek, over the Oakland bridge to the San Francisco Creamery for ice cream. I saw it on Man v. Food and had to go there! I had a corned beef sandwich with actual corned beef that didn’t come out of a tin, and then had the biggest dish of apple pie flavour ice cream ever made, and that was a small!

From there I headed down Highway 1; the Pacific Coast Highway, to a place called San Simeon where William Randolph Hearst built a castle…the barman at the hotel in San Francisco recommended it, and it’s about half way to Oxnard where I was going next to meet my Twitter friend Shannon (@monasmith).

The views down the coast were amazing. I realised I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before. It’s a really great drive along the winding coast road, if you ever find yourself in that part of the world I would definitely recommend it over the main Highway 101.

There isn’t really anything in San Simeon itself except a load of motels but I was excited to stay in a motel right on the coast, just like in the movies with drive up rooms and everything!

I got up pretty early and was at Hearst Castle by 9.30am but it seems you really need to book in advance because the next available tour wasn’t until 11.50am. I really didn’t want to wait around that long but I did see the really good 40 minute film about the history of the castle and had a look round the exhibits in the visitor centre. I didn’t even get a glimpse of the castle in the ended because it’s way up on the hill and was completely hidden in the mist!

From San Simeon I carried on South to Oxnard where I was going to stay with Shannon, only stopping for lunch in a cute little town called Summerland, oh and being baffled when trying to fill the car with petrol…it turned out I had to leave my credit card with the cashier before they would turn the pump on….I eventually discovered when the lady in the shop spoke to me through the pump!

I arrived at Shannon’s at about 4pm (I don’t know how I would be managing without the satnav on my phone by the way) and we had a good catch up before I went to watch her Roller Derby practice. I knew a bit about derby but it’s pretty brutal! Looks like a lot of fun though. After practice we headed back to Shannon’s and bed.

I’m going to leave this here for now as it’s already miles long. Yesterday I spent the day being a tourist LA and Hollywood with Shannon and today I drove to Palm Springs….which is definitely the hottest place so far, I suppose it is in the desert after all…but I’m going to save the details for another day. Rest assured though, I think so far this is the best holiday I’ve ever had…and I’ve still got 10 days to go!

As always, thanks for reading. Until next time….