Friday, 6 November 2009

In review: Uncle Sam and Old Vic

I'm aware that I haven't really posted much of substance here in recent months. For one reason or another, I just haven't had the time, not least because of my holiday and a few trips to the Old Vic.

Here's a little review of what I've been up to...

Thursday, 1st October
Attended press night for Inherit The Wind at the Old Vic, along with Steve. The play's a little simplistic, but that's only because our arguments on the whole creationism versus evolution debate are much more sophisticated now than at the time the play was written. Overall though it's excellent, much more humourous than I was expecting and superbly staged, directed and performed.

Milled around at the after-show party at Vinopolis. Awkward encounter with Tracey Emin, who I unexpectedly found myself standing with, but with nothing to say. Kevin Spacey told me he got his accent for Telstar from watching The Dam Busters.

Tuesday, 6th October
Back to the Old Vic, by myself this time, for the annual artistic director's lunch, starting off with drinks on the stage amidst the set for Inherit The Wind. Had a chat with Kevin about Twitter. "I don't talk to the crazies." he said.

For the lunch I was sat between (Lady) Ann Samuel, Group Director of the Old Vic, and an amazing woman from Bank of America who oversees their European corporate sponsorship. It shames me that I can't remember her name. Engaging company and superb food. Will be doing a little 'development' work for the Old Vic.

Spent the evening with Eva, a blonde German model, at a restaurant the name of which, again, escapes me.

Wednesday, 7th October
Up early to catch my flight to Los Angeles. The day got off to a bad start when, upon arrival at Waterloo, I realsed I had left my Oyster card back at the Premier Inn, so had to trudge back through the rain to get it. Thankfully, it was then a straightforward trip right through to the BA Club World lounge at Terminal 5.

The 11 hour flight was uneventful, but thoroughly enjoyable thanks to good food, good wine and the other perks of business class. The east coast of Greenland was truly a sight to behold and the mountains of western Canada and the US were also impressive. Sat next to a guy who looked like Edward Norton and who travelled the world selling TV programmes for Lionsgate, most notably Mad Men.

Arrived just after lunch, local time, and boarded a coach to Union Station. Met a couple who were on their way down to San Diego for an Amtrak dinner, he being one of Amtrak's four employees at Houston station. Weird station though. You wait in the building then when the train arrives they tell you what platform to go to. Incidentally, among other things, scenes from Blade Runner were filmed there with part of the station doubling as the police station in the film.

Onboard the train I was sat next to a young Korean-American guy who lives in San Diego, but works in LA selling real estate. Used to be a marine snaiper, but had trouble taking orders, so got out. Had a Korean phone from the future, like nothing I've ever seen in the UK.

Eventually got to the Holiday Inn San Diego Downtown around 7.30ish. Nice enough room on the next to top floor, with a good view of downtown and looking across to San Diego Bay. Ordered two burgers for dinner, which was a mistake as they were huge, as were the bottles of beer. The beer was OK, the food completely tasteless.

Thursday, 8th October
Up early (2.30, thanks to body clock). Bimbled around and somehow killed four or five hours before getting up for a taste-free breakfast of eggs and small bits of potato. Set-off for a day around San Diego. Walked south, right down to the convention center, then along the bay to the USS Midway, taking lots of photos.

The USS Midway was well worth a visit. A huge aircraft carrier whose last tour of duty was as the command platform for Desert Storm, it's now been converted into a museum and the public have free access to pretty much every area of interest onboard, together with a large selection of naval aircraft on deck. Again, lots of photos were taken. Incidentally, I'll get round to posting holiday photos as soon as I can, but I do have an awful lot to sift through.

After the Midway I wandered further up the bay to the Maritime Museum, where they have a selection of sailing ships (including the Star of India), boats and of particular interest to me, a Soviet submarine, the B-39. I found the sub virtually empty. No museum staff are onboard and people of a certain size can't navigate through the sub, so I was on my own most of the time. Conditions must have been horrendous for the submariners who lived and worked on B-39 for its 27-year service life. It was bad enough docked, but out at see with dodgy, diesel-soaked air and all the noise it must have been hellish.

Walked around a bit more, had a nosey at a clearly expensive yacht and had a great lasagne lunch at a restaurant called Petrini's. Headed off to Horton Plaza, the world's most infuriating shopping mall thanks to its deliberately confusing layout. Tried in vain to find a bookshop. Headed back to the hotel, knackered. Made the mistake of ordering more vile food, which I left most of before passing out.

Friday, 9th October
Woke up slightly less early, skipped pisspoor hotel breakfast and headed to San Diego in the hotel's courtesy taxi van.

San Diego zoo is vast. It took me most of the day to get around on my own and I tend to walk with a purpose, rather than take things leisurely, so I have no idea how families with children or old people could manage it. From a technical point of view, the zoo is impressive. The animal habitats have clearly received a lot of thought and money. The downside to this is that the animals themselves often get lost in those habitats, which leads all too often to apparently empty enclosures. I do appreciate it's a delicate balancing act. If you're going to hold animals in captivity you need to give them good environments to live in and a degree of privacy, but you also need to offer something to the visitors who pay for it all. Most disappointing was the complete absence of tigers, a bit of a flaw in a 'tiger trail'. Still, I got to see pandas and that's what I had most wanted to do.

Walked back to the hotel from the zoo via Balboa Park, home to museums and some superb architecture. After a rest I headed out for dinner - lasagne at Petrini's again!

Saturday, 10th October
Checked out of the Holiday Inn and took a cab to my next hotel, the Best Western Blue Sea Lodge at Pacific Beach ("PB"). As it was early I just dumped my case and got straight back in the same cab, this time to go to Point Loma where I spent most of the day doing personal stuff.

Later in the afternoon I returned to the hotel to check-in properly. The room was excellent. OK, so the accomodation was pretty basic, but it was clean and best of all, it was an ocean view room and I could literally climb over the rail on my terrace and be just a couple of metres from the boardwalk and the beach. It was great to sit there and watch the world go by. It was doing this that I came to the conclusion that there really are no blondes quite like California blondes. The sunset was beautiful. Of all the places I visited on my holiday, this was perhaps my favourite spot.

Take-out pizza for dinner, then bed.

Sunday, 11th October
Up early and off to church! Specifically, the 8am service at The Rock, Carrie Prejean's church. I had rang ahead a couple of days earlier and made contact with a woman called Sylvia who works in their 'care and concern' department and we arranged to meet up after the service.

The Rock is an evangelical megachurch, with several thousand people attending each of the five Sunday services. Contrary to British perceptions of such churches, this isn't a place where people start speaking in tongues, get up from their wheelchairs or pass out with the force of the Lord. Sure, it starts with a 20 minute set from a singer and band (on this occasion Brenton Brown) but they're actually pretty damn good, but after that it's a pretty much just Pastor Miles mcPherson and his sermon. The idea is to strip away as much as possible that may stand between the bible and the people. There's no ritual, save for the obligatory prayers. It's all about the message.

McPherson himself is an impressive guy. An ex-NFL player, he's an engaging, humorous, and down-to-earth pastor and, dare I say, a little Obama-esque. After the service, I met up with Sylvia and she took me to his office. His security guy (he does have a security team due to threats) said we would "have five minutes max", but as it turned out I was in there twenty minutes as I told him my story of how reading about Carrie Prejean had ultimately brought me to his church. We prayed, I converted...

Now clearly this was a big step. I may go into this in greater detail in the future. For now, I would say that ever since Carrie Prejean came to my attention I've felt drawn to Christianity. Not because she's a christian, that would be stupid, but because she sparked something within that started me off on a process of self-examination. Truth be told, before Carrie came along I had been having issues with Noachidism, most notably how it severely limits the ways in which one can worship. For a while, I did fight against this 'christian drift', and really tried to hang on to my Noachidism, but ultimately conversion just felt right. In fact it didn't feel like a change in direction at all, but rather a progression along a path to God that I was set along by my deeply beloved Jewish queen, Tzipora. I may now be a christian, but Torah will forever be the heart of my faith.

Afterwards I ventured outside where The Rock's 'Do Something' fair was taking place. 75 stalls representing all the various ministries were set up along the street, encouraging people to put their faith into action. I met up with the Adult Entertainment ministry, otherwise known as JC's Girls. They engage with local sex workers, strippers etc, paying them for their time and just offering a friendly ear, free beauty products and ministering as and when appropriate. Carrie Prejean is involved with JC's Girls and many of those in the ministry are former sex workers themselves. I also spent some time talking to some guys from the same-sex attraction ministry, the hiking ministry and sat down for while telling my story to Anita, a writer with The Rock who will put it on their website in the near future.

On leaving The Rock I headed back to the hotel and spent some time on the beach before exploring parts of PB away from the ocean front. It's mainly bars, restaurants and surf shops, but that's no bad thing. Together with the relaxed vibe around the place, it makes for the perfect place to do little but relax. Would have liked a bookshop though... Dinner was a disappointing 'gourmet' hotdog at Hooters, served to me by a girl who seemed embarassed to have to present me with the dreary delight.

Monday, 12th October
Spent much of the day at SeaWorld. Saw one of the Shamu shows, not the big 'Believe' one but the low-key one where they show you how they train the whales. All very impressive. Was struck by the close bond the whales have with their handlers. From the moment they're born, the whale is with the same handler for life, which must be a tremendous commitment for the handler, but undoubtedly rewarding.

Also spent some time at the 'Dolphin Experience', where you spend $175 to spend 30-40 minutes in a wetsuit with a dolphin and its handler. Had it not been sold out I would have paid my money and took part myself, but it's definitely something I'll do next time. They also have two white beluga dolphins and you can do much the same thing with those too, which I would really like to do as there's nowhere else on earth that you can interact with belugas.

That evening I went out to dinner with Tom from The Rock's same-sex attraction ministry. We ate at a Brazilian restaurant in downtown San Diego which starts out with an all-you-can-eat buffet followed by SIXTEEN courses of meat. Afterwards, I never wanted to see meat again.

Tuesday, 13th October.
Up early and time to leave PB. I could easily have stayed there for the rest of my holiday, but the bright lights of Vegas called, so it was off to the airport.

A few hours later I was at the Luxor. I had arrived a bit early so was old I could either take a room on the second floor, or kill a couple of hours until the maid service had made one ready on the 24th. I opted for the latter. I grabbed a quick lunch at McDonalds, where I noticed how salty the fries were compared to in the UK. Really showed how we've been weaned off salt in recent years.

Can't remember how I filled the rest of my time before checking in, but it passed speedily enough and I was back at the desk to check in properly. At this point I should mention that the staff on the front desk at the Luxor are miserable, unhelpful and, I think, just a little stuck-up. Of all the hotels I stayed at, the staff here were the least likely to say 'have a nice day'. I doubt they even knew what a nice day was. On the other hand, the room was good. It was actually more of a suite, comprising bedroom (with jacuzzi looking out over the south strip), sitting room and bath/wetroom. The lack of wi-fi annoyed me though and the internet TV service was expensive and unusable, though I did persuade the joyless front desk to credit me for it.

I spent the evening at the Las Vegas Lounge, a bar where the men are men and the women are transsexual prostitutes. Really. It sounds worse than it is though. Sure it's a bit of a dive, but the people were nice - lots of regulars who knew eachother by name, that kind of place. The girls were pretty hot too (but no, I didn't succumb to temptation!). Spent a lot of time talking to Mary-Belle and Princess Jasmine, two latina transsexuals, the former gave me a good massage, the latter modelled herself on Christina Aguilera and was hitting me up for dollar bills for the jukebox. A woman called Babs told me stories of her escorting adventures in the UK. Randomly, I found myself talking to another Dan, a huge guy like Jerry from ER with an interest in British brass bands, most notably the Grimethorpe Colliery band. I headed back to the Luxor in the small hours.

Wednesday, 14th October
Got up and booked a ticket to see the Fantasy show that night at the Luxor. Topless dancers led by a singing Angelica Bridges. Huzzah! Visited the Titanic exhibition, which was pretty interesting and - shock! - educational. They have a huge chunk of the hull in there which I would challenge anyone not to be impressed by. I wandered down to the Mandalay Bay for lunch, a terrfic chinese of spring rolls and chicken chow mein. Spent the afternoon in the casino at the Luxor, but somehow managed to gamble just $17 on slot machines. It's amazing how far that can get you.

Spent some time in the bars of the Luxor and the Mandalay bay before getting changed and heading down to Fantasy. Much to my disappointment, Angelica Bridges was ill or something, so they had to draft in a replacement. Her name was something like Nikki Lynn, an Anastasia-type blonde who was actually pretty good. She even managed to do a decent job of a Portishead track! Halfway through the show, a comedian appears doing impressions of James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr and Michael Jackson. Not the kind of thing you expect in a show full of semi-naked dancers. Admittedly he was funny, but some advance warning would have been nice. Overall, the show was OK, but it has to be said that while the girls had good bodies, they weren't really that attractive. Apparently that's an issue in Vegas. All the hottest girls head for LA. The show ran over and I had arranged to meet a friend, Venus, so I was itching for it to finish.

Eventually, we were let out and I met Venus outside at about 11pm. We headed to the Las Vegas Lounge again as she was keen to check it out. We chatted for a couple of hours then she dropped me back at the hotel.

Thursday, 15th October
Whistle-stop Vegas visit over, it was off to the airport again to catch a flight to San Francisco. The check-in machine offered me an upgrade to first class, which I took even though it was just a short flight. Turns out that United Airlines first class is more akin to, say, BA premium economy but without the in-flight entertainment. Sat next to a guy who travels the world selling tabasco sauce.

My friend Theo, who is currently working in the Bay area, met me at the airport and dropped me off at my hotel, the Handlery on Geary Street, a few steps away from Union Square. I was given a free upgrade to a room overlooking the street. The room itself wasn't anything special, a bit dated in it's decor and quite small, but it did the job and was quite cheap for the location.

I stepped outside to find metal barriers along the side of the pavement. Turned out that President Obama was due to give an address at the Westin hotel across the street. I spent a while talking to a guy called Mark, who was on a day off and thought he would hang around to see the motorcade. After a while, the SFPD made us go into the hotel and closed off the street. I told Mark he could watch from my hotel room and that's where we spent the next FIVE HOURS, imprisoned by the President. Just as well that we got along or it could have been awful! The President's motorcade eventually turned up, the middle section sweeping into the hotel as the rest turned around in the street. I caught it on my camera and will post a video in due course.

After the President left (only to check in at the Intercontinental, where Theo was staying, causing all kinds of hassle) we were liberated and I ordered dinner from room service, can't remember what. I had actually arranged to meet another friend that evening, but had to cancel because I couldn't leave the hotel. This was disappointing because she had to fly out to Hawaii the following morning :/

Friday, 16th October
Up early and embarked on a long walk from the hotel, up Nob Hill, down through Chinatown to Fisherman's Wharf, then across the north shore to the Golden Gate bridge. Unlike downtown San Francisco, which is plagued by beggars and the homeless, the north shore area is lovely, with nice little beaches and great views. Took loads of photos of the bridge and walked across it to Marin County. Was going to walk back across too but was so tired that I got the tour bus back, which handily dropped me quite literally outside my hotel.

Couldn't meet up to Theo as he had to work so I went to Borders (yay, a bookshop!) and picked up novels by Harlan Coben and Vince Flynn, plus some magazines. Back at the hotel I ordered quite nice - but expensive - steak for dinner then spent the rest of the evening reading.

Saturday, 17th October
Spent the day with Theo. First-off we sailed over to Alcatraz, ticking another box on the tourist checklist. It's quite interesting, but there are large areas of the island you can't access including a huge building, the contents of which remain a mystery. Spectacular views of San Francisco from the island though and it has one of the better gift shops I encountered on my travels.

We arrived back on the mainland and headed to the Intercontinental to pick up Theo's car and drive down to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is a chilled-out beach town favoured by aging baby-boomers, greying hippies, students and surfers. The smell of weed is never far away... We called in on a friend of Theo, a cool Canadian guy, then went to a restaurant for dinner. By this time it was dark, but we headed to the beach anyway, where I promptly fell flat on my face in the sand. Would like to see it in daylight.

Sunday, 18th October
It's not every day that you're woken up by 20,000 women, but today was one of those days. It was the Nike women's marathon and at 6.45am, the street outside was full of women waiting for the start of the race and the inexplicably early time of 7am. There were dozens of portaloos lined-up on Geary Street. At 7am, the race started to much screaming and within 15 minutes everyone had vanished.

I got up and pottered around a bit before heading to the AMC to see Law Abiding Citizen, starring my favourite actress, Leslie Bibb. Not a bad film, but not great either. Leslie raised it to a higher level. Interesting to see how many TV shows were advertised before the film started. After that I took a walk around downtown taking photos before heading to an arthouse cinema at the Embarcadero Center for my second film of the day, the Coen Bros' A Serious Man, which is both very good and perhaps the most Jewish film ever made. I then headed back to the hotel taking more photos along the way.

That evening I met up with an acquaintance, Eva, for a drink. An absolutely fascinating (and beautiful) woman who turned her back on a career as a high fashion model fronting campaigns for the likes of Faberge and starring in music videos for Garbage and Marilyn Manson to become an embalmer and restorative artist. Seriously.

Monday, 19th October
Spent most of the day travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles. My flight was delayed by a couple of hours, so I sat at the gate reading The Economist. Upgraded to 'first class' again. Eventually got to my hotel, the Holiday Inn at Santa Monica pier, at sunset. I dumped my bags and headed straight over to the beach, watched the amazing sunset and then returned to the hotel where I pretty much slept right through to the next morning.

Tuesday, 20th October
Up early (again) and off to downtown LA for sightseeing and to meet a friend (after breakfast across from the hotel at McDonalds while reading the LA Times). I hadn't really planned this stage of the holiday very well and probably should have headed to Hollywood or Beverly Hills instead, but never mind. The bus to downtown cost next to nothing and was fairly rapid. I wandered around for a few hours taking photos before meeting my friend (and her two San Diegan stoner mates) and having a burrito for lunch. The burrito, it has to be said, must rank as one of mankind's more disgusting culinary creations.

After a while I headed off to get the bus back and met a lovely girl called Sabrina at the bus stop who I chatted with all the way back to Santa Monica. Her sister lives over here in Birmingham, apparently. After a rest I took a walk out into Santa Monica, which is centered on the nearby Third Street Promenade, a shopping, eating and drinking thoroughfare which also attracts bands/buskers, small craft stalls and the like. Close by is the Britannia, a 'British pub'. I decided to try dinner there and had a most enjoyable steak and ale (-free) pie with mashed potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy. It was the best meal I had had in ages. The guy who served me was an Italian-American Dick Van Dyke... I sat at the bar, chatted to a few people and watched that quintessentially British sport, baseball on the many HD screens around the place. It was kind of hard to see exactly why it was a British pub, aside from the occasional touch like a Stoke City flag on the ceiling, but it was a nice place all the same, friendly and not too crowded.

Wednesday, 21st October
Breakfast at McDonalds again, then a walk through Santa Monica and a massage from a woman who looked like Sarah Jessica Parker. Best. Massage. Ever. It was punishing while it was happening, but afterwards I felt like she'd beaten years of tension out of my body.

I wandered back to the hotel stopping to pick up a pressie for the dog at a pet shop for dogs and buying a book on stock trading and a magazine at Borders. Dropping these off I went down to the beach for a while and explored the pier before heading over to the Britannia again for steak and ale (-free) pie and more baseball. Met a TV producer (who shall remain nameless) who told me the host of the show he works on was "the nicest guy you could ever meet, but a fucking idiot". Incidentally, there's another 'British pub' nearby called Ye Olde Kings Headde or something, which looks massively naff. Even has a gift shop selling Union Flag mugs, etc. Sure, the Britannia is a rather un-British British pub, but at least it's honest.

Thursday, 22nd October
My last full day in the US was spent, for the most part, in the company of another acquaintance, Soma, a beautiful red-haired model and performer and possibly one of the most amazing women I've ever met. We hung out and had lunch at a Japanese restaurant, a first for me. Totally failed the chopstick trial. Happily tired by the end of the day, I eschewed the Britannia and just had a Big Mac meal instead and reflected on the holiday.

Friday, 23rd October
Got up and took one last walk along the beach and one last McDonalds breakfast with the LA Times. Had a bath and waited for the limo I had booked to take me to the airport - one final extravagance. Got there stupidly early for the flight, but that was really dictated by the check-out time at the hotel. Spent some time in the OneWorld lounge at the airport drinking Canada Dry and making use of the free internet access. Next thing I knew I was on the plane home. Tried in vain to sleep, spending most of my time lying in there in the dark or reading The Economist. Time flew by though, literally, and before I knew it...

Saturday, 24th October
...I was back in London. Caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington and worked my way over to St Pancras for my train back north. Got home just after 2pm, knackered. Slept for a couple of hours and felt a bit better. By the time the next day came around I was feeling pretty good and, to my pleasant surprise, didn't have any jet-lag at all.

Overall, it was a terrific holiday that broadened my mind in many ways. I'll definitely be going back as soon as possible, most keenly to Pacific Beach and to LA to see Soma again.

Sunday, 1st November
The final chapter in my holiday period was a trip down to London for the 24 Hour Plays Celebrity Gala at the Old Vic.

Caught the 9.14am train from Long Eaton, which should have got to Londona few hours later. That was bad enough, incorporating an engineering-inspired diversion via Corby, but things got really depressing when we were denied access to Corby by flooding, necessitating (an hour later) a reversal to Leicester, a coach to Kettering and another train to London. A journey that normally takes about 1 hour 35 minutes ended up taking about six hours. Good job I had nothing planned for the afternoon. On arrival, I nipped to Foyles for a book then M&S for some food before checking in to the hotel.

Ate, bathed and headed off to Waterloo to meet Georgina, my 'date' for the evening. Started out with a champagne reception at the Waterloo Brasserie, where I met a couple of people from Twitter, among other. Georgina's hair (black with red streaks) proved alarmingly popular with one young woman. We then headed over to the theatre for the main event. The 24 Hour Plays basically consist of a group of actors, writers and directors writing, rehearsing and performing six plays from scratch over 24 hours. The cast for the evening included Rafe Spall, Dominic West, Jason Isaacs (hello Jason Isaacs), Anna Chancellor, Art Malik, Ashley Walters, Stephen Mangan and Jane Asher among others. The evening was compered by Graham Norton on top form. The plays themselves were a little hit-and-miss, but no less entertaining for that. It was to be expected given the challenge involved.

Curtain down and we headed over to Buddha Bar for the 25th Hour, the after-show party. Met Jason Isaacs, Kevin Spacey's chauffeur and drank free champagne until I couldn't take any more bubbles...

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