Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not Being Angry About Flights

It took a long time for my flight(s) home from Dallas to make it to Hobart, there were delays and re-routings and unhelpful counter staff and lost luggage. At the end of it all I was face-smashingly angry and even thinking about it makes me kind of mad. But I'm not going to rant about it, I'm going to go to my travel happy place instead.

I appreciate the vast distances planes can cover and the speed they do it at, especially as an Australian, but after 37 hours of continual aggravation I looked back with immense fondness at travelling about on trains when I was in Europe. Ignoring the general enjoyability of watching passing countryside and the less extortionate price gouging if you want to book a ticket late, the three advantages of the train I enjoyed most were:
  1. No hassles. You can arrive at a train station five minutes before the train leaves, or ten seconds before if you like to live on the edge. Nobody wants to pat you down, rifle through your luggage, or even check your ticket.
  2. No nerves. I'm not a nervous flyer, or I don't think I am, but their is a noticeable change in the atmosphere of a plane as it takes off and lands. People close their books or grip their arm rests a little tighter. During a flight when you hit turbulence other passengers shift their eyes around, trying to figure out whether or not it's enough to worry about. On a train you can relax completely and do whatever you want, whether it's sleep, read, work or just stare out at the landscape. The only moment of concern you're likely to have is searching through your pockets for the ticket when the inspector comes around.
  3. Better destinations. Airports are mostly in the middle of fields where there's room for runways and giant noisy planes to takeoff and land all day. When you pull into Berlin Hauptbahnhof and step onto the platform you just feel as though you have arrived in Berlin. When you fly into London Heathrow, the first thought is what you have to do next to get to London. The feeling that your journey is almost over after a 10+ hour flight is deflating to say the least.
In addition to these points your luggage will never get lost because you carry it yourself the whole time, and if you want room to stretch your legs, the sleeper and first class upgrades are in the magnitude of a night at a cheap hotel, not the week with a high class hooker airlines charge.

So, in summary, yay trains.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Land of the Automobile

I spent last week in Dallas. The first question many people asked when I mentioned this before going was "what are you going to do in Dallas?" which seems a bit unfair to poor old little Dallas. The answer was that I went to geek out with friends who I see rarely who were all there by an unlikely series of coincidences. And geek out we did. Pizza was eaten, dice were rolled, cards were tapped (unnecessarily considering the game in question, but they were tapped nonetheless). That we didn't play any video games is frankly remarkable.

But the disproportionate excitement as one face of a plastic cube (or tetrahedron or dodecahedron) came up instead of another is a tale for another time, a more distant blog. Today I want to discuss how damn alien Dallas felt as a city.

When Dallas was planned, it wasn't designed with pedestrians as a secondary consideration, or even an afterthought; it was designed by someone who believed that the basic unit of humanity is the car. Getting from place to place by car in Dallas is easy, easier than the inner city of Paris or London must be, so if you assume there are only noble car drivers and worthless hobos not worthy of your consideration then the city planning is a success. However if you assume one day a person might want to get from point A to point B on foot, the large stretches of road with no footpaths at all and the seemingly random placement of businesses looks less inspired.

I'm not sure if it is a corollary of the fact that nobody is ever moving slowly enough to appreciate the outside of a building before pulling into the car park, but the buildings in the non-residential areas of Dallas are an ungracious, grudging concession that perhaps the malls, eateries and light industry should be housed in something. The standard seems to be a gravelly pink-brown oblong shape with maybe some narrow windows near the top of the building. On foot, outside these buildings, it feels as though the city is saying "what are you doing outside? Don't you know that people belong inside buildings, where there's air conditioning? At least get in a car where you can watch a movie in the back of the seat in front of you." Even the pubs and restaurants, which have the same level of uniqueness and atmosphere you'd expect in any other city, have great chunks of their personality sucked into the utterly unremarkable buildings in which they are placed.

I am a pedestrian. Don't drive, can't drive. Dallas is the first place I've been under the impression that not being able to drive is an embarrassing pathology rather than a handy skill I should get some day.