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Posts Tagged ‘McDonald’s’


The Blues Highway road trip was strictly over as we prepared to leave Chicago. However, a consequence of booking our transatlantic flights via Newark, because the fares were so much cheaper than to either New Orleans, or from Chicago, was that we were able to fit in a bonus forty eight hours in New York City before returning home.

An 8.35am flight from Chicago Midway meant that our single night in the master bedroom was a short but restful one. Despite the early hour, battalions of Southwest aircraft were already transporting passengers around the country.

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We had been to New York several times before, and had visited most of the major attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Empire State Building and the One World Trade Center/Observatory at least once. We had even seen in the New Year there in 2005 after walking the Brooklyn Bridge and having supper in McDonald’s on Broadway at 11pm! For this visit, we decided, therefore, to take it easy (to be fair, after nearly a month away, we were wearied) and spend our time wandering around mid-Manhattan, taking in the vibrant atmosphere of the “world’s capital”.

We had booked the NYLO (New York loft) hotel on the Upper West Side, a part of Manhattan we were not previously familiar with. We arrived at 1pm, and, unsurprisingly, our room was not yet available (the official check in was, after all, three hours later). We left our bags with the concierge and headed out for lunch on a cool, bright afternoon.

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After a light lunch at a local bakery, we walked the five blocks south and three blocks east to the entrance to Central Park alongside the Dakota Apartments, where John Lennon lived, and was shot, on 8th December 1980.

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We were able to witness the plaque that acts as a Garden of Peace along the pathway leading to the Strawberry Fields black and white Imagine mosaic, but we would have had to mow down several dozen, mostly Chinese and Japanese, youngsters to get anywhere near it.

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On the aforementioned visit on New Years Day in 2005 we had taken one of the horse and carriage rides around a segment of the park. There were many in operation this afternoon, and they looked beautiful, but we resisted the temptation to reprise our earlier trip as the cost nearly thirteen years before had been ruinous then.

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After flaking out for half an hour on the Sheep Meadow, scrutinising the ever-changing dance of the clouds above, we strolled through busy Bethesda Terrace to the celebrated Loeb Boathouse for a warming glass of Merlot by the Lake.

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I think a future New York visit might just take in dinner at the elegant restaurant.

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With check-in time at the hotel imminent, we decided to saunter back to our hotel on W 77th Street.

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As we walked along the lovely tree-lined pathway past Shakespeare Garden, there were signs that the Fall (Autumn) was fast approaching (it had seemed far away when we first set foot in the country).

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A beer at the St James Gate Irish pub on W 81st Street punctuated our trek back to the hotel, where we were instantly impressed by the friendliness of the staff on the door, at reception and at the concierge desk.

We had passed the Flying Fisherman on Columbus Avenue and W 73rd Street en route, and resolved to return for dinner. it proved a smart decision as we enjoyed a delightful seafood dinner. I don’t think I had ever eaten such massive prawns!

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Tomorrow, the last full day of the trip, would be more of the same – a leisurely jaunt around mid-Manhattan down to Times Square, with dinner at the Red Lobster (Janet’s choice) in the evening.

 

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Today was our last day on the road. We were due to return the hire car to Dollar at Midway International Airport, and able to check in at the house in Chicago by 4pm.

So there was no rush this morning, enabling us to look around the stores on the site before leaving at a quarter past eleven under grey skies and a chilly 41 degrees. But at least it was dry. We headed east initially on Interstate 74 towards Bloomington where we would turn northwards on the I-55 (Route 66)  in the direction of the Windy City.

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It may have been the absence of rain, or the fact that it was Saturday and there were less trucks in evidence, or maybe just a less populous area, but the roads were much quieter than they had been the previous day. As a result, we were soon approaching Pontiac, where the  the automobile brand of the same name was founded, in search of  our first meal of the day, and the last we would have on the road during the trip.

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Although we passed several McDonald’s on the journey, we were tempted by an Arby’s sign in the distance, so resolved to pull in and have lunch there. Like Cracker Barrel, where we had eaten between Nashville and St. Louis, we hadn’t eaten in an Arby’s since our early years of touring the country by coach.

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Whilst the photograph below might not do it justice, and that one Facebook friend subsequently questioned the company’s hygiene record, my three cheese beef sandwich was delicious. Janet’s turkey based creation was equally welcome. Twice the price of a McDonald’s, but hardly one to clean out our slowly diminishing cash balance.

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Shortly after resuming our journey, warning signs alerted us to the fact that there had been crashes on the I-155 on the approach to Chicago that would necessitate us being diverted. As it happened, the incidents were cleared in sufficient time to keep the delay to our journey to a minimum.

Indeed, the highlights of the remainder of the drive were those fascinating signs hung high above the road, especially in built-up areas. If someone would like to pay me to criss-cross the United States for a year, I am convinced that I would be able to produce a riveting tome containing some of the most outlandish signs.

Many of them provide a fascinating insight into American society and culture.

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For the first time on the trip, there were tell tale signs that we were entering a more heavily industrialised area.

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And constant reminders that we had rarely strayed from the Mother Road on our last two days.

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A condition of our car hire agreement was that we had to return the vehicle with a full tank of gas (the alternative would be to pay an astronomical additional amount at the end).

After driving around the area for about ten minutes in search of a suitable gas station, the deed was done and we set off for the Dollar car hire garage at Midway Airport.

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We handed over our Texas registered SUV with no issue before staggering (well, I was staggering as I had responsibility for the larger cases) over to the spot at the terminal where our Dollar representative had advised us we could pick up an Uber.

Not as simple as it sounds.

Firstly, Janet discovered that she had left her driving glasses in the car. When she returned to the garage, she was informed that it had already been transferred to valeting. Anyway, she managed to collect them eventually, only to be told by me that, in the meantime, I had realised that I had left my new phone charger in the car too!

No second expedition to locate the car again. The charger was somebody else’s property now.

Time to call the Uber. We were now in danger of checking in after our planned 4pm arrival time.

The first Uber driver, after appearing to get further away, rather than nearer, to where we were standing, then rejected the fare, leaving us to order another.

The second driver, Samson, then rang us to inform us that he was not allowed to enter the terminal without paying  to park (for all of a minute), meaning that we would have to walk (remember who had the heavy load, dear reader) several hundred yards to meet him outside the car park entrance.

After ten minutes and many expletives on my part, we connected up with Samson who then drove into the car park, sweet talked himself out of paying $2 for thirty seconds  “parking” and we were on our way.

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The decision not to drive once we had reached Chicago was immediately vindicated. The roads were frightening. But, aside from negotiating us through the horrendous traffic, Samson was a charming companion for the half an hour it took to deliver us to our home for the next four nights.

We met the agent, Jerry, who showed us round the property, including the extraordinary rooftop terrace which had good views of the downtown skyline………and an amazing church!

Shortly after we had settled in, and Janet had put the first load of washing in, our housemates for the next three nights, Jerry and Alicia, and their two sons, Aiden aged ten and Ely three, pulled up outside in their rental people carrier.

We had first met Jerry and Alicia four years before when we entered our favourite hippie store, Land of the Sun, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. We spent that evening in the Great American Music Hall eating fish and chips and watching Dark Star Orchestra reprise a legendary Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1969.

Since then, we have got together whenever we visited San Francisco, visiting their home in Petaluma, attending football and baseball games as well as other gigs, and even spending Halloween together last year. And in May, Alicia stayed with us in Folkestone.

We were all hungry, so made it a priority to find somewhere to eat. There were several restaurants within a few hundred yards of the house, and once we had eliminated those that had a BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze) notice on their window, we plumped for an excellent Thai restaurant.

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On our return to the house, Jerry and I wentto the local Kroger supermarket to purchase provisions for our stay. This went well apart from the moment when, pushing the trolley (which was clearly faulty), I careered into a display promoting red wine, smashing one bottle and spilling its contents over my new cowboy boots.

Even though I was excused payment I was distraught! Fortunately, there was no lasting damage.

Aiden and Ely in particular had made themselves at home, ransacking the boxes of toys, especially miniature cars, they had found in the play room and gleefully running around the rooftop terrace as the sun set.

The weather forecast for the next two days, which we were to share with our San Francisco family, was looking good.

And we had plans!

 

 

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Within five minutes of the aforementioned photoshoot on the staircase at Magretta and Chuck’s Forget-Me-Knot bed and breakfast in St. Louis, Missouri, we were back on the road in a light drizzle that evolved quickly into driving rain. With a cool, strong breeze blowing too, it was undeniable that we weren’t in Louisiana anymore.

The dramatic temperature change even prompted us to ditch the car’s air conditioning for the heating!

We were both a little weary and lethargic this morning, a not uncommon feeling at this three-quarter point in a month long vacation. But spending a few days with our San Francisco friends and their two sons, who were joining us in Chicago, would no doubt re-energise us.

It was still the tail end of the rush hour, so driving was more challenging than it had been for the southern leg of the trip.

Another phenomenon that we had not experienced before – roadworks – slowed us down still further on I-55 (also Route 66), though we never reached the type of standstill that is a daily occurrence on the major motorways of the U.K.

At Litchfield we filled up on gas, the penultimate time we would need to do this before returning the car at Midway Airport in Chicago tomorrow.

Endless fields of corn and barns dominated the landscape.

I had remarked in a previous chapter that, even when the scenery might be bland for hundreds of miles, the directional and promotional signs that dot the highways of the United States are always a good read.

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Our history professor at the breakfast table earlier had self-disparagingly claimed his home state had little to commend it other than its connection to Abraham Lincoln.

And we were reminded of that on a number of occasions on the roadside.

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We had set out with the intention of visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, but the dismal weather, and relatively slow progress, prompted us to decide to drive on to our destination, with only a brief stop near Chatham where we had McMuffins (for the last time) and coffee for the ludicrously low price of $7.49.

Arriving a little earlier in Peoria would also enable us to rearrange the suitcases as it would be the last opportunity to do so before our next flight (from Chicago to New York).

And for me to catch up on the blog!

We arrived at our Motel 6 (the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip at only $60 (£46) for the night), as the rain finally relented.

It was located in a typically American roadside complex of gas stations, a variety of stores and a handful of modest eating places, one of which, amidst the fast food outlets, was the fantastic Biaggi’s.

We had been disappointed on our last evening in St. Louis that we could not have the classy Italian we had craved, so to discover such an elegant establishment in such an unexpected place was a delight.

Our only reservation was having to endure the barman ‘s pretentious descriptions  of the dozens of exotic craft beers he was willing to dispense. It almost made me pine for  the days when all you could get was a Bud or Coors!

Tomorrow would be the last day on the road.

And, as if to complete the set of different types of accommodation we had stayed at, we would have a whole three bedroomed house at our disposal!

Folkestone meets San Francisco in Chicago!

 

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Back on the road today.

Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk – we had experienced them all in the first ten days of the trip, And we had travelled in a south-north direction, driving or, on occasions, skirting Highway 61.

But now, we were not only switching the musical focus to country, but taking a two hundred and ten mile detour eastward to Nashville.

We left our East Memphis house on a warm, partly cloudy morning with the temperature gauge in the car already touching ninety. Once we had settled onto Interstate 40, our companion for the journey, the traffic lightened and the straight roads with forested trees either side that we had become accustomed to in recent days, resumed their natural position.

We filled the car with gas for the second time on the trip, taking the cost so far to $56 (we had picked it up in New Orleans with a full tank, and we’re required to return it in the same state i..e. full, not in Louisiana).

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As we approached Jackson, the first town of any real significance, and were looking for an attraction to break the journey (we were nearly half way), we came across Casey Jones Village which marketed itself as the “best whistle stop between Memphis and Nashville” and officially one of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions.

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The extensive complex contained an Old Country Store, a restaurant, nostalgic gift shoppe, an 1890’s Ice Cream Parlor & Fudge Shoppe, the Dixie Cafe Takeout or Dine-In, a village baker’s, a village chapel and many other features.

In addition, it was home to the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, which commemorated the legendary railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and who was killed on 30th April 1900, when his train collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughan Mississippi. His spectacular death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a national hero.

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He was subsequently immortalised in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the railroad. It had first come to my attention when, as a small boy in the late fifties several thousand miles away, I sat spellbound by the television programme starring Alan Hale Jnr.

Around fifteen years later I learned a different account of the incident from rock band, the Grateful Dead, with the drug-riddled refrain “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed”.

I still prefer that version!

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John Luther Jones was particularly famous for the manner in which he tooted his train whistle on “Old 382” Engine. Visitors can climb aboard the replica inn the museum and perform that act themselves.

At the time of his death, Jones was living in the house pictured below, which we were also able to explore.

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We spent a pleasant hour walking around the village, but, even though it was lunchtime by now, the food on offer in the restaurant was not to our liking.

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We returned to the road in pursuit of coffee and eats. But we were not hungry enough to be tempted by the regular sight of roadkill.

Our salvation, not for the first or last time on the trip, proved to be………yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s (we were to eat here more often in a fortnight than we had in thirty years),

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We encountered more traffic, especially trucks, on this stretch than we had done before, though the fact that the road had only two lanes, and it was Friday afternoon, might have contributed to that.

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Another phenomenon that occurred to us for the first time today were the strong “southern” accents of everyone we came into contact with.

At the risk of offending (I don’t mean to) Tennesseans, the intonation was reminiscent of the British comedian, Benny Hill’s, character on his television show in the seventies and eighties, when he performed a sketch about ‘teddy bear’s chair”. I can never hear a southern accent without recollecting that performance.

But then if any American is upset by this, I will just mention three words………….Dick Van Dyke.

You know what I mean, y’all.

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As Nashville got closer, the traffic, especially, got much heavier. But we safely negotiated it and located our artist’s bungalow in East Nashville, booked through Airbnb,  without difficulty.

We were staying in a variety of different properties on the trip. Starting off in a classy hotel in New Orleans, we had spent the subsequent nights on the road in modest motels before residing in a suburban house in Memphis. We were living for the next four nights in a bungalow in the back garden, next to the garage, of our hosts’ family home.

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It was clear on our arrival that some of the home comforts we had enjoyed in New Orleans and Memphis in particular would not be available to us in our temporary Nashville home.

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Our only cooking facilities, for example, were a kettle and basic microwave, as well as a refrigerator. We drove to the local supermarket to buy some basic provisions, including potatoes, salad, cheese, ham and avocado that made up a presentable jacket potato.

And, our spirits were not going to be quashed. Tomorrow, we would begin to investigate the home of country music.

And it would be my birthday!

 

 

 

 

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Our second day on the road was a quiet and uneventful one. Consequently, I will give a blessedly shorter account than usual (well, that’s what I say at the beginning of it).

Besides, it was Sunday too, so I’ll keep this all quiet and peaceful like, y’all.

Breakfast in the room was included in our Juliet hotel tariff, which made a pleasant change to our early morning routine. Unfortunately, the weather was not as accommodating as we left in that light drizzle we had become accustomed to over the past few days. But when we left, the temperature was still in the low eighties.

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We made two false starts as the windscreen was greasy and it took several ingenious attempts to clear it. A4 printer paper did the trick, and we finally left the environs of Lafayette at 10.30am.

One of the fascinating aspects of driving in the USA is the preponderance of massive roadside signs, advertising everything from hotels, restaurants, casinos, gas stations, people running for political office and, of course, in this part of the country, extolling the virtue of having Christ in your life.

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And then there are the churches themselves, principally Baptist and Pentecostal, many of which pop up from nowhere with their immaculate, well scrubbed exteriors and attached cemeteries on a much more modest scale than those we had wandered among in New Orleans.

Some are so small that the congregation could not be more than a couple of dozen. We speculated, however, that, on this late Sunday morning, they would be packed with worshippers.

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Aside from those signs, we had very little company on the road (perhaps everyone was in church).

We drove through miles of bullet (unfortunate use of language in this part of the country, sorry), straight road with grass verges on either side, watched over by woods and forest. An occasional vehicle came into view and disappeared as quickly again.

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We slowed down as we drove through Baton Rouge for fear of waking it up (though last night’s football victory might have done the job for us).

Our intention on this trip had been to spend as much time on the (‘Blues”) Highway  61 as possible. Our sat nav, however, had taken us up Highway 19 at the intersection of both roads at Baker, and we were required, unless we were to turn back, to continue to Centreville where we could turn west to return to the 61.

Small towns with names as exotic as Slaughter (back to the bullet theme), Zachary and Ethel passed by in a blink of an eye.

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We crossed into Mississippi, annoyingly missing the large welcome sign, and sought sustenance at a roadside McDonald’s just south of Natchez.

Although it didn’t have the high tech booking system that we had marvelled at the previously day, the restaurant was clean, colourful – and “minimalist”, as remarked upon by a Facebook friend at the time.

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We didn’t believe that we could pay less than yesterday for our lunch, but the bill below cannot lie.

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We pulled in to the Vicksburg Best Western hotel at 3.15pm as planned, affording me the opportunity to complete a blog piece before dinner.

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In keeping with the “rubbish” food theory I expounded in the previous article, we refrained from negotiating the hair-raising road intersection to get to a Mexican or barbecue restaurant, deciding to walk the two hundred metres to the Waffle House. 

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I did not expect my Steak ‘n’ Eggs to warrant any Michelin stars, and although there was some gristle in the steak, it was cooked to my requirements and was edible.

And cheap!

We rounded it off with yoghurts bought from the supermarket next door.

And we went the whole day without alcohol!

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Although we had already spent four nights in Louisiana, the road trip only began in earnest on Saturday morning as we queued up for our booked hire car at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I say “queued” because that is what we had invariably been obliged to do on most occasions in the past.

But not this morning.

The most extraordinary thing about the rapid transaction was that we weren’t offered an upgrade from our standard SUV (which we were more than happy with anyway).

We were on the I-10 heading towards our halfway pit stop in Baton Rouge within minutes under a leaden sky.

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And yes, we were Texans for the next two weeks!

After the customary familiarisation with the car’s controls, it was time for the all important search for the Grateful Dead Channel on Sirius XM. It took a while, but once we had safely negotiated our way through all the Hip Hop, Sports and Christian channels, not to mention right wing”shock jocks, we were able to “settle down easy” with our favourite station.

We had not had breakfast, so planned on finding a roadside eatery between New Orleans and Louisiana. That was easier said than done. We left the road at at La Place and Gramercy Lutcher to follow the signs to the “services”, but on both occasions found ourselves driving several miles with no Subway or McDonald’s in sight!

We did, however, pop into the Gatorville Cajun Village which boasted several exhibits and stores dedicated to……well, you guessed it, Cajun culture. There was an attractive looking restaurant which offered breakfast, but the line to even sign up, let alone get in, was too long.

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Eventually, at Donaldsville, we pulled outside McDonald’s.

Now, this is where I insert rule number one about taking a road trip. You are only allowed to eat cheap, “rubbish” food. No more of them fancy oyster things, or crawfish, or even jambalaya, but proper “rubbish” food.

Egg McMuffins and coffee were the order of the day, and although they were smaller, disappearing in a couple of bites, than i recall from when I last had one in the previous century, they “filled a hole”.

And, boy, was it cheap. Whereas, with tip, we had spent $80 on breakfast in Brennan’s in new Orleans the previous morning, We had been impressed too with the standalone digital ordering screens that greeted us. Our meal was, however, deliver by a member of the human race, and a pleasant one at that.

We arrived in Baton Rouge, the state capital, at lunchtime and were astonished to find so few people about the streets. Of those that were wandering aimlessly about, most were wearing either Ole Miss Rebels or LSU Tigers football colours. They were due to take up arms against each other that evening (they had a long wait). For the record, the home team, LSU, won convincingly 45-16, so perhaps Baton Rouge came alive then.

But it was clearly an important city as it had not one, but two, state capital buildings. The Old State Capital below was certainly the more architecturally appealing.

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The absence of traffic as well as people made it all the easier for us to take a stroll around the riverfront and downtown areas. Janet did, however, come across a couple of old timers who willingly posed for a photo with her and their pride and joy.

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Baking heat and unforgiving pavements made the amble around the Spanish Town more arduous than it might have been, but there were some beautiful homes to drool over.

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With Halloween at the end of the month, we were increasingly coming across houses decorated for the occasion.

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We left tranquil Baton Rouge for Lafayette in western Louisiana, arriving half an hour before the scheduled check in of 3pm.

We had selected Lafayette over Baton Rouge as our first overnight stop because the town is regarded as the place of pilgrimage for lovers of Cajun and Zydeco music, a raucous fusion of blues, rhythm and blues and African-derived styles which makes much use of fiddle and accordion.

And remember, this whole trip was about the music.

In particular, the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House, a few hundred yards from our hotel, is renowned throughout the world as the best venue to witness live music in this style. It is also a youth hostel, described by its owners as “a home-grown honky-tonk where all kinds and sizes are welcome”.

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With tonight’s gig at the Blue Moon not scheduled to start until 9pm, we were not planning to eat until around 7.30pm. So, as Pooh would have so eloquently put it, it was “time for a little something”.

One southern “delicacy” that we had still not sampled was a Po’ boy, a traditional sandwich from Louisiana. Given their size, it would have been uncharacteristically greedy had we consumed a full one, so I plumped for a half-sized version of the Crawfish Boil Sausage Po’ boy.

Delicious.

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We ate at the Sainte Marie restaurant, where we shared another popular dish of the region, fried green tomatoes (with shrimps), which, needless to say, we’re scrumptious. I followed up with crawfish étouffée, a thick soup-like dish with rice. Not only was the food outstanding, but our young server, Taylor, kept us enthralled with her energy and attentiveness,

And now to the reason why we were in Lafayette – the music at the Blue Moon.

After paying our $10 cover charge, we took up our seats on a back bench (the place is essentially a shack), and ordered our drinks. Everyone there was drinking out of plastic glasses, but for some reason, the barman, rather conspiratorially, explained to me that I could have a real glass for Janet’s gin and tonic, provided she “looked after it all evening and didn’t break it”. A whiff of that voodoo atmosphere we encountered in New Orleans returned to haunt me.

The music was great, though the second band did not come on stage until nearly midnight. And the evening wasn’t wholly satisfactory.

It appeared that the event was being used as an excuse for a school or college reunion, as a large group of twenty somethings appeared more interested in catching up with each other, and doing a lot of hugging, than engaging with the music.

And I could write another piece on the personal and sexual politics that were being played out before our eyes while we tried to peer over their heads to see the bands!

But it was an experience.

 

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It is 10am on a bright, brisk market day morning in March in a town in the south of England.  I order a decaffeinated skinny latté from an eager young man in the one cafe that does not reek of grease, and take a seat outside.

On his way out to me the trainee barista trips over a discarded beer can and spills the coffee over the pavement.  He apologises and returns to mop it up, but fails to offer me another cup, and then is visibly irritated when, wholly unreasonably, I request a fresh one. That said, he brings a prompt replacement, seasoned with a further apology.

From the doubtful comfort of my three and a half legged plastic chair I scan the establishments around me – “Nails Palace – Professional Nail Care for Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Cash Generator – the Buy, Sell and Loan Store”, “Tanning Heaven”, “Tattoo xxxxxx Ltd”, “Cheques Cashed”, “We buy Gold – any Condition”, “Residential lettings”, “Betfred” bookmakers and the “Community Store”, run by the Salvation Army and offering “Heart to God, Hand to Man”.

“Eel Pie Island”, which specialises in  all day breakfasts, announces itself in large, yellow lettering to be a “Caf’e” (I doubt the apostrophe police saw that one coming). Upstairs is a dental surgery which, somehow, seems appropriate.

The “Hot 4 U Pizza, Chicken and Kebab” shop is closed, victim of too much competition in the fast food field, proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Breakfast for those not crammed into McDonald’s consists of sausage and bacon rolls and fresh cream puffs. Obesity seems a badge of honour.

The traditional gentleman’s barber shop is missing his iconic red and white striped pole. Nothing for the weekend here.

The local pub is also boarded up. A ragged, handwritten paper sign flaps in the light breeze. Somebody has inserted an “i” between the words “to” and “let”.

The compensation culture is in full swing. The frontage of the “Claim Shop” is emblazoned with a huge sign proclaiming “have you been involved in an ACCIDENT or suffered an INJURY through no fault of your own!!!”.

A council street cleaner fights a losing battle with bottles, cans, and food packaging, strewn over benches and pavement.  On the opposite side of the road a modern day Steptoe proceeds in stiff but stately fashion along the pedestrianised street, peering professionally in all directions for unwanted morsels.

The air reverberates in a veritable Babel. English is spoken, or rather shouted, liberally infused with swear words, but it is no more heard than is Polish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish or Punjabi.

Young gap-toothed men wearing baseball caps or hoods and gripping cans of super strength, but astonishingly cheap, lager, swagger past, trailed by tattooed teenage mothers already carrying their next child, barking at their toddlers who are committing the heinous crime of  being  ……………….. children.

As the weather is uncommonly mild, plain white vests, accompanied by sometimes matching sweat pants, appear to be the dress code of choice, at least for the men. Whilst this might be an attractive look on a young man with taut muscles in the right places, it does not sit well with balding, unshaven, middle aged men, stomachs bursting from a diet of gassy beer and burgers. Bare arms are bedecked with body art depicting snakes, eagles and pseudo-oriental slogans.

Their Staffordshire bull terriers, acquired for menace, encircle each other, doing nothing more threatening than sniffing at each other’s private parts.

And yet, I am observed quizzically, even suspiciously, by passers-by with my fancy coffee, book for reading and, especially, notebook and pen desperately trying to capture the vivid images around me.

The young mums congregate outside Gregg’s and Iceland to share a cigarette, compare frilly pram and buggy decorations and show off the clothes they have just bought for Bailey and Madison in Primark. As the conversation turns to X Factor and piercings, their progeny become increasingly testy, provoking screeching admonitions to “shut up…… now”.

Shoppers seek bargains in the many charity shops, notably Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam, British Heart Foundation and Demelza (for children in hospice care), but the upstart 97p conv£nience store has recently closed, sent packing by the more established and cavernous 99p emporium.

In the bustling market the stalls selling inexpensive imitation leather jackets, shell suits and sweatshirts are doing a good trade.  Following close behind are those offering household goods and toys, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, rugs and carpets, curtains, handbags, purses and luggage – the selling point in every category being cheapness.

Country crooners from the fifties dominate the airwaves from the two stalls specialising in CDs and DVDs. A local driving school and the RAC try to rein in passers by, but most people here do not drive. Surrounded by fast food outlets, the centrally positioned greengrocer is still highly popular, as is the plant stall.

The meat wagon man is not so successful despite his saucy entreaties to “come on girls, don’t be shy, give my lovely meat a try”. A further invitation to feel his pork loins goes similarly unheeded. Despite his impressive discounts, a middle aged couple try to barter with him to no avail – another sale lost.

An octogenarian sea dog (this is a naval town, after all), dressed in a tweed jacket and waistcoat that displays several medals, shuffles past pushing a shopping trolley. Woe betide anyone who gets in his way, for a wheezy verbal volley and a clip from his walking stick will befall them. He sports a flourishing white beard reminiscent of Uncle Albert’s in the TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

A slowly warming sun glints through the trees as I drain my latté and head for The Works in the hope of picking up a bargain book to add to the already overstocked shelves at home.

Florence this is not. Nor is it Bath or Edinburgh. But it is a area of contrasts. Despite having some of the worst school exam results in the country it boasts four universities, and the local sports centre has been refurbished and rebranded as an Olympic training venue.

If the picture I have portrayed here only depicts one side of that, it is because that is what I see on this March Monday morning.

And, as someone infinitely more eloquent than I said “it’s alright ma – it’s life and life only”.

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