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Firstly, regular readers will be delighted to learn that this account will be considerably shorter than the majority of posts on the road trip. It was the longest ‘road” day, 309 miles from Music City USA (Nashville) to the Gateway to the West (St Louis). And, despite driving in four different states, a largely uneventful one.

I kept my promise to finish the sandwich we had had “boxed” in Ole Red’s on Broadway the night before, though, even heated in the microwave, it was much less palatable than it had been twelve hours before.

After a confusing episode over the correct recycling bin in which to place glass, paper, plastic and trash, we left the bungalow at 10am.

 

At first, on the outskirts of Nashville and towards Clarksville, the traffic was heavy, which is a relative term given the emptiness of roads on much of the trip.

We made an early “elevenses” stop at a drive-thru Starbucks near Trenton.

Trucks were our constant companions as we crossed the stateline into Kentucky. Fedex was particularly prominent, at one point four appeared to be travelling in convoy.

Squashed critters and burnt out tyres, unsurprisingly in the light of the poor road surface in places, dotted the hard shoulder.

The temperature gauge approached the mid eighties, despite the scudding clouds. There was a hint of autumn in the changing of the leaves on the trees that stood sentry on either side of the highway.

The bridge over the Red River injected some welcome variety into the endlessly bland scenery.

As we drove deeper into Kentucky, the roads became emptier, and we were back to enjoying them by ourselves for miles on end.

The road signs, always a fascination for me, became the only distractions for dozens of miles.


We had broken the back of the journey by the time we reached Mount Vernon, and our thoughts turned to lunch.

Cracker Barrel had been a regular stop on the two coach trips we had taken in the late nineties, but we had not patronised much in recent years.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is a chain of combined restaurant and gift stores with a Southern country theme. It operates 645 stores in 44 states. Its menu is based on traditional Southern cuisine with appearance and decor designed to resemble an old-fashioned general store, with reasonable prices. We both plumped for an American fried breakfast.

It was clear that the store was already heavily geared up for both Halloween and Christmas.

Kentucky begat Illinois begat Missouri as we entered the environs of St Louis. After three hours of empty roads it came as a shock to encounter the early rush hour hubbub of a major city.

Nevertheless, our trusty Google sat nav delivered us effortlessly to our home for the next three nights in an attractive suburb. In keeping with the diversity of accommodation we had booked on this trip, we were now staying in a bed and breakfast.

I was immediately impressed that the owners, Magretta and Chuck, were politically motivated, as indicated by the placards in the front garden. Chuck, along with amiable dogs, Spike and Haley, gave us a thorough guided tour of the property before we settled into our rooms.

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Although the features in the property were generally old, we were graced with the presence of a whirlpool bath. Most of the time we had been on the road, we had become accustomed to either a short, shallow bath or a shower. This proved quite a challenge, at least for me as I could not help myself sliding around in it once I had negotiated climbing into it in the first place. Application of the jets proved well beyond my capability.

As it had been a relatively long day on the road, we decided to eat in the neighbourhood on our first evening. A ten minute walk found us at the Shaved Duck, where we had a lovely meal, served by a delightful young woman, and with a guitarist playing a gentle blend of folk tunes as accompaniment.

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A slightly longer stroll brought us to the Tick Tock Tavern, a quirky but friendly pub where gin and tonics were only $5 (we had paid as much as $12 in earlier locations).

We had two full days in St Louis with a generally benign weather forecast ahead of us.

 

 

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Continuing the theme of following recommendations from friends who had visited New Orleans before, we took breakfast on our final full day in town at the legendary Brennan’s restaurant on Royal Street. It had undergone a huge renovation in 2014 and been restored to its former 1940s glory.

And a delightful experience it was. Southern hospitality was taken to a new level as we were greeted and served by what was described as a “team” of servers, all of whom could not do enough for us. Moreover, they were dazzled by the details of our road trip.

Although you might not have guessed it from his appearance (a smart suit took the place of a tie-dye shirt), the Maitre D’ was a Deadhead and had seen many of the Dead and Company concerts on their recent summer tour. We agreed that whilst John Mayer was not Jerry Garcia, he was a great interpreter of the music and an amazing blues guitarist.

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The beautiful decor and attentive service were matched by the outstanding food (I had a delicious eggs benedict) and the best coffee we had drunk so far.

As we walked back towards Canal Street we stumbled across the Magnolia Praline Company premises, a vibrant and enticing emporium selling hot sauces and pralines. The murals that adorned the walls were as entertaining as the samples of their produce were mouthwatering.

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We were so enamoured of the hot sauce samples that I posted a photograph of a couple of bottles on Facebook. This led to an order from a restaurant owner in our hometown of Folkestone! Whilst I was only too pleased to buy the two bottles, I did wonder how many t-shirts I would not now be able to purchase because of the increase in weight of our baggage on our return home (only joking, Fiona!).

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But enough of food (for now at least).

The primary objective of the day was to ride the three main streetcar lines, both to experience this quaint and old-fashioned mode of travel (we love riding the cars in San Francisco), and to see other parts of the city at little cost and without wearing ourselves out.

We purchased our “Jazzy Passes” (what a great name) for the exorbitant (sic) cost of $3 each for the day and boarded the Canal Street car bound for City Park.

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Given that they tend to move in a sedate fashion, streetcars nowadays are viewed more as tourist attractions than a way of getting quickly from A to B. But they are redolent of a slower, more graceful age.

They also invariably provide the theatre for some of both the most humorous and unpleasant examples of human behaviour. Our streetcar was no exception as an elderly man contrived to fall through one of the seats, necessitating a visit from a clearly disgruntled driver who insisted, on putting it back together herself.

The fact that New Orleans is technically below sea level, and that deep digging is not permitted in some areas, people are usually buried above ground rather than below. A visit to the city would not, therefore, be complete without a visit to one of the extraordinary cemeteries found throughout.

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The Canal Street car brought us to the Cypress Grove cemetery which we wandered around for an hour. The images here are just a sample of the many stunning tombs, large and small, that inhabited the park. Unfortunately, the spectacular St Louis cemetery appeared to be closed.

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On our return to the city, we had an iced coffee in Starbuck’s in the Sheraton hotel lobby before searching for the nearest St Charles Streetcar which would transport us to the Garden District.

Unlike the Canal Street cars, which ran every couple of minutes, it was immediately apparent that this was a more infrequent service. It was twenty minutes before we were able to board, along with around thirty other people. Fortunately, we managed to get seats. With each succeeding stop, more passengers got on, rendering it a slow and uncomfortable journey to Washington Avenue when we squeezed ourselves through the hordes to get off.

We had had our fill of cemeteries for one day, so decided to walk back to our hotel (a punishing journey in the heat) rather than pay a visit to the famous Lafayette Cemetery that lay in front of us.

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The Garden District, which was developed in 1832 on the Livaudais Plantation, extends over much of the city and was founded by the settlers who built houses and commercial properties here.  Wealthy bankers, merchants and planters built grand mansions surrounding by luxuriant gardens.

As we strolled along this avenue of extravagance and opulence, I could not help feeling a pang of uneasiness that these gorgeous buildings had been in many cases created by slave labour. It would not be the first or last time that this response would, if only momentarily, overcome me on this trip.

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After packing we went out again at 7pm, intending to take the Riverfront Streetcar to the French Quarter. The drizzle that had characterised much of our stay in New Orleans had returned to annoy us again. At least we managed to get under cover for the twenty minute wait for our car.

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And then, as we approached Toulouse Street, only half way on our journey, the driver informed us that, due to some filming going up ahead, we would have to leave the streetcar.

We had planned to eat at the House of Blues on Bourbon Street, but en route we passed, or rather didn’t pass, BB King’s Blues Club, which had been another friend’s recommendation.

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We arrived shortly before the first band ended their set. We sat upstairs with a passable view of the stage as the second band entertained us with a mix of soul and funk. Catfish and shrimp, accompanied by two cocktails, was our final and tasty meal in New Orleans.

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Our first visit to the city was now effectively over. Whilst we had crammed as much was we could into our three days and four nights, there was still much to see and experience. Most great cities need at least a week even to begin to embrace their heart and soul.

We will be back!

But for now, the road beckoned!

 

 

 

 

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A prominent San Francisco property website’s guide to the best sixteen neighborhoods in San Francisco does not feature it.

Only the “Rough Guide” of all of the most popular tourist guide books makes reference to it.

Even the “San Francisco Visitors Planning Guide”, the “Official Guide to the City by the Bay”, fails to regard it as worthy of mention.

Cole Valley, tucked beneath Twin Peaks, close to the south eastern corner of Golden Gate Park and virtually holding hands with the Haight, remains a well-kept secret to visitors and many city dwellers alike.

And that is my excuse for having neglected it too during a dozen visits spanning two decades, aside from one lunch at “Cafe Cole” following a t-shirt safari along Haight Street around three years ago. It never occurred to me to venture just a couple of blocks further south to the bustling but relaxed intersection with Carl Street because, after all, nobody ever advised me I should do so.

Until last month.

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Now, Cole Valley residents might quite like to leave it that way, but I wonder how long it will be before it gains wider recognition and joins the first division of neighborhoods for which San Francisco is noted. I doubt that this modest paeon will have tourists flocking to join the line outside “Zazie” or hike up to the prehistoric feeling Tank Hill, but Cole Valley is beginning to get noticed – and not only by me.

Indeed, within a fortnight of my visit, the “Sacramento Bee” published an article asking whether it might be the “friendliest neighborhood in San Francisco?”

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I rest my case.

Despatched by a combination of the 24 and 7 Muni buses from our Bernal Heights rental cottage on a mild, breezy May morning, my wife and I arrived at the corner of Haight and Cole and set off in pursuit of breakfast.

We were struck immediately by the frequency and availability of public transportation in the area. We were accustomed to riding the buses that served Haight Street, but there seemed to be vehicles crisscrossing the intersection of Carl and Cole almost continually.

Not only did the N Judah light rail rattle past every few minutes, carrying passengers from ballpark to ocean via downtown, but the more prosaic 6, 33, 37 and 43 Muni lines were equally regular sights on the street.

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We had planned to eat at “Zazie”, a famed French restaurant that attracted brunch devotees from all over the Bay Area, but the line, or rather the ragged scrum congregating outside, made it clear that we might have to wait until Tuesday week to bag a table.

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So we opted for our second choice of “Crepes on Cole” which boasted tables free inside – at least when we arrived. We ordered eggs sunny side up with sausage and bacon respectively, accompanied by the customary fried potatoes and the obligatory nod to healthy eating in the form of a slice of fruit. The dish was good, though the eggs might have been warmer. Like (hot) tea, this seems to be a not uncommon issue in the States. We Brits do like our tea to be hot! I regretted not having plumped for my habitual order of Eggs Benedict as it looked especially enticing as plate after plate wafted past. The locals clearly knew something we didn’t!

The “Rough Guide” remarks that there is “little to see or do here other than eat” and the preponderance of cafes and dining places is exceptional for the size of the neighborhood. But I, for one, don’t regard that as a bad thing. The only problem is one of choice. In the space of a couple of blocks, the discerning foodie can eat Italian, Mexican, French and Japanese. And each of the many cafes appeared to offer its own speciality lines (though, sadly, as I write this, the attractive “La Boulange” branch may be about to be closed by its parent company, Starbucks). And the “Ice Cream Bar Soda Fountain” and “Say Cheese” are two of the most celebrated shops of their kind in the Bay Area.

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A relaxed and civilised atmosphere, combined with lovely and diverse architecture and the aforementioned public transport and dining options make this a tempting proposition for us to stay in in the future.

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The streets were relatively flat too!

With one notable exception.

That just happened to be the highlight of our inaugural visit.

That was the sight that befell us at the top of the steps that snaked upwards from the end of Belgrave Street, beneath Sutro Forest or, to give it its mundane official title, the Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve (whose lush vegetation and wildlife we intend to explore on our next visit). As an honorary Bernalite, I had argued for the past two years that the views from the top of its hill of downtown, the bay, the bridges and the surrounding area trumped even those of Twin Peaks, where it seems it is the lot of all first time visitors, including ourselves twenty years ago, to be hauled.

I know that there are advocates for several other peaks, including Buena Vista Park which we had hiked only seven days before. But the panorama that emerged as we climbed those last few steps up to Tank Hill, so named for the late nineteenth century water tank stationed there, was a worthy rival to any. All that remains of that tank is a concrete base adorned with eucalyptus planted to divert the Japanese bombers after Peal Harbor. Among the stunning vistas visible from every vantage point, the best for me was the appearance of a hazy downtown lurking behind the equally dramatic Corona Heights.

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Although the space atop the hill is small enough to fit into a corner of Bernal Heights Hill’s undulating expanse, we were surprised and thrilled to find a vacant bench that virtually teetered over the precipice. In fact, our only companions during our half hour meditation were a couple of youthful Dutch amateur photographers, hopping from one stunning spot to another, and the ubiquitous procession of canines, though they will have been disappointed that the lack of room did not lend itself to off leash frolicking. For one moment, I swore that I witnessed a cherry-headed conure, one of the famed “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”flit by noisily, but I suspect it was a consequence of the romantic reverie I had sunk into.

To the north, the view was dominated by St Ignatius Chatholic Church at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where many of the denizens of Cole Valley either studied or worked.

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Cole Valley’s cosy but smart small town feel is reinforced by the presence of several family owned stores, some reflecting its proximity to Hippie Haight, such as the pharmacy focusing on alternative remedies and “The Sword and Rose” which specialises in oils, crystals and incense and gives tarot and astrology readings. “Cole Hardware” is one of the most popular and well stocked stores (it also boasts a fine backyard nursery) in the Bay Area.

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We had arranged to call in on one of the friends we had made during our last visit, the manager of the “Land of the Sun” store on Haight Street and spend a fortune on her lovely “Summer of Love” merchandise. Reluctantly, therefore, we had to burst through the Cole Street bubble and re-emerge on its earthier, spikier neighbor’s patch.

The line for “Zazie” was, if anything, longer than it had been two hours previously. It occurred to me that we would probably have to find a place to live In Cole Valley if we ever wanted to have any chance of dining there before it closed in mid-afternoon!

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Santa Fe, or indeed any part of New Mexico, had not been in our original itinerary for this trip. But once we had decided to substitute yet more canyons for a spell of sophisticated southwestern slumming, we had looked forward to our visit to the former Spanish and Mexican outpost with particular excitement.

It was also the one day between leaving and returning to Las Vegas two and a half weeks later that did not involve any driving.

After breakfast in the hotel we walked to the adjacent trolley stop as it was too far even for us, toned and shaped though we were from our hiking exploits in Zion, Bryce and the Arches, to walk to downtown along a busy, noisy ring road. Unfortunately, we saw the vehicle roaring past our stop, and on scrutiny of the timetable, the next bus was not due, this being Sunday, for another 45 minutes. Though it was another clear, bright morning, there was a nip to the air, so standing at the stop for that length of time was out of the question.

So we started walking with half an eye over our shoulders for the next trolley, which duly arrived on time. Alighting just off the Plaza in Palace Avenue we collected maps and entered a French patisserie for coffee and a discussion on our itinerary for the day.

One of the most popular and beautiful cities in the U.S., Santa Fe is renowned for its stunning adobe architecture. Originally made by the ancient Puebloans, such buildings were constructed of blocks of mud, cut from the riverbeds and mixed with grass. Built into walls, the bricks were set with a mortar of a similar composition, and then plastered over with mud and straw. There are several fine examples of public buildings constructed in this way in downtown Santa Fe, including the New Mexico Museum of Modern Art.

Although the steady stream of Sunday services prevented us from venturing venturing over the threshold, we took a stroll round the handsome French Romanesque-style St Francis Cathedral. Besides a fine statue of St Francis of Assissi himself, I was impressed with that of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth century Iroquios-Mohawk woman who was scheduled to be canonised in October 2012.

It is not only Santa Fe’s architecture that brings visitors flocking to the city. Few locations in the U.S. can match it for its artistic and cultural scene. Indeed, we came across a number of outdoor art shows, galleries and exhibitions.

We bought some gorgeous western-themed pillowcases and cushion covers from one stall and had another of those extended conversations about our trip with fascinated Americans that were such a feature of it.

The Plaza itself, from which the streets packed with gift and home furnishings stores, cafes, restaurants and galleries spread out, is a lovely space and home to more stalls and public art. The exterior of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the U.S., which runs along one side, is occupied by native americans selling jewelery and other gift items.

Our only reservation about the attractive array of  shops, and one we should not have been altogether surprised about, was that prices were generally high.

After lunch, incongruously you might think in the light of my praise for the Santa Fe dining scene, in Starbuck’s, we took an open-air, single tier trolley tour, which enabled us not only to learn more about the city’s history and many of its most imposing landmarks, but to travel part of the legendary Santa Fe Trail, the nineteenth century transport route that connected Franklin, Missouri with the city, thus opening up the southwest for economic development and settlement.

The tour also included Canyon Road, an artists’ colony that abounded with both open-air and enclosed galleries and workshops as well as attractive restaurants.

The tour, which cost $30, promised “1 hour and 15 minutes of history, sights, stories, and good old-fashioned fun”, certainly delivered on all of those criteria bar the last one. The driver / guide was extremely knowledgeable and informative, but lacked charisma.

After a drink at the Marble Brewery overlooking the Plaza, we returned on foot to Canyon Road for a closer inspection, only to find that most of the galleries were closing. The walk did, however, whet our appetites.

After two successive nights of Tex-Mex food we both craved something different.   The Rooftop Pizzeria in the Santa Fe Arcade on San Francisco Street proved an ideal spot where we were able to watch the sun disappearing over the horizon. Having had the best enchiladas I had ever tasted only two night before, we felt spoilt to be served unequivocally the best pizzas we had ever had, a topping of lobster, shrimp and bacon. We even recommended it to the adjoining table of theatrical locals who were, thankfully, equally impressed.

Another $1 taxi fare back to the El Rey Inn completed a relaxing and enjoyable day. Whilst Santa Fe may not have quite lived up to both our expectations, it had come very close and is somewhere we would wish to explore further.

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After filling up with gas we hightailed outta Hurricane headin’ north to Cedar City on I-15. As we passed the small towns of Browse, Pintura, Snowfield, Kolobo Canyon and New Harmony signs warned “drowsy drivers” to “use next exit”. We  didn’t fit into that category at this point so politely ignored them.

We pulled off at exit 57 for Cedar City, self-styled “Festival City USA” (it does host an annual Shakespeare Festival as well as a music festival so I think it’s entitled), and spotted Starbuck’s where we had a breakfast of bagels and cream cheese and lattés. The incomparable Townes Van Zandt was singing “Pancho and Lefty” as we entered (though, sadly, not in person as he left us at a criminally young age fifteen years ago). On our exit Sting was crooning “every step you make I’ll be watching you”, which was a little more disconcerting.

We drove around Providence Plaza with its incongruous lighthouse (though I believe that there is a link with Rhode Island). I spied a smart looking bookstore entitled Deseret and immediately bounded in. However, it did not take long for me to decipher that this was not a bookstore in which I was likely to find any underground, or even secular, literature. The devotional muzak, clean cut, grinning staff and shelves of Mormon tracts hastened my exit and reminded me that we were still in the heart of Utah.

Turning off the I-15 we took the U-148 towards Panguitch. Despite the heat, the trees in the Dixie National Forest were beginning to show signs of Autumn’s approach.

We arrived at the Cedar Breaks National Monument, a kind of mini-Bryce Canyon, just in time to catch a talk by a park ranger from Akron, Ohio on what to do, or rather not to do, if we met a brown bear on one of the area’s trails. Essentially, it came down to the acronym SCRAP – we shouldn’t stare, call, run, approach or panic – now I think I could make a passable attempt at the first four but might just struggle with the last.

Anyway, should you come across a brown, or for that matter, grizzly bear on your morning commute or during your weekly shop, please bear in mind the advice I have kindly dispensed above. Hopefully, you’ll be as lucky as us and not meet any. But it’s as well to be prepared.

We decided to take the Chessman Ridge Trail, a two and a half mile loop at over 10,000 feet. The altitude caused us to catch our breath intermittently and my heart has never pounded so much – apart from that night with Jennifer Aniston in a motel room in Bakersfield.

Chipmunks nipped in and out of the bushes in front of us, though I was a little disappointed that we didn’t hear a single rendition of Ragtime Cowboy Joe. I’m referring here, of course, to the original band, not the modern team led by Alvin.

A party of local schoolchildren passed us in the opposite direction, and I couldn’t resist warning them to watch out for the bears. But kids are too streetwise these days to be freaked out by such news. I think they felt a little sorry for me. Ah well.

The most alarming moment, however, occurred with less than half of a mile of the trail left when both Janet and I realised that we couldn’t wait to get back to the visitor centre to take a leak. Whilst I resolved my particular issue in one of the many bushes on the side of the trail, Janet felt it necessary to pick a precarious spot on the side of a steep cliff upon which to relieve herself. For those readers of a delicate constitution I will not give any more details other than to say she somehow managed to maintain her balance and dignity (just). Nor do I have any photographic evidence.

Leaving Cedar Breaks we took U-143 towards Panguitch, a lovely road with cedars and pine trees turning yellow and orange almost before our eyes. However, before very long we encountered, as far as the eye could see, hundreds of sheep striding down the road in front of us.

They were clearly intent on crossing from a field on one side of the road to another, but not before they had gone for an afternoon stroll in the middle of the road first. There was no shepherd to be seen and they had little inclination to move out of the road other than in their own good time. Eventually, they dispersed, not least on account of a driver overtaking us and heading at speed for them. Perhaps he was a local and that this was the appropriate way to scatter them, but it seemed cruel and risky to us townies. At least we could now proceed slowly, avoiding the stragglers with ease.

As lunch had been no more than a granola bar at Cedar Breaks we were hungry by mid afternoon and grateful to come across a small restaurant at the Bear Paw Fishing Resort on the  man-made Panguitch Lake. If the hearty food was not welcome enough, the proprietor proceeded to slap a map of the region down on our table and point out a host of potential places to visit in addition to those we had already planned to see. The road trip was getting longer by the day.

What struck us most on approaching Panguitch were the wide roads and number of single storey houses and trailers. We found the New Western Motel easily enough and were pleased to discover that, rather than the single motel room we had expected, we had been placed in a newly refurbished suite with separate lounge and bedroom. Equally surprising was the fact that it was run by Indians – no, not the Navajo, Hopi or Zuni, so prevalent in the southwest, but Hindus.

A much anticipated visit to Bryce Canyon awaited us on the next day.

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Have you ever passed people in the street, or stood behind someone in the queue in a shop, and overheard a snatch of conversation that has intrigued you so much that you wanted to hear more, but could not as they had moved on as quickly as they arrived?

One place in which you may hear hundreds of such snippets in just a single day is the shopping mall, particularly in the build up to Christmas when the numbers of its parishioners escalate.

The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent is the fourth largest in the UK in terms of retail space, and the sixth biggest in Europe. The following quotations were all overheard by myself on a trip there on Monday 19th December. Some are amusing, others intriguing and some just plain weird. The common denominator is that I neither heard what was said before or after – those words, the context in which the comments were made – are lost forever.

Whilst you might be thinking that my behaviour bordered on the creepy side, I should state that acute observation of people is a fundamental requirement for any writer. Moreover, Former Press Secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Moyers, claimed that eavesdropping was the only place in which you could truly “delve into the life of our times”.  And with not one person either casting me a quizzical look or uttering a cross word during this exercise, I must have some talent for it!

I had originally intended to “explain” each comment by reference to the location in which it was made and the gender and approximate age of the speaker. But I think the majority  speak for themselves.

I have confined the number to 20, though I collected many more (which I promise not to inflict on you unless you insist):

1. I’ve got to get one that’s got a slit all the way down.

2. Because my calves are quite big I had to have the zip adjusted last year.

3. I’ve gotta try and find one that hasn’t got that mark on it.

4. Shall we ‘ave a look in ‘ere while we’re ‘ere?

5. Mum, come and look, come and look, they’ve got a Bristol.

6. Billy, you run off one more time and I’ll cancel Santa.

7. Forty five quid? I could make that for a tenner.

8. If I don’t get me money back I’ll kill ’em.

9. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s Southern Comfort ‘e likes, not Jack Daniel’s. 

10. I can’t afford presents like that. I’m at Uni.

11. I bought ‘er some books off Amazon. She don’t read but they were SO cheap.

12. Time for lunch. So what’s it to be – sushi or McDonald’s?

13. Alfie, there’s a spare table over there. Quick, get it!

14. I’ve bought all this lot and I’ve hardly started on my list.

15. Oh…. my…. God, it’s got a Hollister!

16. See, I told ya, Bluewater’s way more poncy than Lakeside.

17. If we keep going we’ll end up outside.

18. After all that, I need Starbuck’s.

19. That’ll do. I can’t be bovvered to look any longer.

20. We can’t go home yet, we’ve still got Mummy’s present to get.

I think a number of those comments would be heard in any other shopping mall in any other town on any other day because, understandably, they reflect many of the preoccupations of modern life – money, obsession with appearance, thraldom to designer names, tainted by desperation in many cases. The only surprising omission was any reference to The X Factor, The Only Way is Essex, and many other alleged celebrity TV showsor what manufactured and over-hyped song would be the Christmas Number 1 – but maybe I just struck lucky.

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I have never been a great fan of Starbucks on the grounds, pun absolutely intended, that I don’t find their coffee strong enough (perhaps I should order something other than latté in future).  I prefer the more astringent taste found in Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee or, even better, a traditional, independent Italian coffee house, though they are becoming, along with corner bookshops and record stores, increasingly hard to find.

That said, I think Starbucks has more to commend it than its core product.  Firstly, it plays the best music, with a lot of classic jazz and blues and a smattering of folk rock.  As I write this in the large branch in Bluewater (Kent), Bob Marley, is singing Three Little Birds, and we’ve just had Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon – a fine playlist in my books.

The company also has a history of selling CDs exclusively from its outlets.  I was lucky enough to stumble across the live One Man Band by James Taylor whilst on a long, lonely road in California a few years back, but sadly missed out on the live Gaslight recording of Dylan because the offer was only available in the US (a long, expensive way to travel for a $10 album, even for Bob).

Then there is the ambience, which is particularly appealing in this branch – massive picture window opening out onto a sparsely populated mall, a casual mix of comfortable armchairs and stiff backed seating, and wooden framed photographs celebrating the coffee making process and posters advertising the latest special offers.

Shelves of packets of tea and coffee, assorted cups and other merchandise are arranged in the corner by a long perspex fronted counter that displays a tantalising array of things to eat, including tuna melt and mature cheddar panini, skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin and roasted chicken with herb mayonnaise sandwich.

I’ll confess that the food in Starbucks is another selling point for me.  My favourite delicacy is the toasted cheese and marmite panini, whilst my wife, who has a decent claim to being a connoisseur on the subject, asserts that the carrot cake is the best anywhere.  This reminds me that, although I usually eschew the (hot) coffee, I cannot resist a coffee flavoured frappuccino, which may actually be the best frozen / cold concoction available in any coffee chain.

With the busy lunch period past, the branch is now half empty.  The muted lighting generated by small, widely dispersed clusters of yellow and blue lamps, the gentle hum of conversation and the unobtrusive yet satisfying music all contribute to a civilised atmosphere.

Opposite me, two new mothers compare breastfeeding strategies, in word rather than deed, which acts as the perfect sleeping pill for their previously irritable daughters.   In the far corner, a gaggle of young shop girls from Zara, Gap and Hollister meet up in their mid afternoon break to slurp strawberries and crème and caramel frappuccinos and relay tales of annoying customers and bossy supervisors, whilst simultaneously maintaining text conversations with their boyfriends.

An elderly couple on an organised coach trip, nibbling at blueberry muffins and sipping “traditional” tea, suspicious of the exoticism of coffee that isn’t instant, bemoan their blistered feet and the cost of everything.  A bald, middle aged man with paunch protruding through ill fitting suit leers over his espresso macchiato at a female employee, and potential lover, young enough to be his daughter yet flattered by his worldly patter (not an entirely civilised scene then).

As my wife approaches (is that solitary slice of carrot cake still available?) I suddenly reflect – I like the ambience, the food, the fairtrade commitment, the music and some of the drinks  – should I not consider rewriting that first sentence?

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