Trains in the Americas

In the early 1990s I did guest research at the University of Washington in Seattle. As it happened, I had friends in Vancouver, BC, not that far away, so a visit was indicated. Therefore I looked up Amtrak in the phone book and called them to ask about tickets. (The first web browser would be made public later that year, and of course it would be much longer before Amtrak had a web presence.) I could hear through the phone how the person at the other end eyed me suspiciously, of course there was no such thing as a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver. I for my part was equally taken aback, how did people then travel? Somehow I found out that if you didn’t have a car (in itself a weird idea) you would go by Greyhound Bus, which of course was an important part of America.

The Greyhound bus station turned out to be indeed populated by people who couldn’t afford a car. Drugs, possibly, but not cars. In the event, there were more travellers than fit on the bus, so we, the OBS, OBCM, and I, had to wait for quite some time for a second bus and a driver to be procured from somewhere before we were on our way. We travelled northwards and eventually stopped at a bus stop in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Apparently our bus had had a mechanical breakdown and we had to wait for yet another bus and driver to be located and ferried up from Seattle. There was a coin phone so I could call our Canadian friends and tell them we would be late. (This was long before mobile phones were common, and in the Americas they didn’t exist at all, as far as I knew.) A new bus did arrive, we boarded and continued our journey. Finally we got to the Canadian border, where we passengers by all means were very rapidly cleared by customs, but our bus turned out not to have a traffic permit in Canada, so now we had to wait for a bus and driver to be ferried down from Vancouver. Eight hours late we finally pulled in at the bus terminal in Vancouver and could call for our friends to come pick us up.

“Oh, good that you are safe, we thought you might have been shot at.”
“Didn’t you know? The Greyhound bus drivers are striking and they’re shooting at the strike breakers.”

Oh. Clearly very many things were different abroad. After our visit we did get safely back to Seattle, but in the future we used one of the competing (Canadian) bus companies.

Now it seems that Amtrak actually has gotten their act together and introduced a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver (and beyond). Interestingly enough the trains are described as ”European style”, whatever that means, say I who have travelled on European trains from Wales to Romania, but admittedly I have not travelled by train in the USA, maybe their trains have some peculiar features that are not present on European trains.

This recollection was triggered by the news that one of these new high-speed trains had derailed outside Tacoma, south of Seattle.



As you may remember, I tried to convince The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to cover Albatross, and while it seems they so far haven’t taken me up on it, Pražského ukulele bandu have:


E.T. (spoilers)

It turned out that neither Honeybuns nor I had actually seen E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial*, so we decided to shell out a few crowns to YouTube and watch it. It was quite interesting.

One thing which I reacted to quite strongly was how obvious it was that several outdoor scenes were shot in an indoors studio. I presume the controlled environment weighed up for the loss of realism to the film-makers.

Another thing was how very 1980s everything was—as if the film makers had gone out of their way to insert period markers, but of course these were just things that happened to be around at the time.

But, and this is quite important, I got a very different impression of the central conflict of the film when compared to reviews and various references I’ve read, and that is that the mysterious Government Authorities in fact are kind and well-meaning. We find that they are quite happy to let Elliott initiate contact and communicate with E.T.—they have Elliott’s house bugged, to be sure, but they stay out of the way and just monitor what happens. Only when E.T. falls ill do they swoop in, and then in a desperate attempt to save E.T.’s life. All through this they are very respectful to E.T., Elliott, and his family.

The chase of the children by police cars is directly caused by two children (Elliott and Michael) stealing a van, driving away and by that endangering the lives of two technicians, who, as far as we can tell, do not at all threaten anyone, but are only interested in getting out of harm’s way, as they are being dragged behind the stolen van. Indeed, as ”Keys”, the leader of the operation, figures out where the children are headed (to reunite E.T. with its kin), it seems the police chase is called off, as there is no further perceived danger.

Further, the aliens are tacitly understood by all to not be a threat. In recent times it’s rather unusual to see a secret(?, we don’t really know, maybe they’re just not very publicly well-known) government agency portrayed so positively.

Then it is rather weird that they apply human-adapted medication to an alien, whose biochemistry they really don’t know anything about at all. It seems that even in a desperate situation it would be likely to cause more damage to do interventions the consequences of which are completely unknown, than just leaving things to their natural course. That E.T. seemingly dies after its bout with…hypothermia(?) and then comes to life again within minutes suggests that its physiology is, indeed, alien.

* I was reminded of a class-mate in secondary school, who, based on the film title, decided that “terrestrial” meant “alien”. That “extra” bit must have been taken by him to mean simply “yet another”…


Alien Stockholm

A few years ago Stockholm City Museum showed the exhibition United Stockholms of America, pictures and stories from the eight Stockholms in USA, all very small towns and hamlets.

It now struck me that surely there must be at least one Stockholm in Canada, and so there is: Stockholm, the seat of government for Fertile Belt No. 183, which gives an immediate idea of the Canadian prairie, about as featureless and sparsely populated as a terraformed area on Tatooine.


Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing

So the bike lane comes up the hill on the left of the pedestrian path, but right here at the zebra crossing, it suddenly switches over to the right side. Presumably the people who did this did not for a second think it would make any difference whatsoever.


Everything is on YouTube

When I made my first visit to the US, this ad came on on the TV and again and again over the following days. The horrific scenario of pre-prepared junk food with soulless activity cards burnt “My Mom’s one busy lady” into my mind, enough for me to look for it on YouTube. What’s possibly worse is that I actually found it – in multiple versions. Other people must also have tried to exorcise the jitters by rewatching the scene.