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Two Museums

On my one full day off, I was absolutely determined to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a world-class museum that is effectively the New York equivalent of the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I spent four hours thoroughly “doing” the Egyptian and Mesopotamian collections, by which time my feet were aching so much that I called it a day and gave the art gallery a miss. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years, and I was very pleased that I braved the subway, and the stiflingly hot walk from Lexington Avenue to Central Park, to get there.

Conversely, the Tenement Museum in New York was just a few blocks away from my hotel. On my last day, I had a free morning before I had to head off to the airport in the afternoon for my flight home. It was too far to head uptown to have another go around The Met, so I decided to stick to attractions very much closer to my hotel.

First, I wanted a decent breakfast. The hotel was undergoing renovations to its kitchen and restaurant, so there was no cooked breakfast available, just bagels, fruit and yoghurt. And for the last week of my stay, not even that – I had been grabbing a pastry from the 7-11 like a true New Yorker! So I asked the hotel where I could get a “proper” American breakfast, and ended up walking three blocks to an old-fashioned New York diner where I had a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. Yum!

Then I waddled three blocks in the other direction and got to the Tenement Museum just as it was opening. As you might guess from the name, it’s based in an old block of tenement flats – so old in fact that it is now the US equivalent of a Historic Listed Building. It is approximately five years older than my cottage!

Shockingly, the entrance fee was the same as for The Met. But whereas The Met’s ticket allowed three consecutive days’ access to world-class art and artefacts, the Tenement Museum allowed me a one hour guided tour of a single floor of the building, in the company of an “educator” who “engaged in conversation” with the punters about the people who used to live there. It was social history brought to life, but in an extremely didactic way.

It was moderately interesting, and the museum had clearly done some thorough research into the life of an immigrant Irish family who had lived in the tenement building for a few years. They had redecorated one of the (tiny) flats to be representative of how it might have looked when the family first moved in, around 1870. Surprisingly, to me at least, it was less of a slum than I had expected – at least at that date. Given the semi-derelict state of the un-renovated rooms, the building clearly went downhill over the next few decades.

The other thing that surprised me was when the “educator” said that many flats in New York were still much the same size as the one in the museum. That had a smallish living room, a tiny kitchen, and one small bedroom. There were renovated tenement blocks all over the Lower East Side neighbourhood, so I suppose that, give or take an indoor bathroom these days, the floor plans would be much the same. That explained why there were so many laundrettes around – at least one every few blocks – as I suppose the flats are just too small to make it worth having a washing machine.

Sussing out the Subway

Because my team and I were working at various locations in New York, we needed to use the Subway to get around. I was, perhaps naively, expecting it to be very similar to the London Underground – but I was wrong. It was much more complicated and we all found it challenging.

There were some aspects that were much better than the Tube. It was significantly cheaper, for a start, with any journey costing $2.75, no matter how long it was or where in the city it started. There was no concept of “zones”, just a flat rate, so a trip to the far end of Brooklyn, which took nearly an hour from our hotel, cost the same as going just one or two stops. And you could get a weekly season ticket for unlimited travel over 7 consecutive days for $33, which is pretty good.

But the Subway system seemed to have been starved of cash and investment compared to London. The transit authority was just beginning to roll out a contactless payment card, and only a few lines had it. Whereas London has had Oyster cards for years. Instead, the MetroCards were just thin bits of card with a magnetic strip on them. They were refillable, but easily damaged – mine got bent so much in two weeks of use that it it was no longer usable. And it would be really hard to use the Subway if you had luggage; there were very few escalators or lifts, just lots of stairs, and I didn’t see any wide entrance/exit gates for people with luggage/pushchairs, just narrow turnstiles. I decided it would be much easier to get a taxi back to the airport on my final day, rather than wrestle my case down the multiple flights of steps and then struggle to get it through the turnstiles on the subway.

But it was the labelling of the stations and trains that really confused us. There are multiple stations with the same name, but on different lines and many blocks apart. There are three different stations called “Canal Street”, for example, serving five lines, but several blocks away from each other. And as well as several stations sharing one name, one station could have two different names! The closest metro station to my hotel was on the corner of Delancey St and Essex Street, and was called by either of those two names, apparently at random.

Once you’d found the right station, it was then a case of getting on a train going where you wanted. That was easier said than done. You would have thought that some maps or graphics would be helpful, showing which stations were served from which platform. Instead, you had to quickly develop a mental map the boroughs of New York. Did you want to go to “Uptown and Queens” or “Downtown and Brooklyn”? The trains seemed to have both their origin and their destination written on the side, so you couldn’t use that to work out which way it was headed. Then there was the whole issue of whether the next train was a “local” or an “express”. The latter doesn’t stop at all stations, but we never worked out how to tell which ones it was missing out. Some trains had electronic boards inside saying what the next station was, but many didn’t. And some stations had helpful electronic boards giving the next few trains and how soon they would arrive, but again many didn’t.

The upshot of all this was that we all took a while getting used to how the subway operated. Several of us got on trains heading in the wrong direction, or failed to get on the correct train because we weren’t convinced it was right, and one of my colleagues had an unanticipated trip to the Bronx, after unwittingly getting on an express train rather than a stopping service. We all ended up downloading an interactive Subway Map app onto our phones, which helped a bit. We would have been even more confused without that!

A Trip to New York

I’ve not posted recently because I’ve been away, spending the last nearly three weeks in New York. It wasn’t a holiday though – I was there on business, participating in the latest round of equipment trials as part of a big multi-national team. It was the most complex field trial I’ve even taken part in, and was very challenging both technically and logistically. As a result, I was working very hard most of the time and got to see very little of New York.

Even so, I saw more of it than last time I was there. That was on our honeymoon – Christopher and I had one day in New York before we headed off for the honeymoon proper. Unfortunately, I’d come down with a horrendous cold and felt really ill. So all I saw was the inside of a hotel room, whilst Christopher got as far as the pharmacy on the corner of the block to buy me tissues and cold cures! So much for our plans to go sightseeing!

This time, even if I hadn’t been working, was too hot for much sightseeing. The city was in the midst of a heat wave, to the extent that the Mayor of New York declared a heat emergency. It was over 40 degrees and very very humid. You felt you were wading through the air, it was so thick. And none of the sites I was working at had air conditioning, so it was very hard work.

Some of my team went out sightseeing in the relative cool of the evenings after work, but I was too exhausted to join them. I did however get to see the fire station from Ghostbusters – we walked past it one lunchtime on our way to rendezvous with our US hosts. I strongly suspect that my team took a circuitous route to get there, in order to visit the fire station, as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on our direct route!

The fire station from Ghostbusters

More bathroom hassle

It’s definite – there has been a significant leak in the so-called “family bathroom”, probably ongoing for over a year. The water seems to have penetrated behind the tiles from the shower, and run down the wall behind the bath, soaking the floorboards underneath. The plumbers have been back, removed the bath, and stripped the tiles off the two affected walls. I’ve now got a dehumidifier in the bathroom to dry out the sodden floorboards – it’s quite amazing how much water it’s been extracting.

I think that most of the floorboards will survive once they’ve dried out thoroughly, but the one closest to the wall will have to be replaced, as it has rotted right through. I’ll also have to have the two affected walls retiled, which is annoying as it’s only a few years since I last had that done. And I’ll need a new bath as well.

The plumbers also moaned about the state of my pipework, which apparently dates back to the 1930s. I’m not surprised – it would be around then that the cottage first got an indoor bathroom. I remember that when Christopher and I first moved in, the hot tap in the bath ran brown from a rusty iron pipe. We had that replaced with a modern plastic one, but left the old copper pipes as they seemed sound. I’ll have to see what the plumbers recommend this time – I want to avoid future leaks if possible, but I see no point in replacing sound pipework just for the sake of it.

Christopher’s Tree 2019

Christopher’s stepfather, Peter, has kindly provided an update on how Christopher’s Tree is getting on at his local Woodland Trust. You can see that they’ve cleared the vegetation behind the tree, so its got a bit more room. It looks to be a flourishing young maple tree. It’s hard to believe sometimes that Christopher died nearly nine years ago, but that’s clearly not a sapling any more.

Therapeutic Throwing

Work has been particularly challenging recently. I’ve been running another equipment trial, the most complex to date, with more bits of kit and more subcontractors than I’ve ever done before. The weather was atrocious, and the roof of the portacabin I was using as a base started leaking – to the extent that I had to rope my customer in to help me place buckets to catch the drips! There was no respite when it was over, either – I’m already bidding to be involved in the next round of trials, and there’s a huge amount of very detailed planning to do.

So I was really pleased when I checked my diary to see that I’d had the foresight to book a session at Eastnor Pottery on Saturday. Throwing pots is a really good de-stressor, and I got through nearly two bags of clay yesterday throwing pot after pot. I turned a number of them into gravy boats – it’s quite satisfying to take a round pot and deliberately deform it into an oval jug. I’ll go back in a few months time to make and fix the handles on them.

I’ve been going to the pottery for over twenty years now, and have watched it develop and grow over the years. When I first started going there, it was largely an artisan pottery which did a few weekend courses on the side. Now they have several employees, plus a succession of apprentices, and offer a range of “pottery experiences” ranging from one hour “throw a single pot” sessions through to hen parties, corporate events, school and children’s sessions, as well as the weekend courses. The Pottery Throwdown programmes a few years back certainly stoked demand, and Jon (or more likely, his wife, Sarah) is an astute enough business person to capitalise on it.

They’ve expanded from just the original studio to add a marquee in the garden for large parties, have put a pottery wheel in the ante-room to the main studio, and most recently they’ve converted the adjacent old storage shed into another studio space (the “potting shed”). So now they can cater for up to four independent groups at a time. It’s perhaps less tranquil than it was twenty years ago, but it’s got the happy bustle of a thriving family-run business. Indeed, Jon and Sarah’s younger son was working there yesterday as a Saturday job. It was good to meet him at last, as I remember Jon taking paternity leave when he was born……

More Dodgy Electrics

The shower isn’t the only electrical problem I’ve been having this week. I got home from work on Wednesday to find that the internet was down. That usually means a call to my ISP, waiting on hold for half an hour, and then asking them to reset the target SNR on my phone line. But this time, when I picked up the phone to call them, I realised that I didn’t have a dial tone. The landline seemed to have gone down. I tried a few simple checks, unplugged the cordless phone and plugged a spare old-fashioned telephone into the master socket. Still nothing.

It’s actually surprisingly difficult to report a line fault to BT when you have neither a phone line or the internet! In the end I dug out an old phone book from the bottom of a cupboard, looked up the fault-line number the old-fashioned way, and called them from my mobile. You have to go through loads of automated menus, which I hate, before you finally get to speak to a person. But the line test that he then carried out showed up clear – it wasn’t the phone line itself that was at fault.

The earliest they could send an engineer out to investigate was today, which meant a whole day without internet access. I hadn’t realised how much I use it until it was taken away! I did work out how to use my phone as a hotspot, but I’m on such a stingy monthly data plan that I was wary of using that too heavily as it would get very expensive. Fortunately, it didn’t take the engineer long to diagnose and fix it once he turned up. He reckons that there must have been a lightning strike during the atrocious storm on Wednesday, as the master socket and the phone were both thoroughly shorted. If it was a lightning strike, I was very lucky that it only took out the phone and not something more critical. Like my roof for example!

He’s installed a new master socket, and my broadband is now back up and is marginally faster than before (though still what the ISP engineer euphemistically calls “very rural”). But I’ve not managed to find anywhere in Malvern that will actually sell me a cordless phone. I bought the last one from Waitrose, but they don’t seem to stock them any more. I bought the one before that from a specialised phone shop that is long closed. And I tried a phone accessory shop that has sprung up recently on the high street and they looked at me as if I was mad. A landline phone? No, they only dealt with mobiles. I could probably have found something from Argos on the out-of-town retail park, but instead have given in and ordered one from Amazon which will arrive tomorrow. Thus helping to ensure the death of the high street…..

Dodgy Electrics

No, I don’t mean the car for once. Though that would also be true – the Mini’s fan and aircon now only work on the top two fan settings, which are extremely noisy and blow a gale. It looks like a dodgy connection at the switch for the settings I prefer to use. Annoying, but hopefully not an MOT failure…..

The house electrics however have been causing distinct problems. The new plumber has been back and installed a replacement electric shower in my en-suite. It’s mostly a back-up for when the main shower in the extension is out of action, but I thought I’d better give it a go. All started well – it’s not a power shower, but has perfectly adequate water pressure. But then, just as I was covered in soap, the electricity cut out and it stopped. The RCD had tripped.

That would have been bad enough if the trip switch for the shower was in the main consumer unit in the kitchen. But for some reason it’s in the meter cupboard, which is outside the back door. I know it seems perverse to complain about having to go outside in the rain to turn the shower back on, when I was wet already. But it was very annoying. And it wasn’t a one-off. The same thing happened when I tried it again the next day – and at pretty much the same point, when I was covered in soap again….. So for now, I have a back-up shower, but it’s only suitable for very quick showers, unless one is prepared to sprint to the meter cupboard to reset it. What a good job I wasn’t trying it out on a day when the gardener or window cleaner was here, or he’d have got an eyeful!


Basic ID security

I booked a holiday recently for later in the year, just another holiday cottage, but through a company I’d not used before. I did it all online, and provided my mobile number.

A few days later I got a call to discuss my booking. All very well, until the caller asked me to confirm the first line of my address before she would go any further.

Hang on a minute. She called me, from a number I didn’t recognise, and which was not the same as the contact number on the holiday company’s website. And now she’s asking me to provide personal information over the phone? She could have been anyone. Next thing I bet she’d have been asking for my credit card details to “complete the booking”.

It was very probably a legitimate call from the holiday company. But on principle I simply don’t ever hand out personal details of any kind to people who call me out of the blue. I would always initiate the call, on a number that I trust. And what was worse was that she didn’t seem to see that there was a potential issue with her protocols.

There is so little data privacy these days that I’m probably fighting a losing battle. But it makes me very cross when companies that ought to know better act in an indistinguishable way from scammers.

Poppies

I am not green-fingered by nature, and neither was Christopher. When we were thinking about buying this cottage, we were very wary about taking on the garden – and rightly so, as we really didn’t know what we were doing. However, one of the last things that Christopher planted in the garden before he fell ill was some oriental poppies. For some reason, they seem to have thrived and come back each year more flamboyant than ever. They’re not exactly neat and tidy, but they certainly are eye-catching!