Natural High at the Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu

Flying makes me nervous. Not to the extent that it stops me from getting on a plane, but a stiff drink beforehand is required regardless of time of day. And while the kids are still young enough to find the thrills and spills of violent turbulence hysterically funny, I have to contain a rather different kind of hysteria by constantly reviewing the balance of probabilities, scouring the faces of cabin crew for any signs of concern and testing the compressive strength of my arm rests.

Hot air ballooning is an entirely different experience for me, however, as I discovered when Jenni and I took our maiden flight in the Dubai desert last year. Oddly, the low-tech mechanics, together with exposure and surrender to the elements somehow banished any nightmare scenarios, making way for a sense of languorous, antiquated adventure. So I’m quite looking forward to the International Balloon Festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, some 20 minutes from Montreal where we’ve been spending a few days. It’s an annual event that includes fairground rides and a large concert venue (Mika, The Wanted and Carly Rae Jepsen are among the performers this year), but it’s also an opportunity for a balloon ride, with over a hundred flights at dawn and dusk for nine days straight.

My youngest isn’t tall enough yet. I’m not sure if this is a safety issue or just because there’s little point if you can’t see over the top of the basket, but either way I’ll be taking Stanley for his first flight, while Jenni remains with Carla on terra firma.

It takes a team of six about an hour to unload, unpack and inflate the canopy, while all around there are dozens of others at various stages of the process, feeding into a continuous stream of ascending balloons.

I sense a crescendo of foreboding in Stanley as preparations for take-off conclude, and by the time we’re in the basket it’s clear that he has simply resigned himself to certain death.

Passive resignation turns to quivering embrace when our basket lifts off and buffets against another inflating canopy, but once we’re a few hundred feet up, Stanley takes a backwards peek and his anxiety palpably melts away.

We don’t feel the wind, because we are moving with it. In fact, we don’t feel any motion at all. It’s as if we are perfectly still and it’s the earth below that’s dragging by, receding further with every roaring flame that breaks the silence.

For over an hour we point things out to each other, inevitably succumbing to clichés about ants and toys, and spot other balloons around us that caught our eye before we took off.

The pilot speaks very little English, and I clearly didn’t pay attention when we covered hot air ballooning vocabulary in French class, but I do manage to establish that he can’t steer the balloon at all. All he can do is go up or down and let the chase team with the SUV and trailer know where he thinks he’s going to end up.

With the sun setting, the time comes to land. I say ‘land’, but you can’t really ‘land’ a balloon; you just have to crash it as gently as possible.  Ours is a comparatively soft impact, with minimal bouncing and scraping, but I haven’t prepared Stanley for this bit and it’s his least favourite part of the experience. He finds the subsequent efforts of others, however, far more entertaining…and even more so when they clip trees or tip the basket with people still in it.

The chase team pack the balloon up into their trailer and drive us back to the festival. By the time the family is reunited night has fallen, and the dazzling fairground rides and live music are in full swing.

When Carla’s grown another six inches, we might just have to come back.

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Cowboys and Injuries in the Arizona Desert – a Family Vacation

We had decided on the road trip through California. While catching up with admin that I really should have completed during the day, Jenni spends several evenings mapping routes, researching the pros and cons of taking a convertible versus an RV, and deciding what we should or shouldn’t include along the way. But the more progress she makes, the less enthused I feel about the whole idea. Fortunately, just as Jenni is consulting me on the finer details prior to making bookings, I’m able to put my doubts into words.

I explain that living in Florida means making significant car journeys to do pretty much anything. Back in England, I walked the kids to school and ambled into town to pick things up as and when we needed them, so we spent maybe a couple of hours a week in the car. Here it’s more like 15. What’s more, experience suggests that the average Wonder of the World (natural or man-made) only distracts the kids from their desire for electronic entertainment for about half an hour, tops. That might be a sad indictment of kids today – okay, my parenting – that’s crying out to be challenged, but we’re trying to organize a fun vacation here, not make gruelingly transformative reality TV.

Activities are what we need. Things we haven’t done before, things we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in England, and things we might carry on doing if we like them. A photo of Jenni’s thousand-mile stare might have been appropriate at this point but, being the empathetic type, I think better of whipping out the camera.

To cut a long story short (new brief / new browser tab / new search), our destination is now Tanque Verde, a 60,000 acre ‘dude ranch’ just east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s centered on horseback riding, which none of us have done before, and we’re booked in for eight days. Other onsite activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing and tennis are also on offer. Even though it’s the largest and one of the best reviewed ranches in North America, our choice still elicits a now customary look of disbelief from our American friends. This time it’s because nobody goes to the Arizona desert in July, on account of the temperatures soaring above 100°F. But we do, dammit, because it’s already over 90°F in Florida and it’ll be a dry heat, which will make all the difference. In any case, we’ve gone and booked it now.

sonoran desert

Image credit: Matt Ottosen

Our casita has a stunning view of the Sonoran desert, making up for the lack of television. Well, that’s what I tell my skeptical children on the first day, anyway. The subject never arises again though, because the early starts and daily program exhaust us to the point where we’re ready to retire as soon as we return to our lodgings each evening.

Riding is so tiring because, like most creatures, horses are as lazy as they can get away with being. They know when they have an inexperienced rider on their back and are literally unmoved by how much has been spent on the Stetson and cowboy boots. When a wrangler yells at me to kick my horse ‘like it’s a red-headed stepchild’ to distract it from eating some dried-out shrubbery, I dread to think what it’s going to take to actually get the beast to walk, trot or lope in accordance with my rapidly buckling will.

More out of frustration than anything, I do summon up the courage to kick the bejesus out of my steed and things get much easier very quickly. The basics of western-style riding are straightforward, and everything I’m taught to do I can remember seeing in some cowboy movie or other, which somehow makes the whole experience that much more satisfying. The rest of the family take to riding as well as I do, though the flapping pink boots of a four-year old must surely be irrelevant to the obedience of Carla’s horse, which is merely responding to the verbal cues of a nearby wrangler, right? Yes, that must be it.

Once I get the hang of it I’m deftly steering my four-legged friend ‘Buckshot’ around the cacti, some of which have grown enormous through hundreds of years of growth. I look down on the occasional rattlesnake and jackrabbit, up at the scattered eagles gliding on thermals in a cloudless sky, or off at the stately Rincon Mountains in the distance, and I find myself taking in the whole sensory experience as completely as I can, knowing that it’s one I’ll want to recall vividly.

As well as gaining hands-on practical experience, we’re also taught a great deal by the wranglers by way of instruction and observation on the trail, or explanation and demonstration back in the corral at sunset.

And then there’s the fishing…

This isn’t our first attempt at fishing, but it’s by far our most successful. Assisted by a lake teeming with bluegill sunfish, Stanley is proud of his 13 catches inside an hour, and I’m equally proud of my outstanding bravery in squeezing each of his flippity quarry long enough to unhook it and throw it back in.

One of the advantages of coming here in low season is that there’s no waiting for anything, such as food, drink, horses etc. and there’s always space in the group activities. Jenni & I decide to have a go on mountain bikes. The kids are too young for this and so they’re off on horses while we’re taken out with another couple by Mike, our instructor, for a gentle introduction to the sport. I enjoy it so much I sign up for another session the following day, while Jenni opts to read a good book instead.

This time I’m the only one to show up. Great…one-on-one training! We start where we left off yesterday, move on to a pump track and proceed to some increasingly challenging ‘dips’, all of which I accomplish with aplomb. Then Mike stops at the edge (‘precipice’ might be a better word) of what they call ‘CB Hill’. He stresses that it’s optional; we could just turn back. He goes on to explain how to tackle it and asks if I ‘want to go for it’. ‘Sure’ I reply, unthinkingly. Before I can change my answer, Mike launches himself over the edge, hurtling down and then up the sides of this mini-ravine before vanishing over the next ridge where he is presumably waiting for me.

I stare into this rocky, sandy, cactussy abyss for a full two minutes, getting all ‘you only regret the things you don’t do’ on my own ass. Not for the first time, I go on to prove this to be a dangerous fallacy. Look what it did to me:

On the way back Mike tells me that the ‘CB’ stands for ‘collarbone’ and refers to the most common type of injury sustained there. He’s also known people to break other bones and one person even knocked himself unconscious. Thank goodness he hadn’t told me any of this beforehand, or I might have thought better of it and missed out. This is why we signed all those waivers at check-in.

Despite the mishap, our time here has been one of the best family vacations we’ve ever had. I could bolster this claim by singing the praises of the food, the staff, the pool and the evening entertainment, but that’s what Tripadvisor is for if you’re interested. Having said that, I’d certainly recommend this bottle of wine from the fabulously branded Merkin Vineyards if you do decide to visit:

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What did bored SAHMs do before the Internet?

It’s probably a good thing there were no SAHDs at the time.

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Now here’s an American concept that should be adopted in the UK

Cheese balls sold in containers large enough to last one adult* an entire movie!

*or two children under 10 years of age
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Blood & Gauze

This morning Stanley had two teeth extracted to make some room. Here they are:

Long aren’t they? I hope the Tooth Fairy’s been to the ATM this week.

Stanley has survived (so far):

The dental nurse said that he ‘takes nitrous really well’.  That’s my boy.

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I know I said you could spend your allowance on whatever you want…

…but I absolutely forbid you to spend $39.95 on a 5lb gummy bear.

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What happens if I don’t donate to Palm Beach County Police?

I don’t know, but I’m going to pay $20 not to find out.

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America! What have you done to my children?

[wpvideo 5DefzoTx]

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Carla’s Happy Face

That chocolate cake, however, looks absolutely terrified.

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An ex-Londoner’s view of the Mayoral Election 2012

Today I received confirmation of my postal vote registration in the mail, and it momentarily made me wish I hadn’t left Surrey to come here, but had instead left London to come here.

One of the less hazardous ideas from America that the Blair Presidency sold to the British public was the establishment of a directly elected Mayor for London. At the inaugural election in 2000, I voted for Ken Livingstone without hesitation for three reasons. Firstly, the election of Livingstone would flip the bird to both Thatcher and Blair simultaneously; an opportunity not to be missed. Secondly, when I’d seen Livingstone speak at some consultation events while he was MP for Brent East, I was impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of all things London when fielding random questions from the public, about anything from the funding of parish LGBT groups to the material used to cover train seats.  Finally, the Congestion Charge struck me as a really good idea.

Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London 2000-2008

My vote was also one of those that got Livingstone re-elected in 2004, largely because he had actually delivered the Congestion Charge, the unlikelihood of which was my one reservation in 2000. Contrary to the contorted diatribes that would have you believe that the slightest constraint on one person’s activities is an outrageous breach of everybody’s human rights, it was a success both in terms of its implementation and the achievement of its goals. The project was a huge logistical and technical nightmare, and it required a changeover implementation. Basically it was exactly the kind of publicly-funded endeavour that might go several times over budget before being abandoned, years after it was supposed to be completed. There have, after all, been plenty of those before and since. Yes, there were issues that can yield alarming facts and figures when taken out of context, but it happened, it worked, and it has inspired other cities around the world to plan similar schemes. Ken has to take some of the credit for that.

Boris Johnson at Team London

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London 2008-2012

I had moved out of London by 2008, but I must confess that I would have switched my allegiance to Boris Johnson had I been eligible to vote.  I had by this time become disillusioned with some of the appointments Ken had made, and his dealings with Hugo Chavez seemed wholly unnecessary. While Boris always gave the impression of having just sustained a mild concussion in a pillow fight, he usually said enough to convince me that this was merely a whimsical cover for some kind of benevolent genius. Since then, however, I’ve come to realise that he should be taken at face value after all, as an over-privileged buffoon with questionable values.

What about the Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick?  Is there a word for when the answer to a question is just the question repeated with different intonation? There should be. The Liberal Democrats know that the Mayoral election is essentially a two horse race, which is probably why they gave the gig to Brian Paddick in the first place.

Sir Ian Bowler

No, if you can vote in this election (postally or otherwise) but you can’t bring yourself to support either Ken or Boris, perhaps you should consider wasting your vote on Sir Ian Bowler.  For a £10 pledge towards his deposit, he will include anything you like in his manifesto, and it doesn’t even have to be within reason. I think the biggest vote winner so far is ‘Tourists to be banned from central London at peak times and weekends’, although my personal favourite remains ‘All microwaves should play the theme from Tales Of The Unexpected as the food rotates’. You don’t get candidates like Sir Ian Bowler running for Surrey County Council, that’s for sure.

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