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Poe's North American Tour '99

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

I really didn't know what to expect.

I'd never been to the United States before. To be a little more precise, I'd never really been anywhere before. I'd once spent an entire hour in Scotland and the only trip that could even dubiously be labelled overseas had been a week in Anglesey, the large island off the northwest coast of Wales. Nevertheless I've always tried to follow the maxim that if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well, so off I traipsed to Manchester to catch the plane that would hurtle me into three months of North American discovery.

Being a trip of firsts for me, I had never been on a plane either; at least not one that also happened to be airborne. Nik, with whom I shared a house at the time, had driven me to the airport and spent the hour before departure trying to panic me about the dangers of planes, but I shrugged that off: after all more people die each year at the hooves of donkeys than in plane crashes. I had my reservations, if you excuse the pun, but I had long prepared myself for the reality of putting my life in the hands of some pilot I'd never met before. As it happened, control freak or no control freak, I actually enjoyed the flight: straight up, on a bit, and straight down. Simple. Hardly enough time to read the paper.

It was just a quick hour down to London Heathrow, at that time the busiest airport in the world (by number of passengers travelling per year) to transfer to the 747 that would hop the pond. Only one of varied London airports, nevertheless Heathrow is a huge place. I felt like paraphrasing Douglas Adams's description of the infinity of creation: 'It's big. It's really big. I mean you might think it's a long way down the road to the chemist but that's peanuts compared to space.' I had thought that the long walkways involved in moving from one of Manchester's three terminals to another indicated a large floor area, but after walkways seemingly unending at Heathrow, I then needed to catch a bus to take me to the appropriate area. This is one massive airport.

Somehow the gods of first time travellers had wangled me a window seat on the top deck which gave me a great view out onto... well not a heck of a lot, actually. Once you get past Ireland, there's only a fleeting glimpse of the ice cliffs of Greenland until Newfoundland. Talking of which, that was nearly my final destination. Half an hour into my first international flight (eight hours of scheduled travel), the captain put out a distress call for any doctors on board to make themselves known. We later found out that someone was very sick and if a doctor hadn't been able to work wonders, we'd have put down in Newfoundland for a long unplanned delay. As if to ape the quaint customs of England, the delay caught up with us in Detroit, where we had to wait for the paramedics to do their thing before we were allowed to leave the plane.

But leave the plane I did. Finally. Only to be held up by obnoxious customs officials inside Detroit airport...

Understand this: the world's view of Americans is gained by watching the news. When the news is full of armed militias, doomsday cults and race riots; Bill Clinton, Jerry Springer and OJ Simpson, it is perhaps inevitable that the world doesn't see America in such a great light. In short, we see the bad news of America, a land that Leonard Cohen described as 'the cradle of the best and the worst'. Luckily I had found my way onto Cosmo's Conundrum, a trivia game with chat that became my home from home into the new millennium when it sadly ceased operation. Cosmo was a wonderful place that had become populated by the best of America, along with the cream of other countries too. In stark contrast to most chat sites there were few exceptions to this rule: five longterm troublemakers out of a cast of literally thousands is a pretty damn good percentage in my view.

Which brings me back to Detroit customs officials... a nice bunch of friendly people they were with smiles and courtesy. Very helpful; very courteous. Until they asked how long I intend to stay in the country and I answered three months. Suddenly the smiles and the charm disappeared to be rapidly replaced by a notebook and pen. 'So what sort of job do you have that means you can take three months off, huh?'

I discovered then that airports have a large room off to the side somewhere where they can take potential illegal immigrants. Off I was guided to this stark room, populated by benches and guards wandering as if at random. It was mostly quiet but for the intense cross-examination being given to a couple of other unfortunates in the veiled off booths at the far end.

I had nothing to hide, of course, and soon satisfied a new official's line of questioning and so found my way out to where Tracy, my girlfriend at that time, and her mother were ready to start my pleasant experiences of Detroit and the US of A.

Next Episode: Driving in 3-D.

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