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Just one more tip…

Columbo-style, I’m adding just one more tip to my list for travelers. This one applies specifically when travelling to the US. And it is... Don’t have the same name as me. I arrived at JFK at 4:20 yesterday afternoon. As has happened several times in the last couple of years — I believe it’s been three out of six trips — after having my fingerprints, retina and soul scanned in the immigration line, I got yanked out and sent to Mordor (also known as the Homeland Security Zone), which basically involves being led ignominiously away from the desk (and the doors that lead to baggage claim and taxis and an interesting evening in a new city), and being put in a dire room full of signs in Helvetica, with the other miscreants, bastards and potential undesirables — without the slightest indication of why this is happening to you. Usually it only takes thirty to forty five minutes to sort out the problem (the nature of which I’ll come back to). This time I eventually left Mordor at... half past eight.

Yep. That would be four of your Earth hours. Over half the time it had taken to fly from London to New York.

The reason for this is that... I am not the only Michael Smith in creation. Now, I have been known from time to time to put certain events down to a being I call ‘Bad Mike’, an naughty alter ego who comes out under the influence of alcohol and does the things which, the following morning, most make me wince and moan and want to bite my own head off. Well, it turns out Bad Mike is real, and is out there, really doing really Bad Things. I have the same name as this guy, and therefore I get pulled over.

I doubt he has the same middle names as me, and I know he doesn’t look the same, but that doesn’t appear to make a difference (at the beginning of the process, anyway). By now I even have a vague picture of what this man might look like. The first time this farrago happened, for example, my innocence was eventually proven through a lack of prison tattoos (evidently a distinguishing feature of Bad Mike). You might have thought establishing this would only take a few minutes, but no, it took forty five. Yet tattoos weren’t even mentioned yesterday, so maybe Bad Mike is chimerical, a shape-shifter. Perhaps sometimes he has yards of Aryan Nation tats, sometimes he doesn’t. Or maybe there are several Bad Mikes. Maybe we are legion — though actually I think I prefer the idea of one uber-Bad Mike, bestriding the realms of ill-doing like a colossus.

Yesterday, when, after two and a half hours of not being talked to at all, I was eventually assigned a handler, I actually asked him what Bad Mike had done — and was told that I didn’t want to know. I should probably have tartly replied that I was a mystery and sometime horror writer, responsible for a trilogy of serial killer novels amongst other dark fictions, and could probably handle it. But by that point I’d forgotten I’d ever been that person or done those things, and had become instead a small and irritable cog in someone else’s machine, capable of nothing more than furiously watching a lovely spring afternoon turn into evening, through the tiny sliver of window afforded to the bad and stupid amongst whom I now numbered myself. To be fair, my handler was extremely civil throughout, and even apologized a couple of times during the hour and a half it took for the call to come back from Washington DC to confirm I was self-evidently an effete Brit writer who couldn’t even stick to one genre for any length of time, never mind forge a successful career as a ravening psychopath. But to sit there while two of my handler’s colleagues worked for a while, then talked about going to get their dinner, then went for their dinner, and then came back and worked for quite some time...

It’s lucky I’m not the real Bad Mike. That’s all I'm saying. You can do a lot of damage with an iPhone, I would imagine. Though of course I wasn’t allowed to use my phone, and got barked when I tried. I had an armed escort to even go to the toilet.

The whole experience was... not good.

Eventually, just at the point where I thought I was genuinely in danger of losing it through frustration and nicotine withdrawal and a gut-wrenching certainty of my own innocence, they let me go. I hadn’t done anything, as I’d known all along. I hadn’t even not done anything, like failing to get a visa or work permit. I’d just had... my own name.

So, to recap, that’s my final tip. Don’t have my name. Oh, and Bad Mike, if you should happen to be reading this, please either change your name or STOP DOING BAD THINGS.

Still, on the upside, it turns out that just along the street from my hotel — where I have a room so small it doesn’t even have a fucking chair — is a place called Virgil’s, that not only does very decent barbecue, but knows how to use an apostrophe.

So, you know, it’s all good.


Tips for Travelers...

I’m heading off to New York today, for a week of research and a few small BAD THINGS-related events. At the time this post goes up, I’ll actually be at Heathrow, fretting vaguely about departure gates and hoping I remembered to bring a nicotine patch. I like traveling very much indeed, but it does come fraught with many needling little existential moments — and so I thought I’d share a few of my valuable stock of tips for the mildly neurotic traveler...

1. Don’t wear a jacket, especially if you’re flying. A jacket is a pain in the ass when you’re traveling. It will make you feel hot, swaddled and hassled as you heft your bags in and out of public transport, and around the airport, and will then have to be folded and stowed during the flight, basically by screwing it in a ball and stuffing it in the overhead, which means your garment will look dreadful before you've even left the runway. If your destination is hotter than your departure point (which, starting from the UK, is usually the case) you’re going to then be saddled with a bulky piece of clothing which you don’t want to wear but have nothing else to do with.

So instead wear layers on your top half - a T-shirt and a loose sweater - and combat trousers below. It’s just as easy to access your passport and documents, and far less grief, and I don't give a crap whether combats are fashionable any more. Plus the lack of swaddling may make help you to feel insouciant, which is always a good thing when traveling.

2. Pack light Obvious, but so, so true. Don’t stuff your shoulder bag full of things you aren’t going to need while actually in transit. A laptop (and only if you’re really going to work), a book, a magazine, a pad, a copy of your travel documents. Maybe some candy. Nothing else.

For your main bag, reckon that you’ll wear at most seventy five percent of the clothes you think you’ll need, and hoick some out accordingly. Take books that you’re not too bothered about bringing home: leaving them in hotel rooms as you finish will free up extra space for the journey back. And bear in mind - assuming you’re not going to some war-torn and god-forsaken corner of the world - that there will be stores at the other end. You can buy stuff there, and leave what you don’t need. Don’t stuff your cases full of pointless objects that you can temporarily own at the other end.

The one exception to this rule, if you’re English, is to take some proper tea bags — especially if traveling to the US. America pretends it has tea, but it doesn’t. Liptons seem to have a lock on teabag production there, but whatever they put in those bags, it sure as hell ain’t tea. It’s fine when cold, but horrible when hot. Even if you put three in a cup and leave them to brew for ages, it doesn’t taste right. If, like me, you need a couple of cups of tea before it’s safe to foist yourself upon other people, take your own bags or pay the price. Buy some milk from a corner store (or local equivalent) when you get there, too. This isn’t a matter of being tight —it’s just a lot easier than getting some up from room service. Plus you should always visit a corner store at least once in every city and country you ever visit. Corner stores tell you more about where you are - and its people, available goods and common practices — than any tourist agency or guidebook ever can.

3. When staying in hotels, don’t have the room service breakfast. Seriously, don’t — no matter how how enticing that multiple choice hang-on-the-door thing looks when you stagger back at the end of the previous evening. Not only will it be head-spinningly, outrageously, depressingly expensive, it’ll very likely be crap. The only notable exception I’ve found to this is the Pacific Palisades Hotel in Vancouver, which does (or did, this was a few years ago now) a fabulous breakfast to the room: all others have been disappointing, especially at the price. Plus there’ll be some massive trolley or tray which you either have to put up with taking up valuable real estate afterwards, or else slip out into the hallway while wearing a gown or a towel.

Worse, having booked the delivery the night before may send you into a paroxysm of anxiety about whether you’ll be awake in time, and what will happen if they knock on the door and you’re not — and if you sleep in a state of undress there’s the issue of how you quickly find something to wear while they let you in... all of which means you’ll sleep far worse than you would have otherwise, even if you’ve promised yourself a lie-in. And then you have to stand awkwardly to one side while a smirking flunky delivers food which you won’t like, but have paid - you’ll discover when you check out — about $54.75 for. Seriously: two rack rate breakfasts, add some money for you having ticked things you didn’t realise were optional extras, add another three bucks delivery charge, and a few more as you round the total up because you’re not absolutely confident whether the delivery charge means you have to tip or not... You could have walked into the nearest diner and treated everyone at the counter to hash browns and champagne for about the same money. It’s not that I care that much about a few extra bucks, but there’s such a thing as taking the piss.

So instead, just have a cup of tea in the room (see Rule #3) and get your arse out onto the streets. Find the nearest non-frightening café or diner and go nuts: it will taste better, feel like a go-getting and authentic experience, and is guaranteed to cost less than half the hotel price.

4. Book the evening meal during the day One of my biggest personal faults, especially when traveling, is excessive awareness of potential opportunity cost. I’m forever not doing things because I’m worried it might not be perfect, or there might be a better alternative, or I should wait, or have done it sooner. When traveling alone I have more than once ended up with a very, very average meal because I couldn’t choose between the good-looking things on offer, and didn’t want to waste my hunger on an average meal (one of the perils of caring slightly too much about food).

The only near-solution I’ve found to this is to spot somewhere good during the day and book a table for later. You tell yourself you can always do something else, or cancel — and you can do these things — but at least it gives you a target. This is especially important when alone. When you’re traveling with a loved one, the evening meal is one of the best parts — selecting a restaurant, wandering over there, hanging out, drinking a little too much of the local wine or beer, bonding excessively with the staff or another couple in the bar... the whole (slightly disreputable) nine yards. When abroad by yourself, it’s very different. Few restaurants go out of their way to make the solo diner feel truly welcome, and the evening meal thus tends to be a short, sharp affair that dumps you back at the hotel much earlier than you’d banked on. Either that or you resort to room service, which will leave you feeling feebly unadventurous — with even more time on your hands, in a hotel room that now smells of french fries and loserdom.

Book a table. Take something to read. Be brave.

5. Try not to be insane My biggest travelling anxiety relates to the Airport Math required for the journey home. I know what time I need to fly, of course, but if it involves a 17 or 19 in the 24 hour clock I get all confused and neurotic about it, because to me 17:00 looks so much like it should be seven o’clock. Then I’m not clear on whether, post-9/11, I have to be at the airport two or three hours ahead. Then there’s working out how long a cab will take in an unfamiliar city with unpredictable traffic conditions, plus how much margin you should leave for the taxi being late arriving at the hotel in the first place. All of which is complicated by the fact that, as a smoker, you want to spend as little time as possible in an airport’s departure zone, without missing your flight: which adds additional stress to Security Line Math, and how Far Away Is The Gate Math and not to mention the How Early Before Takeoff Do I Actually Need To Be Standing There conundrum.

I actually got halfway through writing a piece of software into which you enter all these variables with the aim of it giving you suggested timings, with (naturally) ludicrously wide margins for error built in: but then ran into the limits of my own competence (as is so often the case). If anyone out there fancies coming up with something attractive like this for the iPhone, then I will kiss you on the head.

In the end, I don’t really have a tip for beating Airport Math. Try not to be a complete nutcase, I guess. Or work the whole thing out definitively ahead of time, nail a schedule to your forehead — and ask passing strangers to tell you what to do, and when.