Ithaca

America has stolen lots of place names from Europe (and not just by adding the word "new" to the front, either) which makes it somewhat disconcerting to have been travelling for six hours, done over 3000 miles and the map shows us as flying over Bangor and approaching Manchester.

My travel agent (who was showing more astuteness with each connection) had allowed for two hours to connect with a flight to Syracuse. Just as well. The plane was an hour late arriving (late take-off, strong headwinds, more opportunity to sell duty-free) - not that I was complaining. A Jumbo is big. Really big (fill in the rest, Hitch-hiker fans). But I did get to see three films I'd missed: A Beautiful Mind (recommended, especially for the way they portray Nash's schizophrenia), Ice Age (recommended if you've nothing better to do) and The Gathering Storm (had good reviews - I can see why - but don't cry if you missed it. Historically it's interesting as it shows how poorly Churchill was regarded prior to the war).

Once in Washington, we queued to be allowed in to the States. Then we queued to be allowed to bring our luggage in. Then we queued to send our luggage on to the next destination. Then we queued to re-check our hand luggage (which involved having to take my laptop out of my bag - which proved to be more difficult than normal as I'd been randomly selected for a baggage search at Frankfurt, after which I'd thrown my keys back into my bag, not expecting to need them again until I unpacked - I just wasn't sure which compartment I'd thrown them into). Then we queued for a shuttle bus to take us over to another terminal. Then I walked down the corridor looking for my gate to hear someone shouting "any more passengers for Syracuse?". It had taken me an hour just to change flights. Now I fully understand why these checks are being made. I wish to have a safe flight, too. It's just that when you finally get to the front of the queue the actual checks are very quick (mostly checking I'd filled my forms in correctly), which makes the analyst part of me suspect that there must be ways to improve the system. Maybe I'll make my first million this way.

I also discovered a flaw in my plan to travel on Saturdays - small children do, too. Small ones who complain and kick the chair in front (mine) all through the flight. She seemed to be arguing about which McDonald's was better, the one at the airport or the one at home. Maybe children are immune to homogeneity.

My first view of the States

Finally, then, to Syracuse. To find that my luggage was somewhere else. Oh well, at least I'm a true globetrotter now. Must make a mental note to carry a toothbrush in my hand luggage. I collected my car and drove to Ithaca. It was dark, so I can't tell you much about the scenery, but I can tell you that it feels big. Big in a German Autobahn sort of way. Big in a "I'm driving across the whole country" sort of way. And this is just one of 50 states (unless you include Britain, of course). I managed to get in the right side of the car first time. The car was an automatic, meaning I was in for another "I've never done this before" moment. It was slightly longer than that as I struggled to get the gearstick out of "park". Then I spotted the note telling me that it wouldn't happen until I put my foot on the brake pedal, too. (I told you it was dark, OK?). Driving was easy, although I did keep reaching for a clutch and a gear stick. Once you told yourself it was just a big go-kart, though, you were fine. So, the open road, the expanse of the States, the ridiculous speed limits (65 on an Interstate highway, 45 on a normal road, 30 in built-up areas - i.e. more than one house per mile).

I pulled into Ithaca to find that I didn't know where I was going. But there was a big map at the University entrance which did know. When they said this hotel was close to the University, they didn't mean easy walking distance. You have to keep reminding yourself that a lot of American towns/cities were built after the invention of the car, which is probably why they sprawl so much. I finally fell into bed at 9pm, but my body knew it was really 3am. Which would explain why I was up at 6am to watch the sun rise over America (not as grand or romantic as it sounds) and in breakfast at 7am. Breakfast is a loose collection of cereals, coffee, doughnuts, coffee, toast (with grape jelly or peanut butter), coffee, juice, coffee, pastries and coffee. And tea. If you can find the spout on the multiple-coffee-serving-machine that dispenses hot water. Second time lucky, I sat and supped my coff-tea and watched a news item about fast airport check-ins using electronic tickets. Maybe I need a different idea for my first million. Maybe re-usable cutlery & crockery as it certainly doesn't seem to exist over here (or if it does, I've not seen it yet).

I spent the second half of my "recovery day" driving around one of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake. It doesnít look very big on the map, but it took me all afternoon (with a couple of stops). Donít think Iíll try one of the Great Lakes. The countryside was fabulous, the views often spectacular and the parks numerous. But then this is supposed to be the prettiest part of NY state.

Taughannock Falls

Itís a strange feeling driving through America - it all looks so familiar. If youíve seen films like Scream and Timecop, then those houses werenít picked because they fitted the designerís visions, but because they were typical. Theyíre mostly wood-cladded, have porches, Peanuts-style mailboxes (some on the opposite side of the road, which looks really odd) and many have American flags. If you thought England during the World Cup was flag-happy, think again. These all looked like theyíd been out for a while. I hate to think what the place looks like when thereís an outbreak of patriotism. At other times you just feel like you wandered onto the set of Scooby Doo by mistake.

There's plenty more where this came from

You also see a lot of pumpkins, ghosts, witches.... yes, Halloween is nearly here. It seems a strange thing to celebrate, but then so does Guy Fawkes night, when you think about it. What you donít see much of, though, are people. Maybe America takes a Sunday afternoon siesta, but pedestrians become a novelty. A pedestrian without a dog is almost worth writing home about (which is precisely what Iím doing, I suppose...). You do see a lot of wineries (thatís what the signs call them), at a rate of about one per five houses. Then I spotted a sign saying "Cayuga Wine Trail" so maybe that explains it. I didnít stop for a tasting as I was driving.

See?

The Americans, as Iíve already noted, arenít too inventive when it comes to place names (mostly borrowing ones from the old world), a point made clear when you drive from Village of Lansing into Town of Lansing into Town of Ithaca into City of Ithaca. Maybe we should re-name Cottingham "Village of Hull" or Hull "City of Beverley" - you never know, it might attract American tourists.

My Cube - note my laptop

Cornell University welcomed me. I was given my very own cube (above - now I can empathise with Dilbert) in a rather nice building (the "theory centre" - below) that houses the centre for applied mathematics, some of whom Iíd come to see. It was also the warmest place I visited - Ithaca is cold (an opinion reinforced by the later discovery of two piles of snow in one of the University car parks and a frost one morning). I thought Erlangen was, but I was wrong. Erlangen was just chilly. Ithaca is nice & warm at about midday, but the morning & evening are decidedly not. Now I understand how they can call Britain a "temperate" climate.

The Theory Centre

I met with three professors during my stay: Prof. Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Prof. Steve Strogatz and Prof. Cornelia "Nelly" Farnum. Prof. Castillo-Chavez is modelling epidemiological processes using mainly deterministic methods (I had to ask, so feel free to act confused) of which his work in modelling the spread of TB in Argentina, particularly via the public transport system, was especially interesting (as was the fact that, once diagnosed, patients are then bussed across town for treatment...).

Cornell - an Ivy League University

Prof. Strogatz is famous for "Small World Theory" (I can lend you some books) which we discussed, particularly in relation to cancellous bone (I can show you some pictures). There may be a paper in here somewhere.... Sadly, Professors are busy people and so I didnít have as much of his time as I would have liked. Heís the kind of man you feel you could spend all day discussing things with (especially Maths & especially networks). He did suggest I popped down to Pensylvania, as it is "only four hours away", though.

Prof. Farnum is a cell biologist with a special interest in how bone grows, so for once I had to explain what a network is rather than what cancellous bone is. Once weíd established a framework for discussion we were able to look at several possible areas for exploration. Again, I felt I could have talked all afternoon, but time is not a commodity Professors seem to have a lot of. I was very grateful though that she agreed to see me, as I only Ďphoned her that morning and wasnít expecting to be able to see her at all. She did put me right on one other matter, though. Those piles of snow Iíd seen were actually the scrapings from cleaning the hockey pitch. I still maintain it was cold enough.

Purely in the interests of research (honest), I decided to sample American cuisine. I can therefore report that Taco Bell is worth a visit, Burger King isnít (is nice to find something the Americans gave us that weíve improved). Internet cafe smoothies are fabulous. Chinese takeaways are huge. The Delis are renowned, and rightly so. Diners are cafes with more vegetables.

With everything done in Ithaca and a need to move hotel (back to Syracuse, where I was catching the next 'plane from), I took a look at the map and decided to "hop on over" to Niagara Falls, as it was only a couple of hundred miles out of my way (You can tell I was settling into the American way of life, can't you?).

Niagara Falls, from the American sideThe main points
Niagara Falls is not exactly famous for the town, and rightly so. Even the "Rainbow Bridge" into Canada looks jaded. But then, what wouldn't do next to the splendour of the Falls themselves. There are three falls in all: The American Falls, The Horseshoe Falls and The Bridal Veil Falls (sounds like a title for a bad movie, doesn't it?). Anyway, the American is the tallest, the Horseshoe the most spectacular and the Bridal Veil the smallest. Which is why they let you go to the foot of that one, on a tour called "Cave of the Winds". The Rough Guide recommends the Maid of the Mist (a boat that goes close to the foot of all three) but it's season was over for the year. So, bedecked in silly yellow plastic overcoat and shoes that looked like a rubber pitta bread (only with a bit of string to tie it onto your foot with), I descended to the foot of the Falls (in an elevator, this is America, y'know). It was spectacular, incredibly noisy and very very wet. And incredibly worth the $6 fee. You walk out along wooden decking (that is assembled fresh every Spring - it was due to be removed a fortnight after my visit). The closest you can get is a deck called the Hurricane Deck. It's an optional part of the tour and when I got there I could see why and where it got its name from. But I came to experience...

All too soon it was time to leave: I had a three hour drive to my hotel. I toyed with the idea of hopping over the Rainbow Bridge just so I could say I'd been to Canada, but decided against it. Still slightly damp, I travelled back to Syracuse down the New York Thruway, a toll motorway. It cost a mere $4.30 (about £2.80) for the journey - you can see why it gets a lot of use. After checking in, it was time to return the car. It took a significant chunk out of my budget, but I was reluctant to see it go. That seven-and-a-half hours of driving to Niagara & back cost me about $16 in fuel, by the way.


Back to the table of contents
On to Milwaukee