America decides I have run out of visits

America decides I have run out of visits

"American border guards," I explained to my student as we boarded the aeroplane for New York City. "have a reputation for being … " I searched for a word that would describe the situation sufficiently to avoid surprise, but not so descriptively that leaping from the plane as it rolled down the runway would be appealing.

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A comedy of (minor) errors

"Taxis don't go to Ringberg castle. And there are no taxis."

It was proving to be an extremely long day, and it was only just after lunch. Admittedly the day had started at 5 am, when I had risen with the rather modest aim of traveling from Amsterdam to the Bavarian town of Tegernsee, which is nestled around the shore of a lake with the same name. Overlooking the lake is Ringberg Castle, the conference facility belonging to Germany's world class research institute, the Max Planck Society. 

I really feel people should sell science as a career more in terms of the possibility you might get given a castle.

The journey to Ringberg should have been straightforward enough:

Step 1: Go to Amsterdam airport.
Step 2: Fly to Munich.
Step 3: Take a train to Tegernsee.
Step 4: Take a taxi up to the castle.
Step 5: Rescue the princess.

It was perhaps an indication of the events to pass when the bus to the train station from which I'd connect to the airport did not show up. Standing in the pouring rain, my friend and I studied the empty road in the grey dawn. It was empty. And grey. And wet. And still empty.

We called a taxi.

Fortunately, since the bus times had not been frequent even had they corresponded to buses, we had made a generously early start. It was sufficient for me to still reach Amsterdam Centraal station, buy a chai tea latte from an open Starbucks and appreciate that this historic European city was full of drunken pot heads at 6 am. 

"Hey man, I'm in Amsterdam! What happens now? … what do you mean you're not up?" This particular mobile phone conversation had a similar tone to my morning, except I rather suspected I would be the only one of us able to reminisce about it later. 

Once at airport, I checked in, printed my boarding pass and headed through security.

"Please remove your laptop, camera and all chargers."

Camera? Chargers? Normally, airport security only requires your laptop to be removed from your case to sail through the x-ray scanner in its own personal tray. Anything smaller, including tablets, e-readers and game consoles can remain in your bag. Amsterdam, however, had decided there was nothing more suspicious on Earth than an electric plug. This was particularly unfortunate since I had been far more liberal with the quantity of electronics I had packed than I had with my clothing. I had also put each adapter into one of the mini zipped pockets that decorated the outside of my backpack. 

A great deal of zipping and one large spidery tangle of bomb-free wires later, and I was scuttling towards my gate, stopping only briefly to buy a bottle of water from a convenience store:

"Is that to drink on the plane?" The cashier confirmed as I approached the till. "They won't let you take it onboard."

Even though it was bought it after I'd come through security? Amsterdam were having a highly suspicious 2013. I thanked the shop keeper for the warning as I abandoned my ideas of rehydration and slumped off to the aeroplane feeling peeved. 

Munich airport was full of promise. I bought a train ticket to take me through to Tegernsee and was even sold a bottle of water without any dire warnings about its imminent confiscation. It was a time of light and hope and not even the fact that I needed to board the train at 'platform 2' when the choice was 'platform A' or 'platform B' could dampen my mood.

Then I disembarked at the wrong station and missed my connection.

Sadly, this was really all my fault but in my defence, the conference website had said I would change trains at Munich Central Station (a logical central hub) instead of where my ticket specified, "Munich Donnersbergerbrucke" (an illogical backwater of a platform). When I reached Donnersbergerbrucke, I discovered not only was the next train not for another 50 minutes, but the entire surrounding area was completely devoid of public restrooms and packed with glossy windowed office buildings that made squatting behind a tree too risky a venture for non-exhibitionists.

Ignoring all calls of nature, I finally got on the right train … to be told it was the wrong train. 

The ticket inspector's hand gestures suggested I was on a train heading the wrong direction; a surprising statement since I thought I'd checked the destination before boarding. However, I dutifully rose to exit at the next stop, whereupon train announcements came through both in German and English. This was lucky, since I would never have deduced the true problem:

It wasn't that the train wasn't going to Tegernsee, it was that my carriage wasn't going to Tegernsee. 

The train was about to split into three parts, all of which headed down different forks in the train lines. What I actually had to do was to hop out of my carriage and head to the back of the train to the section that was indeed heading to my desired destination.


Tegernsee --presuming you find the right carriage to reach it-- is beautiful. It is a small lake-side tourist town surrounding by alpine mountains. The buildings are in a similar style to Swiss Chalets and hang heavy with window boxed flowers while many of the shop assistants dress in the traditional Bavarian dirndl.

The weather was warm and sunny, so rather than waiting for a taxi at the station, I drifted down through the town and stopped to eat the sandwiches I'd packed by the lake front. Little did I know that this lackadaisical approach to conference attending would see me fighting to reach the castle at all.

Approaching the far edge of the town, I called in at the tourist information office and told the woman behind the desk of my desire to go up to Ringberg Castle by taxi. 

"Ringberg Castle is up there," she told me, pointing as a beige smudge on the hillside. "But taxis do not go to Ringberg Castle and you cannot go on a tour."

"I'm not touring," I explained. "I have a meeting there. I was told I could get a taxi?"

"It's not old." The woman's tone clearly implied that she thought my meeting story a barefaced lie. Clearly, I had to be dissuaded from my trespassing schemes before she was labelled as an accomplice. 

"Nevertheless….," I replied with cheerful persistence. "I do need to go there."



A map was produced that showed the town and the road out to the castle. "You can take a taxi or bus to here." The woman pointed to where the main road forked to become a winding path up the hillside. "Then you will have to walk. It is at least 20 minutes.

This time I was the one looking doubtful. If we'd have to walk up the hill, the conference website surely would have mentioned it and suggested suitcases were for pansies. Still, I had only hand luggage and this wasn't really an area in which I could back down.  

"Do you want me to call a taxi?

"Yes please," I replied. 

The woman picked up the phone and dialled. After a moment or two, she replaced the handset. "There are no taxis.

"I'll head back to the station," I suggested.

"Taxis are not always at the station. They only sometimes come when there are trains.

The message from this lady was persistently clear: ONE DOES NOT SIMPLY WALK INTO RINGBERG.

"I can wait at the station," I persevered. "There will be many people coming to this meeting, so I'll probably be able to meet up with them."

At this, the information centre lady looked positively alarmed. There would be MORE people wanting to take taxies to the forbidden castle? But it was forbidden! 

"You are alone now?"

I nodded. The woman then made a fast decision; send this midget up first and Ringberg can prepare. They were a castle, they probably had cannons if necessary. She tried the phone again and then looked up a different number. This time she met with more success. 

"The taxi will meet you outside in 10 minutes."

I thanked her and left, feeling more anxious than victorious. Had I misunderstood the instructions? Was there a town with a similar name to Tegernsee with an equally similar sounding castle that more readily took in astrophysicists?


Possibly, I was about to spend a very cold night outside a castle that no one was allowed to enter. 

It was somewhat apprehensively that I got into the taxi that showed up and asked him to take me to Ringberg. My driver however, was completely unphased and, in apparent flagrant disregard for all the warnings the tourist office lady had issued, drove me right up to the castle's heavy front door. 

Whereupon I recognised another conference guest attempting to break in. This wasn't a trivial undertaking since castles were generally designed to withstand such attempts, especially by rogue scientists clutching suitcases. Fortunately, by the time I'd paid my bold driver, a second route involving a doorbell had been attempted and we were let inside, given keys and promised sandwiches at six.  


You have gained entry to the stronghold and completed level 1. Press any key to advance to level 2. 

My bedroom has a Narnia-style wardrobe, an old wood burning ceramic heater and four poster bed with a roof.

 Mario, the princess is now totally in this castle. 


Should you throw a million kittens into a river to save one baby?

"My husband saw your article on Japan Today."

This rather surprising remark came from my pet sitter, who had written to confirm the dates she was looking after Tallis while I was away. It was a surprising because, to the best of my knowledge, I had not written for that particular online publication. My first assumption was that there had been a mistake; either the article in question had been authored by someone of similar name or had actually been published elsewhere. I was half-way composing my fervent denial when I thought...


… I'll just google that.

Whereupon, I struck upon an article written by myself in Japan Today from which stemmed 51 exciting comments of abuse.

The article in question had been originally published on GaijinPot, a website for foreigners living in Japan with a blog section for which I am (knowingly) a regularly contributor. Japan Today had republished my post, admittedly with full credit to myself, on their own site. My feeling about this move were divided:

On the one hand, I wasn't sure that publishing an article without the author's express permission (or indeed, knowledge) was legal. At the very least, it wasn't good form. Yet conversely, my work now appeared on a much bigger website and I wouldn't really want to stop this happening again. 

I suddenly understood why my cat sometimes only half-inflates her fur: it's the cross-roads of indecision. Is this a scene of indignant anger or one of fun timez? 

Unsure how to react, I emailed the editor of Japan Today and expressed my surprise that I had not been contacted. I received a reply almost instantly, apologising for any inconvenience and explaining that Japan Today and GaijinPot were part of the same company and regularly share content. GaijinPot also replied to my tweet of distress and offered to remove the article from Japan Today if I was unhappy. 

I had a cup of tea.

After which I concluded that overall, it was a net win and simply asked to be notified in future. Then I read the comments to my post.

Kids, don't try this at home.

If you're tempted to read comments to an article, I recommend first signing up to AvoidComments on twitter which will periodically send you helpful reminders such as 'If someone told you the internet had hemorrhoids, would you want to look at those, too?'

I should say up front that had I chosen an article for Japan Today, it wouldn't have been this one. Originally from my personal blog, it was the story of my flight from Toronto to Tokyo with my cat and contained phrases that I knew could be trigger points in a public forum.

In particular, I express mock outrage that my cat was thought to be a dog when we passed through security and remark that it's highly surprising that people don't discuss throwing screaming babies out of planes. 

Obviously, both the above are not designed to be serious; it wouldn't be possible to tell the type of animal I had in my pet carrier and aeroplane windows don't open. 

In fact, such concerns had caused me hesitate before submitting the post in its (almost) original form to GaijinPot, but I had decided it was worth the experiment for the sake of humour. I had already written a few articles for the site, read posts containing similar material and hoped regular readers would give me the benefit of the doubt in the region of homicidal tendencies. They unanimously did but the readers of Japan Today were divided: was I a fun-loving cat owner or a neurotic baby-killing narcissist? 

To be honest, the answer largely depends on which stage of the research publication process I'm currently dealing with at work. 

The Japan Today comment debate came down to a few juicy points fought out between a handful of people. In reverse order of entertainment, I present the questions and my opinion: 

  1. Should pets be allowed in the aeroplane cabin at all?

    This debate actually had nothing to do with my article since I had no control over Air Canada's rules regarding pet transportation. I also do not suffer from asthma, so I'm also unable to comment as to whether pets in an aircraft with circulated air is a big problem. I would guess that the restriction on pet number and the offer to sit allergic passengers away from the animals would be sufficient, otherwise more restrictions would exist. If that actually isn't enough, as a pet owner I'd be perfectly happy with a compromise that only allowed pets on one flight per week. Moving with my cat required a huge amount of planning, so restricting the flight I would be able to take would be a minimal inconvenience. 

    (@AvoidCommentsWe like to think that we're smarter than dolphins, but no dolphin has ever bothered to read online comments.)

  2. Did I care about my cat at all or was I flying just for the fun of the experience and blog post?

    Now I have to admit, the thought of writing a blog post allows me to brave many an experience from which I might have otherwise fled. However, I am sorry to confess my passion for writing has yet to reach the stage where I engage in an 8 month long, $1000 initiative just for entertainment. Seriously people, they have cats in Japan too. If I were indifferent to which furry critter decked my apartment, I would have hot swapped them over.

    Tempers flare and break / Winning move is not to play / Don't read the comments)

  3.  Should you throw a million kittens into a river to save one baby?

    I am proud to say my blog post initiated this serious ethical debate. However, as one commenter revealed, it is just not possible to make this call without more information: "Do the kittens have a fatal disease communicable to humans? They should be put to sleep soon. Is the baby Adolf Hitler? That might give me pause." You see? Kittens and babies are cute but cats are frequently more cute than adults. The situation is complex.    

    Linked with this was a second question: Are all animal lovers people haters?

    Now I have to say the answer before I started reading the comments was a resounding 'no'. However, by the time we were on comment 51, it was decidedly more debatable. 

    "It was the worst of times." -- Charles Dickens, if he'd read internet comments)

Since these comments were largely poorly reasoned and nonsensical (being a physicist is awesome both for your ego and Vulcan roleplay) , I was more amused than perturbed. However, they did raise the warning flag of the pitfalls of being a public writer. 

To date, my experience with negative reactions to my writing has been limited. This is largely because my main blog audience are my friends (who have no qualms about handing me their off-spring and so therefore presumably trust me or regret parenthood) or regular readers who understand my humour. Moving onto a more public site has the dual effect of positive comments being like prozac and negative comments tearing me between desires of laughing and wanting to bite someone. While I would have chosen to write a different post for Japan Today, it's unlikely I will always avoid every trigger point. It's a roller coaster of excitement. I may need to order in more tea. 

Also, if anyone approaches me and tells me their name is 'Maria' or 'Cleo' and they read Japan Today, I'm buying them lunch. 


The loneliest students

This morning I was late for my Japanese class. 

Admittedly, it was not by much: My class started at 8:45 am and I arrived in the foyer of the International Student Centre a few minutes later. However, it was enough to find the tables and comfy chairs that decked the lobby area completely devoid of student loafers. Since the day had already become warm, I paused briefly at a drinks machine to buy a bottle of water.

Drinks machines are everywhere. Everywhere.

Drinks machines are everywhere. Everywhere.

One great thing about Japan: there are always drinks machines. Everywhere.

I then turned about and zipped up the stairs to the third floor. I had only walked a few steps towards my classroom when another student intercepted me in the hallway.

"You're in 'Kanji II'?" he confirmed. "There's no one there."

No one? I glanced in the nearest classroom. It was packed full of students staring somewhat desultory at the papers being handed to them by their teacher. It reminded me that we too, were due to get our mid-term results back that day. It also told me that today was not intentionally a holiday. Walking down to our classroom door I stuck my head inside and confirmed what I had just been informed; it was as barren as an open invite party entitled '101 photos of my gangrenous toe nails'. 

"Was our lesson cancelled?" I asked uncertainly. I didn't remember this being previously mentioned but that didn't necessary preclude the possibility; our classes are conducted purely in Japanese and my verbal skills can be politely referred to as 'rudimentary'. By now, the class should have started about 10 minutes ago so someone ought to have turned up. 

"Maybe our mid-terms were so bad..." I began. "That everyone knew it would be better to never come here again."

Denial. This class never existed. No one was ever taught any Kanji characters. If you're in doubt of that fact, there is proof somewhere in the staffroom.  

Just as I was about to suggest we went back down to the lobby and checked the notice board, our teacher appeared striding down the hall way towards us. She looked at her two lonely waifs and then in at the empty classroom. 


Then the doors of the elevator slid open, revealing our entire class. 

Everyone had arrived late.


At the same time. 

The chances of that happening are disturbingly low. I'm declaring it a conspiracy aimed at creeping me out. It won't work. My mid-term result was fine and I'm staying with all you people no matter how long you choose to hide in elevators.  

In which I embarrass myself on the toilet

My fascination with Japanese toilets originates from three sources:

(1) Firstly, I have a sincere and deep interest in plumbing that goes back to my childhood when I demanded my parents flush the toilet repeatedly so I could hear which pipe the water ran through by hanging out the upstairs window.
[Take home message: scientific pursuits always ought to involve adult supervision.]
It's also an inhereditary fascination since my brother once lost his pre-school pants-on-wheels race by stopping mid-track to look down a drain.
(2) Japanese toilets are genuinely object of wonder. These porcelain body waste cups come in the exciting duel variety of (a) super futuristic with more buttons than your average flight control deck or (b) an upgrade from a shovel only because you don't actually have to dig the hole yourself. It's a risk with every visit.
Plus, I won a travel writing competition discussing their features which just fuelled the obsession. 
(3) I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome which results in me spending some serious quality time appreciating such facilities. 

It was the result of (3) that found me scampering from my Japanese class into the (mercifully opposite) restroom this lunchtime. This wasn't wholly unexpected, since I had my period which tends to trigger the IBS with spasms in the smooth stomach muscles. The result is a diarrhetic mix of mucus, blood and excrement.

Hello new readers! Please, shake my hand. 


As I was sitting there, fantasising about hysterectomies, my eyes fell upon the toilet control panel. In these cubicles, the options were a modest two choices for the bidet (weak or strong water jet), a music button for the fake flushing sound (with associated volume controls) and a stop button. 

I hit the stop button optimistically. No change in the current situation. Well, it was worth a go. 

I then eyed the bidet functions. Normally, I left those well alone since the icon was enough to cause deep concern; on the stronger water flow button, a pair of bare buttocks were being lifted physically into the air on the top of a geyser. However, at this precise moment I really wanted a full-on shower and this was probably as close as I could get without inserting myself into the toilet. 

… briefly tempting, but I do know what just went in there. 

I pressed the button for the weaker spray.

Then immediately realised that every single person in the restroom was going to know all about it as the sound reverberated off the walls of the cubicle.


I jammed my finger first on the 'stop' button and then on the 'music' button. The water jet sounds were replaced by ones of fake flushing. This sounded even worse:


In a normal Japanese restroom, this would be less of an issue since many patrons would be likewise using the music button to cover up their natural bodily functions. However, I was in the International Student Centre, where typically people don't care about such things. 

Except right now, I was caring a lot.

I tried the 'stop' button again. It had no effect. I tried pressing the 'music' button a second time. Nothing. In the end, I turned down the volume to a low level tinkle. 

Then I stayed stock still for 10 minutes until everyone left, before putting on a falsely calm face and exiting the cubicle. Thoughts about hysterectomies had been replaced by considerations of the minimum acceptable excuse to wear incontinence pads.