Wednesday, August 11, 2010

462 Days In - Out and About

A while ago, my brother said: “You are in America; travel and see places, that is what you will remember."

Pretty sensible guy, my brother.

Yes it is silly that we should have to have this fact pointed out to us, but you know, when you live in a place there will always be another opportunity to visit X desert or Y canyon.

But luckily we had shipped over our tent and cool-box and camping chairs and so were ready when our fancy took us to go a-travelling.

And if California has one thing, it is a variety of landscapes.

So far we have been to three places - maybe not that many for over a year, but a start at least.

Place number one, was Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez valley - city wandering, sitting by a lake and a little bit of wine tasting.

Place number two, before it got just too hot, was to the Joshua Tree desert.

Chris has always had a thing for deserts - I don’t think even he is sure whether it is the blistering sun, lack of vegetation or (as we discovered) the whipping winds that scratch your face with sand and dust, that endears him to the place. But facetious wit aside, there is something eerily lonely (in a good way) about the place, even with tourists abound - and the star-gazing certainly makes it worthwhile.
Most recently we went to King’s Canyon. Home of the world’s largest trees and some pretty breathtaking views of rock walls.

Not having made it to the area when the bears were still hibernating, Chris was a little apprehensive, and we couldn’t quite work out whether having a special metal bear-proof container in which to put all our belongings that had any sort of smell (food, shower-gel, lipstick) was a good thing or a bad thing.

Once set up and ready to venture out, my curiosity for seeing bears begins to appear; I have visions of spotting one fishing as I carelessly glance down the river, or of catching one slucking on ants just as we have the camera posed.

Idle thoughts.

And though Chris’ curiosity does join mine, his heightened sense of imagination works on him slowly and subconsciously.

This is the imagination that, on our first night in Peru (in a somewhat questionable hotel establishment), had him believing the clerks low whispers into the phone were most definitely to friends with shotguns who liked to rob and kill British tourists.

We did not sleep much that night.

So when, one night in King’s Canyon, we are woken by loud metal bangs, Chris’ imagination is all too ready to put forth its image of were-wolf-bear savagely careening towards metal boxes containing food, and, finding no food, raging apoplectic, soon to take out its fury on innocent inhabitants of near-by tents.

The next day, finding ourselves complete with all limbs intact, we conclude that there must be some drunken students on the campsite, and take off on our hike.

I, not having done much exercise in quite some time, think that nine miles would be the perfect way to start a day, and over the course of mile number two chat chirpily about all the other places we will visit later in the day, and how beautiful everything is. Chris stalks ahead of me, looking for potential photographic opportunities.

By mile number seven or so, I am reduced to a whining child - knee injury from the Inca trail having returned, and general endlessness of hike taunting me. Chris, however, now having achieved numerous great shots of rocks and water and rocks, skips along, light-of-foot.

My memory of this is faultless.

Following some proper out-in-the-wild cooking on a campfire, and far too many marshmallows, the night brings awesome storm after awesome storm. Zeus’ brightest of flashes is chased by the most thunderous of thunder I have ever heard. There just is no other description for it.

At four am, slightly confused at our own behaviour, we pack up a sodden tent and head off to the panoramic point to watch the sun rise - which it does, spectacularly at just about the time, in England, two years ago, we would have been getting married.

Friday, July 16, 2010

434 Days In - American Times

I was going to write about July the fourth. To commemorate the anniversary of when I started writing these thoughts, and to report what a fun time we had compared to last year; how we went out in our new neighbourhood, how we bonded with our neighbours, how we wooped at the fireworks and felt at one with the Americans.

But then I got ill.

So the day was spent mainly sitting in and listening to all the fun outside. Though, still, it was more eventful than last year.

And all has not been lost. It is Summer - and though the weather actually only gets cloudier in May and June, Californians head to the beach, light fires generally have a good-old all-American time.

Chris and I were invited to one such party and revelled in our British uniqueness as locals thrust red-plastic cups into our hands and fed us S’mores. The gentlest initiation into a tradition I have every had to go through.

The red plastic cups, that I have seen so many a time in US teen films, are, apparently, to hide the fact that you are drinking alcohol - which is of course illegal to teens anywhere, and illegal to anyone on state beaches.

Of course, though, our red cups did not have alcohol in them - officer.

A S’more, for those of you in the dark, is a roasted-marshmallow-melted-chocolate-biscuit-sandwich. You cant go wrong there, right?

Interestingly, having been to the shops and chosen their ingredients, I was handed my S’more with a somewhat apologetic gesture and a mumble about Hershey’s chocolate.

The famous Hershey’s bar, some kind of symbol of American childhood, remembered so fondly by Chris, just doesn’t taste very good. It holds all the promise of what we call chocolate, but something just isn’t right. Rumours abound that it has wax a part of its ingredients - but that was just in the past. Maybe the key to the delicious taste that Chris tries in vain to hold on to.

It would seem that most Americans are aware of the relative luxury of a Cadbury bar when compared to its Yanky cousin. Why then they don’t just use Cadbury’s chocolate can only be due to nostalgia; and in this case I was happy to have the experience in its full American entirety.

What is the point in being here, otherwise. Right?

Monday, June 28, 2010

416 Days In - The World Cup

I don’t want to talk about the football.

Lets leave aside the fact that if I tried to talk about the football here I would be looked at quizzically and then corrected on my terminology. Do Americans never wonder why the rest of the world call their sport American Football?

To be honest I never really did want to talk about the football. It isn’t really my kind of sport - all that overpay going to whiney little boys who cry when barely hurt and feel it is ok to argue with the powers that be if things don’t go their way. And because they are actually men (not boys) this is done in an aggressive, ugly manner.

I just don’t get enjoyment from watching that.

What I do have, though, is national pride; and this helped me somewhat towards mustering enthusiasm for upcoming matches.

It began with this was through a slightly smug smile and me playing my role of: Brit who knows the American’s are clearly no match for the English team. Unfortunately this did not create the rises that I had hoped, and most US citizens seemed pretty complacent in their knowledge that this is not America’s sport and well done their boys who have managed to make it into the group stage.

And then the shame - why did it not continue as it started - those first four minutes. After a while I retreated into the kitchen and baked a birthday cake. Time much better spent.

So came the overall group places; of course we lose out to America - a country that was bottom of its group in 2006 and has very few fans who even watch the sport (we outnumbered them by about 8,000 at our match).

At this point I could be nothing but glad that I don’t have emotional invested interest in football as a sport. But I have to say that the number of yellow cards and subsequent good behaviour was endearing me to it a little.

Watching the disaster that our team seems to be, it was easy to work out that soon we would be matched against Germany.


Well, as far as I am concerned it is our own fault for not getting through our gift-of-a-group in first place, and avoiding the inevitable clash with the Krauts.

Not a favourable history here, and both sides alike (in my experience) love to engage in this football rivalry (there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to it) .

And while the Americans I know who do watch the world cup are weighing up the different players and their performances so far, and working out that, really, Germany are the better side, and, really, they do deserve to go through; on our 6am drive into the city to join fellow Brits in an LA “pub” all I have in my mind is the 1996 European cup penalty shoot out.

So I don’t want to talk about it. Life goes on, right?

At least we beat Australia in Rugby on the 19th.

Monday, June 21, 2010

409 Days In - Babies Babies Everywhere

We have got to that age when everyone we know is having babies. Babies are literally popping up all over the place.

Two days before we left England for the sunny Californian coast, I held my niece. My brother’s first. One hour old.

Since we arrived here, five of my friends have become mothers for the first time, and one for the second time.

The latest arrival to the family came a few weeks ago to Chris’ brother. A little girl. Already about as computer competent as my mother, thanks to the wonder of Skype.

There is nothing quite like children - the arrival of new babies, the change in their parents’ lives, the delight from new actions and words - to highlight what you are missing.

And it is my own, all too keen, knowledge of how it feels to be watching the lives of those you love take place without you, that led me to me wondering how this new addition to the family might manifest itself in soothing parental advice aimed towards me and Chris.

As well meaning as parents are, they just cant help themselves when they hit “grandparent age”. Even my mother, who has three grandchildren already, and is not really one to tell me what to do, announced in April 2009 (grandchild number three still in the womb - just) that I must hurry up and have children soon because “I want all my grandchildren to be around the same age”.

Our escape to the U.S. moved us in with Chris’ parents. His mother then had plenty of opportunities (during breakfast, over dinner, at tea-time) to mention casually that women don’t get any younger. Every now and then she would just give in and announce “we want grandchildren, here in the US”. And Chris’ dad, reclining in his chair, cup of tea in hand, would nod and grin his concurrence.

Isn’t it wonderful how people will fulfil their own stereo-types; how you can check with your friends and ninety percent of them will have had the same conversation (not that conversation is a probably the right word) with at least one set of parents.

So you can understand my concern, now that there is a beautiful, pristine little cherub to stir anew the “grandparent need”.

Please don’t mistake me for being totally self-centred here! I do not expect this to bubble to the surface for a good while yet. Discussions of another visit are filling the air, and it is a true delight to watch the new arrival sleep or peek at us over the computer videos, or to receive pictures of her in the gaze of her doting older sister.

But all too soon, when the next holiday has been and gone, and the house is once again void of little-girl chatter and baby gurgles, then, I expect, the question of my age might once more be addressed.

But rather than bewail these moments of grandparent lunacy (that, let’s face it, I will probably have myself in a few decades) I use them as an opportunity to deflect attack onto my easy-going husband. “Poor me, Chris doesn’t want children yet, Chris moved me out to America, I can’t make any decisions myself”. Yadda yadda yadda.

And then I watch him squirm, fully under the gaze of his mother, not sure whether to defend himself or just to try and retreat from the subject matter as quickly as humanly possible.

That, in itself, is worth any amount of parental advice.

Monday, May 10, 2010

367 Days In - A Year

Tuesday was Chris and my one year “Arrived in L.A.” anniversary.

One whole year.

Away from family, missing friends, striking out in a new land.

But settling; slowly but surely, settling.

Following the big-day of rings, and flowers, and a church, and a white dress, my husband and I packed up our London flat, moved this and that into storage, hopped off round the world for a few months and then stayed with different relatives whilst visa was acquired, flights were booked and (as you know) we found our feet in the promised land of the western frontier.

So now, here in our little flat, where the sun streams in the windows, and neighbours chat over fences, we are in our first marital home. One and half years after the wedding.

In our first home, we thought it only proper to get our first pet. With no cat-flap and too many dog-on-lead laws our conclusion was that a hamster would make the perfect companion. She is a Russian Dwarf hamster.

We called her Moscow. She is solitary, and feisty, loves us when we feed her seeds, hates it when we clean her cage. She entertains us.

Then to fully establish the flat’s position as “home”, we held a small but significant dinner party. Chose food, let wine breath, lit candles.

I took surprising delight in visiting Costco and filling cupboards with 20 tins of pineapple chunks, and 15 packets of pasta.

We ordered the LA Sunday Times, and joined Netflix.

But living with borrowed furniture and limited personal belongings, it is the little things that make it feel like home.

On moving day our boxes sat, as they invariably do, around the edge of the room, promising a new start. In the midst of borrowed crockery and newly purchased lamps, one forgotten box, that had been shipped over the sea months before our plane tickets had been booked, that had sat abandoned in the dusty garage for almost a year, now shone not with the hope of things to come, but with the warm familiarity of home.

The content was limited and unpretentious: coasters and coffee mugs, a rug and a chess board, a small bowl from Peru, a demon mask from Thailand.

The mugs we drink from every day, coasters are scattered on various surfaces, the mask hangs on our wall.

Out on the patio, the herbs are growing well; in our kitchen Branston baked beans rest after their flight from England in Chris’ dad’s suitcase.

Everything is coming together nicely.

Monday, April 19, 2010

345 Days In - High School

To keep our lovely new 1940’s roof over our heads, I have been doing some supply teaching - or Substitute as they call it here.

On my first day subbing, I rouse myself at some ungodly hour like 6am, collect pre-made sandwiches, and head out into the day.

On my way from the car-park, hampered by the kind of exhaustion that only comes from a previously unemployed person now having got up for work, I ask a student the way to the main office.

Properly engaging with my surroundings for the first time, everything comes into focus, and I find myself on the set of Grease.

(This is not literal, you understand...)

American High Schools, well Californian High Schools, have a student head count of about 2500 students, for four years (or grades) of school. This compares to an average of about 800-1000 or so in the UK, for 5or 7 years. The campus is huge, and swarming with teenagers.

But not only are you so greatly outnumbered, but the students wear their own clothes and basically act like adults.

I am the kind of person who is used to going into bars and being IDd (even more so now I live here), and the older I get the more acceptable that is to me. But put me in a room full of made-up, dressed as they wish, confident kids and there is no way you are going to know who the teacher is.

That is, of course, until I speak.

Excitement flutters around the room: “oh my gosh, I love your accent”, “can you say my name?”, “where are you from?”

And I have hardly begun my “Hello, My name is… and I am from…” speech, when a noise from what seems to be speakers, comes from the wall:

“Good morning students, please stand for the Pledge”.

It is at this point - when the students stand, turn and place their right hand on their heart - that I realise I am standing right underneath the American Flag.

If I didn’t look young and stupid already, the quick duck and dodge out of the way must have done it.

The Pledge of Allegiance is followed by droll announcements and encouraging words from students and teachers, and this is neatly capped off by some Rn’B; not my imagined xylophone chime rung by Principal McGee and Blanch in the aforementioned film.

This unique experience has not, unfortunately, been restricted to one day at one school - I perpetually forget that I will be interrupted by some person or other at some point in one lesson, and I have an amazing knack for finding the flag and planting myself beneath it.

Embarrassing episodes aside, I like to think that I am drumming a little bit of good-old-fashioned British standards into these kids.

Blank stares, barely registering confusion, respond to my “sorry I’m late, Miss”, as the students lollops in ten minutes after the bell, and that is if they even realise I am talking to them. Pleases and Thank-yous are all but extinct and I have been told numerous times that a student “has to go to his locker”.

But this is teaching in Orange County, and the students are almost too laid back for their own good. In-fact I think they enjoy fitting into their own stereotype; perfecting the blond side-sweep of hair, and describing pictures of a battle scene as “awesome”. One class handed in a rather high percentage of self-written poems about, yes, surfing.

The more I return to schools, and with a little help from my unique voice, I am remembered, and with that remembrance comes stuttered politeness. And though I still miss the netted skirts and leather jackets it is not too bad a way to pay the rent.

Friday, April 2, 2010

328 Days In - Welcome to the Neighbourhood

So, we moved.

Out of the in-laws, into our own place. Away from quiet rich-ville, to energetic eclectic-town.

Our new area is Belmont Shore; and so, without moving further than five minutes from the boarder, we are no longer in Orange County.

Situated on the coast, Belmont has a rich history that spans back to, oh about the 1920s. We found ourselves a lovely light and airy one bed flat that is original 1940s. I excitingly emailed family and friends about this fact and my sister blankly replied “I don’t get why you keep going on about this. Is it because that is all the history they have?”

Well, that’s about it, yes.

It is amazing how your perceptions change with your surroundings.

I would not have considered living in something this new, were I looking in England - only Victorian or before really creates that feeling of home for me.

But here, the 1940’s ugly metal windows are charming in that they are not plastic, we have original solid wood cupboards in the kitchen (complete with shelf lining), and a double ceramic sink. Though, my favourite feature has to be the little window in our front door, that you open to see who is outside.

I feel more domesticated every day.

The actual move was exhausting.

In the preceding days we scuttled round shops purchasing this and that; ensuring that we had light, and cleaning implements and tea cups. We hired a van, loaded it and headed off.
With furniture in, boxes piled up and the bed assembled we fell into bed for a blissful sleep in our new home.

And so eclectic-town came alive.

At about 2am, after hours of fitful dozes full of haunting dreams, Chris said “this is a two party night, isn’t it?”

He was right. It was a Wednesday. And we had not been invited to either.

Party number one was in the building next door, and had actually ended at a reasonable 1am or so. Party number two was our direct neighbour, and with the state of our genuine 1940s walls, may as well have been happening in our bedroom.

At 2.45am I made an executive decision, and devoid of a basket of cookies, went to introduce myself to our new neighbour.

I am pleased to say he was mortified, and immediately went to bed…

Through the following days we gradually eased out of the state of zombie and, though nervous the next few nights, realised that our initial experience of the area was not a recurring state.

When sitting out on our shared patio, neighbours introduce themselves, children brag to us about their slip ‘n slide, and little birds float about on the sea breeze.