Sunday, December 27, 2009

232 Days In - Decorations and Traditions

We definitely live in an area of the United States that likes decoration.

Of course I have previously mentioned Halloween, which is neatly followed by Thanksgiving (when carved pumpkins are swapped for solid ones and spiders replaced by small scarecrows) and then Christmas.

Even before the Thanksgiving turkey is finished, out come the sparkley lights and giant baubels.
I know this because they are on the outside of houses.

This tradition is picking up in England, but it has a special place here; flyers begin to appear sometime in October advertising professional light-putter-uppers, which reportedly cost you anywhere form $400 to $20,000.
Plus, no-longer content with simple strings, the lights now come in the shapes of reindeer, or the baby Jesus, or a Polar Bear wearing a scarf.

On a lonely drive home, well before Christmas, I am distracted by bright lights that I have not seen before (and this is a part of the Freeway I know very well). A large circular church has its Christmas lights on: in addition to those lining the building, a life-size nativity-crib is made from fairy lights, and every tree in the graveyard is coated in them - from root to top-tip.

As if buildings lining the roads are not enough, the cars themselves are also decorated - wreaths, red bows or reindeer nose and antlers.

Eager for a tasteful, reusable wreath for their front gate, Chris’ parents went to Stats - a festival slanted “everything you will need” kind of shop. At this point Chris was still on his start-of-MFA-residency and with no car I was slowly going mad, so I go along for a laugh and a bit of cultural learning.

You can get everything you will need: pre-dressed trees with oversized bows, or a statue of Father Christmas with a surfboard, or fake silver branches to hang from your ceiling, or life-size Crib figurines, or a miniature Dickens village…

On entry you are slapped in the face with all manner of garish Christmas tat fighting each other for attention in the crowded space. It is a big shop.

Chris’ Mom spends some time picking out the correct wreath, holding them up against each other and trying to block out the lurid surroundings. This I have to commend her for, as the wreath looks very good separated from its birthplace. Looking around at our fellow shoppers, it is clear that no-one else possess’ this rare seventh sense.

One lady pushes a trolley full of various glittery branches. Full.

Back at home Chris’ Mom comes across the “icicles” that hang on the tree; these are the long individual pieces of tinsel material that, here, they dangle from the ends of the Christmas-tree branches. Feeling validated now that she is back on home turf, she merrily scatters them about her tree. This causes some disapproval from the patriarch of the family.

Not at all British.

Actually there are many British Christmas traditions that I did not realise were specific to us, until I merrily tried to make them happen here.

Crackers, for example. I mean, what is Christmas without silly paper hats, useless plastic toys and awful jokes?

Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are the other main casualties.

Though I am not that partial to eating mince pies, I am very partial to making them, and this was one tradition that I was not going to give up. But if Americans don’t make a certain food, why would you assume that the ingredients for it will be found in the shops? It isn’t. Not readily anyway, and it took more than a few trips to hunt down a semblance of what I needed.

In-fact, with the help of the world-wide-web, Costco and a quaint little British shop that sells lots of tea-pots, we gathered together all of our missing treats.
But I know that I am here for the experience of living in a new land, so this year we added two new traditions to our list: a Christmas walk along the beach and The Elvis Christmas Album.

Monday, December 14, 2009

219 Days In - Winter, Is That You?

It rained for a few days. Pretty heavily and constantly.

With a wry smile at the reminder of home, I sit inside the house, not daring to go out.

Chris’ dad puts on his raincoat and ventures into the unknown. Grinning.

But, because Southern California is usually so hot the heating system is not up to British standards: hot air is blown noisily into the only room with a thermostat. Everywhere else in the house, the paper walls are at the mercy of the cold outside.

So the thought of getting soaked through just makes me shiver.

This is not my usual state. As I have mentioned, I love the cold - and the best bit about it is knowing that you have a blazing fire and toasty house to return to.

On the first day that the rain came and the winds picked up, we did have a fire. Chris’ dad had been waiting for just such an opportunity, and the garage has been filled with awaiting logs since August. But the chimney was build by southern Californians, and the wind whipped down it, gusting puffs of smoke at us like a message from the natives.

That was our last fire.

Chris has started his Masters course. He goes in for ten intensive days, and then writes lots of Booker-prize-winning pieces at home, emailing his adviser over the months before his next ten intensive days.

He is about half way through his first set of ten days, and has been lucky enough to catch some of the rain on his commute to “school”.

If Californian roads are dangerous when the climate is predictable, they are downright scary when the rain comes. A bit like English roads in the snow. But worse.

The drivers split into two categories. Those who do not understand that stopping takes longer when the road is wet, and like to sit on the bumper of your car at the same speed they would usually go. And those who are scared and so drive really really slowly. If this second group is lucky enough to drive up behind someone else who is scared, again, stopping distance gaps are not altered.

Unsurprisingly then, the local newspaper recorded that on one of the said rainy days that, here in Orange County, there were 484 collisions registered - compared with 127 the previous week.

On the bright side, the drought has been eased for a while.

It is now sunny again, and if you sit on the patio at midday it feels like summer; the view is of blue skies and green trees. The only indications of December are wind chills and longer evenings
Recently I realised that I had been scrimped on autumn this year. No golden leaves to run about in, and no bare trees to sway eerily against the sky.

I just isn’t right.

So while the neighbours complain that wet and cold must cancel their plans with Chris’ parents, I am hoping for the storms to visit again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

212 Days In - Vistis and Visitations

Chris’s parents have been on a whirlwind of visiting and entertaining - well, comparatively speaking.

In November his dad flew to England to sort some business. While there does a whistle stop tour of relatives, from Bristol to Liverpool.

Upon return, barely recovered from jet lag, and he packed up the car and drove off with Chris’ mom to where she grew up. They visit old school friends, cousins and even double-cousins, ate a lot of hospitable food, and return exhausted two days earlier than planned.

There was disappointment over the way that things had changed: that the roads had stretched and spread, that gardens had not been tended, and that chain-link fences had been put up around fondly remembered childhood homes.

I have tried to visit neighbourhoods or houses close to the heart of distant rose-tinted childhood memories. Generally the bright glare of reality brings nothing but melancholy.

There is then a flurry of preparation for the arrival of Chris’ uncle and aunt in time for Thanksgiving.

Whilst busily preparing a 20lb turkey, three different types of potato and two pumpkin pies, Chris’ mom lamented that I would not be able to experience a proper American Thanksgiving where there is lots of food.

Maybe next year.

It was lovely to have family here, and there was a feeling of holiday in the air; everything shut down for the Thursday, and most companies were closed on Friday also.

In true Thanksgiving tradition (I am told) we watch American football whilst nibbling on nuts and sipping lager. Chris asks many complicated questions about this overly-complicated game, doing his best to find his roots and be a proper American.

I bite my tongue, avoiding a loud eruption of “Rugby is clearly a much better game - rah rah rah”.

Seriously though, if you need scantily clad dancing girls and a person in an oversized costume to keep you entertained, how good can the game be?

Then, this week, I had my own little “visit”.

Albeit for just half an hour in the departure building of Los Angeles airport, it definitely made my day.

One of my best friends from University was flying through on her way back from Hawaii, and we managed to meet for a hug and quick natter in the general melee of her flight change.

I have to admit that I am feeling a little friend-deprived at the moment, and seeing someone close to me was a real tonic.

But I try not to think about what I am missing - just what there is to look forward to when the time for family and friends’ visits arrives.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

199 days In - The Police and Me

An American Cop is an intimidating figure.

Through T.V. dramas, grapevine stories and reality cop shows, an image has been built of men (I don’t mean to be sexist, this is just how my imagination works) who have all the power and not necessarily much morality.

In a country where, they say, it is not that difficult to get a gun, and where, they say, there is much gang related crime, it would not be surprising to find cops who look on you with suspicion before giving you the benefit-of-the-doubt.

I have, in six months, had four encounters with the US police-force. Each increasingly dangerous…

Honestly though, it’s not what it sounds like.

The first was early on. Driving lost through down-town LA, hoping and praying that some mad-man won’t jump out of the shadows with a sawn-off-shot-gun, disorientated we turn left from the wrong lane and cut off a police car.

Well, I say “we”, but Chris was driving.

At the next junction, we are blinded by one of his special “blind the criminals” lights, and he calls across to us:

“You can’t just pull across me like that, buddy.”

“Oh….I am terribly sorry.”

Stammers Chris in his best “I went to a posh British school” voice. The “we are just stupid tourists” excuse is always the best.

Our second encounter was much more personal, though still disappointingly polite.

Speeding on our way to a day of mundane background work, we are caught - yes - speeding.

Again, I say “we”, but Chris was driving.

Blue lights flash behind us. It is very exciting, this time it is a motorcycle cop.

He walks purposefully to my window, which I obediently roll down, and complete with moustache, sunglasses and leather gloves he introduces himself and asks the driver why he might be driving so fast.

My over-excitement at the whole experience is somewhat dampened when the extortionate ticket arrives.

At encounter number three, I had no husband to protect me (or to blame).

Work took me out to a little hotel in the middle of nowhere, and at 8am there is a knock on the door. My room-mate answers it and immediately we are asked:

“So what’s going on?”

So nice to meet you too, officer.

Thinking it is some kind of joke, my room-mate laughs along, but when we are requested to hand over I.D. she staunchly refuses and begins a rampage about how, if the police did their jobs, California would not be in debt.

A slightly confusing argument.

It turns out that there had been an anonymous call saying that something distressing was happening in our room - though he did get the room number wrong when he mentioned it, sooo…

After taking me aside to ask sincerely “are you sure you are alright ma’am?” he has to admit defeat and leave.

I begin to eye everyone else at the hotel suspiciously, and am very happy when it comes time to leave for work.

And so, two nights ago came the fourth, and definitely most scary, encounter.

At 3am we wake, with a start, so the screech of tyres and a thunderous bang. A car alarm goes off for about 20 seconds. Then silence.

My heart literally pounds from the shock, while my mind runs wild. As I have mentioned, we live in a guard gated cul-de-sac with speed bums every 50 yards; how could anyone even travel fast enough to create such impact?

In my head a pick-up-truck has crashed into a house. Chris agrees that this is what it sounded like.

Lying awake I hear a few scuffles in the dark - figments of my startled imagination, I tell myself.

Then there is torchlight, voices, and the unmistakable sound of our back-gate. Followed by a knock on our door and Chris’ mom’s rushed voice:

“There are policemen in the back yard.”

It takes up approximately two seconds to dress, and we head for the front door to investigate, but the call of “don’t go out, the police had their guns drawn” halts us firmly in our tracks.
The image of policemen running around just outside the windows, guns in hand, chasing down a criminal, who was clearly trying to escape them, has an odd effect.

Will the mad-man run through our land? Might the police, on the other side of the house, see him, shoot through the windows and catch us in the cross-fire? Conversations of whether the patio lights should be on or off, ensue.

A knock on the door brings the news of how the attempted escapee did run through the back yard, and that now having been caught, he would be going to jail. Not a drug-dealer or gang-killer, it transpires he was a drunk 21 year old who panicked when stopped for a broken headlight.

We watch the blue lights slowly disappear, and head back to bed.

Chris’ dad, who slept through the sound of the crash, puts the kettle on, and stays up to have a cup of tea.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

194 Days In - The Quality of the Air

Those of you who know me will know that cleaning my car is really rather low on any priority list I might make.

The other people who live in LA seem to put it a little higher on their lists, and being the only person on the road with a dirty car can cause some self-consciousness.

There was great excitement, then, when (after having taken the car for an oil-change, which I had never even heard of before coming here) we were offered a free car wash.

Scarily not that perturbed that the oil-change did not check my break pads, or suspension, or even back lights, off I poddle to the designated place to receive my newly clean car.

Parking in a row of cars waiting to be cleaned, I clock the “just washed” look of other cars in the line. Clouds of shame begin to gather.

It was a very rare occasion, in the UK, that I would wash my car. Maybe if I was selling it, or if there was so much mud on it I couldn’t actually see out. But England does help you out a little, with torrential downpours and drizzly days.

Rain is such a rare and wonderful occurrence here that when it does come, it simply displaces the dirt on your car, arranging it into new patterns.

That is how dirty the car gets.

I think I may have mentioned that we live on a tamed desert - there is a lot of dust in the air. I may not have mentioned that Los Angeles has filthy, filthy smog. I have often been shocked, when driving, at relatively close mountains hazily coming into view, and when out and about in town everything is doused in a romantic soft-focus.

It is not quite as bad a Kathmandu, but worryingly close.

A famous weather phenomenon here is the Santa Ana Winds. This is when, instead of getting breezy, slightly humid winds from the ocean, the air comes rushing over the desert and arrives hot and dry. An upside is that it straightens frizzy hair, but these “devil winds” not only traditionally cause quarrels and anxiety, but they bring all the Los Angeles smog to those of us smugly perched by the sea.

When the winds visited us a couple of months ago Chris’ mom ran round the house in a panic ordering us to close all the windows. In my usual “it is better to have the window open” opinion, I was dubious. That is until I saw the effect out at sea, in the form of a green haze hanging over the water.

I kid you not.

So it all makes sense; I am not unusually grubby out here, the air is just filled with dirt.

After watching a numerous amount a men scrub, rub and even hoover every inch of the car (including the inside rim of the doors), I handed over an above-average tip, avoided all eye-contact, and informed Chris that he would be taking the car to any washes, in future.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

185 Days In - Tea's Up

I have taken to having a spot of tea of an afternoon; poured from the tea-pot, naturally; often accompanied by a small slice of sponge.

High tea is a truly wonderful thing.

When at university, my house-chum commented, whilst sipping on a hot cup of English Breakfast, that I never made tea for her, and that she was always making tea for me. My response was that I did not care for tea that much, and that I would gratefully accept her offers as it meant a break and no-doubt a hearty chat.

Now, come five hours following noon-time, I will place a brimming kettle on the hob and call to all that tea will soon be ready.

It is now the tenth of November. Which means that the fifth of November has been and gone, vanishing into the past as though it were of no significance at all. Gunpowder treason being well and truly “forgot” by this household, this year.

When I lamented to Chris, pulling an ever-so-slightly childlike face, and thinking of all the jollity we would be missing out on, he retorted that we never did anything to mark the day in the past, anyway.

This is simply not true.

Wrapping up and trudging out into the cold, so that I can have my face burnt by a bonfire, while my toes slowly freeze, and my neck goes stiff from looking up at fireworks, is one of the things that I live for. I have never let a Guy Fawkes night pass us by without so much as a sparkler, before.

But Chris seems to be forgetting a few things that made us British.

The worst of these, is his accent. Without a doubt the most unattractive sound in the American accent is the way they say the “you“ sound. Like it is a double O.

Now it is winter we will be having stoo; Chris has dooal nationality; characters on T.V. claim they are not stoopid; we got a noo car…I could go on and on and on.

Chris’ Mom, having got out of this habit in her twenty years of living in G.B. has slipped right back into it - and her little son is following suit.

The first slip came pretty early, when we were doing background work and he referred to the stoodio. As he had mentioned that he was keen to keep his English accent, I was very happy to jump on this; and what followed was ten minutes of Chris trying to get it right again.

This has been followed by other mistakes; but his tolerance of giving in to me is waning, either that or it is just too much like hard work.

Granted there are a few words that Chris has always said in the American way: tomato, oregano… But he has taken to responding “I always said it like that” when I might mention that no, he wasn’t frustrated, but frustrated.

I am all for fitting in while we are here in the United States, but there is something special about being a little unique. And, more importantly, I’ll be damned if I let any of my Great British standards fall.

So if you’ll excuse me, I just need to pop the kettle on.

Monday, November 2, 2009

177 Days In - Halloween

Wow Halloween is a big-deal here.

I mean, I knew is was a bigger deal here than in the UK. But, really, it’s a Big Deal here.

Like Christmas, the shops started advertising it over a month before; even if their wares are totally irrelevant to the Eve of All Hallows Day, stickers and spiders’ webs adorn the windows. There are whole warehouse shops that open just at this time of year, Disney runs its own special show and people decorate their houses weeks in advance.

As Chris pointed out, this takes something from the scary effect on Halloween night.

Apart from the amazing array of decorations, of course you can purchase special “trick or treat candy” in pretty much any shape or form. The Mommys like to know that their little darlings, having donned bought costumes and yelled “give me sweeties or I will egg your house” at you, will not be poisoned by their treats. To this end, everything is individually wrapped, proving a lack of poison or razor blades.

Learning this, I start to wonder about how noticeable needle holes are in chocolate bar wrappings. Not for my own use, you understand.

There was great excitement as Halloween fell on a Saturday this year. I heard rumours that Los Angeles is the only city where adults go trick-or-treating; but most either go to a party or run about the streets in cordoned off Hollywood.

Overhearing energetic conversations of “which party are you going to?” and “I’m dressing up as this, what will you be?”, can make you feel somewhat left-out. A bit like New-Year’s-Eve, I felt like I should be having an amazing time somewhere, that I could gloat about on facebook later.

On the Saturday in question Chris and I pop to the local mall, we shop for jeans, everyone else is there to show off costumes and gather “candy”.

You guessed it, this is not something that starts when the sun goes down, they are at it all day. Lucky old dentists.

And costumes are not limited to witches and ghosts, we saw cheerleaders, bears, princesses, ketchup bottles, ladybirds, tacos, and our personal favourite - Big Ben.

Actually, we did have fun. We carved an evil pumpkin, made a big spider to creep about on the pool “web” and donned minimum costume/makeup - Chris was a fantastic joker-style-pumpkin. The job of doling out little chocolate bars to cute little kids and greedy pre-teens also become ours; and we actually got some “oh my god” squeals in reaction to my husband’s face.

My childhood Halloween was an evening of apple bobbing and silly games; I don’t remember dressing up, and I do remember my mother’s attitude that getting something because you threaten people is not a good thing.

If you look into the origins of Trick-or-Treating you find that centuries ago it was prevalent in the UK in the form of poor folk offering prayers in return for tit-bits on All Hallows Day (November 1st). It then skipped over here, grew in popularity in the 1940s/50s, and is (I hear) creeping its way into our quaint little British villages.

But if it builds a sense of community and spreads a festive mood, that can only be a good thing. Just don’t tell the kiddywinks what it really means!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

166 Days In - October Already?

I can’t believe it’s the middle of October already.

It’s a cliché for a reason that “ the older you get the quicker time goes”; and an oh so grown up conversation (on skype) with my seven-year-old niece shocked me a little. She is awesome! I, of course, remember when she was born - it really wasn’t that long ago.

But what makes it particularly difficult to notice how time is flying by is that it still looks like summer outside. My two-year-old niece (again on skype) announced to her grandma today “the seasons are changing”. Not in California.

I have seen a few brown leaves fall from the trees, but there were just as many through July and August as there are now.

There were indications that the summer season had ended: the lifeguard’s tower was moved from the centre of the beach to the edge; a chain appeared on the track that beach-club trucks took down to the sand; and, as if the Piper had been, the children disappeared.

We are above the equator, so the OC is doing its best to show us it is “fall”, bless it. Sometimes in the morning or in the evening, the air is a little cooler, or there are clouds, so I put socks or a long-sleeved top on. But really, I don’t buy it.

I am told how lucky I am, and that it must be lovely to have sun every day, but it rained recently, and that just made me smile. I love cosiness, and to get true cosiness you need cold: you need thick jumpers and wool-lined boots, hats and cold noses, mugs of hot-chocolate and roasting fires.

And I am not just remembering England with the pink-tint of reminiscing, I was never one to really complain about the drizzle that soaked through my clothes day after day. As longs as you are on your way home, or can pop into a dimly lit pub or character-full coffee house, who cares? The warming-up part is delicious.

Quite apart from the weather, So-Cal doesn’t seem to do cosy in any way. It is hard to find a lovely little coffee place to while a way your day, in a land that’s oldest building is circa 1960. They seem to knock all the history out of this place in favour for… um… I don’t know what. Character Be Gone!

So the locals talk of how the nights are closing in (pah!) and that heating may be required soon to move the temperature in the house from 70 degrees back up to 75 (that is 21 to 24). And I can’t help thinking that if you are going to do something, you should do it properly - and a proper autumn needs golden leaves, crisp cold days, rain and drizzle, fog, blustery winds, and the beginings of beautiful frost.

Friday, October 16, 2009

159 Days In - Here for Two years

I don’t know what has happened.

It has been at least two weeks since I last went for a run, I cannot remember the last time we played tennis, and there is no hope of me becoming a pie maker extraordinaire any time soon.

On the plus side, Chris’ life does seem to be taking shape. The best news is that he got into the Masters programme that he applied to - my husband, an MFA don’t you know. Actually he applied to two and he got into both. This is of special significance because, like so many of us, Chris looks back on his time at University with the shadow of hindsight and the knowledge that his degree does not reflect his ability or current work-ethic.

He also has less of a beer-gut now.

Of course I am buzzing with the pride of someone who feels their association with a successful person somehow reflects on them.

We are staying in Belmont Shore again this week. It gives Chris a shorter commute to his temp-job, and allows us to play house again. His busy-ness with coming home from work and having to deal with proper work, while I cook dinner and lay the table like a good 1950s housewife, gives me a flash of what it will be like once he has started his course.

He starts in December.

But we have to look to the future, right? To how blissful our life will be when he doing what he really wants for a living. How happy he will be; we will be…

Actually he will really fit in here now. Going “back to school” seems to be a popular thing. In-fact, from what I have seen, employees of all kinds are expected to take more classes and more exams throughout their time working as whatever it is they do. In England, we see the work itself as the experience and training.

When I paid the money and waited the days and days for my English credentials to be okayed by the Californian powers-that-be, the boxes of possible extra tests and extra credentials I could tick, but didn’t, only served to make me feel somewhat unqualified. But am not unqualified.

I did take one exam; it tested my maths skills (which have nothing to do with my credentials) and my English writing and reading skills - because my Degree is not good enough?

Apart from giving Chris more letters after his name, something to brag about at the pub, and general acceptance by the American people, his course also means that we will be here, at least, for another two years.

Not a problem, but it is just definite now.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

148 Days In - Tuesday is Gardening Day

On Tuesdays most of the neighbours are visited by their gardeners. Our residence gets its garden treatment on a Wednesday, but for some reason Tuesday is the chosen day for most others who live in this community.

From early in the morning, pick-up-trucks of varying colour, age and condition line the streets; balanced all around the edge are brooms and rakes, ladders and shears, hoses and leaf blowers. The gardeners are invariably immigrants. This comment should be taken as a fact - not racism!

I do not wish to confuse people; I know that the frustration of 69 Days In was that not enough stock is put in the importance of gardens. But I lamented over wide open spaces, and rolling lawns with children playing gaily. Here we have beds with flowers, shrubs and perfectly rounded bushes. And the reason that I know what all the neighbours gardens are like is because they are not within the confines of their property, but out on the verge, so those wandering past can see how pretty they keep their land, but they can’t themselves appreciate it from the comfort of their home.

One morning when it was cool enough to run, I pass a man up a ladder cutting random bits off a tree. Further down the hill a couple of guys chat in Spanish as they pull dead bits out of leafy shrubs. On my way home, they are still in the same places, doing the same thing. I can’t help wondering how much they are paid. I bet it is more than being a background artist!

You see, the gardening isn’t (like the gardens aren’t) quite the same as back home. If you leave sections of our green-and-pleasant-land alone, wild plants will grow in abundance; here the land is desert, and if left alone, returns to it’s natural form. Great Britain hums with conversations of which rose is now growing in this or that garden, grown men talk passionately about the British trees and are brought almost to tears at the thought of rising temperatures changing the native greenery.

So I like to think that if I hired a gardener in the UK, they would be doing the job because they were passionate about it, because they liked to watch things grow, to bring art to the outside portion of people’s homes.

Most Tuesday mornings, the most common sight is two gardeners outside of each property: one wears a pack on his back - not unlike those found on ghost-busters - but the nozzle blows at the leaves he waves it dispassionately towards; the second holds either rake, or hose, and assists the first in his arduous, skilful job of getting rid of dead leaves.

It does not come as a surprise to me, then, that once these workers have left for the week, if you look closely the façade of their work is only thin, and the rogue twigs/leaves/branches really can spoil the intended effect.

Everyone here has an opinion about Los Angeles - some might take the gardening as some sort of metaphor.

Monday, September 28, 2009

140 Days In - Playing at Domesticity

Chris has a mundane temp job for a few weeks. Of course he takes the car, so I am playing OC housewife, except without the money.

I am attempting to make the most of this domestic time by practicing my domestic goddess skills.

Those of you out there who grow vegetables, make delicious brownies or eat toast with homemade jam, please note that this is not a gift that I was born with. My mother, bless her, was always inventive, but not exactly refined with her cooking. My father has one meal: grilled beef burgers with tinned tomatoes.

My first step has been to purchase and pot herbs. What with the wonderful recipes of good-old Jamie including fresh herbs, it seemed a sensible step to have my own outside. It is also the perfect weather for growing herbs here. The sun shines with an intense warmth for most of the day, and the little plants are happier than Larry himself.

Unfortunately, the local insects are also happy. I used to love caterpillars; now they are just a sign of stolen food.

When you are living with relatives, and do not therefore have many of your own belongings around you, strange things can happen. I have become very attached to my herbs. I am suspicious too that this might have something to do with the tick-tock of the body clock. And of course there is also a little pride at stake.

Unhappily, yesterday I had to throw away my original basil plants, and pot a new little darling. Without wanting to apportion blame, I would like to mention that it was not my fault that it went brown from root to tip. Basil is very sensitive and does not like to be watered too much; when I would forget the gentle water for a day, a well-meaning fairy gave it a flood-bath. Then the brown began to appear.

Despite the ever-increasing rot, the little bugs still managed to eat what remained of the leaves. And the damn things are exactly the same colour.

My collection is now safely covered in some organic repellent, that I have been assured caterpillars despise. Time will tell.

The good news is that we have had some delicious food. Italian cuisine is a favourite in this household, and so it now comes adorned with fresh flavours. And my mother-in-law’s bread maker made a revival for some herb-bread.

So far, so good. A little careful measuring and it is amazing what you can achieve. Though I have not yet tried anything too tricky or temperamental; pastry is next on my list because no domestic is truly a goddess until she can make a tasty pie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

128 Days In - Not so Green and Pleasant

Last I heard, the LA wildfires were 71% under control.

It seems they have been burning continuously for weeks now; one has spread over 157,220 acres. A football pitch is about one and a half acres.

Photos show bleached out landscapes where street upon street of former suburbia have been left as crumbled concrete and simple scraps of black metal. A large percentage of Los Angeles houses are built from wood.

It is another reminder, more brutal than most, that my new home is a domesticated desert.

Soon after our arrival, when in LA for the day, Chris and I decided to picnic in Griffiths Park. Wanting respite from the hazy, polluted, concrete city, the promise of wide green spaces interspersed with historical fountains is always welcome. But LA is not London, and Griffiths Park (the only sizable green space we have found so far) is not Hyde Park; or Green Park; or Hampstead Heath.

The first evidence of this is that we enter the park in our car, on a road; not by foot! We stop at the first flat, green area we come across, but it is hemmed in by steep, dusty cliffs which hamper the feeling of space somewhat. The frequent stopping of white trucks containing single men in tight white T-shirts pushes us to move on.

Not far off there is a larger picnic area, complete with tables and swings and slides. Here, also, is the famous 1920s Carousel, which is beautifully restored in places and left alone in others. The horses are all individual with differing expressions and of different sizes. They come complete with 1920s leather safety buckles, and the music pipes from it’s original organ. Apparently Walt Disney's imaginings for his "Land" came whilst watching his children ride these very gee-gees.

It is wonderful to see history, left exactly as it was.

Here we are not so hemmed in, but there is still no feeling of freedom and green and nature.
On the surrounding mounds, short angular trees barely shade scrappy, sharp bushes. The leaves are as dry and grey as the land is unforgiving. Scenes from Clint Eastwood westerns spring to mind; and it begs the questions of how and why this land was tamed.

I know that it is probably due to geography more than anything, but it makes me chuckle that the East coast of the US was colonised over 200 years before the West coast; and that the West coast was colonised about the same time as Australia was - they obviously had a thing for harsh dessert terrains that year.

As you drive around the relatively balmy Orange County coast, the deception of natural green is given away through the regular eruption of sprinklers. A sprinkled lawn juxtaposed to a non-sprinkled highlights man’s interference here.

Of course, there is currently a water shortage.

Luckily we have not been affected by the wild-fires; but they found their way to steep and rugged terrain that the forest service described as somewhere “not even the mountain goats would venture”. All we saw of it (other than on the news) were hazy skies and bright vermillion sunsets.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

120 Days In - The Family Visits

Chris’ brother, his wife and their two-and-a-half year old daughter came to stay. They have gone now and the house is eerily still; filled with the exhaustion of those have had to say goodbye again.

But for two weeks our lives have been brimming with the vibe of holiday. Wine has flowed, banquets were had, and most importantly the squeals of a tiny voice echoed through the house - as uncle Chris took on his duties of throwing, flying, spinning and even reading to a niece that he was relieved had not forgotten who he is.

And the presence of visitors who were keen to make the most of their short stay pushed us into doing things that we had just been procrastinating around. Chris got out his surfboard; I pottered around Laguna Beach; we went out to take advantage of Martini Mania night; and we had a night party on the beach, around an open fire, eating barbeque food.
This of course all highlighted how we have not been taking advantage of our surroundings. Chris’ parents have a pool and Jacuzzi, and there is a beautiful beach five minutes walk from the house. Before our recent visitation, I had been in the pool once the Jacuzzi maybe six times and the sea twice.

I know, it’s shocking!

My sister mentioned, when I described my new living situation to her, that it sounded like we were living on a holiday resort. A shame that life gets in the way and stops you enjoying it.

But I suppose if we don’t enjoy it, it is not life that is getting in the way, because we are not living life - what exactly is the point in moving across the world if you are just going to shut yourself away?

So we now have a new resolution: to explore somewhere new at least every week.

Let’s hope we can stick to it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

113 Days In - Fast Food Mania

We have now eaten at “In and Out Burger”; not the most appetising of names, but it’s probably intended to indicate convenience rather than taste. I am hoping that is the case.

Feeling nostalgic for her youthful years in America, Chris’ Mom (usually a stickler for the right amount of balanced vegetables with your meal) insisted we try “Carl’s Junior”. So much so that we were treated to lunch there. Chris made the mistake of not ordering the classic Star Burger, and we listened again to how his Mom used to have a Star once a week, as a young worker.

To me the burger tasted of mustard and pickle (much the same as most fast-food burgers), but the fries were chunkier and we got table service. At “In and Out Burger” a multitude of eager teenagers worked in a productive flurry to toast our buns, cook our burgers and chop fresh potatoes into fresh French fries. It really was something to behold.

So, three California fast-burger chains down (I had a cheeky “Taco Bell” the other week), many many more to go.

Like the ignorant Brit girl that I am, feeling I know America because I have see Friends until I know it off by heart, I simply expected there to be a McDonalds or Burger King on every corner, but the choice is so much more plentiful. One presumption that I did get right, is that the American’s like their burgers.

Not being a fast-food fan, I am not that impressed by the fact that Carl’s burgers are freshly broiled (that means “grilled” but sounds far far worse), or that Wendy’s boneless chicken wings are cheaper than those at a bar (as their current ad campaign gloats). But, like going to the Mall, eating at these places is some sort of initiation into American living - so my mother-in-law sees it, and Chris is very happy to reflect her shock at the fact we have not yet been to this place or that if it gets him a burger for lunch.

In the current economic climate, it does make one wonder how these chains survive. “Jack in the Box” has brought back it’s stuff-of-childhood-nightmares mascot (apparently “by popular demand”), and introduced the Mini Angus Meal, where you get four or six mini burgers in a meal; McDonalds (as may or may not have made it across-the-pond) have introduced the Third-Pounder Burger.

In July even the BBC announced that obesity had risen in every state in the US this last year, to over 25% in 31 of the 50 states, over 20% in 39. They attribute much of this to comfort eating through the recession, which can only be aided by the rising sizes of the cheap cheap fast food meals.

But I suppose once in while it can’t hurt.

Friday, August 28, 2009

109 Days In - Playing Dress Up

My most commented on blog entry, to date, has got to be that about doing background work on film and TV. Following the written comments of “is it really such-and-such a film? How cool”, and spoken questions of “so when are you next going to be on TV?” I began plotting a follow-up blog mercilessly berating the whole process and letting you all know how tiresome the job is.

And this is true - the pay is minimum wage, putting me below a temp; the hours are unpredictable, so you have to discount any plans for the evening; often you wait hours and hours to be fed, or don’t get fed at all; you sit around for an age (tired due to the extremely early start) and then have to walk from point A to point B 50 times in heels.

My personal nightmare anecdotes are: scene filmed in the desert, that was set in autumn on the west-coast (so I was wearing jeans and a jumper in temperatures of about 40C); the background waiting area in a car-park next to a four-lane road in the middle of down-town L.A.; the background waiting area that was being noisily set-up as the next set - drills and electric saws abound; the obnoxious loud person who is not happy unless everyone is inadvertently overhearing her conversations (and she showed up on a second show I was on); the eight-hour wait for a 5 minute scene, with no food; having my trousers stapled because the wardrobe person thought they were their’s (I didn’t say anything as they were already annoyed in my direction); the all night shoot; sleeping (not very well) with rollers in my hair, getting up at 3am for the call, only to have the curls brushed out.

The nature of “The Industry” (as they call it in LA) is that hours are unpredictable, which I get, of course. But I can’t help thinking that all this would be more than bearable if you didn’t get such a measly cheque at the end of it.

But I am going to put my complaining to one side for a moment, because this week I got to do two period shows, and what does a girl like to do more than get dressed up and prance about?

First you have to go to a fitting. Mine was at an enormous warehouse of costume-hire. I was walked past bustles and bonnets, muddied war-uniforms and top-hats. I love theatre, and this place had me grinning from ear to ear within two seconds of being in there.

My first fitting was for a 1960’s secretary. The lovely wardrobe ladies try me in several outfits, gave me fabulous but uncomfortable shoes, and a gorgeous thick winter coat. I envisaged a hot day’s work, but it matters less when you know you will look just marvellous darling.

The second was for 1940’s; a less glamorous look, but just as much fun - oh and we got given nylons with the line up the back.

On the work days I look eagerly for my costumes and then head to hair and make-up. Second bonus of period pieces: you get the full works. I was worried at one point that my eyebrows might be completely plucked out, but the atmosphere was buzzing with creativity, and I just thrive on that. Over the two days I got two up dos, lots of bright red lippy, and even vibrant coral-pink nails.

The days were hot, the mornings early, and I don’t even think I was caught on camera for either of them - but hey, I had fun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

104 Days In - Tourists At Last

I find it difficult to write when I am not content. Many find misery their muse, but I tend to huddle up in a corner and hope the world isn’t watching.

But while this past week has found me yearning for those I know and love to be closer, it has also afforded some actual busy living, some actual experiencing of Los Angeles.

When you do not have a “steady job” it is hard to give yourself real time out; there is always something you should be doing to further the pursuit of money. Thus, most weekends are spent just-finishing-this or just-doing-that, and when relatives phone wanting all the exciting updates of what this wondrous land is like, I am devoid of answers.

Finding ourselves in LA (me with an appointment in the a.m., Chris with one in the p.m.), we decided to officially play tourists for a day.

An impromptu idea from my husband took us up onto the famous Mulholland Drive. Built high above the city, it is an historic drive scattered with far-reaching views of hill and lakes to one side, and wide, straight boulevards to the other. Mulholland is the twistiest road in LA, and all the better for it.

We were actually on our way to the Getty Villa (formerly the Getty Museum, now fancying itself a little more special). In a city where many of the inhabitants I have met complain of too little culture, the Getty is a beacon of the arts. So taken with the outside of the building, we spend very little time looking at the exhibitions.

The curvaceous structure sits upon a high promontory (like Camalot, Chris perceptively notes) and you travel up to it on a specially provided floating-tram! Once I manage to get over the cheek of “free entry, but $15 to park”, the cool breeze and elevation above LA’s smog is invigorating and claming all at once. Unquestionably the highlight, the garden was designed by an artist, and it just works beautifully. I cannot really say more than that, but Chris luckily spent a good amount of time taking photos…

The building itself was what captured Chris, and he excitedly pointed out view after view of juxtaposing angles, and tried to do them justice with his camera. I am not known for gushing over modern buildings (being a lover of most things “period”), but the place is enchanting, and despite bustling with visitors, made you feel as though you were experiencing it quite alone.

I have some concerns that The Getty is the best part of LA, and that now that I have seen it I may as well go home, but it has also given me hope, in a city that for the most part is, architecturally, pretty ugly.

Friday, August 14, 2009

95 Days In - Driving the CA Highways

I passed my driving test yesterday; with Greencard, Social Security Card and California Driving Licence, I am now a fully fledged Legal Alien. I think I’ll celebrate.

About ten days after we first arrived, Chris and I both took the theory driving test. This I was not worried about, it was multiple choice (when is it ok not to wear a seatbelt: when you are just taking a short trip; when you are in a limousine; never), and I had three goes to pass before I had to pay again. Chris barrelled on and took the practical test the next day, in his dad’s car. I did not trust myself in his dad’s car, and was not yet comfortable on the roads full of gigantic trucks. So I waited until I was confident.

There are a few tricky things to get used to: driving on the right, looking over your right shoulder when you reverse (I still have difficulty with this one), getting into the left side of the car, not needing to change gear (we have an automatic - oh the laziness). The latter of these may sound like it makes driving easy, but I have scrabbled at the driver’s door more than a few times when wanting to speed up, and Chris’ boy racer genes are so embedded that he literally got itchy hands to start with; I would catch him glancing at the gear stick, an evil twinkle in his eye. If you read his “Allsop Blog” you will already know that it was this weakness that led to him, whilst trying to find 2nd gear, throwing our automatic camper into reverse on a hill in New Zealand. Luckily there are fewer people in New Zealand than in Milton Keynes, and therefore no traffic - but replace that deserted hill with a Los Angeles freeway and it becomes a whole new scenario.

There are no roundabouts in CA (well one or two in mall car-parks of all places) so the “four way stop” is the trickiest thing to grasp; basically whoever gets there first gets to go - kind of like a roundabout, but you are driving straight through each others’ paths, so who knows what might happen. Oh and you are allowed to turn right on a red light. This does kind of make sense, but LA drivers are so blinkered that accidents are bound to happen.

The test consisted of about 10 minutes driving round the back roads, and then reversing straight down a deserted street. Reversing round a corner, or out of a parking space, I can do; parallel parking I am pretty damn good at and three point turns are a doddle. But when do you ever need to reverse straight? Like potting the easy shot in a game of pool, it is trickier than it looks.

Suffice it to say that the driving test does not prepare you for the American freeway. In rush hour - which is pretty much all-the-time - the feed onto the freeway is controlled by lights: two lanes, one car per-lane per-green. The slip-road itself is not very long, and the freeways here are all like the M25, either a mass of cars moving at 70miles an hour, or not moving at all. So when the light turns green you must overtake the other car (going behind them is not an option, apparently), get up to speed with the roaring traffic, and then find someone who is aware of their surrounding enough to let you in.

This is, of course, Chris’ favourite part of driving in the US. He described it as “like rally driving”. He has never been rally driving.

Once you make it safely onto the freeway, the rules are “don’t slow the flow of traffic in your lane”. You can get a speeding ticket for that. And they are not cheap.

So you can overtake on either side (there is supposed to be some kind of rule to overtaking, but the roads are so full that…). There are five or six lanes most of the time, and, just to make things that little bit more dangerous, American-design cars do not have orange indicator lights. No. They use their break lights.
On a six-lane-wide road, brimming with vehicles that are slowing and speeding constantly, it is easy to mistake breaking for indicating, and after ten-minutes or so of thinking people left and right of you are out to crush your car, you become something of a nervous wreck.

Add to this the lack of lay-bys plus the concrete wall that hems the road in, and well…Come On People.

Something that the LA freeways do have is very wide lanes, and because of the overtake-anywhere-you-want rule, lane hogging is almost obligatory. We bought a car with cruise control (clever us), so it oh-so-easy to become a blinkered LA driver.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

90 Days In - Shopping In A Strange Land

The shampoo and conditioner that I brought from England ran out, so off I toddled to the local pharmacy. Chris’ Mom having provided us with all the general scrubs and washes so far, this was my first official visit to the store, and I thought I would just pick up a few things. If only it were that easy.

Once I have negotiated my way round the displays of garden furniture and hats, through the isles of sweets and to the back where hair-care is kept, I am confronted with row upon row of shampoo that I have never heard of. I am not super fussy when it comes to my hair, but I do like to know that it will be clean, soft and not covered in silicone. It is amazing what you take for granted, just living in the same place and slowly getting to know “things”.

After about an hour of squeezing bottles, sniffing liquids and reading tiny tiny print, I make my way to the toothbrush isle; “this should be simpler“, I think, naively.

The difference in products available, and American and British taste, made life most awkward when Chris and I decided to buy a car. I say (quite sensibly, I thought) “let’s buy a Ford”. They are made here, so should not be too expensive, and are reliable. So we look for a Focus five-door hatchback. They don’t sell them here. Here the Focus is a saloon car. Oh and “saloon” here is “sedan”, so that caused some confusion at the car-lot.

So we re-think. Suggestion are thrown at us: have you thought other makes - Chevrolet, Infinity, Scion. I am confused and just end up looking longingly at VWs, but they are stupidly expensive here.

As it turns out, the fact that the little zippy Ford Focus is not sold here as in its UK form is probably a life-saver. You have only to go on roads a couple of times before purchasing the biggest 4WD possible becomes the most desirable choice. It is not inconceivable that the vast majority of vehicles on the road could drive over a Smart-Car and not even notice. (I actually saw one plucky kid driving one here, once).

And what the deal with Hummers is, I do not know. One planted itself behind me yesterday, and I felt like I was being followed by Batman’s muscley and not-too-intellignet nemesis.

Liking hatchbacks for our general “throw stuff in the boot” attitude, and wanting something that may be able to put up a bit of a fight in a crash, we went for a Pontiac Vibe. Yeah, I know…

Just under “a car that won’t get crushed” on our list of requirements, came “air conditioning”. And it is a damn good thing too. But this was not evidently ever in question. The request was usually swept aside as if irrelevant and the salesman would proudly point out the “heated rear window”. Ok, but, as standard right? Wrong. Heated rear windows are a fairly new and exciting phenomenon in the American car market.

As amusing as it is to giggle at their quirks, life would sometimes just be much simpler if things ran here as they do in England: why can’t I buy Chorizo in it’s cured form (rather than raw and needing frying) in a country full of Spanish descendants; what does it matter whether I pay in “credit” or “debit” off my debit-card, when both ways take the money straight out of my bank account; and, please, is it really that difficult to make a chewing-gum packet that fits in my pocket?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

86 Days In - Little Lifeguards

As part of the “using my recession-given time to better myself” plan, I am aiming to be an Orange County fitness goddess. I doubt that I will achieve my aim, but the summer holidays are here, and there are golden, teenage bodies by the beach-bucket load to inspire competition.

Those of you who have never been unemployed should not underestimate how the simple exercise of getting yourself up in the morning and working through the day can keep your fitness levels up.

Digressions aside - the weather is now such that I can no longer jog in the morning (unless I get up at 5am, which I am not willing to do - not even for the perfect bottom). So I jog in the evening. This does not carry the same “it’s only 9am and I have already achieved something” satisfaction that morning exercise does, and there are often partying families still on the beach to watch me.
Nonetheless, I am secretly pleased at this turn of events, because anything is better than competing with the Little Lifeguards.

Pre heat-wave and school-holidays the morning run was a calm, cool and breezy experience. At this time of the day you meet old couples walking hand in hand by the waves; you get to see the set-up of the beach club, with beach-tractors pulling trailers of chairs, and the employees raking up seaweed. The cool air comes in off the sea and the seagulls chatter amongst themselves.

Hopefully I have built enough of a picture for you to be able to imagine my surprise, and then fear, when I spot a group of pre-teen totties dressed in matching red costumes (actually true) heading to the part of the beach that I run along. At this point I am still up on the cliff, and could abort, but I am stubborn, and have come this far. From my vantage point I can just make out the shrill cries of “come-on team” emitting from keen teenagers trying to earn a few extra bucks by leading a Summer School.

Yes. Summer School. The tikes choose to join this boot camp.

Some busy and important mother said to her little darlings: “which camp would you like to go on this vacation Junior and Taylor?” And they have screamed at glee at the idea of spending the mornings of their precious school holiday on a beach doing sit-ups.

As I continue down to the beach, fear turns to horror as the eager little bunch pause from their (somewhat further than mine) run. They are now waiting in my path, ready to snigger hatefully into their neighbour’s ear and point at the bright pink lady hobbling past.

By the time I am on my way back, they have done sit-ups, press-ups, star-jumps and run like lemmings into the sea. Then they skip off happily back to where they came from. I follow in their wake, relieved to have not been exposed for the fitness-fake that I am, and secretly hoping that they were as impressed by me as I was by them.

I doubt they were.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

83 Days In - Beauty By-The-Sea

An old family-friend offered Chris and me the use of her house while she was off in San Francisco. Her thinking was that when we do move into our own place, we want to know where we are going - not to be held up by making decisions at the last minute - allowing us to bolt.

This little trip also had the added bonus of giving us some much-needed alone time for a couple of days.

Her sweet little one-level house is down an airy, green, wide suburban street, just off the main hub of Belmont Shore. Belmont Shore is part of Long Beach, an area much closer to LA city’s work and parties.

But this is a trade off; the closer you get to Los Angeles (driving north from Orange County) the less beautiful the surroundings become.

Here in South OC, the small beaches of orangey-golden sand are turned over by crashing waves and held in by dramatic cliffs. Inland, the mountains and valleys hold a multitude of walks and views. By the time you get to Belmont, the land and sea are both flat. The beach, not cleaned by the tide, is deep and wide, covered in small pieces of debris that attack your bare feet. I try to paddle in the sea but the water seems intent on poisoning me. Out to sea the view is of oil rigs, cheaply “disguised” with fake palm trees; over to the right the cranes of the Long Beach dock loom in the haze.

Our first experience of Belmont Shore is a walk down the beach, and a decision is promptly made never to move there. But wandering back up the main drag, we pass cute coffee houses, Italian delis, boutique clothes shops, lively bars, family run restaurants…And we begin to get attached.

The area next to Belmont Shore is called Naples Island. For the most part this is made up of through-the-roof housing with attached docking for plush boat. But there are a couple of stretches of inland-bay beach, where families build sand-castles and splash about in the water. There may be no waves, but kayaks and peddle-os look just as fun, and the view is pretty and water clean.

So we decide that Belmont Shore can go on our “where we might live if we ever make enough money list”.

Lucky Belmont Shore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

79 Days In - Mall Living

To celebrate being me, with a little birthday pocket money I took myself (and Chris) off for a bit of retail-therapy. To the Mall.

Back in May, dazed and heavily jet-lagged, we listened with limited excitement as Chris’ parents pointed out sights barely visable from the concrete monster of a freeway. “There is the hospital where Chris was born”, “that airport is named after John Wayne”, and “look, look, look”, as the front section of the car rose near a frenzy, “South Coast Plaza”.

Through the weeks advice almost turned to reprimands with “I can’t believe you haven’t been there yet” a favourite.

Americans like Malls. In England, they sprung up during my teens as a convenient, characterless enclosed building housing numerous shops, eateries and cinemas. Here, the term Mall seems to apply to any small collection of shops with a car-park attached. Shops just on the side of streets is a rare occurrence in comparison to this set-up. And most of the malls are outdoor affairs, with sports bars and restaurants frequented late into the evening.

Like any girl, I like a good shopping trip, and I am glad that I saved South Coast Plaza until I felt I could spoil myself a little. Really, it is a place to go when you feel you can spoil yourself a lot.

More reminiscent of what I am used to, South Coast Plaza’s entrances sooth you with green plants and cool running water. The cream marble tiles that run throughout the building start outside and lead you in to the most serene of Malls that I have ever been in. For some reason the annoying echoing noise of children crying and teenagers shouting does not exist here, and if there was background music, it was just the right type and volume to enhance my mood without being noticed.

You may not be surprised to hear, though, that approximately 80% of the shops are high-end “we only need to house ten items of clothing in our shop, because we are that exclusive” fashion.

Apart from gazing longingly at clothes that would look great on me, but will unfortunately never get to have that experience, I got my first look at four of the big American department stores: Nordstrom, Macys, Sax Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdales. And from what I saw that is the order of budget!

A myth has been dispelled: a department store is just a department store. When a teenager, I would listen with intent to friends’ tales of shopping at these mystical places; it now makes me wonder how excited young American girls may get finding that people they know have been to Selfridges, or Liberties, or John Lewis.

It is only slightly untrue to say that the last piece of clothing I bought for myself was my wedding dress, so coming away with a lovely new top and a belly full of peanut-butter-chocolate ice-cream (put it on your to-do list), meant a great day out, despite having spent it in a Mall.

Monday, July 27, 2009

77 Days In - Birthdays and Anniversary

The last four days have been a rollercoaster of activity and celebrations. Except Friday.

Thursday was my birthday - the big three oh - which in this day and age is an extra excuse to booze harder. Chris’ parents gave me a card that called me “mature” and “really old to teenagers”. I don’t feel either of those, but worry that I am both.

As for the celebrations, well, we timed our move out to the US so perfectly that neither Chris nor I got to share the festivities with friends. Compared to said friends, who spent their ten-thousandth, nine-hundred-and-fiftieth day shamelessly singing karaoke or informing near-and-dear that they were growing a human being in their belly, we both had pretty sedate birthdays.

Chris’ started in something of a grump, as he is woken - not to waffles - but to instructions to don trunks and follow me. As we leave, his parents (well meaning as they are) give away the surprise of alcohol that I am surreptitiously carrying. Nonetheless we have a lovely champagne breakfast on a cliff overlooking the beach, and then run into the waves to be knocked over.

My birthday morning was somewhat lazier (complete with waffles), but my wonderful husband secretly planned a trip to Raging Waters, a water park that he has been going on and on about since we got to CA. How well he knows me. How thoughtful.

Water parks as they exist here are like nothing you could ever get in the UK - because of the weather. Raging Waters is in the middle of the desert, and the sun is insistent on you remembering this fact. Forty minute queues are rewarded with blissfully cooling, thrill rides… Well, I enjoyed myself anyway. The best moments were when we got to ride in a double ring, and share our screams.

On Friday we worked.
Saturday was the women’s finals of the Hurley American Open Surf Competition; and do they take this stuff seriously here. So seriously that the two events we planned to see happen as we wait two hours in a parking queue. Huntington beach buzzed with barbeques and volleyball; there was a “festival village” where the surfing took place, with freebies abound and average music on a small stage. Making it a double-whammy we just miss the skateboarding competition, and so retreat for beers.

Sunday was our wedding anniversary. One whole year. Buying a card with “Husband” and “Anniversary” emblazoned on it makes me giggle like a small child. Somewhat disappointed by the day before, we decide to get up early and catch the men’s semi-finals of the surfing, at 8am. There are plenty of parking spaces this time. The waves were not as big as they were on Saturday, but we got to see Kelly Slater - the only worldwide celebrity surfer - do some turney things. One of the commentators babbles on about the “rad” surfing that Kelly has been up to “dude”, fulfilling the So-Cal stereotype.

As a present to ourselves, Chris and I turn to the traditional anniversary list - the most well-known being silver at 25 years. Year one is paper. So we commemorate it with a long overdue wedding album. An idea that I wish I could claim as my own, but was actually most cleverly lifted from a loved-one (thank you). Going through the pictures brings back wonderful memories, and by the time we leave for cocktails and dinner, I am already feeling pretty giddy.

The beautiful yellow flowers in my room are a sunny reminder of my family’s love. I miss them. But I was told once that I would “follow love”, which I have, to California. Sunday affirmed for me that, for now at least, I am very happy to have done just that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

72 Days In - My Sport

Being out of work gives you two options: to lie in front of the 800 channel T.V., eating snacks and feeling sorry for yourself; or to take advantage of the swathes of time available to you and achieve some things you have always wanted to do. Between hours spent searching computer-based what-nots for work, I am definitely tempted by the former path (and to be honest have succumbed more than a couple of times). But the latter is my goal, and to this end, Chris is teaching me tennis.

I have said for a long time “I would like to learn tennis” - historically British and easy to organise (as you only need one other person), it is an activity that reminds all of summer and strawberries and simply having a jolly good time. But for three years I lived a few hundred yards from free tennis courts, and not even that pushed me into buying a tennis-racket.

There are so many things that I would like to learn…

It is becoming evident that Americans, or at least Californians, like their sports. But they don’t just like to watch and talk about them, they like to play them, and discuss their own prowess. Suffice it to say I have felt ashamed a couple of times; “what is your sport?” is not an unusual question.

So what convenience couldn’t inspire me to do, shame has.

Chris was very excited at the idea of reviving the sporty lifestyle of So-Cal (that‘s “Southern California“ to those of us that speak the Queen‘s English). He bounded like a young boy onto the tennis court and said “right, lets start with a rally, just to get your eye in”.

Incidentally, I have tried to play tennis before, when I was sixteen., and I sucked at it. I never had an “eye” in the first place, so the idea of a quick “rally” before I even know how to hit the damn ball does not fill me with glee or inspire me to try. Chris’ bounce subsides somewhat as I tell him this.

I am (self-confessed) a terrible beginner. I do not like being awful at things. I know that there are those of you who will sympathise with this. But put it together with the fact that I am a teacher - and therefore think I know best how to teach anything - I am sure you are also feeling sorry for Chris.

The first lesson contained a fair few stomps, and at least as many frustrated yells. But, bless him, Chris is a patient soul, and has the ability to laugh at my childishness, even when I accuse him of being patronising after compliments and of telling-me-off when he gives advice. I am now pleased that he dragged me along to the second lesson, and soon (ish) I will have my very own sport.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

69 Days In - Sunday is House Day

Over breakfast, on Sunday mornings we all gather round the TV. But there is no Songs Of Praise or E4 Friends on offer here; the pick of the crop belongs to housing programmes. Before you jump to conclusions about my life living with in-laws (which, though, is probably justified), know that this is not Location Location Location, or Escape to the Country, where you inevitably just become jealous of the house-hunters, their wealth and all the beautiful houses they could but don’t want to buy. This is “look at all the beautiful houses that have been foreclosed on and therefore you can buy at a ridiculously low price”.

The purposefully slow, clear voice of definitely-not-a-born-presenter realtor Julie guides us from room to oversized room: complete with Fire Place in the bedroom, Jacuzzis inside and out, and the all important Butlers' Pantry. We theorise that rich Californian moguls having numerous houses really feel they should “sell the Orange County pad” to finance fifteen more black four-by-fours and the wife’s youthful but expressionless face. What with the recession affecting everybody.

If you are into snooping round other people’s homes then the US system of open-houses would fill your weekends with excited glee. Chris’ parents took to visiting of a Sunday and, still in this habit when we arrived, persuaded us to go along.

There really are some beautiful houses in Orange County; one modern bachelor pad had full height windows over a view of shimmering sea, a custom made kitchen “using the same wood that Lexus use”, and a bath that filled from a tap in the ceiling. All it was missing was a hot-tub on a veranda. The four bed Tuscan inspired house was my personal favourite: elegant curved staircase, two walls of French windows onto an outdoor seating area that overlooked the pool and Jacuzzi. With room to park three cars in the garage, and a further five or so in the drive, all this house lacked was somewhere for the kids to run about outside. On grass.

Is this not the thing that every mother longs for? A space where her little darlings can gallivant around whilst she plants vegetables and dad reads the paper. It is rainy, or windy, or even frosty for ninety percent or the year in England, yet our outdoor space is sacred.

This is not the case is Southern California. Land here is at a premium that even London should be threatened by, and big houses are the thing, followed closely by multi-car garages. Some estate agents even add the square-footage of the garage to the overall when describing a house. Status symbols come in the style of four-wheels and multiple-gas-burners. As long as there is room for the guests to admire the barbeque, how much more outdoor room does one family need?

Hyperboles aside, it is strange to consider the differences between us Brits and our brethren here in CA, when we feel so close to them through the various forms of media. I seriously did not expect this move to be that much of a culture shock, and it wasn’t at first, but the longer we are here, the more the differences just creep up on you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

65 Days In - Paradise not so Perfect

No doubt you have seen Baywatch. And if Baywatch is to be believed, California is sunny all year round - living here is like one long summer holiday. Unfortunately not.

As I am a Brit, so I am obsessed by the weather. It is something that caused me great concern when we first got here, and then for the two months following. I had never been to California before, never even been to the States, but my trust rested on T.V. programmes and Chris’ childhood memories. Chris does not have a very good memory.

When we arrived on the 11th of May, it was cloudy; hot but cloudy. As we drove over the brow of the hill, leading to our community, Chris’ Mom lamented that the view of the sea wasn’t right as the sun was not shining on it. Having now (two months later) seen the sea with the sun shining on it, I can understand her lament.

Now that we are truly residential here we are privy to the local saying that they don’t want the tourists to get a hold of: “May Gray, June Gloom”. Perfect. At the time when England gets its best weather, California gets its worst. I can’t help thinking that had I known this, we may have only just arrived.

And…and… it is worst on the coast. We get covered in what they here call a “marine layer”. In England we call it cloud. That thick, blanketing grey cloud that I thought you only got in the UK. Except this May and June, England had a heat wave, and I was subjected to hundreds of facebook messages harping on about how gorgeous the weather was.

We knew the low point had definitely come when, determined to make the best of chairs/towels/feeling-of-wealth, Chris and I put a day aside for beach lazing. I decide, like a lizard, to soak up some sun before braving the water; Chris takes his new-to-him surfboard, attempts his best surfer-jog-into-the-waves, and tries not to trip over the leash. Approximately ten minutes later, Chris emerges from the sea shivering and slightly blue in places; I am already snuggled under my towel. An experience strangely reminiscent of summers spent in Wales. And at least there you are not overlooked by expensive houses squeezing in to get their share of the view, like teenage girls at a Take That concert.

But to say one thing for the silly Californian saying, it holds true when July hits. Just a few days into this month and we were waking up to blue skies and balmy breezes. Unfortunately (and here is where you know I am not lying when I say I am a true Brit) we are now in our heat wave, and it is just too damn hot.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

62 Days In - Living the Silver-Screen Dream

Dummy Days

In order to live in the USA I had to get a visa (that took me eight-odd months), and once I made it here I had to wait twenty one days followed by another ten days for my Social Security Number. With passport and social security card in sweaty palm I applied for various jobs. It seems though that my training and skills cannot be used due to recession-related issues, and the one job that LA has plenty of spaces for and that you need no training for, tells me I cannot sign up until I have my Permanent Resident Card (the sacred “Green Card”).

This is a job (I am later told) that parole officers advise ex-cons do, as there is no background check required…and (I find out on-the-job) requires no skill.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week, Chris and I did our first few days of proper paid work since getting here; but the giddy excitement of being a part of Hollywood stardom is short lived when we realise that we have to be up at 5am.

We are called “background artists”, which I suppose is to try and make us feel better about ourselves - most people know us a “extras” which is a truer, and slightly less patronising way of putting it.

Day 1 is a bad day for me. Chris dresses up in his snappy suit, bought for our wedding, and not worn since; I scan my wardrobe for a smart blouse in sanctioned navy, grey, dark teal, olive, maroon, rust or forest green. I pull out a turquoise top and hope it passes for dark teal - but we have been asked to bring extra clothes in-case our choice won’t do, and so I spend half the evening ironing skirts and tops.

Upon arrival at the studios, it is obvious than no-one else has spent as much time or concern over their choice of clothing. After all we will only be blurs in the background. The wardrobe lady says Chris looks “cute”, and makes him a VIP character - I am secretly proud, until I see what he gets out of this, and then I start wishing I too had got married in a suit.

Complete with badges, Chris and his fellow important people go early to be put in squishy, velvety seats. The rest of us are herded in to rows of plastic chairs and I sit between two friendly blokes who chat about travelling. Upon sitting, I take note of Chris, front central, literally spitting distance from the stars who will appear soon. I get something of a shock from the blow up dummies, with masks, wigs and costume (but no arms or legs) that are scattered through the rows behind me. Being close to the dummies does not bode well for your chances of being seen in the final cut of the film.

So, of course, this is where I am later moved to. With an inanimate person on either side, severely intruding on my personal space, I have nothing to do but spy on Chris, and begin to seethe.

The day continues in this way: Chris becomes friends with two lovely ladies sitting beside him, I wriggle between my dummies; Chris laughs and sinks lower into his luxury seat, I feel my bottom go numb as a Dummy is placed in my original seat; in a break, Chris says casually “oh, aren’t you in a comfy seat?”, and when back on set I find another dummy has taken my new seat. Obviously they are as talented background artists as I am. So I sit in the back row.

On day 2 Chris is upgraded to “The Mill” as his waiting area, with all the other extras that have more specific roles. It is rumoured that the food is better and the air sweeter. But this new setback gives me defiance, and I am determined not to sit next to dummies for the rest of my time on set; quite apart from the fact that they have no conversational skill, I am offended that they get to wear hoodies and I don’t. Moving sneakily to a spare seat near the front I realise that I am arguably within possible shot when the principal roles are filmed having a conversation - this means that I can go to hair and make-up and be properly pampered.

After the first day I was ready to pack in my new career - it is 16hour days of sitting around, then doing the same thing over and over and over - but (and here comes the sickening Hollywood ending) it ended up being pretty fun: everyone else there was just like us, trying to get some money together and hoping to have a laugh at the same time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

57 Days In - Celebrating Independence from Us

The Holiday weekend is now well and truly over and a reminder that everyone is back to work hums and bangs away in the distance - a constant echo of perpetual renovations being made on at least 5% of the community’s properties. What economic crisis?

Unfortunately July 4th (as they say it here) was not as sociable a time as we had hoped - for us, anyway.

Early Saturday morning we scrabble out the door, beckoned by the short pips of a Fire Engine - which rolls past, topped with small children sparkling red, white and blue, almost leaving behind a surprisingly large wave of scooters, skateboards and the obligatory golf-buggies (one jolly gent rigged up speakers that blasted Police Academy music from his). We are in high spirits now, partly due to the ridiculousness of it all, partly because high spirits are infectious.

Inspired by smiles and waves, we head - a few minutes behind - for the beach-club, and expected refreshments / the-finding-of-friends. But standing in an empty bar we can only be disappointed as dribs and drabs of the parade wend their way towards us, then pass us to take up chairs on the beach. The parade went a different way. We return home, still friendless.

After having taken their little Californian boys back to Blighty for a superior education, Chris’ parents moved back into their Orange County family home January 2009 - some twenty or so years after having left. It transpires that this guarded community has it’s very own “Welcoming Committee”; we’ve all seen Desperate Housewives, when you move house in this country, at lease one person arrives with a basket of muffins, right? For some reason - maybe because they had officially owned the house all along, maybe because it got out that they valued the English education system above all others - there has still been no real American welcome for those at number 68.

So, on the fourth of July, the day when all American’s come together and celebrate their new-found-strength in being independent from us Brits, as we reach the house after a disappointingly lonely morning, the limousine of golf-buggies pulls up and a smiling man leaps down to join us.

“Hi”, he says. “I’d like to introduce myself, I’m your neighbour”.

Belief is restored in the common man, Americans will unite, and the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave…

“I’m gonna be doing some renovating on my house, and it seems the boundaries are actually four feet further into your land. Anyway, we’ll be in contact before the work is due to start”.


And it is later on, when watching the distant fireworks, that it strikes me how fitting that meeting actually was. The beach is awash with large family groups, friends talk loudly to each other across the bar, and amidst the cawing and whooping one young boy tries his best sarcasm, shouting “I‘m sorry, is there some kind of celebration happening today?”

And I don’t get it. I don’t get it because for me it is not a celebration. Not a real one, that you grow up with - that you look forward to in the weeks leading up to it - when you are younger because it is exciting, when you are older because it holds memories of that excitement. The fireworks are pretty, the wine tastes good, but there is no buzz, no inner smile, no attachment like the one that I feel on the 5th of November, when cold hands and blazing bonfires carry countless reminders.

This is not a day for people to make friends, this is a day for them to celebrate with the friends they already have, that they have had for a long time. And ours aren’t here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

53 Days in - My New Life

It would probably be best if I go back a couple of years and let you know that there was a proposal of marriage; then, following my acceptance, a proposal of moving, of living in a different country, of exploring the world and experiencing my husband’s heritage. What prospective bride could refuse?

So, a year later there was a wedding followed by a greedy four-month trip and a period of waiting, back in England, while the American Embassy decided that it was okay for me to live in the United States with my American-Born Husband.

And here we are, in The Land Of The Free: living with my husband’s parents and, amidst and global economic crisis, scrabbling to make our move a legitimate one. Only time will tell.

Tomorrow is Independence day: the inhabitants of the guard-gated community that Chris’ (the husband previously mentioned) parents live in (and therefore that we live in) are putting out flags, inviting friends round, and generally getting ready for a jolly good knees up come tomorrow morning at 8.45am.

This is the house that Chris grew up in. It is a house with no stairs (not to be mistaken with a bungalow!), with patios for sitting, a pool for cooling off and pretty flowers to tempt the hummingbirds. Outside of the confines of the house, within the confines of the gate, the streets are nearly silent, with only an occasional walker adding movement to a view of four-by-fours and grand entranceways. Our residence is small in comparison to those around, and has not been updated in the twenty years that the family spent in England - Chris’ Mom (please note spelling!) is keen to rectify this in order to keep up with the Jones’. We have not yet met the Jones’. But I hope to, tomorrow morning.

July the Fourth will kick off with a parade down to the community’s private beach, with refreshments served at the private beach club. After all the mayhem of trying getting settled in and make ourselves as independent as possible, Chris and I have only recently experienced the delight that is the private beach. Packed to the gills with towels and water and what-not, we trotted down the hill with the stories of little men in white caps bringing you a seat and umbrella. Indeed, there they were, willing to follow us to any portion of the sand that we wished for - and not only that, were provided with towels and water as well. I tried not to giggle with glee, Chris tried not to look too grateful, and we had a hasty, whispered conversation about tipping. On that particular day (almost two weeks ago now) we were rewarded for our troubles with a wonderful display of dolphins lazily gliding by a few metres out to sea.

So life isn’t all that bad, it would seem. But please bear in mind that we come home to the parents, and parents can have trouble remembering that their children have grown up. .