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. .