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.