Sunday, 30 June 2013

Releasing my Inner Hippy

Yay!  Peace!

Today I have been tie-dying.  I have always secretly wanted to tie-dye things, but for some reason I never got round to it.  It's an outdoor activity.  Very messy, so as well as being a hippy, I have also developed green fingers.

Perhaps I'm not a hippy yet, until the T-shirt is dry.

I am waiting anxiously.
Bet you can't guess which one is mine.

I have also been to Santa Cruz again.  I walked a very long way in the searing heat.  It was really interesting seeing how the suburban areas differ from the UK.  Basically, everyone has more space.  Even small properties have quite large front gardens, no other houses joined on to them and presumably large spaces at the back.  Some were flying the Stars and Stripes, some had cheery signs on the front door saying who lived there.  I'm not at all keen on flags, but the name signs seem jolly.  I don't think  hippies support flag waving activity, unless it has a rainbow or a CND symbol of course.

Thinking about it, no one has put a guinea-pig on a flag yet.  Why not I wonder?  Yet again the guinea- pig as a motif is underestimated.

I'm going to start a new movement.  Guinea-Pigs for Global Peace (GP4GP).

The boardwalk was really busy, and there were traffic jams with loads of people keen to get onto the beach.  I slumped under the shade of some palm trees, which looked like redwoods only different, if you get what I mean, man.

Hey wow etc.
I think I'm developing a thing about trees.  I also seem to be spending a lot of time looking up.

Can't be a bad thing to remember how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.

PS: I've just realised.  Santa.  Santa Cruz.  He doesn't come from Lapland at all, it's all been a huge hoax.  He is really a surfing dude hanging out down the boardwalk.  Why hasn't anyone else realised this?

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Bagels - Inherent Design Issues


I had one for breakfast today.

First it was toasted successfully, no smoke coming out of the toaster.  A liberal coating of butter was applied, and them some rather delicious strawberry jam, full of promising chunky bits of what looked like real fruit.  I say 'real fruit' because in the UK there was a nasty rumour going round some years ago that raspberry jam had sawdust in it, to create a pip effect.  Also, when I was having my tonsils out as a seven year old, I remember a nurse looming down on me with a large spoonful of jam.  She said words to the effect of, 'eat this lovely jam', with accompanying 'mmmmm' noises.

Like a lamb to the slaughter, I took the bait and found I had a mouthful of anaesthetic.   These episodes obviously traumatised me and I have suffered a mistrust of jam ever since, although you will be pleased to hear I work hard at overcoming this negativity.

Anyway, I sat down to enjoy my breakfast, and as I took a bite out of my bagel, was distressed and embarrassed to note that one of the aforementioned chunks was sliding down my arm.  It was leaving a gooey trail.  A casual observer might have become alarmed, thinking I had woken up unhappy, and used one of the butter knives to absolve myself from this mortal coil.  Fortunately, this was not the case, and a squishy lump of strawberry had slithered through the hole in the middle of the bagel.

So who's idea was that?

What is the point of a hole in the middle of a bagel?

I know there are holes in polo mints, but no one is going to apply fruit conserves or butter to a polo mint.  There are holes in some inferior forms of doughnut, but these don't even have jam in them, so no breakfast leakage issues there.  It was suggested to me that the holes were handy for multiple bagel storage.  Americans do have some habits which appear alien to the UK visitor, but I wasn't convinced this was one of them.

However, I have also been told that if the dough rises enough in cooking the hole should 'heal up'.  So, come on America, get rid of those holes and end breakfast embarrassment!

Friday, 28 June 2013

You Know it's Hot When.....

  • Your glasses steam up while you're wearing them.
  • You have a cool bath and realise you have turned into a heating element
  • While doing nothing at all, you break out into a sweat more suited to someone having just completed the Iron Man Marathon
  • The Marmite goes all melty and drips everywhere
  • The fridge is getting really noisy
  • You take longer than is necessary doing an inventory of the freezer
  • The grass crunches when you walk on it
  • All the animals hide.
  • Your get up and go has gone sunbathing
  • You look forward to some rain
  • You feel a bit grumpy even though you are in CALIFORNIA for goodness sake!

Grapefruit trees enjoy the heat more than yours truly.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Gadgets and Gimmicks

My camera has arrived. It arrived without a memory card.  I'm not sure who thought that was a clever idea, selling cameras that can't take photos.  No one would sell a vacuum cleaner without the hose.  It has therefore been a bit of a frustrating afternoon, but having bought the memory card, I can now show you my first two photos from my travels.  The redwood trees near my apartment, and my apartment, which is where I am sitting now.  I'm quite pleased with the redwoods.  Enjoy! 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Hanging out with the Bees

The Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz was advertising for volunteers to help with their lavender harvest.  It sounded like a really good organisation, so today I went along to see if I could help.

The sky was blue as blue, and the mountains and ocean could be seen in the distance.

The farm was very impressive, immaculately laid out rows of fruit, vegetables and flowers, as if someone had listened very carefully to the man who gave the keynote speech at the garden fair.  The rose delphiniums smelt particularly wonderful.  There were people tilling away on different plots.  In the distance, I could see the lavender bushes, with a few people standing with baskets, so I went over.  I wanted to walk straight to where the volunteer co-ordinator was, but there was a problem.  Every bush was covered in bees.  I am a bit of a coward when it comes to bees, so was hanging back, but when the co-ordinator, Kate, gave firm instructions to a teenager in front of me, I had to be the grown up and plough ahead too.  We sat on crates or old plastic garden chairs and clipped the longer, unopened flower stems, stripped the leaves off and collected them in wicker baskets.  It was very convivial and we chatted away while we worked.  The bees were more interested in the blooming flowers than our unopened ones, and just buzzed around.  It got to the point where I hardly noticed them, and when I did, I just thought kind bee thoughts.  I did sit down rather gingerly though, I didn't want any surprises there!

We all ate lunch together in a covered area between two sheds.  The food was fantastic, all home grown salads and it was great to chat to everyone.  I foolishly volunteered for washing up duty, and spent ages at an open air sink, but it was an open air sink in California, in the sun, so as these things go it wasn't too bad.

The day became hotter and hotter.  By the time I had walked up the hill, back to my apartment, I was sorely tempted to change places with my diet coke and climb into the fridge.

I can still just about smell the lavender on my clothes, which is a lovely reminder of a very nice day.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

More Rain and Dancing with Drops

It's raining a little harder today. On my walk I noticed my outstretched hand is hit every three seconds - quite impressive compared to yesterday. The rain hitting the leaves is a very relaxing sound and reminds me of summer holidays in Scotland.  When I look up into the canopy of the excessively tall redwoods, I can see the occasional raindrop getting through.  They start really high up and my eye can follow them all the way down, until they nearly hit me.  At this point I do a neat side-step, only to get hit by a different one.   We dance this waltz for a few minutes until I give up and move on.

Everything smells wonderfully damp and earthy.   At some points on the trail there is the heady fragrance of flowers.  I can feel a million eyes watching me from the undergrowth.  Something moves a little to my left, and I am staring directly into the eyes of a deer.  We hold the look for several moments, waiting to see who will blink first.  She is motionless, apart from her over sized ears adjusting to the sounds in the forest.

I pass the moss covered stump of a redwood tree, the hollowed out centre neatly converted into a chair with a well fitted plank - a woodland throne.  When I wander off the trail, the ground is so thickly covered in leaf litter and forest debris that it is like walking on a mattress.  Some animals have felt the same thing, and every so often there is a small burrow dug into the soil.

The rain drops have caught on spiders' webs.  Lots of them.  Some lie horizontally across the twigs and leaves.  Others are little hammocks in between fissures on the redwood bark.  I wonder whether the spiders come out in the sunshine and use one foot to keep swinging, and another to hold the cocktail.  The hammocks create a ladder effect up the tree - I wonder whether they lean over and have a chat to each other as well.

I love the rain, and it will make us all appreciate the sun all the more when it shows up again.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Rain that Doesn't

The earth was moving in the forest today.

No, it wasn't an earthquake.

There was something burrowing just under the border next to my apartment.  The dead leaves were being puffed up.  Every so often there would be a pause, and a change in direction.  It was intriguing.  I waited to see whether a pink nose appeared, or maybe the talon of a dragon, but the tunneller had other ideas and disappeared back into the centre of the planet.

A mist was hanging in the trees, a cloud tangled up in the branches.  Later on it rained.  I could tell it was raining because the air was moist and heavy. I could hear the drops hitting the leaves above me, but nothing was landing. It was quite odd to go for a walk in the rain and not get wet.  I held my hand out, and counted twenty seconds before a I felt a tiny drop land.

I have been told that at certain times of the year it rains so hard that it is like the 'sea with slits in' (as Terry Pratchet once said).  This can last for around 48 hours, when the clouds know they have to throw everything they have at the forest to get anything into the ground.  There is an average of 49 inches of rainfall a year.  When I have a vase of tulips at home, I have to keep topping the water up, so I can see it must take an ocean to keep these huge trees watered.


Sunday, 23 June 2013

A Swim, a Stroll and Super Icecream

A high school about three miles away has a pool for use by the general public, so today I set off for a swim.  

As with all journeys from here, it started with the one mile steep descent to the bus stop.  I left a little later than I should have, so walked at knee-cap popping speed.  In spite of my haste, I noticed a couple of things on the way down.  In one place a tree root had rippled the tarmac, like someone's leg pushed under a blanket.  I had a closer look, and as I did so, a long, black, shiny, cylindrical entity scuttled in front of me.  It was a centipede, looking so evil as to suggest it had been scraped from one of the Devil's nostrils and flicked loose from his finger nail.

I carried on to the bus stop, and almost had to hop onto the bench to avoid being run over when it arrived.  'I have to pull right off the highway' the driver explained, 'you have to stand far back'.  

At the school, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was an outdoor pool.  I started doing my 'laps' or 'lengths' (I'm starting to get confused, is a lap a 'there and back' or a length - if I tell people I did 50 laps will they look impressed thinking I had swum twice as far as was the case?).  One thing I learned was that it is unwise to do enthusiastic back stroke in a pool without a ceiling to mark your progress and alert you to the end coming up.  I haven't hit my head so hard for a very long time.  I actually felt one of my neck vertebrae complain.  I changed to front crawl, which is always better in open air pools in the sunshine, as it helps stop spots burn on your retina when the sun hits the drops of water on your eyes.

After the swim, I walked down the highway to a hippy coffee shop.  The Amercians are not really geared up for pedestrians, and I vowed not to repeat the exercise as trucks came scarily close and I wasn't sure whether or not I was walking in the motorbike lane or the sidewalk.  I will start a kerbstone appreciation society when I get home.

After my coffee I was tempted by the icecream - moose hoof icecream to be exact.  I thoroughly recommend this, the moose hooves were made of chocolate and encased in caramel, slithering around in toffee icecream (who needs any other excuse to come to America?).  Then I decided to walk another mile to the state park as I wanted to try a trail I had seen on a map, that should bring me round, back to the bus stop.  

I have absolutely no sense of direction, and the trail wasn't signposted well.  After going down several dead ends, I started to feel rather concerned that I might be lost, and was having day dreams about search and rescue helicopters coming for me.  I was pleased I had had the icecream, as it might well have been the last meal for 48 hours.  Fortunately, with my hopeless sense of direction I hadn't noticed that I had gone in a circle, and arrived back where I started - and still a mile from the bus stop.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Garden Fair

Today I went to a Garden Fair.  Very pleasant it was too.  The sun was shining and I could tell I was walking in the right direction by the jolly music wafting across the parked cars.  The music was from a band of zylophone players (zylophonophonists?) with a modest audience camped out on the grass, including one slightly over zealous zylophone lover who was dancing with gay abandon.  I visited all the stands, which included help in how to eradicate gophers, and strange birdboxes shaped like musical instruments.

The main marquee looked shady, so I sat at the back and became engrossed in a passionate talk about bees. I hadn't appreciated the thermal qualities of the bumble bee before, nor realised that honey bees only arrived in America with European settlers.  After that was a very good talk on the health giving properties of the organic kitchen garden.  It started to get a bit complicated, but I came out resolving only to eat garlic, parsley and broccoli in the future.

My head was a bit full at this point, so the sign directing me to spiritual healing and massage looking quite inviting.  I suspected it was just going to be inter-uterine whale music and sandalwood joss sticks, but felt ready to give it a go.

The healing was happening in a small community hall.  Yes, there were some warbling whales in the background, and someone wafting incense from a conch shell while women on benches were massaged by men with beards and pony tails (don't panic, everyone was wearing clothes).

Also in the corner, was a young man in a baseball cap, unobtrusively hitting a very large gong with a soft drumstick.  There was a very comfy looking seat, covered in sheepskin so I decided to sit and listen.  The over zealous zylophone lover came to lie on the rug at my feet, which was a bit 'in my space' but as I was in California, I decided to try to lose some of my British uptightness.

The noises that started to come from the big gong (I later found out it was a Chau) were absolutely jaw droppingly amazing.  Rolling thunder, lightning, wind in the trees, all ebbing and flowing in a way that went straight into your bones.  It sounded ancient too, really ancient.  As the gong was hit, it started twisting which wafted the sound back and forth.  The percussionist used different beaters, and each one laid another sound onto the building patterns.  It became quite an intense, emotional experience.

I came out feeling strangely spiritually healed, which was the last thing I was expecting from a gardening show.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Who Does What Well

Since I arrived in America, I have been compiling a bit of a list of what the British could learn from the Americans, and vice versa.

What America does better:
  • Buses - run on time, and you can put your bike on a simple rack on the front, brilliant.  Drivers are polite and chatty too.
  • Fast food - really tasty, really fast and most of it good for you
  • Slow food - everything tastes nicer
  • Ice cream - a nation that doesn't stop at strawberry, chocolate and the pale yellow one
  • Sunshine - feels so wholesome
  • Scenery - beautiful (round here anyway)
  • Roads - not much traffic and no roundabouts - great!
  • Cities - sensibly built in easy to navigate blocks
  • Speaking - say what they mean and mean what they say - very straightforward
  • Fire hydrants - look so complicated and impressive, bound to stop any fire
  • Fire engines - really shiny and impressive bits of equipment - proper bells too.
  • Letter boxes - I didn't believe you could have a drive by letter box until I saw one
  • Being able to turn the easy way (ie left in GB, right in USA) at traffic lights if the coast is clear, even if the light is red - so sensible
  • Parking - no nasty meters, just drive to where you want to go, and stop.  So easy.  Why didn't we think of that?
  • Sand - it's warm
  • Camping - the love of which seems to be in the bloodstream, but maybe it has more to do with the weather
  • double decker trains - brilliant
  • Being polite - reassuring, bearing in mind the gun situation
  • Washing machines - REALLY impressive bits of kit
  • Sending people to the moon - so jealous
  • Surfing - but then you have the waves so it's sort of cheating
  • Wildlife - lots and lots of it

What Britain does better:

  • Free health service - stop complaining Brits and start being really, really grateful
  • Better justice system - the death penalty is just so yesterday
  • Post - we get it through the front door (but the letter boxes all point to the pavement so you have to get out of the car)
  • Pavements - you can tell where the road stops and the walkway starts
  • Gun laws - nice knowing that if you were to have an argument, the other person isn't wearing a revolver
  • Zebra crossings - took me a while to spot where I could cross the road, a pair white lines just isn't enough of a clue
  • Carrier bags - the handles stay on until you get home
  • Coping with cooler or cold weather.  We don't need the heating on in June.
  • Newspapers - you can buy them without having the right change
  • Royalty - I feel bereft!  How is the royal pregnancy progressing?
  • Annual leave - no way could any of us survive on 2 or 3 weeks leave a year
  • Working hours - no way could most of us survive on a routine 40 hour week
  • Trade unions - (I worked that out from the lines above)
  • Trains - come on America - where are they all (apart from the double decker ones I found 40 miles away)?
  • Cornish pasties (according to the bus driver yesterday)
  • Scottish stuff like tartan and tossing the caber (according to someone who works here)
  • Bus stops - at least you can tell where they are.  Even if the bus doesn't arrive, you have the smug pleasure of knowing you were standing in the right place
  • History - more of it, but we mustn't gloat
  • Credit cards - when did you last sign a chit - I mean, really?
  • Steering wheels - we know which side to wear them
  • Lorries - don't have them here apparently 
  • Ground - doesn't usually shake
Aha!  22 all.  Better stop there!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Quirkiness is a fabulous thing.  I am a devotee of quirkiness.  Without quirks (let alone quarks) the world would be a very dull place.  Quirk is also a rather good word for Scrabble, getting rid of that pesky 'q'.

Today, on a trip to Santa Cruz, I went to Natural Bridges beach.  It was windy.  I had my face exfoliated by the sand, but consoled myself with the thought that some people pay good money in beauticians' parlours for this sort of thing, and without the benefit of being able to watch the Pacific rollers crashing in front of them.

I walked to some rock pools and saw some funny ring doughnut shaped corally stuff (you can tell I'm not a marine biologist) and sat on the beach and ate some of the best tasting cherries, freshly picked off my friend's tree.

I have noticed, in my exploration of beaches, that the quality of sand varies. For example, at Natural Bridges, the sand was a good temperature, pleasantly golden, but too soft.  I sank in up to my ankles, which made walking tricky, and made me look as if I was inebriated.   At the beach near 'Downtown', the sand was too hot to walk on, which is annoying when you have gone specially to walk on it in bare feet, but had a good consistency.  It just squeezed between my toes, enabling me to treasure the experience without looking as if I am about to fall flat on my face.  The colour was very nice too.  I have decided that I am going to be the Egon Ronay* of sand.

After a bit I decided to get back on the bus to 'Downtown' (I still can't read or write that word without singing it in my head).

I walked down the exceedingly long pier, taking time to lean over the railing and watch the seals swim in the clear, turquoise water, and found a cafe right at the very end which looked like it had been waiting for me.  There was a great view of Monterey Bay, and I experience a merging of cultures as I watched surfers riding the waves, looked at palm trees around the horizon, while listening to The Beatles and eating fish and chips.

It worked.

On the walk back, I felt a bit Zen.  I already thought I had achieved total relaxation, but had achieved a state of mind and body where my knees were just swinging my feet out in front of me with absolutely no bother, and I felt like I was floating along.

Mid-float, I stopped to read the information board at the lifeguard station.  It had titles printed in some sections, and chalked information filling in the boxes.

Temperature: 26 degrees

Climate: sunny (I thought they might as well have that bit printed on)

and so it went.

At the bottom was the printed title 'Other comments' which I assumed was going to tell me about algae, or sharks or other helpful advice.  Instead was written,

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” from Dr. Seuss.  

I liked that.  I will make sure I check the board next time I visit.  That sort of quirkiness works well, because people will check the board regularly, and when there is important information, will see it.

Release your inner quirkiness!

*(in)famous restaurant critic

Monday, 17 June 2013

Driving Again

I did it!  I managed to drive down the hill, to the store and back again.  I was alone on the way down, moral support from a friend on the way back.  I forgot to ask her for her anxiety level, which I appreciate was raised ever so slightly when I stalled going up, and when I had said (albeit foolishly), 'I'm glad we haven't met anyone coming down'.  True to form, around the corner awaited a fearsome four-by-four spanning the whole width of the road.  I used a cheeky ploy, of avoiding eye contact and just continuing to creep forward, which fortunately worked, and he reversed out of the way.

While I was waiting for brave friend 'downtown', locals must have thought me rather strange as I spent longer than was normal watching the traffic lights at the junction I was shortly going to have to negotiate a left turn at.  I got it sussed and everything went just fine.  The best bit was being able to buy absolutely anything I wanted in the shop.  I came back loaded with tins, potatoes all the booty I hadn't been able to buy before.

There is one complaint though, those paper carrier bags, how do you Americans cope?  There were five bags in my collection today.  One handle tore before I got the stuff into the car, and another on the way from the car to the kitchen.  Once in the kitchen, I dragged one of the bags by its remaining handle, which also promptly tore.  I felt a bit grumpy, although this was quickly dispelled by the welcoming fullness of the fridge.  I feel proud every time I open the door.

I have watched quite a lot of American films, and the shopping is always brought home in bags without handles, which myself and others had commented was odd.  Now I know why.

They have all dropped off before they get to the front door.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Watch the Birdie

A humming bird hovered next to my deck this morning.  It wasn't brightly coloured - it resembled a very small, dull English sparrow in colour.  It's flight was completely amazing, how it held itself steady in the air and then darted sideways.  A helicopter, compared to the other birds' aeroplanes.

In the afternoon, I went to sit at the top of the hill, where you get a view of the horizon framed by trees.  The sky was a brilliant blue, and there was a translucent slice of moon.  Since I was a child, I have been a bit confused about the moon appearing during the day.  I know there is solid science behind it, but it still seems, well, wrong.

Once I recovered from the annoyance of seeing the moon in broad daylight, I noticed the slow whorling of a raptor.  He was very high up, but I could watch the ends of his wings making minor adjustments as he balanced on the themals.  It reminded me of floating on my back in a swimming pool, with my arms extended, and having to tweak my lower arms to keep from rolling over.  ( A less majestic an image, I know).

This magnificent bird brought to mind one of the poems 'we did' at school, Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Windhover'.  I sat and wished I could remember beyond the first two lines.  The fabulous thing about the internet is you can get this sort of stuff very quickly, even near the top of a mountain in a forest, so here goes:

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

(....and I thought I was being clever using 'whorl')


Friday, 14 June 2013

The Thunderous Crash of a Leaf Hitting the Deck and Being Brave

It is astonishingly quiet here.  I was sitting on the verandah this afternoon, book in one hand, mug of tea in the other and was actually disturbed by the sound of a dried leaf landing on the ground.  I looked round, then laughed.  How different is this from noisy, polluted London?

It was such a good decision to embark on my adventure. Everyone at home was saying how brave I was, but it doesn't feel brave at all.  It feels very fine indeed.

One slightly brave bit has been giving an introductory talk to a newly arrived group about where the fire extinguishers are, how not to hang clothes over the heaters and how not to be killed by a mountain lion.  (I try to slide that one in fairly casually).  I thought I had come across as confident and reassuring, so was rather put out when one person asked, while wearing a worried expression, whether I was the only member of staff on site.

I obviously need to practice my clever expression more.  I will employ the look I previously used in scary work meetings, where I tilt my head forward and look over the top of my glasses.  This implies I know everything, and as long as I keep my mouth shut, I don't break the spell.

The other nearly brave bit was when I was considering going for a swim in the sea.  There are sharks on this coastline, but I was told not to worry, because when the lifeguards see a shark, they put out a flag.

I have a few concerns about this.  The first would be whether the lifeguard responsible for shark spotting had had a bit of an evening the night before, and how groggy he was feeling.  The second would be how long it takes for groggy lifeguard to find the flag and walk to the flag pole and winch it into position (possibly the length of time it takes to play the 'Jaws' theme tune?).  The final thought was what happens if I am busy swimming away from the beach, so don't see the flag and the first I know of it is when I have a predator snapping at my ankles.

I have been responsible for flags at work, and I know that it can be tricky when you are required to suddenly find the Union Jack, which you last saw somewhere round about the Royal Wedding a year ago.  They tend to get buried under things like Christmas tree decorations and broken lever arch files.

I decided the safest bet would be to sit on the beach for a while, and as long as no one was dragged out of the surf screaming, with fountains of blood pumping from where their legs used to be, it was probably OK.

In the end, I spotted a sign warning of a high percentage of algae in the water, and that we shouldn't ingest any.  That did it for me, but I did wonder why the shark gets a magnificent flag and the little algae just gets an A4 notice pinned to a six foot pole (stick in the ground, not a person from Eastern Europe).

I wondered if I should put a 'post-it' note on a tree, warning of death by mountain lion, and take that bit out of the talk.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Monterey Bay

I woke up to a beautiful, sunshiny day.  You can tell how hot it is going to get, I have noticed, by the depth of contrast between the sunny and shady patches of grass on the lawn first thing.  The sun spots were almost glowing this morning, boding well for a lovely day.

I took the bus to the coast, and as I walked out of the terminus, saw a sign on the building opposite saying, 'Tea Spa'.  As I like Tea and I like Spas, I thought this might be a place for me, especially as I had my bathing costume in my rucksack, ready for the beach.

There was a jacuzzi and a sauna, a private one for each guest.  This is a real treat - back in the UK you usually find yourself trying to hold your feet back from intruding into the personal space of the stranger next to you.  As limbs tend to float upwards in the bubbles, this can be quite a problem.  Well, none of that today.  My room was beautifully tiled, and had a plate glass window overlooking a bamboo garden with a sculpture in the middle.  I had my own pot of hibiscus mint tea to sip too. It was a rather splendid place and I came out very relaxed.

As I walked to the beach, I saw a bike hire shop, so thought I would get a bike to cycle along the coast path.  They brought out a bright pink contraption, with over long, curved handlebars.  Being familiar with bikes, I noticed it didn't have any brakes.  I know Chris Hoy can do without brakes, but not me.  When I asked for one with brakes, they laughed and said I just had to pedal backwards.

I wobbled off along the cycle path, trying to remember to stay on the right.  Braking was tricky and really didn't work if I wanted to stop on a downward slope.  As soon as I took my feet off the pedals, the bike set off again with a mind of its own. Eventually I started to feel more confident and was able to enjoy the view, and what a fantastic view.  Rolling waves, beaches with happy souls jumping around, surfers slithering down sheer rock faces in their enthusiasm to get to the sea, and a general air of happiness.

After returning the bike, and sitting on the beach and realising it really wasn't Brighton when the flock of pelicans landed, I went to the Marine Center and had a go at maneuvering a mini submarine camera in a large tank.  Lots of fun.

I love California!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Scone of Stone

Since I have arrived, I haven't been able to get the gas oven to light, so asked the Maintenance Manager for help.  He suggested I keep the knob down for longer, so a day or so later, tried this, but still couldn't get it to light.  It was only on the second visit by the patient manager, that we realised that I was expecting to see the flames at the back of the oven.  In America the flames are hidden, they are kept where we would keep our spare baking trays, in the drawer underneath.

Having cleared up this misunderstanding, I decided it would be a good idea to do some baking.  I could rustle up some scones.  How hard can that be?

It was a bit annoying that I was using a UK recipe off the internet, and the measuring jugs here seemed to be in cups, and it was a bit difficult trying to work out what two ounces of butter looked like from memory.  I didn't have any baking powder, but there was baking soda in the cupboard, so used that instead.

Things weren't looking good when I could only cut four scone shapes from the dough.  The photo on the internet promised a tempting plateful.

Bearing in mind we are in the middle of a forest and fire is always a major concern, I was really worried when the smoke alarm went off, and had to spend a couple of minutes jumping around, flapping a tea towel across it shouting, 'It's OK, I'm cooking' (hoping to avoid a convoy from the Californian Fire Department appearing up the hill).  I had a fleeting memory of how my children when small, on smelling the smoke of a pillow smoldering in front of the fire, said they didn't think anything was wrong, they just thought I was cooking again.

On tasting the meagre burnt scones I realised that baking soda is definitely not the same thing as baking powder.  I had to have some water to remove the bitter taste from my mouth, and scraped the remaining miserable things into the bin.

The traditional English tea will have to wait I'm afraid.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Angels and Devils

Today I ventured further afield and went to San Francisco.  It was quite an adventure.

The first exciting thing was discovering that the train was a DOUBLE DECKER.  I embarked and then WENT UPSTAIRS.  It was the 'Jumbo Jet' of trains, I felt like I was in first class, especially with the leather seats.  However, in order to get two floors on the train, the upstairs ceiling was a bit low.  Not usually a problem for those of us who are vertically challenged, until you stand up and bash your head on the parcel rack.

I stepped off the train in San Francisco station with mild concussion.

I asked a bus driver the way to the pier, from where I was going to catch a ferry.  I only wanted directions for walking, but she was insistent I got on the bus and gave me instructions for the next one to catch.  Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the next interchange, as on leaving the bus stop, one poor woman wasn't holding the pole as instructed by the computerised voice (they seem keen on those here) and fell onto the floor.  I started trying to scoop her up, but the rather bossy bus driver shooed me off and berated the woman for not holding the pole.  I was tempted to say something about the jerky driving, but it was a bit scary being in a strange city and she looked like she might have been a part- time wrestler.

Although the woman was OK and sat back on a seat, the bus driver insisted we all got off as she was going to 'get them to come and check her over'.  From her tone of voice this wasn't out of concern for the passenger, more out of concern there was going to be litigation.

Eventually I made it to the pier, where it was very jolly. Coffee shops and nicely planted flower beds, and every so often a trolley bus would 'ding ding' past.  It was quite a thrill, looking out over the bay and seeing Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.  There was also a herd (not sure of the umbrella term) of sea lions basking in the adoration of crowds on the opposite pier.  They were wallowing on rafts that were probably meant for boats to moor, but they looked very comfortable and relaxed.

Might have something to do with not ever needing to catch a bus.

The ferry was fun, lots of decks (is there a theme here?) and took us right past Alcatraz.  It looked intimidating and dismal.  Lots of decaying concrete and institutional architecture crumbling away.  As the boat went beyond the island, the sight of Alcatraz against the backdrop of the glittering city made poignant contrast.

We first moored at a little port.  Lots of plate glass windows in the houses cleverly built against the hillside and niche shops on the waterfront.  The natural habitat for those men who are photographed wearing Rolexes in the Sunday supplements I felt.

After some more time chugging through the water, we arrived at Angel Island.  A beautiful place, tree lined hills, walking tracks, pleasantly landscaped garden areas, but something didn't really feel quite right.  It turned out the island had a bit of 'a past'.  It has been a garrison in the Civil War, a recruitment  center during the World Wars and used as an immigration center for the Chinese coming to America, where they were held in quarantine.

Oh, and it was also once a missile base during the Cold War.  

The island was marketed as a place to camp.  I had a spot of bother thinking of a family that might want to go camping on a disused missile launch pad, until I remembered that my father, who enjoyed picnicking at nuclear power stations, would probably have jumped at the chance.

It felt a bit odd, that although the island was beautiful, it had a history of human misery not dissimilar to Alcatraz, it just wore it better.

Sunday, 9 June 2013


Haberdasher is such a good word, although secretive.  If you hadn't come across it before, it gives absolutely no indication what its meaning might be.  Unlike say, 'butcher' which helpfully suggests meat is involved, or 'baker' hinting, quite strongly, at bread.

Today I went to what must be one of the best haberdashery shops around.  It was in Santa Cruz.  It was the size of a warehouse and was a treasure trove of fabulous bits and pieces.  The huge rolls of fabric were propped up at one end, and the better quality ones hung on rollers with a quantity draping down to entice you to touch.  I started at one end, stroking the faux fur and imagining my house, completely lined with the stuff.  Forget wallpaper or wood paneling, faux fur is the future for interior design as far as I am concerned.  There is something so reassuring about stroking softness.

The fabulously coloured pure silks were quietly looking glamorous, hanging off horizontal rods in the centre of the store.  So fine to the touch, it was like they almost weren't there.

Some of the material had prints created by someone with a sense of humour - in the 'food' section, there were bolts printed with tomatoes and bacon and eggs.  In another area, there were rolls of material covered with matchsticks, and another with cigars.  Pet lovers were also catered for, with multiple doggie faces staring out, and kittens with bows.  Sadly no guinea-pigs - I do think the power of the guinea-pig is underestimated in art.

One roll of upholstery material had a flock of mallards swimming between the bulrushes, presumably looking for Moses.  I think they were off course in California.

On the walls raggedy rows of ribbons and sequins dangled down, in every colour you could imagine.  One roll of shimmering turquoise sequins reminded me of the sea and I imagined a dress fit for a mermaid.

The buttons were fun too, big square ones, small textured ones, buttons so big they had patterns cut into them like doilies - you could serve fairy cakes on them.

It reminded me that there is something wonderful about specialist shops.  Forget the bland malls with chain stores and bring back the real shops, the ones that make it more fun to spend your money.

Saturday, 8 June 2013


Today I went to a state park about six miles away from where I am staying.  It was a beautifully sunny day.  It still feels strange that this is so normal, no one comments on it here, unlike at home where the minute the sun comes out, we all rush outside to enjoy the rare occurrence.

There were HUGE redwood trees, and a display with a slice from one cut down in 1934 showing the rings from major events in human history across around 2000 years.  I stood inside one redwood that had been burned out (but was still alive).  Someone in the past had actually cut a window in the bark, which had grown over again.  A little further on I felt quite thrilled when someone walked past and ACTUALLY SAID 'HOWDIE'.

Yay!  I'm definitely in America!

It was a very nice park, one half seemed to be totally natural and set up to admire the trees, and the other side was a wacky, fun pastiche of the Wild West.  Then I remembered.  I was in California.  This was the Wild West, once.

I decided to take the vintage steam train up the mountain.  Just sitting in an open wagon was fun, with the whistle going (and sounding very American, just like in all the old films), and with a commentary coming out of a speaker next to my seat.  The commentary started off quite amusing and helpful, 'Has the little chap who went to the restroom returned yet?  We don't like leaving anyone behind', and 'Welcome to the Mormon Mission in the last carriage'.  As we passed a man balancing a sledge hammer on his chin, the voice intoned 'Don't try this at home kids' as parents looked a bit worried and made a mental note to lock up the heavy duty tools as soon as they got back.  This was reinforced by the man waving jovially at the train with one hand, while wielding a humming chain saw in the other (he was making sculptures out of logs - eat your heart out Michael Angelo).  The disembodied voice continued talking, and talking and talking.  It wasn't clear where the physical presence that went with the voice was, so when it said, 'the tree we are just passing on your right....' it was confusing to work out whether, as the train was quite long, he might have been in the front with the driver, or at the back with the Mormons.  The voice didn't seem to need to draw breath, and only stopped in submission when the train's whistle blew, which it did, frequently.  The peace and tranquility of the forest was being completely overwhelmed by the train, rather like the effect the man with the chainsaw was having on the hapless logs.

We steamed up the mountain, and it was very beautiful.  The voice was promising some 'additional entertainment' at the top, but also warned us to 'watch out for our wallets'.  I started to think about the attractive possibility of ice cream, possibly at top notch prices to match the top notch venue, but I was wrong.   As the train arrived at the highest point some actors dressed in Wild West costumes greeted us with waves and smiles.  Then everything went a bit haywire as some cowboys started shooting the friendly actors.  I couldn't hear the dialogue, so couldn't tell what was happening, so for once, I wished the disembodied voice would chip in and help, but he didn't.  I idly wondered whether he had been shot.  The actors were doing a good job, but I couldn't help feeling a tinge depressed about the lack of an ice cream stall, as it really was getting hot.  

The train wended its way back down the mountain to the Wild West shopping opportunity.  I was relieved to see that the man with the sledge hammer still had his skull intact, and the chain saw man still had both hands fully functioning.  It was quite a relief to not have Mr Invisible trying to enforce jollity any more, he was giving me earache.

I started walking the mile or so back to where the bus allegedly went from.  It was still really hot, and I was starting to feel bothered too.  It didn't help that bus stops are almost invisible here, and I had to ask in two shops where it was.  I eventually saw two small tin signs attached to a bent pole with a bench, and realised this was where I needed to wait.  I did feel quite smug that at least I have got the hang of which direction the bus comes from, and don't sit watching the traffic on the other side of the road, wondering how the bus will get across to me.

The food store was near where I was dropped off, so not to waste a walk back empty handed, I thought I would buy a few additional bits and pieces.  You know how it goes, you only mean to buy this and that, and end up with a large bag full.  So it was I staggered out with my rucksack bulging and heavy into the 90 degree sunshine, with a mile uphill ahead.

I started off strongly, but my pace became slower and slower as I started seriously overheating.  I had sweat pouring off me as if I was in a hot shower.  My one consolation was that, as I climbed the last stage, no one I knew would see me.

You can imagine my dismay as a car pulled up, with a well groomed man inside, who let his electronic window slide down on his smart and shiny car, and said, 'Hello, are you Hilary?'  I kept my distance to avoid sweat dripping into his immaculate interior, and considered looking confused, and turning round to see where Hilary was (having been inspired by the actors on the train trip).  I didn't, I gasped an apology for my appearance, explaining I had just walked up from the town.  He was very understanding, but I really, really didn't want to start making new friends at that exact point in my life.

Back in my apartment it was a case of kick off the shoes and grab a pint of water before collapsing in a heap on the settee.  I tried to console myself with the thought that all the walking must be making me fitter, even if I feel like I am about 100 years old.

Friday, 7 June 2013

It's Posh Here....

I woke up to an ethereal mist hanging in the forest.  The dampness made the earth smell particularly fresh and alive.

Gradually the sun burnt off the mist.  I was due to help with the gardening.  There is a lovely, cultivated square under the grapefruit, lemon and orange trees that needed weeding.  I pulled open the gate and walked into an olfactory delight - the scent of lemon mint mixed with grass and the damp earth.

I started extracting weeds from around the wonderful and abundant mint, and from around the strawberries.  You can imagine how surprised I was to be told that in California, mint is A WEED.  Yes, the stuff we actually pay for in supermarkets is a WEED here.  I took it quite well, and trying to look nonchalant, explained that in the UK, STRAWBERRIES ARE WEEDS.  We have such problems, they get everywhere and destroy all the other plants.......

I don't think anyone believed me.

Another surprise was that the chickens in the run next to us became rather excited about us weeding -  chickens in America EAT WEEDS.  As this included copious quantities of mint, I suspect that the next omelette anyone makes will have a strange after-taste.  I think maybe that OREGANO should be redesignated a weed to stop this becoming a problem.

While we are on the subject of eggs, I have noticed that the shells are much harder to crack.  I went to break an egg on the side of a bowl, it took so many bashes to open up, I felt like I should have been better equipped with a hammer.

I have been told this is because they particularly love their chickens here, and look after them very nicely.  

Now, who's for mint tea?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The other side of the street....

Today, I am very proud to announce, I had my first practice at driving ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD.  Mind you - having given it some thought, and seeing a map of the world showing which countries drive on the right and which on the left, it has to be said that Britain is actually the one, USING THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD.  

I was quite nervous, and read some good advice on the internet before setting off.  The most sensible of which just said to repeat constantly in your head (or out loud for that matter), 'Keep on the right, keep on the right'.  It said something about trying not to open the window when you reach for the gear stick, which I thought was a bit daft.

'I'm not that stupid', I thought smugly.

Out in the parking lot (I am getting the lingo now) I kept hitting the window winder when I tried to change gear, so that bit of advice didn't seem so daft in retrospect.  It's hard to find third with a faster and faster blast of cold air in your face and the engine over-revving.  It was also odd to look up and to the right for the internal mirror, I kept looking up and left and admiring the door pillar.  Not much help in seeing whether there was a large truck bearing down on me.

I drove along a steep, twisting road, with a sheer drop appearing occasionally to one side.  I decided not to be intimidated and instead kept an eye on the central lines, which confusingly were yellow, like our no parking lines down the side of the road.  In America the white lines are at the edges, which adds to the general feeling of confusion about where you should be pointing on the road.

I stalled once, was tooted once and sworn at by a truck driver once, but as I managed to get both the car and 'slightly anxious' passenger back in one piece, I decided to regard it as a successful outing.