Thursday, August 11, 2011

Nothing Stays the Same

I've just returned from a three-week trip to the UK. Some things are just the same: aggressive drivers, lowering skies, pleasant checkout assistants, convivial pubs, orderly queues.

But some things seem quite different these days, and in a definitely American way. For example, now there are branches of Starbucks everywhere, although the English ones offer a much wider range of food, including such idiosyncratic offerings as cheese-and-marmite paninis (I can't think who would shudder more, the Americans or the Italians) and sausage sandwiches. And then there's the equally American use of endless, utterly indefensible superlatives ("The world's cheapest prescription glasses!"), which I loathe over here and was dismayed to find over there.

Now I'm back and there are London riots, and the videos on the BBC website make it look foreign, even, I should imagine, to the people who live there.

In California, meanwhile, the weather remains pleasant if unseasonably cool, the sound of a leaf blower mars the peaceful morning as I write this, school has begun again already, and all in all, life goes on pretty much as usual.

Originally, I subtitled this blog as "Living in California: The Brit Perspective". But while I still notice things here that strike me as different, or unusual, or amusing because they're not part of my cultural and educational background, the truth is that it's getting increasingly difficult to maintain that viewpoint when I'm beginning to feel more at home here than there. The more so when "there" is starting to blur into "here".

So now I think perhaps it's time to look for a different perspective. At the moment, I am still working on my financial blog Asking for Direction$ which I vowed to write for one year. At the end of 2011, I plan to combine the two into something that pulls together all the elements of my Californian life.

"Only Connect" remains my motto though. Because I still believe that ultimately, whatever our differences may be, it's the things which connect us that make our lives worth living.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jelly Beans

American children celebrate Easter with jelly beans. Did everyone else know that but me?

Every year around this time I carefully make my way to the British shop near us, so that I can buy my children the chocolate eggs of my childhood, even though I know that a) they don't mean nearly as much to my children as they do to me with my Easter basket of childhood nostalgia, and b) they always seem to have the shortest shelf life imaginable (but why? We all celebrate Easter at the same time!) and therefore never taste quite like I remember them.

Meanwhile, American children, who have no concept of the way in which a large Smarties chocolate egg cracks open with that special snap, or the way that you have to choose whether you're going to eat the chocolate first and save the bag of smarties or the other way around, cheerfully go out hunting for little plastic eggs filled with either a couple of jelly beans or a marshmallow chicken. Or, to my children's tearful disgust the first year we discovered this, for actual, painted hard-boiled eggs ("But, Mum, what am I supposed to do with these?" they cried, having been promised chocolate largesse by their unsuspecting parent, while the hostess of the hunt kindly suggested egg mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner.)

Now, I like jelly beans. Sometimes I think they are one of America's top contributions to world cuisine. But there are limits. Even the slightly sinful Margarita-flavoured ones, or the comforting black licorice ones, while necessary to life here, do not fit the Easter bill.

Nothing beats a real chocolate Easter egg, or the very necessary first taste of chocolate that I wake up to every Easter Sunday after forty long days without it. I have never in my life woken up to the taste of a margarita in any form, and with apologies to my new home and in the full knowledge that I might be missing something important, I don't intend to start.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is this where I'm at?

I've lived in California now for six-and-a-half years. That is longer than I have lived in any one place in the whole of my adult life. And one of the things I've realized lately is that somewhere along the way, my perceptions have shifted.

I’ve always thought that it takes two years of living somewhere, before you can start to tentatively think of it as home; four, before you feel settled. But that’s when you stay in the same country, when the fundamentals of what makes a place "home" - the language, the culture, the politics, the manners, the assumptions, the unspoken understandings - stay moreorless constant. Moving abroad inevitably exposes you to a more profound set of differences. Even America, so much more comprehensible to a Brit than almost anywhere else in the world, brings its own challenges, at every level. But it has been just over six years for me, and I’m at a point now, where I’m on the borderline between what actually defines home for me.

I’m watching my children grow up here. I’m getting to know the ins and outs of the school system, and starting to think about college funds. I’m understanding what my British friend here meant years ago when I asked her if it didn’t sound odd having a child with an American accent and she replied in surprise, “But that’s just who she is. That’s her voice!” I’m looking at a region north of the city and wondering if the property prices will allow us to retire up there.

When did this occur? When did I stop wondering what was happening in the UK? It strikes me as extraordinary that an English prime minister has been and gone since I last lived there. I hadn’t even heard of Cameron when I left, or whateverhisnameis that I already can’t remember who’s now playing David Steele to Cameron’s Owen. When we got here, George Bush was just being re-elected. Now the media is focusing on Obama’s possible second term.

I’ve started to cook Mexican food. I can find my way quite easily around the aisles in Safeway. I say “cool’ to my children without wincing, and some things in my life actually are awesome. I know what to expect at the doctor’s office (no longer a surgery). My youngest son is about to start playing baseball. I accept that most of our holidays are likely to be in California or a neighboring state, and a quick trip to France is no longer on the cards. I’ve stopped marveling at the way I can pick oranges in our back yard. And I grumble whenever it rains, even though, comparatively speaking, it hardly ever does.

(And as an aside, and in the spirit of my new acceptance, I’ve even started learning about the financial system here. I’ve set up another blog detailing my experiences with that: http://askingfordirection.com/)

I still think of ‘flying back home’. But every day, I come home to my life here. So I can't help but sometimes wonder, where, exactly, is home?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's been too long

It's been too long since I last blogged. Too long since I had something to say about this fine young state in which I live, and that fine old country from whence I came. And it's not as if I've had no thoughts about it.

For example: Why, I wonder almost daily, do American men drink through straws? In the UK, most self-respecting adults would not be seen dead sipping soda or iced coffee through a plastic straw. And yet, here it is an adult pastime, as natural and unselfconscious as drinking from a soda can.

And why are the letters delivered to my door referred to as mail, dropped off by a mail man, and yet I go to the 'post office' to buy stamps?

Why, if it comes to that, do I listen to 'A Prairie Home Companion' despite its not being in any way at all like any program on BBC Radio 4 that I've ever heard, no matter what anyone here tells you; and in conjunction with that thought, is it possible, after all those much-missed BBC radio "I'm sorry I haven't a clue" episodes, to finally have some respect for the kazoo as a musical instrument?

And how, while I'm at it, can a Californian town have streets named not only by numbers - Street 1, Street 2, Street 3 - but by fractions of numbers too - Street nine-and-a-half, Street 10 3/4 ? Did someone not think, when they so cheerfully named streets 9, 10 and 11, that one day someone might wish to build another road - or two - in between them?

And yet, gentle reader, so it is. A small fraction of the many wonders that make up my day. And to think, before blogging was invented, all these little gems remained in my head! What a wonderful century we live in now, to be sure.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Has England moved to the Tropics?

I recently returned from a short trip back to the UK. As usual, a jumble of little things caught my eye: the primroses growing along the banks of the motorway; the extraordinary politeness of local drivers; the way you have to pay for parking almost everywhere; most of all, the way the football crowd at the game I attended were so cheerfully negative about their own players: "He's rubbish, he is! What's he playing centre for? Get him off!"

I was amused by the awkward stance of the politicians in the televised pre-election debates, having got used to a country where politics and the trappings of celebrity go hand-in-hand. And I laughed at a description of a BBC program in which the presenter, while extolling the wonders of Sydney, Australia, was observed to have an "innate Englishness which makes it hard for him to be entirely happy in a city where there's nothing to grumble about."

But the thing that startled me was a magazine article describing the tea being grown in Cornwall, the commerical success of olives in the South East, the pawpaws and pecans being picked in Devon. Apparently the wine industry, which not so long ago was considered to be something of a joke, is winning numerous international awards, and there are now tasty and exorbitantly expensive truffles to discover if you know where to look for them (and I can only imagine how the French, still reeling from the wine competition, may be reacting to that last bit of news).

Aside from the obvious implications of global warming, perhaps these new crops mean that there is hope yet for the reputation of British cuisine. I know from living in America that the image of heavy English 'puddings', soggy vegetables, and chips with every meal, is still alive and kicking abroad. But if the Brits can now buy local olive oil, fresh apricots and a bottle of bubbly from down the road, it may bring with it a new wave of cooking, not only in restaurants but in kitchens too. Perhaps Jamie Oliver will be able to offer school children a mediterranean diet with confidence, and the obesity problem will finally be resolved.

I think there is quite a long way to go, though. I noticed that the football ground offered as half-time refreshments pies, Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, to be washed down with strong tea which at this stage presumably still has no more association with Cornwall than the pasties.

And I have to say as a Brit that the smell of the pies, the imminent threat of rain, the half-hearted grumbling British public around me and the near impossible parking all felt a reassuringly long way from the Tropics.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Getting all creative

Another show, come and gone.

I always get post-show blues. I enjoy directing so much, it's such a positive, invigorating experience working with creative people to build something that is almost invariably bigger than the sum of its parts. When I'm in the theatre, I am there one hundred per cent; anything on my mind gets left at the door. That can be hugely cathartic, and when you add to that the sheer energy of live theatre, it becomes an almost addictive experience.

Which makes the 'going cold turkey' part hard. It also makes me aware of how bad I am at remembering to enjoy the present outside those precious rehearsal times.

And I don't think I'm alone. It seems to me that people here are too busy to ever be spontaneous; it's difficult to meet a friend even for a quick cup of coffee on impulse. In actual fact, life in middle class Northern California is unarguably sweet. Yes, the state economy is worrying, money is in short supply, unemployment is rife, schools are failing and Facebook is taking over the world.

But the sun is shining, and I can tell you that even when it's drunk alone, Peet's coffee still tastes good. What's more, right now there's a green hummingbird right outside my window, sipping nectar delicately from a flower in a thoroughly boastful exhibition of nature at its most miraculous and immediate. Too many people, I think as I watch it, are constantly striving for tomorrow, at the cost of not fully appreciating today.

So personally I am resolving to do more nectar-sipping (or other suitable beverage) today, rather than worrying so much about planting flowers (or coffee beans) to ensure enough nectar for sipping tomorrow.

Although, I can't help thinking, if I could just find a way to put that nectar in a bottle, I could make a fortune! Wait - where's that Dummies' Guide to creating a 5-year-plan?

Or maybe I'll just start work on the next show. Ah, yes! Now I'm happy =)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Local Entertainment

It's been an odd sort of month. Rain, sun, hot, cold, glimpses of summer, reminders of winter. An unsettled month for me, and not one in which I've done a whole lot of blogging.

But even on what promises to be the most dull of days, I always have cause to be thankful for the local newspaper, with its constant, if inadvertent, ability to entertain me. Here are some snippets from today's edition:

1) "Turkey hunter shoots, kills member of party". Apparently last Saturday was the official start of the turkey 'open season', and most unfortunately a Mr Larry Pendley, while down on his hands and knees in the grass (I don't know how people traditionally hunt turkeys, but to be honest, that wasn't how I visualized it), was shot dead by his hunting partner. The sheriff commented later that he thought the victim's long beard may have been partly to blame for the confusion. Anyway, I think I can just remove "hunter" from the headline and leave it at that.

2) Good news about the CERN project, which has now successfully caused protons to move at more than 99% of the speed of light leading to energy levels of 3.5 trillion electron volts, in an effort to simulate the Big Bang. According to the colorful language of the local journalist, yesterday there was "joy in the meadows and tunnels of the Swiss-French countryside". But I notice that the Director General, Herr Heuer, chose to comment on the project from the considerably more distant Japan. Perhaps he knew something about the meadows and tunnels that the others didn't.

3) On the letters page, an earnest writer exhorts, "If you are thinking of putting a baby bunny in your child's Easter basket, think again." Apparently rabbits live for ten years, and "there are no holidays when caring for a rabbit". So presumably parents all over the state will be having to rethink their Easter plans entirely.

4) And of course, there's always the police blotter to fall back on: today's highlights include a woman who was "arrested for trying to hit her husband with a hammer during an argument" and (but note that she has already been arrested by this point) "then causing a major wound after stabbing him with a sword." This has me wondering what on earth the police officer was doing, and also whether the sword might be available for any future theatre productions (possibly with the woman as expert choreographer, if she's not actually incarcerated).

And as if that weren't enough entertainment for one day, here are a couple of good bumper stickers that I've seen lately to add in for good measure:

"Gun control means using both hands" =)

and my particular favorite: "Don't believe everything you think"

Really, with so much excitement happening on my doorstep, is it any wonder the days fly by?