Breakfast, Lunch, Tea and Beer in America - A Brit's view of that countrie and its inhabitants
"Take a jumbo cross the water
Like to see America"
- Take A Look At My Girlfriend
had one thing right. I like to see America. Of course, I had good reason to come here, having met a certain young Christine
through a writer's collaborative collective community database not a million miles away from you now.
I suppose I wasn't prepared for a lot of things. Various people in the britnoders usergroup had warned of dreadful cheeses (including American "cheddar" and terrible beer. They'd told me that California was awful "they don't let you smoke anywhere" and that Immigration would cackle, humourlessly yet evilly as they Did Terrible Things To Me Involving Rubber Gloves And Body Cavities.
So were they correct, these harbingers of doom? Not on the counts listed above. Okay, yes, there are dreadful cheeses, but equally, some quite amazing cheeses too, one of which bore the unlikely name of Humboldt Fog. Most of them are local, made on a small scale by dairies - Christine went to great pains to ensure that I was reminded of this at every available opportunity. (Please don't get me started on the whole issue of Cheddar cheese - suffice to say that it can only be made in the Cheddar Gorge. In England. Please take note, Canadians and Kiwis.)
An Ode to Merkin Beer
Beer? Well one fine evening after a walk around Davis, we stopped at an hostelry for a suitable refreshment, and lo! Bass Ale! On tap, no less! Excited beyond words, I order a pint (well, what they call a pint over there - it's 83% of an Imperial pint because of their smaller gallon - go and read that, by the way to see the reason) and prepare to enjoy one of the finer English draught beers. And it was foul.
It was then I realised my mistake, and I recalled oh-so-many American-accented criticisms of Real Ale. "Warm and cloudy", they say. So how do they deal with good English ale? They filter the goodness out of it, then serve it ice-cold in an ice-cold glass. And dear beer-lovers, it is truly vile. Better by far to avoid it and stick to the microbrewery beers found everywhere. Drink often and preferably bottled, at that. There are so many good beers to be found in the States, if one can avoid the Budweisers of this world, and seek out the local beers - visitors take note of the chillers behind the bars, not the pumps.
Speaking of which, I found many hard-to-find British bottled beers here, in the local food co-op, including Monty Python's Holy Grale and St. Peter's Ale, both strangely lacking in England all of a sudden...
Maybe it's just me?
"Oh, I just love your accent!" Mostly from women, it has to be said, but I've hit a lot of this. Then they go and spoil it all by asking me if I'm Australian. It amused us greatly when one young woman, after packing our groceries at a local supermarket, spent a long time chatting me up. Christine suspected she'd have followed me home. Ah well.
The one Terrible Thing that happened with too much frequency was people connecting Nottingham with Notting Hill. Me, I blame the media and Hollywood. Oh, and Hugh Grant as well, just for good measure. Quite a few people made the Robin Hood connection though, which did please me, and too many people asked how far it was from the city of Leeds, which still puzzles me. Suffice to say, I simplified matters by stating that Nottingham is in the middle of England, Leeds is North and London South.
But the locals (Californians) are friendly. From the first moment I set foot on American soil until now, I've met so many wonderful people, even the dread Immigration and Homeland Security people were human, respectful and decent.
Tips for Travellers (and Note to Future Self)
Get plenty of sleep before travelling. This should go without saying, but I managed not to sleep too well before flying out or back. Do Not Assume You WIll Sleep On The Plane - Boeing 747s are hideously noisy places, and I managed only fitful naps on both journeys.
In fact, I arrived in Sacramento, California via Los Angeles at 0530 Body Clock Time (2130 PST) and was slightly damaged by the travel, and didn't really recover for two days. Do not be afraid to take a lengthy nap - made easier in my case by a six-year-old who was as tired as I on the Saturday morning. We napped together on the couch. Sofa. Whatever.
Assume Your Bags Will Be Lost. I always make a point of carrying a change of clothes in my hand luggage just in case. For future reference, do not pack your house keys in the hold luggage - if that is lost you have also lost your primary nap place on your return. I can speak from personal experience, my case having been mislaid between Sacramento and LA. Thankfully, my housemate Dan came to the rescue and was able to not only collect me from Nottingham, but let me in the house.
Vive Les Differences
So what's different?
Well they drive on the right, that's fairly different, but in most places they also turn right through red lights - the "California turn" (which I swear I saw noded), scaring me every single time. They are (again I can only speak for Californians) fairly good about pedestrians crossing at intersections, although I clearly need to grok this thoroughly on my return, and certainly before actually driving there.
They drive better than we do. Generally, more slowly, more carefully and with politeness. As I write this, I hear tyres screeching on the ring road.
They do not pronouce their "T"s. Doubtless there's a technical term for this, but when I hear it, I smile. The word, I kept telling my hosts, is "bottle", not "boddle". They in their turn, riposte by advising me that there is an "R" in "beer". Fair enough, I suppose.
City layout is good for navigation. In most places, blocks are laid out by street number and names. Davis for the most part is Streets A to G and crossing those are Streets 1 to 12, so knowing that the Co-op grocery shop is at 7th and G makes life easier, especially when Blockbuster Video is on 3rd and F. The block layout things works on the small scale, San Francisco take note. (The apparently huge street numbers are explained by this - 1010 Whatever Street means that the building is situated between 10th and 11th Streets. Quite civilised, really.)
I've already been corrected by Brits for using the word "line" when I meant "queue", and gently laughed at by a certain American for using a short "A" in the word "half". Word of Warning - you may go native quicker than you may like.
Tipping is pretty much required. I quickly learned to feel guilty if I didn't tip. Ten to fifteen percent seems to be the norm, and does guarantee good service on your return. It still slightly hurts when the advertised prices of many goods does not include the local sales tax, and it caught me out on several occasions, especially after I'd dug out the correct change.
Get used to good service - it seems that the Customer is truly royalty, service levels on the whole are a huge improvement over UK standards. UK businesses take note. Exceptions seem to be monopolistic utility companies, but no surprises there.
American toilets are cleaner. Mind you, cleaner than Nottingham loos is not difficult - the word "bog" seems to have been made for local facilities!
I mentioned beer, it would be unfair to skip a commentary on tea. In summary, Americans cannot make this finest of beverages. Please stop serving it with hot water and a separate tea bag! Tea needs to be made immediately the kettle has boiled, prefereably in a teapot, but never with milk in the mug while the tea is mashing. End Rant.
Finally, America is big. Actually, let me rephrase that. America is Bloody Huge! California itself is massive - compare its 163,707 square miles to England's paltry 51,191. And that's just the third largest state. Oh dearie me. Now I need a lie down.
What I Did In My Holidays
Most of the time was spent in Davis, acclimatising to the culture and just meeting people, but there were some highlights, some good, some difficult. The discovery of the Delta of Venus cafe was a hiughlght of my first day out alone, and Christine was delighted that I'd found it, and has been back a few times since then.
Our first date was in Sophies, a local bar and Thai restaurant, where we met a delightful barman, Jeremy. He provided a great backdrop to a romantic evening, and it was a great introduction to the local beers and customs.
Thanksgiving was quite an eye-opener, as we went to visit some of Christine's friends for a few days. They live out in the sticks on a small farm with a walnut orchard at the back, a hot tub and gorgeous kitchen. I got the impression I was under the microscope, but I seem to have passed muster. The meal itself was one of the greatest delights, and has redefined the whole concept of hospitality for me - the whole spirit of sharing seems to come so naturally.
We stayed for three days, all excellent - there was wonderful company, which truly helped me adjust. I owe them a vote of thanks, I do. A walk into the hills followed on the last day, then it was reluctantly back to Davis for a reality check and normality (work for Christine, exploration and meeting new friends for me).
A day out in Sacramento followed, and strolling round "Old Sac" and discovering the history of the place was quite fascinating. Incidentally, if you want a decent cup of coffee and a meal, you could do worse than Steamers at 101 K Street. A visit to the museum put the word "history" into perspective. I'm used to a thousand-year documented history as a minimum, and most places I've seen have less than a fifth of that. Excluding Native American history of course, which I suspect would be richer and more diverse, if only it hadn't been ploughed under.
It's still been interesting though - to see a country whose entire history can pretty much be found in newspapers. Maybe I'm being a little harsh - there's more to American history than meets the eye, clearly. Christine has started to educate me in this, and long may that continue.
Sadly, on 2nd December, one of Christine's friends died, at the end of a battle with ovarian cancer, and this mean a dramatic upset for everyone. My role changed from courting Chris and being a tourist, to providing what support I could to her and Tessie.
We went to San Francisco on the Sunday for the memorial service, and stayed for the funeral on Monday. It was tough for everyone, and yet I wouldn't and couldn't have stayed away. A relationship depends on support through the hard times as well, and through the tears and farewells, I think we grew stronger through it. Never good at keeping my emotions in check, I wept myself as Susan Chung's ashes were sprinkled into the Bay from a boat. I was pleased that I'd extended my holiday for a week. It would have been a helluva finish to have flown back to the UK the following day.
We also met with the lovely iceowl and his family, driving down to Los Gatos for an evening, where once again we met with some great hospitality and good company. Oh, and the largest serving of beer I've had outside Germany. Thanks to you all! Still, sorry we missed dem bones, I'll have to go back now.
This journal entry finishes with our last "date" at the bar whose name I forget and once again meeting the lovely Jeremy. All too soon, I had to fly back "home", but truly feel that my heart is still there, if not actually in San Francisco, then not too far away.
Glad to be Back?
Well, under the circumstances, I have mixed feelings. I'm missing Christine. I'm missing her very much, to the point of looking round for her every time I changed direction on my return journey. I miss Tessie too - she's a little powerhouse of joy and brightness.
Still, hopefully, I'll be seeing young Grundy in the Spring, and with luck and good planning, will be joining her in the States sometime soon after that. Watch this space.
I missed many of my friends here. I won't embarrass you by mentioning names, but you know who you are. Over the next few weeks, expect phone calls from me, and please look forward to a nodermeet or two soon - watch this space.