March 9, 2011

There's no room for a car in the garage
There’s no room for a car in the garage

Last weekend, my husband took the empty cardboard boxes to the tip. (It took us ages to work out why no-one could tell us where the tip is. It’s because it’s called a dump here, not a tip.) Moving house uses hundreds of cardboard boxes, and moving house trans-Atlantically seems to use even more. We had 302 packages in our container, and they were all wrapped in either special bubble wrap or tons and tons of filler paper and boxes.

We took the seats out of the car, so that there was a huge space to fill. Even so, we filled the car twice with boxes.

No wonder unpacking them took so long.

Ready for the first trip to the tip
Ready for the first trip to the tip

March 3, 2011

Our lack of understanding of American English draws some funny looks. If we say something that Americans don’t understand, they look at us as if we have two heads. For example, if we ask where the loo is, or suggest standing in a queue, we’re the ones that have the English problem. But if we don’t understand something they say, it’s a cause of extreme mirth.

It’s not just the words, though; they also use different acronyms. I received an email from a mother at school yesterday, suggesting an MNO. Having no idea what an MNO was, I Googled it and saw these options:-

  • Mobile Network Operator
  • Magnesium Nickel Oxide
  • Mango
  • Manobo languages
  • Michigan Northern Railway Company
  • Mobile Networking Overview

None of these looks very appealing (well, maybe the mango appeals).

It turns out that MNO is Mums’ Night Out. Doh! That sounds far more interesting that a Mobile Networking Overview.

Monday's sunrise, kind of mango in colour
Monday’s sunrise, kind of mango in colour

March 3, 2011

My husband and I had lunch in they city yesterday. It sounds simple, but having lunch is an event. It involves either driving in (boring) and parking (complicated), or taking the ferry across the bay (drop-dead gorgeous) and cycling (fun). It was a no-brainer. We took our bikes on the ferry, and enjoyed the day and our meal. By the time we got arrived back in Marin it was time to collect the children from school, and the process of having lunch had taken all day.

It was fantastic. Taking the ferry across the bay is one of the most wonderful things to do here. Whatever the weather (and yesterday was cold (9 degrees C) and sunny), it’s always beautiful. Whichever direction you look, there’s something gorgeous or awe-inspiring to look at. However many times I do it, I don’t get bored of it.

I just don’t want to have to do it in a hurry. It’s so much more enjoyable when you can take time to enjoy the journey.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge

March 2, 2011

The replica of Sutter's Mill
The replica of Sutter’s Mill

Even pioneering gold rush towns aren’t immune to progress. Sutter’s Mill, where gold was first spotted in 1848, was closed in 1850, due to “inefficiency”.  The wooden boards of the mill were pulled down and used as lumber.  Ho hum.  You can’t win them all.

And the town of Coloma, the location of Sutter’s Mill, is a ghost town, kept hauntingly alive only because of the creation of a state park around Sutter’s Mill (Marshall Gold Discovery State Park) and the tourism that it attracts. There are wonderful roads names in the area, like Discovery Road and Gold Rush Lane. Tellingly, there’s also one called Poverty Hill.

The one-horse ghost town of Coloma. Blacksmith, post office and coffee shop. Gold Discovery State Park. And that's pretty much it.
The one-horse ghost town of Coloma. Blacksmith, post office and coffee shop. Gold Discovery State Park. And that’s pretty much it.

March 2, 2011

Welcome to the Gold Bug
Welcome to the Gold Bug

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the Gold Rush and the shenanigans of the Wild West took place here. The first gold – the stuff that started the whole Gold Rush in 1848 – was found in Coloma, near current-day Placerville, and we passed through it on our way back home from Lake Tahoe on Sunday. For various reasons, we needed to get home as efficiently as possible. We had already delayed coming home from Saturday evening to make sure that the snow had calmed down enough for the roads to be clear.

The obvious thing to do, therefore, was to take a detour to look around a gold mine!

It was so worth it.

A gold mine is a dark, spooky place
A gold mine is a dark, spooky place

We found a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy mine called Gold Bug, with a teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy museum next door. Our entry fee included an audio tour and dripping calcium rock from the ceilings of the mine. It was fascinating.

The main gold rush between 1848 and 1855  brought pioneers from all over America, South America and China, and they suffered extreme hardship on their journeys to California. Many died on the way. But those that came first were rewarded immensely. In just one week in the summer of 1848, two men found 1000 ounces of gold, worth more than $1400 per ounce at today’s price.

The majority of the gold rush winners came in 1849, and it’s from those pioneers that the name “49ers” was coined. Still today, the San Francisco football team is called the 49ers, and we skied on a 49ers piste last week. San Francisco itself boomed in those years, going from a mere 1,000 inhabitants in 1848 to 25,000 in December 1849. Roads, railways and steamships were built to accommodate the gold-seekers, and many individuals in trades supplying gold-seekers benefitted.

Calcium rock dropped from the ceiling
Calcium rock dripped from the ceiling

Yet it wasn’t all a bed of roses. When gold was first found, in Sutter’s Mill, Coloma, in January 1848, California was still part of Mexico. It was handed over to America in February 1848, but wasn’t declared a state until 1850. During the intervening period, California was a wild, lawless place. The gold-seekers had to invent their own methods of protecting their claims. Native Americans were able to be used as slaves, according to such law as there was, but only the women and children were wanted. The Native American men were killed. And any families that were in the way were – shamefully – pushed off their lands.

But possibly the most lasting change that resulted from the Gold Rush period was the change in culture. Before 1848, America was a land of puritans, content to work hard for moderate reward. The Gold Rush changed that forever. Suddenly, it was possible make a lot of money in a short amount of time with relatively little effort. California was linked inextricably with the idea of instant success, and is still associated today with new beginnings – California Dreamin’.

Is it really any surprise that Silicon Valley is located in the Golden State?

February 27, 2011

Naked at the top, healthy at the bottom
Naked at the top, healthy at the bottom

We’ve learnt two curious things here this week.

We had noticed that there are a lot of trees here that are bare naked at the top, and yet display healthy growth at the bottom. Just like the tree in the foreground of this photo. A local told us that this happens because the snow is so thick and heavy that the weight of it drags the branches down and eventually strip them. Weird.

The other thing we’ve learnt is that Lake Tahoe never freezes. Most people think that this is  because of the constant circulation of water from the bottom to the top, however a local environmental engineer says that it’s because the water is so deep relative to its size (volume to surface ratio); it therefore takes a long time to lose its summer heat. That, combined with the relatively warm climate of the Tahoe basin, means that the temperature of the water on the surface of the lake can’t get cold enough to freeze. It gets closest in late March, but then the weather warms it up again.


Skiing through the trees with the non-freezing lake in the background
Skiing through the trees with the non-freezing lake in the background

February 26, 2011

Our car this morning
Our car this morning

This is what we woke up to this morning.  We knew it was our car because we could just about make out one of my son’s turtle stickers on the side.  There has been nearly a foot of new snow today and it’s still snowing.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of wind as well, and the wind caused a problem with power on the mountain.  All the lifts were using generators for power, and there was only so long that they could carry on with that.  By lunchtime, all the lifts were shut.

So we played in the snow.  We threw each other in the snow banks, and hurled snowballs around, and broke stalactites off the roof outside the room we’re in.  And we went to Nevada for lunch.

Harvey's Casino in Heavenly, Nevada
Harvey’s Casino in Heavenly, Nevada. A rare, empty section.

Heavenly straddles the border of California and Nevada, and the state line is one block from where we’re staying.  Nevada’s gambling rules are a little more lax than California’s, so as soon as you cross the state line, you’re surrounded by vast casinos with endless fruit machines, roulette wheels and craps tables.  Just like in Ocean’s 11.  We were fascinated.  The children were fascinated by the very existence of the casinos, and I was fascinated by their size and the number of customers they had at lunchtime on a weekday.

It’s bizarre, really. California and Nevada are so different – and each so large – that anywhere else in the world, they’d be different countries. Yet, in America, you can cross the border from one culture to another without passports or ceremony.

February 24, 2011

The trees are so magnificent here. And the snow never seems to melt.
The trees are so magnificent here. And the snow never seems to melt.

School here has only 2 terms; one from September to December, and the second from January to June. There’s no Easter break (America doesn’t do religious holidays – only secular ones) or half-term, but there’s a week off this week, and there’s another week in April (called “Spring Break”). This week’s holiday is called “Ski Week”. It started out as a celebration of George Washington’s birthday, but then all the other dead presidents wanted a look-in, and the holiday diary started to fill up. The nonsense was stopped by offering just one public holiday to celebrate all the presidents’ birthdays together. That’s Presidents’ Day, and it was on Monday.

But that only accounts for one day of holiday, so why is it called “Ski week”? The rest of the week was stolen by parents who wanted to go skiing and didn’t want to wait for Spring Break. They reckoned that as Monday was a public holiday anyway, they’d use the rest of the week to go skiing and lose only 4 days of school, rather than 5. And in a fit of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, the state (public) schools (who get penalised for student absenteeism) decided to make it a holiday for everyone for the whole week. The private schools followed suit. And since everyone goes skiing, it’s called “ski week”.

I have no problem with it. I don’t know how children can be expected to go through from January to June on so little break. I’d rather the school year was broken into 4 or 5 terms.

Before we came here, the mother of one of my daughter’s friends complained that there’s no-one to play with during ski week if you don’t go skiing. Because everyone else has gone.

Here’s the conundrum. If every school child in the area has a holiday this week and everyone goes skiing, you’d expect the mountain to be teeming with people. Not so. The pistes are empty. So empty. Here’s a picture of my family skiing down a piste, with only one other person in view ahead of them.

So where is everyone?

My family skis down an otherwise empty piste
My family skis down an otherwise empty piste

February 23, 2011

Oh, there are so many cheesy puns that I could make using “Heavenly”.

We’ve just finished our third day skiing in Heavenly, and it’s beautiful. It’s easily the most beautiful place we’ve ever skied. On a sunny day (and we’ve had three), you can see Lake Tahoe from the top of the ski slopes. And the other ski resorts on the mountains on the other side of the lake. It is truly drop-dead gorgeous.

Lake Tahoe from Heavenly
Lake Tahoe from Heavenly

But the main thing that has struck us here, as in all America so far, is the size. The lake is huge, the mountains are huge, the resorts are huge (though, admittedly, not as huge as Tignes / Val d’Isere, our usual stomping ground in the French Alps). And when there’s so much space, the things in that space can be huge too.

A queue for a ski lift looks enormous because it covers so much ground, but actually moves really quickly. It’s an orderly, civilised affair, the like of which we’ve never seen in the French Alps. In a Tignes lift queue, there’s jostling and shoving and elbowing, and only the fittest survive. In a Heavenly lift queue (and we’ve been led to believe that this is the case in all American resorts), there are several entry points, and as they funnel closer to the lift they alternate in a most organised fashion. We have to control our highly-tuned Alpine lift instincts and remember to hold back.

(Needless to say, the 4×4 trucks that get skiers up the mountain are also enormous. One here is so big that my eleven-year-old daughter wasn’t tall enough to see through the windows.)

Another difference that has struck us is that there are so many trees here. Tignes is above the tree line, so there are very few. But here, every run has trees. Tons of them.

And the lifties are happy. Not surly. We’ve never experienced happy lifties before. The most we’ve had in France is a grunt, but the lifties here actually wish you a great day skiing!

All in all, we’re having a heavenly time.  (Oops, I did it again.)

February 18, 2011

The council has issued storm warnings. Advisory notices sent via the school are exhorting us to be prepared for 4-5 days of power cuts. Torches, matches for candles, cans of baked beans – we should keep a stock of these. Just in case.

Pah! This isn’t a storm. This is just a windy, rainy spell. I think this must be the Californian equivalent of “leaves on the tracks”, or “the wrong kind of snow”. It’s a fuss about nothing, a storm in a teacup.raindrops

February 15, 2011

Valentine’s Day is so unnecessarily big here that they call it a Hallmark Holiday. Lots of people make money out of it, from the sellers of cards, to the florists, to the chocolatiers, to the restauranteurs. WholeFoods suffered a power cut yesterday morning when I went to try and do my supermarket shopping, and they couldn’t sell anything inside the shop. But they made sure they had a stand outside, offering flowers and chocolates!

Valentine’s Day is such a big affair that as homework this weekend, my son had to create Valentine’s cards for all the children in his class. And since his class is mixed 2nd and 3rd grade, and there’s another similarly mixed class next door, he had to make them for next door’s class too. That’s 48 children in total. And their 4 teachers. And all 48 children did the same. Whoa! A lot of cards came home.

My daughter took in cards too, and she also brought home some carnations from one of the girls in her class (who brought them in for the whole class).

I happened to have an appointment with the dentist. As I left, I was presented with a single red rose.

It seems like such artificial, contrived, commercial nonsense, but everyone here is thinking about love today. What can be wrong with that?

I’ve just had from my first ever Valentine’s dinner with my anti-commercial husband in 17 years of marriage. I love Valentine’s Day in America.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

February 14, 2011

Our next door neighbour kindly invited my husband to a pro basketball game. The neighbour’s a Golden State Warriors season ticket holder, so attends about 40 of the 80 games each season.

These guys are tall even when they're bending over
These guys are tall even when they’re bending over

A basketball game is made up of 4 innings of 12 minutes each, but, somehow, the whole game takes 3 hours! The maths doesn’t seem to add up, until you work out that all the extra minutes go into:

  • cheerleaders’ dance routines
  • children’s dance routines
  • basketball acrobatic displays
  • pizza & T-shirt giveaways (the rolled up T-shirts are fired by an amazing air gun up into the highest seats, which are called “the Nosebleeds”‘)
  • free ticket raffles
  • and so many more non-basketball activities

The Warriors beat Oklahoma City Thunder in a tight game, in which there were never more than 5 points between the teams. Thunder had been expected to win, so Ian and our neighbour came home happy, but poorer: it costs $180 per seat for Row 10.

Mind you, that cost is nothing compared with the charge for front row seats, at $1000 a pop. Supporting your team is not a cheap deal. There is one guy, a hedge fund trader, who sat in the most expensive seats in the center of the front row. He and his cronies just bought the Warriors for $450 million.

February 14, 2011

These flowers grow outside our kitchen. In fact, they grow everywhere. They seem really exotic to us because we’ve never seen them before, but they’re as common as muck here. One of the upsides of living a long way from home is seeing the magnificence of the strange plant life. My father-in-law says that the orange and purple one is a Birds of Paradise flower, but we don’t know what the succulent one is.

Aren’t they beautiful?

Birds of Paradise
Birds of Paradise
Unknown, but gorgeous
Unknown, but gorgeous

February 14, 2011

The middle school, for ages 11-14. The lower school sits on the opposite side of the playground.
The middle school, for ages 11-14. The lower school sits on the opposite side of the playground.

The children go to Marin Horizon School in Mill Valley. When we were considering whether or not we could tolerate the idea of living in America, the choice of school was of fundamental importance. The British school the children attended was a seriously tough act to follow. So I set out to find a school that was similar to the British school in its philosophy; that would celebrate the children as individuals and nurture their specific passions.

Luckily, Marin Horizon stood up to the test. I suspected it might a good ‘un when I saw on their home page that they referenced books by a British education advisor and hero of ours: Sir Ken Robinson (if you haven’t heard his talks and you have children, click here, here and here, because you really should. His speech on how schools are killing creativity is our favourite).

The school takes kids from age 3 to 14, but it’s teeny tiny. You could fit the whole school in half a sports pitch (field).

Half of the playground ("blacktop"). The green area and steps in the shade double up as performing area.
Half of the playground ( called a “blacktop” here). The green area and steps in the shade double up as performing area.

There’s no indoor community area here; just classrooms. That means that when the children perform, the performance takes place on the grassy area, and the parents sit on the bleachers to watch. There’s no dining room either, so when children get their food, they sit outside in groups to eat, or in their classrooms if it’s raining. That’s possible because we’re in California, not Britain, where it’s reliably warm and dry for most of the year.

The floorspace may be tiny, but the school’s philosophy is definitely not. They have talent shows that encourage every child to get up and perform. They have celebration days that are all about protecting the planet. And they bring in experts to teach the children how to do something creative and important, like hula hooping (if you haven’t followed the link to watch any of Sir Ken’s stuff, you probably won’t understand why that’s important).

When we visited last April (2010) to check out the school, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull forced us to stay an extra ten days and the children were invited to attend school while we were stuck here. It just so happened that the school was celebrating Earth Day at the time, so our children joined in. One of the events put on was a Recycled Fashion Show: the brainchild and production of two 8th grade girls. They motivated other children to create some recycled fashion garments out of unwanted items, whether old clothes or other materials. Here’s a video of the fashion show that the school uploaded onto YouTube. The school and its students don’t think small.

We’re very happy with our teeny tiny school and its big vision.

February 13, 2011

The threat that we’d buy stickers for the car wasn’t empty. They’ve arrived and been applied. This is my daughter’s choice; a rainbow family:

That's a lot of stickers
That’s a lot of stickers

And my son’s, a turtle family:

I don't suppose we'll be flying under the radar with this many stickers
I don’t suppose we’ll be flying under the radar with this many stickers

We wouldn’t have put stickers on our car in Britain, because it wouldn’t have been “the done thing”. But we don’t know what the done thing is here, so we can do what we like. One of the joys of being expats is that we don’t have to abide by a set of arbitrary cultural norms. It’s an extremely liberating attitude, and one I hope we can sustain.

Though we may have overdone it with the stickers.


February 10, 2011

It’s OK. The panic’s over. My husband has found his hi-fi. The removal men in Britain packed it into a box marked “Children’s Toys”. Clearly, they had a sense of humour!

Sadly, so does the universe. Despite being American, it doesn’t work here. Not much electrical does because America uses a different voltage. We’ve had to buy a new iron, kettle, toaster, heater, hairdryer and garden tools. My husband had high hopes for the hi-fi, because he bought it in America in the first place. However, the amp is British.

We’re waiting for a new electrical transformer to arrive so he can listen to proper music again. And then, for him, normality really will be restored.

Photo courtesy of Toy Story 2
Photo courtesy of Toy Story 2

February 10, 2011

I love shopping for food here.  I love the weird things on offer (like chocolate with bacon bits) and I love the multitude of options (even bacon chocolate comes in milk or dark). If you want to buy something as boring as rice cakes, you can buy them made with white rice, brown rice or wild rice.  And they can all be organic or non-organic.

I love the obsession with peanut butter and cinnamon.

The orange one is slightly sweeter than a normal cauliflower, while the purple one is loaded with wonderful antioxidants
The orange one is slightly sweeter than a normal cauliflower, while the purple one is loaded with wonderful antioxidants

And I love the different vegetables that are available, that I’ve never ever seen in a British supermarket. Look at these beautiful cauliflowers. I bought the purple one in the local farmers’ market, just because of its colour. It’s positively regal.

Someone asked my son if he’d found any foods here that he liked, that he’s never had in Britain. His obvious answer was chicken and apple sausages (they’re not quite as weird as they sound).

But what I love most about food shopping here is the celebration of food. I suspect it’s just California, and admittedly I do shop at WholeFoods, which sells predominantly organic and eco-friendly foods, but food here is something to take pride in. This is a picture of the view that confronts you as you walk into WholeFoods. It’s a celebration of vegetables, and it’s art.

It lifts my spirit just to see it.

The vegetable aisle in WholeFoods
The vegetable aisle in WholeFoods

February 4, 2011

Since last writing about the instructions that are written in reverse order on the road, I’ve found two more that tickle my fancy.

I get the principle behind writing the signs in reverse order. The traffic in front may be covering important words, so they’re written assuming you’ll only see one word at a time. As you drive on, you’ll see the next words in the instruction. But if the road is clear, you can see all the words at the same time, and they then appear to be backwards.

Lane BikeSo why does the bike lane sign need to be written in reverse order? Do they really have traffic jams of bikes covering the words? Er, no. This is the land of the gas-guzzler. Bikes don’t feature much. Except at the weekend, when there are heaps of them.

Anyway, the reverse order of the words doesn’t matter too much if the phrase is AHEAD STOP or CLEAR KEEP. But there’s definitely room for confusion when the phrase that’s meant to be conveyed is NO LEFT TURN. Put that backwards, add a Russian accent and a question mark and you get TURN LEFT, NO? Which changes a prohibition into a request for confirmation.

It makes me want to turn left.

photo credit:

I've never wanted to see a lorry so much before
I’ve never wanted to see a lorry so much before

February 3, 2011

The container arrived yesterday.

Oh joy, it brought our beds. Our lovely, cosy, familiar beds. You haven’t seen two children get into bed so fast in the evening. And their parents weren’t far behind.

And our sofas. Which look a lot better than the solo sofa bed we’ve had in the living room for the last few weeks.

Though I still haven’t found the garlic press, cheese grater and potato masher. And my husband hasn’t located his all-important hi-fi yet.

messy room
The children decided not to heed the advice to open up and deal with just one box at a time!

The children whooped with delight when they rediscovered long-lost, stuffed furry friends that had been languishing in boxes for the last two months. My daughter was particularly excited about finding her stress ball. When we packed up at the beginning of December, she had no idea she would miss it so much. And my son had already pulled out his Prehistoric Park set within two minutes of getting home from school and finding it.

We have also found a whole load of rubbish, though. What were we thinking of, bringing all this useless STUFF from Britain? The last two months without these things has shown us that we really don’t need most of them. So we’re being really ruthless with the unpacking, and refusing entry to anything that hasn’t been missed. Sadly, that involves opening each of the 53 million boxes here to work out whether to throw or donate the contents.

We enjoyed the Zen-like emptiness of the house before, and we’d like to get back to a slightly less austere version of that again. Meanwhile, we still have another 52 million, 999 thousand boxes to work through.


January 29, 2011

It’s important to Be Green here. The choice of green washing detergents and house-cleaning detergents in the supermarkets is extraordinary. The number of yellow school buses on the roads in the morning and afternoon is astounding. Everything, but everything, gets recycled, so we have 15 different bins. And just look at the sticker on this loaf of bread:

Green prowess is important for credibility
Green prowess is important for credibility

This bread has been made in a solar-powered bakery. It’s that green.

But this is a country of extremes. So, while half of the Bay Area is driving hybrid or electric cars, the other half is driving huge, gas-guzzling monstrosities. We live in Marin County, which has very little public transport (no trains or tubes, and only approximately 2.5 buses) because it would “encourage too many people to move here”. We’ve been told that even getting a taxi can be tricky.

I can wash our clothes with hardly any environmental impact, bring food home from the supermarket in brown paper bags or my lovely Waitrose DIY-scanning bags, and compost everything (including used pizza boxes). But I can’t avoid driving absolutely everywhere.

My husband’s Lotus Elise wasn’t allowed into the country because the engine doesn’t pass the emissions test (it’s a teeny tiny, petrol-sipping engine), but I’m off to drive our 3.3 litre V6 minivan (the smallest engine available in the Dodge people mover range), which only does 15 miles to the gallon. Go figure!

January 28, 2011

The hardest thing to do when moving country – without any exception – is leave family and friends behind. It’s the bane of the expat.

We love Skype and FaceTime. They’re free and we can talk to friends and family for ages and ages and ages.

It’s like being in the same room. We can have a cup of tea together (actually, the time difference means that the people in Europe can be drinking a glass of wine). We can make faces at each other. We can laugh together. The 5360 miles disappear in the twinkling of a technological eye.

It’s said that communication is 7% words, 35% intonation and 58% body language. Unlike the phone, Skype and FaceTime give you all of those.

Shame it can’t do hugs too.

Photo courtesy of The Messy Room
photo credit: The Messy Room

January 26, 2011

The lovely – but overly trusting – teacher at my son’s school has said that he can keep Floyd until Monday. That’s nearly 2 weeks in total. Which means that we’re going to have to clean the tank tomorrow! One week was just short enough to be able to avoid it, but Floyd’s beginning to get a bit smelly.

My son is chuffed.


Floyd a few days ago. If we'd taken a picture today, his water would have looked a tad more green.
Floyd a few days ago. If we’d taken a picture today, his water would have looked a tad more green.

January 24, 2011

writing a chequeWhen moving country, you expect the big things to be different.  You know that the landscape isn’t going to look quite the same as at home.  You know the food’s going to be bewildering.  And you know the language is going to cause some misunderstandings.  So it’s not the big things that take you by surprise.  It’s the little things that smack you in the face and say: “Gotcha!”.

We’re buying a piano, so I asked a piano technician to check out our preferred choice on our behalf.  As payment, he asked me to post him a cheque.  No problem, I thought. Think again.

Problem #1 – How do you write a cheque?  There’s an extra space for a something on the cheques.  And where does the signature go?  No idea, so I asked one of the helpful people working in our local Blockbuster.  As it happens, the extra space is for me to write what the cheque is for, and it will be printed on our statement.  I like that.

Problem #2 – Where do I buy envelopes?  Ours are all in the container (though it wouldn’t have made a difference if they were here because American paper – and therefore American envelopes – are a different size.  The shops don’t even stock A4 paper, I now know).  No need to buy one today.  The lovely people in Blockbuster gave me one.

Problem #3 – Where’s the post office, so that I can buy stamps?  Easily sorted.  There’s one next to the supermarket, and the UPS store also sells them.

Problem #4 – What do the letterboxes look like here?  Blue, it turns out, so I stopped looking for red ones.  Even so, it took a moment or two to work out how to get the envelope in there.

So, between the arrival of Floyd and the posting of the cheque, I’m feeling a little bamboozled.

January 24, 2011

Today we went for a walk around Point Bonita lookout.  This is one of the first lookouts after you cross the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco city into Marin County.  It’s on the far west of the country, and has views of both the Pacific to the west and the Golden Gate bridge to the east.  It has a steep descent to a lighthouse (closed except for two minutes on days with a “Z”), which my mother-in-law’s buggy (sorry, “mobility scooter”) baulked at, but the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed.  We saw beautiful headlands and crashing Pacific surf.  And the bridge, of course.  And the ever-present seals in the water.  Here are some pictures from our walk.

The Golden Gate Bridge with the city behind it. How has it taken this long to get a picture of the bridge onto the blog?
The Golden Gate Bridge with the city behind it. How has it taken this long to get a picture of the bridge onto the blog?
Marin headlands. Always gorgeous.
Marin headlands. Always gorgeous.
Crashing Pacific surf
Crashing Pacific surf

January 24, 2011

Yesterday we bought a car. Not a small thing, actually. You can’t buy a car here without having insurance in place. And it goes without saying that you can’t get your insurance in place without knowing which car you’re going to buy. Nor can you get insurance without having first passed the written part of the driving test. Did I mention that you can’t take the written part of the test without a social security number?

Anyway, my husband and I both took the written test and passed. While you might think that this would be easy because we can both already drive and know the Highway Code in Britain, there are many, many, many things that are disturbingly different here. For example, “for the smoothest driving”, you should drive in the middle lane on a motorway. That’s not the proper etiquette in Britain. And if you’re about to turn right, you must use the bike lane for the last 200′ before you approach your right turn, instead of avoiding it as we’re used to doing. It’s going to be very easy to get things wrong.

One question I had to answer on my test went like this:

You can be fined $1000 and given a 6 month jail sentence for which of the following?

A – dumping an animal on the highway

B – making a U-turn at an illegal spot

C – driving across a red light

The answer is A. Heaven forbid you ever think of harming or neglecting an animal here! That’s much worse than driving unsafely.

My husband’s flown to Britain this evening (just because it was his job that brought us here in the first place doesn’t mean his job can’t also take him back!), so while he’s away and can’t stop us, the children and I are going to buy stickers for the car. My son wants turtles on one side of the car, and my daughter will have anything as long as she can have seven and get one for each colour of the rainbow.

My husband may be sorry he left us…

car in shopping trolley
Photo courtesy of


January 22, 2011

There’s a spot not far from our home with an amazing view. From there, we can see across the bay to San Francisco. We’ve been here only three weeks, but already we’ve noticed that the light changes according to the weather and time of day. I can’t wait to see the effect of the seasons on the light.

It’s too beautiful a sight not to share, so enjoy the view. We do!

Sunrise over the bay
Sunrise over the bay
Sunrise can be dramatic
Sunrise can be dramatic
Really dramatic
Really dramatic
Under the glare of the midday sun
Under the glare of the midday sun
Sunset the same day. The evening was so still we could see the city's reflection in the water.
Sunset the same day. The evening was so still we could see the city’s reflection in the water.
The colours in the sky reflect in the water all across the bay
The colours of the sky reflect in the water all across the bay

cargo ship
Is this the container carrying our belongings? Er, no. Ours has been delayed.

January 21, 2011

My mother asked for an update on the status of our furniture. Well, the ship carrying our container was due to have arrived in port on Wednesday, but we received an email saying that it won’t arrive until next Tuesday. And then we have to wait while Customs decides what to do with it. While this can take as little as 3 days, it can also take up to 16 weeks. Two other families have been relocated here with us. Adam’s container spent 7 days in Customs, and Clive’s spent 10.

My parents-in-law are now here with us for 3 months, so we need more furniture. Luckily, Adam’s and Clive’s containers arrived before my parents-in-law, which meant that both families were able to lend us some things to help us out. Clive provided another sofa bed, while Adam offered two wicker chairs and some garden furniture.

child's bedroom
The tidiest child’s bedroom ever. That’s because it’s empty apart from one bed and the few toys my son could carry in his suitcase.

Even so, our house is quite Zen-like.

And contains some unusual features: my resourceful husband has found a hundred uses for upturned bins.

What’s really struck us in the last few weeks, though, is how little we actually need. I really miss comfortable sofas, proper beds, and pictures on the walls to add a dash of colour. My husband misses his hi-fi.

And I really, really, really wish I’d thought to pack a garlic press and potato masher in the luggage that flew with us.

living room
There’s not much in the living room either. There is a visiting turtle tank, though.

The children would like their toys. The garden table and chairs for the deck would be useful. We’d all like some books (though we’ve just found the library here).

But other than that, we can’t think of anything we’re missing.

We filled a 40′ container with STUFF. It seemed really important that we bring it all here with us, but this period of deprivation is proving to us that we’re not all that deprived.

So if we’re not missing that much from the container, what, exactly, is in it?

January 19, 2011

One day last week when I collected the children from school, my son was holding his favourite fact-filled Turtles and Tortoises book, which he’d been given for Christmas. A teacher there saw it and asked if he was interested in turtles. Oh, if only she knew! She owns some, and promised to bring them in to show my son.

Today, when I went in to school the teacher was there. Then began a conversation with a twist that I should have seen coming. This is how it went:

Teacher: I want to show you what’s coming home tomorrow. Here’s the tank. It’s empty at the moment, but it will have the Painted Turtle in it.

A library picture of a painted turtle.
A library picture of a painted turtle.

Me: Wait. When you say it’s coming home, you don’t mean our home, do you?

Teacher: Yes, of course. Floyd, my painted turtle, is going home with you tomorrow for a week.

Me (squeaking): Whoa! You can’t be serious. You’ll have a dead turtle coming back.

Teacher: Don’t worry. This turtle went missing in my back yard for 2 months and he came back fine. You won’t be able to kill him.

Me (beginning to perspire): You don’t understand. I don’t do animals. I don’t even stroke dogs.

Teacher: That’s OK. I thought if your son had a turtle for a week, he could decide if he really does want one.

Me (really sweating now): He’s never having a turtle. Not until he’s 18 and leaves home and can do whatever he wants.

Teacher (oblivious): Don’t worry. You can use it as motivation if he does his homework well.

Me (choking): No way. He is never, ever, having an animal of any description ever, ever, ever. I don’t do claws or teeth or fur or sharp bits or smells.

Teacher: He did mention that he’s been trying to have goldfish for the last 3 years.

Me: Does he know, or can we still back out?

Teacher: Oh, he knows. He’s really excited.

Me: (resigned, head in hands): You’re going to have to provide fool-proof instructions, right down to where to put him, including whether he goes in the sun or shade, like a plant. Oh heck, you’re going to get a dead turtle back.

This never happened in England!

January 17, 2011

Yesterday we went to Muir Woods. This is a wonderful redwood forest that was deemed so beautiful and serene that it was considered to be the perfect place to hold a commemorative ceremony in May 1945 honouring Franklin D Roosevelt who had died the previous month. Delegates from all over the world joined to sign the United Nations Charter.

Photos don’t do justice to the beauty, majesty, dignity and sheer enormity of this forest. Just being there is like meditating.

Trees stretch into the sky.
Trees stretch into the sky

On the way back we watched from the top of a hill as a cloud filled the valleys between the hills below us at sunset. It was a feast for the eyes.

Fog fills Muir Valley
Fog fills Muir Valley

January 17, 2011

We can't decide if it's more like arm wrestling or a thumb war, but they're definitely not cuddling. This is a fight for territory and one of them will end up in the drink.
We can’t decide if it’s more like arm wrestling or a thumb war, but they’re definitely not cuddling. This is a fight for territory and one of them will end up in the drink.

It’s Martin Luther King weekend here, and the children have Friday and Monday off school to celebrate the great man’s birthday. So on Friday we went to Fisherman’s Wharf with my parents-in-law. We live north of San Francisco, so going into the city itself is really exciting. We get to be tourists.

Fisherman’s Wharf is the children’s favourite place in SF. It’s a bit like Covent Garden: full of street artists, magic shows and overpriced shops. Unlike Covent Garden, though, Fisherman’s Wharf has a collection of California sea lions that live on the pontoons of Pier 39. They started coming here just after the 1989 earthquake, and the plentiful herring supply keeps them here. Some years there  have been as many as 600, but there are only 50-60 at the moment. Our experience says that’s still enough to make a racket and a pong.

Sea lions on the pontoons, with Marin and Alcatraz in the background
Sea lions on the pontoons, with Marin and Alcatraz in the background

Also in Fisherman’s Wharf is the children’s favourite tacky restaurant – Joe’s Crab Shack – known to us as Crabby Joe’s. This, um, interesting venue offers crab (as it says on the tin), and dancing every half hour. It’s wacky and high energy, and when we were trapped here by the Icelandic volcano in April, the children begged to be able to eat there on 7 days out of the 10. Yesterday it wasn’t exactly the place to take grandparents in their 80s, but as my daughter said to her grandmother, “It’s an experience.”

But for the children, the best bit about yesterday’s tourist trip to Fisherman’s Wharf was that they weren’t tourists. We live here. Hey, dude, they owned Fisherman’s Wharf.

January 14, 2011

feather dusterMy new cleaners came to clean the house for the first time yesterday. They were fab. They climbed up onto the bathroom work surface to clean inside the lights, they asked for a ladder to clean the rotating fan on the ceiling, and they scoured every surface. I’ve never had cleaners like these.

The downside – the only downside – is the shock of the cost. I’ll get used to the numbers here, I’m sure. And when we go back to Britain, I’ll think that everything is ridiculously cheap. That will be exciting. Cleaning here costs $20 per hour. And the cleaners were here for 5.5 hours. Yes, that’s $110 each week to clean my house (I fell off my chair too).

I considered robbing a bank to pay them.

This intersection has only 2 lanes of cars arriving on each side. Pah! Now imagine 3 coming from each direction and you have to turn left, crossing the traffic.
This intersection has only 2 lanes of cars arriving on each side. Pah! Now imagine 3 coming from each direction and you have to turn left, crossing the traffic.

January 12, 2011

Driving here is Different. There are no roundabouts, as we know them. Instead, there are intersections. At these intersections, no-one and everyone has right of way. All cars have to stop when they approach the junction, and the person that arrived first can move into the open space in the middle first. I’ve seen intersections with 4 roads meeting, each with 3 lanes. So there are potentially 12 cars all waiting to go. You have to rely on the goodness of your fellow man, or else take an enormous leap of faith. I have no idea how or why these things work, but they do seem to.

Watch out for the acupuncturist

The other thing that throws me is the signage written on the road. A two-word instruction is written in the order that you’ll drive across the words. In other words, as you’re driving you’ll approach the word “SLOW” before you reach the word “DOWN”. That works in traffic, when you only see one word at a time because the word farther along the road is covered by a car. But if you’re used to seeing both words on the road at the same time, as in Britain, you’ll read them here as “DOWN SLOW”.

There’s also an abbreviation used here regularly that still makes me look twice. Instead of the word “cross”, an “X” is used, so “crossing” becomes “XING”. Put a warning that pedestrians may be crossing on the road, write it in reverse order, and you get “XING PED”. It’s meant to help, but it’s so nonsensical to me that’s it’s distracting.

One large box of air freighted belongings.  Not a cheap solution for the removal company.
One large box of air freighted belongings. Not a cheap solution for the removal company.

January 11, 2011

We shouldn’t have any air freight. All the contents of our house, apart from the 9 suitcases we carried with us on the plane, should have been put into the container so they could take forever to sail across the Atlantic right now.

However, the removal men forgot to empty a cupboard. Not a particularly small cupboard either. It’s 6′ high, double width, and contained all my nutritional files. It was fairly important to me. It also contained the art and craft stuff, so it was fairly important to the children too.

The container was already packed up and on its way, so the removal company resolved the problem by packing the lost cupboard into boxes to be sent as air freight. And yesterday it arrived. Yippee! Its familiarity brings the comfort of home.

My 11-year-old daughter said “What’s the F for? Is it ‘first class’? Wouldn’t an A make more sense, for ‘air’?”. Um, confused. Did we jump conversation when I wasn’t looking? What do you mean, F and A?

Frustrated, my daughter replied, “A for ‘air’. Instead of F. Why isn’t it called ‘A rate’ instead of ‘F rate’?”.

Forget the air freight; I’m off to unpack our F rate.

January 8, 2011

Bacon-flavoured chocolate!
Bacon-flavoured chocolate!

There are so many things in the supermarket that I’ve never seen before. How can food be so different here? I’m having to learn to cook different meals, using the weird and wonderful ingredients that are available. Luckily, a friend gave me Jamie Oliver’s American cookbook for my birthday. It’s a blessing right now.

Yesterday I went shopping in the local farmers’ market, Wholefoods and Safeway, trying to work out where and what everything is. The differences are so overwhelming that the process took four hours. I’ll enjoy analysing them.

Meanwhile, some of my favourite things seen on the supermarket shelves are three different types of clam juice (clams are juicy? What’s clam juice used for? And why do you need three different types?), electrolyte-enhanced water and chocolate with bacon bits. Yes, really.

January 7, 2011

dollar billsMoney is measured here in quarters, nickels and dimes. The coins don’t even tell you how many cents each is worth, just their names. To make a quarter, you need 2 dimes and a nickel. Or maybe it’s 2 nickels and a dime. You can pay 26c with just 2 coins. And all the notes are green. How am I supposed to tell at a glance how much money is in my purse if all the paper is the same colour? Apparently, there are different figureheads on each note, but if I have to look at them closely enough to see the figurehead, I can also see the numbers.

Temperature is measured in Fahrenheit. I heard someone telling a friend that it’s 5 degrees in Chicago. No biggie – it’s minus 5 in England. But then I realised that because she was talking Fahrenheit, her temperature of 5 degrees was actually minus 15 degrees Celsius. Maybe that was a biggie, after all. Not that it seems to matter, because the forecasts here have been universally wrong, by a long way, even taking into account my dodgy translation from Fahrenheit to Celsius. The forecast yesterday was 61 degrees F, or 16 degrees C. But the car, and my body temperature, both agreed that it was 38 degrees (3 degrees C) in the morning, warming up to a mere 48 degrees (9 degrees C) in the afternoon. That’s some way off the forecast.

But the measurement that confounds me the most is weight. I’m used to asking for weights of food in the supermarket in grams, but I wasn’t worried about shopping for weight in pounds here because I know the conversion rate from grams to ounces. Yesterday I wanted to buy 400g chicken, so I asked for 13 to 14 ounces. The person serving me on the meat counter translated the weight to be approximately 0.9 lb. He created a metric fraction for an imperial measure! What a batty, mixed up way of measuring.

This stubborn clinging on to archaic units of measure makes me wonder if people here will measure my height by taking off their shoes and actually using their feet.

January 6, 2011

It will take two months for our container to make it around the southern tip of South America.  It left Britain in December, so we still have another month without our belongings. That means our rented house is sadly lacking in furniture.  When my husband visited here in December, he bought IKEA (all of it, it seemed to him).  Along with everything else, he bought the sofa beds that we’re sleeping on at the moment. We’ll be able to use them as sofas when our furniture finally arrives, but while we’re using them as beds, we have no sofas.

Nothing but an abandoned rocking chair
Nothing but an abandoned rocking chair

Luckily there was a two-person outdoor rocking chair here when we arrived, left by a previous tenant, so we’ve moved that into the living room. That’s the sum total of furniture in the living room.  It’s really empty, but my son thinks that makes it good for scooting.

The best scooting house, ever
The best scooting house, ever

The playroom room has a drum kit, TV and nothing else.  It does at least have carpet. Sitting on the floor is comfortable for a while, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.  I need to find some sofas before Sunday, because that’s when my octogenarian parents-in-law arrive, and I can’t see them sitting on the floor.


Living abroad for a couple of years sounds glamorous, but actually just starts out as a series of logistical impracticalities <sigh>.

The children declared their love for the house on steamed windows
The children declared their love for the house on steamed windows

An incongruous sight on the roads
An incongruous sight on the roads

January 6, 2011

Since being here, we’ve seen a pair of deer twice, some pelicans regularly, frequent birds of prey, cormorants, and the occasional humming bird.

Our neighbour says the deer are so unafraid of us that they’ll stay resting on the grass while we come near. She’s had to fence off her roses because they kept eating them. She assures us that we’ll have plenty of opportunities for taking photos of deer – more than we’ll want. And she’s adamant that they may look cute to foreigners, but they’re pests, like rats. They just have better PR. We don’t believe her.

January 5, 2011

The “furry lunchbox”

Today was the children’s first day of school. We met a classmate in the supermarket yesterday, and she told us that our daughter would need a binder for school, but nothing else. I assumed that a binder was a lever arch file, but our daughter said that it was more like a furry lunchbox (what?!?). A list of supplies from school and a trip to Office Depot later, and we’ve solved the mystery. A binder is a larger-than-A4, zipped canvas file with pouches everywhere that holds everything. It’s a school child’s equivalent of the ready-for-anything, perfect handbag. It is a lever arch file, but a lever arch file on steroids.

School years are numbered differently here. Year 7 is 6th Grade, and Year 4 is 3rd Grade. Lessons are named differently too. Apart from the obvious Math (instead of maths) lesson, there are also Vocab and Language Art (both subsets of English).

The school here is called Marin Horizon School, and it’s tiny. 6th Grade has just one class of children, rather than three. And 2nd and 3rd Grades are deliberately mixed and split so that there are two classes, each with half of 2nd Grade and half of 3rd Grade. This is to teach the children how to help each other. Once they move into 4th Grade, they work by year group. There’s no uniform and the children address the teachers by their first names.

It’s all very different from Britain. We have a lot to learn.

Green sea turtle hatchlings
Green sea turtle hatchlings

January 2, 2011

Monterey Aquarium has a reputation of being one of, if not the, best aquarium on the planet. My son loves turtles, and there were plenty of them. Everywhere we turned in this aquarium, there was information about turtles, whether about their migration patterns, their diet, or how to save them. And the piece de resistance was a display of approximately 10 baby green sea turtles.

My daughter was captivated by a huge tank that contained a shoal of small silvery fish (either sardines or anchovies), that created the most extraordinary, shimmering, shapes in a most hypnotic way. They were like Star Trek’s Borg – one mind, but many bodies – as they swirled and spiralled around the giant sea kelp.

The aquarium included plenty of opportunities to write to a Senator asking her to change policy in favour of protecting and conserving the environment, and both children wrote several notes. My son asked our Senator to ban plastic bags. Turtles think that plastic bags are delicious jellyfish, and they choke on them and die.  He also asked the Senator to create more marine reserves to protect turtles. Trawling nets can’t  be used in marine reserves, and trawling nets (used to fish for prawns) are responsible for capturing and killing not just turtles, but a whole range of sea creatures. Only about 2% of the creatures caught in a trawling net are the prawns that will be sold. The other animals are thrown around in the trawling net, as if in a washing machine, and die. They’re then thrown back into the sea, dead. (Top shopping tip: always ask if your prawns were caught by net, and if so, avoid them.)

We’ve seen only a couple of learning centres here so far, but something that stands out already is that they’re used as opportunities not only for learning, but also for activism. I wonder if it’s because we’re in California or if it’s a nationwide theme. I look forward to finding out.

January 1, 2011

We have a couple of days before school starts, so we thought we’d explore California. A guided walk in Ano Nuevo State Park taught us about elephant seals.

The victor, showing off his scars
The victor, showing off his scars

From December to March, females come ashore to give birth to last year’s pregnancy and mate.   Male elephant seals come on shore to fight each other and mate.  Alpha males hold sway over a harem of approximately 60 seals, so it’s well worth the fight.  And only 10% of all male elephant seals mate, ever, in their lifetimes. They puff up their pink, scarred, thick-skinned chests and snort violently at each other.  Sometimes, a good snort is enough to scare off an opponent.  If not, they can spar for 10 – 30 minutes, hurling themselves against each other’s bodies and brandishing their sabre-tooth-like fangs. The winner gets to snort triumphantly, while the loser keels over, subdued and demoralized.

The loser, sulking
The loser, nursing his wounds

The walk took 3 hours, and took us over muddy pools and steep sand dunes.  Faye, our voluntary guide, spent more than an hour and a half with us, answering our questions and protecting us from the seals.  We had to stay at least 25 feet away from them at all times, because that distance would give us a 5-second advantage over the seals, should they take offence at our presence.

They may look as if they’re lumbering, but even after a fight they’re pretty nimble.

December 31, 2010

“Home” is such a familiar, reassuring word with no consistent meaning for us at the moment. In the last week, “home” has referred to the English village we lived in, our temporary home after our house was emptied into a container, England, our rented house in America, or even the eco-lodge we’re staying in near Santa Cruz for a short holiday.

My son said, “When are we going home, Mummy?” Which home? “Home home”. Ah, that’s much clearer. Not. Still no idea which home you’re referring to.

Needless to say, we’re a little fed up with limbo and looking forward to going home. Wherever it is.

Costanoa, Ano Nuevo

I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey in Greek more times than I can remember (it’s one of the side-effects of reading Classics at Oxford), but there’s a section that has never made an impact on me until now. It takes place halfway through the epic, when the eponymous hero visits the underworld. There, he speaks to the prophet Tiresias, who tells him that the only way to appease Poseidon – whose son Odysseus has killed – is to make a journey inland with an oar. He’s to go so far from his home that the oar is mistaken for a winnowing fan, a tool used to separate grain from chaff.

Once there, he’s to plant his oar in the turf and make an offering to the god of the sea. In return, he’ll be guaranteed a long, blessed life, a gentle death, and good fortune for those around him.

I’m an Englishwoman living near San Francisco, a long way from what I recognise as home. This blog is my offering. I’m planting my oar.