Tuesday, 15 July 2008


As I publish this, I am sitting in San Diego airport waiting for my plane to Dallas-Fort Worth for the final visit of my North American trip. Having now spent a week in Canada and a week in the US, I have had so many new experiences, and it has been fun to share them with you on this blog; several of you have commented kindly.
If the predominating food impression in Canada was ketchup, here in the US it is what they call a sandwich, and which I would call a burger bun. Ketchup is not so ubiquitous, and generally is served in little plastic bags. I think that probably 70 per cent of my meals have been between two halves of a bun. On Saturday, I even was served Ahi (which is what they seem to call tuna) in a bun; two great steaks with a spicy coating, served only slightly cooked, together in a single bun. Very nice, but strange. They give you piles of paper napkins, because it is very difficult not to make a mess. The vegetables have been almost non-existent, being mostly potatoes (and almost all in the form of chips—which, by the way, they seem to call chips here, and not fries) with the occasional doubtful ‘well, I suppose I could find you a salad’. the only real attempt at vegetables was in that theme park thing, when they were inedible.
I have seen the most enormous jars of peanut butter. And the bread is strangely sweet and reinforced with all sorts of vitamins and other useful bits that your average American could have got far more agreeably in some vegetables.
Tea is available, but never what I would call tea; it’s Earl Grey or otherwise flavoured tea, which is okay, but I’m looking forward to the real thing when I return. I have a rule to stick with the national drink when I can; coffee in coffee drinking countries, tea in tea-drinking countries. Coffee in Ireland is (usually) horrid, tea in Italy is (almost always) horrid.
The sounds here in San Diego are the muted roar of traffic and the gentle whir of overhead fans. The climate is quite remarkably agreeable here; consistently warm, but never so hot that you can’t sleep, and not at all humid. So they don’t really need air conditioning here. It is very, very, pleasant indeed. The sun doesn’t shine all the time, but it doesn’t seem to rain or get cold. The grass is not our gentle, soft English grass, but a tough, unreal-looking plant with a tinge of blue in it. I can’t imagine a horse being particularly keen on tucking into this stuff. I wonder whether this is the famous Kansas (?) blue grass.
The people are a little more reticent than the Canadians; there isn’t the meet-your-eye, chat-at-the-drop-of-a-hat instinct that I met in Toronto, but I have found people to be pleasant and cheerful, assistants are friendly in the shops.
The wildlife is quite different to Canada. No chipmunks, for a start, and I have seen very little running around the place except, of course, the jogging bird and the surfer dude (q.v.). Perhaps the dearth of wildlife is because there are coyotes round about—I’d love to see one of those—who will take anything if they are hungry, including cats. There are also raccoons, skunks and possums, but I didn’t get to see (or smell) any of these either. Unlike Canada, California seems to go in for LBBs. Little brown birds, that is. I have seen a lot of sparrows, and a pair of mocking-birds has been stealing the grapes from my host’s vine. These look like slightly large thrushes, which is a bit disappointing. And that’s about it, really, unless you count the Guinness bird (=toucan for those younger than me) I saw in a cage at Seaworld.
In Canada, I was really quite taken aback at the attitude behind the wheel. I am no stranger to aggressive driving—I lived in London, remember. Joe, an American lodger I had a year or two ago, used to remark that driving in Britain frightened him, because it was so aggressive. Well, Joe, I can honestly say that my experiences in North America have scared me from time to time, and the US has scared me more than Canada. The attitude is deeply antinomian in some matters, and obsessively law-abiding in others. In town, cars screech to a halt at almost every junction and corner. But on the freeway, they hurtle along at any speed in any lane, and cheerfully overtake on inside lanes as a matter of course. Someone will proceed at a leisurely pace in the outside lane, being overtaken by maniacs in the nearside one. People chat on phones, eat, shave, do their lipsticks and nails and probably carry on light industry while tailgating the person in front. If they bother to signal before a manoevre, you will probably miss it because on most cars, the directional indicator lights are the same colour as the brake lights. They shift lanes all the time, and I’m sure they must often hit. They turn right even on a red light—I think this is legal in California, but not generally in the US. Oh, which reminds me; some things are legal or illegal in one state but not in another. You just have to know, somehow. I love driving, but, you know, I think that in the US I prefer to be driven. Fortunately, I have been driven by people who are safe drivers (at least, I have never felt in danger—well, okay, once we had a close shave). And American constantly grumble about the price of petrol. They should try British prices, which are more than double what they pay! I’m told that until recently you could see Humvees about all over the place (doing one or two miles to the gallon). Now you can pick them up for a few cents.
What nobody ever talks about is The Big One. The San Andreas fault runs a short way off the coast here, and the experts confidently expect it to do its thing sometime soon; apparently a serious shake, like the one that destroyed San Francisco a hundred years ago, is overdue. And they expect it to be a lulu. San Diego, say the gloom-mongers, could disappear under the waves quite easily, for it is low-lying. Many of the buildings here are earthquake-adapted, and people are supposed to lay in stores of bottled water and canned food against the awful day. But nobody speaks about it much.


Mary Martha said...

Mmmm... sandwiches. I am kind of surprised that you don't see Ranch dressing in America as much as you saw ketchup in Canada.

'Right on red' is legal pretty much nationwide. It was instituted as a fuel saving measure. If it is not permitted at a particular intersection there will be a sign indicating that.

I think that wherever you live and drive has it's own pace and style of driving to which one becomes accustomed. Then driving (or riding) anywhere else can be a bit stressful because it's all a bit off.

London wasn't a bad place to drive (except for that whole driving on the left thing). The worst place to drive for me was Washington DC. Because drivers were from all over the nation - and even the world - they all ahve their own style of driving which creates a kind of chaos.

gemoftheocean said...

Very prescient observations. Earthquakes do not overly concern the average California unless one is actually: 1) happening 2) it is over 5.0, and you don't really get edgy unless it's 6.0 and over 3) you happen to have the bad luck to be standing right where a crack in the ground opened ...
what REALLY gets our attention is FIRE! With an earthquake, your stuff gets a damn good shaking at worst most of the time , but with a FIRE every thing you own could be gone in minutes all of a sudden.

And you're right. It's VERY seldom humid here. On average there are only perhaps 4 weeks or so in the year where it can be insufferable (often the hottest month can be September) -- but you're right, many if not most of us don't bother with AC for the house. A fan, sure, for the really hot days, but AC, no. Texas WILL be different in that respect.

Re the wildlife...I'm afraid you were in a low lying fairly tame part of the city. In many parts of the city you will see a fair amount of lizards who keep the critter populatin down. It's not really all that flat in most of the neighborhoods, which by my reckoning you didn't get into much. There are a LOT of mesas and canyons in the city VERY "UNFLAT" as opposed to most of LA which IS flat.
There's mountains over 5000 feet in the county. It can snow in the higher elevation if conditions are "just so." you really CAN get "nowhere" in a hurry. a half hour drive from where you were east on the 8 could have gotten you to nowhereville very easily.
You're very right about coyotes. They are frightened of people as a rule, but if you have a cat, you'd best keep it indoors if you want to keep it alive. Busy streets are a good reason to keep them in, but if you live along a canyon and let your cat out, you must not like it very much! Possums. Ugh. Don't go there. Two years ago one decided it would be fun to up and die on my back patio. Shall we say they don't smell like roses when dead. I'm a little sorry you didn't get to st least see a skunk...they're around a little more in the spring, and they're largely nocturnal so you'd see them more at night. Best keep the lid on your garbage! As for driving? Right on. The car is your rolling barcalounger. As for people lazying along in the passing lane, they shouldn't be there...which is why no one hesistates to pass on the inside. Chances are dumb transplanted midwesterners who don't have a clue you should't be in those two left lanes unless you're doing a minimum of 70. (Hope I wasn't the one who you had a close call with. I didn't notice! ;-D) And now in pretty much all states you CAN turn right on red...AFTER you've allegedly come to a full stop. I did execute a "california stop" specially for you though.
You can also technically turn LEFT on a red light, if the two streets in question are one way and the street you're going onto has traffic moving right to left. Blinkers? You must be nuts. You put a blinker on you may as well forget about changing a lane because people will hurry up and pull closer so you CAN'T!!! Blinkers are for tourists! ;-D Restaurants may sometime call them "chips" but people still order "French fries" unless, of course it's "fish and chips." To go native on the drinks it would have had to be Coke or other soft drinks. Tea is drunk usually iced. Keep the milk the hell away from it.

Hope they lay on some good BBQ for you in Texas. As for salads, there actually are a lot here, I don't know how you managed to eat in places with lame ones. Often it's fancy enough to be eaten as a meal in and of itself. Chicken caesar salad and the like. I've seen restaurants that easily have 12 salad choices that can be meals in themselves. So you missed out there.

The Digital Hairshirt said...

The Big One? Oh, Father, we Californians don't worry about that - we have far more to fret over with brush fires, as each "season" guarantees several springing up.

I think your culinary experiences are the result of eating with priests. I am sorry, but experience has shown me that many priests - likely because of their busy, busy schedules - fall into TERRIBLE eating habits. I am friends with my pastor, Fr. Moneypenny (no, not a pseudonym, it really is his name) and have blanched at his "vegetable" consumption, that is to say, the few straggly pieces of wilter lettuce on the Bacon Western Cheeseburger he regularly consumes.

I assure you, produce is alive and well in California. Next time, give notice and you will be treated to some proper pukka and plonk!

PeterHWright said...

I was engrossed in reading Father's reflections, until I got to the bit about the Guinness bird, which I had always thought was the toucan. Didn't there used to be an advertising slogan, featuring a toucan with a pint of Guinness on its bill, with a jingle supposedly written by Dorothy L. Sayers, which ended with the words : "Think what toucan do."

Anonymous said...

I was interested to see gemofthe ocean's comment on Californian's not worrying about 'the big one' which I understand has been expected for some time now. I suppose if you grow up in an area where natural disasters are commonplace, then you accept the danger and just get on with your life.

A couple of years ago when visiting Lourdes, I was taken aback while being shown round the Grotte du Loup caves. These are only a short walk up from the Basilica but are not too well-known - I was the only member of the guided tour at the time! I was shown a large stalagmite which had been split in two and was told that that had happened during the last earthquake. It was almost a foot thick and in conversation I asked when this had happened expecting a reply of several million years ago. My guide told me that it had been in the 1980s (I forget the exact year which she did say as I was somewhat stunned by the reply!). I have since learnt that the Pyrenees experience several earth tremors each year but I shall not let it put me off my next visit though I think I will give the caves a miss from now on!

gemoftheocean said...

Pelerin: that's interesting! I should have also mentioned that if one is actually IN an earthquake it would be extremely declasse to pretend to notice it or show *any* fear. You might be given a waiver if a crack actually opened up within 20 feet of you or your house collapsed.

One is supposed to act blase and immediately try to guess *location*, and call out a rough estimate of how big they think it was.

Pastor in Monte said...

Peter: Toucan toucan; of course you're right. At any rate, it was a Guinness bird I saw.