Saturday, 16 June 2018

Funny shaped ball

While most people seem distracted by the World Cup, the real sport was happening right here in Houston where the USA took on Scotland at rugby!  All the home nations are off playing somewhere at the moment, but only Scotland got lucky enough to come to a place with 100% humidity, 35C temperatures, and swarms of mozzies at 8pm at night.  Not too dissimilar to Glasgow at this time of year, I guess.

Due to rugby still, unbelievably, not being the most popular sport in these parts, I got front row seats for $30 at the last minute.  But what should I wear?  My Wales top, just to annoy the Scottish fans?  My Houston Sabercats T-Shirt, to show my Texan credentials?  In the end I put on my Haas rugby shirt, from the last time I played rugby competitively (I use that word as loosely as is possible).

I walked over to the stadium, through the "fan zone", where plenty of kilts and much drinking was in evidence.  Inside it was actually a good deal fuller than I'd feared, and a fluffy bald eagle was wandering about distributing T-shirts, because America and whatnot.  Scotland are ranked so far above the US that it was wise to party before the match.

Scotland scored within the first minute, which confirmed my lack of optimism for a competitive evening.  The USA trailed by two scores at half-time, when their coach must have employed some choice language in the changing room because then it was a different story.  After a blistering second half from the home team the Scots scored a try after the 80th minute which meant everything came down to Blair Kinghorn slotting the conversion.  And he missed!  Cue huge celebrations from the crowd, most of whom had been chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" for the previous half-hour, with a 30-29 victory, their first ever over a major, "Tier 1" nation.

All-in-all it was surprisingly fantastic, with the local Sabercats in attendance and the kind of good-natured atmosphere that accompanies rugby anywhere in the world.  Will the USA be added to the Six Nations next year?  Will the Houston sun be baking the pasty skins of even more Europeans as they travel with their teams?  Will "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" be ringing out over the terraces of Texas?  About as likely as finally getting my Wales call-up, methinks.

Beer?  Check.  Man in kilt?  Check.

 The Scots warm up, as if that were necessary.


I wonder if I'll meet anyone else who played for Haas?  Hint: no.

 And there's the Scottish try, at 0:59.

 I even made it into the BBC's highlight package!  Fame!!

Decent line-out for USA.

And the hooker scores!

Regardless of crowd size, USA supporters always win the enthusiasm trophy.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Pie man

The life of a thrift store connoisseur is a turbulent one.  Tremendous highs, like when I found cowboy boots in my size and they didn't even smell too much of the previous owner's sweaty feet.  And then crushing lows, like my Christmas tree that I discovered had the top branches missing after I'd dragged it home on the bus.

But sometimes you unearth something in the dusty piles of other people's discarded stuff that changes your life, and today was that day.  In the Charity Guild of Catholic Women shop I discovered...a mini pie maker.

I'll say that again.  A mini pie maker!  It automatically makes mini pies; it's like a sandwich toaster, but instead of toasties it makes pies.  And they're mini pies!  Everything's better when it's mini.  A lamb is better than a sheep, a puppy is better than a dog, a kitten is better than a cat.  Now imagine each of those in an appropriately-sized pie!  It doesn't get any more amazing.

Disappointingly, I found that the pie machine isn't totally automatic - you still have to make the pastry and the filling to go in it.  But once my prep was done, and the kitchen was covered with flour and used bowls, the magic could begin.  In the wink of an eye I had chicken pies and cheesy vegetable pies on Hannah and Pete's plates, followed by dulce de leche cheesecake pies for pudding.

"But David," you may say.  "Why don't you just use muffin tins, which you already own, and bake mini pies in the oven, which you already own?"  To which I respond: "I'm asking the questions around here."  Also: never underestimate the power of the argument "really I'm just making a donation to charity!" when justifying the purchase of something random at a thrift store.

It's fair to note that the rest of my family did not immediately grasp quite how significant this development was in our culinary lives, and that from now on everything will be served in a pie.  After eating three myself, I did reflect that the mini pie does skew the crust-to-filling ratio towards pastry.  It's a good job pastry isn't fattening!  Ha ha...

Having spent most of the day making pies, then cleaning up after myself, then eating probably too many of them, then realising that heavy hot pies that linger in the tummy are more suited to the British climate than the 100F+ Texan one, then having pies in the fridge for leftovers tonight, I developed some empathy for whoever donated this item in the first place.  Maybe I'll leave it a week before cooking some more pies.  Or visiting another charity shop.

It even came with a free mini pie recipe book!  I was glad I got to it before any other thrift vultures.

First batch.  A little messy, but...

...deliciously filled, and excellent crumbly pastry.

 Somewhat skeptical, but they will come to accept.

You can make pudding pies as well!  So versatile.

A happy, slightly bloated, pie man.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Austin space

After stuffing ourselves with ice cream we continued west, over to Austin and then to hill country a little way beyond, to visit Jim.  When we first met Jim in Berkeley he was better known as "Claire's grandpa", but since then has ditched the freezing Chicago weather and retired to Texas.  We last saw him at Thanksgiving so it was high time to make another visit.

Lago Vista, where he lives, is a fabulous lake community, where Jim has found himself a friendship group of similar retirees who...basically do whatever they want in the glorious Texan sunshine; golfing, boating, shooting pool, dining out, etc.  Cocktail hour usually starts around 11am, and he has a hot tub if the evenings get chilly.

He was quick to remind me that Friday night is karaoke night.  I left Hannah and Pete in the hot tub and joined Jim and his girlfriend Jean at their local drinking hole, where the large book of available songs had one heading: country.  But after a lot of nagging and some more drinks (always the way with karaoke, no?) I decided to introduce some British punk into the situation and climbed on stage to belt out Should I Stay Or Should I Go? by The Clash.  "You should go," was the consensus from the crowd.

The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out, taking a trip into Austin, trying new cocktails, eating barbecue, playing bocce ball, hot tubbing some more...all the things I aspire to do every day.  We returned to the metropolis of Houston thoroughly relaxed, ready to tackle the next week of high-stakes work in the oil business.  Well, one of us.  I'm about to look up secondhand hot tub prices.

There are loads of these little Bambis around where Jim lives.  So cute!  Only a few months until they're a good enough size for the barbecue.

A highly competitive game of bocce.

Me at karaoke.  It's strange, because when I was up there I could have sworn I looked like Mick Jagger and sounded like Freddy Mercury.

Jim puts me to shame.

Down in the huge Zilker Park in Austin.

Waterlily at the same place.

Contemplating the wonders of nature.  Or taking a breather because it was so hot!

Jean and Jim, taking us out to the famous Salt Lick BBQ.

The kitchen.

Some barbecue sauce with that, sir?

Our order of "small plates" arrives.

Finishing off with a peach cobbler.

 A saunter around Jim's neighbourhood.  So busy here!

Lunch on the lake.

The view from the restaurant.

Something to keep us going on the road back to Houston.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Just chilling

Along with an official state flower (Bluebonnet), state sport (rodeo), and state song ("Texas Our Texas"), we also have a state saltwater fish (red drum), state insect (monarch butterfly) and state health nut (the pecan).  On top of all that, we have the state ice cream: Blue Bell.

Blue Bell Creameries was founded in 1907 in Brenham, an hour's drive from Houston.  You can buy their products everywhere around here, with Dutch Chocolate, Cookies and Cream, and Butter Pecan being the most popular.  But why go to the store when you can go straight to the factory?  Which is exactly what we did.

America does very well presenting its history, probably because it has so little of it, and a nice visitor's centre told the story of Blue Bell from its inception, as well as displaying historical ice cream making equipment.  Then it was off to the creamery itself, where an observation platform allows you to see that making ice cream is not the most exciting process in the world; more a Ford assembly line than Willy Wonka's factory.

This was all but a foretaste for the ice cream parlour, where around 20 of their 50+ flavours were available, at $1 a scoop.  And, as everywhere in Texas, a "scoop" was the size of a small cow, piled up until the cup could take no more.  They were also supremely unbothered whether you paid or not.  "We eat all we can and sell the rest," is one of their mottoes.

I opted for simple, classic Cookies and Cream (I ordered before I was made aware of the two-flavour option).  Hannah went for Moo-llennium Crunch with Southern Blackberry Cobbler, and Pete naturally chose the most garish combo he could: Strawberry on the bottom and Krazy Kookie Dough on top.  You know it's really crazy when they spell it with a K.

Where ice cream comes from (very cold cows).

 This is one I'd join.

Dream job.

Which do you fancy?


Room for just a little more...?

Thursday, 24 May 2018


I've done a few extremely American things since moving to, you know, America; a Presidential Inaugural Ball, a 4th of July party at the State Department, a trip to a shooting range with a serving member of the US artillery.  But all pale in comparison to what I attended tonight: Pete's graduation from daycare to Kindergarten.

Like most normal (i.e. British) people, my entire knowledge of the US education system comes from movies.  And would you believe, they're 100% accurate!  As if to underline this, the class's graduation song was set to Summer Lovin' from Grease!  "Pre-K, we had a class.  Pre-K, went by so fast..."

And, of course, it was all completely adorable.  Parents ooo-ed and ahh-ed, teachers were in tears, children were rewarded with medals, certificates, and big bags of candy.  America might not have the best education system in the world but it certainly puts on the best show, and that's far more important than actually learning anything useful (source: someone whose degree is in theology).

Oh yes, this is the real thing.

The graduands arrive!

Pete, contemplative and serious throughout.  And why not?  It's the most important day of his life ever.

A lot of coaching had gone into all this choreography, and it continued on the night.

Getting ready to deliver his inaugural lecture.

 The class song.  Like watching a miniature gospel choir.

The real heroes of this story!  Teachers Miss Olga and Miss Samantha.

Now in possession of a medal, a piece of paper, and therefore an education.

Two products of the American system, and doing well for it.

One of these has excellent job prospects.

Friday, 18 May 2018

And the horse you rode in on

We've been living in Texas for nearly a year and I still haven't been on a horse!  Given I'm often mistaken for a cowboy as I walk around town in my Stetson and leather chaps, this problem needed to be addressed.

Luckily, at Pete's school's annual fundraising picnic, a local horse ranch had donated a gift certificate.  I put in a bid, then proceeded to intimidate any other parents who sniffed around it.  And what do you know?  I won.  Today we headed north to Cypress Trails Ranch, ready to ride out into the wilds on barely-tamed horses.

The wilds of Texas turned out to be picturesque woodland around a large creek, and the barely-tamed horses were...heavily tamed.  I rode Crow, Hannah was on Aria, and we followed Tammy (human) and Joe (horse) at a gentle walk along the sandy trails.  These animals knew what they were doing; any time I tried to urge Crow to maybe turn, or speed up, he responded with an annoyed snort and just kept following the leader.

It was all very relaxing, even when Tammy asked me what breeds of horses we have in the UK and the only answer I could think of was Shetland ponies.  The morning wasn't too hot - it got up to 109F later - and the gentle rocking of the saddle was most relaxing, even if it didn't quite live up to my rodeo dreams. Still, every cowboy has to start somewhere.

The ranch.  You can volunteer here and earn "horse dollars".  I'm thinking about it.

Hannah's horse Aria eyes us up.  "Uh oh, tourists."

 Out on the trail.

And...back home.  It wasn't the most event-filled ride, let's be honest.

Howdie, y'all.