Wednesday, 31 December 2008

It's Chinatown

Hannah's Mum was 60 earlier this year (although you wouldn't know to look at her) and today we were able to give her our present: a walking tour of SF's Chinatown followed by a gourmet dim sum lunch.

Everything started at the lobby of the Hilton, where we were met by our Wok Wiz guides including Shirley Fong-Torres (evidently something of a local celebrity, and as mad as she looks in that photo). We were divided into three groups and followed our guide, Frank, along the streets and alleys of this 20-block section of the city.

The history of Chinatown is one of immigration, struggle, but above all commerce (this is America!) The first immigrants came in the gold rush of the 1850s, but finding that they weren't suited to mining took up the various service industries that the prospectors needed. After having to battle rediculously anti-Chinese laws, earthquakes, fire and real estate developers, the area is still a very strong community with its own identity in the larger city (and two more, newer Chinatowns elsewhere).

But enough history, the tour was all about the food. We went to a fortune cookie factory, had a tea tasting at the Red Blossom Tea Company and finished with an eight-course lunch at the Four Seas restaurant. Yum!

Badge of honour.

Our guide Frank in full flow outside a traditional Chinese apothecary.

Frank, still going, in a Buddhist/Taoist temple (they combined to make more money, according to him...)

Tea tasting, as Hannah is shown the different regions of production in China. Strangely the Typhoo region was not among them.

White with one, please. You shouldn't put milk in tea? What??

A spot of traditional music that included We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Ready for dim sum!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Pleading the 2nd

Today, in a long-promised event, Captain Vince Mucker (Artillery, US Army) took me to that most American of places, a shooting range. The aim was twofold: another step in my acculturation, and because Vince wanted to win back the Yorktown Cup and had to pick something he was good at (i.e. not shuffleboard).

We drove over the Richmond Bridge and arrived at Bullseye - "the friendliest gun store in Northern California", according to their website. In we went and, after showing them my passport ("Bullseye is excited to welcome all tourists") we were given ear defenders, safety goggles, 50 bullets, four targets and a gun.

Double doors led us to the ten lane range, with me flinching every time someone fired. This was a slice of true America. Several families were there, trying different guns and commenting on them. A few people were holding Starbucks coffees. Everyone was so relaxed, as though what we were all doing was normal! Anyway, Vince gave me a comprehensive gun safety demonstration on the Beretta 96 FS .40 we'd hired (they train them well in the army) and then it was time to shoot.

I'm not sure if terrified is the right word to describe how I felt, but I was shaking like a leaf. I'd shot rifles at school as an army cadet, and won a few target and clay pigeon competitions, but this was something completely different. I fired five practice rounds and the Beretta leapt around like nothing else.

Vince then had ten rounds at his practice target. He didn't do too badly (98 out of a possible 100), but the gun kept jamming so he swapped it for an HK USP Compact .40. This was a nicer gun in my opinion, and felt much Unfortunately my target shooting was a little less successful. I did get them all on there, but they were picturesquely spread from one side to the other.

Then it was competition time. Vince didn't fare so well here, scoring a measley 90 and blaming the gun. Whatever - he'd left the door wide open for me to step in and pull off a famous victory.

I decided to practice with the gun unloaded a few more times, just to get a proper feel for it.

"You're shaking even when there are no bullets in there!" Vince commented, helpfully, from behind me. I loaded the magazine, pushed the target back to the 25ft mark and took aim.

My second attempt showed a marked improvement. As I grasped the gun in my sweaty palms, attempting not to jump every time it went bang!, I tried to make sure my "sight picture" was the same every time, just like the army instructor stood behind me kept saying.

You also have to understand that Vince shot his ten rounds in 20 seconds, standing in the same position the whole time. It took me about ten minutes to manage the same thing, trying to fire in the few seconds after aiming before I started shaking so much that the next door targets were in more danger than my own.

In the end I scored 80, only ten points behind Vince and his seven years of army training. But it was not enough to retain the cup, or to allow me to laugh at Vince for the rest of my life.

I'm back home now, still feeling a little shaken by the whole thing. I think I enjoyed it, and I'd definitely like to go again, but it's an activity where the differences between the UK and the USA are close to their widest (people were shooting guns, drinking Starbucks!) I do want to do better - it's the winning, not the taking part. Give me seven years and that Yorktown Cup will be back where it belongs.

Now I'm off to play Rock Band to calm down.

Vince shows me how it's done.

The target was further away when I shot at it. Honest!

The face of a loser...

...and the face of a winner!

Population growth

At 2.01pm yesterday the population of the USA grew by one, and got 7lb 1oz heavier.

Welcome to LA, Francesca Yvette Holland.


Monday, 29 December 2008

Take my mother-in-law

I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law in 18 months. I didn't want to interrupt.

Jokes like this will not be tolerated on my blog for the week that Hannah's mum is staying. Hannah picked her up from the airport, and she arrived safely at our flat this afternoon. I knew it was her knocking on the door because all the mice threw themselves onto the traps.

I opened the door and there was my mother-in-law, stood in the hallway outside our flat.

"Can I stay here?" she asked.

"Of course," I said, and shut the door.

I looked out a bit later and she was being attacked by a Californian mountain lion.

"Shouldn't you go and help?" Hannah asked.

"The lion got itself into that mess, it can get itself out," I replied.

But seriously...

Mum's here! We stretched our legs with a walk to the beach.

The bridge.

The skyline.

Hannah and mum. It was too late to paddle.

Wish you were hair

The devil makes work for idle hands. What do you do when you're sat around on a dark evening with no tv and your mother-in-law arriving the next day? You dye your hair!

Chemical weapon (I'm trying to look like that girl on the right).

Hmmm...more like the lead singer of The Cure. But it's early days.

Hannah mixes her magical potion.

Whoa! This dude could have been born and raised in California!! See the natural, sun-kissed highlights in his hair from all the surfing he does.

Could we be related...?

Friday, 26 December 2008

Happy Christmas!

The day finally arrived, and although it started rainy the sun soon shone over our bit of California. We Skyped our nephews and nieces, which included some Internet-facilitated present opening, and then started to get ready for lunch.

We hosted the Mucker family, Elad, Daphny and their friends Nelly and Yossi who brought along their three-year-old daughter Roni. She could only say "thank you" and "I love you" in English, but what else do you need?

The celebration was very much a British affair (Jesus was English, wasn't he?) We'd found Christmas crackers in Seattle, and Hannah had rustled up a gorgeous roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner. Traditions of drinking sherry, wearing a party hat and having to read out a bad joke were ruthlessly enforced.

After dinner the weak snoozed while the strong played Christmas-themed Rock Band. Now it's time for an early night - Boxing Day sales start at 5.30am!

Rebecca, in Dorset, hungrily unwraps her present from us!

All set to go.

Cheers! Christine after her third sherry.

Daphny contemplates the meaning of Yorkshire pudding.

Jim and sherry trifle. He's even wearing British colours!

Claire sleeps off the excesses of the day.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Happy Hanukkah!

Who would have guessed that major Jewish and Christian holidays fall so close together?

This evening, in the fantastic hodge-podge of cultures that has become a trademark of living in University Village, we attended the lighting of the fourth candle of Hanukkah before heading out for a Roman Catholic Midnight Mass.

Shauli and Anat hosted the first party, with donuts, latkes and an interesting sweet called a crembo (think a Walnut Whip mixed with a teacake). After candle lighting, singing and eating, with a second delicious dinner at Vince and Christine's, we moved on to Mary Magdalene church in Berkeley.

We were greeted by an overjoyed priest who ushered us to the very front seats. The reason for this warm welcome soon became clear: there was some doubt whether the baby booked to play Jesus would arrive, and as soon as he had spotted 10-week-old Claire he quickly formulated a backup plan.

In the end Claire's star power wasn't required, and we enjoyed a service of medieval music. Shauli and Anat joined us, completing the religious exchange, and after we returned home for dessert and a midnight showing of It's A Wonderful Life. Some traditions cross every cultural divide.

Shauli prepares the menorah.

Almost full...

This is a crembo. In Israel it signifies winter, as in summer these marshmallow and chocolate creations melt too fast for anyone to eat! There's also vast debate about how you eat one (waffle first, top first, bite off all the chocolate, etc.) Just asking opinions caused much argument amongst the Israeli's present.

Mary Magdalene church.

Is that baby Jesus? From the left: Anat, me, Jim (Claire's Grandfather), Christine, Vince, Claire, Hannah.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

There's no place like home, there's no place like home

We're back in Berkeley!

In the end everything worked out nicely, we caught an earlier flight (which included a special "welcome to San Francisco all who were stranded" message when we touched down), and then the BART and bus took us the rest of the way. I am never leaving California again. Unless it snows here, in which case I'm moving to Mexico.

A few catch-up pictures:

Vancouver: starting to thaw when we left.

No parking charges today.

Me in Vancouver station, bereft at the news that Amtrak has abandoned us (and concerned at how fluffy my hair gets in cold weather...)

Playing sardines on the bus to the airport this morning.

Could this be our flight? It was!

Dashing through the snow

We are at Seattle airport! It's disappointingly undramatic here. The security staff are polite and efficient, lines are moving quickly, we've even managed to get standby tickets for an earlier flight! All of which makes for weak blogging material (when has that stopped me before, you may ask).

Our trip out here was fun. Having been warned by the receptionist at our hotel - which had considerately turned its heating on this time - that it took her four hours to cross the city this morning, we made an early start.

By a small miracle we caught the airport bendy bus at the first stop it made and sat down. By the second stop it was standing room only, by the third the driver couldn't shut the doors...and still people pushed on (amid calls of "there's no room!" from those already onboard and retorts of "have you ever been to New York?" from those still outside).

But we're here, we're waiting patiently at the gate, and my lucky oldest penny (1957) is in my pocket ready to win me an in-flight cocktail.

Arrived alive

Seattle has welcomed us into its frosty embrace. The coach arrived only 45 minutes later than the train would've done. The streets are eerily empty, and whereas they plough snow north of the border they don't seem to bother here. We skidded to the hotel on compacted ice.

The man on reception was very cheery, told us that 1000 people are currently queuing for flights at Seattle airport and that others have been waiting at the bus station for three days. "But there's plenty of room here," he added.

So we're a few miles closer to home. More tomorrow!

Monday, 22 December 2008

It's not the USA without US...

It's 8.35pm and we're over the border! Hannah deployed her million dollar smile and British accent at immigration and we sailed through.

"Berkeley," said the official, "that's a good school!" Thus ingratiating himself to my wife forever. We even got a "welcome home". Who needs a Green Card?

Now the fun really starts with three hours down an icy, pitch black highway to Seattle. Then the fun really starts, with every Virgin flight today having been canceled. Hold on California, we'll be there for Christmas!

Stressful (not) in Seattle

A few days ago I may have written about my love for trains. Sadly, those were the words of a naive young man.

Amtrak, like a fickle mistress, seduced us and, as soon as trouble struck, left. Or didn't leave, in fact. The North American train system has turned out to be a fair weather friend, and I'm typing this in a Starbucks across the street from where the one bus rumoured to be leaving Vancouver tonight should be departing.

I received a strange automated message from Amtrak this afternoon and so we made our way down to the station. There we were greeted by the news that our train had been canceled due to "infrastructure issues brought on by the bad weather". Greyhound decided to copy them.

I found customer services (I use those words loosely) and asked what our alternatives were. There were none, the sour-faced woman told me unhelpfully (she had a French accent, so what could I expect?)


Well, we're now sat on the bus making our slippery way through Downtown Vancouver. Incredibly they have free wi-fi on board! Suddenly this trip is looking up (until my battery runs out...)

More when we cross the American border, or when we get stuck in snow on the way there.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Snow on snow

Temperatures leapt to a balmy -2C today, and the snow arrived. We tugged on our waterproofs and headed out into a winter wonderland.

Our first destination was Stanley Park, where numerous snow-covered ducks seemed confused to be walking around on their lake rather than swimming in it. We skirted the harbour shoreline (the parent-pulled sledge was the transport of choice for local kids) and caught a ferry over to Granville Island and their famous market. Things were in full swing here - the hardy Canucks don't let a little snow bother them.

The British are not so hardy, and so we sheltered in a cinema for the afternoon watching Slumdog Millionaire before walking home through the still falling snow. Tomorrow it's back on the Polar Express down to Seattle.

It's just like Narnia!


The aptly named English Bay Beach.

Catching the ferry to Granville Island.

Live Christmas entertainment! Unfortunately there were more people onstage than watching.

Ice hockey on a frozen lake. Could you get more Canadian?

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Putting the British into British Columbia

Things are getting a bit silly now. We awoke to news that it was -18C/-0.5F outside (only -10C/14F if you could stay out of the wind), and there's a forecast for 10cm of snow overnight. We weren't planning to spend Christmas in Canada...

The main task of the day was finding thermal underwear to make being outside bearable. After shivering around empty streets we discovered that all the locals were tucked away in the underground malls that pepper the city, and we found some nice leggings to keep our extremities from frostbite (I'm a size 12 in Canada! I'll be working to become a size 10 post-Christmas).

Vancouver is a nice, clean, friendly city, but shopping seems to be the main leisure activity of residents and visitors alike - it's too cold to do anything else. We did, however, discover a steam-powered clock and a gingerbread village. Tomorrow Hannah wants to find one of the famously beautiful beaches! Ice skating on the Pacific?

A steam-powered clock! Genius.

Hardcore Canadians refuse to be slowed by the weather.

Hannah and a gingerbread house. Moments later an old lady opened the door and invited us in, then proceeded to put me in a cage and set Hannah to doing chores, until she lit a fire in her oven to eat me and then Hannah pushed her in and we escaped and lived happily ever after with our father the woodcutter.

You can't catch me!

Desperate times...

Friday, 19 December 2008

And I thought Seattle was cold

We're in Canada! The air is clear and the Queen's head is on the banknotes.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, and much happier to cope with the snow than Seattle. We wandered along the waterfront as the afternoon sun sank lower in the sky, watching the seaplanes come in to land.

More importantly, our hotel here has a steam room and jacuzzi! I've felt warm for the first time in a week. I think California has spoiled me, undermining my Geordie roots and getting me used to endless sunshine.

Now we're sat in bed in our complimentary dressing gowns (complimentary until we steal them, I guess) and The Shining is on the telly. It's the perfect romantic night in.

Across the Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver.

Canadian snow: similar to American snow, but just that little bit nicer.

A seaplane! How cool?!

The Vancouver skyline.

Merry Christmas!