Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Love is in the air

Progress.  It's what made this country great.  A constant drive towards the future, dismissing any problems of the past through hard work, eyes firmly set on the horizon and the new frontiers beyond.

However, even I was shocked when, walking into Target, I was greeted by the cards that have replaced the Christmas displays before the eggnog is even cold.  February 14th is still a loooong way away, and in between we have Save The Eagles Day (Jan 11th), Australia Day (Jan 26th), National Freedom Day (Feb 21st)...the list goes on.  In a country where progress and commerce go hand-in-hand, I think they're missing several potential revenue streams.


The future's bright.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Chod

Ah, the afternoon walk. Another one of those fine Christmas traditions that you hate as a child but find yourself inexorably drawn to as an adult. It's guilt from parents (the gift that keeps on giving).

This is why we found ourselves on the top of Mt Diablo in zero visability, gale force wind-driven rain lashing horizontally against us. El Nino always had an exotic ring to it...until you're actually stood underneath.

Even the park rangers called in sick, and the entrance fee was a do-it-yourself affair with an envelope and a box. Which, of course, we did honestly (there's that guilt again). $10 for an hour of soaked misery is really quite a bargain.

In the interests of full disclosure, I admit I sat in the car while Hannah and Rachel wrapped up and headed out. Vince had asked me to read his grad school admission essay, and was up against a deadline. What was I supposed to do?

The girls showed impressive stamina in braving the elements for nearly 45 minutes. They returned from their "chod" (as brother John has fittingly christened these outings) completely sodden but still claiming ridiculous health and enjoyment benefits. It's amazing how far parental influence can extend.


Rachel - resigned.


Hannah - unimpressed.


But all smiles underneath!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Boxing Day

The Christmas season is a time of traditions, and one of the longest running is Boxing Day lunch with the Hollands. Unfortunately the Hollands live in East Woodlands, approximately 5292 miles away.  This year Jim, Gen and Frankie made the trip from LA back there but we decided to stay in significantly warmer California.

Yet, through the miracle of Skype, we didn't miss out on all the festive shenanigans!  Although we did miss Christine's whisky cake.  As soon as someone invents instantaneous electronic transfer of food there'll never be any reason to return to the UK...


Cheese!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas message

Many happy returns from California, from Hannah, Rachel, and me.


Cheers!  Rachel: classic.  Hannah: fruity.  David: extra dirty.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Ho ho no

Usually a man dressing up and getting children to sit on his lap in exchange for candy would lead to a swift conviction and a lengthy stretch inside.  But at this time of year the practice is positively encouraged, and fake Santas pop up in malls all around this great country (while the real one remains busy at the North Pole).

None of this was fooling Claire.  Despite the very best efforts to get her excited ("what does Santa say?", "who are we going to see?"), when she was standing in Santa's Workshop there was nothing that was going to get her anywhere near the strange guy with a beard dressed in red.  Vince did his best and I think managed to pull his arm free for one quick photo by the official photographer, but his daughter was only happy again once she was far away and nibbling her complimentary candy cane.  Clever girl.


Even Santa has been forced to downsize this year.


Remember all that stuff we taught you about strangers?  Just forget it for now.


Nope, not going to happen.  To be fair to Santa, he was the consummate professional. I guess this kind of thing happens to him several hundred times a day.


Slightly happier now.


What Santa really wants, according to the Apple Store.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Solstice

Rather like bonfire night, Morris dancers are a British cultural artifact that are somewhat difficult to sell outside the UK.  But really, what could be more normal than dressing up in ribbons, tying bells to your feet, and hitting your fellow dancers with sticks and/or an inflated pig's bladder?

We were naturally very curious to hear of an appearance of Morris men on the West Coast, specifically at the Muir Woods Winter Solstice celebration.  An evening of extreme paganism was promised, with solstice crown and wreath making, story telling, folk music, and walking under the trees by candlelight.

They certainly delivered.  A huge crowd joined the rangers singing re-appropriated songs such as "I'm Dreaming of a Green Solstice" and "Joy to the World, the Solstice Comes".  There's an interesting symmetry in Christians stealing the solstice for Christmas and the National Parks stealing it back.

The only disappointment was the dancing.  A ranger prancing around shaking sleigh bells does not a Morris dancer make, and my national and Somerset pride almost forced me to jump on stage and take matters into my own hands.  Almost.  I think park rangers around here are allowed to carry guns.


The revelers gather.


Hannah takes making her solstice crown seriously.


My effort.  A little unbalanced.


Rachel.  A little unbalanced.


What's a neo-pagan gathering without some folk music?  I'm pleased to see a recorder on display.


Following the lights into the dark woods.


Nuts roasting on an open fire.


Hannah, like a woodland goddess, in the firelight.


So-called Morris dancers, suspiciously dressed as park rangers.  Want the real thing?  See here (filmed where Hannah grew up, no less).

Conjunction

Exciting times tonight as North America witnessed the only total lunar eclipse this year, and the first to occur on the winter solstice since 1636.  This has "no cosmic significance", according to one article I read, but try telling that to the hippies around here.

Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, I didn't get any great pictures of the event.  By the time I realised this the clouds were blocking out the moon far more effectively than the earth's orbit.  Not to worry - only another 372 years until the next one.


It begins.


Hmmm, not too bad.  And now I'm off to bed.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Water into wine

A winter storm that has been forecast for the past week finally arrived today, dumping inches of rain, hail, and snow up and down the West Coast.  The poor Californians, scared by this uncharacteristic lack of golden sunshine, cowered indoors.  Those of us from hardier Anglo-Saxon stock pulled on our waterproofs and went wine tasting.

This was Rachel's first time ever touring vineyards, which given her proximity to France and her family background is a bit of an indictment.  We made up for it, starting at Kendall-Jackson and zipping around the Santa Rosa area.  The highlight of the day was Mazzocco - one of Dan's favourites after a tip-off from a work colleague.  The fact that tasting was free and very generous might have had something to do with our enjoyment.  "I'm extremely happy," Hannah stated, shortly before I chauffeured her and her sister (both snoring) back through the rain to Walnut Creek.


The first bottle being poured at Kendall-Jackson (by a lady from Cheshire who moved here 40 years ago.  "I don't care for the politics, but everything else is great," she told us.  Amen!)


Dan, after a few.


Well irrigated vines.


The only place to shelter was another tasting room.


We'll just wait here until the weather clears...

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Balanced diet

We zipped up to Santa Rosa this weekend where Dan and Fiona are house and cat-sitting for some fellow Kiwis.  It's where Dan works, and they've been telling us for months about a new Whole Foods Market that has opened there.

Whole Foods is the wonderful organic/hippy supermarket that (surprisingly) started in Texas and has spread nationwide.  It's also making a play for the UK, with a few stores in London.  What's special about the Santa Rosa one is that, nestled in between the extra strong cheddar and the meat counter, is a pub!

The Tap Room offers beer on tap, as well as tables, benches, and complimentary peanuts.  You can relax with a pint of your favourite tipple, looking out the windows at...people pushing their trolleys down the breakfast cereal aisle.  If you like what you're drinking, take a couple of steps outside and grab a six pack of the stuff off the refrigerator shelf.

"Every shop should have a bar inside," Dan commented sagely, and there was a distinct correlation between levels of intoxication and amount of beer and salty snacks purchased.  It certainly left me far more motivated to do the weekly shop.  "I'm just popping out to the supermarket, dear..."


Retail innovation.


Dan tries to look serious, even though he's drinking beer in a wooden playhouse inside a supermarket.


Hannah dives into one of our two taster trays.


The cat being sat.

All I want for Christmas...

...is Rachel!  Santa deposited her at SFO today.


And all Rachel wants is a gingerbread latte with cream.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Pub cricket

Watch England take on Australia at cricket in a bar in San Francisco?  This wasn't even my idea but Jack's, who's up in San Francisco at an oceanographers' climate conference (hint: if you own a property on the coast, time to sell).

Unfortunately, finding a pub that showed the cricket turned out to be a bigger stretch than winning the Ashes down under.  What we did discover is an Irish bar that serves English food and has free wi-fi.  Sitting at the bar with your laptop - only acceptable this close to Silicon Valley.


Ok, maybe this is more comfortable to do at home, but is that bloggable?


Jack is shocked to find out that cricket is actually really exciting.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Comforts of home

Who says you have to miss out on British goodies when you live in the US?  As the e-mail I received from Cost Plus World Market today shows, there is still an appetite for all things from the mother country.  If you can afford it, that is, with a tin of Cadbury's choccie biccies coming in at steep £8.  I am suspicious how they knew to spam me with this particular offer.  Racial profiling?


Quality Street - the cornerstone of any great Christmas.  Until it's only the coffee and strawberry creams that are left.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A minute to learn, a lifetime to master

Once again it was time for the Muckers' Christmas ornament exchange.  This has become something of a tradition, with the great and the good of Berkeley making the trip down to Monterey.  The first year there was some confusion about what an ornament is - turns out it's what the Yanks call a bauble.  However, with more time in-country, everyone now speaks the same language.

The rules of the exchange are something like this: everyone brings a hideously tacky bauble, wrapped up.  When your random lottery number is called you can choose to open a package or steal from someone else.  Two steals and the ornament is "locked".  As with most American sports, it comes down more to intimidation and moments of violence rather than strategy and finesse.

The evening started with the ever-popular horrible jumper contest.  Lauren won, sporting a lively green number that she claimed belonged to her mother-in-law.  Then the exchange got underway.

As ever, things that lit up got a lot of attention (Michael Jackson tribute jukebox anyone?)  Hannah and I, who prefer to open rather than steal (because we're so nice) were a bit hard done by to have two chihuahuas and a giant cupcake taken from us, but we were well compensated with a special prize from Christine of a sparkly fish for "most stolen from".  Now I just need to find the right tree to hang it on.


Getting into the spirit.


Catering.


The seasonal jumper finalists.  Some good ones!


But how could you top this?  The Santa feet jiggle.


This first ornament is out, and it's a goody!


Hannah and our first chihuahua, before it was cruelly taken from us...


...by this smiling, bad woman!


Animals were a bit of a theme this year.  Shauli seems happy.


Chihuahua number two!  Somehow even better than #1.


My cupcake!  To be fair, I did steal this off Kathy, but then Patrick stole it right back.  Tactics.


Jack and his 'treasure'.  Why would anyone make that to hang on a tree?!


Sunday morning, we bid goodbye to everyone at the Black Bear Diner.  Unfortunately the bear had been set loose, and the amusement of he/she/it visiting our table every two minutes wore off very quickly.


The ornament exchange could just have easily been a baby exchange, with four out and another four arriving soon.  Amanda's happy with what she came away with.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Full Monterey

With the Muckers' infamous Christmas party on Saturday night, we caught a lift with baby Charlie (and his parents) down to Monterey on Friday to spend a couple of days with everyone who migrated south after business school.  Jack and Amanda were kind enough to offer their air mattress.  Given their usual hospitality includes a large amount of "liquid refreshment", being close to the floor seemed a sensible safety precaution.

After a pizza cook-off at the Muckers on Friday night, Saturday dawned gloriously and un-Monterey-ishly with hot sunshine and blue skies.  Amanda has been going on and on about Point Lobos State Reserve ever since she moved down, and we decided to go for a short hike and lunch there.  She did not oversell it!  The place is amazing, and Jack was so overcome by the beauty that he stripped off and jumped into the Pacific.  Proof below.

As you might expect, a hike with the Murnanes turned swiftly into wine tasting at Heller Estate winery.  The place is 100% organic, so there's no excuse not to drink.  When we eventually got back into town there was hardly any time left to steal Claire for a trip to the shops ("Shopping! Shopping!" she shouted, continually, from the back of the car) and get ready for the reason we were down there: the annual Christmas ornament gift exchange...


Point Lobos, Monterey - turned out nice!


A sea lion takes it easy in the shallows.


The famous Monterey pines.  Possibly.  They don't look much like their Wikipedia page.


Gourmet lunch by the sea.


Jack, currently studying to be a naval oceanographer, assesses the waters...


...and decides he needs a closer look.


Mid-flight.


Touchdown!


Returning to land, he reported a water density of 1.027g/cm3, a salinity of 35ppt, and a temperature of "^&*@ freezing".


In case you miss it.


Amanda and Hannah, who didn't stop talking the whole weekend.  Amanda is still heavily leveraging the Cal/Haas brand.


Rude to drive past without popping in.


If Jack had drunk these before his dip, maybe he'd have stripped all the way down.


Some other local customers, on a trip up from Carmel.


Hannah does her modern mother impersonation.