Thursday, 30 September 2010

InSinkErator part deux

I can't believe I ever bought into the idea that buying and owning property was a good thing.  Renting (even at somewhat ridiculous West Coast prices) removes the need to mow lawns, change light bulbs, paint, decorate, etc.  It's like I've been uncaged and allowed to fly!

Never more so than with the tragic drama of the disposal and the undies.  Having removed the cause but not the symptoms, I reported the "malfunction" to our property managers, projecting innocent surprise (and leaving out a few details).  They told me several stories about things they've found down sinks, including one old lady who thought it was a mini washing machine.  That was a little close to the mark, and sent me scurrying back to make sure I hadn't missed a bra or Aran sweater down there.

Returning from town I found a note saying that the machine had been "reset", and sure enough it growled into life at the flick of a switch.  The miracle worker was Florin - our maintenance technician.  He's a very nice guy, European (of course!), and the most important person to be friends with around here.  I was therefore very unsurprised to find a certificate up in our laundry room declaring him "Maintenance Technician of the Year 2010", as judged by the California Apartments Association ("quality housing, ethics, professionalism").  Congratulations Florin!  Hopefully he doesn't read this blog and find out what happened in our sink...

Simply the best.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bred from good stock

My family comes from Wales, the country that England is next to.  We have a long and distinguished history in that land (I like to think), none more so than leading the way in sheep farming!  My Aunty Liz and Uncle Bill have a dairy farm near Haverfordwest, but they also keep a flock of pedigree Texels.  These are the cute white and fluffy ones, the sheep you count when you try to fall asleep.

Anyway, they've just taken the prize for selling a sheep called Scolton Phoenix at the highest price (£8200!) in one of the largest sheep sales in Wales.  This is big news, and gets reported in the national Farmers' Weekly:

Leading the sale was a Texel shearling from Bill and Elizabeth Reed's Scolton flock, Spittal, Haverfordwest. Sired by a Caereinion tup bred in Cefin Pryce's flock at Welshpool, he sold to Somerset-based breeder Dave Chave for the Peacehay flock having stood second in the pre-sale show. Mr Chave said the tup was just what the modern breeder needed. "He has the width and length I wanted and he moves well too."

Yes, we're all high-achievers in this family, even the sheep.

Ok, maybe not the cutest looking.  And I don't mean my cousin Andrew, who's the headless one holding him.  Full article (for the agriculturally inclined among you) here.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Credit where credit's due

It looks like that MBA is official!  Don't take my word for it - Arnold Schwarzenegger himself signed Hannah's degree certificate, which has now arrived sporting a very nice, official looking gold foil seal.  She doesn't want it hung up anywhere but (as I eloquently argued) if I'd paid that much for a piece of art I'd damn well hang it on a wall.  I'm off to find a frame in a few minutes.

Seal of approval.

Just in case I need to forge any checks written by the state of California.  Oh, wait, they're bankrupt.

In related news, the little puzzle-publishing company I've been involved with has been featured in the highly glossy and widely distributed Cal Business magazine.  Under this issue's Innovation Wizards section there's a nice piece entitled "Kindling a New Venture" (wow, that's almost bad enough to be the title of a blog post!)  Now this is a Haas business school magazine, but do some names below stick out more to you than others?

In my wife's ever...

Friday, 24 September 2010


My American Dream, which includes the La-Z-Boy, my politics lurching to the right, and my impending obesity, was further enhanced when we moved into our new flat.   The place included in-kitchen-sink disposal! Drop your vegetable peelings, tea bags, and other sundry items down the plughole, flick the switch, and with a dramatic growl they are chewed, eaten, and transported from the kitchen (and into the water table? I prefer not to think about that part).

Coming from a less automated country, we've been very careful about what exactly goes down there. I think Elliot once used his to get rid of a mouse. We're a little more humane, making sure that only the smallest and most machine-edible things disappear into the blackness. It works very nicely.

Imagine our disappointed surprise when the thing (all 2 1/2 horse power of it, according to a label on the plumbing) started buzzing in a distressing manner with no chew action whatsoever. I switched it off immediately. Hannah, who always believes in pushing through any problem, was not so gentle and just let the thing run until silence fell. Hmmm.

"There's something down here," Hannah said, shoving her hand into the hole.  I was reminded of several horror movies involving evil appliances turning on at the most blood-thirsty moments. She agreed to use some salad tongs instead, and with a little pulling we managed to extract...a pair of black Marks and Spencer's knickers.

Now this is a quality item! I once read that 70% of British ex-pats get cotton undies shipped to them from M&S, and their longevity is legendary. I had some that my Mum bought me when I went to uni that lasted 13 years. They might still be in storage box in a garage in Durham, actually.

This pair, however, belonged to neither of us, and their semi-chewed, vegetable-covered state meant they could not be salvaged. But how could they have got there? What was a premium piece of British underwear doing so far from home? Was it a message? One can only assume that they were lost, unnoticed, in an unfortunate hand-washing incident.  Not pointing any fingers.

Blockage removed, the InSinkErator ("grind almost anything") was not inclined to magically fix itself and so I will shortly be reporting it to the apartment managers, wearing my best innocent face and feigning complete bemusement, "deploying the accent" as ex-pat, cotton-wearing (?) James claims is the best way to get out of trouble.  It's impressive that waste disposal vs. English lingerie = lingerie wins!  Maybe M&S could use this as a marketing campaign.  I'm just glad we discovered the cause before the maintenance man arrived.  "I think I've found the problem Mr Davies..."

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Sampling the wares

Like an unreliable fairy godmother, the North Face Sample Sale fluttered into town today, showering all with gifts.  You never know when this event is going to take place - the Albany North Face Outlet, conveniently located next to Uni Village, replaces its usual "Sale" banner with "Sample Sale".  A subtle change, but one with far-reaching consequences.

By luck we returned to the village today for a barbecue and Hannah almost burst with excitement when she spotted the sign.  This year's sale started on Thursday, when lines apparently snaked out of the door and around the block, but there were many boxes of goodies left for us to trawl through.

All the clothes on offer are medium-sized, which is convenient to average people like us, and more excitingly there were lots of tents and rucksacks still for sale.  Hannah left very happy with several skirts and dresses, Amanda got some very nice trousers and tops, and for some time I've been looking for a light, little hiking tent to complement our monster purchase of a previous sale.  I was very pleased to find a Meso 22 at 30% it's usual price - a gorgeously cute little 2-person tent that, unlike many for sale in the US, is waterproof.  Now, when the aliens land, I can run for the hills...with one other lucky person.

So many bargain hunters!

Getting away with the swag.

Me and my Meso.  It's 4lbs 1oz - lighter than most babies.  And you can't camp in a baby!

Talking of babies, here are some gratuitous shots to keep everyone happy - Arbel, Noa, and Charlie.

Arbel, doing what he does best.  He has added rolling over to his bag of tricks, at 12 days old!  We always expected great things.

This is Charlie - Charles Thomas Dideum - who belongs to Patrick and Kathy.  He was 10lbs at birth, and at 13 weeks is wearing 9-12 month baby grows!  He smiles lots and sleeps 12 hours every night.  A career in American football beckons, but I'm petitioning the parents to consider rugby.

Noa, getting annoyed (again) at too many photos.

Success has many fathers...

The running of the walnuts

It is ALL happening in the Creek this weekend.  The Walnut Festival has officially begun, and the place is buzzing with anticipation and excitement.  I think.  The main goings-on are next week, but this evening we enjoyed the Twilight Parade (nothing to do with bad vampire/werewolf teen romances).  What's more, the Walnut King himself was in attendance.  He's a king...with a walnut for a head!  Amazing.  Being British I'm always more relaxed when I know there's royalty in charge.

Crowds flocked to the tree-lined boulevards as local schools, clubs, and businesses made their way through the streets.  The theme for this year was "reach for the stars".  This didn't actually seem to affect any of the entries, but it's always nice to have something that ties it all together.  The Walnut King himself presided and judged over the marching bands and majorettes, although he did this mutely and with proper regal equanimity towards all his subjects.

The festivities actually date back to 1911, when it was The Grape Festival.  But walnuts soon became more lucrative than grapes, and so the vineyards were replaced with groves.  Then real estate became far more lucrative than walnuts, and the rest is suburbia.  But the tradition has lived on, and events like the annual crab feed, a 10k run, and "Fishing in the city" (I'm not making this up) are celebrated by young and old alike.

Then the grand finale!  A truck full of walnuts was driven through the streets, the people inside pelting bystanders with hard nuts while those of us outside threw them back and at each other in a hilarious fight.  No?  Well, maybe I'll suggest that for next year.

Jack and I prepare with a little drink and college football.

Excitement mounting...

Here's a marching band.

And here's the king!  I wouldn't like to meet him in a dark alley.

Greeting some of his subjects.

Cheerleaders to the royal court.

Boy Scouts of America (if you couldn't guess).

There's only one real king.

Californian flower power.

Our local Russian drama club.  We're a very cosmopolitan community.

Children to be kept on a leash at all times.

But I don't want to!  A slightly creepy command from the Walnut Festival site.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

War paint

Along with all the interesting shops, Walnut Creek has a Sephora.  This is apparently somewhere that sells nothing but make-up.  Strange, but it does have my little sister-in-law unfeasibly excited about her trip to see us in December.  I spent a happy afternoon in the SF branch during her last visit, looking at fake eyelashes (who'd have thought such things existed!?) while she maxed-out her credit card and luggage allowance on cosmetics.

Amanda seemed equally pleased about finding this shop, and while Jack and I spent some quality time in the Pyramid Brewery she decided to get a free makeover.  How could they possibly improve on that peaches-and-cream Southern Belle complexion?  Luckily Hannah was there to document the process.

In the chair, looking a little nervous.

Chris, Amanda's personal stylist for the day (do they work on commission?) gets started.

Assessing the work.

Whoa!  The half-raccoon look.  I kind of wish she'd have kept that one...

...but she opted for subtlety.

Easy, breezy, beautiful...wait, that's a different brand.


The ongoing quest for free ice cream continues, but today I let myself down, I let you down, and I let this blog down when I failed to get up early enough to be among the first 500 at the new Walnut Creek Haagen Dazs store.  We'd even been sent junk mail about it - a free scoop, and the chance to win a year's supply of ice cream ($480 maximum value.  I would not call that a year's supply).

Jack and Amanda came to visit for the weekend, and by the time I'd remembered and we'd wandered down it was late afternoon.  Still, we put in an order for a chocolate and peanut butter shake.  "We're not in the first 500?" I asked, the definition of optimism.  "No," replied the server tersely, "and shakes don't count anyway."  If I'm paying for this stuff, I expect more polite service than that...

But it is goooooood!

And for the first 500 dogs...

Monday, 13 September 2010


Hannah and I have been married 13 years today! More importantly...

Happy birthday, dear Mario!

Friday, 10 September 2010


Keen psychologists will note that I always like a bargain, specifically if that bargain is free, especially if you can then eat that bargain. All these criteria were met last week when Hannah forwarded me a website promising free Ben & Jerry's ice cream! To qualify, all you had to do was volunteer for the organisation of your choice. How hard could that be? I filled in a couple of forms, downloaded my coupon, and was soon enjoying some tasty Brownie Chew Gooder.

I was somewhat surprised to find that the actual volunteering I'd volunteered for came around today. In nearby Concord there's a Child Care Center where kids come to do their school homework for an hour every evening before playing until their parents finish work. It's a conveniently short BART ride away from us. "You'll stand out here," said Judy, the center's director, as she showed be around. "You're not Latino, so you're not a parent. You're a man, so you're not a teacher. And as soon as you open your mouth they're going to work out you're not American. Oh, and don't bring any valuables in with you. Do you speak Spanish?"

In the classroom I met Alison, another helper, grabbed a badge (my name is "Volunteer" until they print one for me), and we waited for the children to be walked across the road from the school by the two full-time teachers here, Iris and Niele. Soon enough, they all arrived.

"Wow, you're big!" was the first comment I received from a six-year-old, quickly followed by questions about my name and how old I was (really old). Soon I was helping Teresa and Crystal with their maths homework, as well as writing out the alphabet (in capital and lowercase) and the numbers from 1-30 with Umberto. Then it was time to dance (with ribbons) before a game of loteria (Mexican bingo, but with pictures. They even have equivalents to the British 'two little ducks' etc.)

All in all it went pretty smoothly. "Why do you talk like that?" I was asked more than once. No one had ever heard of England, but I impressed many with my ability to touch the ceiling. "We also need help on Mondays and Wednesdays," Iris mentioned as I left. As wiser people than me have pointed out: there's no such thing as free ice cream.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

And on the eighth day...

Being in America is all about having new experiences, and today we attended our first bris milĂ´h. This involves...well...a lot of things, but is basically a Jewish Christening (it's amazing how much that religion borrowed from Christianity!)

The baby in question was Arbel Raz, Shauli and Anat's new son. Arbel is the name of a rather picturesque mountain in Israel, one you can see the Sea of Galilee from, and is somewhere that Anat and Shauli walked in their younger days. It was also the only name, Shauli confided, that they managed to agree on.

The master of ceremonies was a local mohel, who admitted to being scared having to speak Hebrew in front of lots of Israelis. But everything went smoothly, and little Arbel got to have his first drink of wine. That's impressive, even by English standards.

Arbel, all dressed up and looking slightly nervous.

Delivered on a tray by the mohel's wife.

The ceremony gets underway.

The parents look on anxiously.

Afterwards, the feast begins!

Stealing another baby. We're collecting quite a family here.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Blue water, red wine, Green Day

The theme of fitting-it-all-in has continued over these last few days (so much so that I've been too busy doing stuff to blog about it! Shocking). Saturday began with a trip to Waterworld, where you pay money to be thrown down dark tunnels by raging jets of water before being spat out unceremoniously into shallow pools, suffering from whiplash. It was fun! Luckily we'd been given a tip by someone in the queue to run and find shade as soon as the gates opened, so I enjoyed lounging under a coconut palm umbrella reading a book while the others tested the physical limits of their bodies.

Then it was south to Mountain View where Green Day were playing the Shoreline Amphitheater. It was large. The band is from Oakland and got their start right by Uni Village in 924 Gilman Street, and so this was something of a homecoming and the last date of an 18-month tour. They appeared on stage at 8.15pm and didn't leave until 11pm! It's not often that the audience gets tired before the band. The show included non-stop punk rock, requests from the crowd, members of the audience invited on-stage, the band in fancy dress, a rendition of the Benny Hill theme tune (not an everyday occurrence), three Santa Clauses throwing t-shirts, a show.

Yesterday was quieter by comparison, involving only 250 miles of driving. We started with a couple of vineyards in Sonoma, and the discovery of a new one - Homewood Winery (where Alana may have over-spent on her luggage allowance) before a picnic lunch in Sonoma itself. Being in the area we popped up to Russian River and, of course, a cheeky slurp of bubbly at Korbel, including their new Riesling Champagne. There was then a rally-like dash down the coast to get to The Marshall Store for oysters before it closed. We made it with five minutes to spare. And on the trip home, well, might as well throw in the Golden Gate Bridge as we're here.

Thankfully tomorrow is Labor Day, so I'll enjoy a lie-in...

Mat and Alana warm up before the gig.

And here's the real band.

Quite a few friends to welcome them home.

Happy fans of rock.

Sunday morning, at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. Had they been drinking?

Out by the grapes, a typical scene from any British summer.

Dr Guest is disappointed by attendance at his North America lecture tour.

Looking out over wine country.

Happy with their purchase.

Down the coast and enjoying the finer things in life.

The debris.

We made it to the bridge, but not before sunset. It was quite chilly.