Sunday, 29 May 2011

First goodbye

Pete and Fini are moving to Chile in a few weeks, shortly after their baby's born.  Fini is somewhat unhappy that they aren't going to be in Argentina, but South America's basically one big country, isn't it?  I'm not sure what she's complaining about.

We decided to kick off the season of goodbye parties (one is never going to be enough for Fini, obviously) with a barbecue/asado in Walnut Creek.  Most of the usual suspects were here, and the weather added a nice British touch to the proceedings.  As barbecue usually means "black on the outside and frozen in the middle" on our side of the Atlantic, I left the grilling to Jack and Pete.

We had a full house overnight with both the Singers and the Murnanes staying chez Davies, and after a lot of nagging from Hannah Singer we went for a swim on Sunday.  It didn't last long - a few degrees lower and the water would have been solid.

The empanadas are rushed from our oven to the clubhouse.

A man and his grill.  Don't get in the way.

Pete prepares the tri-tip.  And as usual it was very tasty!

Noa enjoying time with Uncle Elad.

Shauli entertains.

Not long now.

Elise and the boy she always wanted.

Next morning, Elliot and Elise take on pancake duties.

An army marches on its stomach.

Then some of us took the plunge...

...while others were content to wait on the sidelines.

The Maya and David acrobatic troupe.  It would have been easier to balance if she wasn't shivering so much.

Warming up again afterwards.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The 34-year-old virgin

I'm amazed at how many "genuine" Americans have never visited The Cheesecake Factory.  A few weeks ago we were there with Allison (who I volunteer with).  She's a nutritionist, so has an excuse.  For me, every day is a vigilant battle not to eat avocado egg rolls followed by cheesecake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  With some boxed up for a late-night snack after.

So imagine my shock to learn that Jack, a true red-blooded American, who has even represented this country at war, had never visited.  That was something we could easily put right, so after being momentarily distracted by a stop at Pyramid Brewery ($1 off growler refills on a Friday) we arrived at C-Fac and skipped the 45 minute queue by grabbing a table at the bar.  Just one of the benefits of being a regular.  Although I was disappointed not to be greeted by name.

We leisurely worked our way through some margaritas and dirty martinis, and Jack enjoyed shepherd's pie (my Dad's favourite) before taking home a triptych of Key Lime, Caramel Pecan Turtle, and Adam's Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple slices.  They disappeared without much delay when we got home, the walk having worked off at least 15 calories each.  Breakfast at Denny's tomorrow?

Picking from a menu this size is a serious business.

This is my Sean Connery impression.  It's better if you're there.

Jack vs Cheesecake, and there's only going to be one winner.

The gannets descend.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

And the award goes to...

Chevron, that wonderful company that helps the community and does a little oil drilling on the side to make ends meet, won an East Bay Award for being the Best Corporate Citizen of 2011!  The East Bay Leadership Foundation holds these awards annually, and Chevron takes the coveted crown from last year's winner, Round Table Pizza.

In practice, this meant that Hannah and I were coerced into filling two seats at the Chevron table in exchange for (that's right!) free food and drink.  The event was actually nice and frou-frou, being black tie and in a local motor museum.  We dined next to Ferraris, Bugatis, and (most importantly) Jaguars.  The smell of oil and clutch fluid as we entered the hall made me feel rather homesick for our little MG Midget, whose parts are currently strewn across several UK garages, but alas the museum's collection did not include any of that particular model.

It was a particularly American gathering, which meant strangers talked to us!  After three minutes chatting with Robert (retired psychiatrist) and his wife he announced that they were so enjoying this conversation that they would love to spend more time with us, and proffered his business card.  "Really?" I thought.  "I would judge this interaction as nothing more than average."  But I am now comfortable with American professional insincerity, so thanked him warmly and expect never to hear from them again.

It was also quickly clear that this was a place where money talked.  As soon as I trotted out the "your government does not allow me to work" chestnut when asked what I did, people seemed to lose interest in me.  I had to prove that I was a charming, engaging, and intelligent individual before I'd win them back.  So I inevitably spent a lot of time looking at cars, silently, alone.

The meal was great, catered for by our very own Scott's of Walnut Creek, and the Chevron table was full of lovely people (because it's a lovely company).  Hannah's boss Matt got to go up on stage and receive the award, but the standing ovation that the individual winners got was a little slower coming for the corporate oil-company victor.  Californians!  Luckily a lot of our table-mates were Texan.  They understand things down there.

Oi!  Move out of the way of that gorgeous classic Jag!

Inside, with some cheap Italian Ferraris.

This is more like it!  A 1963 E-type.

Meanwhile, at the Chevron table.

The great and the good (and us).


Woo, go Chevron!

Hannah would like to thank her parents, her supportive husband...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Hannah was out at a Chevron do tonight, and so I turned to a website that has been my saviour on many occasions.  No, not that one where you can chat with ladies of questionable morals, but FunCheapSF.  Where can a bored person go to have some fun on a Tuesday night?

The answer, it transpired, was Cafe Royale in San Francisco.  Why?  Not least because Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V were being performed there, for free, at the bar, by the aptly named San Francisco Theater Pub company.

This isn't the first time they've done plays in this bar, but it is their first Shakespeare.  They have some fairly strict rules, such as several scenes of any play they do must take place in a drinking establishment, at least one character in every scene must be drinking, and a scene doesn't finish until that drink is consumed.  All very commendable.

I arrived early to get a seat and enjoyed a cheese sandwich and a beer, just to get in the English mood.  I even had a (decidedly non-English-like) chat with Betsy and Jackie, two visitors from Georgia - the state, not the former Russian republic - who were enjoying their first time in SF and thought they'd try something "West Coast".  Shakespeare in a pub, how much more Californian can you get?

Then it all started, and it was very good.  The actors were superb, and although I don't believe any kings historically spoke with American accents I was willing to overlook that.  Ever since school, where Mr Clark doled out the parts in Macbeth and we had to read it through in cod-Scottish tones, I've had to admit that the language is just plain difficult, but tonight I sat back and let it wash over me.  I expect the beers helped too.  If only Mr Clark had incentivised us with alcohol.

It was all a little intimate.  The action moved around the small room, as we were mainly meant to be in the Eastcheap pub The Boar's Head, heavily featured in the play.  We were basically sat inside several scenes, and at one point Prince Hal clapped me a few times on the shoulder.  Henry IV expired on the pool table, and a grumpy Katharine of France sat down next to me scowling.  Plus ca change.  Also, squeezing three plays into an-hour-and-a-half meant that things trotted along at a breathless pace, and the strain of 16th Century English did tell on the brain after a while.  So I bought another drink.

And then, with the wooing of Katharine and Falstaff's expulsion, it was all over.  There was much clapping from the small but enthusiastic crowd, and I concluded that a muse of fire had indeed ascended this brightest heaven of invention. If Shakespeare had been there, his drinks would have been on the house.

The stage is set.

Enjoying a drink with Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff.

Henry IV, uneasy that his son is spending so much time in a pub.

The action moves to the bar.

Princess Katharine, unamused.

The king is dead.

All the men and women, merely players!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dance like there's nobody watching

Definitely the last post about our gym...

One of the benefits of belonging to the Walnut Creek Sports and Fitness Club is the many classes that you can attend as part of your membership fee.  I've documented my love of all things Les Mills, which is but a small part of the spinning, yoga-in-the-dark, step, body sculpting, etc. that you can torture yourself with from 5am to 11pm, should you enjoy that sort of thing.

Amongst these many and various activities is Zumba.  It's described as an exhilarating, effective, easy-to-follow, Latin-inspired, calorie-burning dance fitness-party.  "Are you ready to party yourself into shape?" asks the website.  Evidently I was not.  Further warnings were issued by the instructor wearing bright orange trousers with pink tassels on the back pockets.  She arrived, then the music started.

I had asked Hannah earlier if we should attend an introductory class.  She confidently stated that she'd done loads of exercise classes and you could pick everything up very quickly.  To be fair, BODYPUMP ("lift...and down.  Lift...and down.") didn't require an inordinate amount of brainpower to get through the first time.  So in we jumped.

It took only the opening bars of the first salsa-driven track for me to realise our huge mistake.  I was the only man in the class, and Hannah and I the youngest, and the only ones to have no idea what we were doing.  The instructor stated that she was "quite technical" and liked to make sure everyone knew the moves.  And then proceeded to explain nothing.  As she shimmied and shook at the front, in the manner of somebody receiving a nasty electric shock, everyone else seemed completely capable of mirroring her every twizzle and gyration.

I once read that samurai wore long robes to hide their feet, as it is the feet that give away where the next attack is coming from.  Just look at her feet, I kept telling myself, and the rest will follow.  This vaguely worked to begin with, although strangely having my feet doing something similar to hers didn't seem to keep my flailing arms under control.  Every now and again I would catch sight of myself in the room's mirrored walls, and wonder at this vision of a pasty English person with no rhythm or ability.  I was the geography teacher at the school disco.

Half-way through the hour I lost the ability to concentrate on her twinkle-toes and just sort of jumped around flapping.  "Into your Sugarcanes!" she would shout, and all the middle-aged women would click in precisely co-ordinated patterns to her command.  I put in a bit more effort when I thought she was looking at me but, frankly, I was lost in a terrifying world I did not understand.

The instructor came up to us at the end and asked how our first time went.  Was it that obvious? Unfortunately the South American beats could not overcome the natural British ability to lie pleasantly, and I thanked her and told her how much I'd enjoyed myself.  Then I left, never to return.

Me and Hannah, today.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

No, it's spelt differently

They say that sometimes life imitates art, and to test this theory we went out to see a recently-released film tonight called Hanna.

It's sort-of a fairy tale, about a young girl who grows up in a little house in the forest with her father until she's old enough to head out into the big wide world.  And though she looks sweet and innocent, Hanna has the ability to switch into a ruthlessly effective, highly-trained killing machine at any moment.  So, based on a true story.

It has a great cast, with Irish Saoirse Ronan playing the lead and Aussies Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett playing the father and wicked CIA witch (as a Texan).  It's always refreshing when movie baddies don't speak with British accents.  The whole thing was superb, and highly recommended, although the disquieting effect was increased by Hanna looking exactly like a grown-up Maya Singer.  I always thought Sofia was the deadly one.

Don't argue.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Marvelous Mariposa

During our Yosemite trip we stayed in Mariposa.  It's the nearest settlement to the park's south entrance, and is rather cruelly described online as "a one horse town where the horse died of boredom twenty years ago".  That's blatantly untrue - the place is big enough to support at least a couple of dead horses.

Mariposa, which is Spanish for "butterfly", enjoyed its time during the gold rush and still boasts the largest complete nugget ever found in California in its bank vault.  The atmosphere is quite Berkeley with some alternative living and hippy-ish businesses plying their wares.  It has a surprisingly large amount of shops, presumably all funded by the passing trade.  After ordering pizza by phone on Friday night, Jack and I walked into the wrong restaurant to be told "sorry, you want the other pizza place".  We duly crossed the road to find it.  This only happened because the local Pizza Factory considers the other end of the one street too far away to deliver to.

Still, we had a fun wander around on Sunday morning after we checked out of The Miner's Inn (which won the Mariposa Chamber of Commerce's "Business of the Month Award" in August 2008, so it's turn must be coming again soon).  We even got a key cut in the local hardware store, and I bought a new hat in their sale.  Sometimes it's about the destination, and sometimes it's about the journey.  For Mariposa, it's the journey.

The appropriately named "Hideout Saloon"...

...was shut!

We had coffee here just because of the name.

Claire reviews yesterday.

No one steals gas around here.

Cashing in on the tourist dollars?

Farewell shot from a fab weekend.

And how does every great trip to Yosemite finish?  With the world's best burger (animal style, of course).

Summer in Yosemite

We have not always enjoyed the best weather when visiting Yosemite.  Even our last, mercifully dry trip was rather chilly.  This weekend made up for all of that, as we enjoyed a glorious day in the park with the Muckers and the Murnanes.  Vince and Christine are off to Germany soon, and had never been to Yosemite before.  They've only lived in Northern California for, you know, three years.

We stayed in Mariposa, and joined a fairly large queue to get into the Valley on Saturday morning.  Yosemite did resemble an outdoor-themed parking lot, but there's a rule that the higher up you go the fewer people you see so we set off on the Mist Trail.  It's one we've done before but last time it was hard to tell what was mist and what was simply torrential rain.

This time there were no such problems, as each soaking was swiftly followed by blissful, drying sunshine.  Claire was a star, preferring to walk than be carried until fatigue (and parental insistence) finally won.  They turned back just before the moistest bit and Jack, Amanda, Hannah and I made it to the top of Nevada falls only to find that (yet again!) the John Muir trail back to the valley was shut.  There was no choice but to head back through the mist, where the odd blast of cold air and freezing water to face brought back happy memories of North Wales.  Luckily we made it down while the sun was high enough above the valley's granite walls to offer some evapouration.

I took lots of photos.  How did Ansel Adams get so famous when you can just point in whichever direction you want and start clicking?  And he didn't have cute children in front of his mountains either.

Claire and I got bored of waiting to get into the park, so took matters into our own hands.

In, parked, and ready for the off.

Someone was not impressed at having her photo taken all the time.

Off we go!

Still looking for the other half of that dome.

The Muckers in Yosemite.  We hadn't actually gone anywhere yet, but why pass up a photo opportunity?

Claire suggests a challenging route.


Amanda, as impressed as ever by Jack's manliness.

Group shot, a little higher up, with two tired children.  That's Vernal Falls in the background.


On the way again.

They say mist, they deliver mist.

Drying quietly after wet bit #1.

Getting closer to our destination.

Look at that!  I even got to the end, at one point, but the leprechaun and pot of gold had been washed away.

Hannah dries patchily at the top of the falls.

Yosemite Beach.

Looking back down.

Onwards and upwards to Nevada Falls!  This was meant to be a really tasteful, arty nude photo, but they refused.

Yep, quite a bit of the stuff coming down that one too.

In case you missed it.

Right at the top.

Disappearing over the edge.

We even hiked above the snow line!

Still gorgeous.

On our way to find the John Muir trail.  Perhaps the waterfalls in the path should have given us a clue that it may be shut.

No matter, back down the way we came.

As wild as it got.

Final damp stretch.

The sun sets over the valley as we get back to where we started.

Wow!  I've always wanted a bear, and all I needed was one of these!

Apple blossom in the valley.

Waiting for us in the boot of Jack's car.  It's important to rehydrate after a long hike...