Friday, 26 June 2015

Caffeine quest

Was it really so recently that I was stalking the back alleys of Vancouver desperately looking for a decent cup of coffee?  Was I so swift to condemn that noble city when comparing it to San Francisco (ah, Blue Bottle)?  Could I have imagined that I would soon be living somewhere that displays only two results - "Starbucks" and "Dunkin Donuts" (DUNKIN DONUTS?!) - when you type "coffee" into Google maps?  It was time to venture farther afield, which me and Pete did this morning when we took the Metro from Wheaton to Brookland.

The Metro is basically the Bay Area BART transferred across the country, with carriages of the same vintage and staff of the same surliness.  The entrance gates are identical, but I will admit that the all-vinyl seating probably accommodates fewer exotic fauna than SF's fabulously stained cushions.  Such happy antibiotic-resistant memories.

In Brookland is Filter Coffehouse and Espresso Bar, which appears if you search for "best coffee in washington dc".  Dunkin Donuts thankfully does not.  It's a bicycle-themed coffee place, which is bizarre in itself but also because Musette Caffe, which was the first place in Vancouver I had a good coffee, is also bicycle-themed.  When Hannah's job moves again I'll obviously be looking for bicycle-themed coffee shops in Kazakhstan, Dubai, or New Mexico.

Anyway, Filter turned out to be worth the trip.  I went for a latte, still wary of heading straight for the tricky cappuccino, and was pleasingly assured by the barista that it would contain a double-shot.  I chatted about beans and optimal milk volumes as he steamed away, and the resulting drink was nutty with decent strength, exciting nose and good finish, although the milk-texturing was not quite what I would have hoped.  I passed on some notes for next time.

Pete glugged down a hot chocolate and demolished a lemon poppy muffin in short order and soon we were on a train for the few stops home, back to the land of Starbs and Dunkin.  Perhaps there's an opening for me to set up a mobile gourmet espresso cart at the station entrance during rush hour.  Davies & Son Coffee.  Hmm.

Going down into Wheaton station on the longest escalator in the western hemisphere!  Yep, a true claim to fame, although it adds several minutes onto any journey.

A typical commuter.

Here we are.


That one please.

What the..?  Wait.  What if it's not?

Granny annex

What are mothers for?  To turn up in your hour of greatest need and help you like no one else can, that's what!  When that mother is also a grandmother, unquestioning unlimited childcare is a priceless part of the deal.

For the past ten days my mum has been dutifully reading books to Pete starting at 7am before transitioning into imaginative play using only cardboard boxes, then pushing trolleys around supermarkets and DIY stores, assessing daycares, making tea...generally paying me back for providing her with such an adorable grandchild.  I've been able to put pictures on walls, hang ceiling fans, stock the fridge, and have someone else accompany a toddler on the miniature train in the local park.  I haven't even had time to be resentful that I've been so completely replaced in my mum's affections.

Sadly it was over all too quickly when she caught her flight home yesterday, and she says I have to wait three months until she'll have enough space in her social calendar to come out again!  Um... priorities?

Doting grandmother with grandson.

Doting grandmother with grandson.

Doting grandmother with grandson.

Doting grandmother with grandson.

Doting grandmother with grandson.

Doting grandmother with grandson.

And here's a really nice picture of a butterfly I took at Sully Historic Site.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

While we were away

Look what somebody invented!

No artificial colourings or flavourings.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Safe as houses

Free love, the right to bear arms, and property ownership: the three pillars of the American dream.  Today we took a small step/giant leap towards achieving this when we "closed" on a home in DC.  Yes, the Davieses are now international property magnates, like Donald Trump, and he's running for president.

The bottom line - as regular readers might have guessed - is that buying is cheaper than renting.  Hannah took a quick trip down here a few weeks ago with a list of potential houses clutched in her sweaty palm.  She got to house number five and said "yep", launched into furious negotiation, and got us what we wanted, including moving in immediately.  This was a little disconcerting as we were essentially squatting while we waited on the whims of the seller.  What if we were gazumped?  Presumably, because this is the States, we would have sued.  Maybe I should add litigation to the dream list.

Anyway, that didn't happen, which is good as the US mortgage process is bizarre and terrifying, mostly because they'll lend any amount of money to anybody - even us!  With all this extra lender-risk comes lots of extra checks and evidence gathering, with a few additional racially-profiled bureaucratic layers if you're not a genuine American and might jump the country if you can't pay your mortgage (which we totally would).

After weeks of document swapping and signing, the final sticking point was whether the automatic garage door would auto-reverse if it hit a 1.5 inch wooden block.  I'm not making this up.  We had to pay a man over $200 to come out and "certify" that it did, and then we were allowed to have a mortgage.  The loan is from Chevron's own bank, of course, just in case our lives weren't already submerged enough in the sticky black pool of big oil.

But now we're in, and we own bricks and mortar and (contrary to England) the mineral rights under our property!  Ah - now I see why Chevron was so generous.  Unlike rented apartments I suddenly have space to put stuff and can rebuild my collection of thrift-store-sourced things that had to be so cruelly culled in our international moves.  And we're allowed to put up a pole, like all our new neighbours, and fly the flag!  Although disappointingly few have gone for the red dragon.

As for those other pillars of the American dream, love and arms?  Well, we've only been here a week, and two-out-of-three ain't bad.

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

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Grandmom returns!

Mum is back, because it's been five weeks since she last saw her grandson.  Her actual, firstborn son is very happy to see her as it's allowed him to get on with scrubbing walls and putting up pictures, and she also arrived with a ton of British swag including Hob Nobs and the obligatory litre of Baileys.  Canadian shops are far more civilised about stocking goodies from the mother country.

You're never too old for a selfie outside the White House.  Mum and I were last here together 33 years ago!  But hang can that be when I'm only 24 years old...?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Wild animals

For a country that charges you to file your taxes and stay healthy it's amazing how much in its capital is free!  Anything with the word "National" in front seems to let you in gratis (except the Washington National Cathedral, which asks for $10, although Sundays are free).  Today we decided to sample the National Zoo.

The place was founded in 1889, and (together with a wildlife park outside DC) they have over 300 species of 1,800 animals.  I added a couple more to that number when I took Pete and Charlie along.

The place is indeed massive, and despite the low entry fee doesn't skimp on the animals you get to see.  There are elephants, cheetahs, buffalo, apes...there's also a giant pizza that you can play on.  Yes, I took two toddlers to one of the world's most impressive zoos and all they wanted to do was play on a giant squishy pizza.

With all the excitement I was soon left with two sleeping boys.  I wondered about dropping them off at the monkey house, where they would enjoy a comfortable stay before the ruse was discovered, but instead wheeled them to the station and back to Jack and Amanda's for ice lollies and bubbles.  These kids have it almost as good as the animals.

Ready to roll.

We were a bit early so stopped off at a classy coffee shop.

First animal: a sloth bear!  I like this creature.


Q: What's grey, has four legs, and a trunk? 
A: A mouse going on vacation.

I could have come home with extra monkeys.

Charlie and a tortoise.

Look at this patch of gravel, so much more fascinating than the hundreds of exotic animals all around us!

Boys together.

Ah, yes: the giant pizza that you could play on.

Charlie makes the sauce.

Giant olive, giant cheese wheel...not sure why this is in a zoo, but it works!

All very exhausting.

And finishing with the excitement of a train ride.  Their keeper needed a nap after all that.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Chilling in the heat with the Murnanes

Instead of telling us to check into a hotel until our house is ready, the wonderful Murnanes took us under their roof.  It was actually payment for a long-ago debt when I organised Amanda's flat in Berkeley after all her stuff was dropped off while she was at a lecture, sometime in 2008.  "If you find a whip, it's not what you think," were her final words before shutting the door.  I'd known her for around three days at this point.

Now we're all older, wiser, and have children.  Charlie and Isabella are exactly Pete's age but have way cooler toys, none of which were bought from thrift stores, so he was over-the-moon to have both playmates and things to play with that worked and were clean and complete.

We're only here for a few days, but we did bring our own duty-free spirits so as not to be too much of a drain on resources.  Unfortunately this doesn't balance the generosity; the scales have swung mightily back and we're now hugely in debt to Jack and Amanda.  I guess there might be some babysitting of twins in our near future...

Feeding the army.

Two monsters with bubble guns.

The biggest (and cutest) monster of them all.

There was a lot of playing with bubbles.

A lot.

"So, Pete, what exactly are your intentions towards my daughter?"

Monday, 8 June 2015


The only trouble with DC is all the tourists everywhere!  I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, having only lived here for 48 hours, but it was difficult.  They swarmed around the National Mall with little-to-no coordination until finally forming queues in front of many of the free museums that line each side of that green swathe.

Pete and I wandered merrily through the throng, up to the Washington Monument, before deciding to visit the National Museum of American History.  It was a good place to reacquaint ourselves with this great land, and it had the shortest line.

Sadly there was a lot of anti-British sentiment on display within, with much made of the misunderstanding that led to the so-called "War of Independence" (you had representation for your taxation!  You just didn't get to choose who it was!)  Then there was the original star-spangled banner they wrote that song about.  It celebrates the time a British fleet turned up at Fort McHenry and didn't kill everyone.  Hardly "their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution" as one of the lines claims about the British, but there we go.  We're all friends now I suppose.

After one of us had a nap it was on to the Air and Space Museum.  I loved this one but Pete was less than impressed that you couldn't go into every plane and space ship.  He didn't compare it favourably to Vancouver's Science World.  The high-point for me was a display about flights to Hawaii, and how hard it used to be for pilots to find that tiny island group in the vast Pacific.  There were some fantastic pictures of the first commercial jetliners of the 50s and 60s, complete with dining and sitting rooms.  You'd never get that space nowadays...unless you fly business class, of course.

After that we were exhausted, something not helped by the 90F heat and 150% humidity that seems to be everyday June weather.  I can see there will be a huge amount of educational content for me and Pete to cover over the next few years, starting with "who do you trust more - what that museum says, or Daddy?"

A replica of that banner, hence the fewer stars - we were yet to realise just how many states were out there.

Us and the Washington Monument.

Us and the Washington Monument (close up).

"Is it going?  Can I get in it?" Pete asked about every vehicle.  Sadly, the answer was always no.

Unimpressed by an obviously faked moon landing photo.

The vehicle they would have returned in, had they actually gone there.

Pete takes the wheel of a cessna.  No Pete - we're a navy family, remember?

Sunday, 7 June 2015

So kiss me and smile for me

Progress is a funny thing.  I first got to fly on a plane when I was six.  We were seated just in front of the smoking section, and I was invited into the cockpit mid-Atlantic to chat to the pilot.  That was a great holiday; I was still getting used to having a little sister in my life and we left her behind!  I believe this to be the foundation of my enduring love for North America.  Sorry Emily, I do like you more now.

I wondered what lasting impressions Pete might form as I looked over at him, dwarfed in his business-class seat, while the stewardess delivered him an apple juice on the rocks.  It's taken me 38 years to ascend to the lofty heights of the first few rows of the plane, and here was a two-year-old enjoying priority boarding and free drinks.  We were literally riding Hannah's coat-tails - it was difficult to judge which of her dependents was the biggest fraud.

Being British, I felt the need to apologise to every passenger that filed past us, to tell them that this wasn't my idea and we weren't actually paying.  Having a conscience, I wondered about offering my seat to someone in greater need.  In the end I didn't allow either moral impediment to move me to action and simply avoided eye contact.

Anyway, the complimentary gin and tonics were actually therapy as we were forced to finally say goodbye to Vancouver.  It's a city we would move back to in a heartbeat, and it was not easy to leave so many good friends that we've made in such a short amount of time.  We'll be retiring to Victoria, in the British manner, and we're not that far away now, so come to visit, soon.

We landed, got to our hotel, and got Pete to bed on jet-lagged time.  DC is hot and sticky and everyone speaks a different language; Maryland = "Muhr-lund", Potomac = "Po-toe-mic".  I'd forgotten what happens to English when the Queen isn't Head of State.  And if the atmosphere is a little less laid back or willing to apologise than our previous home, that'll set me up nicely for the next time I fly business.

I stocked up on the essentials in duty-free before we flew.

G&T selfie!  It was quickly obvious to my fellow business passengers that I did not belong.

It's the only way to travel.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Here we go again

Everything's back in little boxes.  Some things didn't even come out of their boxes for the whole time we were in Vancouver, but they're now on a truck and I believe racing towards the USA via Niagara Falls.  Please look out for the water.

I'm not racing anywhere as we enjoy a few days of cleaning the apartment.  Where does all that dust under the bed come from?  I shudder to think, but I was able to give it all a once-over with the hoover before it too was consigned to a box and taken from me.  With no hoover and no cappuccino machine I basically lack all meaning in life.

Never mind - we get two nights at a swanky hotel before our flight.  My clever dieting plan has always been to lose weight during the stress of these international moves and then I get to slowly gain it until the next one.  Except that this move hasn't been stressful, and we've just come back in from beer and pizza in downtown Vancouver.  Oh well, America is known for its successful efforts to combat obesity.  Isn't it?

I should probably have asked for ID from those men who turned up and put all our stuff in their big van...

Ah, who cares?