Sunday, 29 November 2015

'Tis the season (already)

The great thing about having Thanksgiving in late November is that it holds Christmas at bay.  No carols in Woolworths mid-September on this side of the pond!  But then inevitably, mere hours after the deep-fried turkey has congealed in your stomach, Yuletide decorations appear with a vengeance and the festive season explodes like badly-wired fairy lights.  Vince's hangover had hardly begun on Black Friday morning and he'd already found a Christmas station on the radio, subjecting us to Bing Crosby, Maria Carey, and the rest of the usual suspects.

We fully embraced this of course at an hour of bauble and wreath making before church this Sunday.  Even Pete - the least art-and-crafty child I've ever met - got interested in wrapping candles in coloured ribbons.

After that we needed to stock up on home decorations, and there's nowhere better than at a thrift store (apart from stores that sell new stuff that actually works).  I have learned lessons from years past so did plug things in and test them before handing over my $5.

Now the house is all aglow with pretty lights inside and out, and there's a snowglobe that plays "The Holly And The Ivy" sitting on the dining room table.  And it's not even December yet!  Imagine how many great things I can find at thrift stores in the next four weeks of advent!

Psychedelic baubles.  You pour the paint in and swirl it around inside.  Clever.

Who exactly were the crafts for, Hannah?

My favourite thrift store find of the day.  Perhaps some kind of anti-global warming protest ornament?  For $2.99 I left it on the shelf for another lucky thrifter to discover.

Oh the weather outside is frightful etc.

That burning smell could be the fire, or could be...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Thankful again in 2015

It's Thanksgiving, that time of year when everyone celebrates that the British arrived in this country and, after 50% of them died, were helped by the local Native Americans.  That all worked out better for one group than the other, but hindsight never stopped a giant turkey feast.

The Muckers - annual hosts of Thanksgiving since we all lived in Berkeley - organised the festivities again, although it was a smaller and less international gathering than that time 38 of us squeezed into their front room.  But I don't think there was any less food, given that we had two turkeys this year.  One was oven baked, but a second was deep fried in the way the pilgrims would have cooked it all those centuries past.

The party started at 1.30pm, and when Vince finally switched off the American football game ten hours later the requisite amount of meat, vegetables and pudding had been consumed, and the beer pumpkin was empty.  What was I most thankful for this year?  That we could stay overnight and I didn't have to drive home.  I was less thankful when Pete woke up at 5am and demanded pancakes - he obviously understands the true meaning of the holiday.

The hostess welcomes us with a small bottle of Champagne.

The host cooks up the bacon-wrapped shrimp.  Just a little nibble before the main course.

I found these finger food plates in a thrift store.  I think they were new, but they were a big hit regardless.

Jeroen, a fellow European, schools the Yanks in how to really cook a turkey.

The healthiest way.

There was even entertainment for the kids.  It was like Disneyland.

Here's Christine pouring some more drinks.  There's a theme here.

Too many cooks?

No, because this was the result.

An American family.

All the major food groups.

The feast, out on the deck.

JJ started a card school.  Watch your wallets.

Everyone left satisfied.  Or is this the next candidate for the deep-fryer...?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Act of gourd

The Internet is full of amazing things - kittens, that video of a panda sneezing - so I was unsurprised to come across a picture of a beer cooling and serving device made out of a pumpkin.  It was a Halloween project by someone called The Tipsy Bartender, but being thrifty I waited for the post-Halloween pumpkin sales ($5 any size!) and then pounced for Thanksgiving.

Carrying around a 60lb pumpkin is hard, but carving it is somewhat harder.  Luckily I had a suitable assistant in Pete and soon we had a hollowed and carved squash of unfeasible proportions, with room for 22 bottles of beer.

The final touch was the cooling system: dry ice.  It turns out you can just buy the stuff from our local beer shop, although there are various kill-joy warnings on the pack like "never put dry ice in your mouth".  Whatever.

We transported the various elements down to the Muckers and I set up while Thanksgiving lunch was cooking, feeling like a real scientist as I handled the smoking ice with oven gloves.  The end result was not entirely unlike the picture I'd seen online all those weeks ago.  Even Vince said he was impressed, and that's when I know I've achieved something.

The first cut is the deepest.

Peter Peter pumpkin diver.

And that's why it's always best to buy tinned pumpkin.

Hannah finally got bored of hearing about how great my pumpkin was.

The empty vessel.

Adding the frozen CO2.

Adding some water for that smoking effect.  Note my defensive pose and general fear in proximity to anything that could be described as scientific.

The end result!  I've never had as many compliments about something I created (apart from Pete).

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Return To Sender

What's the cheapest way to get out to see us for a short stay?  Post, of course!  A five-month holiday to the East Coast and a return flight with chauffeur service to your door will set you back a mere £10.76, as a parcel from my sister recently discovered.

I've documented my love of the US Postal Service on many occasions.  True, they have a lovely museum in DC, but the famous stuffed dog displayed there gives better customer service than most employees.  I could tell you many a tale of the unbelievable waiting times, eye-watering prices and surly staff, but you'd think I was exaggerating and that would undermine the credibility of my entire blog.

So a few months ago I received a note saying the postman had tried to deliver a parcel (he hadn't - he'd just delivered the note saying he'd tried to deliver a parcel).  It said I had to visit the local P.O. to pick it up.  I girded my loins and made sure Pete was asleep in his buggy before I went in, praying that his 45-minute nap would be long enough to complete this simple transaction.

I knew what this parcel was: my birthday present from my sister, addressed to 'The Davies Family'.  Now, when you collect a parcel, usually there's a fair bit of shouting from the people at the desk until a mysterious door opens and someone shuffles out, snatches your slip, disappears, has a cuppa and a smoke out the back, and then finally returns to thrust a dilapidated box into your hand.  So imagine my surprise when, within seconds, the clerk bent down and produced a box from Target addressed to Hannah Davies, full of things she'd ordered a few days before.

"No, that's not it," I told the lady.  "The parcel I'm after is addressed to The Davies Family."

"This is the parcel," she informed me.

"But," I said,  "the note says it's addressed to The Davies Family."

I waved the delivery note as though hoping to ward off the demons of lunacy.  The note was taken from my grasp.

"Is your name Davies?" she asked.


"Well this says Davies."

"Yes...but..."  I tried to explain that the delivery note didn't match the parcel, mainly because what was written on the delivery note didn't match what was written on the parcel.  The room began to spin, perhaps a white rabbit hopped by complaining he was late.  Eventually my tormentor, or customer service assistant if you prefer, raised herself with much sighing and disappeared through that door at the back, giving me a fleeting glimpse of mounds of desperate packages in the hangar-like warehouse.  Somewhere in there was my package.

No it wasn't, she said, on returning from her cup of tea and a smoke.  The Target box was the only package for our address.  I returned home and sat on the sofa rocking and muttering to myself, trying to find my happy place.

Except that she was LYING!  Because today my sister called to say that the package that wasn't there has arrived back in Britain.  Not only that, there are stickers on it saying it has been sitting in our post office, down the road, for FIVE MONTHS.  "Unclaimed!" accused the note attached, dated 18th November, despite the fact I've been down multiple times to claim other packages that the postman never delivers, only leaves notes saying he tried to deliver them.

But when all is said and done, the distance traveled works out as 7,348 miles at 0.0015 pence per mile.  Cheap by anybody's standards so pack yourself well, mark the box "Do Not Bend", and post yourself to Maryland.  Of course, you'll have to spend five months living in our local post office, but I hear they're very generous with cups of tea and cigarettes.

Photo credit: Emily Davies, Frome, UK

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Glen Echo Park

When you think of the National Parks of America perhaps the stunning vistas of Yellowstone spring to your mind, or the majestic granite cliffs of Yosemite, or maybe the sheer awe and scale of the Grand Canyon.  I'm guessing your thoughts don't immediately turn to an abandoned fairground.

Mine neither, but Glen Echo Park is run by the same National Parks Service that oversees all those other slightly more impressive natural wonders.  I'm not sure why.  The site is a collection of oddly-matched concrete buildings and crumbling amusements, including the ruins of a swimming pool.  There's the vague suggestion that some history happened here, in the form of a sit-in on the carousel to protest against segregation, but other than that...

Anyway, a few of the buildings are now home to artists of various kinds, so Hannah, Pete and I got a bit of culture before spending some time in the playground.  There's also an aquarium with a dozen or so fish wondering what they did to deserve this.  It didn't help that it was sub-zero, down to a temperature that even Hannah refused to picnic in.  Another wander around confirmed that we hadn't missed anything and we drove home.

Next time we'll just drive west until we get to the Grand Canyon.

Hiking in.

Somewhat missing that "wow" factor, and not a Yogi Bear in sight.

Ooo, a dodgem!  That didn't move.

I think this is the "Spanish Ballroom".

Daredevil Pete.

Not all customers were 100% satisfied.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Botanical garden

The wintry wind was whipping the dead leaves from the trees, but the sun was out, it was a Saturday, and we're British, so - by God and the Queen! - we were going to have a picnic.

The location for our sub-arctic jaunt was the US National Arboretum.  Yes, they have one.  It's 400 acres in size and has trees.  Lots of them, sometimes close together and sometimes separated by grassy areas.  Hannah's been wanting to go since we arrived in DC like the thrill-seeking adrenaline junky she is.

To be fair, there were some non-tree bits, including the National Herb Garden (yes, they have one too), and a bonsai collection that was rather fascinating and calming, while allowing me to feel huge.  Sadly we missed the National Boxwood Collection - "Few plants exude elegance like boxwood" says the brochure.  Indeed.

After lunch it was time to thaw out, and wouldn't you know that Washington's premier gin distillery was just around the corner!?  Green Hat Gin is named after the man who delivered spirits to the senators on Capital Hill during prohibition.  Corruption in American politics is nothing new, but you can forgive anyone for wanting gin.  Their "Navy Strength" variety, running at 57%, is especially warming.  A freezing picnic and gin at lunchtime - two British traditions in one day.

Exciting stuff.

Miniature versions of bigger things.

Pete wanted to take a photo of us so I let him.  Unfortunately he made the fatal technical error of cutting off the subject's feet, not to mention going for too-small an aperture thus increasing depth of field and drawing the eye from the point of focus.  I had no choice but to give him a time out.

This bonsai has been around since 1625.  OK, that's impressive.

It's freezing, why not splash in a pond?

Learning about herbs.  Juniper, coriander, angelica, etc.

I was feeling a little chili by this point.

These columns used to be outside the Capitol Building, and were the backdrop to Abraham Lincoln's inauguration (and many others).  Now they're here, which is a bit surreal.

Even trees need protection, especially from toddlers.

Fighting to get our seats in the picnic area.

And now I am happy.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Local family

Like angels arriving from heaven - or Wales, as it's also known - my Uncle Rod and Aunty Gwyn have appeared to blessedly fill the childcare gap left by my parents' departure.  We're very honoured, as this visit means they're spending a few days away from their own grandson, Orson, up in New York City.

Thankfully Pete has stepped up admirably, and we wandered around DC in sunshine while he dragged poor Gwyn through every pile of leaves he could find.  Today, Rod wants to go to the reflecting pool where all the civil rights protests happened.  He says he was last here 50 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson was president.  I'm slightly worried he's on a quest to recapture his youth, so if you read in the news about an angry Welshman being arrested for protesting (about the loss in the recent rugby world cup?) then I was nowhere nearby.

A great aunt and a great uncle, literally.

Where the power in the family resides.

Are you a Welsh lady, like Grandma?  Great!  Come with me...

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Smashing Pumpkins

Cox Farms, where we recently went for baby Claire's seventh birthday, is coming to the end of its Fall Festival.  But what to do with all those pumpkins?  There's only one answer to that: smash them!  Yes, it's Pumpkin Madness weekend down on the farm, where you can watch multiple orange gourds being catapulted into the lake, dropped from a cherry picker, run over by a tractor...if you hate your vegetables, it's the only place to be.

Unfortunately it was raining.  Quite heavily, which meant that the various Americans we'd arranged to meet there chickened out.  Whatever - the Brits aren't scared of a few drops of water!  We managed to park by some people from Manchester, who noted that the weather was exactly like it is every day in that fine city, and trudged across the muddy field to the gate together.

Except that, at the gate, we were told the farm would be shutting in 45 minutes.  Shutting a farm because of the weather?!  If you did that in Britain there'd be no farming!  On the plus side, entry was free and so was all the food, and you could buy a pumpkin of any size for $5, which is good as I need one for when I make this:

A lot of the mud was mixed with straw, so it wasn't too hard to wade around, and we found out that the tractor rides were still going so jumped onto the open hay cart at the back.  We smiled at the colourful cutouts of gnomes and monsters as we drove by, but all the live action witches, trolls, etc. that entertained us the last time we were here were absent.  Hmm.  Two aliens did appear from their crashed UFO but disappeared quickly, as they didn't come from a planet with liquid water so lacked umbrellas.

We were thoroughly soaked after the 20-minute ride, but amazingly Tracy and 3-yr-old Virginia had arrived by that point, so they, Hannah and Pete embarked on another ride while I wandered the dripping, empty exhibits.  The cherry picker did demure to rise and drop several pumpkins for the fifteen of us demanding entertainment, but everything closed at 11am and we all dribbled back out to the parking lot.

Ten minutes later we were in a Starbucks, using two toddlers to scare away people in the bit with armchairs and taking full advantage of staying there for two hours, watching the rain fall outside, for the price of one coffee.  It was a pumpkin spice latte, so it all works out in the end.

Just a normal British summer day.  It actually reminds me of the last time I was at the Glastonbury Festival.

I seem to remember it being more crowded last time.  And dryer.

We're having such a lovely time!  Mainly because that popcorn was free.

Weathering the political storm.

Still happy.  Sort of.

What happens when you drop a pumpkin 30 feet?

Exactly what you'd expect.

Even the pigs got depressed.

Autumn is officially over.