Saturday, 30 December 2017

Hill country

At some point on our trip to Texas hill country, I realised that I was paying for the privilege of staying in a drafty cabin in the middle of nowhere with no wi-fi or phone reception.  It's a great business model, and I will be spending my Christmas money on several acres out in the wilds and plonking some log huts on them.

We got to the wilderness via a long drive.  Long by English standards at least; in Texan terms we just popped next door (I learnt today that Texas crosses two time zones).  We stopped by The Alamo, the birthplace of the Texan revolution and the setting of a fine Johnny Cash song, but it was so cold we didn't hang around.

Thankfully the log cabin owners had left the heating on and a freshly baked cake in the kitchen.  The stern faces of previous, long-dead farmers looked down from the walls, an antique shotgun rested on antlers above the doorway, and the kids had to climb an outside staircase to get to their bedroom in the eaves.  Basically, a perfect Texas retreat for Meg and Ellen.

We spent the next few days exploring hill country and nearby Fredericksburg, a town founded by Germans and still proud of that heritage with traditional decorations everywhere.  We didn't go German when it came to food, opting for Cranky Frank's barbecue instead.  Their hours are "11am - Sold Out" and we were lucky.  They locked the door behind us as we walked in and gave us their last slice of brisket as a free extra.

After much time sitting on rocking chairs out on the porch and wandering the farmland - including an encounter with a llama and an over-affectionate chihuahua - we headed back to civilisation.  Via a winery, of course.  We were soon back in Houston, celebrating our time living like the pioneers of old.  After all, they didn't have wi-fi either.

Remember the Alamo!  We will, but mostly how cold it was.

We sought out the local Japanese garden.  It wasn't any warmer.

Who's that walking over my bridge?

However bad no wi-fi was for me, it was much worse for someone else.

Posing with Wild Bill Hickok.  Quite why the Kansas lawman is out here I'm not sure.

Our home for the next few days.

Welcome y'all.

The best thing about farms?  Lots of fences.

Lounging on the porch.


Howdy too.

Hey Frank, do you have any vegan options?

Tuck in, Meg.

Hannah's new pet.

Out on the farm.

Llama drama.

And back home via a vineyard.

Add this to the other 267 pics of Hannah and Ellen drinking in a winery.  Cheers!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Follow that Lone Star

After many years of single-handedly trying to Make Christmas British Again, I was very pleased to find crackers stocked in multiple shops this Yuletide.  My letter writing campaign to get the Queen's Speech shown on Fox News is yet to pay dividends but it's still early days.

Luckily Meg and Ellen were here to keep things traditional.  Lots of cooking took place, including the croque-en-bouche showstopper - this was no small feat, Ellen coming out with words I didn't know she knew (hot caramel can be quite painful, apparently).  Despite my best effort much Texasness crept into the menu, with fish tacos substituting for turkey and trimmings.  But after the fabulous excesses of Thanksgiving I'm certainly not complaining about that.

It took us until late into the afternoon before we'd managed to open all the presents.  While I suggested we entertain ourselves with a selection of parlour games - Blind Man's Bluff, or maybe Pass The Slipper - Meg and Pete seemed more than content to take selfies on Meg's new phone.  Kid's these days, I thought to myself as I slipped into the ultra-traditional carbo/alcohol doze.

Preparation.  Stop wasting time looking at the camera and get back to cooking!

A Christmas Eve trip to NASA.

Ready for launch in the shuttle bay.

Up and away!

Christmas morning.  Not too bright and early, thankfully.

Baked Camembert for a starter.  Yes.

Tuck in!

Croque-en-bouche!  It did not last long.

A post-Christmas jaunt to the Museum of Natural Science.  Why do you want the kids to come here, Hannah?

Awe and wonder.

Texas wild!

Ah yes, what the Christmases of my youth looked like back in Britain.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Happy holidays!

When you're a family of three it can be hard to muster the energy for the really big family arguments synonymous with the season of goodwill.  There's just not the critical mass.  Sure, Hannah and I rerun the yearly "should we get a real tree?" squabbles, and I can usually get stressed about people not putting their discarded wrapping paper into the correct recycle bin, but really we're just going through the motions.

Which is why it's so great that Ellen and Megan are here to add the necessary frisson and make Christmas great again!

No, of course not.  Megan floats in like the ballerina she is and takes on the role of Hannah's sous chef (or is it the other way around?)  I'm told this year we're having croque-en-bouche.  I have no idea what that is.  Meanwhile, Ellen mixes cocktails and compliments my coffee.  Everyone is happy and relaxed, peace and joy reigns.

Their arrival in Houston coincided with a heatwave.  More of a humidity-wave really, like being slapped with a hot towel when you step outside.  Apparently it's going to get chilly for Christmas (i.e. below 20C) which Houstonians like.

In their short time so far I've introduced them to a small number of Texan delights, such as Torchy's Tacos and Specs liquor store.  The low point for Meg has been a visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  She has to do a project on an artist for school so we went to see some real Georgia O'Keeffes as none are on public display in the UK.  She was unimpressed, by school work on holiday or art.  What a relief - I'm usually the only one that's grumpy at Christmastime.

Art.  Or whatever.

She was slightly more impressed by the weird tunnel that connects the museum's two buildings.

It's an O'Keeffe!  Homework done.

What passes for art appreciation with the youth of today.

Out and about in McGovern Gardens.

Texas?  Time for tacos!  After chips and guac, obvs.


And the holidays have begun.  Cheers!

A more appropriate drink for the little ones.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

You only sing when you're winning

Ah, school sports.  How well I remember standing in a cold, wet field with a demented teacher yelling at me.  It was character building, but what aspects of my character I couldn't tell you.  Certainly inadequacy, probably cowardice, definitely an intense dislike of physical education teachers.

The aim of sport, as far as I could tell growing up, is to get rid of any ball passed to you as quickly as possible, to minimise the chance of making a mistake and more shouting.  It was only when I was roped into playing rugby (badly) for Hannah's business school that I found in normal sport your teammates want you to do well, and the team to do well as a result, rather than hoping you'll fail and therefore attract the psychotic teacher's attention away from them.

Organised sport in the USA is a big thing from the minute kids can walk, mainly because no one can afford university without a scholarship.  Pete's school offers Soccer Shots and so - against my better, traumatised judgement - I signed him up.  He's been playing happily all year, and today was their graduation.

All parents were invited along, but I was in two minds.  Would I have to watch my son being humiliated the way his father was?  No - 50% of his genes are from his mother, so I knew he'd do better than me.  Would I suffer an embarrassing flashback, wetting myself as an easy excuse to go for an early shower?  Would it go the other way, and I'd find myself screaming from the sidelines, hurling obscenities at the referee, like any number of over-compensating parents, while a class of four-yr-olds looked on?

Luckily not too much of that came to pass, mainly because sports coaching in the USA is so damned positive!  High-fives are de rigueur, between coaches and students, student-to-student, and even from one team to the opposition when they score.  Fun, imaginative games were played, with the coach being an alien who had to be hit with footballs to make him fly away.  Who then high-fives his vanquishers!  And when it came to an actual match, so many people were cheering each other that it completely drowned out my deeply inappropriate English football chants.

Pete loved it, as did all his classmates, as did all the parents.  Has sports coaching come so far since the 1980s?  Was mine the last generation whose PE staff was made up of fugitive Nazi war criminals?  Or is everyone in America just a lot more nice than us Europeans, genuinely celebrating successes and supporting each other along the way?

I think that they're just nicer here.  Which is probably why they're so rubbish at football.

These days I couldn't manage even this much of a stretch without putting my back out.

"And...control!" said the coach, and they all did this.  What 4-yr-old doesn't want to be in control?

Stop laughing!  This isn't meant to be fun!


Team photo.

It all finished with a cheer, and all children left with visibly higher self-esteem and no psychological damage.  So what's the point, really?

Star player.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Sent home

A nice lady at British Airways eventually answered the phone and booked my parents onto a flight the next day.  Which was cancelled by the time we came to check in online, by which point the BA office was shut.  The next morning, as I was wondering whether it's easier to get through to Homeland Security and report two illegal immigrants rather than wait on hold to BA, they were reassigned to a flight the day after.

This time I drove them to the airport and waited until I saw their plane take off, and I can happily report that they're back home again, in time for the man who was coming around to cut the trees.  So no harm done!

In the extra days they had with us I put them to work, but also showed them some of the finer things of Houston culture.  They informed me they're spending most of the next three months on cruise ships, so it looks like April before their calendar is open enough to come to see us again.  Parents, eh?

A perambulation around McGovern Centennial Gardens.

More people follow my mother's advice than Confucius's.

Trying to get a bit arty.

Some actual art, in the rather fab Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

And proof I did make them work for their extra stay with us.  Although I think it's fair to say my parents acted mostly in a consulting capacity.