Year 2, Weeks 59-61: Black Friday

It’s probably my favourite thing about America. It’s a day devoted to food, family, and food; you get to play board games while the sugar from the pumpkin pie kicks in to negate the sleepy effects of the turkey; you get to kick back with a beer and watch the football (American that is) if you’re that way inclined (ie, an American and male), or the Macy’s Parade; and you get the pleasure of saying “have a good weekend” to co-workers on a Wednesday afternoon. Thanksgiving, or Turkey Day to some, has been an American tradition every November since the pilgrims (well, since Lincoln at any rate), and celebrates the simpler side of American culture – it is free from religious argument, it doesn’t have any annoying songs, and because you don’t have to give presents the crass commercialism of modern life is forgotten: for a day, we’re all pilgrims. It’s not forgotten for long; Christmas Shopping Season arrives with a bang, the very next morning, and what a bang.

They call it Black Friday, because that’s when the stores go from being in the red to the black. They should call it Red & Green Friday, because that’s when retailers take down their Fall oranges and browns and magically make Christmas decorations appear. Suffice to say, it is the Busiest Shopping Day of the Year ™. Normally, being stuck in crowds of tired and grumpy people in the dark early hours fighting over the half-priced electronic toy nobody needs but everyone wants is pretty much my idea of hell, on a par with being in Holloway on a Saturday afternoon when Arsenal are playing. All of these people, most of whom probably would not raise an eyebrow let alone a protest banner if the President ripped up the Constitution, congregating masse to the cathedrals of consumerism at 5am, having spent much of the evening before studying several rainforests’ worth of newspaper ads (never the news itself, though), armed with strategies and Christmas lists. Pete usually prays for rain and cold winds, and stays at home in bed; no discount is worth that effort. Well this year, as an experiment, I decided to take part in this cultural experience, and see if the reports of rioting at the checkout were true.

At four-thirty we rolled out of bed and into warm clothes; brushing hair was not an option. Best-Buy was advertising a laptop for $399, so that was our destination. Us, and everybody else in the western hemisphere. Hundreds of people were lined up right around the block, waiting patiently while pock-faced store workers geed up the crowd with patronizing and completely sincere comments like “are you excited yet?!” My excitement was low, my patience thin, my cynicism high as a Dutchman. Eventually the doors opened, and the fun began. I don’t remember a great deal, to be honest, except that the chaos was far more orderly than I had feared, and although we did not (of course) get the laptop, we did come away with a new $80 flat-screen PC monitor. Let the bargain shopping begin.

I didn’t last much longer. The sun came up, and I retreated to the comfort of the bed, but my wife and her mother soldiered on, getting most of their holiday shopping done in one fell swoop. I on the other hand got up after midday, and shuffled half-heartedly around the local mall. I’m such a shopping lightweight. I looked through some of the papers, with their handy advice on Black Friday shopping (“while one person is trying on clothes another can start waiting in line,” one sage journalist suggests). At least we had the rest of the weekend to recover, and we needed it. We put up our Christmas tree, and it has already added a warm festive glow to the apartment, though it pales in comparison to some of the ridiculously lit-up houses nearby, who have probably saved up all year to pay the electric bill (they’ve obviously never seen An Inconvenient Truth). I tell you what though, that’s not the last turkey I’ll be eating this year. Christmas in London, here we come.

Year 2, Weeks 57-58: Poll Vaulting

Where’s the Swingometer when you really need it? After months of mind-numbing televisual campaigns, billions of dollars thrown about to make the public think that voting one way or another will cause the world to end and taxes to rise, and with more mud slung than at all the Glastonburys put together, the mid-term elections are finally over, and we can all go back to normality (whatever that is). The Democrats appear to have taken back the House, giving the Administraitors some well-needed opposition, and as I write, the Senate is still too close to call. However, while this has been touted as a ‘national’ election, with the Iraq ‘war’ being the main issue among voters, many of the really nasty battles were the local ones, the ones at state-level, or (even more passionately) at county and city level. Those were the ones that really inflamed local passions, certainly in this part of California, and I have to say that over all, I’m disappointed with the results.

Arnold won the gubernatorial race (I love writing that word, I had never heard of it until I came out here), with a pretty convincing victory over Phil Angelides. I’m not surprised – not many people are – and that perhaps isn’t as bad a thing as it once sounded. For one thing, Arnold really changed direction last year when he was slapped in the special election, deciding that the only way to progress is to work together with the other parties, and not just give the cushy jobs to your Republican buddies. He has meant this as a lesson to be learnt at national level; it has clearly won over Californians, who have, believe it or not, stopped seeing the Austrian as a joke. I am still not sure I buy the whole snubbing-Bush angle he took – I am certain that the Administraitors knew that certain elections would be won if the Prez was not in the picture. Personally, I think the real reason Californians voted him back into office is because they want to make sure he doesn’t go back and make any more movies, for another few years at least.

While the governor race was not a surprise, the big losses were felt in some of the statewide Propositions and local Measures. Billions of dollars were ploughed into these campaigns, sums of money so vast that it is absolutely criminal how wasteful this election has been. Across the entire country I cannot begin to imagine how much money was spent; could this money not have been better used to tackle poverty, or help disaster victims, or start a national health service? Unfortunately, this election has proved that such ridiculous and decadent spending pays off. One such costly fight was over Prop 87, which proposed taxing the oil companies to fund research into alternative forms of energy, and making it illegal for the oil firms to pass the cost onto the consumer (a point not only ignored but contradicted by the oil companies who funded the ‘No’ campaign). The ‘No’ people, who were funded by ‘consortiums’ that included Chevron, ploughed a whopping $94 million into convincing the public that such a law would be ‘wasteful’ (“a recipe for waste, not progress” was their tag). In order to simply be heard, the ‘Yes’ campaign was forced to spend heavily too, with most of the $60 million being provided by Hollywood stars (people who don’t stand to lose profits if the law is passed). The irony is that after a while, both sides started to say the same thing, to appeal to the more patriotic voter (“they burn our flag, we buy their oil”, and so forth). Well, the boys who spent the most won, because voters listened to the nagging TV screen, drove their SUVs to the polling place, and rejected Prop 87. So much for California leading the way on climate change.

In Davis, the big battle was also won by the guys with the money – Measure K, the vote on whether to build a massive big Target store on the edge of town, was passed, much to the disappointment of downtown businesses and people who like that Davis is a town free of the big-box type strip malls that have turned most of the US into a soulless vacuous parking lot (see Vacaville, aka Vacantville). Target really marketed to the locals, giving itself a new, green image – Davis is famous as one of the most progressive and environment-conscious cities in America. The “Yes on K” (funded by Target) signs argued that by building a Target in Davis would mean less driving to nearby Woodland or Natomas for those who want to shop there, thereby polluting less – it was sold as the green option. The new store is also supposed to be radical in that it is one of only a few in the country that are built to new environmentally sound standards. I don’t know how dumping tons and tons of concrete and tarmac over a plot of land the size of is the green option. It was all a massive marketing trick to win the green vote; Target are only interested in the potential Davis market, a market they really want to tap into, this being a town of 30,000 students. Now I, like many others, will go to Target from time to time (my wife loves it there), but I really don’t think Davis needs a Target. If Target really only wanted the customers, why not pay for a bus to ferry students from campus to the store at Natomas? Because they don’t want to do that. They’d rather the whole of I-80 between the Bay and the Sierras became one long strip-mall. The local community group, “Don’t Big-Box Davis”, managed to raise a worthy $20,453, but it was not enough to beat the national corporate giant, the “thinking woman’s Wal-Mart”: Target could afford to spend big, a massive $269,795 in total (source). It paid off; Measure K narrowly won, and the big boys have conquered again.

Even in the congressional seats that the Democrats were hoping to win from the Republicans, not everything went to plan. GOP candidate John Doolittle was re-elected, following much fund-raising on his behalf by Bush and his family (though many candidates avoided him like the bird flu). It seems that California is not as progressive and left-leaning as many people think. However, another local Republican, Richard Pombo, managed to lose his seat to the Democrats, having flirted too closely not only with King George but also that rat Jack Abramoff. What’s more, now that the Democrats have the majority in the House, it has fallen to a Californian to step up as the first ever female Leader of the House – Nancy Pelosi, from San Francisco, the city George Dubya would never set foot inside. And so after all of the hype, all of the money, all of the verbal garbage, all of the dirt and scandal, all of the false grinning and debate-avoidance, all of the flags and patriotic slush, all of the false expensive TV spots, the election is over, and life goes on. And not a Swingometer in sight.

Year 2, Weeks 55-56: North to Oregon

It was time to get out of California, so we drove north, and crossed into the state of Oregon. We were off to visit some of my wife’s family, who live just over the border in the town of Medford. It was a long old drive, too; we may be nominally living in ‘northern’ California, but I tell you, there’s a lot more north to this state than Arnold’s letting on. Passing beneath the shadow of Mt Shasta (it was a big shadow too, because it was night-time, and I couldn’t see the thing), whizzing past towns with names like Weed and Talent, overtaking huge trucks careering through the mountains carrying enormous tree-trunks, I eventually got my first taste of one of the other West Coast states. I didn’t imagine it could be all that different really.

Well, the first thing I noticed when the sun came up was the trees. I’ve gotten used to the flat, ochre expanse of the Central Valley, so to suddenly be surrounded by dramatic mountains and hills covered in glades of red, green, orange, yellow; well, it was like Christmas had come early. Or Thanksgiving, at least. Trees everywhere bore the mark of autumn – I mean, Fall – and in the morning sunshine they were every bit as glamourous as those New England headline-grabbers. Trees are a big part of Oregonian life – most of the towns in these parts owe their existence to the logging industry What’s more, I felt we were really in the country, or as real a country as I’m used to, where you get up and hear roosters and horses, and driving a big truck is like waving a flag.

Places felt different, older, stuck in time somewhere; I played Donkey Kong Jr for the first time since the 80s in a traditional diner, while sipping on a 32oz strawberry and orange milkshake, half expecting Biff Tannen and his gang to march in (I got top score on Donk Jr, by the way – I still have the magic). We went to Harry and David, a gourmet food and gift-basket store which began in Medford selling pears and has gone on to become well known nationwide. They had a guy outside carving three enormous pumpkins into a totem pole for Hallowe’en, quickly becoming the town’s main attraction. Shopping also highlighted one of the other differences between California and Oregon – they don’t add on any sales tax at the register. This was such a novelty I couldn’t help but grin – but then I realized I gre up living in europe, where we don’t do that sort of thing anyway.

One of the other peculiarities of Oregon is that motorists are not allowed to pump their own gas at the petrol station. It is state law that you must wait for the attendant to do it for you. I’m told that this comes from a time when the state wanted to make sure everyone was employed, but I reckon it’s because years ago they didn’t want people to put too much gas in their car, in case the little out-of-the-way rural gas stations ran out. Ah, what do I know. I can tell you that gas was cheaper up there. We didn’t drive to too many other places, but we did catch a few local sights – a trip to historic Jacksonville, a jaunt down the Rogue River valley in search of a brewery – and we didn’t visit Ashland, home of the famous Shakespeare festival, but I think I saw enough to feel like we’d visited a different state, gotten out and breathed some fresher air. I’m feeling restless at the moment; I want to see more of these colourful states, preferably those with lots of trees, and not so much Bush.

Year 2, Weeks 53/54: All Greek To Me

A new year for me, a new year for the universities, and right now college campuses are packed with new students, shuffling about from class to dorm to class with expensive new books and the unmistakebale mix of eagerness and trepidation. Slightly more experienced students wander about casually, offering all the wisdom of a world-weary 20-year-old to greener kids, while graduate students cycle around with far weightier things on their minds. Others still can be found performing any number of bizarre and ridiculously dangerous acts, all in the name of joining one of those mystical groups with greek-letter names that, while non-existant in Britain, have been a huge part of university life here since before the USA was the USA (or even the ΥΣA).

Despite their boards and signs and sweaters and houses everywhere I look, fraternities and sororities are still a bit of a mystery to me. I’m sure that is their intention; after all they were founded as secret societies, much in the tradition of the masons and other shadowy fellowships. Some of the oldest fraternities date back over two hundred years, such as Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ), founded in 1776 as a society for “fostering and recognizing excellence”. Many fraternities grew out of the idea of being a forum for academic discussion, but it wasn’t long before the social element became a prime reason for joining. After all, isn’t that what old boy’s clubs are all about, the networking? Frats such as Sigma Phi (1827) were among the first to expand their net between colleges, and Zeta Psi (ΖΨ, 1847) was the first to be present on either coast. Sororities (girls only, in case you don’t know) followed later, as did groups for minority groups such as Latinos and African-Americans. Among the first fraternity established for the latter was Alpha Phi Alpha [ΑΦΑ], whose past members included Martin Luther King Jr and Jesse Owens.

As you’d expect, many of the great and not-so-good from American history were in frats, and I’ll bet that students look closely at the roll of honour before signing up. Some follow family ties; King George was in the same frat (Delta Kappa Epsilon) as Daddy Bush, for example. Not that the Bushes ever indulged in rampant old-boy cronyism, eh folks. To join a fraternity or sorority is to join a historical association. So what does it take to actually join?

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately (I guess it’s a common news item at this time of year) of the ritualistic behaviour known as ‘hazing’, in which ‘pledges’ are weeded out through a series of tasks during ‘rush’. Ok, yes, I got lost back there on the way in. There is a whole new vocabulary that comes with this frat business, that may sound like something to do with furniture polish but probably involves a lot more cleaning up. Rush week is going on now across campus – I’ve seen the fliers – and that means it is time for new members to join up. A new member being a ‘pledge’. And you show just how badly you want to be part of a club that would have someone like you as a member (keep groucho out of this, pete) by performing all sorts of crazy stuff, usually involving drinking. People have died in hazing, resulting in calls for it to be banned, with organizations such as StopHazing.org campaigning against it through education. Most of the extreme cases of hazing involve pledges consuming large amounts of alcohol (which is fairly common among British students who aren’t trying to join a club), or even water (which is a little less common in Britain’s student union pubs, but is apparently quite dangerous), but can even, in the case of certain sororites, involve going to a different social event every night for two weeks and having to wear a different outfit every single time. If you wear the same outfit twice, you’re out, sister. Not quite life-threatening, but bloody expensive.

So why do people join these crazy and secretive groups? Coming to university is a daunting and often lonely experience, so being part of a ready-made family of new friends can be pretty helpful. What’s more, a lot of frat members live in their frat houses, and Davis has plenty of those, their big old-fashioned buildings lining the edge of campus. Most importantly, you can put it on your CV, so when employers in years to come see you were in gamma beta ipsilon or whatever, and they too were in gammer bitter whoopsydaisy or something, then you might get the job. I don’t know, I’m glad we don’t have frats in the UK. No, what we have are things like the rugby club, whose members (if my memory serves correct from my own uni days) will converge upon the pub, drink massive amounts of pound-a-pint lager that would make even the hardiest frat boy shiver, stand on the table, vomit into a bucket, drink more cheap beer, vomit into the bucket again, and if particularly daring, drink from the bucket. While naked. I suppose everywhere has their little cultural quirks.

Week Fifty-Two: A Year in the US of “Eh?”

I often wondered this past year how I would feel at the end of it, how I would sum up my first year living, as James Brown once famously remarked before Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago, in America. Would I be all Uncle Sammed and Spangled with Stars, or would I be all stewing with homesickness, huddled in front of the TV watching DVDs of British shows and following the BBC news with vigilance? Well, lately I’ve certainly been in the second category, and I doubt I’ll ever be in the first; trumpeting patriotism was never for me even back home. So I ask myself, how has a year in California changed me?

I began the year by throwing a pumpkin. This rite of passage allowed me to get into the minds of small-town ruralitarian America, and I’ve been in there ever since, in a way. Davis, with its middle-brow community and progressive-greenist outlook, is not necessarily a typical town, but it tries very hard to be how people imagine such places. I’ve become a cyclist, but haven’t yet succumbed to the American love of the automobile, and have as yet never had a driving lesson (something that sooner or later will have to be remedied, if we are to stay in the States for good). I haven’t gone organic, in fact I am sad to say I eat much more fast junk food here than in London, simply because it’s so readily available. Of course, I don’t go down the pub anywhere near like I did in London, mainly because my old (and greatly missed) friends are not here, but also because the culture here is too different. Buying alcohol is an ordeal in itself, but the relaxing local pub just isn’t there, it’s all sports bars or ‘bar and grill’. So this much has changed: I almost never go out to the pub. Which for one thing means no more falling asleep on the Night Bus and waking up in darkest Essex.

I feel lucky that I came to an interesting State. California has so many different landscapes and places to visit, and it’s the place eveyone always wants to come to from other places. It’s green, yellow, gold, blue; right now, in the wine country, it is orange and burgundy, as the Harvest season kicks in, and the smell of wine-grapes floats on the mist. I juts couldn’t imagine we’d have moved if it had been to somewhere like Nebraska or Idaho (I’m sure they have thier attractions, but give me California). But I still miss that proximity to the diversity of Europe; the languages, the cultures, the people, the cities. It took me a while to become a ‘European’, and I am loath to give that up readily. I am, as noted in the recent beer / safeway incident, still having trouble accepting the idiosyncracies of the culutre here, such as the very un-European parcity in holiday time. And don’t even mention the War. I find that my blood is made to boil every time I listen to Mr Bush and his buddies appear on the telescreen chipping away reality like the Ministers of Truth, a feeling that may be amplified because I’m in liberal peace-preferring California.

Nevertheless, I am not unhappy here. I have a good job, live in a nice friendly town and am lucky enough to have the most excellent and wonderful wife. I complain about most places I’ve lived. My love affair with London, the city I know intimately, whose history I have studied closely, whose streets I have guided camera-snappy tourists around in blistering rain and pouring sun, well, it soured gradually as I discovered that living in smaller places might be better than enduring the Underground, and when it attacked me and scarred me I felt I couldn’t stay; yet I came back, and though I found a new love for the city, I think I discovered I needed to be somewhere with several million fewer people; but London is a part of my family, and always will be. I complained about life in Aix, the red tape of the French, the lunchtime closing, but it remains one of the places I’d live again the most. I certaily complained about Charleroi, in Belgium, the endless grey sky, the doomed-to-failure shadow on every building, the rotten shells of a dying heavy industry, but it will always be in the heart of Pete, as will the taste of her beers and the warmth of her people. However much I complain about California, it is already a part of me, and whether we stay or whether we go, to Europe or Canada or anywhere, little corners of Davis will stay inside me forever.

So after a year, how do I feel? The breeze is picking up, the blue skies are slowly being peppered with invading October clouds, the summer heat is evaporating, and I’m already nostalgic for previous times in Davis, such as when I was jobless and sad, strumming my elctro-acoustic and drawing faces on eggs and potatoes. This past week has been probably the busiest and stressful of the past fifty-two, and I can’t pretend that a night in a London pub with my closest amigos would not have helped. But I know that, truthfully, my time here has just begun, that while part of my soul will always remain on Greenwich Mean Time, the rest of me, the part that is living and experiencing, is out here on the edge of America, in the land of my wife, and that’s good enough for me. I began the year by throwing a pumpkin; I’m absolutely not ending it by throwing in the towel.

Week Fifty-One: What D’You Gotta Do to Get a Drink Round Here?

Last Friday I popped into the local Safeway (yes, they still have Safeway over here, not a Morrison’s in sight) to get my reward for a tiring and stressful week, some fresh soup and a couple of beers. I got to the checkout (I mean, the register), and was asked if I was over 21. I don’t always get asked this; it’s a good while since I looked that youthful. However on this occasion I was actually refused my two beers, not because I looked too young, not because I didn’t have government-issued ID, but because – and only because – my ID didn’t have a written phsyical description on it. “You what?” I asked, utterly non-plussed. After all, my ID – a Permanent Resident Card – has my photo clearly printed on it. It has my name, my fingerprint, my age (surely the most imporant bit) and a special biometric chip containing who knows what. If you ran this card through a Homeland Security check it would probably tell you my GCSE results.

“No, it needs a physical description on it, or we can’t accept it,” came the cashier’s uncompromising response. I half expected her to say, “computer says no,” and cough on me. I asked to see the manager. He even admitted he thought I was over 21, but said that the store couldn’t sell me beer if I didn’t have an ID with a physical description on it. “But I’ve bought beer here loads of times!” I pleaded, my fake Hugh Grant Brit accent morphing slowly back into my very real Grant Mitchell London accent. The manager, who also looked younger than me, did not care, saying that it was the law and that if they sold me beer they would be prosecuted. Not only that, but every other time I’d bought beer there had been illegal. Even though I had a federal government ID card that not only proves my age but is good enough for me to get onto an aeroplane with. I told him it was discrimination against non-Californians, and people who do not hold driving licenses. He told me to look up the law. I did.

Sure enough, it says that the ID needed to prove your age needs a written description of the person. The list of ‘acceptable’ IDs included State-issued ID cards, California driving licenses and military ID cards. It did not include Permanent Resident ID cards or Passports (the only offical ID card most British visitors have). However, neither did the list of unacceptable forms of identification (which include such things as work ID cards and photo-less driving licenses). But the most interesting thing was that I discovered that it is not illegal to sell someone who is over 21 alcohol. It is illegal if someone is under 21, but not over. Safeway would not have been breaking the law by selling me beer, particulary as the manager acknowledged I was over 21. Many stores and bars have policies that mean they check the ID of everyone under thirty. Many take it further and card everyone that simply looks under thirty (you’re supposed to be flattered, not offended, apparently). And others still have a policy of carding everybody under forty. Forty!

Most Americans accept this. They don’t really care, they know that they’re just doing their job and it’s no skin off of their nose. Because I’m from a different culture I find it a little ridiculous most of the time, but as I’ve never been refused in a year of living here, it’s not been that big an issue. But to be refused two beers by someone who barely looks over 21 themself, because of a fairly minor technicality? Because they don’t recognise Permanent Resident Cards and Passports as identification? It does discriminate against non-Californians. You’d expect a tourist to have a passport; you wouldn’t expect them to have a California driver’s license. The Safeway incident showed a complete lack of judgement on the part of the store, and an interpretation of the law that was based on no common sense. Yet to be fair, in a college town, all they are doing is covering themselves. They are so fearful of legal retribution that they would forfeit selling beer to thirty-year old Brits. The local Police put enormous amounts of pressure on them. It is the American mix of law and drinking that has made them so.

Some think that the stringent drinking laws of the United States are a relic of the Prohibiton era. It may be part of the traditionally puritan nature of the American nation. A quick look at the list of minimum drinking ages around the world puts the US at the top, alongside places like Egypt and Malaysia. Britain’s own recently-repealed licensing laws date from World War I, when pubs were told to close early so that munitions workers didn’t come to the factory with a hangover. Most places ban drinking the drinking of any alcohol outside (boosting sales of brown paper-bags). Some counties (in states such as Oregon) are designated ‘dry counties’, places where the sale of alcohol is actually illegal. Davis itself was ‘dry’ until fairly recently; until the 1980s it was not available to buy anywhere outside the bars, due to a three-mile exclusion zone around the university campus. I shouldn’t be so surprised, I suppose. Next week will be the first anniversary of my arrival in this strange Land of the ‘Free’. I wonder if I’ll be allowed a glass of champagne to celebrate.

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” -Benjamin Franklin

Week Fifty: All Along the Foggy Coast

We hit the road again, this time for a trip down the romantic Californian coast; we were celebrating two years since our wedding. We left the hazy Davis sunlight behind and stepped into the whispering fog of Monterey Bay. We queued up beside excitable children with their excitable parents for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, possibly the most well-known collection of marine life in the world (other than the actual Ocean, of course). We saw a great white shark, several hammerheads, a couple of giant octopuses, and some really ugly eels. We really enjoyed the playful antics of the sea otters; before we knew it, we’d been there almost four hours.

We dined at the Jack London pub in the pretty town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the clean and chain-store-free town where Clint Eastwood was formerly mayor. We ate until we were full, and I had a local Carmel wheat beer (it’s important to go local). We fell asleep early, and woke up to bright sunshine, whihc turned into intermittent grey patches of fog as we drove along the 17-mile drive down to the golf course at Pebble Beach, passing the much-photographed ‘lone cypress’ tree that has perched at the Ocean’s edge for three-hundred years. We stopped by the Carmel Mission, on the centuries-old Camino Real (King’s Highway, along Route 101), a glowing reminder that quite a lot of California’s European settlement began way before the Gold Rush, and that more than just Spanish names remain. We came across a large group of cyclists, who had gathered en masse to take the spectacularly Californian road that we were about to embark upon: Highway 1, along Big Sur.

We were not disappointed; Big Sur rises high above the Pacific, and drops to crashing waves below. We drove through patches of fog that swept in like an army of ghosts (though I noticed that at times it looked more like a fake special effect than real fog), and through incredibly colourful sunshine, as the wild crags threatened to push us off the edge and out of America. We ate wraps and grapes on the beach at Pfeiffer, watching dogs play in tide pools and waves thunder against giant rocks, producing great cinematic displays of power. We saw Pelicans and Cormorants, large Gulls and sleeping Elephant Seals, lying among the ruins of driftwood and seaweed. We reached Cambria by late afternoon, and had a romantic meal at the Brambles, beneath a painting of Venice, the city where we got engaged.

We left the Ocean the next day, but not before visiting Hearst Castle, the unbelievably opulent former home of William Randolph Hearst. We were guided through immense, grand rooms filled with Hearst’s massive collection of European art, mostly dating from the medieval and renaissance periods, mostly from the Mediterranean. We weren’t allowed to touch the marble pillars by the Neptune pool, which features original sculptures dating back to Imperial Rome; there is even a statue from ancient Egypt, far from home, watching the Californian sunset. We drove inland to Paso Robles, stopping at a winery for a little local tasting, before making the long journey back home. We didn’t want to come back to the Valley; the lure of the Sea is too strong for us. We uploaded our photos, and reluctantly got back to our real and busy lives.

Week Forty-Nine: Gold Rush

While this week was laborious for New Labour in the UK, it was Labor Day in the US, a three-day weekend of shopping deals, sunshine and the last-chance for those Americans dictated-to by fashionistas to wear white. The whole ‘don’t wear white after Labor Day’ rule is a mystery to me; what do Ku Klux Klan members do, for example? Asa we enter the autumnal months, as the nights get longer and the heat starts to migrate further and further south, surely it woule make sense to wear more white, as firstly you’d be easier to see by motorists after dark, and secondly when it snows you would be perfectly disguised from the threat of polar bears (not that you get many of them in California).

Having gone across the Yolo Causeway bought my new guitar amplifier, I decided to spend Labor Day in Old Sacramento, where they were having some sort of event celebrating the Gold Rush days, the historic period that pretty much created the State of California as we know it. The old riverside downtown in California’s capital is pretty much the city’s main tourist pull, a collection of old cowboy-era buildings preserved in time, with dusty boulevards and wooden sidewalks. It grew up near the old Sutter’s fort, and these days is officially preserved as a state park. The builidngs mostly house souvenir shops and candy stores, as well as a few decent eateries. The bars are full of paraphernalia – Fanny Ann’s for example is dressed head to toe in old americana such as license plates and old carts hanging from the rafters, as well as a surprising collection of antique British Rail station signs. From the outside they look like old saloons; you half expect some unshaven whiskey-soaked wreck to come flying through the doors and into the horse-trough, followed by raucous jeering and a visit from the sheriff.

For the Gold Rush celebrations, the cobbled roads were covered in dirt, hay and horse-muck and lined with people in Wild-West costume. I felt almost naked not wearing a Cowboy Hat. There were horses and stagecoaches parading all over, mostly carrying packs of young serious-faced children. Tourists crowded outside the saltwater taffy stores to watch wrinkly old gunslingers with names like ‘Doc’ and ‘Earl’ shoot slugs of imaginary justice into weasly villains, much to their whooping delight. I suppose it makes a change from the real-life gun-fights on the streets of parts of south Sacramento. The Wild West never went away down there.

There was definitely a bit of Back to the Future III in the air. The sun was beating down hard, but there was a nice breeze down by the Sacramento river. There’s an old steam-engine that chugs down the waterfront to its terminal in Old Sacramento, a relic of the days when the great iron railroads first united the States of America to its mythical, golden West. On the river itself there is an old sternwheel riverboat, the Delta King, which makes you think more of the slow broad waters of the Mississippi than the rattlesnake west, but then Sacramento is known as the River City. Nearby stood old-time stalls and tents treated tourists to ‘authentic’ blacksmiths, gun-makers and an old Injun practising the ancient native art of making balloon-dogs. I’m glad I wasn’t around in the Old West. Sure there was money to be made panning for gold in tham thar hills, but I just couldn’t live in a historic period where everybody made me think of George W Bush. Hang on a minute, no, I’m confusing the Westworld of the past with the Planet of the Apes of the future.

Week Forty-Eight: Targeting Davis

A storm is brewing, and not in the Caribbean. Proposals are underway for the construction of a brand new Target store here in leafy Davis, a city as famous for its local opposition to big-box commercialism as its lack of places to buy underwear. Battles lines are being drawn, local websites are bubbling with debate, independent stores are running poster campaigns in their windows with the slogan “Don’t Big-Box Davis”. City Council have voted to put the Target debate to the people in the November ballots.The politicos of the middle-class mob are gearing up for a fight, and by all accounts, it is going to get nasty.

The arguments against are, naturally, many. The immediate neighbours are furious that such a store will be built in their back yard, accusing the City of going back on their word regarding zoning laws. Local stores will not be able to compete with one-stop shopping, and will perish, along with the ‘unique’ downtown, going the way of so many American downtowns – floating away to soulless suburban strip malls. The extra traffic and noise will bring pollution and other unwanted nuisances (such as poor people, oh my god!). And the crime! According to Don’t Big-Box Davis, the Target in Elk Grove saw a whopping 49 arrests last year (though apparently in Wal-Mart you can get the same amount for ten bucks cheaper).

For those of you who don’t know, Target is a large store that sells a bit of everything, more upscale than Wal-Mart or K-Mart, rather like an enormous Woolworths with better clothes, more electronics, toiletries, a little food, and furniture you actually might want in your house, and that’s not all. They generally come with huge parking lots, enough space for wide-bottomed SUV drivers, plus a few extras like fast-food joints. They tends to be a bit cheaper than most regular stores because, well, they can afford to be. And people love them. There are a lot of people in Davis who really quite like the idea of having a Target within cycling distance – students, for example, who make up a large proportion of this college town. There really isn’t anywhere downtown where you can buy affordable socks, or toiletries, or electronics, and what is there already has big-box competition in Davis for what it sells; and I won’t pretend they aren’t suffering for it, either. The independent bookstore I work part-time at is still one of the community’s pillars, but the opening of Borders a few years ago juts a short walk away has really hurt. Yet many people feel that the people who will shop at Target are doing so now anyway, the difference being that they have to drive out of town, spending tax dollars that could be better used in Davis (a point disputed by opponents with that wonderful tool, statistics).

In truth this debate feels less like a protest at this particular store than a crusade against large one-stop retailers in general. Despute appearing to be coated in nimbyism, there is a genuine desire to fight the inevitable decline of what people believe to be ‘old’ America, the small-town mom’n’pop stores, the community built upon values and lawnmowers. To be honest, I really don’t think Davis has anything to fear. I have never known a community with such a passion for fighting the corporate totalitarianism that embodies ‘new’ America. It’s one of the things that makes me proud to live here. If the new Target opens, people will shop there, but I sincerely doubt there will be a wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. The Davisites simply won’t let that happen. The war has begun.

Week Forty-Seven: Why Did the Toad Cross the Road?

I saw quite a sight today on the way home. I was cycling up towards the Davis bike overpass, through a little stretch of land absolutely teeming with life – mostly little furry critters which are either gophers or chipmunks (hey I’m not David Attenborogh, I’m not even David Bellamy), but also hares and colourful birds, and I even encountered a snake there once. Anyway I was mumbling nonsensical lyrics to Like A Rolling Stone to myself, when I heard one of the critters squealing. I looked to my left and saw this enormous bird of prey, possibly an eagle (I didn’t happen to have my Audubon field guide on me), lifting this little furry guy from the ground and into the air. It was at once so quick and so slow, like a scene from a Vietnam newsreel of a stranded soldier being airlifted from the jungle. “Cor,” said the hidden Aussie inside me, “it’s nature’s way!” You don’t see that in Burnt Oak, the North Londoner inside me replied, while trying to think of an appropriate joke about Burnt Oak birds.

Davis has some wildlife alright, not least the bright blue birds that look so pretty but wake me up in the morning, and the ducks that strut about the UC campus like Oxford dons, but perhaps its most well-known (and loved) residents are the toads. Most of them reside in a clump of marshland and a scruffy pond to the east of the downtown, and you can hear them singing their little choruses outside local German brewpub Sudwerk of an evening (and who can blame them, at a dollar a beer). But they aren’t famous for that, oh no. Several years ago, when the city erected an overpass to cross the freeway, they had to build right through the middle of the toads’ home. Now Davis residents are famous for not wanting ugly development in their back yard, but the toads just dealt with it like, well, do you remember that game ‘Frogger’?

To avoid mass squashage, the Davisites decided to spend their dollars on a nice tunnel for the poor toads, beneath the road. Nobody told the toads what it was for, however, and they eyed it suspiciously. “Could be snakes in there,” they croaked. “I’ll take my chances on the road.” So to show the toads that the tunnel was safe and serpent-free, lights were installed. “Great!” thought the toads, and all was well until some unlucky sods burnt to death under the heat of the tunnel’s lamps. And then there was the problem of those great big birds swooping down from the sky looking for an easy dinner: they soon wised up to the fact that there was a convenient little hole in the ground that regularly produced pre-cooked meals, albeit a little warty.

This became a big story; even the Daily Show picked up on it, and the Davis toad tunnel became national news, and a bit of a joke. A local author even published a children’s book about the toads (advertised as “a book that will ‘ribbit’ you in your chair”). So the people of Davis, far from disspirited by the toads’ lack of enthusiasm for their tunnel, decided to add to the eccentricity of the project by disguising the tunnel’s entrances with little toad-town buildings, such as a post-office. Now the toads (or even the frogs, they don’t discriminate) can send postcards to all their little toady friends around the world, telling everyone that the humans in their town mean well, but are completely bloody bonkers.