America: land of the free and home of the affirmed

I’ve returned to the UK for a new academic year with a new resolution: I’m going to make like an American and make conversation.

We Brits regularly mock what we perceive to be America’s overtly extrovertedness, especially those of us who are particularly introverted. We think it’s weird, unnecessary and – at times – downright embarrassing. It’s with pleasure we roll our eyes at enthusiastic tourists on the tube, oblivious of the ‘stay quiet and don’t make eye contact’ etiquette. But I now have to admit that it’s beginning to grow on me.

We’re always taught to be cautious going through US Immigration, but my attitude now is that being relaxed and ready to chat to whoever’s telling me to place my fingers on a scanner is the best way forward. Plus, my recent decision to answer “I’m in seminary” to the question “what do you do?” has resulted in great chats both in Atlanta and San Francisco. In Britain, we seem to assume that no one would possibly be interested in what we do, how nice a day we’ve been having or whether we’ve found every item we’d hoped for on a shopping trip – in America, they actually are interested. (Or, are at least paid to act like they are.) Thus, when stateside, I work very hard to eliminate my usual British cynicism and embrace the friendliness.

Johnny's Doughnuts The fabulous Johnny’s Doughnuts in San Rafael. I was eased into making conversation here, thanks to the company of an effervescent American. 

The first hurdle is accepting compliments. I worked in retail for two years and I think the number of compliments I paid to customers could be counted on my fingers – not because I’m mean, but because we just don’t do that sort of thing here. For the duration of my trip, I wore the same (rather nice, sparkly and dangly) earrings every day. [I had others, I just never got round to finding them.] In the space of 36 hours, they had received compliments from sales assistants and baristas – in fact, in one cafe, baristas fought over who could pay me more compliments, focusing on my earrings and dress. Yes, they probably wanted my tip, but still…

[Spot the person with self-confidence issues.]

Then there’s the random conversations begun simply because it’s deemed acceptable. I mentioned the other day the responses I got to my accent – was I Australian? (Fitting room attendant in Cupertino’s Target.) What did I think about Peter Capaldi being the new Doctor? (Lovely girl on the till at Millbrae’s Trader Joe’s.) It wasn’t long before I got in on the act myself – see, I can be an extrovert when I choose to be!

Chocolate Chip PancakesA taste of childhood – chocolate chip pancakes in a family-run diner in Cupertino where the staff could not stop bringing you coffee…

An essential element of any trip to the States is a session at a nail bar – partly because it’s an intensely cultural experience and partly because it’s so cheap compared to manis and pedis here. (My manicure cost $12, seriously, bargain.) It’s where the community – or at least the female members of it – gather and real conversations take place. We headed to one while in Pacifica and, thanks to our group being split up across the bar, I was left to my own devices. In such circumstances, I become a socially awkward Brit. Am I meant to talk to the manicurist? Am I doing the right thing (this was only my 3rd ever manicure)? On this occasion, I did what comes naturally – I sat and watched my surroundings, taking it all in.

The biggest impact upon the surroundings was a group of older women who were abuzz with excitement. Two of the group were leaving that afternoon for London, then on to Scotland, and they were telling everyone about it. During the course of my manicure, women came and went, giving them greetings and sharing in the anticipation – it was genuinely lovely. As they chatted, concernedly, about the difference between Scottish and English currency, I couldn’t help but butt in. The moment they heard my voice and realised I was a genuine Londoner (well, as genuine as they were likely to get in their town) there were screeches of joy. Immediately, I was called upon to explain everything – the money, the transport, the royal family (they were excited to see the new Diana movie in London – poor them, I hear it’s dreadful), and, bizarrely, how far away Paris was. I was in my element and nearly offered them a Liz walking tour special! It was a lovely moment, and wouldn’t have happened, had I kept my mouth shut.

Gorgeous GelatoIncredible gelato in Berkeley. (Manicure 3 days later…) 

Then there’s the customer service that goes beyond the call of duty – Charlotte, fitting room supervisor at Market Street GAP, I’m looking at you! I appreciate that GAP generally does have an emphasis on customer service, but this was the first time I’d been asked my name in a fitting room and felt genuinely un-judged when returning items that didn’t work. I left feeling warm and fuzzy, purchasing a pair of ‘sexy boyfriend’ jeans. [As I quipped on Twitter & Facebook last week, the ‘sexy boyfriend’ has yet to materialise…] Four hours later, I returned with my friends in tow. They spent quite a while in the fitting rooms and invited me in to give judgement on items – at which point Charlotte spotted me and greeted me with an enthusiastic “hello Liz!” Impressive. She proceeded to give excellent outfit advice to all of us and was particularly good at locating sizes missing from the shelves. It’s got to be said, we were sad to leave – I felt like I’d made a friend for life.

This long, rambling, telling of stories is simply my way of saying “Come on Brits! We can do this too!” Not in a fake way, but in a genuine, interactions can improve someone’s day kind of way. It’s not hard!

Oh, and just for a sense of balance, we did have one example of bad customer service too. Peet’s (in Berkeley) – a chain that’s almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks in California – provided us with service so shocking that we didn’t go to another branch all trip.

[The food photos may seem unconnected to the post, but I felt they needed to be shared somewhere! The full set of Californian photos is now on Flickr.]

California Dreaming

I’m back. Actually, I’ve been back since Sunday, but the first day back at Vicar School (for the first day of the final year *gulp*) followed by a very full day back at church, followed by jet lag sucking all writing ability out of my brain has meant that blogging has been in abeyance.

As the rain lashes against the windows, the sun and heat of California seems like a dream. Was it only this time last week that I was sitting outside a bar in Berkeley eating sliders? Or sitting in a hot tub enjoying a glass of wine? Ho hum. Life continues in London and at quite a pace.

The highlights? Well, to follow on from my Silicon Valley adventures, we did return to Apple. Inside Infinite Loop 3, we spent over an hour sitting in the pleasant gardens outside the Apple canteen. (We arrived at ‘cookie happy hour’, surely any hour that involves cookies is happy?) Shannon had originally met the head of Apple’s ‘Evangelism’ team in May, through a mutual friend, and fixed up a meeting at his office so he could share some of his thoughts about the connections between business, the church and theology. Fascinating stuff.

Liz @Apple

While at Apple, it seemed foolish not to make the most of the company store and (finally) avail myself of an iPad. (Especially as our new friend provided his employee discount too.) It’s already been a smart move, given college’s decision to go paperless in its teaching as of next week.

There was also enough Mexican food to feed a Mexican family for quite some time. (Apparently ‘Cal-Mex’ is a thing in the same way that Tex-Mex is – who knew?) I can recommend specifically:

  • El Metate in the Mission area of San Francisco. (Home of an awesome al pastor tostado salad.)
  • Nopalito on Broderick St, to the north of the city. (Awesome sangria and dark chocolate & cinnamon popsicles.)
  • Facebook’s burritos.
  • The Paleo diet version of tortillas – lettuce leaves. A handy tip for a low-carb Mexican dinner.

Napolita feastBeautiful Mexican feast – all thanks to a recommendation all the way from Houston. (Randomly, after I posted this on Instagram, discovered that a London friend had eaten here last year!)

I also learnt some things that could be valuable to readers, should they be hopping over the pond any time soon:

  • Swot up on the Royal Family. In response to hearing my British accent, I was immediately asked – with immense excitement – how George was. George? Oh, the newest prince, obviously! People appeared genuinely disappointed when it emerged that I hadn’t actually met him.
  • Also swot up on Doctor Who. I was asked my opinion on the new Dr on more than one occasion (at this point, do I confess to the blog that I’m not that into the show?), and was at least able to recognise his name out of context! 
  • Don’t be offended if people think you’re Australian. The American ear genuinely struggles to discern the difference between British, Aussie and Kiwi – but then, how good are you at telling the difference between New York, Minnesota and Oregon accents? [To be fair, I’ve been mistaken for an Aussie in London too.]
  • Downton Abbey is a great leveller and excellent frame of reference. (Always laugh at American impressions of characters.) All of a sudden, there seems to be a greater understanding of the importance of tea – at one point, I even discovered a box of Earl Grey tea bought solely because it had a building that looked like Downton on it, which is no bad thing! Oh, and it’s a rare occasion that we Brits get to gloat that we see a TV series earlier than America does, series 4 begins on Sunday – they have to wait till January.

There are some specific blogposts to come, both here and on the Matryoshka Haus blog. (Want to know about public transportation in the Bay area? Stay tuned…) In the mean time, there ought to be some Friday Fun here tomorrow.

Making allowances

Earlier this evening, I succeeded in drooling all over my keyboard, while editing a recipe for the blog I’ve recently started managing. [That would be Matryoshka Haus’ In Da Haus blog. Recommended for tales of Chateau Duffy from people other than me and accounts of what we get up to when not on French building sites.]

The recipe in question was for Beef Bourguignon (and yes, every time I have used that word today I’ve had to copy & paste it from an authoritative source), which is a long-time favourite dish and something that’s beyond special when eaten in the Limousin region of France – famed for its beef (and its porcelain). It’s also beyond special when cooked by a professional chef with a love of story-telling and eaten at the end of a long day on the scaffold.

It got me thinking – at the end of a long day sitting at my desk and generally hanging out in church, but getting next to no exercise – of how wonderful it is to spend a week being able to eat some of the greatest food in the world and really not having to worry about its impact upon one’s waistline or one’s calorie counting app. Everyone knows that the best thing about holidaying in France is the plethora of bread, cheese, meat and wine that is required to be consumed, but most people fear its results. Not when you spend all day working to the point of physical exhaustion…

While we were away, I made a mental list of all the things I was ‘allowed’ to do while at Chateau Duffy – or rather, things that would be exceptional in normal circumstances:

  • Have sugar in my tea. (Well, when one is being a builder, one acts like a builder…)
  • Drink full-fat coke. (This is combined with the fact that Coke Light – the French Diet Coke – is awful.) 
  • Eat biscuits without guilt. 
  • Ditto chocolate. (Especially Creme Brulee Lindt – to die for.) 
  • Spread butter on every single piece of bread I consume, if I want to.
  • Eat more than one croissant for breakfast. (And again as a mid-morning snack.)
  • Drink red wine as if it were going out of fashion. Actually, what am I saying, I allow myself to do that in London when the mood takes me. 
Not all of them were to do with food:
  • Wearing clothes from my ‘clothes to be worn when cleaning/building/doing pilates/moving house’ pile which usually wouldn’t see daylight. 
  • Deliberately not brushing my hair for 3 days. 
  • Smelling clothes before putting them on.
  • Putting aforementioned clothes on even if what I’ve discovered when sniffing isn’t entirely pleasant. 
And this, people, is why it was observed last weekend that a week at Chateau Duffy brings me back to life. All you need to feel alive, people, is unlimited bread & wine (oh, how emblematic) and several days of wearing dirty clothes. I’ve been back at work two weeks and I’m counting down to August already…

Pop!

There’s been a strange culinary phenomenon in recent years of adding popping candy to various products. Once upon a time it was a substance only available in small, foiled packets – bought illicitly as it was rather frowned upon by my parents – and you’d have contests to see how much you could fit in your mouth without your head exploding.

I think it was the Willy Wonka brand that first thought of putting it in chocolate, but eventually Cadbury’s got in on the act, creating a truly magical combination of Dairy Milk and Popping Candy (they knew it was magical, hence naming it ‘Magical Elves’). Being only 25p and 75 calories, they became a staple of long, focus-group related train journeys. Then came Terry’s Chocolate Orange segments with added explosives, and the genius at the Hummingbird Bakery who decided to put it in frosting…

The Lemonade Cupcake – lemon sponge & lemon, popping candy frosting

…ah, the Soda Cupcake range. Absolutely inspired. I tried the popping candy trick myself earlier this year – it’s a cunning one for adding the element of surprise to your baking. (The trick is to add the candy right before you frost the cakes, otherwise it’s liable to pop too much.) Watching people take their first bite unwarned is utterly priceless.

But this week, the world of popping candy [incidentally, do you know how many times I’ve accidentally typed ‘pooping candy’ in this post?!] reached a new high (or low, depending upon your opinion). In the condiments section of Sainsbury’s, I made a surprising discovery:

Yup, that’s chocolate spread with popping candy. (It was on a shelf that also contained chocolate orange, chocolate mint, chocolate caramel and chocolate coconut spreads – Sainsbury’s have cornered the cocoa based toast accompaniment market.) I was intrigued and it was only £1.69, so I bought it. 
This morning, I finally (well, it had been all of three days) got to try it – other than the initial spoonful I consumed on getting it home. Turns out, when spreading onto a hot base, the substance is liable to begin popping before you’ve got it into your mouth, which makes for an interesting food preparation process. It’s also an interesting – but not unpleasant – consumption process. In fact, anyone who fancies trying it is more than welcome to pop round for breakfast in the next few weeks. Be quick though, I don’t imagine it’s going to stick around for long… 

Thanks where thanks is due

I think there’s a general feeling of bitterness among the British that, during the last week of November, the Americans get an extra holiday – specifically, an extra food-based holiday. As Jimmy Carr put it on Twitter:
“It’s Thanksgiving today. Long story short it’s where Americans give thanks to the English for inventing them. You’re welcome.”

Before my American friends assault me, yes, I’m being glib. I’m also deliberately avoiding the thorny issue of the fate that awaited the Native Americans who so kindly assisted the first settlers…
Anyway, this year I was very pleased to welcome the holiday (albeit a day late) into my life. On Friday, a community of 40 people gathered in Mile End to celebrate and give thanks – and to eat a vast quantity of food. I am very thankful indeed…
Firstly, I have to be thankful for college giving me permission to skip an evening of #VicarWeekend in order to be there. [All I missed was a Church History lecture on the Middle Ages – nothing happened then, right??] 
I am thankful that a professional chef (and his wife) flew in from Texas to cook for us. [I am less thankful that the Turkey was named Millicent on Twitter prior to eating – my pseudo-vegetarian sensibilities mean that I’m not so keen on eating named animals. But the fact that Millicent, once cooked, had to be transported from Bethnal Green to Mile End in a taxi rather makes up for it. Comedy.] 
The Mash Mountain (& accompaniments) and Millicent, in the oven…

I am thankful for the opportunity to use a fiercely powered blender (and learn some new skills). My black-bean hummus may have looked grim, but it was delicious. If someone could send a blender my way, I’ll be knee-deep in hummus before I know it! [The less said about the fantastically gross activity that was squeezing cloves of roasted garlic, the better…some people have very dirty minds.] 
I wasn’t sure that I’d be particularly thankful for eggnog, but it seems that it is actually the alcoholic beverage of the Gods (at least Shannon’s Step-Dad’s recipe is). Yum. Yum. Yum. 
First ever eggnog, which was closely followed by a second. 
(And then followed by a pint of water.) 
I’m less thankful for the invention of American Football. The ball is a stupid shape, meaning that it doesn’t bounce/travel through the air in the way that one would expect it to. This means that one looks like a total idiot when one tries to kick it in the air, only for it to return to earth narrowly missing one’s head… 
I’m especially thankful for the presence of a 5 day old baby (no name yet) at Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for his safe arrival; his intense adorableness; and the fact that I got to hold him for a few blissful minutes. Honestly, there are few ills in the world that can’t be put right by a cuddle with a newborn. [I actually have a theory that there would be fewer wars if world leaders spent more time holding babies…]

Most of all, I’m thankful for Shannon and the Matroyshka Haus community. For Shannon, who had the idea in the first place; and the community that’s gathered around her – both of which are now very special fixtures in my life. A year ago I barely knew most of the people I spent Friday with; now, I see them most weeks and have just booked my second trip to France with them. 
I believe Thanksgiving is all about family, and I’m really pleased that I got to experience my first one with my London brothers and sisters.