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.]

On Target…

When you’re an aficionado of American blogs as I am, there are certain things which attain almost mythical status – craft products unknown on these shores (‘Modge Podge’, I’m looking at you…); baking goods only acquirable at inflated cost (Funfetti, Fluff, assorted cake mixes…); and, above all else, the lifestyle essential that is Target.

For those who aren’t American blog fans, the closest comparison I can make is to a French Hypermarket. It sells everything – from food, clothes and toys, to stationery and soft furnishings. For years I’ve read about shopping trips taken there. Of days lost in its aisles. Of children pacified by its contents. Of designer ranges launched – specifically an Orla Kiely line back in 2009. Despite my trip to the East Coast that same year, I still failed to explore one thanks to their absence from the centre of more cosmopolitan cities. (New York, like central London, lacks that most useful of amenities: huge grocery stores.)

It was with genuine concern that Cathers asked, on my very first morning in Texas, if I minded stopping by Target to quickly return some things she’d bought the day before. I think she was surprised at my enthusiastic response. We were both surprised by what eventually ensued…

My debut Target experience wasn’t just a regular Target, it was Houston’s Super Target. Cathers went off to return her stuff and I set off to explore, promising to go no further than stationery. I shouldn’t have worried, stationery alone kept me occupied for over 20 minutes. A suitable notebook for travel journalling was purchased, as were some notebooks so cute that they couldn’t possibly be left on the shelf. In fact, much of that particular section was so cute it was difficult not to leave it behind – I counted over 20 varieties of Thank-You notes alone! (Seriously, stationery addicts would be hard pressed to ever leave that place.) After some time Cathers returned, bearing frozen beverages – yes, Super Target even has its own Starbucks.

Thus, we wondered around the store, sucking mocha Frappaccinos through straws and generally exclaiming in excitement over many a new discovery. We’d been there about an hour when we were startled by a colossal crash. None of the Texans batted an eyelid, but as we looked towards the doors, we saw rain of Biblical proportions falling from the sky. Crashes and bangs interrupted the peace at regular intervals for some time, so we saw it as a sign from God that we should stay in the store longer. So we did.

It’s not even as if we ran out of things to do… We tried on clothes – I needn’t have bought any new summer clothes prior to leaving London, Target had all I needed – an activity that took nearly an hour in itself. Even when we got to the point of being ready to pay, Cathers pointed out that we’d yet to peruse the dollar section. Unpacking my bag last week, I discovered the results of that particular foray – Little Miss Cheeky post-it notes, a pack of Iced Tea mixes, and a book of Biblical word searches I’ll be saving for the next Vicar Weekend. We didn’t even make it anywhere near the groceries section…

Two hours after arriving, we finally left. The storm had passed and the ground bore next to no sign that it had ever been torrentially raining. Target had been everything I had heard, hoped and dreamed it would be – and more.

It’s a good job we had far more interesting things planned for the week, as a shopping trip to Target would have been a fairly pathetic trip highlight. But a highlight it was nonetheless – just last night Cathers and I reminisced over its joys, as she ate a lolly made with her Target dollar aisle popsicle maker, and I wore my Target leggings…

Creating a social stir

This morning, while enjoying a day off shopping with sibling and friends at the bargainous Bicester Village, I came across a random item in The White Company. [Actually, there were a number of random items in that store – including a wooden knife and fork…] A tube labelled ‘Social Stirrers’ caught my attention and I reached for it, hoping it might contain exciting items with which to stir cocktails – you know, a bit like the fluorescent giraffe shaped ones you get in Giraffe.

Looking at the label, I was initially disappointed. Social Stirrers are in fact devises to get conversation going at your dinner party. I quote:

“Forget the port, simply take a stick from the tub and pass around the table for a dinner party debate!”
Please note, anyone who forgets the port at a dinner party at which I’m in attendance will be severely reprimanded! Also, I’d like to think (although I’ve never actually hosted a proper dinner party – and this is clearly something I’m going to have to remedy very soon, it could be another 2011 First) that any dinner party I threw would not be lacking in effervescent conversation. I’m sure my sister’s dinner parties (she holds them frequently, what with owning an actual dining room as opposed to my table-in-the-corner-of-the-lounge) are also similarly scintillating, but we still both purchased a tube – what with it being only £2 an’ all. 
Turns out, it’s actually quite interesting and kept Annie and I entertained for at least 10 minutes on the train back to London. In fact, those that know Annie may be surprised to hear that the stick asking “If you were invisible for the day, what would you do?” led to a deeply philosophical discussion on pain – goodness only knows what our fellow passengers thought of us. Looking through the tub just now, the following are favourites: 
“Is camping under canvas a holiday?” [No]
“What or whose accent can’t you stand?” [The phrase ‘can open, worms everywhere’ comes to mind…]
“What do you view most online?” [The wrong answer to this question could see guests un-invited to future soirées.] 
Personally, I reckon there are much more interesting ways to generate a stir than by encouraging discussion. For example, one could wear clothing that stands out a mile – like these shoes (also spotted today) which I was banned from buying, even though they had them in my size and were only £7.50: 

People are crazy

There are crazy people everywhere, but there seems to be a particularly high concentration of them in London – perhaps simply because the city boasts a large population within a small area. Sometimes I forget this and thus it comes as a bit of a surprise when something particularly random occurs…

On Friday I enjoyed an afternoon off, shopping on Oxford Street. By 3pm I’d purchased a dress for a party the following evening, had a good meander and was heading towards Tottenham Court Road for afternoon coffee at Foyles with my Wise Friend. Walking the length of London’s busiest shopping street necessitated crossing the road at Oxford Circus, which is often a bit of an experience (introducing people to the new diagonal crossing is something of a hobby of mine and I’ll frequently cross on the diagonal even if I don’t actually need to).

As I crossed the road, an old lady walked towards me, so I swerved to ensure we didn’t bump into each other. When we passed (still at fairly close proximity) she reached out her hand and whacked me on my arm. I was stunned and stood for a moment in the middle of the road to consider what had just happened. No one else seemed to notice and after a brief pause I continued my journey – not wanting to get mown down by a bus at such a young age.

Honestly, even in the re-telling I wonder if I dreamt it. (Though I’m enjoying the re-telling of it in person, as it means I get to hit the person I’m talking to on the arm.) Quite, quite bizarre.

The new style Oxford Circus – see, it’s the epitome of exciting for a road crossing… 

The black-hole of children’s literature

One of my (many) bad habits is that I’m not very good at putting myself to bed (actually, I’m excellent at getting into bed, I’m just very bad at turning the laptop/tv off, putting the phone away and letting myself fall asleep). I get easily caught up in things – writing blog posts, chatting or following gripping sporting events on the other side of the world. The last two nights have found me online past midnight and placing book orders after 1am – this, particularly on Thursday night, was not especially conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Why was I placing book orders at such a late hour? Well, after nearly eight years lurking in the shadows of my life, the black hole of children’s literature reappeared with a vengeance and sucked me into its vortex…

It began innocently, late on Thursday afternoon when a tweet popped up mentioning an article about Noel Streatfeild [yes, the i and the e are that way round] and Ballet Shoes. This prompted a quick trip to Amazon to hunt out the only adult work of hers that’s in print (and by adult, I obviously do not mean pornographic) as well as a few other juvenile titles we’d missed out on in childhood. As I added Saplings (the grown up book) to my basket, Amazon helpfully informed me of what people who bought that title also bought – and I let out a squeal that had to be quickly muted.

There, right in front of me, was a book whose title I knew well, but which had acquired mythical status when I was young. Maddy Alone is a sequel to one of our favourite theatrical themed books – The Swish of the Curtain (Pamela Brown). Our mother had been a fan when she was young and even owned the rest of the series, but, by the time we were reading it, only the original was in print. Amazon was helpfully informing me that not only had Maddy Alone been republished, but so had the next in the series and that the final instalments were imminent. In order to make it clear that I am not alone in my excitement, both my mum and sister have responded joyously to this news and there is now a waiting list to read them.

Thursday night’s Amazon binge was a combination of these books and a mission to complete my Streatfeild set. Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as just looking up titles and clicking ‘add to basket’. Oh no. What the black-hole also does to you (ok, me) is make certain things incredibly important – namely, edition styles and titles. I won’t go into the tediousness of my Chalet School rules, but it bothers me that half our Drina books are lovely colourful editions and the other half boring red spined ones – I’d love them to match and all be the former. [Writing that sentence has just revealed to me just how OCD I am about this, oh dear.]

In the case of Streatfeild, this complicates matters. The newer editions are nicer than many of the hideous 1970s/80s covers, but they bear the wrong titles – yes, the wrong titles. [Warning: rant approaching.]

When published in America, a terrible thing happened – the publishers decided that a significant group of her books were a series (they’re not, there are only vague connections, like the Fossils of Ballet Shoes appearing briefly in certain books) and that the only way in which Americans would realise they were a series was if their names were similar. Thus, every book Streatfeild wrote (with a few exceptions, like the ‘Gemma’ series and Thursday’s Child) has to have ‘shoes’ in the title.

The only ones to actually contain that word are Ballet ShoesBallet Shoes for Anna and Tennis Shoes (the latter being only her second children’s book, so it can be forgiven as a title). My favourite books – Apple Bough  (in which a family tour the world with their talented pianist son) and The Painted Garden (where a family move to California for 6 months) – became Travelling Shoes and Movie Shoes respectively, hugely unoriginal. Even shorter titles, like Party Frock and White Boots have the second word swapped for ‘shoes’, despite the fact that the frock of the former is the central element of the plot! How are you meant to distinguish Dancing Shoes (originally Wintle’s Wonders) from the other ballet books?

Thank goodness they left The Vicarage Family (another favourite, being semi-autobiographical and telling the tale of Noel’s childhood as the plain daughter of an impoverished Vicar) alone, because the concept of ‘Vicarage Shoes’ is quite honestly a ridiculous one. (Though I suspect such shoes would be very sensible house slippers, what with such places being known as fridges.)

So basically, I was on the hunt for the originally titled books, but with nice covers – harder than you’d think. Into the Amazon order went a new copy of Dancing Shoes, because you cannot find it under the original title (easily), but the others were potentially doable. Night two of late night book buying therefore consisted of the conclusion of some time spent trawling second hand children’s book dealers to find them. I’ve had to accept a naff cover on Curtain Up rather than owning a new (nice) copy of Theatre Shoes (and it was only 50p – bargain), but in total, acquired five more Streatfeilds for my collection as well as duplicates of a couple of favourites that are in danger of falling apart. (And yes, at this moment the thought in my head was “when I read this with my daughters…”)

Can you see what I mean about the covers? 

It was this trawling that led me deeper into the vortex. Back in the early years of this millennia, I haunted these websites semi-obsessively in order to complete my Chalet School collection (I was finishing a degree or working in a bookshop – what else did I have to do with my time?) and returning to them could have opened a Pandora’s Box. Hurriedly, I scrolled past lists of hardback Chalet Schools (although I have all 62 paperbacks, I long for all 58 hardbacks – yes, I’m special). On one site, a title stood out – Fifth Form Friendships at Trebizon – and for a second I thought I might be about to complete my Trebizon collection. My heart beat faster and then I looked it up and realised I already owned it and that my missing book was in fact Fifth Year Triumphs, a subtlety different title as I’m sure you’ll agree. [You may not have realised, but a significant element of my OCD is a need to complete collections.] But in the case of Trebizon, completion will have to wait just a while longer.

I’m happy to report that I’m now holding my own in the vortex. No time has been spent hunting for books today (good job too, having spent over £30 in the last two days) and I resisted any new purchases while staying warm in Foyles this afternoon – though I should share that I spotted a gorgeous new hardback edition of Ballet Shoes (with a red ribbon round its centre, how cute!) that even contains the original illustrations, beautiful. There are a couple more Streatfeilds I’m on the look out for, but I may contain myself at least until I’ve read some of what is currently en route. In the mean time, if anyone hears of a support group for people who suffer from such a condition, do let me know.