Packing heat

If there is one thing a left-leaning Christian pacifist will never fully comprehend about Americans, it’s their attitude to guns. (Ok, slight generalisation there – not all Americans feel the same way about guns…) Not just the whole ‘right to bear arms’ thing – the general obsession with needing guns in order to protect oneself and one’s family.

Combine a load of Texans with a load of liberal Londoners and one key area of opinion difference (aside from politics – which I will NEVER bring up unless I know the political leanings of the Americans I’m with) will be on guns. Most of us Londoners have never held a gun, let alone shot one – something several good Texan friends of ours simply could not comprehend. When we were talking through the changes that moving to London might involve with one such Texan, he was shocked to discover that living in London would mean leaving his gun collection behind. We were shocked that he even had a gun collection.

Not only am I a pacifist, I’m also a pseudo-vegetarian who gets squirmish around the details of animal killing. [I’m the one who protested that our Thanksgiving turkey was named during the cooking process.] Hearing tales of hunting adventures over dinner was almost enough to put me off my food – though they were great stories. Can you imagine a 9 month pregnant woman shooting a deer from her front porch and ensuring the carcass was chopped up and in the freezer before her husband and father returned from church? Or a 14 year old girl whose response to this story was “I love going quail hunting – I really like breaking their necks!”

What I’ve realised is that there’s a massive difference between hunting for pleasure (i.e. fox hunting, which I categorically oppose) and hunting because you need meat to feed your family and the animals you’re killing are pests – as is the case with many of the deer that roam the Hill Country.

I also love explaining to Americans just how rare guns are in the UK – including the fact that our police don’t have them unless they’re an arms specialist. At the same meal at which hunting stories were shared, the mother got very excited at the discovery that a member of our London community was a female cop…
“Oooooh! She gets to pack heat!”
“No. Our cops don’t carry guns.”
“Yes – they have a stick they can use instead.”

Cue laughter from three teenage girls imagining just how ineffective a stick is in combat.

Anyway, all this is simply a way of justifying/explaining what occurred on our last night in Kerrville – when not only did we hold an antique musket, we shot a BB gun in the front yard…

The lovely Eric simply could not believe this was a first for all three of us and bemoaned the fact that our imminent departure meant we couldn’t visit the shooting range. We had mixed feelings – Cathers was super-keen to have a go; I was rather apprehensive; and Andy was terrified that he’d enjoy shooting and would end up on a slippery slope towards a lifetime of violence. Turns out Cathers gets very competitive (she would not leave until she’d hit the mailbox) and I’m a surprisingly good shot. Andy didn’t let on how he felt about the whole thing, but he did make a fantastically awesome song choice [go on, click that link!] in the car immediately afterwards. (You can’t go wrong with songs about guns…)

I was tempted to make the below photo a profile picture, but I feel that would be rather unwise – I really don’t intend to make this a common sight!

Photo: Andy M

Perfection in an afternoon

I adore swimming at the best of times – throw in sun, warmth and naturally occurring water and I am like a fish in, well, water…

An idyllic spot discovered on Sunday.

The Texan hill country has all three of these, in abundance. Oh to live in a land where you can pull up by the side of a river and swim to your heart’s content! To be told that the programme for a Saturday afternoon was an afternoon by the river was delightful news – discovering that the precise location was a Christian conference centre was less delightful.

However, happy times, Presbyterian Mo Ranch turned out to be nothing like Swanick or High Leigh (destination for many a Christian conference I’ve attended in the UK). For a start, it was big; there was a river; a waterslide; canoes; and possibily the most idyllic place in which I’ve ever swum [excluding Pacific islands].

The afternoon began with the women swimming in the deep water – floating around in tubes and treading water. It was chilly, but not unbearable, which was perfect given the warmth of the sun. While we floated and swam, the men picked up canoes and headed upstream. Just as I was about to lose my dignity (and my swimsuit) attempting to climb upon a floating raft, one canoe returned and one of its occupants insisted that I jump in the boat to experience what they’d just found.

Three of us paddled upstream (with varying degrees of success and several bank-crashing incidents) and pulled the canoe up onto a smooth beach, beyond which we found streams of fast moving water, shallow pools heated by the sun and basically, a beautiful spot. Rapids carried me down a natural waterslide (well, once I gave up resisting the pull of the current having been shamed by several small children) and I then cautiously stepped over slippery rocks to get to a natural jacuzzi. There the three of us sat, watching buzzards fly overhead in a perfectly blue sky, hearing nothing but running water and occasional snatches of laughter.

We took it in turns to have a natural jet bath and ponder the world. I had a deep and meaningful with a new friend – putting the world to rights, praying and generally meeting with God in the midst of awesome surroundings. I think each of us experienced something profound in that place of peace and beauty. With regret and longing we headed back to the canoe and paddled back. The others must have wondered what on earth had happened to us – days later it was still being cited as a highlight.

The thing with open water, swimming and canoes is that it’s not particularly camera or iPhone friendly, so we have no photos with which to remember the afternoon. That’s one of the reasons why I had to write it down, so I couldn’t forget it. But I left with memories that I’ll treasure for a long time to come – oh, and some physical reminders…

…the thing with rocks is that they can be both smooth and rough. When you’re sliding down a stream you can’t always tell what you’re going to hit and at what speed. Thus, I left that beautiful place with rather beautiful grazes across my posterior (I guess I should be thankful that my swimsuit remained intact). For 36 hours afterwards, sitting down was something of a trauma, not to mention foolishly climbing onto some rocks while swimming the following afternoon.

And the thing with the internet is that sometimes you can find other people’s photos of special places. This is the view looking back down the river, at the top of the natural water slide.

Lower yourself into that pool by the rock and whoosh! 
Driving back to the ranch, there was only one possible soundtrack, or really song, that we could listen to –  O Brother Where Art Thou and As I Went Down to the River to Pray. Apt music at its best.

Cowboys, cowgirls & a bit of country music

If you ever find yourself going to Texas, get yourself to Austin for a good chunk of time. We had 48 hours there and I wish it had been longer. Not only does it possess the aforementioned awesome cinemas, but it’s as though some of the coolest parts of London had been lifted up and transplanted to a city with significantly better weather. One of my travel companions kept commenting that he felt just as out of place as he does in Shoreditch – everyone in Austin was significantly skinnier, more tanned and more tattooed than him.

Austin is the perfect destination for a taste of ‘real’ Texas – and probably a good place to test out the mantra ‘Everything’s Bigger in Texas’. (Austin’s own motto? ‘Keep Austin Weird’…) It was also a great city in which to meet two essential requirements of any trip to Texas – country music and cowboy apparel.

One of my rules for travelling is that I want to experience life as locals live it – sure, I’ll have my touristy moments, but generally, I want to know what real life’s like. So it was fantastic to be hosted by someone in Austin who prefaced most suggestions with “If I were you, what I’d do is…” – invariably followed by a recommendation that turned out to be fantastic, from food to shops to beverages. This is how we’d found ourselves at the Alamo, and how, the following night, we spent the evening at Shady Grove listening to acoustic country music from a local band.

You’ve got to love the Austin life. An outdoor gig guaranteed not to be rained upon; waitress service at your seat; amazing burgers; an introduction to frozen sangria (more please!!); and some quality music being enjoyed by a wide range of locals. I’ve searched in vain for a YouTube video, but I did find the band in question – The Band of Heathens – on Spotify and listening to this track brought back a lot of memories.

So that was the country music urge satisfied – what about some Texan apparel? For that, there’s just one place to go: Allen’s Boots on South Congress. In the run up to the trip I’d been teasing Andy about how he ought to purchase both Stetson and cowboy boots and here we were able to trial run the cowboy look to see if it worked. [I should at this point issue an apology to Andy for the photos that are about to appear, but as if I could resist using them!] Honestly, if you’re going to buy boots, this is the place to come – row upon row of increasingly expensive, beautifully lovely, gorgeously leather smelling boots.

The dressing up opportunities were endless. Sadly, trying on the boots was a struggle thanks to sweaty sandal wearing feet, in fact I ended up in a fight to remove a boot from Cathers’ leg; but there was plenty of opportunity to try on hats and it was here that my cowgirl purchase was made. (Well, on the second trip. I took a photo, tweeted/facebooked it, received 20+ positive comments, and made a return to buy it after lunch. Thanks goodness for social media!) Andy did a lot of trying on: 
I have apologised already, and really, he should be grateful that I haven’t posted the photo of him looking uber camp while sat in a pair of cowboy boots. Why is it that footwear designed for super manly men simply makes non-cowboys look rather camp? Mysterious. Personally, of the above outfits, I reckon the Terminator-esque leather jacket would’ve made the best purchase… 
The biggest disappointment of the trip was not getting to meet a genuine real cowboy, but I will carry with me for some time the joy of watching two men, non-ironically clad in Stetsons, having an enthusiastic conversation while waiting for our flight to Houston from Atlanta. There should be more non-ironic Stetson wearing in the world! 

Remember the Alamo!

No, this isn’t a reference to THE Alamo in San Antonio. Actually, we didn’t make it there on this trip – I have a cunning travelling plan that involves deliberately missing out on interesting places so that I always have something to go back for (and a second Texan experience is already being planned in my head). People may think it’s a foolish idea, but it’s the reason why I still, despite two trips down under, haven’t been to New Zealand’s South Island.

The illuminating exterior 
& the joys of unlimited Hibiscus Mint Iced Tea and a box of Sour Patch Kids
The Alamo I did make it to and will forever remember was the Ritz Alamo Drafthouse, which provided me with a cinematic experience that will take some beating. And to think, I nearly let jet lag and an adverse reaction to mosquito bites overcome me!

Regular readers will know that I am a film fan but a cinema hater, the latter owing much to two significant factors:
1. The price of cinema going in London
2. The behaviour of people in the cinema

The Alamo overcame both these issues with aplomb. Firstly, the tickets to the late night, B-movie screening we attended were $2 – that’s like a 10th of what a central London ticket would cost. Secondly, they have very strict rules about behaviour…

The film we watched was the so-bad-it’s-good The Sword and the Sorcerer, which was introduced by a real-life person before it began. As he ended his intro, he recited the penalties for talking during the movie – which included physical violence – and the procedure patrons should follow should someone near them break the no talking rule. I had a sudden epiphany – I had heard of this place! It had certainly featured on Wittertainment during formulation of their code of conduct and hadn’t there been some brilliant story of a woman who’d fallen foul of the rule?

Later investigation revealed the details…
The discovery of the video below [NSFW by the way] brought it all back – I’d definitely watched this somewhere last summer. I love the attitude of a cinema chain who takes a situation like this and simply says “You know what? We don’t actually need customers like you, because most people want to watch films without talking, or light pollution from phones!”

Honestly, in no uncertain terms is this rule taken seriously. In the trailers that followed the film’s introduction (which were hilarious and featured everything that was bad with 1980’s mythology based film) our Austin hosts murmured something and were immediately called out – and it was on the trailers! I then resorted to note passing – using the paper provided for waitress service – in order to get the odd bit of info across to my neighbours. The guy in charge was sat behind us and sporadically moved into the aisle, watching our group like a hawk. Did he not realise that we were excellent film goers?!

It has to be said, it’s amazing just how difficult it is not to talk, especially in a film as ridiculous as the Sword and the Sorcerer. Here’s a sample of the dialogue: 
“My sword stands poised, Miss.” 

“My sheath is not a place I want you putting your sword in, Sir.” 
“But my sword is very very long… and I want to put it in your sheath for I am worried about it injuring someone if I leave it out.” 
“How long did you say your sword was?”
See, utterly ridiculous! (If you’re intrigued, I’ve checked and the entire movie’s available on YouTube.)

The other thing that makes the Alamo is the waitress service. Yes, waitress service, during a movie –
which requires no talking. The seats have a bar-like table running in front of you, on which are sat menus, paper and pens. Your waitress greets you at the start and explains the system – which boils down to choosing what you want (unlimited hibiscus iced tea, a bucket of beer, frozen margaritas or sour patch kids…), writing it down on a slip of paper, sticking it in a slot on the table, and waiting for the waitress to collect it. Genius. Even the payment at the end isn’t obtrusive.

Having endured many a miserable film experience, and knowing that the closest London gets to this kind of quality (the ‘Sceen on the…’ and Curzon chains) are still way, way behind, I’d like to begin a campaign to get something akin to the Alamo over here. Who’s with me?! At the moment I’ve got a select band of London friends and one in Oxford, but surely more would love to join?

Southern Comfort

Generally, I like to think that I’m regarded as a fairly polite person. Yes, I’m a Londoner, and we’re not known for being super friendly or outgoing, but I do on occasion break the ‘no talking on the tube’ rule and always respond positively to the (many, many) people who stop me for directions on a daily basis. [I’m beginning to wonder if I have a sign on my forehead that offers this service…]

However, I don’t think I was fully prepared for the assault on my London sensibilities that would be the southern form of politeness. Reaching the gate for my flight to Atlanta, my hard exterior proved no match for the hundred or so Americans making their way home to the South (very few Brits seem to fly Delta). I’d barely been there 5 minutes when a group of men with epic beards and wearing dungarees engaged me in conversation – it was my own fault, their dialogue about the ways in which they were transporting Devon roses back to their wives tickled my interest. Before I knew it I was being given recommendations for things to do across the great state of Texas.

On board, the air stewards compounded my feelings of inferiority in the politeness stakes. There’s just something about being called “Ma’am” and having drinks brought to your seat that takes service to another level. It connected with what I like to call my ‘Waitrose mentality’. Waitrose is an upmarket supermarket (a branch is my closest grocery store) with a tendency of employing older ladies on their checkouts. This women are so nice to you that it shames me into ramping up my usual politeness several levels – headphones come completely out of ears; full attention is given; conversation is entered into; and my accent becomes even more plummy than it is usually. On board my flight, and for pretty much the entire time I was away, this was the mentality I adopted. No cynicism, no sarcasm, no ignoring people, no elbowing people out of the way, no avoiding conversation at all costs – it was quite the behavioural mind bender.

For example, when was the last time an attendant at a cheap clothing store (I’m thinking Primark…) wished you a good day, asked about the things you were trying on, or even commented on just how cute the skirt was that you’d chosen? [Lady in Old Navy, I salute you for your confidence inspiring compliments!] Or how about actual sincerity from a waitress and genuine interest from them in ensuring you have the very best frozen cocktail experience? [Cynically, we pondered whether one waitress was genuinely flirting with our male companion, or simply knew how to get a good tip – we went for the latter…]

It’s instilled from childhood too. I was slightly nonplussed when a friend’s 3 year old child addressed me as “Ma’am”, but I suspect he’s being brought up very properly. [As opposed to the child of a total stranger who at that point was using my backside as an obstacle course in the river in which we were lying…]

It all had quite an effect on me. By the time we’d boarded the first leg of our flight home, leaving San Antonio for Detroit, I’d had my first truly positive experience of airport security; a long chat with the man in Duty Free regarding the relative merits of Bombay Sapphire & Tanquerry gin; and then proceeded to chat without inhibition with an elderly lady from Michigan. Texas has changed me, and probably for the better…

…well, at least until my next rush-hour Piccadilly Line experience.

Another reason to fly Delta: that drink on the right is wine. 
It’s served in larger quantities than non-alcoholic beverages, like the Diet Coke on the left.