A caffeinated discovery

Strictly speaking, I was done with my Texan retrospective well over a week ago, but there’s something I didn’t think to share on the blog that in real-life has proved to be quite a revelation to those I’ve mentioned it to – the wonders of Starbucks’ coffee for twelve people.

No, not twelve separate cups of coffee with complicated milk/shots/flavour combinations, a receptacle containing enough coffee for ten people. Voila:
As if buying morning coffee from a drive-thru Starbucks wasn’t enough excitement, I then got to travel with this (hot) beauty on my (bare) legs! It’s basically like a wine box, with a tap on the front and a handy holder for your cups, stirrers, napkins and milk on the side. Simply genius! 
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve told several people of this product’s existence and without fail, none have comprehended what I’ve been talking about until I’ve shown them the above photo, so read and believe! 
In the words of the Starbucks’ website: ‘This is our way of lending an extra hand to all those kind souls who purchase coffee on behalf of family, friends and workmates.’ In our case, it was literally a lifesaver – I don’t know if you’ve met any of the friends I choose to travel with, but without morning coffee (in large, fast-flowing quantities) they are not pleasant. 
Now Starbucks, if you could just get your head around selling tea in the US in the way you do in the UK, I would be much happier about spending longer in that country. [A coffee receptacle of any sort is no good to me – my morning injection of caffeine can only be done via tea. In Texas, I had to make do with the iced variety.] 

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

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…

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!